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 Runner. Eventually 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: