How Being an Outsider Can Boost Your Sales
by Leonard Felder
Fourteen years ago, I was touring for my sixth book when I had an idea for a self-help guide on how to be “positively sensitive.” Based on my work as a licensed psychologist and many conversations with friends and colleagues, I estimated there might be millions of men and women who have been told by their families or their bosses, “You’re too sensitive.” Yet being sensitive can be a crucial asset, especially if you want to be successful in a long-term relationship or a career that deals with sensitive issues.
But my (former) literary agent and my (former) publisher both said, “No way.” They insisted there was no such thing as “positively sensitive” and that there was no possible market for a book on the topic. Then two years later another therapist, Elaine Aron, wrote an excellent book called The Highly Sensitive Person. It quickly sold hundreds of thousands of copies and created networking groups for positively sensitive people all over the world.
That was the last time I allowed a mainstream agent or a mainstream publisher to dictate what qualified or didn’t qualify as available niche market. I’ve found repeatedly that independent publishers (as well as their authors, marketing directors, and sales staff) are much more open and innovative about reaching sizeable niche markets than the mainstream folks.
Since most independent publishers know what it’s like to be an outsider in the industry and/or in some other area, it occurred to me my new book might resonate for people in small publishing companies. Fitting In Is Overrated is subtitled The Survival Guide for Anyone Who Has Ever Felt Like an Outsider, and some brainstorming techniques I developed to market it should help any independent publisher, author, marketing staff member, or publicist.
These sales-boosting techniques include:
Ask yourself who are the 10 specific people in your life who would respond to your book title with a spontaneous, “Omigod, that’s me, I need that book.” Then do some research to come up with a list of the groups, networks, and involvements each of these 10 people enjoy most, because the items on that list will reveal 100 or more places that will be interested in spreading the word about your new book.
For example, when I began to tell friends, colleagues, and relatives about Fitting In Is Overrated, the strongest “Omigod, that’s me, I need that book” reactions came from a few particular types of people.
First, there were parents of kids who don’t fit in easily at school and in social situations. When I interviewed them and made a list of all the groups, networks, and involvements of these caring parents, I quickly had a marketing plan for reaching 100 different school counselors, social-skills-group leaders, child advocates, teen afterschool program coordinators, support hotlines, and parent education programs. Connecting with each of these caring professionals and family members has led to numerous speeches, newsletter articles, blog mentions, and people willing to inform other people about the book via email.
Second, there were friends, colleagues, and relatives who responded strongly to the title because they felt like outsiders where they work. When I listed all their groups, networks, and involvements, I quickly had a marketing plan for reaching 100 different email lists, creative organizations, networking groups, coaching professionals, and bloggers who are dedicated to helping innovative people deal with uncongenial work situations in a variety of fields.
Anyone can learn about the numerous involvements of their top 10 friends, colleagues, and relatives who love their books by having a brief one-on-one lunch or lively phone conversation with each of them individually, or perhaps by hosting a brainstorming focus group with several of these people at once so that the ideas of one person will stir up good ideas from the others as well.
Brainstorm with some extremely honest people in your niche market to see whether your title, your first chapter, and/or your description of the book on the cover make them feel connected to your book, or unsure about whether to buy it.
Because title, cover, and opening text must stimulate a quick, strong, emotional response to get a person browsing in the bookstore to want to take a book up to the checkout stand and buy it, you need to know ahead of time if there are some resistances or problems. Quite often you might think you’ve got the right title, cover, opening paragraphs, and jacket descriptions, but the reader is getting cold feet.
For example, at first I thought the title of my new book should be The Outsider’s Gift (because the book is about discovering how the creative or innovative ideas that make you an outsider in conventional settings are actually a gift to the people you later will be inspiring or helping with your hard-earned outsider insights).
But when I tested that title on 20 extremely honest friends, colleagues, and relatives, I found it was causing problems; it required a lot of explanation before a person could respond with, “Omigod, that’s me, I need that book.” Some of the people who didn’t respond quickly to The Outsider’s Gift were definitely outsiders in their family, at work, or in certain groups. Yet they didn’t feel comfortable thinking of themselves as outsiders; they didn’t believe at first that being set apart from the mainstream was a gift in disguise, and they imagined they might be hesitant about taking a book with that title up to a stranger at the checkout stand.
So we changed the title to Fitting In Is Overrated, and suddenly the rebellious, positive, sassy tone of that title caused people to say, Yeah, that’s me. I’ve tried fitting in. It stinks. I’m ready to start putting together my own creative tribe instead of twisting myself into a pretzel trying to fit into some existing clique.
Use your own experience as an outsider to open doors to people who probably wouldn’t respond to you if you were just blandly normal.
When you are seeking endorsements from prominent people for the back cover, or working to get magazines to do articles about your book, or radio show hosts to have the author as a guest, don’t approach them as if you are a stuffy expert or a standard-issue professional. In your pitch letters, phone calls, or emails, make a personal, well-informed connection to these individuals and let them know why you and they are together in the same struggle. Give them a specific example of how much you care about the things they are committed to improving in this broken world.
When I was seeking endorsements for Fitting In Is Overrated, I quickly got several favorable blurbs saying this was an innovative survival guide for adults who sometimes don’t fit in but whose creative ideas deserve to be taken seriously. Yet I also needed an endorser who could connect with teens and moms of teens (who might want to buy the book for their sons and daughters who are creative or smart but shunned by the jocks and cheerleaders).
So I sent a personal letter to the writer Meg Cabot, who portrays outsiders versus insiders in each of her bestselling books for teens (including The Princess Diaries, which became a film with Anne Hathaway). As I’ve found with my other books as well, even some of the busiest and most famous writers and experts will respond generously if you address them personally in terms of a common bond, of fighting to resolve a common set of injustices and insensitivities. I was extremely pleased a few weeks later when Meg Cabot wrote a wonderful endorsement of my new book that now is connecting it with millions of her fans.
The same thing happens with query letters and emails to magazine writers, newsletter editors, and Internet bloggers. I’ve found that if a publishing company sends out a nonspecific and impersonal form letter to these busy individuals, it gets tossed into a pile. But if you truly like what a person writes and you address this important individual warmly and personally on a topic both of you are passionate about, then a bond quickly forms, and the writer may well be more likely to do an inspiring article about you and your topic. It’s especially helpful if you point out the precise pages and paragraphs in your book that relate to the passionate concern you share with this individual (obviating the need to read 200 or more pages to find those gems).
Groucho Marx once said, “I would never join a club that would have me as a member.” But finding the passionate allies for your book requires first that you admit you are a vulnerable member of a specific tribe that society tries to marginalize. Then you need to reach out to other members of your vulnerable niche tribe, who probably will feel great about doing something helpful on your behalf and reaching people who will benefit from what your book has to say.
Leonard Felder is a licensed psychologist. His 11 books have sold more than a million copies and been translated into 15 languages. For more information about Fitting In Is Overrated: The Survival Guide for Anyone Who Has Ever Felt Like an Outsider, visit fittinginisoverrated.com.