Tuesday, January 31, 2006

An Unusual Publishing Quiz

As I mPutting-Your-Passion-coverentioned yesterday, I’m reading Putting Your Passion Into Print, which is a great new book by Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry. I picked up on a detail for children’s writers but this book is much broader than one genre. It’s focused on helping authors strategically examine the entire publishing process—from idea to finished book to marketing that product. This book is loaded with illustrations, quotes from publishing insiders and also some unusual facts about the book business.

At the end of their introduction, these authors have an unusual publishing quiz which is a ten-question pop quiz. I’m only going to give you a taste of this quiz and a couple of the answers:

“1. Approximately how many books are published each year in the United States?

    a. 5,000

    b. 50,000

    c. 150,000

    d. 500,000

    e. 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000

2. Bestsellers represent what percentage of Barnes & Noble’s total sales?

    a. Less than 5%

    b. Less than 11%

    c. Less than 62%

    d. Less than 84%

    e. Less than 99.99%

8. On average, how much profit does a publisher make on each book sold?

   a. 43%

   b. 31%

   c. 22%

   d. Less than 10%

   e. No publisher has ever made a profit on anything, anytime, anywhere

9. What percentage of books earn back their advance?

   a. 60%

   b. 42%

   c. 28%

   d. Less than 10%

   e. No book has ever earned back its advance, anytime, anywhere

ANSWERS: 1) c 2) a 8) d 9) d”

OK, did the answers surprise you? Because I think about these aspects of book publishing often, the answers weren’t earth shattering to me. But they should be to would-be book authors. There are many books published each year yet few of them are bestsellers. Publishers are looking for those few books which are going to earn the greatest possible profit for their company.  It’s often difficult to predict which ones will take off and jump into that rare category.

Also think about the information in question 8 on the profit factor. Some people wrongly believe publishers are loaded with endless financial resources and gaining huge profits from books. That type of thinking isn’t based in financial reality. The margins of profit are slim for the publisher and that is the truth.

Finally, let’s think about the last question. Why is that figure significant? The general rule of thumb for advances is the publisher expects the book to sell to the volume where that advance earns back during the first year in the marketplace.  In the contract stage, book advances are based on sales projections. The number isn’t pulled from thin air but based on potential. Now occasionally with a book, these advance numbers will get out of hand and soar but in traditional publishing, these advances are based on first year sales projections.  Return to the answer for the final question on the percentage of books which earn back their advance. Any book which earns back their advance and begins to pay royalties to the author has climbed out of the red area and into the black area of the financial picture—for the author and for the publisher. It’s a significant confirmation of how the marketplace is receiving a particular book. If your book earns back your advance, it’s something to celebrate.

I hope you’ve learned something from the unusual publishing quiz in Putting Your Passion Into Print.  I’m enthused about the valuable insight in this book.


Monday, January 30, 2006

Illustration and Writing Children's Books

I would be a rich man if I had a quarter for every time I’ve heard this question—If I write children’s books, do I need to find my own illustrator? I don’t believe I’ve addressed this question in my past entries about the Writing Life. It’s a common assumption from new writers that besides writing children’s books, they also must illustrate them or find the illustrator. It’s a huge assumption on their part and shows their lack of understanding for the publishing process.

If you are writing children’s books, here’s the key question for you to ask yourself (with brute honesty), “Will these illustrations help or hurt my project with the editor?” Often the honest answer is these illustrations will hurt your case.  Putting-Your-Passion-cover

This weekend, I began reading a new book for writers, Putting Your Passion Into Print by Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry.  Several years ago at an evening with published book authors at Barnes & Noble in Northern California, I met Arielle and David.  Our paths had not crossed until I began reading their book and recognized them (and realized I had their names and contact information in my rolodex). Their book is loaded with wisdom and insight about various aspects of the process if publishing your book. In addition to their own publishing experiences, they have interviewed many experts in the industry. I’m going to quote from a small sidebar in their book about this issue of illustrating children’s books:

“One of the biggest mistakes authors of children’s books make is to submit illustrations with their text. Even if you think your friend or colleague is a master illustrator, hold off making any sort of recommendation about art until after your book is sold. David Allender, a senior editor at Workman responsible for children’s publishing, says, “Including illustrations doubles your chances of rejection. If it’s essential, include directional sketches.” If you are wondering why submitting art could possible hurt your chances, here’s David’s explanation: “Children’s book editors are a bit like musicians. We can read the score and hear the music in our head, and that’s what’s exciting. Typically, pictures drain the life out of the text. Of course, the exception is when there are illustrations that are wonderful. But you have a better chance of getting struck by lightning than submitting this kind of quality illustration.”

This quotation from David Allender and the comparative illustration were perfect. I don’t know writer who wants to double their chances of rejection. It’s something to consider with your children’s book submissions. You may be getting form rejections simply because you’ve combined illustrations with your text for the submission.


Saturday, January 28, 2006

Try Before You Buy

In general, we don’t like to purchase books or music without getting a taste of the product.  When I go to the bookstore, I like to read the back cover, look at the endorsements (if any) then I read a couple of pages inside the book. If I like what I see, then I will take that book to the counter and pay for it.  It’s the same with music.  Either I walk into the store and know the artist and song that I plan to purchase or I take a few minutes to listen with the headphones in the store.

