Give Your Writing Buzz Appeal

by Anne Hart
The Internet Writing Journal, July 1999
In Multicasting/Webcasting, as in publishing, books are sold on buzz. You don't sell your manuscript by sending it randomly over the Internet or into a slush pile at a publishing house. You develop buzz appeal. You find publicity for your unpublished scripts or book manuscript on disk by putting your writing into a newsletter, electronic or print, and sending both versions to a newspaper reporter of a national newspaper. Also try a magazine, but try the newspaper first. To select a reporter, find out who is writing a story similar to your manuscript or who has recently written a similar angle or story.

If your writing is honest and dramatic, it will appeal to the newspaper reporter who is writing on a subject similar to yours. If that reporter from a national newspaper or other national publication with a very wide circulation writes about your story or interviews you and incorporates passages into the reporter's piece, quoting your story--fiction or biography--you have a great chance of publishers and agents contacting you. Usually, it will be an agent who is willing to bid your story to publishers.

As an example, in August of 1985, San Diego Tribune reporter, Bob Kaiser ran a story about me from an interview. He quoted some of my writing and even photographed a poem I'd written that hangs on the wall of my home-based office. The several paragraphs he mentioned of my fiction writing and poem, plus the photo of the entire poem, added "buzz" appeal as he wrote a two-page biography of me as a writer, focusing on personal experiences and incorporating quotes from my writing.

The article appeared in a large daily newspaper and soon was picked up on the wire services. I received calls from all over, including one from a Hollywood agent interested in the screenplay I was writing, that Mr. Kaiser touched upon in his article about me. Within a few days, I was invited up to Hollywood to see the agent (screenplay and novel in hand) and signed a two-year contract.

At least my work was considered. This would not have happened if I had sent my book over a transom to a publisher. The slush pile contains thousands of manuscripts that don't get the same royal carpet treatment or credibility and visibility that the "buzz" appeal of having a reporter write about you lends to your work. Your writing gets sold based on its buzz in national newspapers. That's what appeals to agents and publishers who bid up your manuscript in an auction.

Here's a famous example. Jessie Lee Foveau, at the age of 98, sold her memoir for a million dollars, and she had never published before. She sold her book and movie rights. Was it luck or buzz appeal? The Life of Jessie Lee Brown from Birth up to 80 years had been written in longhand for an adult education class in writing for senior citizens writing their life stories.

In fact, she wrote the book manuscript 18 years before it found a market. How did she get it auctioned to competing book publishers and movie producers? How did she find her agent, Laurie Liss?

Her life story is all about how she, as a battered wife married to an alcoholic husband, managed to raise eight children alone after leaving her husband and how hard she struggled to put food on the table. It is because she is from Kansas and spends her time knitted cross-shaped bookmarks for her church members that the story has universal appeal to agents.

It's hard to find an agent who is willing to take on a 98-year old great great grandma and sell her life story for a million dollars. Foveaux wrote her memoir back in 1979 when friends encouraged her to enroll in an adult education writing class. Her writing teacher, Charley Kempthorne, a writing teacher who also is a farmer, gave out assignments to the senior citizens in the class to write the story of their lives.

Foveaux even protested to her writing teacher at adult school that she didn't have the time to write. He insisted that she make the time and encouraged her to write. She took his advice and brought in her assignments each week with up to four thousand words of her life story.

In her memoirs, she noted the details of how she spent her childhood, the characters who inhabited towns in which she lived, and details of her relatives. Then she started on a narrative and got to the deeper story of her life and first love who was killed in World War I, and how another man, a neighbor, began to court her. She told of how they married and how he physically abused her and became an alcoholic. She stuck by him and had six children, but her construction worker husband continued to drink heavily. She wrote how her son kept her husband from physically abusing her. Foveaux worked as a grocery clerk and other jobs to support all her children. In 1940, she finally divorced her husband.

What in this story differed from the thousands of memoirs that are written by seniors in adult education classes? Was it about writing of how her pride was beaten down by an unhappy marriage she stayed in for more than 20 years? (Her husband eventually died of cancer.) She wrote about being "a darned slave with no pay," instead of a wife. It's this story that brought in a million dollars from publishers, plus movie rights. How did this story differ from the others?

The visibility or "buzz" appeal began with Foveaux's writing teacher who put her writing in his newsletter that contained the writing of all the students in the senior citizen writing class. By mailing the newsletter to Clare Ansberry of The Wall Street Journal, this reporter created the "buzz" that pushed the book to be sold to major publishers for a lot of money.

There had to be a reason why the newsletter went to this particular reporter at The Wall Street Journal. After all, most people think of The Wall Street Journal as a financial newspaper full of articles on stocks, investments and mergers. The newspaper's focus is far removed from a senior citizen's memoirs of raising a large family in an unhappy marriage, yet it made the perfect forum -- if considered using three dimensional thinking.

Kempthorne, the writing teacher, had read a previous article in The Wall Street Journal by Clare Ansberry. The reporter wrote an in-depth article on senior citizens that attracted the interest of the writing teacher in the Midwest. He sent the article to the reporter because it emphasized the commitment to family and faith. To create buzz, your writing must have some redemptive value to a universal audience. That's the most important point.

