Monday, February 17, 2014

The secret to getting published: study the genre

A couple of years ago I installed a new bookshelf along the wall of our family room - a beautiful, glass-enclosed space that overlooks the hills of upstate New York - and for the first time ever, devoted an entire shelf to copies of each book I've ever written, ghostwritten, or contributed to. And it is quite a big shelf! Including things like foreign editions, second printings, and the like, there are over 40 books there. (The blanked-out ones are ghostwriting projects I cannot disclose under pain of death.) On average, I have cranked out one nationally published book every year or so since the mid-1990s.

So how do you get to be a "repeat offender" like me? Hard work? I wouldn't call it that - I really enjoy writing and it has never felt like work. Born with a silver-tounged pen? Nope, I was a C student in writing at Cornell decades ago. The right connections? Sorry, I live in the middle of nowhere, and was a humble lay middle manager with no agent when I first hit the bookshelves.

But there is one thing I do differently than almost any wannabe writer I know, and it is the single biggest reason I am successful: I study the genre I am writing in.

Go to a bookstore sometime, and you will see most people browsing through books. Watch me and you'll see me pulling one book after another off the shelf, running my finger along the pages, muttering to myself, and occasionally even pulling out a calculator. (Did I tell you I have an engineering degree?) While others read books, I deconstruct them. And when I finally sit down to write, it is a thoughtfully composed performance informed by the style of what sells.

Studying the genre is NOT the same as copying another person's style. I have my own style, thank you. In fact, I have lots of them, having published in genres that include popular business books, social science, and even fictional stories. Rather, I have a good, general sense of the audience I am writing for. Here are some examples of what I look for:

Titles: Your title is at least twice as important as your content. Really. Think about it - what made you pull a book off the shelf or on Amazon? More important, if you had a choice between titling the same book Finding Good Business Partners and Suppliers or The Four-Hour Work Week, which one would sell better? Tim Ferriss certainly figured that one out! Sweat the title first, and make it "smell" like other successful books in your genre.

Opening hook: Open any unsuccessful self-published book at random, and I'll bet it just starts right in talking about the topic of the book. By comparison, the book Just Listen by psychiatrist and hostage negotiation trainer Mark Goulston starts off walking you step-by-step through what he says to the suicidal guy with the gun at his head in the parking lot. Pow! No wonder his book is a bestseller.

There are a small number of very specific types of opening hooks for popular non-fiction business books, for example. There are personal narratives, credentialing examples, and emotional connections. Study them all and then think of them as clubs in your golf bag, ready to thoughtfully choose to fit your project.

Word count: Take business fables, one of my most successful genres. These projects never top 25,000 words, use short paragraphs, and are built around simple ideas. If I write a thick book with lots of jargon, no matter how funny or well-written I make it, I can't play in this market. Similarly, my business self-help books generally tip the scales at 60-70,000 words, have clear reader benefits in each chapter, are written in third person, and use lots of "eye candy" such as sidebars and examples to break up a wall of prose.

Paragraph length and style: Lots of choices here. Do you want to write a weighty tome like James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds, a thought leadership book like Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, or a quick read like Seth Godin's Tribes? Surowiecki runs out his anecdotes over several pages, Gladwell hooks your attention with "aha" moments at the beginning of each chapter, and Godin uses tons of micro-examples written in second person ("You need to be using Twitter. Now."). Each of them "smell" the way they do because of reproducible points of style.

So go out there and break down your favorite books. Study their opening hooks, their paragraph lengths, their chapter structures, and the way they keep your interest flowing. Think of how these things might affect your own unique writing voice, and how you want your own books to be seen. Then get writing. Have fun!

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