Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Secrets of Kidlit: How to Browse the Bookstore Like a Writer

Waaaay back when I first started writing, someone told me I should browse the kids' section at Barnes & Noble to see where and how my book would fit. Great advice, I thought. But um, how? What in the world am I looking for, exactly? And what do I do when I find whatever it is I'm looking for?

Photo courtesy of Darwin.wins
Used under a Creative Commons License
So, completely clueless, I went to B&N. I stepped into the kids' section, found the "Ages 7-12" bookshelves. And was overwhelmed. So. Many. Books! I left, mission not even remotely completed. I was pretty sure this well-intentioned advice was just that -- well-intentioned -- and given by someone who had not spent much time in a bookstore lately.

That was probably 2006, and I'd just started writing my first manuscript. I hadn't even picked up a middle grade book in years and years. At some point along the way, I figured that that to write a decent manuscript, one had to actually read current books in that category and genre and not rely on hazy memories of The Baby-sitters Club and Sweet Valley Twins. So I started reading, a lot.

And I went back to B&N. Back to that Ages 7-12 set of bookshelves. It was still overwhelming, but not so much now because I could point to recent books I'd actually read.

I got work, figuring I'd do the old "judge a book by its cover" to find something that was similar to what I was writing. And you know what? It worked. If you'd asked me back then what my writing style was, I'd have told you, "It's like Meg Cabot with a dash of the Disney Channel." So I knew I was looking for a cover that screamed, "FUN! Light-hearted! Realistic! Kinda girly!" I stumbled across a couple of the Aladdin M!X books and as I flipped through the pages, I thought, "Now these people would get what I'm doing." Sure enough, many (many) years later, Aladdin is my publisher.

Here are some more tips for browsing the bookstore as a writer:

Photo courtesy of Jeffrey Zeldman
Used under a Creative Commons License
1) If you find yourself getting nowhere using the "judge a book by its cover" method, ask a bookseller, a librarian, a teacher, or another writer who's been at it longer than you have. If you tell one of these people what kinds of books you write, they can probably provide you with titles of similar-sounding books.

2) Concentrate not just on subject matter, plot, and genre, but tone, voice, and overall writing style. If you're writing lush, lyrical fantasy, you want to find other authors who write with that lyrical quality and construct fully-realized worlds. Reading action-packed, contemporary-sounding fantasy is great for sure, but you still want to find the books that have a similar tone and voice as yours.

3) You've found a book that reminds you of your manuscript -- yay! Now you want to find more, but how? Obviously, you can read more books by the same author, but you want to branch out and see if there are any more similar books by different authors. This is where places like Amazon come in really, really handy. I don't suggest starting there because it's not easy to browse -- at all. In a bookstore, you see two types of books: new and classic. On Amazon, you see everything else in between -- not helpful when you're trying to focus on recently-published books. But if you look up your bookstore find, you can use the handy features in the picture below to find more similar items (this is from Jen Malone's AT YOUR SERVICE Amazon page -- see how it pulls up a zillion other Aladdin M!X titles?):

Other options are to check out the publishing imprint's website to see what else they've recently published, and to look up the author to see if they cite any influences or favorite books in interviews or on their website.

4) Okay, so now you have a tidy little stack of books similar to what you write. What do you do with them? Well, read them obviously, but look for clues as you read. What's acceptable, content- and language-wise? What do the books have in common? What makes each stand out? What's similar to your book, and how does your book stand out? How long are the chapters? What do you like about each, and what aren't your favorite things?

Photo courtesy of Nicole
Used under a Creative Commons License
Next, flip to the acknowledgments section. Here's where you can grab some more useful information: who's the author's agent? (add that person to your query list!), who are some fellow published authors this author thanks for reading this book? (you might want to check out their books too)

5) You've done your homework! Congratulations! Now you can put it to work for you. You can use these books to craft a great comp sentence to put in your query. Bonus points for you if you can hit a book with a similar plot and one with a similar voice or tone. When I queried EXIT STAGE LEFT (several years ago!), I could have used this comp sentence: "It's CONFESSIONS OF A TEENAGE DRAMA QUEEN meets the voice of THE PRINCESS DIARIES." (Did I use that? No. I used "GLEE meets middle school," which wasn't nearly as telling.) Extra bonus points if you query one of the agents named in the books you found and mention their client's title in your query, either in the comp paragraph or in the "why I queried you" sentence.

Do you have any suggestions for browsing the bookstore and how to use the books you find? Let us know in the comments! 


  1. Really informative post...thanks for sharing! I'm going to print this off and take with me the next time I go book shopping which is quite often...;~)

    Take care,

    Donna L Martin


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.


Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...