Several times in recent months I’ve had consultations with authors that really surprised me.
These typically happen at writing and publishing conferences. One of the best reasons to go to these events is to get a totally new take on your book from someone inside the publishing industry.
What makes their opinion so valuable?
Their day-to-day intimacy with books and the book creation process. Watching year after year as some books do well, while others sink without a trace.
Like a baker with a loaf of bread, these people have an instinctive—sometimes intuitive—way of responding to books, built on top of a lifetime’s experience with them.
For instance, at one of these recent events an author handed me a proof of his cover design and asked what I thought of it. At a glance, it looked like a law book, some kind of legal reference material.
I asked what kind of book it was, and he replied that it was a thriller, a really exciting story.
Puzzled, I asked him what exactly was thrilling on the cover? How would a prospective reader know what to expect from his book?
We had a good talk and I think he’s going to re-think his cover.
Bigger Misses Create Greater Inflection Points
But that kind of incongruence may be relatively easy to fix. There are other situations that can create a inflection point in an author’s career.
What do I mean by an “inflection point”?
This usually describes the point at which a complex curve, like an “S” curve on a road, turns from one direction to the other. First you’re turning right, then the curve switches direction and at some point you go from turning right to turning left. That exact point, where you go from one direction to the other, is the inflection point.
Think of an author, and the solitary world she occupies as her manuscript gradually takes shape over the months. Eventually she gets to the point of having a finished manuscript.
She may have received help from other writers in a critique group or writers workshop, but she soon comes to the time to think about publishing, and that’s a completely different pursuit for most authors.
Moving towards publishing means expanding her thinking beyond the writing process to thinking about who are the readers who will respond to the book once they know about it.
We Are Coming to That Point I Told You About
Most of these conferences have some kind of “ask the experts,” or “ask a pro,” or “talk to an editor,” or “meet the agents,” feature, where attendees can sign up for a brief one-on-one.
For many authors, this is the first time they’ve talked about their publishing plans and the concept behind them.
As someone sitting on the other side of the table, by this point you expect that an author will have some or all of these things worked out:
- Their pitch, the tightly encapsulated, 30-second summary that will tell you what the book’s about, what other books it’s like, and what market the book is intended for.
- Their category, niche, or genre, the exact shelf, either real or virtual, where their book will be at home, and the books against which it will be compared.
- Their persona, the specific aspects of their own personality that they will be projecting as an author in promoting and marketing activities.
After all, launching a book and, by extension, a publishing career, is a complex task with lots of layers of meaning and action all rolled into one.
None of these attributes is cast in stone, unchangeable. But authors still know they need to have thought about these things when they get ready to step over the threshold into public view.
The trouble comes when one or the other of these traits is out of whack. And that’s what I’ve run into in recent weeks.
One area where I’ve repeatedly seen a lot of confusion is between memoir and self-help books.
You Wrote What?
A woman approached my “Ask a Pro” table with a comb-bound manuscript, complete with a prototype cover. She’s a nonfiction author with 3 books in print, now she tells me she’s written a memoir and wants advice on how to market it.
I look at the book. I don’t recall the title, but the subtitle said something like “The 3 Steps You Can Take to Achieve Happiness.”
When I suggested it sounded more like self-help, the author assured me that the lessons in the book came out of a difficult experience she had been through several years ago, and she had written the book partly to tell that story.
All well and good, I responded, but the “origin” story is a regular component of many self-help books, and rightly so.
It’s a story arc that we know, and to which we respond. (click to enlarge)
This got us talking, and I pointed out that while it’s pretty difficult to sell a memoir unless it’s really, really well written—or it has a lot of celebrities in it—it’s much easier to sell a self-help book.
- With self-help you can identify your target market, because they are the people with the problem that your book solves.
- You can establish authority as someone who overcame that problem.
- You can create trust by being reliable and staying on topic and always treating people with consistency.
- And you can show yourself as likable through your interactions, by being helpful, and generally avoiding criticism and negativity.
Keyword searches, a blog on the subject, targeted marketing, and lots of other tactics present themselves when you’re organizing the marketing for a self-help book.
Here Comes the Inflection Point
As we finished our 15 minute appointment, it was obvious my message was finding friendly ground. I pointed out that the author had something real and tangible to offer the world, or at least that segment of it that would respond with delight to her book.
She began to see that to really make the most positive change in the world, the change that her experiences had lead her to, and for which she had taken on the task of writing this book, she would have to change her stance toward the book, toward the world, and toward herself.
- She would need to add a bit of new copy to the book to explicitly show readers how to use the lessons in the book in their own lives.
- She would need to re-position the book as nonfiction self-help instead of memoir, and this might also mean adjusting the cover design.
- And most of all, she would have to start thinking of herself as a self-help author instead of a memoirist. One has a much more active stance toward the world than the other, and has a strong reason to reach out and connect with an audience.
As a self-help author she would also have many more chances to translate her work into different formats, and to monetize it in many ways.
I could tell the wheels were turning.
She had arrived at the conference going in one direction, only to hit an unanticipated inflection point.
Now she was headed in a different direction entirely, one that seemed far more intriguing and exciting.
Instead of facing the question all memoirists face when it comes to appealing to readers—why would they be interested in someone else’s life?—she could start working on connecting with a potentially huge audience looking for help with a specific life issue.
So if you’re writing a memoir, think long about whether there are lessons in your story for others, and whether you can see yourself as someone who could deliver those lessons in your book, in presentations, in workshops, webinars, or other ways.
Or maybe you’re sensing that you may be approaching an inflection point of your own. Tell me about it in the comments, I’d love to hear about it.
Photo by timparkinson