Our experience is much the same with the online stores. Several years ago, Amazon.com launched Search Inside. It allows the potential buyer to try the book before buying. For an example, check out Book Proposals That $ell. If you roll the arrow of your mouse over the book cover, it will reveal a window to show you different parts of the insides of the book. 

I’ve purchased books from this feature and I’ve heard from others that it’s a feature they like and use regularly. If you spend much time looking at Amazon.com books, you learn not every book includes “Search Inside.” Why not?

Someone has to take the time to send the book to Amazon.com. Then it takes several weeks for Amazon.com to get the pages scanned and on their site. That “someone” is often the publisher for your book.  But it doesn’t have to be just your publisher.  Authors can also submit their own books to Amazon.com and activate this feature. Here’s the link to get started in the process.  It involves filling out a legal release, printing it and mailing it to a specified address with a physical copy of the book. Then you wait until the book gets through their system and one day it magically appears on the book page.

I’ve often written in these entries about the writing life about the overstretched and understaffed publicity and marketing staffs. These people love books and want to get this submission for every book but likely it doesn’t happen.  They are limited. As a author who cares about the details for marketing your books, it’s another opportunity for you to take action. I’d suggest checking with your publisher to see if they plan to handle this detail—and if it hasn’t been done, you can offer to handle it.  For Book Proposals That $ell, I worked with a small press with few marketing resources. I submitted my own book to Amazon.com and Christianbooks.com.

Is it helping to sell books? I’m sure of it.


Friday, January 27, 2006

Tireless, Creative Promotion

It happens almost every time I travel. I fall behind on processing the steady steam of magazines which come to my home. I read a wide variety of publications and look for story ideas and information about publishing. While reading through the January 30th issue of Forbes, I found a fascinating article called Promote It Yourself (thankfully also online so follow the link).  The subtitle which caught my attention read, “With book sales flat, authors find creative ways to pitch their offerings.” 

Forbes illustrated this article with a familiar face (at least to me) of J. A. (Joe) Konrath surrounded with United Postal Service buckets of mail. Konrath’s story and his solution is captured on his website as an encouragement to writers.  While the entire Forbes article isn’t about Joe it highlights the tireless and creative promotional efforts—and in particular his effort to reach 7,000 librarians to purchase his books.  Here’s a key quote from Kerry A. Dolan’s article, “Konrath says he spends 90% of his time and about $40,000, nearly half his annual income, hawking his books. So far it's working. The first two have sold 70,000 copies, prompting Hyperion to give him another six-figure advance for three more. "I needed to take control of my own business," he says.”

By the way, for Joe Konrath to get into Forbes is a pretty amazing feat. Why? Because this magazine has a world-wide readership of five million. Who knows if it will boost his book sales but it certainly can’t hurt.

The thought of tireless promotion for your book may wear you out. From my view, you don’t have to promote constantly—just consistently and regularly.  It can simply never stray far from your mind or attention. Why? Because as the author, you have the greatest passion for your own work. Certainly the publisher cares and has invested in getting your book into the market. As I’ve mentioned in the past, publishers will push on your book for a few months. If it catches, then possibly it will get some additional attention. If not, then the publisher presses on to other titles.  The author needs to understand there is a constant flow of new books within the publishing house. Yet some backlist titles are slow to catch on but become strong backlist sellers for the publisher. If your book is lagging in attention, follow some of the tips Lissa Warren gives in this article. The point is to be trying something on a regular basis. While your book may fade from the focused attention of your publisher, it should never fade far from your attention.

Often you have to be thinking ahead about promotion opportunities. Magazines typically work six to eight months in advance. Here’s a little personal story to illustrate. Last year, I wrote Running On Ice for Vonetta Flowers in a very fast-paced project. The pace and deadlines came from the publisher so they were out of my control. They determined to release the book in February 2005 or timed for African American month. When I stepped into the writing project, the book was already scheduled for release and being sold into the bookstores. The book came out on schedule yet didn’t meet the publisher’s expectations. Now this publisher has a new marketing director who is actively working to tell people about this book. Why? The news peg for this book is current. Several weeks ago it was aRunningOnICEcovernnounced Vonetta will be a part of the United States women’s bobsled Olympic team. It gives her a chance to repeat her Gold Medal win from the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake.

Many months ago, I sent Running On Ice to a personal contact at Guideposts, which is one of the top 20 circulation magazines in the United States with a paid circulation of 2.6 million. When I pitched the story idea to the editor, I hoped to write the story (I didn’t). The February issue of Guideposts includes a story by Vonetta Flowers on page 48 called Winter Dreams. The great news is on page 102 which also includes the Running On Ice cover and includes these lines, “She talks about her faith and unlikely bobsled career in the book Running On Ice, available in stores and from her website, vonettaflowers.com.” While the publisher was excited about this opportunity, as the author, I was the person who sent the book and followed up on the idea. It doesn’t happen all of the time but in this case, it did and hopefully results in lots of good things for this book.

You can see what I mean about tireless and creative promotion. Some times your work pays off.



Thursday, January 26, 2006

More Little Pieces and Blurred Lines

Earlier this month I wrote about how controversy sells and I used the example of the James Frey book, A Million Little Pieces. Today on the Oprah Winfrey Show, Oprah reversed her previous defense of Frey’s stretching the facts.  She had the author on her show and reversed her position. As the New York Times article reports, “I gave the impression that the truth does not matter,” Ms. Winfrey said. “I made a mistake.” To all of the viewers who called and wrote to her telling her she was wrong to allow Mr. Frey to maintain that his book reflected the “essential truth” of his life even though substantial details were falsified, Ms. Winfrey said, “You are absolutely right.”