Ansberry was drawn to the writings of the 98-year old woman because it had such redemptive value to create buzz. Now the reporter had to develop more buzz around the manuscript to give it momentum, to move it along the pipeline for all the right connections.

The more Ansberry enthused over the Foveaux's writings, the more she wrote about her work. It had two simple messages: Foveaux did the best she could do under the circumstances, and she trusted in her faith. She cared for her family. Ansberry ran a front-page story on March 7, 1997.

Offers from publishers immediately flooded the writer. A lawyer hired by the writer's relative helped to find a literary agent to look at all the publisher's offers and select the best one. Liss is the agent for The Bridges of Madison County by Robert Waller. When 20 publishers called and 20 movie producers, offering six-figure movie contracts, the power of buzz--of credibility created through visibility to the major national press--spun into action.

The point is that without "buzz" (as they say in the publishing world), this book would not have gotten the attention it deserved. Senior citizens writing very similar memoirs who send their manuscripts over a transom into a publisher's slush pile would be ignored in most cases, even though publishers always tell writers they always are looking for good books.

No matter how great your storytelling is, unless you find someone to buzz you into the national press, you aren't going to be noticed that easily. The story not only has buzz appeal, but it came at a time when stories of middle America women trying to hold a family together and put bread on the table is in vogue. This is true in contemporary and historical novels as it is in memoirs and biographies.

Foveaux's book was auctioned at more than a million dollars, and Warner cast the top bid. Look at the value of your writing. Is it simple enough to sell for a million dollars? It has to be really simple to make so much money. Simple is understandable, and that's what's buzz right now.

A manuscript has value only when it is judged simple and earthy--in the news and print media. You have to be yourself in your drama. Publishers can spot phoniness in a minute. The buzz appeal here was that the author is a real person in her writing. Why is it worth a million? It's about morals, God, and values....another best-selling book of Virtues, and that's what having buzz is all about in the fiction media. Whether you write romance or memoirs, write about real people who have values, morals, and a faith in something greater than themselves, such as God or something equally valuable to readers.

Publishers who buy a book on its buzz value are buying simplicity. It is simplicity that sells and nothing else but simplicity. This is true for computer books or fiction. It's good storytelling to say it simply.

Simplicity means the book gives you all the answers you were looking for in your life in exotic places, but found it close by. What's the great proverb that her book is telling the world? It's to stand on your own two feet and put bread on your own table like she did for her family. That's the moral point, to pull your own weight, and pulling your own weight is a buzz word that sells books that teach and reach through simplicity. That's the backbone of the new media. Buzz means the Internet can have a future through becoming simple to operate for the majority. And buzz means you can sell your story or book, script or narrative by focusing on the values of simplicity, morals, faith, and universal values that hold true for everyone. Doing the best to take care of your family sells and is buzz appeal, hot stuff in the publishing market of today.

This is true, regardless of genre. Publishers go through fads every two years--angel books, managing techniques books, computer home-based business books, novels about ancient historical characters or tribes, science fiction, children's programming....The genres shift emphasis, but values are consistent in the bestselling books. In the new media, simplicity is buzz along with values. What are you going to do to create buzz appeal for your writing? What kind of press can you create that will bring national attention for your simplicity, values, morals, and commitment? You'll probably have to write about trends or about life in the lane of your choice.

Even if you write about the Internet, focus on its highway to simplicity. Target its values. Emphasize its commitment. Buzz is universal, but you need national press to get publishers bidding. National press gives you credibility in the eyes of major publishers. The world is impressed by front page coverage in The Wall Street Journal because of what it symbolizes--stability, dependability, security, centeredness.

Find a newspaper article that relates to your writing and write to the reporter covering the feature. Query to see whether there is an interest in your story or feature. It's not every day that someone 98 years old writes a memoir, but it's news when a centenarian writes a first book and it has those universal values, morals, simplicity, and commitment and spans real history in a way that reads well. Quality in writing is the most important trait, but visibility and credibility to attract a publisher depends on buzz appeal.

Sell your story on buzz, and you'll have a commercial script people will want to read. Now that you have a great story told, it's time to "press" it, to buzz it, to sell it as print, electronic, film, video, audio, docudrama, virtual theater, and Internet formats.

***
Remember, books sell according to their buzz appeal.

B   better books
U   universal values and simple plots, characters, lifestyles
Z   zesty characters
Z   zany conflicts and problems to solve

Anne Hart Photograph **Award-winning biographer and novelist Anne Hart holds lifetime community college teaching credentials and a Master's degree in English/creative writing from San Diego State University and a B.S. from New York University. She has written 51 books, booklets, plays, articles, stories, and learning materials and focuses on writing biographies, novels, historical romances and suspense, autobiographies, diaries, and books on career development as well as scripts and new media learning materials. Hart has been writing books full time since 1963 as her primary occupation. Her recent books include: Writing Your Life Story Commercially for the New Media and Print, Winning Resumes for Computer Personnel (Barron's Educational Series, 1998), and cyberscribes.1: The New Journalists (Ellipsys International, 1997). You can reach Anne at: anne_hart@hotmail.com

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