Why The Memory Keeper’s Daughter was a Shoo-In for a Best Seller. Why One Book Takes Off through Word-of-Mouth and Others Fizzle. Show Me…The Hook!

It took me just a jacket-read at Book Hampton to understand why Kim Edward’s book, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, became a creeping, then raging bestseller through word of mouth. In fact, even had it been the most poorly written book in the history of publishing, I know it still would have ignited a brushfire in sales.
Given the usual routine whereby publishers blast 300 author review copies (ARCs) into outer space, hoping against hope that they’ll somehow land on an interested reviewer’s desk, writers need to write with clever marketing ploys in mind and editors need to capitalize on the ancillary (meaning other than a good plot) elements that authors can weave into a book to make readers eager to buy. Sure, everybody hopes the book is good, but sales don’t have to be completely plot-driven for a book to be successful in monetary, if not literary, terms.  
Why The Memory Keeper’s Daughter took off: The Memory Keeper’s Daughter had a ready-made audience eager to embrace a book that didn’t consider a Down syndrome child as unworthy of life or dismiss the idea that such a child could serve as a pivotal character in a novel. It took me about 30 seconds on Google to discover that there are 350,000 people in the US with the syndrome right now and every year 5,000 more babies are born with it. Parents, friends and caregivers, not only of Down syndrome babies, but also of children and adults with special needs, picked up the scent of this book and followed it to the nearest bookstore. Reviewers got the message, too. At last, perhaps they thought, here’s something to review besides the formulaic truckloads of me-too mysteries, westerns, and romances. And maybe someone remembered Bret Lott’s money-making novel Jewel—An Oprah Book Club selection in 1999—in which Jewel’s sixth child is born with Down syndrome.

Initially, the subject matter of The Memory Keeper’s Daughter propelled it into the hands of families touched by Down syndrome, after which those families passed it on or mentioned it to readers not directly affected by the condition. When word-of-mouth sparks reached the flashpoint, The Memory Keeper’s Daughter hit the New York Times Book Review “Paperback Best Sellers” list and it now has over 1.2 million copies in print. I bought it on impulse because I had heard someone rave about it. No mention of Down syndrome specifically.

The hook? Here, it’s a specialized condition or circumstance of high interest to an identifiable subset of the general population.

Take a small bite out of James Patterson’s audience:  Patterson and coauthor Andrew Gross have the #2 bestseller on The New York Times Book Review “Paperback Best Sellers” (Sept 3, 2006.) And experience shows that because he enjoys a rabid following, whatever Patterson writes, people buy. Do you have a following? If not, then your book needs hookable items that can suck in readers before they even know what the plot is—and whether it’s good or bad.

A hook is NOT plot. 

What is a hook?  Here’s another example: Take a resort community, say, Old Orchard Beach in Maine, and set your story there. (Though, obviously, you should pick a place you know fairly well so you can write knowledgably about the area.) One hundred thousand people arrive at Old Orchard Beach each summer. There’s a lot more beach reading going on than swimming in waters that will kill you from hypothermia within 60 seconds. Lots of tourists. Lots of houseguest gift-giving in the summer season. So you choose this popular vacation spot (where you can practically hear the waves pound the shore and see the money roll in) as the setting for your tale. You sprinkle the story with references to Palace Playland. You have characters meet at the Beerfest on The Pier. With luck and a little free promotion from the local newspapers and library, not only will the summer crowd buy your book just because it mentions sites and events they recognize, you’ll even have all those dour, penny pinching State of Mainers driving their 30-year-old cars into town after the summer intruders clear out to buy the book, read it, and send it to a cousin upstate for Christmas. You’ll sell 20,000 copies in Maine, which makes you a lot happier than selling 2000 across the country that were bought by people on impulse when they found it sitting forlornly on the sidewalk remainder table. Maybe even George W would have bought a copy. He’s probably ridden the Tilt-O-Whirl and Orient Express roller coaster at Palace Playland, too, on one of his childhood visits to the family compound in Kennebunkport.

The hook? Location, location, location.
Knock on the doors of fellow immigrants: How successful was The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini? I’d only have to see his name on a query letter to know that I could peddle his book, which happens to be terrific. How big is the immigrant Afghani population in the US? Googling again, I found 60,000 in Northern California alone and an Afghan Coalition I could contact to get the publicity started! $$$$. Give me a half hour on the computer and, as a marketer, I’d have a specialized mini-marketing plan to build interest in the book six months before the presses started to roll. “Place your order today!” Who is going to order a book about Afghanis? Initially, Barnes & Noble, Borders, Books-A-Million and all the independent bookstores who have Afghan enclaves in the neighborhood will order up. Book buyers pore over spreadsheets that slice and dice book sales every which way to determine which book titles and topics are selling best in a particular store or region. You can bet if there is an Afghan community in the vicinity, bookstore buyers and handsellers are aware of it and will start letting their customers know a book written by an Afghani physician and author is due to arrive. Buzz. Buzz. Buzz. If a customer sporting a Pakol hat enters the bookstore, he may well be there for The Kite RunnerEventually the buzz about the quality of the writing and the story itself reach the ears of other ethnicities and sales begin to build across demographic lines—potentially all the way to the best seller lists.The hook? Ethnicity, ethnicity, ethnicity

The Catch-22 in Publishing: A book by an unknown author has to become successful on its own before the publishing company will do anything significant on its part to add to the success.  Even worse, the truth is that most publishing companies are much too content with a book selling well on its own to ante up any extra marketing money in an effort to boost sales over the top. “Next book, please!” So if your book-in-progress can’t already boast a hook, you’d better add one.  And if you already have one or better, two, (good for you!), you’d better hit the people whose attention you’re trying to attract over the head with it. 

