MERCHANDISING YOUR STORY
In today's competitive creative marketplace, the reality of selling your story--whether it is fiction or direct from life--takes more than just writing it down and waiting for someone to notice your genius. It takes a fully dedicated approach, a savvy business mind, and, more than anything, understanding exactly how the business you are trying to break into works. The fantasy of waking up one day and suddenly being on the best-seller list is unfortunately not the reality. Dan Brown was virtually an unknown until The Da Vinci Code, and now his earlier works are finding themselves on best-seller lists too. With a little luck, and a lot of hard work, you too can be a successful story merchant--someone who's not only a good storyteller, but also believes in his or her story enough to make sure it finds its market.
The starting point to success is how you think about your story from its inception. At Story Merchant (www.storymerchant.com), Atchity Entertainment (www.aeionline.com), and The Writer's Lifeline (www.thewriterslifeline.com), we think of our clients as storytellers, not as novelists or screenwriters. The biggest mistake many writers make is thinking of themselves as only a novelist, only a game inventor, only a comic book writer, only a screenwriter for film or TV. While of course it's not a poor choice to dedicate your time and your craft to the medium you are currently most adept at, our most successful storytellers hone their skill set and learn to write in all formats, or for all formats. This means crafting a story with a high concept that is adaptable to all media. A high concept is a one-line pitch that describes your story (prehistoric mega-shark terrorizes California coast - Steve Alten's Meg [book trilogy, screenplay, videogame]).
The ability to wear both hats means more success for you in this business. AEI client John Scott Shepherd wrote the screenplays for the films Joe Somebody and Life or Something Like it, which AEI produced for Fox. He's also found success in the publishing industry with his novels The Dead Father's Guide to Sex & Marriage (Pocket Books), and Henry's List of Wrongs (Rugged Land), optioned by New Line Cinema. In addition, Shepherd's television series meet with critical success. Just like any of the most passionately successful storytellers, John learned there's more than one way to tell stories. You can learn that too.
The second key is to think of your story, and yourself, as a brand that is sellable to New York and Hollywood. A brand is a product that is a household name, like Levi's or Windex, except in this case we're talking about Steven King and Steven Spielberg, James Michael Pratt ("the master of moral fiction"), Noire (“the queen of urban erotica”), or Governor Jesse Ventura (I Ain’t Got Time to Bleed, Do I Stand Alone?). When you hear the name Steven King, you know it’s about horror and suspense. You must think about yourself as a writer and the expectations of your readers in this same way. What is your brand? What are you selling to the public? Are you the person who writes those fantastic historical romances? The person who writes the mysteries centering around one character (a la Janet Evanovich's Stephanie Plum series) or the person who creates surreal fantasy for the big screen like Tim Burton? Also don’t forget to study market trends and see what’s hot right now. Aspiring book writers, fiction or nonfiction, especially should be aware that women make up seventy percent of the book buyers.
While the writing itself is the first step, the next step is being collaborative--taking notes from people who are familiar with the marketplace, and being able to improve your work; the final step is promotion and publicity. There are numerous things writers can do to spread the word and garner media attention for their product. Successful publicity can lead to brand name status:
• Securing a well-connected agent or manager is key, as they know who to talk to and how to spread your name in the industry.
• Hire a publicist. They can help you land radio or TV spots, get you interviewed in newspapers or magazines, coordinate book signings, and much more.
• Do you have something educational to share? The Learning Annex is always looking for new teachers. This avenue is a great way to share your knowledge and contribute to the world. There are Learning Annex locations in many cities across the U.S., and their bi-monthly catalog (a good place for ads!) reaches 2 million people.
• Come up with a marketing scheme. Start a website! Get your link sponsored on other websites. Write emails! Send an email to friends, family and co-workers about your product, and ask them to pass it along to everyone they know. You'll be amazed how fast word of mouth spreads!
Remember, even Shakespeare had to schmooze Queen Elizabeth to get support for his plays, and the ancient playwrights Aristophanes, Sophocles, and Euripides had to raise money each year to mount their plays competitively in the Great Athenian Festival. It takes serious effort and business savvy to thrive in this business of taking stories to market.
Above all, you must believe in your story. Romantic notions must fly out the window if you have any desire to succeed in this business. As much as writing is a solitary exercise, the business is a collaborative enterprise, and writers must be prepared to take constructive criticism, re-work plot lines, develop and adapt their tale to fit the needs of the marketplace. Remember, you are not just a writer, you are a Story Merchant.
With more than forty years’ experience in the publishing world, and over ten years in entertainment, Story Merchant Ken Atchity is a writer, producer, teacher, writing career coach, and literary manager, responsible for launching dozens of books and films. Based on his own teaching and writing experience, he has successfully built bestselling careers for novelists, nonfiction writers, and screenwriters from the ground up.