I’ve read in other articles that Frey has decided not to write any more nonfiction but only to write fiction for his future books.  It’s probably a wise decision on his part. By it’s nature, memoir and nonfiction are true stories—not created like fiction.  The line between fiction and nonfiction blur at times—and to me that’s a problem and concern. It pops up in publishing from time to time. The controversy over the Frey book is only the most recent example. Over fifteen years ago, Questar Publishers released a full-color hardback book called Bible Animal Storybook by Mack Thomas.  At that time Questar Publishers was a separate company from Multnomah Publishers and this book was a major release for this company. A variety of key Bible stories were told from the viewpoint of talking animals. These stories were well-told and fun for kids. I had a key problem with this book because 1) animals don’t talk and 2) I believe the events of the Bible aren’t fiction but are historical events.  With this book, the lines between fiction and nonfiction or make-believe and truth were totally confused.  Small children can’t distinguish between reality and fiction.  That skill comes later in our development. Now this book is long out of print. If you work at it, you can still track down a copy.

My hope is the distinction between nonfiction and fiction will continue to be made—even if every now and then a book comes along which blurs the lines.


Wednesday, January 25, 2006

Tale of Four Covers

Samuel Morris #1

If you haven’t worked inside of a publishing house, it’s likely you haven’t seen the variation of design for a single book cover. In this particular case, these covers are from printed books and different releases.  In between thSamuel Morris #2e covers, each book is exactly the same text. It’s a book that I wrote over ten years ago. 

Samuel Morris was born about 1873 as Kaboo in the interior of Liberia. An African prince, Samuel Morris stole away on a ship coming to America. He became a Christian and actively shared his faith and touched many people during his brief twenty-year life. I was privileged to write the story of his remarkable life. There is a building named in his honor at Taylor University in Upland, Indiana.

The first cover is the first version which was released (on the left). Then the publisher redesigned this Heroes of the Faith series and issued new book covers or this one (on the right).

Then in 1999, the publisher sold part of the rights for this book to Chelsea House Publishers who reaches the educatioSamuel Morris #3n and library market. Chelsea released a hardcover version of this book as you can see below on the left.

 Last week, Barbour Books sent me some copies of the new release of Samuel Morris. The earlier paperback books were in a trade paperback size. This new release (above on the right) is in a mass market size. You can see the sticker which reduces the book to $2.97 but on the back cover the printed price is $4.95. This type of marketing is business as usual for Barbour Books which is known for producing economical books. I was glad to receive this new version of Samuel Morris.Samuel Morris #4

Does anyone notice anything that is missing on the cover of these books? I’ve said it before in these entries about the writing life that one of the hardest things to proofread is something that is not there.  Instead of keeping you guessing, I’ll tell you what is missing—the name of the author. It’s not on the cover nor on the spine of the book.  It’s another design choice that Barbour Books made with the creation of this series of books. They are content driven—not author driven.  A customer doesn’t walk into the store and ask for a book by Terry Whalin and instead they are drawn to the subject matter for the book.

When I signed the contract for this book (and several others that I wrote for Barbour Books), I understood my name would not appear on the cover of the books. It simply wasn’t how the series was designed or marketed and I was OK with it. I did the project as a work made for hire which means you get paid a fee and give up any rights or future earnings or control to the publisher. Thankfully for over ten years, Barbour Books has kept me informed and occasionally sent author copies when the book was changed.  They weren’t obligated to send these books but they did it—and that means a lot to an author.

If you are starting out in your writing career, you may wonder why in the world I would write a book without my name on the cover. Or you may be wondering why anyone would do it.

There are many different reasons for writing—and that’s part of my motivation to tell this story. Over ten years ago I had barely published a single book—and that book was a children’s book which released in 1992. I was eager to write additional books—any type of books—whether they included my name on the cover or not.  A writing credit is a writing credit and you need to repeat that over and over. My name still appeared on the title page of the book and it counted as a published book. Too many writers only want to write the book if they receive credit.  Often you don’t have the luxury of that decision early on in your writing career.  Writing work is writing work and you should take it wherever you can find it. While your opportunity might not have everything, an opportunity to write a book is an opportunity—no matter what other details are involved with it (like I had in my experience with this biography).

From my experience in publishing, I know something else about Samuel Morris. It has continued selling at a level which is acceptable for the publishSamuel Morris #4 backing executives at Barbour Books. Otherwise why would it continue to be in print? It is selling. Because I wrote this book as a work made for hire, I don’t receive royalty statements (typically where an author can keep track of their sales numbers). In over ten years, I had not even tried to ask for the numbers (and I knew Barbour didn’t have to send them to me). This week, I asked the publisher and to my surprise I learned this book has sold over 74,000 copies! Now it depends on the publisher as to what they call a “bestseller” but in general anything over 5,000 or 10,000 copies is considered good in some circles. From my view, Samuel Morris has done really well.

With the arrival of the mass market paperback version of Samuel Morris, I received one additional surprise. I know it’s pretty small but check out this back cover (to the left).  What I’m trying to point out is the line underneath the book title, Samuel Morris.  My name was added to the text. The overall book design is still in the mode of the first version in that the emphasis is not on the author but on the subject matter.

