“Apart from platform, how can I stand out to an agent or editor? There’s a lot of demand for books in my subject, but also a lot of similar titles already in print.”
Great question! It shows especial savvy that this author began with “apart from platform;” obviously, platform is usually one of the biggest (if not THE biggest) factor in catching an agent or editor’s interest as a nonfiction writer and it’s best to be realistic about that. That said, relatively new and non-famous nonfiction authors are published every day, and the factors that caused an agent and then editor to say yes to those authors are often the same as the answers to the question asked above, “How can I/(this project) stand out?”
The answer to this question is part knowing-your-project and part developing-your-project; in other words, there are probably ways in which your project already stands out in its field that you just need to identify and highlight in your pitch materials, and there are probably also a few ways in which your project has the potential to stand out in its field that will require you to do a little re-writing or re-framing of the manuscript or proposal. We’ll look at both.
Knowing the Stand-Out Aspects of Your Project
To identify ways in which your project already stands out, ask yourself some of these questions:
- What is the best thing about this project? What do you do REALLY well that is obvious in your nonfiction book? Is it the writing? The easy-to-understand instructions? The unconventional teaching methods? The fun anecdotes? If you don’t know, ask a few people who have read several similar titles to read yours and tell you what stands out, what you do better than anyone else they’ve read.
- What is the most unique thing about this project? What do you do differently from the majority of authors/titles in this field? Why is that an advantage?
- In what way does this project target a more specific audience than the competition? If there are a lot of home improvement titles aimed at do-it-yourself-ers, how is yours tailored to a more specific segment of that readership, such as women in their 30s, or retirees, or _______? You don’t want to get TOO specific– there probably aren’t a whole lot of publishers willing to sink big money into a title geared toward Southern Baptist pastors’ wives who want to know how to remodel doghouses, just because that’s not a huge segment of the reading population, but a slightly more specific target audience puts a publicity department one step closer to getting your book in front of the people who are most likely to buy it.
Once you’ve identified all these factors, make sure they’re front and center in your pitch– if your home improvement project’s strong points are its deadpan humor, the 1970s styling of all the how-to photographs, and its target audience of trendy young professionals, you should lead with that information and be specific about those strengths– if it’s truly hilarious (let someone other than yourself or your mom be the judge of that), make that clear in the pitch rather than taking the chance that an agent will read past your undersell (“this project incorporates humor throughout”) to see for himself. Better yet, start off with an example right away– “Moustache Man brews his own beer and now he refinishes his own cabinets to the sounds of an indie steel drum folk trio on vinyl in my new how-to book, Hipsters Take on Home Improvement.”
Developing Your Project to Stand Out
If you’ve asked the above questions and haven’t found very definite answers, that doesn’t necessarily mean your project can’t stand out, only that it currently doesn’t as much as it could. To start thinking about ways you could revamp the project to stand out more without starting over from scratch, ask yourself some of these questions:
- What is the best thing about you as a writer? As a personality? If you were just writing a blog post or an email to a friend, or if you were doing a TV segment or vlog, what would your main “draws” be? Are you funny? Extremely well-informed? A fabulous writer? A conversational speaker? Once you’ve identified the characteristics that set you and your writing apart, look at your proposal or your manuscript and brainstorm ways to incorporate those trademark qualities into a project that might otherwise be a little bland. And then don’t stop at simply incorporating them– saturate the project in those distinctive qualities so that every chapter is instantly recognizable as yours, ringing with your unique voice.
- How could you reinvent your project so that it is purposefully more unique? Note: I said “purposefully” because it’s not much of an advantage to be unique if the thing that makes you unique is dumb or pointless– “This is the first home improvement book published in the US to teach you Italian while teaching you to refinish cabinets!” How could you reorganize or bundle your information in an unorthodox or surprising way that stands out as fresh, or appeals to a non-linear thinker, or______?, e.g., “This home improvement book shows readers how to bundle like tasks for four home improvement projects at a time so that users’ time is used to better advantage and so they can accomplish more for their time and money.”
- What audience does your book currently appeal to, and how could you target an even more specific audience? If your current audience is “adult readers age 40-65,” take a look at your strengths, tone, differences and similarities to other titles on the market, and try to identify the most logical way to refine your target audience, perhaps to “empty nesters looking to modify their homes to live more simply.” You would then change your outline and chapter summaries to reflect this more specific audience, checking that your language and syntax match that of the median age of your reader, perhaps swapping out a few anecdotes and changing some of your examples, in addition to adding some new framing language to the introduction and chapter summaries to reflect the “living more simply” focus rather than the more generic “home improvement” theme.
As before, once you’ve revamped your project to reflect your strengths and more uniquely reach a more specific audience, include those selling points in your pitch materials– don’t be shy about telling an agent or an author exactly how this project stands out, where/why it fits in the market, and exactly who’s going to buy it. That’s the kind of new nonfiction author we notice even without a million Twitter followers.
Have a craft-related question you’d like to see answered in the blog? Let me know in the comments! Thanks for reading~