Savvy Saturday – Unique Selling Propositions

Authors are good at many things: storytelling, character development, world-building, and so on. One thing that many authors are not good at, however, is marketing. Why should I buy your books, readers ask. Some authors respond by focusing on the plot of their specific latest novel. “You should read The Quest of the Unaligned,” I might say, “because it’s an exciting YA novel about a security chief from a technologically advanced city who has to go on a quest through a magical country – and it turns out that he’s their long-lost prince.” This is a good start, but this sort of statement doesn’t really answer the question of why your book is a better investment of money or time than are other books in your genre.

The answer to these questions can be found in marketing theory. Specifically, developing a “unique selling proposition” (USP) for each of your books can help you better communicate with potential readers about what needs your book fills, and who would benefit from purchasing it. A unique selling proposition is what it sounds like – a proposition, or reason, that you can use to sell your product, and it has to be unique compared to other products in the market. Now, by the time most companies have their product, they already know what their unique selling proposition is going to be. This is because the traditional way of doing marketing is to start by identifying a need for a given target market, then design and manufacture a product to meet that need. In contrast, most entrepreneurs (including authors!) tackle marketing the other way around. We start by creating a product – writing a book – that tells the story that we want to tell, then we try to figure out who else would like it and why.

The first step in developing a USP for a book is to identify what broad category your book falls in. What other books will it be compared to? For a product to succeed, it first has to have a minimum level of quality in all core areas that customers expect (e.g. no matter what brand of soda you buy, you expect it to be fizzy, you expect it to be sweet, and you expect the bottle to not fall apart in your hand). If a product lacks a minimum level of quality in one of these common elements, customers will refuse to buy the product, or will be sorely disappointed if they do buy. So what are the common elements in a book in your genre? What is it that every book has to have for it to pass the “yes, this is an acceptable part of this genre” test? Make a list! Some elements that come to mind for any book include proper formatting, a general lack of grammatical and typographical errors, a certain minimum word count, and, if a story, a beginning, middle, and end. Additional (and more interesting) components get added once you start talking about genres. Science fiction and fantasy novels, for instance, have to be set in a time and place that is not “the real world here and now.” If you promote a book as being a fantasy novel, for instance, but the only fantasy elements turn out to be a figment of the main character’s imagination, many readers will feel cheated.

Once you have made a list of all the elements that a book in your genre must have, put it to one side and forget about it. Readers don’t need to be told that a new soda is sweet and fizzy – they need to be told what’s different about it compared to all the other sodas out there. In your case, you need to make a new list: the features that your book has that are unique. This can include more tangible elements of your book, such as a plot, character, and setting, and less tangible benefits that readers might get from your book, such as enjoyment due to your sense of humor, scintillating arguments, or beautiful literary flow. The elements that you identify are what you can use to develop a unique selling proposition.

For instance, while academic books on economics exist by the dozens, only one (that I am aware of) attempts to discuss and teach real issues of economics by couching them in the context of vampires and zombies. In the context of fiction, think about the benefits that readers in your genre are looking for, then promise them that plus something else. That something else, based on the unique elements that you as a unique person have built into your book, will give readers a unique reason to buy. Why should they buy your fantasy novel instead of any other fantasy novel? Maybe because your fantasy novel is uniquely dark yet lyrical in tone, and based on Chinese mythology. Or maybe because it is one of the only novels that is set in ancient Rome and features a female superhero protagonist. Whatever the reason, the stronger and more unique your USP, the more likely your book will be to stand out, catch readers’ interest, and persuade them to give your story a try.

So what’s your book’s unique selling proposition? Leave a note in the comments below!

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