Saturday, August 18, 2012

Thinking Like a Publisher: Hot Button Topics

Self-publishing authors need to think like traditional publishers. 


A couple of years ago I met a writer at the ACFW conference who had just finished a novel set in the time of the American Civil War.  We talked about the book, and it sounded interesting enough that I asked if I could read the manuscript.  He graciously consented and gave me a copy. 

The story idea was intriguing, about two soldiers, strangers on opposite sides of the war, meeting just before one of them dies at the hands of the other.  In his last moments, the dying man asks his killer to deliver a Bible to his loved ones back home. 

The story sounded like a winner, but I could tell from even the little I knew about fiction writing at that time that the manuscript would need some major revisions. I sent it back to my friend with suggestions about how he should change it and wished him well, but, in my great wisdom, I didn't think he'd succeed in his search for a publisher.

Within a few weeks he sent me word that the Zondervan editor he'd met at the conference had loved the manuscript and had offered him a contract.  Two years later, in 2011, An Eye for Glory came out and sold well.

The manuscript did need major revision.  I'm sure both Karl and his editor worked hard to make it publishable.  So why was the traditional publisher so keen to go with the book?

Because the Zondervan editor was alert to hot topics.


In January, 1861, the south seceded from the Union and the American Civil War began. January 2011 was the 150th anniversary of that historical event.  Small towns all over the southern U.S. would be putting on pageants to celebrate the battles; museums would be setting up special book displays on the topic; and tourists would be streaming into the area all year.

Sue Brower, the savvy Zondervan editor who loved my friend's book, was looking ahead.  She knew, back in 2009, that by 2011, when the book would be published, they'd have a specific target audience big enough to make publication profitable.

Traditional publishers think into the future.  They have to, because publishing takes time.  At least two years if it's done right.  This is true for both traditional and self-publishing.  Though the actual publishing process can happen in days if you do it yourself, the editing, manuscript preparation, and marketing plans--all essential elements of a marketable product--take time. 

Zondervan's timing was perfect.  So was the editor's visionary eye.


Such perfection doesn't always happen.  It's hard to predict trends and future events accurately.  But looking ahead is useful if you're wanting to produce a book that will appeal to enough readers to make your efforts worthwhile.  And gearing both your story and your marketing strategy toward that predicted trend or event can pay good dividends.  

Sometimes the marriage of story and hot topic happens without planning.  When I started writing Zinovy's Journey over 35 years ago, I had no idea what environment the book would be birthed into.  I wasn't even thinking ahead to publication.  I just knew I had to write this story about life on earth after the-end-of-the-world-as-we-know-it. 

The book was published in October of 2011, sliding neatly into the hot button atmosphere of end-of-the-world, doom-and-gloom predictions.  Two years ago, there were over 6,000,000 page hits a month on the official December 21, 2012 website.  I'm sure there are more today.  I'm preparing a strategic marketing blitz on that target audience between now and December 21st. 


If you're planning to publish a book it makes sense to spend some time researching genre and reader market trends.  If you've got a manuscript ready to publish, even a few editorial tweaks could steer the story into more marketable directions.  

Google makes it easy to do this research, as usual.  In just a few minutes I found the following two websites.  There must be many more.  If you find some let me know.  I'll re-post any good sites you comment on.


We writers have to tell the story that's in us.  But if we want the story to resonate with readers, we need to spend a bit of time hot on their trail.  Hot button topics will help us find pathways that will benefit both ourselves and our readers. 

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