Never forget that you have to sell your book to the literary agent; the literary agent has to sell your book to the editor; the editor has to sell your book to the publisher; and the publisher might have to sell your book to the president of the company. Not to mention that once it is published, your book has to be “sold” to the marketing department as something other than the usual fare worthy of no more than the usual ho-hum effort. (Get those 300 ARCs ready to blast into oblivion!) Even if you self-publish, a good hook will get you in the door of independent bookstores where you live and where your story takes place, Starbuck’s where you live and where your story takes place, libraries where you live and where your story takes place–wherever the hook fits well.  

In short, by having a good hook and trumpeting it as clearly and appealingly as you possibly can, you are greasing the wheels every step of the way. Get the picture? 

Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): It’s book buying season. Literary agents and editors are off the beach. How’s your query letter? Here are some helpful hints from a previous post or two or three you may have missed:

38 Responses to “Why The Memory Keeper’s Daughter was a Shoo-In for a Best Seller. Why One Book Takes Off through Word-of-Mouth and Others Fizzle. Show Me…The Hook!”

  1. Peggy Payne Says:

    First-rate analysis. And it helps if the targeted group of buyers is large, but not so large that there is no cohesion. A tight community that is underserved, and which doesn’t already have a huge literature, seems ideal to me. Especially if the message is a new and a welcome one. A major character with Downs is the perfect hook in all those ways. 

  2. Bernita Says:

    Do you think that the thousands of Conyers descendant might be interested in a time travel book involving the famous Conyers, his Falchion and the Sockburn Worm? i.e. I have a genealogical hook, for one.

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): Bernita, try and get the descendants to pre-order! Sounds like a hook to me! Skip traditional publishers, self-publish, go straight to the descendants, and keep all the money!

  3. Vivian Says:

    Wicked Witch, you are onto something here.

    Do you remember the book “Flowers for Algernon?” (Well, you are probably too young!) Reading your post, I remembered it and looked it up on Wikipedia. First it was a short story (1959), then Harcourt Brace published it as a novel (1966), then Bantam Books (1967), then it was re-issued by Harcourt Brace Modern Classics in 1995.

    The main character was Charlie Gordon, a mentally retarded janitor. He volunteered for an experiment in which he became VERY smart–brilliant, in fact, and very insightful about mankind. I know in the late 60’s the movie Charly was quite a hit. It starred Cliff Robertson. ” The story is extremely effective because it is told from Charlie’s point of view, and as Charlie’s mental state shifts, it is reflected in his writings. He becomes depressed, for example, when he poignantly realizes that his cognition will decay away….”

    How many people remember this great story? I do…and it’s been years.

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flowers_for_Algernon

  4. Minx Says:

    Once again thank you for an interesting, and relevent post – making notes!

  5. valerie ryan Says:

    Dear WW: I thought that “Memory Keeper’s Daughter” was simply wretched. It has a plot flaw in it that you could drop a cat through; why has no one mentioned it? Are we such careless readers these days that we don’t notice or don’t care? The Down Syndrome child is hardly a character in the book – only a haunting presence. Rather, we are supposed to believe that the “loss” of this child is grieved by the sibling who never knew her, that the mother in the story took no solace in her present child and that the father never got over being guilty. I can believe the father’s predicament, not the others.

    And…the plot flaw: living in a small town as they did, is it not the HEIGHT of unlikeliness that the mother would NEVER encounter the man who buried her child…NEVER ask him about the details, NEVER thank him, revile him…whatever??

    This is chick lit of the worst kind. Poorly written emotional hogwash, put together to push all the “girl” buttons, all the “Mom” buttons, and marketed to both of the above.

    I cry FOUL!!!

    And…one “pores” over books, not pours – unless you want to get them wet.

    End of rant!

    Valerie Ryan

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): Hi, Valerie! Welcome back. Want to take some time to think about your response!!! I was curious to see how the book would end. And, yes, twenty years of not being able to get on with your life after the stillborn birth of one of your twins seemed tiresome to me, but just when I was thinking “come on!” about the plot, there would be an interesting twist. Anyhow, as I wrote, having a hook makes all the difference! And thanks for the “wrong word” correction. Bella Stander just emailed me and pointed out “shoe-in” should be “shoo-in.”

  6. Gina Burgess Says:

    Oh, I remember that book! It was truly great and I thought the movie was poignant, but didn’t do the story real justice… I think that about all movies from books, though.


    This advice is a real gem…right up there with rubies. Thanks, Lynn!

  7. lorra laven Says:

    Lynne – My heart is pounding after reading this. If the statistics on Dr. Jim Hopper’s website (www.jimhopper.com) are correct, ie., approximately 20% of all males will have been sexually abused before they reach adulthood, then a vast audience exists for my recently completed novel.

    My book focusses on the subject of sexual abuse of boys. But unlike similar books, the story is set in an elite, private boys’ high school. It is the heartbreaking tale of the effects of abuse and coverup on three good boys and their upper-middle class families.

    I researched the subject extensively before writing the novel, hoping it would serve as a cautionary tale. I’ve just finished polishing the manuscript and I am in the process of shopping it to agents.

    Although tragic, is it possible a vast audience really does exist for this book among victims of abuse and parents desperate to to prevent it? I am speaking, specifically, of the serial pedophile whose preferred sexual partners are adolescent and pre-adolescent boys. The serial pedophile molests hundreds of kids (almost all male) in his lifetime, relying on the imbalance of power that exists between him and boys he teaches, coaches, befriends, mentors, etc. Because of that imbalance, he doesn’t need to resort to physical force; emotional coercion is his weapon of choice.

