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Know your market

When an agent approaches a publisher to enthuse about a new author, they will have to justify the claims they make on your behalf. The newer the feel of what you want to write, the harder they will have to work: it’s not good enough to say ‘everyone will want to read’ this new title. So, find out the viewing figures for programmes that relate to the book you want to write, or the sales of magazines that have a strong overlap with your material.

Think laterally. For example, I co-wrote a book about parenting teenagers, and at the time I was trying to pitch it, there was very little published in this market. Most of the publishers I was talking to were in their early 30s and desperate to get pregnant; they could not imagine the teenage years to come. Looking wider, it seemed to me that our subject was really modern morality; how to provide guidance in a fast-changing world when people are terrified of being insufficiently ‘PC’ and saying things are just plain wrong. To prove there was a market I took as examples the book sales of popular philosophy titles by AC Grayling and the number of people who have taken an Alpha Course (2 million in the UK so far), and I also looked up the number of teenagers in the UK. The agent I approached told me this widening of the issue really made a difference to how he viewed my proposal, and it was published as Whatever! A down to earth guide to parenting teenagers by Piatkus in 2005.

So, on a single side of A4 paper that accompanies your publishing idea, outline its market potential. Try to answer the following questions:

  • What is it? Romantic novel or business manual, travel guide or ‘how to’ self-help book?
  • What are your qualifications to write it? Try to keep these brief, relevant and interesting, using emotive language (for example, ‘author detests dogs’ rather than ‘author is afraid of dogs’)
  • What will this book do better than any other source of information/enjoyment available? Can you quantify these benefits? For example, ‘buying a copy of this manual will save the purchaser thousands of pounds in accountancy fees’
  • What kind of people will buy it? Can you define them clearly (job title, social standing, what they watch or read, etc.)?
  • How much disposable income (or budget, if it’s a professional title) do they have?
  • How many are there of them and how contactable are they? The latter is crucial – a targetable society or mailing list is the genesis of many a published product. It doesn’t matter if the resulting market is small in size; the important thing is that their desire or need for the product, and ability to purchase, are real
  • What trends in society does your book highlight – for example, news events, popular concerns, audience viewing figures/magazine circulation of relevant publications? Has anyone notable said anything in support of this recently? If there’s been a pithy article in the press about the same subject, attach a photocopy as proof, with the key sections underlined or highlighted.

Proof of the market or of your value as a writer

Endorsements are enormously useful. It is assumed that you will consider your book worth reading; far more persuasive is the opinion of an objective outsider. This could be in the form of an extract from a review – but of course a first edition will not have access to reviews until after publication. So, if you are a first-time author, or your book is a departure from your usual kind of work, think carefully about who you could get to endorse what you have written. Go through your address book and think about the past – who could give you a useful plug? If your book has particular relevance to a subject that is currently very topical, is there someone whose opinion would be influential if it appeared on the book jacket? The person providing the quote does not have to be a celebrity (although if you know one, that’s always useful), but what about other readers, writers and friends with relevant job titles?

Asking for endorsements is not as difficult as you might think. Some people will like to be asked (it’s flattering); some will oblige out of pure friendship; others for the publicity it may bring them. Scan the local paper to find out if there are any locally based famous people who might endorse your work. On occasion you may even be asked to draft the kind of thing you would like them to say. This may be because they are short of time, or because they want to ensure that they write something appropriate. Whatever the reason, it’s a wonderful chance to write your own review for their approval.

If you have no endorsements or quotes, consider whether there are any official publications that you can quote. These may have nothing to do with your specific publication, but if they prove the need for the product, or give the storyline validity, they may be considered relevant. For example, a novel based on medical incompetence could benefit from being promoted in conjunction with news coverage of hospital staff shortages or recent medical disciplinary cases.

Wherever possible, break down the statistic into the personal. For example, instead of:

Last year there were 850,000 cases of medical negligence

How about:

10 per cent of hospital admissions result in a case of medical negligence

Or:

If you are admitted to hospital, you have a one in ten chance of something going wrong.

If you are writing for children, ask a parent to read your stories aloud and give you a pithy comment. Or ask children to provide you with a quotation on why they liked it. If you have had your novel read by friends, ask them what they thought of it. You may think you have written a searing indictment of the modern world; they may just read it as an up-to-date thriller.


If you found this article useful, you might want to take a look at our section on Marketing and Publicity.