Tuesday, 4 August 2009


Excellent example of how not to hook a publisher in this insightful post over on Editorial Ass today. And for once, it's silly agent behaviour, not silly author behaviour. Please read and then return here for my piercing insights.

Clearly the agent in question was clueless. Or you could say that he was actually very clueful: he gave loads of clues but no actual answers.

Let's do some unpicking and see what we can learn. EA says that the category of your book is "perhaps THE most important question for an editor and his/her sales team." It's an important and possibly somewhat shocking lesson. There was you thinking it was your writing or even the story that was the most important. Of course it is, to you and your readers, but you and your readers will never see your book at all if the bookseller doesn't know where to put it.

See, booksellers have a simple system, which you may not like. They have it for a good reason: customers are simple souls who do not wish to look far to find a book. Customers think they know what they like, and don't want to be told otherwise, so they really need to know where they might find it. Fast. You might wish that a bookshop could be a glorious muddle of treasures just waiting to be found serendipitously, with a squeal of glee. "Oh, how wonderful! A part-monograph-part-travel-guide-part-poetry-collection-part-local-history-of-the-inner-hebrides! I normally read sci-fi but this sounds quite delightful." But what real readers want is the exact book that they want (even if they don't know what it is) just THERE, under the label that says "book that you want".

So, first thing to do when you pitch your book is to know what it is. This applies both to covering letters (see on-going competition) and to query letters; it certainly applies when the editor pitches your as yet uncontracted book to the sales/marketing team in the Acquisition Meeting; it also applies when you answer the casual question about your WIP: what's it about? Because before you say it's about a boy and a girl who get lost in the woods, you have to say it's a fairy tale about a boy and girl who get lost in the woods.

If you are innovative enough to have written a book that defies categorisation, be afraid. I did. I wrote a book called Blame My Brain. Now, luckily for me, I never had to pitch it to anyone as I already had a publisher and an agent and all that happened before commissioning was a conversation that went almost literally like this:
Chris (editor): Would you like to write some non-fiction?
Me: Yes.
C: What would you like to write about?
Me: The teenage brain.
C: Good idea.
That afternoon I drafted a one-page plan and wrote the intro, and about three days later she'd come up with an offer.

Yes, I know. You hate me. I don't blame you. But I did take a long, long, long time to get to the point of having an editor trust me that much.

BUT, when it came to the bookshops deciding how to shelve it, then the fun began. Clearly, there is no category in any bookshop called "teenage non-fiction". (There may occasionally be a tiny little bit of a tiny dark shelf very near the floor, and occasionally when there is, I'm on my own in it.) Luckily - understatement - for me, booksellers thought the idea was so strong that they went out of their way to find a place for it but I still can't confidently predict when I go into a bookshop whether I'll find it in teenage/YA fiction, kids' non-fiction, psychology, parenting, popular science, neuroscience, mental illness or Scottish. (I joke not). Yes, this has been a problem. The only reason it was such a commercial success is that we got fab review coverage everywhere and there was nothing else on the market ticking the same boxes (still isn't - yay!); so word of mouth and market position now means that it doesn't matter that no one knows where to shelve it and no one knows where to find it. Well, it matters a bit ...

Anyway, that sort of situation is rare.

So, consider your WIP carefully, lovingly and calculatingly. Which shelf will it go on in the shops? I'll mention this and talk more about it - if I remember - in my Edinburgh Book Festival talk on How To Make a Publisher Say Yes on Aug 19th. (I don't mean it's about how to make a publisher say yes on Aug 19th - I hope a publisher will say yes on many other days as well). And do remember that it will hardly ever go in two sections, much as perhaps it should.

If you write for young people, in which age section of a bookshop will readers find it? I'll talk about the difference between 10-12s and teenage in my talk on Aug 20th. Again, a book that 10-year-olds AND 13-year-olds will love, will not be found in both 9-12 and the teenage sections.

However, there's more to categorisation than what shelf it will go on. We (humankind) like to pigeon-hole things. It's often an unattractive and unhelpful habit. Pigeon-holes are places of safety and comfort, but they are restrictive because you can't easily see out of them. However, while readers continue to be human and want categories, we have to work with them. And, actually, it is helpful when it makes us analyse the elements of our book, to make sure it ticks the right boxes or follows the right rules for that particular category or genre.