    Serial pedophiles aren’t the stereotypical, trench-coat-wearing misfits who lurk around playgrounds and pull little children into panelled vans, but trusted adults with whom everyone’s children come in contact every day. These guys work and volunteer where there is a ready supply of victims. They are able to molest in the hundreds because the boys, for myriad reasons, almost never tell. In my novel, as in real life, trusted adults cover up the abuse and protect the molestor, leaving him free to court his next victim.

    I know there are a lot of memoirs written about abuse, but this novel is different because a great deal of factual information is woven into a work of fiction that reads almost like a thriller: the sense of foreboding builds in the reader at what they they believe is coming; only the climax is far more devastating than most will predict. It is my hope that the novel, and specifically the climax, will jolt the public into recognizing the breadth and impact of ignoring the problem of serial pedophiles and of pretending it can never happen to their loved ones.

    It has and it will.

    FYI: The title is: ‘Til the Day We Die:Secrets of an All-Boys’ Prep School. In addition to the novel, I have compiled my research in a non-fiction addendum — “The Facts Behind the Fiction” — which I plan to hand out to parents’ groups as an aid to keeping their children safe.

    Thanks for letting me get up on my soap box.

  8. delilah Says:

    Oh Laird! The Spelling Police have set upon the poor Wicked Witch like a pack of dogs.

    Fly, Wicked Witch. Fly!

    She got away; she got away.

  9. Lynne Says:

    Kim. A. Edwards, author of The Memory Keeper’s Daughter, just returned my email with UNSUBSCRIBE in the subject line. Ouch!

  10. Bernita Says:

    If that hook makes you immediately recommend self-publishing, then it’s not so hot a hook, is it?

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): I’m not kidding. I’m not for handing a publishing company one cent more than I have to. With a shoe-in, whoops, shoo-in book, I WOULD try and take orders upfront. We call ‘em “special sales.” No returns accepted! Nothing but easy profit. Of course, once the hard work of generating enthusiasm for the book and taking orders upfront are done, a literary agent or editor will be more than happy to take an author’s calls!

  11. valerie ryan Says:

    It says “shoo-in” in one place and “shoe-in” in another, so I figured that some proofreading maven, such as I, had already pointed it out. FYI: I also have reviled, every chance I get: “Poisonwood Bible,” because she could not pull off five voices and went all mystical when she got stuck; “Broken For You,” because breaking fine china is not a rational response to the Holocaust; “Secret Life of Bees,” because by page 5 you could figure out the whole thing, and a boring, repetitive thing it was; “The Red Tent,” because I got sick and tired of being “cleansed” in that damn tent.

    So, what do I like? “Any Human Heart,” “Memory of Running,” ” Highest Tide,” “Feast of Love,” “The Unyielding Clamor of the Night,” “The Emperor’s Children,” “Theft,” “The Sea,” and I could go on but I won’t bother you any more.


    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): Hi, again!  Do you finish the books you hate? It sounds like it. Thanks for the recommendations! I will go out and get one of them tomorrow. I will. Valerie, what are the hooks in the books you like? Are there any?

  12. E.J. Samadhi Whitehouse Says:

    When a handful purchase and read Circles in the Sand [self-published because I didn’t know any better], and write reviews with such emotional and raw responses or break into tears, clearly coming from a painfully wounded place, it first humbles me, and brings to a place of intense gratitude, and then fuels my fire that if I can touch one, I can touch one million. That’s the hard part–I know you’re out there!

    First Hook:
    Veiled oppression of Arabian women was the crucial mirror needed to see my reflection.
    The stark emptiness of the desert echoed my own internal emptiness—until I saw the oasis. Follow my search for what I thought was lost—my soul.

    Second Hook:
    “Incestuous ‘Love'”
    When doing a Google search, almost 100% of the web sites were PORN!! Father with daughter…. now, I have to catch those of us who have endured this type of “love” and I believe there may be no other book out there on the topic. And these are only a few of several interweaving themes…. see my “theme chart” on my web site.

    Through the eyes of personal experience…
    Who could imagine that coming out and finding one’s true authentic self would reverberate through the deserts of the Middle East?

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): Thanks for dropping by. Honestly, I don’t really consider those three items “hooks” by my definition. I’m going “huh?” Veiled oppression of Arab women? In the US? In Idaho? Maybe. Incest? How large is the potential readership? Or do you mean incest and Arab women? Maybe. I did go to your Web site and noticed that you wrote a book called Two Hearts In One about your heart surgery. Heart surgery! THAT’s a hook to which I can relate, but you have to do your research to see how much competition your book has out there. (I was going to say “which I can relate to,” but someone will remind me I ended a sentence with a preposition! Sniff. Sniff.) 

  13. Pamela Says:

    Vivian, I remember Flowers for Algernon. I loved the book and I loved the movie.

    This was a very helpful post WW. I have some new focus now for my book proposals. Thanks!

  14. James Aach Says:

    Hello Lynne,

    Had you not thrown in the part about self-publishing, I was inclined to disagree with you, based on the single example of my own experience. As you know, based on my insider knowledge I wrote a thriller with a big hook – a nuclear power plant accident. Almost half of the US poplulation lives within 50 miles of a power plant and the topic (and fear) is constantly in the news. That’s a ready-made audience. My book is on the net for free now at my blog and getting great reviews from readers. But there was little interest from editors or publishers.

