You and your writing as ‘product’
I haven’t had a lot of luck with literary agents, although I did manage to get noticed by a handful, met up with one, and was actually represented by another for a while. One thing I quickly learned is that in addition to being a writer, agents will expect you to be your own slick marketing tool. You will need to reduce not just your book but even yourself to a few juicy sound-bites.
Agents will ask you: What’s different about your book? Why will it sell? And it’s no use bridling as if you’ve just been asked to strip off and walk down the High Street naked. This is no time to get precious about the baby you’ve brought into the world with such love and care. The fact is you are just another hawker in the marketplace selling words by the page. So how are your words any more special than those words the guys are selling on the stalls all around you? In fact, if you had to cut through the market babble to pull the punters over to your stall, what would you be shouting?
It’s product analysis, and most of us didn’t set out to create a product much less analyse the life out it; but since you insist (and the agents do insist) here are some of the ideas I came up with for the outside of the ‘package’ of my product.
It’s a fresh take on the’ Brit abroad’: I like to think ‘Barefoot’ is something of an antidote to that, by now, ubiquitous, middle-class, white, Brit abroad, who converts an old farmhouse, saves a vineyard and is in turn enchanted and exasperated by the natives. By contrast Jeli is just a working stiff doing a mundane job in Florence with no agenda except to pay her rent and hang out with her ex-pat pals. So when she’s drawn into a love affair with an unlikely character such as Luca, it’s with no small sense of wonder.
Young, British and black in 70s Italy. There was a blithe innocence about the pervasive racism in Italy at this time that stemmed from the sheer novelty of meeting any black people at all. Back then Italy had no history of immigration and such was the rarity of seeing a black person that people stared as if a unicorn had just stepped into the clearing. It was assumed that any black person was African and the Italians didn’t seem to want it any other way. My claims to be British and black merely baffled them and met with shrugs of disbelief.
It’s the flip side of Florence: The book lifts a lid on the hard-bitten tourist industry that powers Italy. Everyone is familiar with the artistic, cultural and historical draw of a city like Florence, but the ‘Barefoot’ perspective is new ground. In 1973 tourism in Italy was maverick country; with no employment regulations, whimsical hiring and firing and derisory pay. Foreigners like Jeli were easily exploited because it was the only kind of employment open to them in Italy and they were usually desperate to stay in the country any way they could.
It catches the Italian zeitgeist: There’s an on-going appetite out there for all things Italian whether it’s about food, art, music or its perplexing political life. Italy past and present intrigues. From the BBC’s Inspector Montalbano and Italy Unpacked to the Oscar winning film, The Great Beauty, slice it any way you like, people can’t seem to get enough of Italy. ’Barefoot’ is right on trend with Italian food, style and art all part of the seduction as the romance unfolds.
It’s a sexy international love story in one of the most alluring cities in the world as Jeli struggles to square what her head instinctively knows with what her heart can’t help feeling. So yes, it’s an old and oft-told story, but in this case it’s with conflicts of age, race, nationality and class all at the same time. This gives it an appeal to an international and multicultural age-range of women, and judging from my readers so far, plenty of men as well.
The buzzwords then for the book: Sexy love story; Italy; the groovy 70s; British’ n black; the dark side of tourism. You could say it’s where My Fair Lady meets La Dolce Vita with an afro!
As for the buzzwords for myself, I can do no better than quote one of my enthusiastic Australian readers who said the book read like ‘a late 20th century afro-hip Jane Austen’ and that’s good enough for me.