So, as well as knowing what section in the shop our book will end up on, we need to know in more detail what sort of book it is, so that we can describe it better and give people (agent, then editor, then marketing, then bookseller, then reader) a clearer idea as to why they might like it. Now, many books don't sit neatly within one pigeon-hole. And that's fine. No one ever said you had to sit neatly in the pigeon-hole. You're allowed to sit on the edge with your legs hanging out - it's a tad dangerous if you've had a bit much to drink, but just be aware of the dangers of alcohol and other substances and you can dangle to your heart's content.

But, while you're allowing your sci-fi book to dabble in romance or your historical novel to veer into magical realism, consider your reader. Are there enough readers out there who will go with you on your strange journey? Is your book like something else (something else successful - and not SO alike that you end up being cited in an anti-plagiarism fracas)? Does it fit a pattern? Are there good reasons why it contains several genre elements? Have you really got the experience to handle more than one? Are you genre-hopping because you haven't got your act together or have you genuinely thought this through?

If your book is a mixture of too many (say, more than two) genres, you are likely to lose readers. You are also likely to show a potential agent or editor that you haven't a clue what you're doing. Now you may well have a clue: you may be about to set a completely new genre-busting target of astonishing, innovative brilliance**: but the first page of your submission is not the place to tell your potential agent/editor this. Allow him to discover your avant-garde brilliance through your writing, not by leaping at him shouting BOO. Remember: eccentric brilliance often looks like crass lunacy at first sight and first sight is often all you get, if you're not careful. Later, the two of you can work out how you're going to pitch your magic to Sales and Marketing, but it will not be by telling them that it's a mixture of eighteen genres and hard to categorise.

** Edited to add: Have just seen a fabulous post by the inimitable Lynn Price, describing the inexcusable ignorance of the author who thought he was writing "literary action/adventure" - go read.

In short:
When you write, first consider your reader.

When you pitch, first consider your bookseller.

When you get your contract, first consider yourself: in my case, buy shoes, chocolate and sparkly wine.

There's no chocolate in that picture, for obvious reasons.


Juliet Boyd said...

After reading this, a thought occurred to me - dangerous, I know - do on-line booksellers categorise in the same way as those on the High Street? Would they find it easier to fit your book into a pigeon hole?

It wasn't something I had ever considered before, so I decided to have a look. I won't mention the name, but you all know which site first came to mind.

This is what I found.

Blame my Brain only appears under Education in the children's categories and not Lifestyle & Family Issues or Reference. Hmmm.

And in general categories it appears under:
Study Books
Mind, Body & Spirit
Society, Politics & Philosophy
Science & Nature
Health, Family & Lifestyle
... and probably others, too many categories (got bored - sorry).

So, it's not Family & Lifestyle for children, but is for adults. Hmmm again.

Clearly they are as confused as the High Street sellers, but at least you can be in multiple categories at once.

Nicola Morgan said...

Good god - I never actually knew that, Juliet. fascinating!! Thanks for doing that!

DanielB said...

"Creative nonfiction" - not quite the same phrase but equally teeth-grinding - is put forward as a "genre" to write in on Creative Writing MA courses. No publisher I know has ever referred to it. It's a genre which only seems to exist in the lecture rooms of academia, and I hate it. Perhaps a Creative Writing MA is also to blame for "Narrative Nonfiction."

Oh, and my venture into non-fiction went almost the same way, only in my case the "what do you want to write about?" was answered with "An irreverent but informative guide to 80s pop music."

Anonymous said...

I wrote a superhero book for adults. I am screwed.

(And must find where 'Soon I Will Be Invincible' was shelved.)

Mr. Mysterious

Marion Gropen said...

I thought Blame My Brain sounded so wonderful -- I dashed off to Amazon (US) and bought it. I only wish it were available on the Kindle, as I'd already have it by now.

(I'm not only a publishing type, but I'm also one of those middle-aged moms, with a frighteningly bright and self-aware daughter rocketing into those years.)

Nicola Morgan said...

Dan - gah, I'm with you there. Creative writing MAs do kind of have a habit of creating things that don't reallt need to be created. And your "irreverent but informative guide to 80s pop music" sounds very sellable - where did they shelve it??!!