    Near the end of your discussion, you come to the bottleneck in the process – interesting an agent or editor. It’s hard to see how the system could work otherwise, but recently there’s been some chatter by agents on other forums regarding what I see as a downside to the process: it’s reported that what agents/editors are looking for in the fiction market is “things that interest them”. I’m sure agents and editors are nice enough folks trying to make a living, but I strongly suspect that “the things that interest them” do not represent as broad a spectrum of concerns and perspectives as the sizeable reading public might wish to see in fiction.
    In my own case, I believe the many agents I queried had little use for any meaningful discussion of energy issues, even within a thriller setting. (Fiction publishing is a most definitely a liberal arts-heavy community.)

    But let me try another – perhaps better- example: say an unknown first time novelist (witout industry connections) produces a well-written book about a family’s multi-generational struggle to run a vegetable farm outside Phoenix. The book is steeped in Arizona lore. The family has had its share of characters and lost loves but nothing way out of the ordinary. (No incestuous cousins, trans-gendered conjoined twins, or alien abductions, etc.). The novel also contains thoughtful expositions on water rights, environmental degradation and immigration policy – which are all important issues. Would such a novel make it past the query letter stage? Would an agent, likely stationed in New York (or in rare cases another metropolitan area) find it is “something that interests them.” I suspect not, unless the author piggybacks it onto a popular genre such as murder mystery (and perhaps also excises some of the “issue talk” in favor of more exploration of “the human condition”.) Of course, if its a previously published novelist, or a celebrity of some sort, the equation changes entirely.

    But that’s just one disgruntled opinion, and I’m sure there are many exceptions.

    And that gets us back to self-publishing. The vegetable-loving author above is left with one option – to prove the book will be economically viable by personally selling a lot of copies. (I’ll soon have a paperback edition out myself.) I don’t all this a pretty picture, but it does explain a lot of what I see when I scan the fiction racks at the local mega-bookstore. And it provides more insight into achieving publication for the budding writer.

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM) : I haven’t had my first cup of coffee yet, but here goes! I know your book. I know you have a hook–a big one. Here’s what I would try if I wanted a traditional publisher to pick up my book: I would break out a map of the US and highlight the towns where the nuclear power plants are. I would circle the cities closest to those towns and note the populations.I would start with the biggest towns near the biggest cities and I would locate mid-size or small publishing companies near or in those towns or cities. Avoid NYC. Those publishing companies would have the interest in tapping into their local/regional markets and would know how to do it. I would see what kind of books the companies published by checking their Web sites, and try and gauge how successful these companies were. I would do a multiple submission. I would write or email the president (straight to the top) of the company because in the more regional publishing companies you can bet the president makes the decisions. (Pick up the phone and call the publishing company if you have to find out the name of the president!) Send your query letter, synopsis, a fold-out copy(!) or scan of the map of the US (don’t forget population figures) and a few manuscript pages. If emailing, make sure your subject line is catchy. If mailing, email the president to tell him/her the query is coming and ask him/her to watch for it when it hits the slush pile. Have you tried this? 

  15. E.J. Samadhi Whitehouse Says:

    Thanks for your WW honesty– now, not speaking defensively… I thought your questions about my “hooks” confirmed that I had you hooked to look further into my web site and Circles in the Sand! No?

    For the record, my observation of Arabian women’s oppression while living and travelling to many Arab countries became a mirror image to my own oppression.


    When I mentioned the Theme Chart, the “hook” I was hoping for was that people would see one of the themes is heart surgery and its meaning to my journey. [PS: I won a contest for an essay on heart surgery].

    Shoot… I thought I had you HOOKED because it made you go look into what I was introducing.

    Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): Actually, I went to your Web site because I try to get to all the Web sites of the people who leave comments for me AND because I thought I might be able to get a better understanding of your hooks. No literary agent or editor will take the time to go to your Web site to figure out what you are talking about. You have to hook them with your pitch and you’ve got your first paragraph to do it. 

  16. Peter L. Winkler Says:

    Dear Lynne:

    If I may be so bold as to pose as the contrarian’s contrarian. Very well, I shall be so bold.

    1. You have not adduced any evidence to support your conclusion that the novel’s subject, Down’s Syndrome, led to its sudden popularity in paperback. Accepting your theory for a moment, why didn’t that create a bestseller when the book was first published in hardcover?

    2. “By rule two, effort must be spent promoting, advertising,
    and selling only the product leaders: the books which a publisher
    plans from the outset to be bestsellers. (Accidental bestsellers
    are all but impossible.) “

    “The hardcover sales never exploded, but the book sold steadily. ‘The way this one sold in hardcover told us that in paperback it was going to be a great addition to the category,’ said Zan Farr, commercial fiction buyer at Borders Group, who noted that customers were recommending the novel to friends.

    Sensing its paperback potential, sales representatives began aggressively pushing the title to booksellers, paying marketing fees to have the books displayed at the front of stores .

    For the paperback cover, the publisher added a blurb from Sue Monk Kidd, author of ‘The Secret Life of Bees,’ and Ms. Edwards was scheduled for an extended book tour. Since the novel came out in paperback, she has added eight cities to an initial eight.

    Many of the booksellers who liked the novel in hardcover agreed to take higher orders of the paperback. But new retailers who had ignored it in hardcover also picked it up, including big chains like Wal-Mart and Target.”

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): Peter, people often wait for the paperback. (I do.) Yes, the sales trickled out in hardcover (pub date June 23,2005; 30,000 hardcover copies sold), but with 1.2 million copies in print a little over a year later (pub date May 30,2006; paperback), I’d say sales have taken off. From the same article in the New York Times that you are quoting, but referring to the paperback: “The book seemed to ignite right away. Three days after the paperback edition went on sale, Barnes & Noble doubled its initial order, said Bob Wietrak, a vice president of merchandising for the chain. At Amazon.com, the title broke into the online retailer’s Top 100 list.”  “I think it’s just one of those books where there’s almost an underground movement,” she said. “One person reads it and recommends it to 10 friends.”  (Swat. Swat.)

