Think Like an Entrepreneur & Abby Mathews Case Study
So, the first thing, the first essential step, is to think like an entrepreneur, and I wanna talk about this for a while, 'cause to land an agent, you really have to think about your book as a product. Really, like toothpaste, like dish soap, and people hate that, because it's like this is my heart and soul that I have spent my life pouring onto the page. It is not like toothpaste or dish soap, but you really need to start thinking in this strategic way, like an entrepreneur would with their product, and to really get into that mindset, and writers hate this. I know because I work with writers all day long. It's a line in the sand that they cross, and they're like putting their toe over it, like I don't wanna go there, but you gotta go there. Today's successful authors are entrepreneurs, 100%. They're running businesses. They're being strategic. They're thinking. They've got that marketing mindset, and that's what I wanna walk you through today. My favorite quote about this comes from ...
Tim Gunn. Does anybody watch Project Runway? You guys Project Runway fans? Lots of hands, that's awesome. I love Project Runway, because it's showing the creative process. Like the writing process is like watching paint dry, watching somebody write, you know? Sitting at their computer saying, "Don't bother me." Like you can't make a TV show out of that, but to watch these people putting together fashion in real time is to watch the creative process unfold, and I just love it because the creative process is the same, whether you're making a dress or throwing a clay pot or painting a painting. It's a process just like any other, so what Tim Gunn said, he's the guy, he's like the guru on air at Project Runway, he said, "The show gave people a vocabulary "to talk about fashion, and, just as important, "it made designers use a dirty word: commerce. "Let's all wake up, everyone. "Without commerce, we have nothing." This is such a huge message for writers. You want your book to sell. You want your book to make money. You wanna quit your day job and make a living as a writer. That's what we all want, and it's possible. It's hard to do. A lot of writers make money in a lot of different ways, but you've gotta think dollars and cents and marketing, and that's what we're gonna be talking about today. So, I have, in the studio, one of my clients and friends, Abby Matthews, who we're gonna bring up and ask her a few questions, because she is right in the middle of this process of thinking strategically about her book, and she's writing middle grade fiction. It's her first novel. She's never written a novel before, and she's being coached by me, and walking her through the process is very much about getting that marketing mindset, so we're gonna walk through some of the things that Abby has done. Now, if you're writing not middle grade fiction, so let's say you're writing YA fiction or adult fiction or sci-fi fantasy, or let's say you're writing non-fiction, you're writing memoir or how-to. The steps that we're going through apply to all genres and all people, and they're the same. I work with people in every genre, and the process is exactly the same, so don't tune out if you're like oh, middle grade fiction. Well, I'm writing like a serious non-fiction thing. That has nothing to do with me. It's actually all the same, so don't discount what we're talking about with Abby. So, the first way to think strategically about your book is to think about who your ideal reader is. So, this is a handout in the class that you can fill out, and really, what I'm trying to get you to do here is to think like an entrepreneur. An entrepreneur is thinking who is my ideal target audience? Who is gonna love my product? And is my product gonna be, you know, a high priced luxury item? Is it gonna be a low priced kind of a deal item? Is it gonna be in the middle? Like where is it gonna fit in the marketplace, and in order to know that, you have to know who that person is, like really know who that person is. Not just a little bit know who that person is. Really get into who are they, and I have a line on here that is my favorite, which is what are they worrying about? What's the thing that's keeping them up at night? You know, what's their pain point? So, entrepreneurs talk about that all the time, like what's the pain point? What's the problem you're solving, and every single writer is actually solving a problem. Even if you're writing, you know, fantasy fiction about dragons, you're offering entertainment or escape or solace, or, you know, you're educating people. You're illuminating them. There's so many things that books do for us, and your book is doing something for someone, so the thing I really want you to think about is who is that someone exactly, and what is your book doing for them exactly? So, let's bring Abby up and hear what she did when she filled this out, and when you're listening to this, think about your own book, because you wanna dig down really deep into this and know this person, so Abby, come on up. So, Abby Matthews.
