January 21, 2021
Not all publishers ask for the same things during the submissions process, and sometimes the listed requirements for a submission or a proposal can be confusing. After all, surely all they really need to see is the book, right?
For the big publishers, the book is often sufficient (especially in the case of fiction). But the biggest publishers only look at a submissions represented by a literary agent (and agents often collect various sorts of information from writers prior to agreeing to representation).
For smaller publishers who do accept submissions without agents, there may be a number of items required when submitting material. Two of the more confusing requests on many submissions guidelines are marketing plans and book comparisons. What are they, how does a writer create them, and why would a publisher want them?
Nonfiction writers have been expected to supply descriptions of their promotional reach (these days often called a marketing plan) for a long time, and the book comparison list has been common as well. So few nonfiction writers are overly confused by these items, but they're fairly new additions for fiction submissions. One thing that is important to understand is that marketing plans and book comparison lists are not requested by every publisher. Even many small publishers never ask for this sort of thing from fiction writers. But since more than a few do, it's worthwhile to understand them. Let's look closer at marketing plans and book comparisons.
The marketing plan is directly connected with what the author can do to increase sales of the book. This should include references to any strong social media reach you have as well as any groups that could be interested in the book because you are the author. This is your platform and it marks the first step in any marketing plan. Your platform will be stronger if you begin it before you ever have a book to promote. For example, if I decided to write a book on educational publishing (which I would never do since a brilliant book by Laura Purdie Salas already exists), my platform would include these essays I do for The Institute, the workshops I do for Highlights, and the number of Twitter and Facebook followers I have. All of these things could figure in to whether readers will come to know my book exists and will believe that I can deliver the goods when it comes to promoting a book on the subject everyone knows me best for. I also write cozy mysteries and have done a few small workshops on mystery writing and have guest blogged on the topic of mysteries, but my platform for this would be much smaller, but it would include the fact that the mysteries I have written have gotten positive reviews online.
A marketing plan goes beyond platform because it is basically an action plan. Fine, I have a platform, but what specific actions will I do to help the sales of the book I am offering? If I wrote a book of famous ghost stories associated with the sea, I would mention that I am a member of the Mystic Seaport and have spoken with the gift shop about carrying the book when it is published and doing a book signing there. I might also mention that I have done well-received guest posts on historical ghost story sites and intend to continue those after the book comes out. I may mention a ghost story fans Facebook group that I am an active member of and the membership count of that group, saying that the group moderator has already okayed some promotional posts when the book comes out.
Any marketing plan you make will benefit from doing a bit of the work upfront. The process of researching and writing a book can put you in a position for a strong marketing plan. For instance, I wrote one cozy novel where the amateur sleuthing group split up to search for clues in two different locations. The comic relief group investigated the Newport Mansions and the main amateur detective and her best friend looked for a witness at Gilette Castle in Connecticut. Bookstores and/or gift shops in and around these locations would be logical marketing options. I would write my marketing plan for the book after I'd already located some shops at the locations who are interested in carrying it and therefore would be interested in hosting a book signing. [Note: if using a real location, be sure you do nothing to cast that location in a bad light, especially when it's a tourist spot. You can find yourself in some real legal trouble that way.]
If you normally attend huge book functions (such a conferences large and small from the American Library Association, BookExpo in New York City, or Fan Conventions connected with the subject of your book), be sure to mention those. Many publishers regularly have booths at ALA functions, at BookExpo, and at various cons, so having you sign books there is a bonus, especially since they won't have to pay your way when you're already going! Clearly, this is less of an option right now, but we're all believing for an end to this wretched virus and a return to in-person functions, so it's something to keep in mind.
You can format your marketing plan in paragraph format or as a bulleted list of specific actions plans you have done (and will continue doing) or opportunities you will have in the future. As much as possible, focus on things you can do with limited publisher assistance (but again, don't overlook things like library conferences you plan to attend. The publisher would be completely responsible for setting up the book signing at the event, you would only need to let them know that you'll be there. And there are bonus points if you've set up an opportunity to speak at the event or contribute to a panel).
So, let's consider our hypothetical middle grade book of historical sea ghost stories, my action items might include things like the following (note: I’m inventing websites here, so don’t be surprised if you look for them and find they don’t exist):
_ Historical ghost story facts and fiction are among my most popular Facebook posts, some garnering as many as 1,000 likes and 200 comments. Already at 2,000, my Facebook following is growing daily. Posts about the book with hints of stories that will be included will whet interest in the book among my Facebook connections.