  17. Michael Says:

    James Aach has hit the nail on the head. Agents are the gatekeepers to the publishers. In many cases this means gen x’ers screen incoming fiction, choosing what appeals to them personally, then selling it to more gen x’ers who do the acquiring for publishers.

    The result? Lots of chick lit, crap and dreck leading to fewer and fewer good books and a dearth of raders.

    It is such a shame to put such a barricade between the reader and good fiction.

    If publishers want the general public to start reading again, they need to look beyond their circle of influence. Believe it or not, the world is not made of just one generation. And while you’re at it, think about this: who has the most disposable income and the most time to read?

    I’ll let you answer that one.

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): Michael, I think there are plenty of good books out there amid the dreck. The problem is that they die a slow, painful death along with the dreck due to marketing strategies in place throughout the publishing industry. The money for the publisher is in multiple books published and limited print runs of each book. Publishing companies are happy with what I call “accidental sales” or impulse purchases. The exception would be the smaller presses whose very livelihood depends on an individual book doing well—meaning selling tens of thousands of copies at minimum.

  18. Bridget Says:

    Your columns should be required reading for heads of marketing at all publishing houses. If they’re smart, they’ll take your proactive concepts and strategies and parlay them into mega sales. (Book packagers also take copious note). Another enlightening column. Thanks WW.

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): Another aspiring author I know. Bridget, tell us what your hooks are. I know you have plenty of them in your manuscript!

  19. Frazer Dobson Says:

    Well, Lynne, you know I always love to read your stuff even when I disagree with it. And disagree I’m gonna. You’re missing something here. I’m not exactly sure what it is, but I know it’s something. I also know that trying to write a book with a marketing hook in mind isn’t the way to go about it (well, unless you’re James Patterson). That is, if you’re trying to write a really good book rather than churn out the commercial crap (nothing wrong with that in and of itself).

    Let me tell you about two books. One is “Water for Elephants” by Sara Gruen and the other is “Special Topics in Calamity Physics” by Marisha Pessl (and if I hear one more time that she got her contract for being young and cute I’m gonna bust someone’s head; read the book and you’ll see where she got her deal). Where’s the hook in either one? Well, the former would appeal to fans of historical circus tales, and the other to brainy academics, right off the bat, but neither group is a significant driver of sales.

    And yet, and yet. Both books are currently on the New York Times list (Marisha’s even debuted at #6). The Times has publicly admitted that if the list were only based on independent booksellers, both books would have spent time at #1. Both have cracked #1 on the BookSense list (above Patterson, no less).

    So explain this one to me, someone. I have a theory, anyway: It’s not about hook but about STORY and CHARACTERS and GOOD WRITING. Both novels are passionately told and immediately engrossing–they suck you in from page one. Both books were sent to booksellers as ARCS, although not in the quantities that some houses do, and both got read and passed around. Booksellers were chomping at the bit to sell them before they even came out. (Our store has sold nearly 400 copies of “Water for Elephants” since it came out in May, and our customers have been as thrilled by it as we were.) And these are just the two latest examples I’ve seen. There have been plenty.

    Any other theories?

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): I love a good fight! There’s not a doubt in my mind that a fabulous story will sell if the right people—like an excellent handseller—promote it tirelessly because they love the book so much. And when it turns out that the people to whom you have recommended the book also love it, yes, word-of-mouth drives sales. What I am saying is that an author can predispose people to buy a book through something other than great story. How terrific if the book with location, location, location is also a book you would like to handsell with enthusiasm. If not, however, you’ve still got a saleable book in your store that will have a ready readership from the moment it is put on display. It sells itself, and probably without a handseller having even read it. So there!

  20. Andrew O'Hara Says:

    There’s a lot to be said about “Hooks,” but in the wrong hands they are distasteful. I would guess that the success of Kim Edward’s book may well have to do with the fact that she has direct experience–and deep empathy–for the topic.

    I detest authors who “shop” for a hook-subject and then latch onto it for no other purpose than to sell. It shows in their writing as they seek the sensational angles or the humor or the whatever they think will amuse their audience. There are far too many of those today.

    To my mind, the latter is a form of prostitution in the trade. But they sell. So do street walkers.

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): Andrew, you are correct. There are formulaic books out there that wouldn’t appeal to me, but have an audience. There are movies with different ratings. Not everybody wants to read literature. Not everyone wants a movie with a “G” rating. I think you also have to differentiate between authors who write because they are driven to tell a story and writers who are good at their craft of storytelling.

  21. Peter L. Winkler Says:

    “In Hollywood, nobody knows anything.”

    William Goldman

    People in the entertainment, advertising and marketing businesses (of which pubishing is a subset) are forever trying to predict what will succeed or explain a success after the fact.

    This can be an amusing mind game and good for dinner table coversation among peers, but has never resulted in any formulas or quantifiable data that can be reliably applied to produce a bestseller.

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): Here’s a formula for success: John Grisham’s name on a book. Other than a huge name in publishing, you are right, Peter. Still you can stack the odds in your favor that you’ll sell books and make some money by using sharp hooks.

  22. James Aach Says:

    Hi Lynne,

    Thanks for your non-caffeinated advice. I’ve tried variations of your suggested approach above, but not to the extent you’ve recommended. My novel is not set at the location of an actual nuclear plant (this was done on purpose), and while it has a sense of place, it’s not a big city or vacaton spot. So the standard version of the regional approach falls a bit flat.

