The Chinese Restaurant

Literary agent Melissa Flashman was tweeting yesterday evening:

You may wonder what this has to do with books, but it’s all about meeting expectations in a way that sets you apart from the competition.

San Francisco (the Bay Area, as mentioned in the tweet) has a large Asian population and a well-known Chinatown. So why is it so challenging to be a Chinese restaurant there? Well, for one, the market is saturated. There are a lot of Chinese (and Thai, and Vietnamese, etc.) restaurants in San Francisco, each one offering its version of General Tso’s (or Gao’s, or however that particular restaurant decides to spell it). When there’s a lot of something—more supply than demand—how do you set yourself apart?

The second challenge is that people will already have their favorite places to eat. So these restaurants have to find ways to tempt the clientele away from their usual hangouts.

And then once they’re in the door, how do these restaurants meet the diners’ expectations? By providing what’s familiar—there’s that General Tso’s—while still somehow making it unique enough to set it apart from all the other saucy, spicy fried chicken dishes out there.

The same goes for almost anything you might market, but let’s look at books in particular. You’ve written a paranormal romance. There’s gobs of paranormal romance out there already. How will people find your book? What will make them pick it up instead of whatever is shelved next to it in the same category? And if they already like Patricia Briggs, what can you do to get them to pick up your book instead of hers (or at least after hers)? [A: Get Briggs to blurb your book, if possible, but other than that . . .]

I’m not going to say I have answers to these questions because the answers will vary by book and genre. One can’t market to individuals because everyone is different. The best one can hope to do is get a wide swath of readers with your campaign. And by thinking like a Chinese restaurant in San Francisco:

1. Make yourself attractive and inviting so that the reader chooses you out of the pile of options
2. Provide what the reader craves: something familiar BUT . . .
3. Make sure you’re giving him something unique enough, too, that he comes back for more AND recommends you to friends

It sounds easier than it is. Restaurants are notorious for opening and then folding relatively quickly because if they don’t make it in the first few weeks or months, they never will. Books have a longer, ahem, shelf life and more chances to find that readership, but with more books coming out every day, it’s increasingly difficult to rise to the top of the pile. Of course, writing a really good book helps. But every writer thinks they’ve written a really good book, or at least hopes so. And with so much noise out there, it can be hard to hear/find even the best stuff. So if you’re a writer, you’re really hoping that readers not only discover you but also share that discovery. Word of mouth, good online reviews—this is the stuff that makes or breaks restaurants. And writers.

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