"No man but a blockhead ever wrote, except for money." (Boswell's Life of Johnson)
Now that your local independent bookstore has been closed for several years, and the nearby Borders closed more recently, you might think that the world of paper books is collapsing in on itself, like a dying galaxy collapsing into a black hole. You'd be wrong. A lot of people still like books as objects, books as symbols, books as a non-volatile storage medium. You can still wander aimlessly (or purposefully) through Barnes and Noble, last of the big box bookstores. You might be one of those lucky few whose local bookstore didn’t go under. You might be addicted to those friendly cardboard boxes emblazoned with the stylized smile. In any case, books are going to be around for a while yet.
The way to become a great writer is, supposedly, to read. But for a practicing writer, or at least, for this practicing writer, entering a bookstore or a library or, god help me, a used bookstore, more often than not plunges me into the depths of depression. Why? There are too many books already in existence. B&N might shelve 100,000 titles in a really big store. Amazon tracks the top 3,000,000 – yes, that's the right number of zeros – books in its continually updated sales figures. No one knows how many used books are inventoried throughout the country, but I'm willing to bet ($10,000, anyone?) it's a lot. And we need my book, why?
Notwithstanding all this pearl-clutching on my part, I recently found myself in a nearby Barnes and Noble in my capacity as writer. I wasn't looking for inspiration, though – I was looking at the competition.
If you are pursuing what we shall call the traditional approach to publishing, as I am, you will probably be asked to write a proposal for your book. Proposals are typically requested for most forms of non-fiction (I haven't figured out what rules apply to memoir, the genre of my current book), but it is becoming increasingly common to request proposals for fiction, as well. In non-fiction, a proposal is a description of a book you are proposing to write (but generally haven't written.) It is also something more: it is a business plan.
A good proposal must do more than describe the book and provide a detailed content outline. It will state your credentials for writing the book. It will analyze the potential market and the existing competition. It will also describe your marketing plan for the book, and what skills and resources you can bring to bear on that plan.
Wait, I hear you crying faintly through the blogosphere – isn't all that stuff the job of the publisher?
Well, yes and no. The proposal is a sales document – you are trying to sell your book, or your book idea, to a publisher (or a literary agent, who will then use your proposal to sell your book, or your book idea, etc., etc.) Remember that agents and publishers must eliminate the vast majority of what they are offered. Let's go back to our apple example.
You're a broker in a big city produce market. Several farmers are offering you their apples this morning, but one provides you with a list of potential customers, some data that show that the varieties of apples she's offering are in demand, and a box of beautifully printed labels with pictures and description of each of the apples she's growing. Which apples are you going to buy? After you buy them, will you still do your own sales, marketing and promotion? Of course you will – but your supplier (author) has given you a head start.
I was in the Barnes and Noble following a suggestion from a published writer. On-line research is fine, and I had already come up with several competitive titles, but I liked the author's suggestion, simplified here: list a few different ways that your book could be described (in my case, gardening, humor, memoir) and check out those sections in a big bookstore to see what possible comparisons are lurking on the shelves.
It was a great suggestion and a useful exercise. I learned quickly that my book will probably not be shelved in the Gardening section at B&N. The subject best represented there was vegetable gardening, followed closely by container gardening and then by marijuana cultivation. (Growing pot is illegal in most places, but writing and publishing books about growing pot growing is not. Guess which activity is more profitable?) There was one book in this section that, by a considerable mental effort, could be considered a garden memoir, but it had been published a few decades earlier. I moved to the Humor section.
This was a mixed bag, including everything from Garrison Keillor's Pretty Good Joke Book to Mike Birbiglia's Sleepwalk with Me (memoir, kind of) to Julie Klausner's I Don't Care About Your Band (also memoir, kind of.) I don't think my book belongs here, though, and I don't see any real competitors. I write to be funny, but not that funny.
B&N doesn't have a Memoir section. They do have a Biography section, though, and it is here that I found my might-be competitors, although we all know that Biography is different from Memoir which is different from Autobiography. I'm just pleased that B&N has a shelf all ready for my book – I'm sure a few slots will have opened up by the time it's published.
The most interesting competitive title I found was called Growgirl. It's by Heather Donahue, star of The Blair Witch Project (Dang, where did I put my Dramamine? Autobiographical note: I used to live down the road from Burkittsville. It wasn't that scary.) After coming to an unspeakable and unknown end in that unlikely blockbuster, Ms. Donahue decided to move out into the California hinterlands and grow – wait for it – pot. (Remember that question about whether pot farming or writing about pot farming was more profitable? Maybe you guessed wrong.)
I also thought that The Bucolic Plague, by Josh Kilmer-Purcell, was a worthy competitor. In it, two hip New Yorkers (one of them a former drag queen) move upstate into a historic farm and raise goats. It sounds a little like my story, except for the hip part, the drag queen part, and the goats. All right, it's nothing like my story, but it's a memoir, and they probably had a garden, and anything with goats and drag queens has got to be funny, or at least very, very interesting. I found a few more titles to round out my proposal, and went home to write it.
In my next Confession: more about agents. Do you want the good news or the bad news first?