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No Clients? Maybe You’ve Got A Bookstore Problem.

My life has been one long, colorful history with book addiction.  So you’d think I’d come home from the used bookstore with a wide variety of titles in my bag.  After all, why go to an all-you-can-read buffet and pile up on just one item?

But no.

When I get home I always realize that I’ve loaded up on nonfiction.  Even when I go with the express purpose of finding a novel, I come back with nonfiction.  For a long time, this made no sense.  Until one day, the lightbulb came:

Most fiction book covers stink.

I read a lot, but I can’t have my time or money wasted with poorly-written fluff.  I want a book with stories and information that I already know will interest me.

When browsing blindly, I have to quickly distinguish between the interesting and the pedestrian.  Unfortunately, scanning the fiction shelves, the cover descriptors are often non-specific words that communicate absolutely nothing about the contents.  Stuff like:

“A story of love, grief, passion, sorrow, and ultimately, triumph.”

Name me a modern book or movie that doesn’t fit that description in one way or another. 

Are we talking about The Lord of the Rings?  The Count of Monte Cristo?  Heck – Twilight?  Absolutely nothing about that line distinguishes that book from any of the other books on the shelf.  And it’s not just that book.  The whole novel section is rows and rows of:

“An unforgettable coming-of-age tale.”

“A deeply evocative story of ambition and betrayal.”

Nothing really clues me in on the contents – it’s just some publisher trying to hit me with a heavy-handed emotional blow.  Yes, maybe I’d love to read an unforgettable coming-of-age tale, but what if the main character is annoying?  What if the writing’s slow?  What if “deeply evocative” means something different to that author than to me?

I’m sure some of these books are cool, but I have to make a decision.  I don’t always have time to read whole chapters to figure this out, sometimes I really do need to just judge a book by it’s cover so I can head to the beach already.

After striking out in the fiction section, I head over to nonfiction and am greeted with:

The Happiness Project:  Or, Why I Spent A Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun”

BAM!  Singing, Aristotle, organizing, and having fun?  Pretty much covers some major intellectual, practical, and emotional bases.  The title also suggests that it’s a chronicle of a year-long project, so I get a sense of the structure, purpose, and content in one punchy line.  I pick it up and scan the back – a well-written combo of scientific research mixed with popular culture?  Cool.  Sold.  In the pile it goes.

I always end up with non-fiction books because they tell me up front exactly what I’m going to get out of them.

Maybe it’s a detailed description of how to cook the best pasta I’ve ever eaten.  An overview of East European history.  Whatever it is – nonfiction book jackets are almost always specific, concrete, and unambiguous about the contents.  I know what I want, and I can quickly judge whether this book will provide it.

Browsing photography websites is kinda like browsing the novels at a bookstore.

Large numbers of them tend to use the same kind of emotional language.  Memories.  Moments.  Capture.  Precious.  Life.

And I don’t blame us for doing it – it’s outrageously hard to put photography into words, just as it’s ridiculously difficult to summarize a novel into a pithy dust jacket paragraph.

So instead, we try to appeal to emotion – one of the fastest motivators there is. 

But unfortunately, so does everyone else. 

So clients are left awash in a bunch of beautiful words, none of which really show what distinguishes one photographer from another.

I could close my eyes and point at the lot of you, and anyone I landed on could “capture precious moments” for me.  But which one of you is really the best photographer for my personality and style?  Harder to tell.  (Especially if I were a client with an untrained eye that couldn’t rapidly distinguish between styles of photography.)

It’s no wonder so many potential clients use the same strategy to find a photographer that I use to find a novel:  Call a friend and ask what they recommend.

It’s time to get a little more concrete.

No need to toss those beautiful emotional words.  Just pair them with more descriptive ones.  What are people really going to get?

Are you the laid-back photographer who kicks off her shoes and spends 2 hours following kids through a strawberry patch while they explore amidst dirt, bugs, and sun-warmed fruit?  After which you’ll stitch the images together in a 30-page album so the family can cherish their day in the sun forever?

Are you the sleek, modern photographer who spends an hour scouting urban locations, Skyping with every client to go through their closet to choose the right outfit, and shooting with fashion-style lighting?  After which you present them with a well-coordinated 6-piece gallery of metal prints for their minimalist living room?

They need to understand the structure, the style, and the purpose – very quickly.

