Our guest today is Lynne Griffin, author of the family-focused novels Girl Sent Away, Sea Escape, and Life Without Summer, as well as the nonfiction parenting guides Let’s Talk About It: Adolescent Mental Health and Negotiation Generation—Take Back Your Parental Authority Without Punishment. Lynne is a counselor who teaches family studies at Wheelock College, and she is the Social-Emotional Learning Specialist and Coordinator of Parent and Professional Programs for an independent school in Boston. She teaches fiction writing at GrubStreet in Boston and facilitates their program for soon-to-be published authors called Launch Lab.
Whether you’re closing in on a final draft or about to launch your novel, you will need clarity about what makes your novel stand out from other fiction on the market.
Standing Out on the Crowded Shelf—How to Help Your Fiction Find an Audience
For the novelist, the first introduction to the concept of the “crowded shelf” usually comes in the form of a rejection letter. I don’t know a writer who hasn’t been told that their story simply won’t stand apart from other works of fiction on the market. Yet even when you find your champion—the agent or editor who believes in your story enough to bet on it—you’ll still be asked to play a leading role in positioning your novel for discoverability.
Likely you’ve heard writers lament about the high expectations publishers have for today’s author, to participate in (or some cases own) the publicity and marketing efforts related to their novel. Very few writers can pull a Salinger or a Ferrante, getting away without promoting their work at all. But instead of focusing on the good ole days of publishing, when someone other than you lined up book events or secured interviews and profiles, I urge you to turn your attention to the things you can do to position your novel to stand out and find an audience.
Begin by reflecting on your top two or three goals for your novel. Whether you want to entertain or enlighten certain readers or you have something to add to a particular discussion, be sure you have clarity around your intentions. If you don’t know what you’re after, it will be difficult to create a campaign to reach the right readers. For my new novel Girl Sent Away, I knew I had a lot to say about the crisis in our adolescent mental health system. By articulating my mission to create a conversation around building resilience and nurturing empathy—really owning what I had to contribute—I was able to outline my novel’s key themes. Honing my message allowed me to imagine the communities of readers who might be interested in joining the conversation.
Believe it or not, another way to get at your novel’s uniqueness, is to identify its competition. For writers of nonfiction, agents and editors pinpoint comps all the time in an effort to show publishers and booksellers where a book fits into the literary ecosystem. It’s also a way to say how a book differs from similar work already published. This exercise benefits the fiction writer too. Booksellers and readers make book-to-book connections all the time, so you may as well point them in the right direction. (For example, if you liked Girl, Interrupted by Susannah Kaysen and White Oleander by Janet Fitch, you’ll love Girl Sent Away.)
Identifying your novel’s comps affords you the luxury of learning what other writers do to get above the noise. I encourage you to follow your favorite authors on social media, compare and contrast their websites with what you had in mind for your own, and look at the types of events like-minded authors participate in. Find a good set of author role models and learn from their experiences.
Once you’ve done your mission homework and have a clearer sense of what makes your novel special, now you have to put that uniqueness into words. It’s not enough to say you wrote a novel about teenagers and mental health and parenting, you have to describe the story in a way that makes readers buy, booksellers shelve, radio producers book—well, you get my point. There’s more than one way to pitch your novel and it depends entirely on the audience. You’ll need a one-liner for that cocktail party with friends and family. A solid paragraph for radio and television pitching. And a more lengthy description for your website.
To describe your book accurately, it helps to know your novel’s subject categories. If your story doesn’t naturally fit into a genre like romance, thriller, or mystery, then go online to the bookseller of your choosing to find the subject categories publishers choose for the Library of Congress. Mine are family, psychology, adolescents.
It’s a reality that getting attention for your novel will be challenging. If you’re to compete with the other forms of entertainment available at the press of a button, then you’ll need to create a campaign that gives readers more than just twenty minutes of you reading aloud and then talking about your writing process. Here are a few ideas for getting readers more engaged.
Tie your novel to social issues. Fiction is a powerful vehicle for raising awareness about all kinds of social and emotional issues. Consider what your novel has to say about culture, society, and relationships. And then be sure to let readers know that’s what your story is about.
Make your events an experience. Whether you enhance your story with music or art, or connect your novel to a cause, give your readers a chance to get connected to your mission.
Partner with other writers. Conversations are always richer when they include multiple points of view. Reach out to writers whose work shares your sensibilities and then join forces, creating events to draw larger crowds. While it will come as no surprise that larger crowds sell more books, the real beauty of reading with other writers is that it’s less pressure and more fun.
Create supplementary materials. Some writers use bookmarks and postcards to great effect, but what I’m really suggesting here is that you create complementary materials that enhance your specific novel. At my first publicity meeting to discuss the campaign for Girl Sent Away, it became clear that one of my goals was to engage parents, teachers, and teens in conversations about mental health with the goal of building empathy, nurturing perspective-taking, and strengthening emotional resilience. It was my publisher’s brilliant idea that I write the companion guide to Girl Sent Away called Let’s Talk About It—Adolescent Mental Health. Now my efforts have more clarity—to engage schools and social service agencies in book events that focuses on the power of fiction to teach.
It’s true you will need to roll up your sleeves and work hard to get attention for your fiction. Yet if you position your work authentically and accurately, you’re much more likely to find your readers—and for them to find you.
What are some ideas you have to help your fiction find an audience—to stand out on the crowded shelf?