Anonymous - yes, you are screwed, and perhaps rightly so, as I don't have any more details of your possible brilliance.

Marion - you have impeccable taste: thank you! I get to eat this evening. (Seriously, thank you.)

catdownunder said...

And how do public libraries categorise books? Try the catalogue you say? What if you do not know what you want? Browse? In which section? Some authors get lost in library pigeon holes - all sorts of library pigeon holes.

DanielB said...

The Encyclopaedia of Classic 80s Pop was shelved mostly in Music, sadly a trudge upstairs/downstairs in most Waterstones/Borders. I did once find it in Humour.

SleepyJohn said...

Many years ago I wrote a short fairy tale and took it to the publisher who was then publishing my non-fiction titles. My editor described it as: "One of those unique & wonderful manuscripts that come one's way all too rarely" and "A most unusual & beautiful story that lingers in the mind long after one has read it". Apparently it went round a number of readers, who said much the same thing. Then it went before the bean counters, who said they could not categorise it and therefore were unable to calculate the likely sales and therefore could not take it on. Collapse of stout party. My charming editor spent a year trying to find a paperback house to help finance it, but to no avail. After a number of further failures I chucked it in the cupboard.

The digital age has now enabled me to publish it myself for the negligible cost of a simple personal website constructed by me. I make no claim to any category; it is just a story about a young boy who must find 7 gifts that have been given to the Earth. Anyway, if it is raining tomorrow and you've nothing else to do, have a look at http://blog.7-books.net and see if you agree with those bean counters.

Nicola Morgan said...

Hi Sleepyjohn
I know that self-published authors have to self-promote even more blatantly than others, but you'll need to understand that there is never a day when I have nothing else to do, whether or not it's raining ...

Spinster of this parish said...

When I'm not failing to write either my novel or the blog, I work in a library and I can report that we shelve Blame my Brain under teenage non-fiction. If I spot it languishing filed on a shelf in one of our branches I'll nudge it into a more prominent position in a front-facing display.

Nicola Morgan said...

Spinster of the parish - thank you!

Nicola Morgan said...

Leigh - I am very sorry but I removed your post. You may not know about blog etiquette but when someone takes the enormous amount of time posting the advice that I do on my blog, it's not ok simply to hi-jack a post to tell us about your own books. I honestly do appreciate the need to promote your books but this isn't the way to do it. You asked me to read your book too - thing is, I obviously love reading and I might have read it if you hadn't waylaid my post and kind of assumed that i had plenty of time! I give loads of time to people both off and on this blog, but I just feel a bit manipulated here, especially after someone else doing the same and then two bits of spam. Hope you understand. Good luck with your books, honestly - you are obviously doing really well.

SleepyJohn said...

Sorry Nicola,

I felt it was relevant to your pigeon-holing points, and I tried to tread the fine line ...

I lived in the Highlands for many years before coming to the South Pacific, so I figured it would be raining quite a lot over your way ...


PS I do appreciate the effort and advice you put into your blog - that is why I read it.

Nicola Morgan said...

Much appreciated, sleepyjohn. Sorry I was narky - one of those days. Do keep reading and contributing. And when I am less busy I will promise to go and look at your site. I admire you - needs lots of determination. Good luck. All the best, nicola

catdownunder said...

It's one of the good things about writing Nicola - you can make the weather whatever you want it to be and you always have something to do.
But, to the point of your post, I spent part of yesterday reading a book with a four year old. This particular book has especially detailed pictures. Miss Four Year Old informed me that one of the reasons she likes the book is because it is 'properly real'. Now where do you categorise that wonderful description!

BuffySquirrel said...

Oh, that's every fiction book. I should have said!

BuffySquirrel said...

My local library doesn't bother categorizing; every book is shelved alphabetically by author. I quite like it that way.

It's puzzled me for ages why Amazon has no historical fiction category.

SleepyJohn said...

Thanks for the kind words. I will keep following you here. Good luck at the Book Festival. Hope the rain keeps off!

Nicola Morgan said...

Sleepyjohn - did you also see the kind words I wrote about you on Jane Smith's recent post?!

BuffyS - phew! Imagine if you'd had to look for How To Gut a Fish by alphabetical author??

SleepyJohn said...

Cute? I grew up in Liverpool, Nicola, we didn't do 'cute'. However, from a lady writer who does shoes, chocolate and fizzy pop in Edinburgh I will take it as a compliment.

