shape your shibboleths

"Move to Seattle," a friend suggested when I was looking for a change. "You know how there's a hot dog stand on every corner in Manhattan? In Seattle, they have coffee stands."

So I left the Big Apple for the Emerald City. Looking back, I think I went assuming that any town placing such an emphasis on caffeine would be culturally compatible. As it turned out, Seattlites were just trying to survive those gray, damp winters that extend from roughly August until May. Coffee or no coffee, I was a stranger in a strange land.

Starved for the company of creative types, I met with the organizer of a long-running writing group in search of fresh blood. Her expression made it clear I didn't fit the part, but I sealed her impression by using "nauseous" as an adjective.

"Nauseated," she interjected. "Something nauseous causes one to feel nauseated." She patronized me with a smile. "It's a common mistake."

A shibboleth is "a use of language regarded as distinctive of a particular group." This particular grammatical distinction might be obsolete according to modern dictionaries, but it is also a shibboleth. At the time, it served to indicate that I'd come to the wrong place. Wrong writing group, wrong city.

You don't need talent or originality to write bestselling books, but you do need a community. This is not the same thing as having a platform. You can assemble a marketing platform that functions well enough without a community of your own. But if you've got a strong community, your platform problems are essentially solved. Who are your people? Where are you welcome?

From the start, I try to map my clients' existing audiences as well as the influencers in their networks, the colleagues, peers, and acquaintances who are somehow notable or influential. That web of interpersonal connections clarifies who the book is really for—even if the author thinks otherwise (at first). And if that list of influencers needs work, better to build the right relationships early than spend time fussing with the proposal.

Shibboleths are confusing when you don't recognize them, but enormously comforting when you do. Recognizing one is a sign you're among your people. Let them guide you toward fertile soil and, just as important, use them liberally yourself.

This may seem like odd advice, to use words and other cues that may exclude certain potential readers. But you can never predict the audiences that might come to your book. One famous business book author, a publicist revealed to me, has amassed huge followings among both prisoners and pastors. Good luck putting that in a proposal's Marketing Overview. You really never know where a message might resonate.

You're better off building your community through a strategy of exclusion. Who aren't you for? Too many authors make the mistake of going wide by going flat, trying to appeal to any and all readers. Instead of pasteurizing yourself to appeal to some false sense of "the masses"—they exist only as a statistical artifact, "average" doesn't exist per se—let your own stuff bubble and ferment until its unique scent is pungent and unmistakable.

To ace the SAT,  you cross out the answers that are definitely wrong so you can focus on the ones that might be right. To build a community, you use shibboleths a.k.a. you become ever more authentic, specific, and idiosyncratic as you develop your material. Resist the urge to be all things to all people and let your freak flag fly. As this pungent specificity inevitably sifts the wrong readers out, you will begin to see glimmers of the right ones left behind in the pan.  

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