For me, it was a remarkable tale of four covers. I hope it contains some valuable publishing insight for you and your own writing life.


Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Beat Those Blues

I’m a bit skeptic about this proclamation.  I read it in my local newspaper, the Arizona Republic, then I found an article online. Health magazine has researched and proclaimed today, January 24th, as the most depressing day of the year.   The conclusions are based on the let down from the holidays, that most people have broken or given up on their resolutions and the due date for huge bills from holiday spending.  The article gives some great tips for ways to beat those blues.

Writers seem to get hit constantly with great fodder for depression. Projects are canceled or they find the mailbox with another rejection letter.  The rejection letters can arrive in the email box or the physical mail box. Admittedly it’s hard to keep going and believe in yourself but it’s possible.

The only group that might receive more bad news than writers are active literary agents. The legitimate agents are the ones who only get paid when they sell a project for their clients. And what about those payments?  Publishers are trying to control their own cash flow challenges so they schedule the payments in a variety of scattered payments hooked to some publishing deadline or marker. The lion share of those payments go to the writer and a percentage goes to the literary agent.  Agents who are making a living at the publishing  business are constantly sending out submissions for their clients. They are constantly receiving rejection notices. Also these agents keep track of their submissions. When they don’t hear from a publisher over a reasonable amount of time, they will check with that editor.   When this agent checks with the editor, in general, they should put on their protective armor because in general, time without a response isn’t a good signal.  Many times the editor will say, “Oh, yeah, that project—our publishing house is going to pass on it. Best wishes placing it elsewhere.” In their search to place projects for their clients, agents receive lots of rejections.

Here’s several quick ideas how to beat the blues of rejection:

1. Take a deep breath and understand it’s not personal. It’s business. You can’t repeat the first two sentences often enough. It’s not about you. It’s about the work and placing that work in the right place at the right time with the right publisher.

2. Redouble your own efforts to improve your own writing. Take a class. Read a recommended book on writing. Listen to a tape or seminar. For example, Annie Jennings PR includes a number of free teleseminars. Follow this link and download several and listen to them. Then plan action steps from what you learn in the writing book or the seminars.

3. Make sure you are seeking to have balance in your life with exercise and rest combined with hard work.

Take some action steps and you can beat those blues.



Monday, January 23, 2006

Two In One Day

Today I received a couple of fiction queries for Howard Publishing. In general, I try and process these queries fairly quickly.  As an author, I always know I’m interested in hearing back from the editor. It’s not always possible to answer in a short amount of time but I handled the two queries fairly quickly today.

Ironically each of them were similar. Neither one contained a mechanism for the editor to respond. That’s commonly known as an SASE or Self Addressed Stamped Envelope. Instead of an SASE, many people are including an email address. Either one is fine for the editor to respond. It is the responsibility of the author to give the editor a way to respond. Why?  Take our current postage then multiple it by thousands and you will see the unbudgeted and out of control expense for a publishing house.

As a writer, I’ve included a SASE or email address and not received a response. It happens for a variety of reasons. Some editors aren’t as conscientious to respond in a timely way to their email or mail—and other editors place their priorities on other areas of the work. If you include the response mechanism and don’t receive a response, what are the chances of getting a response if you don’t include anything? It’s a huge long-shot from my view.

One of these two queries came certified mail. That means instead of 37 cents (the increased first class postage), this author forked out $4.42 to get a signed receipt verifying the arrival of the query. Yet this same author didn’t include a mechanism for me to respond. The second query simply came without a response mechanism.

I had pity on these two first-time authors. I could have logged their queries and toss it. Instead, I stuck a couple of stamps—along with a postscript to my form rejection letter. For the author who sent her query certified mail, I encouraged her there was no need for that type of expense—but she did need to send a means for the editor to respond. For the second letter, I added these words, “You are missing something important—a way for the editor to respond—commonly known as a self-addressed-stamped-envelope or SASE. It is the author’s responsibility to include this means of response. If not an SASE then I suggest you give an email address for a response. You gave nothing. It is an unbudgeted expense that can add thousands of dollars. So…if you are not hearing from publishers in response to your query letters—that is the reason. Keep at it.”

The effort took me a little extra time but it felt right to help educate a would-be writer. I rarely receive these types of query letters (ones without a means to respond)—and last year I received over 500 submissions for six to eight possible spots on the fiction publishing schedule at Howard Publishing. I hope and pray each of these authors receive my help with the right attitude. I certainly gave it in the spirit of helping.


Sunday, January 22, 2006

More on Book Proposals That $ell

About a month ago, Stacy Harp, president of Mind and Media, interviewed me about Book Proposals That $ell. If you’ve not seen Stacy’s blog, I’d encourage you to take a look because of her interesting view of the media and books. Book-Proposals-That-Sell-co

The interview went live recently and you can download the thirty-minute interview at this link. Even if you’ve heard me teach about book proposals, the interview gives some recent examples and illustrations to some of the points of the book. It’s a way to gain some additional insight on this important topic. If you’ve read and studied the book, it will give you some reminders.

I’ve learned my book is headed back to press. It’s always an exciting milestone for any author to hear about their book. It’s exciting whether they printed a small amount of books or a large amount of books. Why? Because the reprinting gives you a chance to fix a limited number of pages.  From my work inside publishing, I know each change costs my publisher yet my publisher is also committed to excellence and wants to remove a few typographical errors and missing words.