Nicola Morgan said...

Very sensible to take your compliments where you can get them!

SleepyJohn said...

I'm honoured to get one from you; and on that pleasant note I shall go to bed, as it's the middle of tomorrow night here. Shouldn't you be writing a book or something? You don't suffer from that English writer syndrome that I just wrote about on my blog, do you?

Stroppy Author said...

So true... My agent hawked a proposal around for months for me: the book was to bea about teens' use of the Internet and in particular social networking (this was a couple of years ago, when parents didn't know much about it). Every UK publisher she tried turned it down because it was neither 'parenting' nor 'computing' so the bookshops wouldn't know where to put it, even though in all other regards they liked the outline. Interestingly, there are quite a few books on the topic in the US now, but still none published in the UK. No pigeon hole...

SleepyJohn said...

Banter aside, I do think this is a valuable post for any of us who aspire to sell books as well as write them. Whatever the merits of our own books or pigeonholing, I think we have to accept that it is asking quite a lot of a publisher or bookshop to sell a book if they do not know what shelf to put it on or how to describe it. Having said which, Nicola's Teenage Brain book would not seem that difficult to categorise; perhaps we should be pondering on the apparent absence of a Teenage Non-fiction category?

Is it overly simple to see two basic choices facing a writer - write a book then find a market for it, or find a market then write a book for it? Whatever the relative merits, I offer no prize for guessing which is most likely to pay off the mortgage.

On a lighter note (?), if my pigeons had listened to Nicola's wise advice, they might not now be in the cat.

SleepyJohn said...

No prizes for spotting the deliberate mistake, either.

Nicola Morgan said...

Hi SleepyJ. You asked, "Is it overly simple to see two basic choices facing a writer - write a book then find a market for it, or find a market then write a book for it?"

Yes, it is overly simple, I think. And misleading. What I think we should be doing is thinking first of the intended/desired story, and then working it out in our heads (or somewhere) until it is either a story that people want to read or it isn't. And if it isn't, there's not a lot of point in writing it, or at least in expecting it to be published. Because if it's not a story people want to read, I can't feel passionately enough to write it, since for me story-telling is about connecting and affecting. So, it's not about (in my view) being cynical and market-led, but being realistic and reader-led. Because what's the point of telling stories if not for the listener?

Do you get me?

Nicola Morgan said...

StroppyAuthor - gah! Bad luck!

Nicola Morgan said...

Hi SleepyJ. You asked, "Is it overly simple to see two basic choices facing a writer - write a book then find a market for it, or find a market then write a book for it?"

Yes, it is overly simple, I think. And misleading. What I think we should be doing is thinking first of the intended/desired story, and then working it out in our heads (or somewhere) until it is either a story that people want to read or it isn't. And if it isn't, there's not a lot of point in writing it, or at least in expecting it to be published. Because if it's not a story people want to read, I can't feel passionately enough to write it, since for me story-telling is about connecting and affecting. So, it's not about (in my view) being cynical and market-led, but being realistic and reader-led. Because what's the point of telling stories if not for the listener?

Do you get me?

SleepyJohn said...

My apologies for the tardy response, life rather overtook me there for a moment. Yes, I do get you, and I really liked the way you drew the distinction between writing for a market and writing for a reader. Your charming phrase - "for me story-telling is about connecting and affecting" puts it beautifully.

I had not, in fact, intended 'find a market first' to imply cynically dishing up 'whatever the market wants' but simply checking that a market exists for a book before writing it, ie numbers of people are likely to want to read it. A hangover perhaps from writing specialist non-fiction to put food on the table. So we are not really too far apart. In my pursuit of simplicity I lost some clarity; but then, as Einstein noted, simple is not easy.

"Who is going to read this book?", editors used to insistently say to me. We need a clear answer to that if we want to sell books, and one is much more difficult to find for fiction than non-fiction. Genres, like them or not, can help enormously. Perhaps, like politicians, we can't be doing with them and we can't be doing without them.

Nicola Morgan said...

Sleepyjohn - perfectly put! Now we are in total agreement. Hooray! (Not that total agreement is a necessity but it makes for a happy day, in my book).

SleepyJohn said...

Oh Happy Day - reminds me of a song. And so to bed.