Writing a book is hard work, and it is even harder to go back and correct a mistake when you are far into the project. Sometimes an ill-conceived idea at the outset of a book project means that a writer has to completely rework their manuscript.
Just in the past few weeks, we have had three clients with problems that were inherent in their book idea. Perhaps you can learn from their mistakes.
An unmarketable concept for a commercial book.
If you believe your book idea is wonderfully "unusual" or "unique" or "original", this may be a red flag indicating that you have made a mistake. Why? Book buyers will not be able to understand its value if they haven't had a similar experience before. Books are sold by their genre, or category. Your book must be easily categorized so that buyers with a pre-existing interest in that area can be sold on your idea. If you are having a hard time explaining exactly what type of book you have, think again.
How can you ensure your idea is a valuable one to book buyers? First, identify the genre you're in. Second, study your competition. What successful titles are your role models, and how does your book compare to them? What aspects of those works should you emulate? Use these role models to learn the peculiarities of your genre: the usual length, the usual style, the usual organization and design - all are clues for your success. After all, if your competitor has many buyers, that means those readers are hungry for more of the same.
Selling a book is like selling any other product - you must bring it to the market, vie with competitors, and attract willing buyers. A manufacturer doesn't produce a widget until there is an existing demand for the product. Yet writers often embark on a project without doing any market research. If you locate your comparables while you are still drafting, it allows you to adjust your book idea, to plan your marketing strategy well in advance, and to ensure that your book will have an interested audience.
An unwieldy or unconventional length.
I have edited some massive, overwritten tomes (yes ___ and ___, I mean you; you know who you are.) Some people love to write and have a lot to say. There is nothing wrong with that, except that ultimately it becomes difficult and costly to produce a very long book. And then readers don't want to pay for it!
Many very long books are actually multi-volume works or can be divided into a series. I asked one author about an extraneous passage, “Why did you put that in there?” He said it was necessary to set up the sequel. However, this was the first book, and not the sequel, where that information rightly belonged. Write one good book first, and when it is successful, the sequel can be considered later, also on its merits as a stand-alone.
But what about a huge, sprawling subject? Another client has written an 800+ page family history that is legitimately that long. Even better, she has many relatives who would love to read it. (Well, they will look at all the pictures; I suspect some won’t literally read it all.)
But can they afford to buy it? It costs a lot of money to have such a large book printed and bound. My client didn’t anticipate the costs of producing the book while she wrote it. Now she faces a financial challenge – her costs will be higher than the price she can sell the book for. In this case, she is privately printing and selling the book. She will need to find a printer who will bind such a large book. She will have to pay a good deal of money, up front, to the printer. Then she needs to recoup that expense by selling copies.
How much can she charge her friends and family per copy? Sure, some people will pay anything for a rare treasure – but not many. Her original goal, to share information, has been thwarted - by creating a book with too much information.
An expensive design concept.
Book lovers often have a vision of their finished book, sometimes even before they have written it.. You probably have tasteful books on your shelves and would like your book to join them. Hard cover bindings, full color designs, and other specialty treatments such as embossed leather covers or specialty inks are attractive, and they send a signal that the book is of superior value.
Do you know what these things cost? Don’t go by the purchase price in book stores. Many beautiful books have come to us at a subsidized price from large publishers. They can afford to order in bulk from offset printers, and their hardcover release is underwritten in order to promote and sell many paperbacks.
Is this your business model? You’re probably not selling on that scale, and you may not have a budget for offset printing or an order large enough to receive discounted pricing.
Using a subsidy publisher? Between what you pay them and the high cover price they will set on your book, your book will be unaffordable and cannot compete in the marketplace. If you are self publishing, and arrange for your own printing, you will see for yourself how much cheaper it is to give up some of the luxuries. If you are hoping to find a traditional publisher, they will control your design, so just write the best text you can and cross your fingers that they feel your book is worth a hard cover printing.
Paperback books are cheap and plentiful, and to compete, you may want to produce a paperback, and an ebook too. You will have a chance with the many buyers who balk at the increased cover price of color printing and hard covers. (If color is crucial to your design yet you can’t afford it, supplement your black and white print book with a color ebook.)
There are exceptions, of course – children’s books, for example. A coffee table book or travel memoir is likely illustrated in color, and there are buyers for these books . These are often “niche market” book projects, and if you can reach the folks who love your subject enough to pay more, then by all means, give them what they want!