    But you’re suggesting a different approach based on the issue itself. In the past I have looked at various regional publishers throughout the country, but my book doesn’t fit within their catalogs, which stress the inclusion of regional details and often don’t have any fiction at all. (Cookbooks are big.) I did contact a few of the regional academic publishers doing this sort of thing, without success. Those doing only non-fiction indicated that fiction was a whole different ballgame they were reluctant to enter, and those doing fiction don’t do “popular” fiction unless its clearly regional. I’ve also tried to stir up interest among regional journalists who are covering the issue, but apart from a nice review on an LA Weekly blog, there’s been no reponse. (Meeting daily deadlines trumps reading to gain perspective, I guess.)

    In my queries, I’ve always included the 40% population statistic and the constant news coverage, sometimes mentioning local plants near the reader. I’d read it was not a good idea to force-feed too much information on a book’s projected market or it’s topicality (don’t include newspaper clippings, etc.) because agents/editiors feel it’s their job to be informed about this stuff and they don’t care to be tutored by someone not in the business. I may be wrong in my specific case, and based on your input I also may have been too reluctant to press the issue with regional publishers who might not at first appear to be a good fit – – or to go straight to the top exectutives at these companies. (Type B introverts like me aren’t inclined to this sort of aggressive activity, but give me a little support – like an agreement to publish – and I’ll do the marketing dance with fervor.)

    It’s tempting at times to think maybe the book itself isn’t worthy, but on my website readers I’ve never meant are saying things like “better than Michael Crichton,” “better than Dan Brown,” and “edge-of-your-seat read.”

    You’ve given me some good ideas to think about regarding more aggressive querying tactics and a wider scope of targets. Thanks for your time and advice! I find your willingness to do some give and take with your readers quite refreshing.

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): You have to spoon-feed the sales points to literary agents and publishing companies. I’m not kidding. And you should do it as an itemized list with bullets. Assume they know nothing. Certainly, they know less than you do about the subject. I think a hook might be that that any reader within, say, 50 miles of a nuclear plant will recognize his neighbors, his mayor, his friends in your story. And if the reader works in the nuclear plant or knows someone who does, he/she will be drawn into the action as if he/she were a part of it. Something like that! Just guessing.   

  23. Lynne Says:

    I just went to the local bookstore and picked up two of Valerie Ryan’s suggestions: “The Memory of Running” by Ron McLarty and “Any Human Heart” by William Boyd. I’ll be buying Frazer Dobson’s recommendation: “Water for Elephants” by Sara Gruen next. It was in the window of Book Hampton. Both these folks are knowledgeable booksellers/handsellers.

    By the way, as my purchase was rung up, the young man doing the ringing (and who also found the books for me) remarked about what a great book “Any Human Heart” was, and lamented that it wasn’t doing particularly well. “Sinking,” I believe he said…or something to that effect, and he didn’t know why. I know why!

  24. James Aach Says:

    WW says: “Any reader within, say, 50 miles of a nuclear plant will recognize his neighbors, his mayor, his friends in your story.” Thanks! – I hadn’t thought of that nifty little angle. Regarding the overall concept of spoonfeeding the sales points – I guess I’ll be doing more of that too.

    Overall, my experience does make me wonder what kind of a business model the industry has – sometimes it doesn’t seem as consumer-focused as it should be. And if the writer has to both write the book and then develop and implement a marketing campaign as well, I’m not clear exactly what services beyond printing and shipping are being offered by the agents and publishers. But I’m too far outside the circle to know.

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): Book packagers bring finished product to editors at publishing companies and take advantage of distribution networks, tracking, accounting, etc. Actually, I don’t think of many editors as being that involved in editing. A lot of books get acquired by an editor who then sends the book out to a freelance editor. It’s a rare in-house editor who will immerse him/herself in a wonderful book that needs massive editing. I’m thinking of Ernest Hemmingway’s books. 

  25. Dave Newton Says:

    Bennett Cerf said, in his point in time, that the ideal book to sell would be “Lincoln’s Doctor’s Dog.”

    The latest big-hook book I’ve read is “Terrorist,” by–wait for it–John Updike. Now, John doesn’t have to sit around building novels around hooks, does he? He’s said, he just thought it would be interesting to try to get inside the head of such a person. He did it, I believe, and his research shows. But, more importantly, Updike’s imagination shines, as always. I believe his motivation to write “Terrorist” was his inner turmoil, similar to that which all of us are experiencing in these times. As it happens, he handed the sales department a slam-dunk product. Here’s to elder giants with undiminished powers. Mr. Updike, you inspired me to write forty years ago, when your short story, “Pigeon Feathers,” knocked me for a literary, intellectual, and spiritual loop. I read it to my mid-sixties, hip, Methodist Sunday School rap-session class.

    So, why do I write fiction? It’s what comes out of me. When the current thing’s got some form, I’ll reread for hooks. If I try to start writing from hooks, I’ll just make myself crazier than I am for trying to write in four dimensions in the first place.

    Marketing a fiction manuscript is like trying to make lightning strike. You gotta do what you do, Lynne…but don’t give warranties.

    By the way, the “Nobody knows anything” guy is screenwriter William Goldman–with a “G”–(“Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid”, “Marathon Man”, etc.), in his “Adventures in the Screen Trade” book. One of the two non-fiction books to keep me awake. (The other was “Up the Organization.”)

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): You shouldn’t contort your story to fit my type of hook, you should just factor them in where they fit easily into the storyline. 

  26. Peter L. Winkler Says:

    “Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing ™: Here’s a formula for success: John Grisham’s name on a book.” 

