It’s 1996. President Clinton is three years into his first term, and so far as the public knows, he hasn’t yet (not) had sexual relations with a woman whose name, arguably, would grow to be more infamous than those words.
It’s 1996. David Baldacci, an unknown lawyer from Alexandria, Virginia, has been trying, unsuccessfully, for three years, to get his first novel, Absolute Power, published.
It’s 1996. Larry Kirshbaum the then head of Time Warner Book Group receives the manuscript from Baldacci’s agent and reads it over night. He describes the novel, the story of a President who believes everything he does, including his extra-marital affairs, is beyond the reach of repercussions, as “…one of these epiphanies that happen so rarely in ones editorial life.”
Sound like an overstatement? Maybe, but Kirshbaum backed it up by offering what was then an almost unheard of, $2,000,000 advance for the book. It became a best-seller overnight, and David Baldacci would go on to become one of the most celebrated thriller writers in America, with a total of 17 novels translated into 37 languages and more than 40 million copies in print.
So what does Larry Kirshbaum see and know that others don’t? Baldacci is just one of Kirshbaum’s many noteworthy acquisition: He is responsible for launching the careers of Malcolm Gladwell, Alice Sebold, Anita Shreve, Nicholas Sparks, and Michael Connelly. And since leaving the editing world behind to start his own top-selling literary agency, Kirshbaum has represented books by Steve Forbes, David Ellis, and Anita Hill, among others.
Kirshbaum graciously agreed to share some of his inside insights at a meeting of the New York Speechwriters Roundtable last week, where he offered his Top 10 Tips for Writers searching for literary success. We thought our readers would benefit great from his words of wordly wisdom. So we took good notes – and would encourage you to do the same.
- Have a strong, simple thesis. Think “Elevator Pitch”-- you want to simply define your premise, but you also want to make sure you do it memorably.
- Whatever book you are writing, you MUST appeal to women. Women purchase about 70 percent of all non-fiction books, many of which -- especially self-help books -- with the intent to give them to the men in their lives. So remember, if you can’t see a woman buying it then you probably aren’t going to sell it.
- Have crisp and concise prose. Ever heard the phrase, “too much description spoils the broth?” Kirshbaum recommends looking to writers like Elmore Leonard for examples on how to write mainly using dialogue while interjecting tight, memorable one-liners.
- Study the competition. Writing a memoir? Go to Barnes & Noble and browse the first couple of pages of memoirs you think yours resembles. Take notes on what’s working. Like a famous editor once said, “Everything has been done before; the question is how do we get away with it one more time?”
- Establish your platform. We recently posted an item suggesting it’s never too early to start using social media to promote your book – the expert we cited advised launching your presence three years before your book comes out. Kirshbaum recommends you think about marketing from Day 1, before you even put the first word on paper. Remember, it isn’t enough to just write a book -- you have to be able to sell it.
- Develop a dazzling proposal. According to Kirshbaum, “It is very rare that the book is better than the proposal.” That isn’t to say that it doesn’t happen, but just that editors will almost always judge the book by its pitch. Things to keep in mind when writing your proposal: Have a 2-3 page introduction, a few sample chapters (preferably in order, but it isn’t a deal breaker if they aren’t) and summaries of everything else.
- Marketing is key. This is one of the hardest things for writers to accept. Be sure to include a marketing section in your proposal. This is where you get to make use of the personal platform you’ve invested so much time creating. Highlight your uniqueness, the edge you have on the competition, and the contacts you have to help promote the work. Remember that you aren’t just writing your proposal for one specific editor, but for his colleagues as well. Colleagues that control the purse, if you get the drift.
- Find an agent. It is important to have someone that not only can interpret a book contract, but also understands the industry, negotiating on your behalf with the publisher. Kirshbaum recommends that the best way to find an agent is to look in the acknowledgement section of your favorite books. That way, when you query, you can establish your admiration of a work that they produced and/or know in advance that the agent you are querying is interested in works like yours. Agents can spot mass queries in a second -- and nothing turns like off like seeing their name misspelled. Invest a little bit of time and add that personal touch and you’ll be much more likely to reap rewards.
- Once you get a deal, invest in an outside publicist. During the Q&A session, someone in the audience mentioned how unfair it seemed that his publishing company had a dedicated marketing division but that he had to shell out for his own publicist if he wanted any real exposure. Kirshbaum’s comment was a curt, appropriately humorous “life isn’t fair.” The reason many authors should invest in their own publicists is that the publishing house is investing 90 percent of its time and resources in their superstars. Not to sound cruel, but if Stephanie Meyers comes out with a new installment of Twilight, it doesn’t matter if your book purportedly contains the secret location to the Fountain of Youth.
- If all else fails, self-publish. Self-publishing is rapidly evolving and no longer carries the same stigma of failure that it once did. Self-publishing gets you a book, gets you exposed, and can generate great success. (Think Amanda Hocking who has sold more than 900,000 books since opting for a DIY approach.
Williams is an associate at Gotham Ghostwriters