Will It Sell? Filters for Nonfiction Submissions
by Leigh Steere
Confession: I’m not a fellow publisher or an author. Instead, I am a bookworm with a background in neurolinguistics, which explores the relationship between language and attention.
At any given moment, my nightstand is cluttered with a wide array of books. Right now? Animorphs #20. Peacemaker Student Edition. Outliers. A Star Wars early reader on Podracing. Three Cups of Tea. A book on menopause. And one on management. Eclectic, eh? (I have three kids.)
I’m fairly patient—and I’m willing to plow through less-than-engaging tomes to extract pearls of wisdom from subject-matter experts. But my patience has a limit. If I start drifting off in the middle of a page—and if that happens several times—I have a rule of thumb: I stop reading and donate the book to the library fundraising shelf. Some other poor soul might have the same dry reading experience, but at least the library will be a dollar richer.
We live in a time-strapped culture where we carefully weigh how to use our precious moments of free time. “Entertainment value” has become a major selection criterion for how we spend our money and time off—and for how we select nonfiction books.
Out of curiosity, and because of my neurolinguistics training, I recently examined some yawner books to determine why they weren’t engaging. In the process, I found two filters that publishers can use in selecting and editing nonfiction manuscripts.
Test for Spinout
Definition:“Spinout” occurs when a reader mentally leaves the text to process information and then does not return to finish reading the text.
Technical explanation: Neurolinguistic practitioners teach a technique for listening and coaching that involves using nonsensory-specific language to ask questions or invite people to consider new information. For example, a listener might ask:
• What do you think should happen next?
• What do you recommend?
• What thoughts come to mind when you consider this information?
These sample questions do not contain strongly visual, auditory, or kinesthetic language. They are sensory-generic and invite the responder to access all representation systems in formulating an answer. As a result:
• The listener usually gets a richer response.
• The responder sometimes gets lost in rich thought.
In one-on-one settings, if responders get lost in thought, listeners can pull them back to the conversation with a follow-up question, such as: “You seem to be processing something. Can you share what’s on your mind?”
But what happens if a sensory-generic question or statement in a book prompts the reader to get lost in rich thought? Sometimes, the reader does not return to the text.
Example:“Both overuse their natural style and become less effective.”
Diagnosis: This sentence is concise, clear, and technically perfect. But can you make a picture of what this means in your mind? Or can you imagine how it sounds or feels? No. It is sensory-generic and poses a risk for spinout.
When readers spin out, those who do not absolutely need the information in a book may set the book aside. They may conclude (consciously or unconsciously) that the book is taking too long to read and they may opt for another book or activity. They may decide the book is “dry” and not recommend it to others.
Rx: If you find yourself spinning out while reading a nonfiction manuscript, look carefully at the language. If it is sensory-generic, you can determine how much effort will be required to infuse visual, auditory, and kinesthetic language. By shifting the balance between types of illustrations and language, you may be able to increase the book’s chances of success (see the chart below).
By the way, you probably spun out a little bit while reading this section. How did it feel?
Assess Emotional Neutrality
Definition: Something that appeals to the head more than the heart.
Technical explanation: Closely related to spinout, emotional neutrality stems from both language usage (sensory-generic is emotionless) and the way concepts are illustrated verbally.
A number of years ago, a researcher attempted to quantify the components of human communication. These were the results:
• 55 percent of human communication is visual (seeing body language, gestures)
• 38 percent is nonverbal auditory (tone of voice, tempo of speech, etc.)
• 7 percent occurs through the words themselves
A book always achieves the 7 percent mark. Depending on the amount of sensory-specific language it uses and the types of explanations and examples it offers, a book may also harness some portions of the 55 percent and 38 percent categories. When a publisher can move a nonfiction manuscript from 7 percent to a higher number, the book will be more compelling and salable.
Example:“The separator is the rate-limiting component in a lithium-ion battery. The porosity of the separator determines how easily ions can flow back and forth between the battery’s anode and cathode. Higher porosity means freer ion flow with less internal resistance.”
Diagnosis: If I’m an engineer, I can make a mental picture from this statement—but it is not in any way emotionally riveting. And if I’m not an engineer, I will just zone out.
Rx: Here is a different version of the example above: “Many U.S. cities have toll roads where drivers pay a fee to use the road. . . . During rush hour, E-ZPass® drivers whiz through the toll plaza at 45 miles per hour, while the manual lines crawl at a snail’s pace.
“Until recently, separators were the rate-limiting component in a battery. Ions bunched up, waiting to pass through the separator—moving at speeds that mimic the manual toll-booth lines during rush hour. And just as cars can overheat while idling on a warm summer day, ions that aren’t able to pass easily and quickly through the separator cause heat buildup in the cell.”
Most readers have experienced the frustration of waiting at a toll plaza. By offering this metaphor, the author piggybacks on the emotional rise that comes from thinking about highway experiences.
The chart below describes 10 different types of language usage, as well as their potential to hold readers’ attention. As you review and edit manuscripts, you can use this chart to diagnose a book’s readability and its selling potential. The key to success with nonfiction is creating an engaging mix from these 10 types.
A few notes about this chart:
• The arrows indicate a spectrum, with least potential for reader spinout/greatest entertainment value at the top and greatest potential for reader spinout/least entertainment value at the bottom.
• Numbers 1 through 4 are mostly self-explanatory. Here’s an example of “identity revealed” versus “anonymously”: “redheaded fireball Jane Smith, CEO of Electronic Widgets” is more captivating than “a CEO of a midsized electronics manufacturer.”
• The E-ZPass illustration above is a good example of #5. The author connects the dots for the reader by overtly describing the similarity between car overheating and heat buildup in a battery. In #6, the meaning of the metaphor is implied and not stated. Without an overt explanation, some readers may miss the full implications of the metaphor.
• Number 7: “I had always been a star performer academically and in my working life, so this bucket of ice water caught me by total surprise.” In this example, the metaphor is used as a substitute for the phrase “difficult conversation.”
• Number 8 is a sentence or paragraph with visual, auditory, and kinesthetic language. For example: “Our clerk can see all the grapes in one glance when he opens the lid. Mr. Jones explains the link between the store’s brand image and the good-looking produce.”
• Number 9: “Inspectors and grocers can see all the grapes in one glance” (visual only), or, “The full pallet was too heavy” (kinesthetic only).
• Number 10 is covered in depth earlier in this article (see “Test for Spinout”).
If a manuscript is not engaging you, choose a particularly dry paragraph or two and compare each sentence with the chart. You’ll likely discover that most sentences fall into categories 9 and 10.
Very few books will use all 10 types. For example, it is often an editorial mistake to mix first-person and third-person stories. So experiment with adjusting the language and illustrations to reflect four or five categories—and notice how the book comes to life.
You may be able to refine a less-than-engaging tome into gold.
Leigh Steere is on the product development team for Ripple, a Web-based audio player that lets adults make personalized audio recordings of children’s picture books for the special kids in their lives. A previous co-owner of NLP Comprehensive, a global leader in neurolinguistics training, she can be reached at 888/339-0950 and firstname.lastname@example.org.