You’ve just had an idea for your next book, and it’s a doozy.
Maybe it’s the first book in a new series—or the showstopper conclusion to an old one. Maybe it’s a twist on a familiar idea—or something entirely wild and new.
But for whatever reason, you’re not certain just how well a book like this would sell.
You see the potential in the idea, of course, but will your readers?
This is a real challenge for many writers, and it highlights the incredible importance of market research, or the act of gathering intelligence concerning consumers’ needs and preferences—in this case, the reading habits of your audience.
Book market research can take a variety of forms: finding comparable best-selling titles, studying book reviews in your genre, researching author websites, and so on.
But these methods, while practical, aren’t perfect. In truth, there’s no real way to know if your readers will like your idea until they put money down and buy the thing…
…or is there?
Test the Waters with a Pilot Story
Believe it or not, once you come up with a neat idea for a book, you’ve already got everything you need to reveal your audience’s receptiveness to that idea.
Consider using the base concept for your new book to write a pilot story—a small sample of your writing calculated to entice the reader and leave them hungry for more. Think about tasting samples at the grocery store. The store hands them out free of charge, but they’re not large enough to satisfy—only to get customers’ mouths watering.
So for your pilot story (also called a lead magnet in some circles) to be effective, you’ve got to write something as tempting as a tray of free pizza nibblers.
Not sure how to begin? We’ve got you covered—whether you’re writing fiction or non-fiction, our detailed guide will teach you how to make your pilot story absolutely irresistible.
Good news! If you’re a fiction author with even a half-dozen stories under your belt, you might have already written your pilot story without knowing it.
That’s because your lead magnet doesn’t necessarily have to be new material: consider releasing a chapter from a previous book for free online, or even editing that chapter into a stand-alone short story.
However, if you don’t have a decent backlog of related content, you’ll probably need to start from scratch.
It’s not as hard as you might think!
Try condensing your proposed book into a short story, or writing a single chapter strong enough to stand on its own. We recommend a selection from the middle of the book where the plot is thicker and more major characters have been introduced.
Note: Some authors give away the first book in their series as a lead magnet, but we advise against that—you want your pilot story to be quick, satisfying, and easy to dig into, and novels are, well, novel-length.
Many fiction authors use this practice. Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club started out as a short story—which now appears as a chapter in the finished novel. Neil Gaiman published a chapter of The Graveyard Book as a short story in his anthology M is for Magic. And I’ve done this myself from time to time—before I wrote my first novel, I got a single chapter published as a standalone story in a literary magazine to test audience reaction to the narrator’s voice.
Or consider writing a one-off story. Call this whatever you want—a prequel, a spinoff, a prologue—as long as it introduces characters, settings and themes relevant to your proposed book.
Stephen King is famous for doing this: the original “Jerusalem’s Lot” introduced readers to the vampires that would later appear in his second novel, Salem’s Lot, even though the novel and short story took place in entirely different time periods. You can even use the story later on as part of your book, providing backstory for your principal characters, or even a literal prologue to the main plot.
4 Key Qualities of a Great Test Story
But no matter how you choose to write your pilot story, there are a few hard-and-fast rules you should pay attention to. Here are our top 4 qualities every lead magnet should strive for:
- Accurate to Your Style: This will require some forethought on your part. What genre does your proposed book most resemble? Will your story be told in first person or third person—or get creative? Will you write in present or past tense? Ideally, your story pilot should match the style of the book you intend to write in every way to best advertise your project-to-come. If your lead magnet is a brooding cyberpunk crime thriller written in third-person limited, readers will expect the same from your book.
- Representative of Your World: It’s absolutely essential that your pilot story be clearly linked to your proposed book, and the fastest and easiest way to manage this is to set both in the same fictional world. A pilot story can be an excellent opportunity to establish the “rules” of this world, both in the minds of readers and in your own: How do characters talk here? What history does this world have? And what’s just on the horizon? Consider introducing some of your main characters indirectly, perhaps as supporting characters in another character’s story, or even as younger or older versions of themselves.