_ My guest blog posts on historical ghost stories and the facts behind them at Ghostwatchers.com and the kid-focused ScaryHistory.com have reached 100,000 viewers and both blogs have extended an invitation to blog in the future. Four other ghost-related blogs have approached me for future blog posts, and two different education sites (LearningisFun.com and SpookyReads.com) have contacted me for blog posts on scary history that are targeted to educators.
_ Having spoken on the history of mystery writing at two of the largest regional SCBWI conferences to audiences of several hundred each, I have scheduled several online workshops on historical ghost stories: researching them, writing them, and telling them effectively. Past popularity suggests these will bring hundreds of interested listeners to each.
_ Having done popular in-person school visits for the last few years, I am now scheduling Zoom school visits throughout the Northeast specifically on the topic of historical mysteries and the facts behind them.
Keep in mind that the whole point of your marketing plan isn't to show how many books you will personally hand sell. Instead, publishers are interested in anything you can do to begin the coveted "word-of-mouth" promotion. Popular books become popular because of word of mouth, but that can ignite only if readers are aware of your book at all. What publishers want to know is how you will help that word of mouth promotion ignite by making potential readers within your orbit aware of your book. By listing real actions and real connections you've made, you are showing that you will be an active participant in the process of promotion.
Analyzing and Listing Competitive titles
The addition of "competitive titles" to a submission is relatively new, especially for fiction writers. In the past, editors did this kind of work prior to bringing a book to the table at acquisition meetings. Today, editors simply don't have time to do a truly deep dive into competitive titles, but having information about them is still essential to pitching a book for acquisition. It isn't enough for an editor (or agent) to fall in love with your book. Today, they have to deal with the pressure from marketing to prove this book has a place in the competitive book market. So your analysis will look at what books are in the market now that have similarities to yours, and will show how your specific book differs from the books already available. The number of titles you put on this list really shouldn't exceed ten and will probably be much lower.
When listing competitive titles, be sure to give sufficient information to make it easy for the editor or agent to find the book you mean. There may be more than one book with the same title, so which one do you mean? To make identifying each book simple, include the full title, the author, publisher, format, and ISBN, as well as the year of publication. You'll definitely want to prioritize recent books. Books published ten years ago or more will have little value to the "competitive title" list unless the book continues to sell really well. (For example, books like Charlotte’s Web or The Very Hungry Caterpillar are still competitive titles.) Don't worry about sharing sales information for the titles as that kind of information is actually easier found by the editor or agent than by you.
Once you've given the specific identifying information for the competitive title, you will then write a brief comparison between this competitive title and your book. For instance, for my book of historical ghost stories of the sea, I might bring up a popular titles of true ghost stories or regional ghost stories. My book of stories would interest ghost story lovers just as these books did, but my book will look specifically at sea-related ghost stories. The regional ghost story book for New England might have one story of a ghost ship, but my book will have three, for instance. The true ghost story book might be for adults, while mine is for kids. Also, I would look at ghost story collections specifically for kids. How is mine different? I will not try to say my book is better. I don’t want to be seen as trash talking a book, especially since I might inadvertently mention a title the editor has always loved or worked on. Instead, I will talk about how my book is different and how it might work for a different audience.
The point of a comparative list is to show there is a market for this kind of book, and that my book stands out in that market in specific ways. As with the marketing list, I am looking for things about my book that make it particularly marketable. Maybe there are historical ghost story books for adults, but mine targets an underserved market: kids. Maybe there are kids' ghost story collections, but mine are true stories. Maybe there are kids' true ghost story collections, but mine will be of particular interest to the school and library market because I've made a special point to tie each story to specific history facts. Whatever ways I have thought about the market and about ways my book stands out in a helpful way, that will go into this competitive titles list.
One thing writers should keep in mind about books today is that the book you are proposing must take the reader somewhere beyond any reading readily available online. If I discover there are huge numbers of websites that provide historical ghost stories aimed at children, that's going to be a huge problem in marketing a ghost story book for kids. It's hard to sell something that is being given away for free. So the time to begin your research into the competition should probably be early in your writing process. This is not information you want to discover at the end when you're trying to sell a book. But if you've done your research all along, the competitive title list and the marketing plan can help you prove the value of the book you're offering and that may well nail the sale in today's competitive book field.
Don't be intimidated by these two elements. They could easily end up being your book's best friend.
Jan Fields is a former Institute of Children's Literature Instructor and a full-time, freelance author.
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