Recently I received an e-mail from a writer friend who had recently published a new book, and naturally was quite excited about it. She sent me a detailed description of the book, and finished with the following statement:
When I read that line, I wished I could reach out across the miles and give that friend a quick hug. Then, I would have sat her down and given her a heart-to-heart talk -- not about whether or not she had "failed," but about just what, exactly, "her job" really was!
Clearly, she felt that "her job" was to convince me that her book was so exciting that I just couldn't resist reading it. The blurb was well written, and I have no doubt that the book is also well written. Her previous book was short-listed for a prestigious award, so I have no doubts as to her ability.
But did the blurb make me want to rush out and buy the book? No. Does that mean that the writer "failed"? Again, no. What it means is that this writer is confused as to what her "job" actually is.
To understand why, let's look at another type of scenario. Think for a moment about the classic "breakup" sequence... boy meets girl, boy dates girl, boy leaves girl. "It isn't you," he assures her. "It's me." As an exit line, it's corny -- but in the world of writing, it's a line that we authors need to keep in mind. If I don't like your book, there's a very good possibility that it isn't you. It's me.
This particular writer prepared an excellent, detailed blurb that did a fine job of describing the characters in her book, the conflicts between them, and the general thrust of the plot. When I read it, I knew immediately that I would not particularly care to read the book -- because it's just not the right kind of book for me. It may, however, be exactly the right kind of book for you, or your neighbor, or my cousin, or... well, any number of people.
Where this writer has gone wrong is in believing that it's her "job" to be able to convince "absolutely anyone" to read her book. The problem is, there's no such thing as a general, one-size-fits-all novel. And it's lucky for us writers that there isn't. It's to our great advantage that the world of readers is composed of people with hundreds of different tastes, interests, and preferences. Even within a specific genre, such as mystery or romance, the divisions are legion. One mystery reader may prefer cozy, another hard-boiled noir. Within the "cozies," one may adore any offering that includes recipes or craft tips, while another may be annoyed by detectives who spend more time cooking (or crafting) than sleuthing. One romance reader may loathe vampires but have a thing for ghosts; another may abhor historicals but gobble contemporaries by the score.
As a writer, your "job" is not to convince a vampire-loathing romance reader that your vampire romance is the one that will change her mind. Your job is to find the readers who already love this type of novel, and convince them that your novel is to vampire romantics what "70% cocoa" is to chocoholics. If, along the way, you "convert" a reader to the genre, that's great -- but it's also gravy. It's not your primary "job."
The purpose of good PR is not to sell your book to the world. It's to sell your book to the audience for which you wrote it. No matter what you write, you already know a lot about your potential reader -- because that reader shares a lot of interests with you. If you write mysteries-with-recipes, you know the sort of taste sensations that are going to delight a reader, because they're the same sensations that you can't wait to whip up in your own kitchen. If you're writing a novel about a collector of rare books, you know exactly what sort of literary rarities will set your readers salivating.
Some people say that you should write about "what you know." Some people say that getting published is all about "who you know." But in a very real sense, "who" you know is based on "what" you know. When you start to identify what sets your book apart, what makes it special, what makes it chocolate to a chocoholic, you're also identifying who will love your book. Your "job" is to write a book for that person.
Your job is also to remember that if someone doesn't like your book, or choose to read it, very possibly it's not you. It's me. I'm just not ready for the latest vampire-chef-detective novel (with recipes). But someone out there undoubtedly is. Find them, write a book they can't resist, leave them begging for more -- and you have definitely done your job!