top of page

How to talk about your book with confidence

Over a decade ago, I was working as a bookseller and book buyer at an independent bookstore. This was before the time of Bookstagram and BookTok and we sold books the old-fashioned way…with people walking in and discovering them or asking for a recommendation.


One day, I was working on a display table and chatting with my colleague about this book I’d read and absolutely adored. I remember saying, “I cared so much about what was going to happen to the characters.” I went on and on explaining how it felt to read that book.

A customer overheard and chimed in saying, “Excuse me, but I have to know what book you’re talking about.” When I told her, she bought the book without a second thought. The thing was, I hadn’t been trying to sell it. I had just been speaking passionately about the book.


(If you’re wondering, the book was The Invisible Bridge by Julie Orringer)


As a bookseller, and as an agent, it was my job to move people to invest in books. To pitch not just a book, but an experience. And the truth is, it’s always easier to talk about someone else’s work than it is your own.


Why does it feel so uncomfortable to talk about your own book—to shout about it from the rooftops and to be unabashed in sharing it with others? And why can it be so hard to sum up everything that makes up 70k+ words spilled from your heart?




A person in a striped shirt, holding a book in front of their face,  stands against a green background

Here’s a confession for you: I’ve hardly spoken to anyone about my book. Not my husband, not my mom, not my twin sister or my close friends. Not about any of the specifics, anyway. And I constantly find myself dreading the question: What’s it about?


And when I imagine my family and friends reading it (though it contains no real blush-inducing scenes), I hear myself justifying certain parts of it in these imaginary conversations. “Oh, well you might not like it because it’s YA.” Or “Oh well it has xyz themes and that’s not really your thing.” It’s easier to tear your own work down in your mind or to others than it is to bravely talk about the creative work you’ve spent hour pouring your heart and soul into.


Can you relate?


So we authors might be in a bit of a pickle then, aren’t we? If we actually want anyone to invest in our books—agents, editors, readers, etc.—we must learn how to talk about our work with affection and contagious joy.


Ugh—it’s so vulnerable though, isn’t it? What if the people we love, who love us back don’t like it? What if no one likes it? How can we passionately, proudly share our work with others with the constant fear of someone hating it hanging over our heads like a guillotine?

How do we silence the inner critic and feel okay offering up our art (our hearts, in other words) for rejection and criticism. More than that, how do we actually promote our books and make others want to read them?


Here are a couple of tips:


1. Revisit your “why” and your book’s heart


Why did you write your book? What about it held you hostage and pushed you through to the end? Was it a particular question you were exploring about human nature? Was it the characters who felt like friends? Was it a matter of needing to say something or make a point about the world? What is at the heart of the book? Why does it matter to you?

For me, I’m writing largely about the twin experience. Or more specifically, wanting to be seen as a complete individual when everyone only treats you like one half of a whole. Yeah it’s personal…and anyone who knows me is going to be scrutinizing it for insight and commentary on my experience—or wonder if I’m just fictionalizing my experience (I’m not). So what?


Getting comfortable talking about your reason for writing what you’re writing—or how the writing of it makes you feel—is a perfectly valid way of promoting your book. You might just tell people “I wanted to write an adventure story like the ones I used to read as a kid.”

People love hearing about what inspired writers to write their stories.


2. Write yourself a 5-star review and a query letter


When I was in grad school, one of my semester mentors had me do this activity after I finished the draft of my book. She had me imagine the best things someone could say about my book, and write it down. I swallowed down my oh-brother, no one would ever give this crap a 5-star review inner monologue, and I did what she asked. I praised the well-drawn characters, the pulse-pounding plot, the fun and adventure, the magic…everything. When I finished, she said, “See, doesn’t it feel good to have a great review?” It did feel good, but more than that, it helped me to remember the bar of excellence I was striving for. I don’t know about you, but I always have a hard time giving my book five stars.


Do other authors honestly feel like their book is a 5-star book? When Emily Henry or V.E. Schwab hand in their final drafts to their publishers do they know that their book is damn good? Maybe? Or maybe they are just doing the best they can with the knowledge and team they have.


Give yourself a good review so that you can celebrate your hard work, and help communicate what exactly you love about your book. Same goes with writing a query letter (or jacket copy). This is a fabulous exercise in succinctly trying to communicate what your book is and why someone should read it, highlighting its best attributes.


3. Remember that your book is not for everyone


There is no book out there that everyone in the world loves. Not a single one. Not DaVinci Code, not Harry Potter, not The Great Gatsby or Oliver Twist or Pride and Prejudice. It is 100% okay for your book not to appeal to everyone, and it’s a mistake to try to promote it to everybody. My Cormac McCarthy, high-brow lit-loving dad will probably not like my little YA contemporary romance and I have to be okay with that. It's not written for him. It’s written for me, and for the girls out there like I used to be when I was a teenager. Don’t focus on the people who won’t like it, focus on the readers who will.


This is why it’s important to know your audience. Figure out which agents adore the type of book you’ve written. Or what other books have an audience similar to yours. You’re writing for them. Don’t try to please everyone. Please yourself and your target audience.