    Oh, Lynne, please! You can do better than that. John Grisham or any other “branded” author’s name means something, but only after their first book makes that name a household word. To say this only belabors the obvious.

    Few people knew who Grisham was before The Firm became his first bestseller. Same with King and Carrie.

    Once a writer has a bestseller, their success becomes self-perpetuating, as with celebrities of all kinds.

    In the last ten years or so, I’ve read so many articles and books about publishing full of insider anecdotes.

    There’s only one thing that emerges as an operating principle I would count on (and it’s been reinforced by my own experience a a writer): agents and editors don’t rely on their values, if they have any strong ones.

    They merely extrapolate from past successes or failures.

  27. Lynne Says:

    From my stat counter I can see that writers are pouring in from around the world to read this post, so I must have touched a nerve! Very exciting!

    At UKA Authors–International Writers’ Site Michel Anton has started a thread.

    POD-dy Mouth in Washington, DC is sending scores of writers over to The Publishing Contrarian from a recommendation under “A Low-Fat Snack.”

    (If new visitors would like to be contacted directly when a new posting goes up, just leave your email address by using the “email” option on the right-hand sidebar.)

    All comments welcome! Be anonymous if you like. That’s fine with me.

    Lynne AKA The Wicked Witch of Publishing

  28. Tom Clavin Says:

    If enough people follow your advice, by this time next year the best-seller lists will be choked with a fresh crop of authors. Which would be a good thing, as it’s tiring seeing Patterson and Roberts and all the other same names on the lists now. One wonders how many books with good hooks never even get read by the right agents and editors, let alone published.

    Tom Clavin

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing: Tom’s latest book is Dark Noon—The Final Voyage of The Fishing Boat “Pelican”. Tom was editor of the East Hampton Independent and the Southampton Independent, two of the country’s most award-winning weeklies, for ten years. In addition to fifteen years writing for the New York Times, he has written articles for Reader’s Digest, Golf Magazine, Parade, and Family Circle.

     Tom Clavin Dark Noon

  29. Big Bad Book Blog » Blog Archive » Big Bad Book Blog Links 09-08-2006 Says:

    […] The Publishing Contrarian: Discussions about Dramatic Change in the Business and Operation of Publishing “Having a good hook and trumpeting it as clearly and appealingly as you possibly can, greases the wheels every step of the way.” […]

  30. Peggy Payne Says:

    I can hardly imagine a more enticing topic than how to break out your novel. No wonder there are so many comments.

    I heard in a seminar recently about a woman who self-published a book on being a pilot. She then got a consultant to tell her how to find a hook in it. The hook came finally from the things that people ask her most when they hear about her job. The one she chose was what does the pilot mean when he says, “we’re running into some turbulence.” She got on major national TV to talk about that topic, and sold a lot of copies of her book.

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): Another hook is that she is a woman AND a pilot. How many moms or dads or aunts or uncles would give that book to a teenage girl? I would. 

  31. Peter L. Winkler Says:

    I’d never heard the story attributed to Bennett Cerf. 

    Instead, it supposedly took place between the editor of a general interest magazine, like Reader’s Digest, and one of his regular writers.

    Editor: You know what the most popular subjects for magazine articles are?

    Writer: No, what?

    Editor: Lincoln, mothers, doctors, and dogs.

    Writer: How about an article about Lincoln’s mother’s doctor’s dog?

  32. Caroline Smailes Says:

    I have only just found this site.
    I am now bookmarking and placing it on my daily route.
    Just what I need, practical advice that really requires a notebook and pencil alongside the reading.


  33. DC Stanfa Says:

    The book by the female pilot is titled The World At My Feet, by Cpt. Meryl Getline. She, like me, paid $6,000 to attend The National Publicity Summit and get professional coaching–including perfecting your pitch, and your HOOK to the media (note that these hooks are developed after our books were published, so we’re back-end hookers). We then got 2 1/2 minutes with major TV show producers and magazine editors. The event hosts call it speed dating for journalists. It is expensive, but if you have a compelling or entertaining story, with ideas for show topics you just might get on The View (Oprah’s producers don’t attend) without paying a publicist, like Meryl did.

    Almost all of the wannabees at this conference were non-fiction writers, who proclaimed to be experts on something. I claim to be an expert on fun, and its by-product, trouble. According to the folks at the National Publicity Summit, it’s not enough to get me in a magazine or on national television. So, they helped me customize my pitch, and the hook for specific media. And while one producer loved “Is there too much drama in your life? I have five ways to lose the drama and lighten up your life.” It would fall flat with another.

    Yes, their is an air of prostitution around this whole messy publishing business. But, having spent 25 years selling empty boxes, I find myself bending over just a bit more trying to sell some filled with MY book. As long as we can look ourselves in the mirror–hopefully in the green room, I say go for it. Of course, speaking from experience, you might want to steer clear of Jerry Springer.

    Lynne, although I am still awaiting the “big” break, I did get booked on quite a few radio shows, developed a beach book hook (which is not contrived, as the beach is a passion, and a lot of my stories take place at beaches), and made some very valuable contacts at the Summit. However, the better pay-off came from networking at the Erma Bombeck Workshop for a total of $350–at which, it wasn’t about the hook or the money. It was all about the funny.

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): $6000! Yikes. I’m upping my rates! For a manuscript that has been repeatedly rejected, what choice do you have but to rethink your query letter and synopsis? It’s nuts to keep sending the same package out. Back-end hooking entails rethinking your pitch along the lines I recommended and then reworking your query letter if not your book. Those hooks may well be in the book already, just not emphasized correctly. Thanks for dropping by again. 