I haven’t received much of this type of feedback but when I do receive it, I’ve kept track of these changes. Now is the time to get it fixed and I’m grateful to be able to improve on this strong product. I understand the topic is an “evergreen” or something that can continue for years.  Book Proposals That $ell isn’t tied to a current event which will fade from the public attention. Instead millions of people dream about getting a book published.  I find most of them are working on their book manuscript when the publisher needs a book proposal. They have tackled the publishing process backwards. From my perspective the best way for these would-be writers to realize their dream is to increase their understanding of the publishing process and create a book proposal.

If you are one of those readers who spotted some missing words or typos in the book—and you want to write me. Now is the time. Send your message to terry@terrywhalin.com.  I will not be offended in the least and it will give me a chance to make sure every possible change is carefully considered and handled. You will notice how I phrased that last sentence. It came from long experience. I didn’t promise to make every change. I promised to consider every change.  Why? I will evaluate these changes then submit them but the final decision will not be in my hands. It’s in the hands of my publisher. It’s part of the team effort involved in traditional publishing.

I’m celebrating the opportunity to spread the word again about my book and that it is headed back to press for another printing. As you can see, it’s not a one time experience but this type of book promotion is something that is on-going (or at least it should be) for every author.


Friday, January 20, 2006

The Surprising News

When I received the email this past week, it surprised me.  I should have seen it coming.  With a short note, another one of my books has passed out-of-print. Through the years, several of my books have gone through the process.  It’s an area that writer’s rarely think about—until it happens.

When I received my royalty statements from this publisher, I knew the sales had slacked off for this book. That’s why the news shouldn’t have surprised me—but it did. 

Publishers are constantly bringing new product into the marketplace.  Also they are monitoring their backlist product (older books) to see how they are selling.  There is limited warehouse space and limited top zero marketing energy for these older books. When sales fall to a certain minimum (which is different for each house), someone makes the decision to put the book out of print. Contractually they write the author and alert him to this decision then allow him to purchase the remaining copies at a substantial discount.  I’ve worked with a number of different publishers and I’ve rarely seen this part of the process handled properly. For one book, the publisher declared the title out of print and sent me the remaining five copies. I received five free books but there was no opportunity to purchase additional books since they were gone. This week the news from the publisher was even worse.  The editor’s email said my book was going out of print and I needed to write immediately to purchase the remaining copies. The short note gave no specifics about the number of copies or my purchase price. A few hours later, the same editor wrote and said there were no remaining copies but the small amount of stock had been discarded and destroyed.

For the author, this part of publishing seems unfair. I spent hours in the creative process to put together a book proposal. Some editor championed my book inside the publisher. Then a literary agent negotiated a contract and I was given a set of deadlines for the writing portion. The writing was a pure labor of love for this project and involved weeks of late nights. I came home after a long day of work and (with my wife’s blessing) sat at my computer and wrote more pages on this manuscript. Weekends were nonexistent with those steep deadlines of writing and researching for the book. I made the deadlines and the book rolled off the presses and was sold into the bookstores. Yet this particular book never found it’s audience or niche in the marketplace. It had marketing and sales energy behind it but for whatever reason, it never sold—consistently. The steady part of sales is what keeps a book in print.  Some books never make the bestseller list yet through their regular sales, they provide a regular steam of income for the author and the publisher.

It’s like I’ve often written about in these entries on the writing life. Publishing is a business. Yes, it’s a creative endeavor of the heart and mind for the people who are in it. Yet to continue, it remains a black and white business about sales. I know the life for this particular book is over in that area.

Could I sell it to another publisher? Yes, it’s possible.  As an editor, I’ve contracted some books from other authors which have gone out of print. It is often harder to sell the book a second time than to sell it in the first place (which was also difficult). When the publication committee considers contracting a book which has passed out of print, they ask a different set of questions.  As much as possible, they prod about why the book didn’t reach the intended market and why the editor believes this time will be different. If the passion, vision and difference is present, then the publishing executives decide to bring a book back into the marketplace—hopefully with different results. It’s a risk for everyone (publisher and author) and if the risk doesn’t pay off, then the publisher can’t continue in business. It’s that simple.


Saturday, January 14, 2006

Controversy Sells

Some people cringe when their book receives a negative book review. As a writer, it definitely hurts to receive some critical remark or sentence about your “child” or book.  Yet on the publicity side of things, at least people are talking about and thinking about your book. It’s an old saying that I learned from a seasoned publicist and true, “Any publicity is good publicity.” With over 190,000 books published last year—who are we kidding if we think otherwise?Author James Frey

As you shape your book proposal or your novel, just remember that controversy sells books.  Radio and television interviewers love guests who are laced with a bit of controversy. It draws readers and listeners. If you doubt this principle, just take a look at what’s going on with the James Frey book, A Million Little Pieces. This book has been everywhere—the news, talk radio, the regular bookstores, the other places that people buy books like Target, in the airports, or ______. Just pick your favorite spot and the book is likely to be there. 

Last October, Oprah Winfrey picked A Million Little Pieces as the 54th selection for her book club. The book immediately skyrocketed on the trade paperback bestseller list. While gaining Oprah’s selection is a huge boost to the book, I predict this book will sell even more copies in light of the controversy last week. Smoking Gun called Frey’s book “A Million Little Lies” yet Oprah Winfrey and Frey’s publisher, Random House, have stood behind the content of the book.A Million Little Pieces cover Make sure you notice the addition of the little Oprah symbol on the cover of A Million Little Pieces. To a book author, the symbol is worth it’s weight in gold because is guarantees millions of sales.

