Selling stories is not much different than selling anything else. As a writer turned acquisitions editor and now literary agent, I learned that the hard way. It’s not enough to write a great story; to sell that story you have to be able to milk its selling points and eliminate the obstacles to selling it.
WHAT ARE YOUR SELLING POINTS?
Here are some of the selling points that might/should apply to your story.
USP stands for Unique Selling Proposition. That is, what makes your story unique.
As in these X Meets Y loglines:
- Castaway on Mars = USP for Andy Weir’s The Martian
- Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine meets Columbo = USP for Nita Prose’s The Maid
- RED meets Assisted Living = USP for Richard Osman’s The Thursday Murder Club
What sets your story apart from the others of its ilk? What are your comparable titles? How can you articulate your USP in your pitch? What’s your X Meets Y? How soon in your story do you make the USP clear in your story? These are questions to which you should have good answers if you want your work to break out in today’s tough marketplace.
Who is the hero of your story? What is their superpower? Why will readers relate to this character? In The Maid, the neurodivergent clean-obsessive heroine Molly Gray is the story’s biggest selling point. She sees what others fail to see—and everyone around her underestimates her, just like her hero Columbo. We fall in love with Molly right away—and happily follow her through her trials and tribulations until The End.
In the best stories, the setting is a critically important character. There are a million stories set in New York City, for example, but in the best stories we see a different NYC: Tom Wolfe’s NYC in The Bonfire of the Vanities, Candace Bushnell’s NYC in Sex and the City, Katy Hays’ NYC in The Cloisters. How do you make your setting your own? In The Martian, Andy Weir shows us Mars up close and personal—and it’s riveting.
High-concept plots sell: Big Shark terrorizes small town (Jaws). Serial killer who only kills other serial killers (Darkly Dreaming Dexter). A white father and a black father set out to avenge the murder of their married gay sons, from whom they were estranged (Razorblade Tears).
Give me a high-concept plot we haven’t seen before, and I’m one happy agent. Because that’s a selling point few editors, publishers, reviewers, readers can resist. Is your plot a selling point?
Voice is half the battle. Give us a voice we haven’t heard before—Holden Caulfield in The Catcher in the Rye, Esch Baitiste in Salvage the Bones, Ava in Swamplandia!—and we’ll follow that voice anywhere. Think of Remarkably Bright Creatures, in which Shelby Van Pelt stunningly pulls off writing from the point of view of an octopus named Marcellus. If people tell you that you have a strong voice, you’re on your way—just make sure you have a plot to go with it.
If your personal or professional life informs your story in a meaningful way, that can be a selling point. Maybe you’re a retired homicide detective writing a police procedural, or a high school teacher writing a contemporary YA novel, or an immigrant writing a family saga about an immigrant family. If your life feeds and fuels your work, that could be a selling point.
WHAT ARE YOUR SALES OBSTACLES?
As an agent, I have a front-row seat to rejection. Here are the most common complaints editors make when passing on a project:
“We’ve seen this a million times before.”
Drugs, sex trafficking, alcoholic cops, opening with your heroine waking up, office meetings, dreams, yadda yadda yadda. Anything we’ve seen a million times before is an obstacle to selling your work. Find a way to make it new.
“I just didn’t fall in love with the protagonist.”
Unlikable protagonists are harder to sell than likable protagonists. If your hero isn’t likable, at least make him admirable in some way. Give readers a reason to read about him.
Also: Your protagonist needs to be pro-active. Your heroine should drive the action from beginning to end. We need to see her overcome the challenges and obstacles she faces to become a stronger, smarter, wiser version of herself. Give her a compelling character arc.
“The pacing is off.”
Pacing is one of the biggest reasons good writers fail to sell their work. Often pacing problems come down to:
- The beginning is too slow.
- The middle is too muddled.
- The ending is too rushed/cliff-hanging/ambiguous.
Check your pacing for the above—and pick it up!
“I don’t know how to sell this.”
If your story does not fall neatly into a genre or sub-genre, agents, editors, publishers will not know how to sell it and readers will not know where to find it. No one will know what to do with it. Unless you’re the next Gregory Maguire or the next Diana Gabaldon, who created their own genres. But odds are what you’ve done is a mishmash of genres, not a new genre. And it’s hard to sell a mishmash.
The aforementioned complaints are, in effect, obstacles to the sale. Ask yourself if any apply to your work—and eliminate them before you try to shop it.
SELL, SELL, SELL
When I talk to clients about their work, I talk in terms of selling points and sales obstacles. (This very post was inspired by two recent conversations with writers about their stories.) Once you’ve identified the selling points in your story, you can capitalize on them. The same goes for the obstacles to selling your story: Identify them, and then eliminate them.
Armed with strong selling points and unburdened by obstacles, you’ll be ready to query agents and editors—and be this much closer to a publishing deal.