- Bite-Sized: Your pilot story should be short. Maximum length is usually 15K words, but we recommend a word count somewhere between 7,500-10,000 words—just long enough to tell a substantial story, but short enough to be easily digestible. Your target is all the little pockets of free time in your readers’ lives: waiting at the airport, riding the bus home, waiting on a pizza. Your story shouldn’t intrude on their time, but instead slake their boredom. This will make your pilot story more attractive, and present your proposed book in the best possible light.
- Publishable: This is the real goal, isn’t it? Not only can pilot stories test audiences’ reactions to a particular story or idea, you can also use them to test publishers’ responses as well. Do your research: what literary journals or magazines publish work similar to your proposed book? Compile a shortlist of publications that might accept your pilot story, and submit to them. If you’re fortunate enough to get accepted, that’s an excellent indicator that the publishing world is ready for your book.
A good lead magnet is even more important when planning a nonfiction book. If your fiction pilot story is unsuccessful, you’ve saved yourself the time of writing an unsuccessful novel. But if your nonfiction lead magnet doesn’t perform, you’ve saved not only the time it would take to write the book, but to research it as well.
Nonfiction pilots also bear different responsibilities than their fiction counterparts. A fiction pilot is story-centered, focusing on promoting a fictional world and characters for future consumption.
A nonfiction lead has to sell you, the author. Are you an authority on your subject? If you’re writing a self-help book, is your advice worth following? If you’re writing a guidebook, do your methods work? And, most importantly of all, do you have something interesting to say?
Lucky for you, nonfiction lead magnets also come in more varieties than fiction pilot stories do. If you’ve already published a book, consider writing an additional chapter in which you incorporate the topic of your next planned publication. Show that the topics are related, but also indicate that there’s lots more to learn—and that you’re the one to hear it from.
Try writing a short essay explaining one facet of your new subject. This will take some research, but not nearly as much as writing a full-fledged book. Use this to test audience response to the subject, or even how open certain publications are to your offerings.
Nonfiction lead magnets don’t even have to be written. If you’re tech-savvy and comfortable on camera, create a video outlining your topic and link it to your author page. This can just be you talking to the camera—or if visuals help, a motion graphic can be an excellent way to engage audiences. Get creative, trying different combinations of elements.
In fact, try creating multiple lead magnets on different platforms—since they won’t compete with each other, you avoid the risk of oversaturating the market.
Test Your Writing Ideas
Once you’ve crafted a compelling pilot story, your next step is to distribute it among your target audience. How can you get the word out? These 3 platforms will not only distribute your material among likely readers, but will also enable you to gauge their response accurately.
- Your Mailing List: If you’ve got an author page or a blog (and you do, right?), you’ve probably already accumulated a sizeable list of contacts. Send a PDF copy of your pilot story in your next biweekly mailing, along with a polite request to for feedback. Additionally, consider making a downloadable copy of your lead magnet available from either your blog or your author page to boost your read-count.
- Publications: We’ve touched on this already, but traditionally publishing your pilot story can be a great test of an idea’s long-term value. Find a literary magazine or journal that publishes content similar to what you intend to produce, and send it in. For fiction, this could be any of a number of short story venues; for nonfiction, try submitting your pilot as an article for a magazine or website in your niche.
- Your Friends and Family: Never underestimate the value of your inner circle! Pitch your ideas to friendly ears, then ask them to read your pilot story. Their response shouldn’t be your only indicator of success, but a warm reception from those close to you can mean you’re on the right track.
Storycrafters of the world—do you like to test your ideas for stories before you write them? Do you write pilot stories, or do you have your own methods? Share your hot tips for testing the waters in the comments below!
You can learn more book marketing tips and tricks by reading these articles:
- How to Start Marketing Your Book Early: 6 Steps for a Successful Book Launch
- Networking for Writers: Why You Absolutely Need to Be Easy to Find Online
- How to Write Emails That Get Results
Jacob Mohr relishes the opportunity to work closely as an editor with the authors of tomorrow, creating new stories and exciting possibilities—and making the world a little more awesome, one book at a time.
When he’s not editing someone else’s writing, Jacob can usually be found reading Stephen King, riding rollercoasters, or crafting his own stories.