Last week, James Frey appeared exclusively for part of the Larry King Show on CNN and during the broadcast, Oprah called and verbally expressed her on-going support for this book. The buzz around this title is incredible and it’s because of the controversy.  Interviewers are explaining the meaning of a memoir and whether the information was stretched or not.

OK, I’ve not read Frey’s book (yet—I plan to do so). I did listen to a brief audio excerpt of the book from the Random House website. It is not a Christian book and in fact, Frey says in this audio tape that he doesn’t believe in God. He also tells about writing the first four chapters then not writing the rest of the book until it sold to a publisher (his first book). He talks about the difficulty of writing and reliving the experiences in the book. From my years of writing and editing, I can understand the challenges that he faced to write such material.  Hard doesn’t begin to capture it.

I’ve not read much of the controversy about Frey stretching some of the details of this book. But here’s a story from my experience that might help you understand how it can happen in nonfiction. Memoir is a nonfiction book which is true to the experience of the author. Frey has had some incredible experiences. As a drug addict and alcoholic, I imagine there were many experiences that he could not recall. He mentions periods of blackouts (where he recalls nothing).  It happens in these situations, so you may wonder how he wrote about it. He used creative license.

Years ago, I had the privilege of spending time with Jamie Buckingham, the prolific writer, editor and often ghostwriter. If you’ve never heard of Jamie, I wouldn’t be surprised since he died over ten years ago in 1992. One of his best known books was called Run, Baby, Run. It’s the inspirational story of Nicky Cruz, the New York gang member and how he turned to Christ. Much of Nicky’s early years were involved in drugs and alcohol.  Despite his skills as an interviewer, Jamie couldn’t get Nicky to recall the details related to the stories. The details are what make for good storytelling.  What did he do?  Jamie was charged to tell a great story yet from the blackouts and other such drug experiences, the details weren’t available.  He used his creative imagination and created the scenes.  The book is written in the first person tense and every detail was checked with Nicky Cruz.   Admittedly Jamie took a bit of creative license in this process and created dialogue and details for the story. Years after the fact and the bestselling book, with amusement, Jamie told me that he heard Nicky tell these created stories with great passion and detail.  Does it make the story any less true? No, it shows the storytelling skill that Jamie used to bring that story to life and to print. It’s one of the things that happen at times in the storytelling process.

Back to my key point in this entry about the writing life—controversy sells.  In the creative process of writing your proposal or your novel, take some time to figure out how to build this element into your marketing plans.  It will stir interest—and potentially sales for your book.


Friday, January 13, 2006

Choose Your Conference Wisely

I love the scene in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade where Indy finally reaches the location of the old crusade knight. Deep in the cavern, the knight is guarding the holy grail that Jesus used during the last supper. There are many different grails and the knight advises, “Choose but choose wisely.” Indiana Jones & Last Crusade

As they are talking, the evil character burst on the scene and also decides to choose a grail. The evil man chooses a shiny gold grail (see the photo). You have to watch the film to see the result (I’d hate to spoil it for you) but there are ramifications for the evil character and for Indiana Jones and the wisdom of their choices.

The same type of wisdom has to be used when selecting a writer’s conference. There are literally hundreds of these conferences.  Some have a very simple one-day format while others take four or five days and involve many different people. Publishers have a love hate relationship with these conferences.  Editors can form new relationships and find new talent at these conferences. Yet these conferences take precious time away from the business of publishing. After a conference, some times an editor feels even further behind in their day to day work.  As a result, some editors have decided they can only attend one or two of these sessions a year. Other editors attend even less of these conferences and attend every other year.

From my perspective, you should choose the conference for your need as a writer. What is your need at the conference? Is it basic information? Are you attending to meet a particular editor or group of editors? Maybe you have decided to focus on a new area of writing such as nonfiction or fiction? You’ve done your homework and decided you could learn a great deal from a particular instructor.  From your research, you select and plan to attend a particular conference.

Writing is a solitary task and maybe you’ve decided to get out of your office and talk with other writers and common interests. You decide to attend a particular conference with those goals.  Still other people come to a conference much more on a whim. They learn about a conference one week and arrive the next with no expectations and also no preparation.

Each of us have limited amounts of time and finances (yes, these conferences cost). Who is teaching? What editors are attending? Also make sure you check for last minute changes in the staff. Then you can manage your own expectations and potential disappointment. Things are constantly shifting in the publishing world. Some times an editor will sign up for a particular conference then have to cancel that conference. My encouragement is to choose your conference wisely.


Thursday, January 12, 2006

The Stuff of Dreams

I’ve heard the question a dozen times. “Where do you get your ideas?” or “How do you determine what to write?” The answer comes a thousand different ways.  Years ago, Elizabeth Sherill told me, “Writers are swimming in a sea of ideas.” The trick is figuring how which ideas to bring into reality. It’s the struggle that writers have about what to write but also the struggles of publishers about which books or magazine articles to publish. When you find that match between what the market needs and the writer who can produce it, then you have discovered something special.  That discovery doesn’t happen in an instant or overnight but may require years of persistent work and study and effort.

