By Kat Falls
When I was first asked to write an article for Prairie Wind’s Promote that Book column, I said yes without hesitation. I figured it would be easy since I’d given a lot of thought to marketing my middle-grade novel Dark Life (Scholastic Press, May 2010). But then I realized I’d have to admit something that brings out my insecurities . . . that I don’t approach writing like a book author. I have an MFA in screenwriting and old habits die hard. My writing process works for me, but suddenly I wasn’t sure that I wanted to publicly admit that I think about marketing before I start writing the book.
I mean, come on, aren’t novelists supposed to be inspired by more lofty concerns like theme and character? Only afterward, when the book is done, does a real author deal with the pedestrian realities of selling and promoting her work, right?
Luckily, when I decided to write Dark Life, I ignored my romantic notions of what real authors do and stuck to my belief that the most important marketing decisions for a book are made in the early stages of the writing process.
If you think about the elements that go into creating a successful marketing campaign for a novel, you realize that either most of those elements are there at the start or they aren’t. Marketability doesn’t just appear after the book is finished. So here are a few things that I consider before I commit to a story idea.
Start with a marketable premise.
I know it sounds obvious to say that a book must start with an original and compelling idea, but really, how many writers, when excited by a new idea, spend time evaluating its marketability?
Then again, why wouldn’t you? As a writer, you have more control over whether your book sells than the publisher because you have 100 percent control over one of the most important elements of the book’s marketing campaign—the concept.
I know that once I start writing, I become obsessed with the “trees,” studying every branch, twig, and leaf (aka: scenes, sentences, words). But the person who picks up my book in a bookstore is surveying the forest. This is why I don’t start writing until I’m confident that my story premise will have immediate oh-wow, must-read-this impact on its target audience.
So what makes a story premise marketable? Again, thinking like a screenwriter, I look for the following elements:
The idea is focused and specific—and can usually be told in a couple of sentences.
Once I came up with the premise for Dark Life, I wrote it as a logline, which is a concise description of the story. I try to keep my loglines short because I want my finished book to be highly “tellable.” Not only to facilitate the word-of-mouth among readers, but because a catchy pitch makes it easier for booksellers to hand sell my book to customers.
Here’s the longest version of my logline:
Dark Life is set in the near future when global warming has caused the oceans to rise and reduced America to half its former size. Fifteen-year-old Ty and his family live on an ocean floor homestead. When outlaws attack the pioneer settlement, Ty teams up with a girl from the “Topside” who’s come subsea to search for her brother. Together they face dangerous sea creatures and venture into the frontier town’s rough underworld to discover the secret behind the outlaws’ eerie abilities.
Once I had a sense of my story’s scope, I challenged myself to make the logline even shorter. It’s shocking how few words it takes to pique a reader’s interest. After many attempts, I managed to pare Dark Life’s premise down to “A space western . . . underwater.”
The sequel, Rip Tide, which comes out August 1, 2011, can be summed up as “The Searchers on the ocean.”
Okay, I know that pitch isn’t going to work for middle-graders. How many of them have even heard of John Wayne? Forget a 1956 western. I’ll have to come up with a different logline for them. But in the meantime, their parents, teachers, and librarians seem to get it.
The idea is fresh—something we haven’t seen before.
Keep in mind that a logline should highlight what is unique and interesting about a story, which are almost always the most marketable elements. After honing my story’s logline, I evaluate it. Is it too familiar? A knockoff? Not thrilling? Read aloud, does it have oh-wow! impact?
The idea is incredibly appealing to its target audience.
In my case, I knew I wanted a logline that evoked “Awesome!” from a middle-grade reader. But not just because of one aspect of the story. For example, a cool subsea setting wasn’t enough. I wanted to make sure that every story element contained in the logline would be awesome to a middle-grader. So I tinkered with Dark Life’s logline until I felt it would fire up a kid’s imagination and have a visceral appeal.
For me, this process often means making bolder choices until I have a story situation that feels original and unforgettable. In other words, a highly marketable concept. I don’t start writing until I feel that I’ve achieved this because I’m convinced that to end up with a marketable book, you plan it from the very first step in the writing process.
Kat Falls’ debut novel, Dark Life (Scholastic Press, May 2010), has deals in 18 international markets and is in development at Disney with Image Movers and the Gotham Group producing, and Academy Award-winner Robert Zemeckis attached to direct. In July, Kat appeared on the Today Show when Dark Life was featured on Al Roker’s Book Club for kids. The second book in the series, Rip Tide, is due in bookstores August 1, 2011. An adjunct professor at Northwestern University in radio/television/film, Kat lives with her husband and three children in Evanston, IL. She is currently working on a dystopian YA trilogy, The Fetch, acquired by Scholastic Press for publication beginning in fall 2012.