On Monday, Ariel Allison, from our sister blog SheReads kicked off Marketing Week here on Novel Matters by reminding us that the most powerful tool in Marketing is Word of Mouth – when readers, lots of readers, fall in love with a book and help other people to fall in love with it too. She pointed out that the genesis of the word of mouth phenomenon begins with years of dedication to the craft. The determined, consistent effort to write, and then write better.
If step one of creating unstoppable word of mouth is honing the craft of writing over years, then step two is harnessing, and wielding the power of two indispensible marketing tools: Your proposal and your agent.
Since the proposal is often the means by which a writer attains an agent, let’s start there. We’ve all heard about the ‘hook’ – that definitive, defining sentence (how many times have we heard it needs to be a sentence? We have even been told how many words this magical sentence should contain – seven. I have to roll my eyes at these ridiculous formulas that would have writers believe that their creativity must be conscripted to jots and diddles of certain size. But that is another blog post). The hook portion of our proposal is not meant to be some catchy jingle, some dazzling display of Jazz Hands to show off how clever and gifted the author is. It is meant to breathe the first contagious strands of Word of Mouth excitement about this novel. It is designed to convey the emotion and depth of meaning contained in the novel. It’s crafted to get the reader excited – not by the jiggle in the writer’s walk, but though conveying the pure power of story.
Arielle Ford, in her article How to Create A Bidding War for Your Book Proposal, says the hook should be “[. . .] something so fascinating or cutting edge or heart warming that publishing VIPs can't help but turn the page.” In other words, it needs to convey the power of the story so strongly, that no one, not even word weary publishing VIPs can resist.
The goal of the hook isn’t simply to get you noticed and published, it’s to get you noticed, talked about, and published. Word of mouth excitement about your novel is fueled in-house. When publishing professionals get excited about a novel, they talk about – to everyone they know. Other pub pros, friends, spouses, book clubs, booksellers.
You want to be talked about in-house, but for the right reasons. Not because of razzle-dazzle misfire, but because of your ability to present the experience of the story in abbreviated form.
Ah, but what if you are not “in-house”? What if you have no ability to gain the attentions of publishing VIPs? Enter the literary agent. Your knock out proposal, including that pitch perfect hook, needs to reach out and grab the attention of agents. Preferably lots of agents. Because when it comes to creating word of mouth, finding the right agent is key.
A writer friend recently confided to me, “Experience has taught me that a bad agent is worse than no agent at all.” Online lists abound on what constitutes a good or bad agent – but for the purpose of this post, I will assume you are aware of the agents who are truly connected, recognized, and established in the publishing world.
Snagging a great agent is no easy task. It can take all sorts of time, lead up all sorts of blind alleys, and leave the writer exhausted. But it is worth every moment, every e-mail, every conversation, and every failed lunch date. Because the three most powerful qualities of an agent are these:
1. The fit
2. The excitement
3. The agents dogged efforts to promote your work to publishers, both before and after the manuscript is sold
Fit refers to the mutual relationship between writer and agent. Is the agent ticking your boxes? Can the two of you communicate well? Do you like each other? Do you understand each other?
The excitement belongs the agent, not you. Is the agent genuinely excited about you and your work? (Hint: Has the agent read your work? Or did they have an assistant read it? Can the agent point out specific parts of the novel that he loved?) This goes hand in hand with fit (I’ve heard of many, many times when an agent has been over the top excited about a writer, but the fit wasn’t there for one side or the other, the writer needed to keep searching), but it also stands as it’s own point. An agent who demonstrates his affection for your project, communicates and articulates what it is about your work that gets his juices flowing, is an agent you want on your side. And for more reasons that the obvious. Remember, we are talking Word of Mouth Marketing.
The agent who is excited about a work is the agent who will fight for it. She will sell it with all the emotion of a new parent. She will take hold of the ear of publishing pros and pass on the joy – and get the novel sold. Hurray! But hold up, it doesn’t end there. In a knee knocking article entitled Necessary Agent, Jofie Ferrari-Adler speaks both on and off the record with editors from major publishing houses on the subject of agents as in-house advocates after a project has been acquired. And it brings us back to the question of what constitutes a good agent. Ferrari-Adler offers this definition:
An agent who understands that at a time when there is an industry-wide blockbuster mentality that makes it harder than it’s ever been for editors to find the institutional support it takes to publish serious work well, it is more important than ever for agents to be fearless, savvy, and relentless advocates for their clients after their books are under contract. An agent who understands that the long and winding road to publication is fraught with trouble, and that her role has evolved into a symbiotic partnership with your editor. An agent who understands that in today’s publishing industry, your editor needs her constant presence and support—needling, brainstorming, cajoling, and sometimes even harassing. An agent who understands, in short, that your editor needs her help.Word of mouth marketing is truly organic. It is the ever widening ripples of shared human experience. And while aspects of Word of mouth will likely forever remain a mystery, there are foundational beginnings – the rock first thrown into the still waters – that set things in motion long before the book hits the shelf: The time you take to perfect your craft, your proposal which encapsulates all that is unique and moving about your story, and your agent who works tirelessly as an advocate of your work both before and after the manuscript sells.