Get Them Hooked On Your Book

A hook is a one-line zinger that describes your book in a way that would let anyone’s grandmother in Topeka understand not just what the book is about but why she should buy it.

Without one, it’s very difficult to sell a book to a publisher. That’s because the editor your agent approaches at the publishing house has to sell the manuscript to her colleagues, and the publishing house has to sell it to the reader.

The author who has just cranked out a 75,000-word manuscript may have a hard time distilling the essence of that book into 25 words. (“Hard time” may be an understatement: if you could say it in 25 words, would you have written 75,000?) But without a hook, your book could languish unpublished on your hard drive.

So how do you create a hook? Enlist some help.

Method I

First, find five or six people who are familiar with the genre you’re writing in. Give them copies of your manuscript and ask them to complete the sentence “This book is in the tradition of…” with the names of the best-selling books or authors they think are most like yours.

You can also work on this exercise yourself. Is your book a cross between two bestsellers, or even two best-selling genres? Tee Morris describes his novel Billibub Baddings and the Case of the Singing Sword as “The Lord of the Rings if Mickey Spillane had written it.”

Method II

Next, find some grandmothers in Topeka and ask them to read your manuscript. (Unless, of course, the grandmothers of Topeka are the experts in the area you’re writing in; the point is to find people who know next to nothing about your subject area.)

The feedback of the totally ignorant is helpful for many reasons. For one thing, if they don’t understand the book at all, it’s a sign that your book isn’t suited to a general audience. Some books (say an advanced physics text) aren’t aimed at the general public or meant for mass-market distribution—but those books don’t usually need a hook in the same way commercial books do. Unless you’re only selling to specialists, make your writing clear enough so anyone can understand it.

Don’t provide your test readers with any background about your book; the point is to get them to tell you what the book is about. Invite them to compare it with movies, TV shows, or other works of popular culture—the more popular, the better. Another good question to ask, particularly for nonfiction, is “What can people who read this book do that they couldn’t do before they read it?”

The Results

Your test readers may not describe your book in anything like the terms you would have used yourself. It’s also possible that no two of them will agree on which other books are most like yours.

If every single reader gets your book “wrong,” then you may want to take another look at the manuscript. (This is also true if every agent or editor who rejects it mentions the same problem.) If one or two people completely misunderstand what you meant but the rest seem to “get it,” don’t worry about the discrepancies.

Distilling

It’s possible that among your test readers you had a brilliant guinea pig who came up with an absolutely perfect hook. If so—congratulations: you’re ready to go. But even if you don’t think any of the descriptions or comparisons you got back is exactly right, you have something to work with. You can look at what you’ve gotten and say “No, it’s not like Lord of the Rings, it’s more like Narnia” (to extend Tee’s metaphor a bit further). Or even, “It’s not like Lord of the Rings; it’s like The Da Vinci Code.”

When you have a hook you think will work, try it out on a few people and see how they react. If the response isn’t “Wow, that’s interesting, tell me more!” (or better yet “I need that book!”), brainstorm about how you can refine it.

When you come up with a line with the impact of a left hook to the jaw and the effect of a grappling hook pulling potential readers in, you’re ready to go fishing for publishers.

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