This is not to say that some people don’t value the emotional descriptors on novel covers, or that people don’t relish emotional language on photography websites.

But you’re not just trying to get people to enjoy what you say.  You’re trying to stand out and elicit action – quickly and effectively.

Take them through the emotional experience, but give them concrete anchors that relate to what they already know.

We all love positive, happy, emotional experiences.  But what do they really look like?  What are they going to produce? 

Your website is your book jacket.  It has to communicate what the browser is going to get quickly, or it’s shelved.

No one spends $500-$5000 unless they’re dang sure what they’re getting.

Make dang sure you’re telling them.

For some step-by-step help with that, here’s a free seven-minute website writing makeover.  Try it.

(And if you know of any good novels, let me know.)

Kelsey K. Anderson - Great analogy.

Megan DiPiero - Thanks for the very concrete comparison examples of Strawberry Photog vs. Urban Fashion-loving Photog. Wow! So much to think about. I’ve gotta get cracking on my website redo with this in mind plus the amazing workbook- The Irresistible Website. Your advice is the best! Thanks as always!

P.S. Just picked up the Happiness Project myself. Seems like a great one and Steven Pressfield has a new book I have to get my hands on. (If you haven’t read Pressfield’s The War of Art, stop what you’re doing and read it… now.) As for fiction, meh, I don’t get into that much. Sacre Bleu by the marvelous Christopher Moore is currently keeping me entertained and next up I’m going to do battle with the massive Les Mis– all the better to be prepared for the epic movie premiere in December. Happy reading!

Jenika - Thanks Kelsey!

Jenika - Thanks for the note, Megan! I enjoyed both the Happiness Project and its sequel, Happier at Home. Nothing earth-shattering I suppose, but a good overview of good research and some interesting observations on the way. War of Art and Do the Work were both great (didn’t agree with all of his observations but I think it should be mandatory reading for photogs, along with Art and Fear by Bayles & Orland). Didn’t know Pressfield had a new one! I do love a good fiction piece, I’m just extra discriminating in what I’m willing to read. I think the real world is so fascinating, if I’m going to read a story that someone “made up” it needs to be twice as fascinating with strong writing. But that’s just me. Thanks for the other title suggestions!

Alicea - Love your comparisons here! I started using your website writing makeover tips just this morning and can’t wait to work on the rest of my site. Thank you so much for all the great advice!

Gabe M - Awesome, love this post! And – here is my #1 book recommendation: The Fault in Our Stars by John Green. It’s a young adult novel but packs a punch! A story about a couple of teens with cancer and how it changes their world views (and how they change each other’s), written in a quirky way that will leave you with tissues wet from both tears and milk from out of your nose.

Deanna - Thank you so much for this post, and for your blog. It’s giving exactly what I need as I go through my website. I can’t wait to go through your workbook over the Christmas break!

For novels I highly recommend “The Life of Pi” and if you don’t mind a long read the Mistborn trilogy by Brandon Sanderson. Both are incredibly visual and visceral in their detail.
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Starla - Jenika your writing is so eloquent. Pulls me in everytime. This particular article about books was 100% words that have come out of my own mouth before (not as intriguing of course) I would read any book recommended by you!
Thank you for the website tips!

Matt - This is great, as always.
Time to write some more non-fiction on the website.

Janelle - Great analogy. BTW, I loved The Happiness Project, and I was also attracted to it because of the awesome subtitle. As for novels, if you haven’t read Pope Joan, you totally should. And for more non-fiction, check out _Coyotes: A Journey Across Borders With America’s Illegal Migrants_, by Ted Conover.

Jennifer - I have a write up on my website that trys to guide clients to picking the photographer that is right for them based on style, skill, emotional connection etc. Unfortantly very few vistors to my website even read it. But I think while I have that info I am guilty of not actually showing why I would be the right photographer for them, and making myself stand out.
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Dee - Love your posts. They’re always so timely for me! My book recommendation: Perfume by Patrick Susskind. The movie doesn’t even come close. If you can read German, it’s even better.

Jenika - Danke für die Empfehlung! :-)

Helena Amor - Great post and blog, thanks for sharing

Te - Great post! I have to get a thrid person to go look at my content and tell me what they think.
Im way too critical of myself and will probably delete it all. Better to have imperfect something than a perfect idea.
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Sara - LOL! This is so true.
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