A Marketing Team reason for rejection

Elizabeth Gilbert has made gobs of money—and generated a huge amount of media coverage—with her memoirs Eat, Pray, Love and Committed. That means your memoir of transformative living should have equal appeal to a publisher, right?


Because, despite the documented, exceptional success of people like Gilbert or James Frey (root canal anyone?) or Julie Powell, memoirs remain a category of low reader interest overall. In fact, according to a Zogby study commissioned by Random House, 99% of readers out there couldn’t give a flying fig about those books. That’s right, only 1% rated memoirs as a “favorite.”

How about a biography of Nat King Cole, then? Legendary singer, extraordinary life. People will eat that up, right? Well…it could happen. But it’s not likely. According to that same Zogby poll, only 5% of readers favor biographical topics.

Here’s what my Marketing VP knows about publishing: subject matter matters. In significant numbers, readers report that a book’s topic is the thing that “first draws” them to a book, and also the “most important factor” in their most recent book purchases.

That means, if my marketing team wants to get public attention for a book—in magazines or newspapers, on the internet or TV or anyplace buzz can build—they’ve got to be sure that book’s topic is compelling. Hey, my Marketing VP isn’t stupid. It took a lot of schooling and real-world experience for her to get where she is today. So before she’ll give a thumbs up on your newest book proposal, she’s going to ask herself, “Do I care about what this book’s about? Does anyone?”

Chances are good that my Marketing VP is going with her gut on this one. If it doesn’t make her care, she’ll assume no one in the real world will care either. And that means your book never gets a chance.

What You Can Do About It

1. Do the obvious: Write about something that lots of people care about. 

What do you care about? Make a list of your top 10. 

If you’re like most people, these are probably on your list: Family. Health. Love. God/Religion. Work/Career. Why do I know this? Because those are basic needs and interests of just about anyone. If you write a book on one of those topics, chances are good that people will care about it—especially if you can make sure your approach to the topic is unique and different and relevant to your target reader.

Does that mean you can’t write about anything else? Of course not. But it does mean that, no matter what topic you choose, it’s up to you to make sure it somehow relates to something that lots of people care about. Is there a way to write about the social habits of fire ants and somehow make that appeal to your reader’s need for family connections? Probably, if you’re any good as a writer that is. How about a novel centered on commerce in the ancient Egyptian world? If you can bring out themes of love and work in your story, sure people will care about that. 

The real question is whether you’re paying attention to the themes in your book. If you are, then you should be able to write something that my Marketing VP will care about.

2. Highlight themes in your work that are similar to themes my marketing team has succeeded with previously.

Again, this isn’t a suggestion for you to copycat someone else’s work. But it is a little advice to help you point yourself in the right direction when it comes to choosing topics for your books. 

Go ahead and look at a publisher’s website, or on bestseller lists, or in the pages of your favorite glossy magazine. See which books are getting lots of attention from media outlets—those are the ones that are giving marketing people success. These books could be any genre or any category—nonfiction, historical, fantasy, western, even memoir. Identify the core themes that these books are about, and then pair them up with the responsible publishing house.

When you next pitch to a publishing house, see what themes you paired up with them. Then highlight how those topics show up in your book as well.

3. Memorize this principle: “Subject matter matters.”

Then, when you’re choosing what to write about next, make that decision with more than just you in mind. Ask yourself, “What do I like that millions of other people also like? And what can I say to them on that subject?”

If you’re careful to make your subject matter matter, the odds are pretty good my Marketing VP will care whether or not your book becomes part of my future publishing list.

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