by Tara Luebbe

Today I’d like to jump into a time machine and beam forward to February 1. You have followed the brilliant advice of my fellow authors and have some great new ideas. Now let’s talk about that next vital step…

Last fall, Tara (Lazar) and I discussed how we often see writers spending too much time polishing, revising, and perfecting a manuscript that, frankly, is not a good idea to begin with. It doesn’t matter how beautiful your prose is or how much you polish every word. If it is not a marketable or unique idea, it won’t sell. So how do you take your Storystorm ideas and assess them for marketability and selling potential?

I’ve been given a gift like the kid in The Sixth Sense, but instead of dead people, I see marketability. My gift was honed through working retail; from the sales floor to the buying offices of big retailers, to wholesale distribution, and finally to owning a book and toy boutique. Buying and selling picture books gave me an astute understanding of what works…and what doesn’t.

In your eyes, your book is your baby, your masterpiece, your blood, sweat and tears, your soul. And yes, it IS all of those. But to the retail world, your book is a product, a SKU—inventory to be turned. Is your idea strong enough to be crafted into a sellable product? I don’t draft an idea into a manuscript unless I can envision the sales pitch. Not everything I write sells, of course—far from it. But I start with an idea that I am confident has marketability, and that is half the battle.

Not every published book falls into the parameters I suggest below. But, when I was trying so hard to break into the industry, writing marketable picture books was my golden ticket. If it is an approach you’d like to try, here are my recommendations to evaluate your ideas for marketability:

  • One obvious place to start is your topic. Does your book have a topic that kids actually like? You would not design any other product that doesn’t appeal to the target market, and books are no different. Can you imagine Pottery Barn trying to sell plastic lawn ornaments or Chia Pets? But yet, a lot of people write about topics that aren’t very interesting to the target market—kids. Kids like trucks, dinos, outer space, ninjas, princesses, pirates, cupcakes, art, monsters, animals, fairy tales, tutus, dance, etc. Popular topics make a book more marketable. BUT, this also means you need to research to make sure your story is DIFFERENT than existing books on your topic, or this won’t matter at all. (Tara Lazar has a brilliant list of 500+ things kids like in case you need help.

These books were recent favorites and are perfect examples of popular subject matters handled in fresh, new ways.

  • Walk into a children’s toy store or boutique with your manuscript. Look around. If you had to merchandise your product (book) in this store (not on a bookshelf, but with toys and merchandise), where would you put it? Does it have an obvious place? This is a picture from my former store. There were lots of books that I could merchandise in my “pink, fairy, tea party, ballerina” section. My upcoming book, I AM FAMOUS, would have fit in here, right next to Nancy and Bree. If you can’t see an obvious place for Grandma’s Childhood Tales of Eating Vegetables, you might want to rethink it.

  • Think of the changing front table displays at any gift retailer. Does your idea fit one of the themes that rotate throughout the year? The major holidays? The minor holidays? Back to school? Fall? Winter? Spring? Summer? Graduation season? Beach season? Snow season? Your book does not have to be a “holiday book” to be included here. Bunnies and chicks are associated with Easter; monsters, bats, or zombies can fit in with Halloween; love stories for Valentine’s Day, etc. When a retailer needs to create a themed front window or table display, can your “product” be included? Make a list of the holidays and themes that might work.
  • Are there any specialty retail stores you can envision your book fitting into? Does it belong in a zoo gift shop? An aquarium? The National Park gift stores? Pet boutiques? Pregnancy boutiques? Hobby stores? Museum gift shops? Educational or teacher stores? Craft stores? Cat stores? Specialty catalogs? Besides a bookstore, where else would your book fit seamlessly on the shelf? My book SHARK NATE-O is perfect for aquarium gift shops, and, in fact, we added non-fiction backmatter to make it even more attractive to this group. Bookstores are our bread and butter, but adding specialty retailers to your marketability factor is extremely helpful for sales. Make a list and see what you get.
  • Are there any special interest groups that would love this book? Scientists? Bilingual households? Families expecting a sibling? Military families? Pet adoption advocates? Marine biologists? Cryptozoologists? Potty trainers? Sloth aficionados? Flat earthers? Cosplayers? Teachers and librarians? Slot car racers? Grandparents? Yarn bombers? These subsets all are a part of the book’s marketability. I believe my forthcoming book, CONAN THE LIBRARIAN, may really resonate with teachers and librarians because of the literary message. Any marketing plan for your book should include these special interest groups.
  • Are there any special occasions or events that would tie in with your idea? Consider major events like the Olympics, Shark Week, a presidential election and Earth Day. Also think of regional events, like the Indianapolis 500, the Kentucky Derby, the Moose Poop Drop, the Polar Bear Plunge, etc. What about anniversaries of historical events? Black History Month? School celebrations like Poem in Your Pocket Day? The 100th day of School? The first day of school? Make a list. SHARK NATE-O is ready for Shark Week!

  • And the last great piece of marketability: a high-concept title. A high-concept title is one that tells a buyer what the book is about by title alone. A great title allows a book to be placed on a pallet in the middle of Costco, with no pretty merchandising and no sales help, and sell itself. As a retail buyer, I immediately get a sense of a book just by looking at the title and cover in a sales rep’s catalog. Can you give your manuscript a high-concept title?

I hope you find something in this post helpful as you sit down with your list of shiny new Storystorm ideas. While reviewing them, run each through the above checklist. Maybe one idea will jump off the page as an obvious place to start. Or maybe two ideas can be combined into something more marketable for an editor or agent. Oh, and watch Shark Tank if you don’t already—it’s brilliant for understanding marketability.

Tara Luebbe is an ex-retailer turned picture book author. She co-writes with her sister Becky Cattie. They are the authors of the forthcoming I AM FAMOUS, illustrated by Joanne Lew Vreithoff, (Albert Whitman March 1, 2018); SHARK NATE-O, illustrated by Daniel Duncan, (little bee books April 3, 2018); I USED TO BE FAMOUS, illustrated by Joanne Lew Vreithoff (Albert Whitman Spring 2019); and CONAN THE LIBRARIAN (Roaring Brook Press Spring 2019). She is also the founder of Writing with the Stars, a free mentorship program for aspiring picture book writers. You can learn more at and you can find her on Twitter @t_luebbe.

To keep it all about retail, Tara (Luebbe) is donating a $20.00 gift certificate to Chapters, an Indie bookstore in Seward, Nebraska, for one lucky winner to buy whatever they like. The winner will also receive a signed copy of I AM FAMOUS upon release on March 1.

Leave ONE COMMENT on this blog post to enter. You are eligible to win if you are a registered Storystorm participant and you have commented once below. Prizes will be given away at the conclusion of the event.

Good luck!