  34. Therese Says:


    This is a “hook” topic for your site–got me here for the first time (via Pod-dy Mouth, which I found via Miss Snark…)!

    For what it’s worth, I am an agented novelist with an MFA, whose first novel almost-but-didn’t-quite sell. It has a strong hook, which made it easy for my agent to shop it to many big houses–so why didn’t it sell?

    That’s one of the mysteries of the biz. Rejection letters complimented the work consistently, but were inconsistent on the reasons for “no.” One was that the book felt “too quiet” for that house; one was that the ed. had recently acquired a book a little too similar…

    Primarily, though, I think I need to improve the representation of certain characters, alter relationships a little–give the reader a better emotional “hook” in addition to the topical ones. So I shall rewrite.

    Meantime I’ve written a new novel that takes full advantage of the “hook” strategy once again. If there is a formula for an unknown novelist to craft a novel with the potential to ignite, IMO it’s this:

    Quality storytelling
    Empathetic characters
    A hook, or hooks
    A satisfying ending

    -in that order. But ALWAYS including all four ingredients.

    Note that I don’t say this guarantees success. Only that it ups the odds.

    My agent is reading my new work, and I am beginning to recraft the first novel to better fit the “formula.” There’s no “One Right Way,” so the best we authors can do is stack the odds in our favor while crafting stories we care about. Writing professionals (as opposed to what I’ll call “literary artists”) understand that books are products for readers and write accordingly.

    Some authors consider this “selling out,” but I beg to differ. Book publishing is a BUSINESS, and THAT is the bottom line. If you don’t want to be business oriented, self-publish and be content.

    As for me, I am determined to write high quality, reader-friendly novels that I hope will mean something to the people who read them.

    Incidentally, I agree completely that what qualifies as a phenomenal read for one person may be a poor fit for another–this applies not only to genre but to quality of writing. Variety, as they say, is the spice of life!

    Best for authors to quit whining and just focus on their particular target readers. Maybe I’m naive, but I think there are enough readers to go around.

    Note from the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): Therese, thanks so much for your wise comments. I wouldn’t rewrite my book just yet. If I were you, I would do a little independent research. I’d find books of a similar genre in my local bookstore and then track down those editors. Ask your literary agent if he/she knows the editors. If he/she doesn’t know the editors or have contacts in their publishing companies, then the job is not done.

    Update November 16, 2006 From the Wicked Witch of Publishing ™: Therese’s novel, Souvenir, has been picked up. Go to her blog for details!

  35. Therese Says:

    Thanks, Lynne–guess we think alike, because your advice matches what I did when the first round of submissions was finished. One of the frustrations I met with was the apparent “rule” that once an editor at a particular imprint/house has passed, an agent can’t approach a different editor there.

    (Not that we’d have necessarily gotten further if we could approach the couple of additional prospects I unearthed.)

    Because I’m realistic and optimistic, with a sprinkle of fatalism thrown in for good measure, I’m taking my rejection as an opportunity to make the novel better (and used what I learned to help craft the new one). Several editors said they would read anything I write next, which means I at least opened some doors!

    By the way, thanks for your efforts with this site. Good advice and industry info is invaluable to every writer who’s looking to have a writing career, not just a book in print.

    Update November 16, 2006 From the Wicked Witch of Publishing (TM): Therese’s novel, Souvenir, has been picked up. Go to her blog for details!

  36. Bill Peschel Says:

    You Gotta Have A Gimmick…

    These days, it's not enough to be published. You got to have a platform, an audience, something that separates you from the rest of the pack. Or, as Lynn Scanlon puts it at The Publishing Contrarian: A Hook! If your story has a child with Down&apo…

  37. Edward Champion’s Return of the Reluctant » Roundup Says:

    […] Is a bestseller guided by a hook? The Publishing Contrarian opines that Kim Edwards’ The Memory Keeper’s Daughter would have sold like parkas in Juneau regardless of its literary value. […]

  38. Susan Swan Says:

    I am beginning a memoir, I’d like to be another Burroughs or Sedaris except that I’m a straight white girl (except for one regrettable, hilarious. drunk girl girl experience). Hook? Working Class girl makes it big in academia, succumbs to divorce, drugs and depression by both unethical men and overprescribing doctors and my own escape from realizing I’m living my father’s dream, not my own, and finally, understanding that coming from the working class is something to revel in, to laugh about. To know that there isn’t a big happy ending because we live in the present, informed by the past, shaped by goals, but even when you think you have beat the big bad wolf, believe me, you have not. Chapters about my English chair trying to beat me up. Whole chapters about my dad farting. Whole chapters about my next door neighbor’s out of control pubic hair. Chapters about neglect and abuse, and how to survive that with humor. Breaking that chain of abuse with good will, a lack of bitterness and rage, and again, much laughter, self recrimination, and taking a step forward and two steps back. Whole chapters about a white trash funeral. Tentative title: white trash in the moonlight. Basic story: how does a geeky, silent A+ poor girl from the working class become a full-blown big time academic, tattooed from head to toe, become addicted to drugs and near death, give up the entire academic pursuit, and survive two marriages, three children, and a family which is so chock-full of ridiculous stories that I could probably write about my life forever. Unlike “The Memory Keeper’s Daughter” or “The Glass Castle,” I will not write about overcoming, but will write about living. The reason Burroughs and Sedaris succeed is their unflinching self analysis, humor, and nostalgia, even when connected to terrible things. I can do that, and I can do it well. I have enough stories for about fifteen books. I’m stuck, now, at how to begin: themed book, or introduction to me with a varied mix of stories. Whaddya think?

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