Lea Wait, here. Many of you know that my new mystery series (Mainely Needlepoint) has just debuted with TWISTED THREADS. Traditional publishing being what it is, I’ve already finished the second book in the series(THREADS OF EVIDENCE), which is in the middle of copy edits. THREAD AND GONE, the third manuscript, is due the first of March. Writing (and publishing) are challenges .. one of the largest of which is keeping ahead of readers!
Many people have asked me “why needlepoint?” As some asked last spring, when UNCERTAIN GLORY, my most recent historical (set during the first two weeks of the Civil War) was published, “How did you choose that time period?”
The answer to both questions is “competitive research and marketing.” Although the idea of sitting down and writing what is in your heart (or mind) sounds wonderful, in truth, writing without research can lead a writer down a path to manuscript rejection.
So … what kind of research would you do for a book that isn’t even written?
Publishers want to know what the competition for your books will be, and how many people will be interested in buying it. A growing number of publishers (like mine) want to see the numbers before they sign onto a new book, or series.
But, don’t panic. Sometimes the research is relatively simple.
My publisher for UNCERTAIN GLORY was enticed by the Civil War timing of the book — even though the book was set in Maine, far from the 1861 front. Reason? The book would be published during the 150th anniversary of the war, when people would be thinking about 1861-1864. It’s a period covered in most schools in grades 4-8 … the right age for young readers, and for teachers and librarians to add to their collections. (I’d written an earlier version of UNCERTAIN GLORY set in 1859. It didn’t sell. The Civil War connection made the difference.)
Three of the book’s major characters are boys. (Conventional wisdom says few boys will read a book with a girl as a major character; girls will read books about boys or girls.)
I’d also checked the title. UNCERTAIN GLORY is taken from Shakespeare (“the uncertain glory of an April day”) and it had only been used as a title for an early Errol Flynn movie. Although titles can’t be copyrighted … it’s not great to have a dozen books in print with the same one. I also included an annotated list of other books for young people set during this period, and why UNCERTAIN GLORY would be different.
OK. That all sounds good for an historical – especially one for young people. But what about a mystery? How would you do market research for one of those?
Funny you should ask. Because the publisher of my Mainely Needlepoint series wanted competitive analysis/market research done as part of my proposal. (Yes, they also wanted summaries of the first three books in the series and about fifty pages of the first book and the reasons why I would be the best person to write the series.) I believe my market research tipped the scale in my favor.
I wanted to write a traditional, cozy, mystery series with a little edge. I knew cozies with “craft” backgrounds were popular, so I looked at what was already being published. I wouldn’t have wanted to suggest, say, a series with a background of beading, to a publisher that already had one. Or a series about quilt shops when there were already several being published.
How did I find out who was publishing what, and how successful they were? The answers were simple to find. We’re lucky today to have Amazon and BN.com. Search for “beading mysteries” on those sites and you’ll have a good start on research. In my case I found one other needlepoint series, an embroidery series, a machine embroidery series, and five knitting or crochet series, which I included in my analysis since I suspected they shared some of the same readers.
I then looked to see how many books were in each series; whether the series was still being published; what their publishers were; and whether they were mass market originals, hard cover originals, or trade paper originals.
After reading one or two books in each current successful series it was clear that needlepoint would be a good topic: of the three series featuring embroidery, even the one listed as a Needlecraft Mystery included other forms of stitchery.
But I wanted my series to stand out. All the craft mysteries I’d looked at were set in embroidery/needlecraft/yarn shops, and all but one of the protagonists owned such a shop. I looked at geographic locations, too: only one series was set in New England.
I decided to set my series in Maine (a plus because many readers know me as a Maine author,) to have my series connected to a custom needlepoint business run by a young woman with a past and by her grandmother … allowing for plots involving people of different ages. And since my earlier series was set in the antiques world, I decided that my Mainely Needlepoint series would build on that, and my needlepointers would also identify and restore antique needlepoint. (More story ideas …)
But how many readers were interested in needlepoint? A little googling told me. Needlepoint is a popular craft, especially among middle-aged and older women … and men. Women over forty are also the largest readers of traditional mysteries. But — I still needed numbers. Publishers want numbers.
The American Needlepoint Guild has 164 chapters, 9500 members, an on-line presence and a bimonthly magazine. The National Needle Arts Association is the professional organization connecting the 873 retail shops and 256 wholesalers of crafts/yarn. Two magazines and several national conventions each year reach needlepointers. Needlepoint is also popular in the UK and in Canada.
Result of that research? A three-book contract, and suggestions of several specific ways to reach readers who might be interested in a needlepoint series. My agent told me he liked the marketing plan so much, if it hadn’t sold to one publisher, he was prepared to market it to other editors. (Note: he didn’t mention the plots of the first three books in the series, or my writing style.)
It took me about two weeks to research and write the proposal for the series. And not only did it help my editor make a decision, it also helped me develop the background for the series, and its characters.
Right now I’m busy promoting TWISTED THREADS, and writing the third in the series. THREADS OF EVIDENCE, the second in the series, will be published in August of this year.
I’m not focusing on writing another series: two is plenty for now! But I do have several other ideas. And, before those ideas get too far along, I’ll be doing some market research. It just makes business sense.