A Fine Position to Be In

by Robert W. Bly

You can easily adapt "positioning," an advertising sales technique that will make submissions stand out on the editor's desk--and in the editor's mind.

When I worked as a technical writer at an industrial equipment manufacturer, I decided to write a book of tips for fellow technical writers. Such a hadn't book been done before.

Or so I thought. Visits to bookstores and a look at Books in Print revealed nearly a hundred books had already been published on this rather specialized subject. How could I compete?

When I read a few of the technical writing books, I was struck by how dull, lengthy and pedantic they were. "Engineers and managers don't want a 400-page treatise on grammar and syntax," I explained to a writer friend over lunch. "What they need-and what I'd like to write-is a brief, easy-to-read style guide, a handbook they can keep on their desks and refer to when a question comes up. Something like the Strunk and White of technical writing."

As soon as I said it-the Strunk and White of technical writing-we both knew I'd found the slant that would set my book apart from the competition and sell it to a publisher. Technical writing is unfamiliar territory to most trade book editors; by comparing my ideas to the immensely popular Elements of Style, I made the gist of my concept immediately clear.

My coauthor and I wrote a 22-page proposal and two sample chapters. We handed this package to our agent; within three weeks he sold the book to McGraw-Hill-my first sale anywhere. The book, retitled Technical Writing: Structure, Standards, and Style, was published in hardcover and trade paperback and is now in its third printing. Interestingly, the publisher used the phrase "the Strunk and White of technical writing" in its press release and in a promotional flyer on the book.

I'm convinced that the book sold because we had "positioned" it. Positioning is an advertising technique that identifies and targets a product's potential buyers, demonstrates how that product differs from the competition, and summarizes the product and its benefits by comparing it to a concept or a product that people immediately understand. In sum, positioning creates a position for the product in the buyer's mind.

Avis, for example, once positioned itself as a hard-working underdog-"We're number 2, so we try harder." Pepsi Light is positioned as a man's diet cola, while Diet Pepsi is a woman's drink.

Although we may not be aware of it, many of us use positioning in everyday conversation. Describing a new word processor to a friend, we might say, "This machine is the Rolls Royce of personal computers." The position of "Rolls Royce" connotes excellence, quality, value and high price. In the same way, a bookstore owner described Megatrends to one of his customers as "the Future Shock of the 1980s." The customer, already familiar with Alvin Toffler's work, could now picture John Naisbitt's bestseller within the context of a familiar product.

In every book proposal, I now include a strong statement that defines the book's position in the marketplace. My small-business book, How to Promote Your Own Business (New American Library), was pitched as "the small-business guide to advertising, publicity, and sales promotion." Dream Jobs (John Wiley & Sons), a career guide to such "hot" industries as cable TV, computers and genetic engineering, was positioned as "a dreamer's guide to the most in-demand careers of the 1980s and beyond. . . ."

For informational and "how-to" books, positioning can be based on the technical depth and audience interest in the subject. For example, when I wanted to write a book on computers for small businesses, I positioned my concept as management-oriented rather than hardware-oriented. I began the proposal:

The only reason a small-business manager should buy a computer is to save his or her company time and money.

The philosophy behind HOW TO BUY THE RIGHT COMPUTER FOR YOUR SMALL BUSINESS is practical and straight forward. It is this: The purchase of a small-business computer is a business decision--similar to the decision to rent office space, lease a copier, install a new phone system, or buy dictating machines for the sales force. The decision-making process for all of these situations is the same. Only the specific facts are different.

So many "how to buy a small-business computer" books were on the market-nearly two dozen at last count-that an even sharper position was needed to sell the idea. Eventually, the publisher bought the proposal on the condition that I aim the book at one specific industry. I chose a personal favorite-advertising-and my book, The Personal Computer in Advertising, was recently published by Banbury Books.

Sometimes, positioning can make the competition work for you rather than against you. When writer Frank Evans wrote a proposal for an encyclopedia of computer technology, he positioned the concept as complementing rather than competing with existing titles in the field:

Computers A Through Z: An Encyclopedia of Data Processing relates to the two major computer dictionaries, International Computer Dictionary (Sybex, 1981) and The Penguin Dictionary of Computers (Penguin Books, 1970), just as the Britannica relates to Webster's: it expands upon them. It is far more focused than such science encyclopedias as The McGraw-Hill Encyclopedia of Science and Technology (McGraw-Hill, 1971) in that it provides complete coverage of one specialized area of technology--electronic data processing.

To position your book, clearly identify the intended audience, show how the book differs from or complements any related books, and draw an analogy between the proposed book and something that will form a familiar, favorable image in the editor's mind.

And keep the position statement short. Someone once said that every good idea can be written on the back of a business card. By coming up with a single, pithy sentence to summarize and slant your book idea, you break through the clutter and quickly communicate your concept to editors. As a result, you may find yourself in a fine position to be in: that of a published author. ______________________________________________________

Robert W. Bly is the author of more than 50 books, including The Copywriter's Handbook (Henry Holt) and Write More, Sell More (Writer's Digest Books). Used by Permission.

You can learn more about Robert W. Bly at his website: www.bly.com

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