f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n: Niche, Hook, Whatever

f a i t h * i n * f i c t i o n

Tuesday, September 27, 2005

Niche, Hook, Whatever

We like to think of writing and novels as pristine territory, untainted by the forces of markets and marketing. That’s obviously a load of hooey. And while I don’t think dwelling on such things improves your writing a lick, it’s important to be cognizant of these things, especially as you approach being published.

To gain a sense of why it’s important to think of your book in terms of an open niche or in terms of a marketing hook, let’s spend a moment inside someone’s head. That person is the fiction buyer for a store. It can be the religion buyer for a Borders. Or the fiction specialist for a major CBA chain. Or just the owner of an small independent store tucked away in small town.

In each of these cases, the buyer’s main responsibility is…what? I’ve never worked in retail but my assumption is that the buyer’s main responsibility is to stock the books that readers will want. This includes those they know they want…and books they don’t know about yet…but will want.

The hook for the first category is easy. Fans love Author X. Author X has Book Z, a new novel that is on par with her earlier novels. Fans will more than likely flock to Book Z. There’s no such thing as a guarantee in publishing…but some authors (Rowling, Grisham, etc.) are at 99.999%.

Now imagine that you’ve made it through those authors. You’ve spent a fair amount of money already on books you’re reasonably sure will earn you cash back. Now comes the difficult part. Now you’re faced with an onslaught of books. Some have wonderful covers, but the story sounds too familiar. Some have interesting sounding stories, but the cover and title are dull. Some are from authors who’ve not done well at your store. Others are from new authors—and every salesman is promising that Author B is going to be the breakout of the year.

How do you make your choice…especially when you’re only looking at a catalog? (The actual book is still months from being published.) What criteria do you set?

I can tell you a few:

1. Title and cover/package. Is it going to attract attention on the shelves?
2. Timing/Newsworthiness. Will the book’s release correspond with something that is going to garnering mass attention? Narnia-mania is a current extreme example of this.
3. Early feedback. Are there reviews/blurbs from noteworthy names that might attract notice?
4. Cultural trends.
5. Niche

Publisher catalogs and sales presentations focus on providing the people in the field with the information that’s going to catch a buyer’s attention. “Procedural crime shows are incredibly hot right now. There’s nothing on the shelf for that audience. What about this new mystery series about a forensic pathologist?”

Or: “Chick lit is hot right now. This new heroine will really capture attention because she was raised Mennonite and is facing the world for the first time.”

For good or bad, salespeople sometimes have literally seconds to communicate a book’s premise, audience, and potential. If these things are muddy or unclear (ie. “It’s about a big historic house on a hill and some people want to save it.”) you’re on a swift creek without a paddle.