Where do I stand?
You can stand here. (applause)
The mic doesn't pick up a heartbeat, does it? I hope not.
So, Abby's writing middle grade fiction, and she's writing a book called Miss Shelved. At the moment, it's called Miss Shelved, and here is the form that Abby filled out for her ideal reader. It's very hard to read, and I don't expect you to read through all these words. What I wanna do is focus on what Abby did, the first thing she did, because I asked the question to name her ideal reader, and it's interesting what she did. She put Sydney, age 11, an 11 year old girl who lives in New England. Now, Sydney is a real person.
She's my real-life, actual neighbor kid.
Okay, so why did you pick your neighbor kid?
I picked my neighbor kid because she's actually very much like my main character, and as a matter of fact, as I write, oftentimes I have her in the back of my head. Everything from that is the way my main character looks to if I don't know what my main character is going to say, I think to myself, well, what would Sydney say in this situation? So, she's sort of my ideal reader by default.
Nice, okay. So, I love that she picked a specific person, right? That she can think in her head when she's stuck or thinking about what that person wants. So, why did you focus on, like why are you even writing middle grade? Why an 11 year old? You know, a lot of people would think I don't ever wanna go back to being 11. I don't wanna think about 11. Like why, for you, is that something you're drawn to write about?
Well, I actually loved middle school. I sort of identify, I think, with the plight of the middle school experience because for years, I taught ninth graders, and so I saw them as they sort of blossomed out of this sort of middle grades experience, almost into the YA experience. I saw them at the tail end, and I watched them grow, and so I really identify with that, just from my, you know, decades worth of working with those kids.
So, Abby's story has some bullying elements. Her main character's an introvert, and she described that on here, that her ideal reader is a shy, introverted kid who's not very confident and she really just wants to fit in at school. That's what she's up at night thinking about. We all know what that was like, and at the end, what Abby says is that her book will help this reader get it because the main character is gonna learn to accept herself, which is a beautiful trajectory and arc. Every story, even non-fiction, even memoir, needs to have that arc of transformation, and we see that, just in this little piece of paper, where Abby sketched out who Sydney was about and what Sydney wanted. So, will you stay here for a minute?
I could stay.
Because the next thing is okay, you've got this ideal reader. You can picture her or him. You can see what they are, what they want, what they need, what their paint point is. Now I want you to think about what other books has this ideal reader read? What books does she love? So this is market analysis. This is what an entrepreneur does. They go out and they look at the market and they look at that really carefully. What are the books on the shelf? What are they reading? What do they love? Where can my book fit into this conversation? I like to talk about books on a shelf as having a conversation, which is really cool when you think about it. When you have a book actually in your hands and it's yours and you wrote it, and it's on the shelf like, it can be on the shelf next to Shakespeare, like it's pretty great. But where your book sits on the bookstore shelf, it's talking to the other books around it, really. It's picking up. Oh, I just saw a pitch the other day for a modern retelling of Jane Austen, so that book is having a conversation, probably, with Pride and Prejudice, right? It's having conversation with that Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. Like it's having a conversation with all the Jane Austen-y sort of books, and that's what we wanna do next. To think strategically is to think what are the other books? So, Abby filled out this for Sydney, so Sydney put, I don't know if you can see them, but she put Black Beauty, Wonder, and Story Thieves.
Yeah, I texted her and asked her, well, what are your favorite books? That was pretty convenient, because she did this part for me.
So, she put Story Thieves?
No, well, I added that one in.
Okay, so you cheated, is what you're saying.
And I believe she only watched the movie Wonder. I will throw that out there, but she knew it was a book.
So, tell us why. Okay she put Black Beauty.
That was her number one.
Why did she say Black Beauty?
