When you’re in traditional trade publishing, as I am, you quickly learn that there are a lot of people working on any given book. Not just the editor, the publicist, and the marketing manager, but sales reps, digital sales staff, warehouse staff, and more. Publishing with a larger press involves becoming part of a very large publishing effort.
When you’re sitting in the place of the author, that is both exciting and terrifying. There are, on average, many people between you and the ultimate retail buyer, using the normal model. Having social media in place and attending conventions allows writers to connect directly, but in the normal publishing workflow, things go like this:
You write a book. It’s awesome. Then you figure out how to sell that book to an agent — ‘sell’ here in terms of ‘convincing them it’s a project to get excited about.’ Then the agent sells it to an editor. The editor has to sell it to their Publisher and/or the editorial team. Then the team has to sell it to the sales, marketing, and publicity staff. Then the sales staff goes out into the field, to libraries, and so on, and sells the book to wholesalers and retailers. Then the retailers have to sell the book to readers.
It’s a big chain, and in order to give the book the best chance to succeed, each person along the way has to be a bookseller — they have to learn how to get across what’s exciting, innovative, engaging, and notable about the book. In my opinion, the importance of hand-selling cannot be under-emphasized. If a writer doesn’t know how to get across what’s special about their book, they may never be able to get an agent’s interest, even if the book is excellent.
I’d love to say that the work always speaks for itself, but often times, you have to speak for the work first to open the door to create the opportunity for the work to speak for itself. And if you’re self-publishing, you still have to speak for your work because you’re the only person who will speak for it, at first. As an author-publisher, you speak for your work by writing the cover copy, by creating or contracting the art. By choosing the title, the genre label, etc.
Simply put, each writer needs to learn how to be a bookseller, how to pitch their work, how to compare it to what’s come before. If you don’t know what work your novel is comparable to, either in tone or in plot or in setting, you won’t be fully-equipped to place your book into the genre conversation, and you’ll be in a weaker position trying to sell the book to an astute reader in that genre.
In this series, I’ll talk about the different aspects of handselling, from positioning to rapport-building to calibrating your pitch. There’s a lot to handselling, but for me, it is the basic conversational unit that makes publishing go, from the agent search to the editorial board all the way to the bookstore itself. And once you learn the Dao of Handselling, many many things become easier.