Authors, Would You and Your Book Survive on "Shark Tank?"
I could feel the heartbreak from his post. A new author posted on social media about his struggle to get a book deal or agent for his recently completed novel. The pursuit of either is now droning on and he’s getting very discouraged, even doubting that his work is very good. I commented that this struggle might have nothing to do with his manuscript, but that he now has to be a salesperson.
I’m sure many of you are thinking, “What? Sales? Ick!” Authors (and artists, too) want sales, but don’t want to sell. This illogical mindset is mind-boggling to me.
But I have a tip that can help put you authors into the right mindset for selling your books: Pretend you’re going to be an entrepreneur contestant on Shark Tank.
I Discuss the Shark Tank Problem Authors Face
Put You and Your Book in the "Shark Tank"
For those of you who might not watch it, Shark Tank is a reality TV show where entrepreneur contestants pitch their business or product idea to a team of “sharks,” investors who can provide capital funding for startup or growth. If a deal is struck between the entrepreneur and an investor, the investor then owns a piece of the venture and expects to make money on that investment. So the investor sharks grill the entrepreneurs with questions like the following:
- How would you describe your business or product idea in a few words? (Usually, this description is announced by a narrator as the entrepreneur enters the “tank.”)
- Who is the ideal customer for this product? How big is the market? Put another way, how many ideal customers are there?
- Have you made any actual sales for this new product or a similar previous product?
- If the product is actually being sold, where and how is it being sold? How’s that going?
- How soon can I make my money back... and start making money?
- What other products like this are in the market, and how are they selling?
- What makes your product different from others like it in the market?
- How big is your social media following and/or email list?
- What uniquely qualifies you to make and sell this product?
Quite honestly, when you write a book and are seeking a book deal with a traditional publisher, or you're trying to get an agent, you’re in the publishing version of Shark Tank. They’ll essentially ask the same type of questions. Publishers and agents want to know when they’ll make back their investment in you and your work. And if you can’t or won’t demonstrate how that will be accomplished, you’re only begging for a handout that could mean a financial loss for them.
The entrepreneur contestants on Shark Tank that draw the most ire and fire from the investors are those that drone on about they love their idea or product so much, but can’t show how the idea will even be profitable. Sometimes they can’t even show how it will make any money!
Let’s get something very clear. When you’re seeking a book deal or representation by an agent, you are asking them to invest in you and your work. They are in business to make money. You are not selling publishers and agents on your book. You’re selling them on you and your book’s ability to help them make a buck.
If you’re a self-published author, you might not think this applies to you. Au contraire! True, you’re not asking your readers to front the cost of publishing and producing your book, except in an indirect way. But you are asking them to invest the price of your book and the hours it will take to consume it. So even if you’re self-published, you’ll have to demonstrate your value to your reader “sharks.”
Remember, there are a lot of good authors out there. Being a good author doesn’t make sales. Being good at identifying and exploiting book sales opportunities does.
Take another look at the Shark Tank investor question examples. How would you answer them for your book? Doing so will help you get a better understanding of the sales environment and opportunities for your book.
True, when seeking a traditional publishing book deal or agent representation for an as yet unpublished book, the questions about current sales are irrelevant. But you would want to identify where and how the book could be sold.
For self-published books, you would answer these questions as if you were the shark investor! Would you invest in this project if you weren’t the author?
You are not selling publishers and agents on your book. You’re selling them on you and your book’s ability to help them make a buck.— Heidi Thorne
Good Book Writers Can Be Horrible Sales Copy Writers
Going back to the Shark Tank, I would say that many authors would be challenged to come up with a short description of their book idea to pitch to some publisher or agent sharks... or even to come up with a short description of their book to sell it to readers through Amazon.
This can especially be a problem for long-form fiction writers such as novelists. They could literally write tens, sometimes even hundreds, of thousands of words for a book. Even nonfiction authors who can be passionately committed to their mission or message can be challenged to condense their book's concept into a few words.
Essentially, these writers haven’t come up with what’s called the logline for their books. In Hollywood, a succinct statement of what a movie is all about is called a logline. Take a look at the loglines for some of the top box office movies (FilmDailyTV). Surprised at how an epic film or film series can be condensed into a couple of sentences?
Look at a book you’ve previously published or one that you’re working on now. Now write its logline. If you can’t do it for one of your own books, or for more practice, try creating a logline for some of your favorite books or movies. Basically, this means summarizing the main story line in a short sentence or two, targeting a total of 25 words or less.
Once you have your logline, start integrating it into your query letters to publishers and agents, or your self published book details for readers—right at the beginning—so they can quickly assess what you’re trying to sell and whether it’s something they want to buy.
There are a lot of good authors out there. Being a good author doesn’t make book sales. Being good at identifying and exploiting book sales opportunities does.— Heidi Thorne
Too Close to Your Work, Both Literally and Emotionally
Authors are often too close, both literally and emotionally, to their work to see it from a reader’s or buyer’s (traditional publisher or agent) perspective. They feel that they’ve spent so many hours and so much emotional energy on this project, they’re surprised that someone else can’t see the value in it.
Here’s where a critique or beta reading can be helpful.
Ask your critique editor or beta readers to write the logline to your book as part of their review. See how it compares to the one you created. You might be shocked at what they come up with. If there’s a great disparity between yours and theirs, probe your reviewers for further feedback to get clarity before you do any manuscript rewriting.
In addition to the logline, have your critique editor or beta readers tell you what value they gained from reading your work. Some of them may be surprised by that request since most authors just want a good/bad evaluation. Again, their answers could be unexpected, but helpful, for developing a book that has sales potential.
Their Needs Versus Your Needs
Underneath it all, authors usually have their needs to make an income from their books at the front of their minds. They forget that their books must fill a need that the publisher, agent or reader has. I’d even venture to guess that many don’t even have a clue what any of their buyers’ needs are.
Right now, for the book that you’re hoping to sell, list the needs of your potential publishers, agents or readers that your book fulfills. Don’t know? Then you need to do some research to figure out what those needs are.
For publishers and agents, consulting resources such as The Writer’s Market can help clarify what they need. Then craft your query letter to include a discussion of how those needs will be met by the manuscript you’re selling.
For self-published authors who are selling direct to readers, look at books that are similar to yours that are already popular and selling in your topic or genre. How do you and your book uniquely fill the needs of your readers? Prominently feature those benefits and capabilities in your book’s description.
The Long Publishing Game
I can certainly sympathize with the new author about the frustratingly long time it takes to make income and royalties from writing. The sales process can be long for selling just about anything. I was in advertising sales for a large chunk of my career and sometimes it took years before a particular client would actually buy. And when it comes to highly competitive markets—such as for books of all kinds, especially fiction—that time can be excruciatingly long.
When you pursue a book deal or self-publish, realize that you’re in business for the long game. Sales are the lifeblood of business. So suck it up and sell, authors! Your writing career and income depend on it.
Sales are the lifeblood of business. So suck it up and sell, authors! Your writing career and income depend on it.— Heidi Thorne
This article is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge. Content is for informational or entertainment purposes only and does not substitute for personal counsel or professional advice in business, financial, legal, or technical matters.
© 2018 Heidi Thorne