Well, because what middle school kid doesn't love a good horse, right? I mean, and that's pretty classic, so that really worked into my story quite well. I was actually, I don't wanna say I'm surprised by the fact that she liked Black Beauty. I just was like wow, this is really convenient, because maybe I've sort of nailed it. You know, in my book, there's a lot of classic literature references, and so I was really excited when she said that. The other book that she said that didn't make the list was Red, which was a retelling of the one with the wolf. Why am I blanking on this?
The Little Red Riding Hood. Little Red Riding Hood.
One with the wolf.
The one with the glass slipper.
Yeah, the girl with the face was in it. Yeah, but it's great, so you know, she really picked a lot of books that went along with the theme that I was trying to hit with my story.
Okay, so I'm gonna put you on the spot. Can you give us a 30 second summary of what your story is?
Just so everybody listening can see why would Black Beauty matter? Why, or maybe a retelling of Little Red Riding Hood?
Okay, so we're gonna stray off-script here.
Yeah, we are.
So, my story is about a little girl who's in middle school who feels very much like she's different. She doesn't wanna be different. She wants to fit in, but she doesn't understand why her life is so weird. Her dad is really weird. As it turns out, he is a character from a Jane Austen novel, and characters, they come out of these magic books in his library, and so what she doesn't realize is her normal is actually quite extraordinary, because she has the Oompa Loompas that paint her house, Amelia Bedelia is her housekeeper, the Little Prince is the gardener, and so she has this really extraordinary life, and the fact that Black Beauty was chosen. I actually feel really pressured now to go back and somehow work Black Beauty into the story.
So, you can see how choosing these books really starts solidifying what your story is, who it's for, what they're gonna get out of it. This is such an important step, and I wanna talk for a minute about Story Thieves, because you put that one on for a very specific reason. There's an adult book that is similar-ish to Abby's idea.
Oh, no, that's Jasper FFord.
Jasper Fford, not Story Thieves.
Oh, he's not Story Thieves.
He's sort of a kids' version, so yeah.
What's the name of his?
The Eyre Affair.
I'm so sorry, I got that wrong.
The Thursday Next novels.
But you're starting to circle around the books that are like hers, the books that her reader would want, and that's what you wanna do. You wanna get really specific about this. So, the end of this sheet has me asking what is that ideal reader gonna say when they finish your book? This is so critical for you to know, because the number one way that books are sold is by word of mouth, so I ask people to do this exercise all the time. For the next month, keep a pad of paper in your car or in your purse or in your pocket, whatever, and write down every time you hear a book that you think you wanna buy, and try to figure out where does that come from, because I promise you that, nine times out of 10, it's a friend telling you, and I don't know about you guys, but if I hear, this is what happens to me, is somebody will tell me about a book, and immediately, somebody else will tell me about the same book, and I'm like I gotta read this book, or I'll hear it on NPR, and then somebody will tell me about it. I'm like oh, I gotta read this book. That's who people learn about books. That's how they're bought and sold, so you've gotta be able to know what is your ideal reader gonna say about your book when they tell their friend? And I love what Abby wrote here, because she said, "And I thought my dad was weird." So that's what I like about this, and the other thing she said is, "I wish I had a magic library." What I love about this is that's the voice of her ideal reader, that middle school kid. That's exactly what a middle school kid would think and say, so Abby's now totally in that ideal reader's head, which is just enormously helpful when you go to pitch, because you know the universe your book is going into. It's being born into a universe, and you need to know that universe. So, you did such a good job with this. I love this.
It's the only thing you've never made me write at least twice.
We're gonna get to that when we bring Abby back to look at her query letter. We're gonna see the query letter for the book, but you'll see that all this information informs that query letter and makes it specific and awesome. So, thank you. We'll bring you back on in a minute. Thanks, Abby. (applause) She actually did a super hard thing, which is I made her describe. She didn't know I was gonna do that. I made her describe her book because you've gotta be able to describe your book. It's that elevator pitch. You did a great job, by the way. You gotta be able to get at that heart of what you're writing about, and that's the thinking strategically part as well.