And if Aunt Petunia at Thanksgiving asks what you’re writing then turns up her nose once you’ve told her, try not to take it personally. People simply have different tastes and maybe you dislike her cozy mysteries as much as she’d dislike your gruesome horror sci-fi book.


4. Bookselling 101

When it comes time to promote your book—whether that’s in a query letter or to the public—remember that you are convincing someone to invest in an experience. Do you know the opening scene of Princess Bride where the grandfather is trying to tell his grandson about the book he hopes to read to him while he’s sick? The grandson asks if the book “has any sports” in it. The grandfather responds with: “Are you kidding? Fencing. Fighting. Torture. Revenge. Giants. Monsters. Chases. Escapes. True love. Miracles.”


He didn’t mention anything about the plot…he sold his grandson an experience. A feeling. And that customer that I sold The Invisible Bridge to…she bought it because of how I conveyed how held me captive and made me bawl like a baby.


Think about the book blurbs you read on book covers…

“Had me at the edge of my seat”

“Grabbed me by throat and wouldn’t let go”

“The best book I’ve read this year”

“Didn’t see that twist coming”

“My new book boyfriend!”


Now ask yourself, how can you convey that experience to the people you tell about your book? Or in your query letter or jacket copy?


For me, when I write a pitch, I always focus on the hook—character, desire, obstacles, stakes—then leave the final paragraph to convey the heart—the story’s essence/point and the experience that it leaves with readers.


5. The hook: plot, tropes and genre, comp titles, and/or elements


Plot:

In order to convince someone to invest in your book, you must be able to succinctly convey what your book is about. I don’t mean the theme here…I mean what happens.


It’s about a post WWII army nurse from England who accidentally travels back in time to 1700s Scotland and is forced into a marriage of convenience with a strapping Highlander (Outlander)


Or: It’s about three siblings who find a hidden door in the back of a wardrobe and are transported into a magical and dangerous land. (The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe)


Or: It’s about two headstrong chefs who must compete for a coveted position at New York’s most famous sushi restaurant but that might also be falling for each other.


This is the hook. This is the story people are expecting to read. It’s the reason they might pick up your book. A great hook conveys the character, desire, obstacles, and stakes.


Tropes and genre:

The hook might also include the tropes you’re playing with: It’s a enemies-to-lovers witch-hunting fantasy. Or it’s a gothic romantasy set in the English moors. Or it’s a high-seas pirate adventure about found families. Or a second-chance romance about two struggling musicians. Or a WWII epic about the pilots who flew in Dunkirk.


None of these gives super specific information about what the plot is about, but they are pieces of the hook…they give information about what readers might expect when they pick up your book. And, ideally, it gives them a reason to pick up your book in the first place because it clearly conveys the type of book they’re getting—especially when your readers already know where their tastes lie.


Comp titles:

Another way of finding your book’s hook is through the comp titles, or the read-alikes. Say you’re writing a book that’s mishmash of two books in story and vibe (Harry Potter meets Wednesday for example). Or The Hunger Games meets Twilight. Or Pirates of the Caribbean meets The Invisible Life of Addie LaRue. Each of these mishmashes conjures a specific—or possibly intriguing—image that might hook readers into picking it up.


Elements:

Finally, your hook might be that little list of elements your book includes, like the grandfather gave in The Princess Bride.


Recently I saw Reese Witherspoon post about her latest pick and she used the “elements” hook. She described her book with these five elements: “Sisters, Emotional, Messy (in the best way), Complicated relationships, character-driven.” Or if I were to describe my book’s elements I might say: sibling rivalry, a wine-country safari resort, ex-best friends, and a bet, romance and hijinks.


Think of this like you’re trying to convey a book’s vibes to someone. Vibes are a huge—and fun—way of speaking about your book with joy. In fact, when I recently worked with a client on her query letter, one of the things we worked hard to infuse into the letter were the book’s vibes, since they’re such a big part of the reading experience. Get them into your query letter.


What I want you to understand is this: I know it can feel terrifying and extremely difficult to talk about your work, and worse, to try to convince others to invest in it, but when you’re able to speak to why you love it, your enthusiasm can be infectious. And if it’s not…well then just remember that books are not one-size-fits all. Be proud of your book, even if no one “gets” it yet. Remember, there’s a statistic out there floating around there saying that 80-something percent of people want to write a book, but that only 1% of people actually finish and publish one. If you’ve written a whole book, that’s something to be proud of!


What do you think of that, Aunt Petunia?


Want More?

First Chapter Assessment

A poorly crafted opening leads to immediate rejection and DNFs... so whether you want to publish traditionally or with an indie press, your opening pages require some extra TLC.​Don't get buried in the slush pile. For $47 I'll read your first ten pages, then give you feedback over a 30-min recorded Zoom call. In this session you'll get clear on how to make YOUR first chapter hook anyone--from agents and editors, to the average reader. Book a slot here.​​


Revision Workshop?

I'm considering putting together a small group revision workshop, in which I meet with up to six writers once a week for three months and teach them how to assess, and revise their finished manuscript. Send me a note if you're interested in joining!


Happy Writing!

Karyn

17 views0 comments

Recent Posts

See All

Comments


bottom of page