Saturday, January 9, 2010

Marketing My Nuts

I finally watched 'Julie & Julia' last night. I perched my laptop on the breakfast bar in my kitchen and played the DVD while I made cookies and watched the snow fall. Meryl Streep presents a thoroughly believable Julia Child, and Amy Adams is intensely likable as Julie Powell. That said, the move left me incensed.

While Julie Powell's struggle for publication was longer than Stephenie Meyer's highly publicised six month from-dream-to-contract Cinderella story, her actual moment of glory was like the flick of a light switch. A phone call and a dinner date resulted in an answering machine message marathon of offers from agents and publishers.

It may have been glossed over for Hollywood, but all the sheep out there watched her fool around with her husband to the music on her answering machine and thought "Hey, I can do that!" I guaran-damn-tee you there are hundreds (if not thousands) of queries floating in cyberspace that only exist because of 'Julie & Julia'.

I won't lie and say I wouldn't love for my book to be the next Twilight, but I'm trying to be realistic. I'm pretty sure I have a better chance of winning the lottery than getting a seven-figure deal for my debut novel. Trust me, it's more depressing than it sounds.

Let me get all metaphorical on you for a minute. In 1895, John Harvey Kellog grinds up peanuts to make a high quality, vegetarian protein source for nutjobs in a sanatorium. Peanut butter is born.

In rural Arkansas, Mama Legume makes peanut butter because she loves the process. Her folks taught her to pull up plants and find peanuts, to roast them with sea salt and grind them into a fabulously fragrant concoction. She bottles it up, slaps on a label featuring her charming little logo and gives it to lucky loved ones at Christmas time. Enraptured with her own product, and given glowing reviews from everyone who tries it, she decides to try and market Mama Legume's All-Natural Peanut Paste.

At the same time she perfects her recipe, along comes Peter Pan, pasting his face all over jars of peanut butter and mass marketing it to the American housefrau. Joe Rosefield adds vegetable oil and makes his PB less likely to seperate, giving birth to Skippy. It's rationed to soldiers, striped with grape jelly in jars of Goober, and some dude in Kentucky sells his recipe to Proctor & Gamble and they rename it Jif. Everyone loves peanut butter.

Every Tom, Dick and Harry is grinding up his own version, hoping to capitalize on the wildly popular fad.

Mama Legume's dreams are pureed. Her product is no longer unique. With so many jars of bread spread to choose from, Madame Housefrau has her work cut out for her at the grocery store. Instead of comparing a jar of Mama Legume in one hand to a bottle of J. H. Kellog's Looney Food in the other, she's now scanning over a wall of nut butter labels for one that pops out at her. The most visually appealing packaging is the one that will garner a taste test. Maybe she'll pick more than one just to be safe. Thanks to the influx of contestants, Mama Legume's All-Natural Peanut Paste will get no more than a passing glance unless she can come up with a stunning label and completely convincing tagline.

Oh, and let's ignore the anonymity factor. Housefrau zips through the copy on the labels and sees recognizable company names like Smucker's and Heinz, and Mama Legume's backyard nut farm starts to look questionable.

There you have it. With all these highly successful authors making millions off their first publications, the volume of queries in agents' inboxes has exploded. My nuts are on a shelf filled with other writers' nuts, and getting a fraction of the attention they would have received a few years ago. Even when an agent is interested enough to taste a spoonful of chapters, I'm still just one of dozens of jars on her taste-test list. Poor Madame Agent is tasting so much literary butter these days, she has less and less time for palate cleansing between bites.

My product is in the queues of several agents in varying serving sizes. I'm anxiously- I mean, patiently waiting to hear back from them. At this point, I've taken it back to the drawing board, and am working on improving my offering and building a reputable brand name before I exhaust the tastebuds of too many agents.

Basically, I want to make sure my nuts are spectacular, so I won't have to rely on a fancy wrapper to get noticed much longer.