So often, I find writers are expending a lot of time and energy to write a novel when they should also be learning how to write (and publish) shorter magazine articles.  Yes, I understand their love of fiction and their desire to write this longer work. At the same time, they tend to be incredibly naive about the work of publishing and what it takes. These writers will get caught in their story and write 180,000 words then try to interest a literary agent or a publisher.  They don’t understand many publishers will reject this submission on the basis of the word count. It’s way off the expected mark—much less their writing style or storyline or content.  Or writers will send me a query letter to pitch their story. These letters are often incomplete. Maybe they don’t tell me the completed worth length or they tell it in pages (which doesn’t mean a thing inside publishing—only words count). Maybe they neglect to tell me whether the book is completed or not and whether they have published anything else anywhere.  Then when you get such a pitch letter, as an editor you have a choice. 1) You can reject it outright and send them a form letter (the most common solution). 2) you can write a short email asking for the missing information. or 3) set it aside in hopes to get to it later—often where you get to it and slap a form rejection letter on it. None of these choices are good for the writer because it simply causes more anxiety and doesn’t really get their project into the consideration process.

Jeanie lindersBack to my idea theme where I started this entry about the writing life. In the last few days, I was flipping through the November issue of More magazine.  I found a little story about Jeanie Linders who at the age of 51 wrote her first play, Menopause the Musical. Writer Marion Winik wrote Linders’ words saying, “By 50, I had been a travel writer, an event planner, run an ad agency—even lost everything I owned producing jazz festivals. Then, one night six years ago, I was on my way to a banquet when I found myself drenched in sweat—as I stood in front of the refrigerator door to cool off, I started singing, “Hot Flash” to the tune of Rod Stewart’s “Hot Legs.” Soon “Stayin’ Alive” became “Stayin’ Awake” and I suddenly had a comic musical about menopause on my hands. Five months later, I converted an empty perfume shop in an Orlando strip mall into a small theater.” See the amount of work and energy Jeanie poured into her idea and ran with it? Today this musical is wildly popular and during this year it will travel to Israel, Malaysia and South Africa.

The direction of writing a play and producing it took Jeanie Linders in an entirely new direction for her life. It is the stuff of dreams but dreams based in reality.

As writers we need to work hard and find that niche where our writing will be published. It may not happen on your first or your fiftieth attempt. But if you persevere I believe it can happen. So when those ideas come in the middle of the night or in the middle of something else, take a few minutes to scratch them down so you will remember them. Then plot a course of execution so you get them into a book proposal or a magazine article. It’s part of the writing life.


Monday, January 09, 2006

Ready or Not Here It Comes

Let’s face it head on. There are strong opinions about Dan Brown’s book, The Da Vinci Code. Some people absolutely love the book and have talked about it until you can hardly stand to listen another word. Others love to talk about the misinformation about the Bible in the core of the book.  No matter where you stand on this matter, it is a publishing phenomena. Almost three years after the original publication date, the book still isn’t available in the U.S. in paperback. It is available overseas but because the hardcover continues to be on the bestseller list, what motivates the publisher to release the paperback?The Da Vinci Code cover

Under the typical run of events in book publishing, a book will be released in hardcover, then sell to an expected level. Then those sales will be boosted again with the “new” edition of the paperback release.  According to Forbes, Dan Brown made over $75 million in one year. I don’t know if you noticed the mixture of fiction and nonfiction with the book, The Illustrated Da Vinci Code. This book combines the fiction book text with photographs of some places mentioned in the text.  Some time ago, I read this “illustrated” book had sold over 100,000 copies.

The book will receive another round of attention when the motion picture releases later this year. Today Doubleday announced the paperback will arrive in late March or six weeks ahead of the release of the movie. “Random House imprint Anchor Books said it would publish 5 million paperback copies in mass market and trade editions -- the imprint’s largest ever print run for a paperback and far more than most paperbacks sell in a year in the United States.” Publisher’s Weekly announced, “In addition, Broadway Books will issue a 200,000 copy printing for the trade paperback edition of The Da Vinci Code Special Illustrated Edition on March 28. And leaving no stone unturned, Broadway will print 200,000 copies of the trade paper edition of The Da Vinci Code Illustrated Screenplay May 19, while Doubleday will release 25,000 copies in hardcover.”

No matter what you think about the Bible portion of The DaVinci Code, most people agree the reading experience was excellent. I found the book to be a page-turner. I took it on a trip and was absorbed in the book during my plane ride and late at night during the trip. I breezed through the book in a single weekend. Any writer who reads the book aware of the page-turning techniques can learn from reading this book. It’s the type of riveting page-turning style that should be built into our writing. It will keep the editor interested in your pitch and your proposal.  Whether we are ready for it or not, the paperback edition of this book is on the way.


Wednesday, January 04, 2006

Importance of Follow-Up

It’s one of the simple steps of publishing. Yet some people avoid it and never follow-up. Other people follow-up too soon or in an inappropriate manner where the answer is pre-determined and not what they want to hear—no.

Here’s the situation in almost every aspect of publishing: It is busy and intense with volumes of material and information heading your direction. Into that mix, you need to understand that a great deal of this process happens in meetings where an individual will champion a particular book idea or proposal and rally others around the concept. This consensus building process is important to generate enthusiasm from the marketing and sales area and the publishing leadership. Communication is one of the keys but an editor’s time to communicate is limited. It’s sort of like trying to take a drink of water from a fire hose. Yet in that drink of water, you are supposed to make experienced and wise business decisions which will ultimately affect the bottom-line profits for your company.

