Curb Appeal: Staging your Literary Work

Curb Appeal: Staging your Literary Work

What is curb appeal?

According to the real-estate business, curb appeal is what potential buyers see first when they drive up to your property that’s for sale. It “embraces everything between your front door and the street” (per the MyHomeIdeas site).

That site goes on to note: “It doesn’t take much to make dramatic style improvements.” Tips include adding flower boxes or a nicer mailbox, trimming the shrubs, etc.

“With a little faith in your vision, and a few tips from the pros,” they say, “you can transform a dowdy exterior to an inviting, welcoming entranceway.”

Well . . . same for your manuscript.

Like staging a house for sale, to prepare your work to pitch to others, think more about the buyer’s interests. What will draw them in off the street and get them in the door?

Yes, you’re terribly fond of that wildflower patch in the yard, or the abstract painting in the foyer, but will it turn off a group of potential buyers before they get far inside? Will they really love your herb garden . . . or see it as a nightmare to maintain? That family photo means so much to you . . . but take it down . . . if you want to let buyers enter and imagine themselves in the home as their own.

We’re talking metaphorically, about your writing.

What are common techniques to “stage” your work for curb appeal?

1. For god’s sake, clean up the place. Fix the most visible problems!

2. Consider: what is the likely audience? And what do they want in a reading experience?

3. How do I attract the quick look online, the drive-by eyeballing of the place, the noncommittal “check-it-out” tour?

4. Are you able to stage it yourself? Or would you benefit from the help of a professional?
Literary agents, book doctors, and editorial consultants – like me – do a lot of “staging”; we think about how your work will appeal to readers (other than you!) and how to put its best foot forward.

To stage your manuscript, here are a few quick ideas.

1. Does the tentative title appeal to your audience?
Have you tested it vs. other possible titles with a small group? Seriously, the best title isn’t the one you like, but the one that attracts others who don’t know anything about what’s inside the work. I often go to a bookstore for this; bookstore staff, if they have a minute, often have great insight into which title might appeal more than another.

2. Have you written a compelling, brief – but confident and impressive – bio of you as author?

3. Do you have any evidence of testimonials or feedback from typical users/readers, any indication of interest from others?
Or evidence of comparable sales of nearby, truly similar properties?

4. How compelling is the first page or two, really?
Would you buy the book, or invest more time to examine it, based on the first paragraphs?

5. If nonfiction, is the table of contents clear and revealing of what’s inside?
Maybe it’s just me, but I shy away from cute chapter titles; I think it shows a lack of understanding of how a book sells and what a reader wants in a table of contents . . . not to be amused by your cleverness . . . they want to know what the book’s about and be able to find things in it!

6. Personally, I am a fan of the good epigraph quote.
These are placed at the front of the book. The epigraph to Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov is from the Bible. “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit.”

A clever epigraph, maybe an intriguing, pertinent quote from a literary giant of the past, is like that trim and colorful flowerbox . . . it doesn’t turn anyone off, but attracts those who enjoy those things.

7. A preface, by a famous person, is generally a good thing.
People know they can skip it, that it’s not essential to the work and was written afterward by someone else. It will impress some, and be quickly skipped by others.

8. A prologue by the author, on the other hand, is not always as good an idea as it seems (especially for fiction).
If it’s there, it should be brief, and very intriguing. If it’s too long, it’s hard to skip, but slows things down from the start instead of plunging the reader into the work. To me, it just raises the question of why you feel the reader needs to know some background before starting the real story.

9. A great pitch paragraph is always appreciated by everyone.
Can you sum up your book in 3-4 paragraphs? Or your story or article in a line or two? A good pitch identifies the neighborhood (genre) of the work, and the style, and mentions a couple of great features that everyone is sure to love. Is it a bungalow or a ranch-style or a brownstone? And how many bathrooms?

Buyers don’t want to hear: “it’s hard to describe” or “it’s a unique combo Tudor/bungalow/ranch.” Most buyers will say “Yikes!” and look elsewhere.

So . . . pretend for a moment that you’re starting to consider buying a house. What do you scan for? When you’re ready to check out a specific property, what do you want to see as you approach?

A nice description of the property? A good neighborhood? A successful broker showing it? A well-kept front yard? A few points of appeal as you enter? A welcoming feel? Nothing to turn you off before you get too far? A sense that the place might fit you?

Now, think of your manuscript as that property.

What’s the literary curb appeal?

Yes, eventually, it’s a matter of the quality of your writing. But if you don’t get them to look at the place, you aren’t going to sell it.

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