Into this reality, the writer wants to receive an answer about their submission.  I’ve said frequently to writers that if you press too much, you will receive an answer which is the easiest answer to give—no.  A positive answer often requires consensus building and time. Yet it is important to follow-up.

In some writing books, I’ve read about writers who will include a postcard for the editor to reassure that they’ve received the submission. From my perspective, these postcards are a bad idea and a nuisance. Maybe they work at a large publishing house where an assistant opens the mail and fills out these postcards.  If I’m traveling, I may not open manuscripts for a week or two. If I’m consumed with another project, then I simply write a date on the envelope and throw the submission into a pile. Imagine my feeling when I open this submission weeks later and find a postcard from the author to acknowledge that I received the submission. It’s a complete wasted effort.

Several weeks ago I received an email from a writer who was following up on her fiction submission.  I checked my manuscript log and discovered I rejected this submission about five months earlier. Maybe that rejection came via email and she accidentally deleted it. It could be a number of things that went wrong but she didn’t know her manuscript had been considered and rejected.  Her followup was completely appropriate and necessary.

Last year, I was doing some follow-up phone calls and emails related to Book Proposals That Sell.  I had a simple purpose in my follow-up call.  I wanted to make sure my package arrived and ask the status of the consideration process and if they needed any additional information. These types of questions are perfectly professional and expected. When I called one editor, as we talked, I could hear her rummaging through stacks of material on her desk and possibly on a table near her desk.  During the call, she located my package and opened it.  My timing was perfect because she was looking for a book to fill a particular need and Book Proposals That Sell fit that need.

With one brief follow-up call, I boosted the visibility of my product.

Be aware that sometime follow-up calls don’t work. For example, I’m working with one literary agent on a project that started from this agent’s idea. I followed-up and completed the proposal.  After several months and hearing nothing, I started to follow-up with calls and emails. Four months later, I learned this project was ready to go out to the publishers about a month ago. In the last couple of weeks, I’ve been calling to confirm the project was sent out and see if there is any feedback. My messages have simply been stacking on this agent’s desk or voice mail with nothing returned and no answers.  At least six times, I’ve called with this simple message over a month-long period. It’s not encouraging to me yet I will remember this situation with my next pitch or project. As a writer, you have a choice and I will likely decide to follow another path with future projects. Don’t feel like you have no power over this process because that isn’t true.

Communication is key in this business so learn the importance of following up—yet in the right timing and the right manner. In my experience, the higher a person’s position in publishing, it’s more likely they’ve learned to handle the area of prompt communication. Maybe I will write someone and hear from their assistant or I will receive a brief response.  At least I hear something from them and that’s always positive.

Finally, make sure you tout your publishing successes with the right person such as the company publicist.  If you publish a book review or an article which promotes or mentions a book, follow-up and call that mention to the attention of the publicist. These people also receive volumes of magazines and information. It’s hard for them to keep track and they will appreciate your brief note calling this matter to their attention. It helps you build credibility with them for additional opportunities.

Make sure as you follow-up that you are building relationships and helping people succeed in their positions. You aren’t finger pointing or calling to their attention something which hasn’t been completed or accomplished.  Your tone in the follow-up is important but don’t neglect to ask about something that has been sitting around for a long time. It’s another one of those signs of professionalism.


Tuesday, January 03, 2006

Create A Memorable Message

As I’ve been driving around town, I’ve been listening to some writing tapes. A panel was talking about book creation and in particular book promotion. One speaker, a media coach, suggested you create six sound bites (or short segments) which are the key messages from your book. You will want to have these messages written down—and practice them.

This media coach told about working with a client on these six key points. The pair crafted their points then she sent the writer off to practice. When the pair connected for another session the next day, there was no improvement.  Then the coach asked the writer if she practiced. “Of course, I practiced,” the writer retorted.

“Did you practice reading the sound bites aloud,” the coach asked. To the writer’s chagrin, she admitted that she had silently read the points several times without saying anything aloud. Sound bites are meant to be used verbally or out loud.  You need to craft these key messages and have them firmly in your mind.  Then when you have a media interview or participate in a radio interview or even a television segment, you can naturally weave these sound bites into the session.

Why work on it ahead of time? It’s because these sessions happen on a fast-paced schedule. In what seems like the blink of an eye, your session will be over. When you walk away from the interview or hang up the phone or whatever, you want to make sure you’ve gotten several of your key talking points into that interview.

What if you get a question which is off base and you have no idea how to answer? A publicist on this panel suggested an interesting solution: just transition with something like, “Well, that’s an interesting question…” then move right into one of your key talking points for your book. Some of you may be sputtering, “What about the question you didn’t answer?” The publicist said, “No one will recall the question but they will remember your answer. The answer is critical and it’s important for you to shape that answer with your message.”

OK, you don’t have a book to promote but are at an earlier stage where you are trying to get a publisher to take your book in the first place. How can you apply this material to your writing?  You will need these six points (or maybe it’s ten points or twelve points for a book). These points will be the keys to your book proposal. They will be the marketing hooks for your idea to get a publisher enthused about the potential audience. They will be crucial to your success in finding a publisher. If you don’t know the key point or points of your message, then you can’t make it memorable. It will simply be one more email or one more manuscript in the editor’s pile to process.

Let’s get out of that slush pile and create a memorable message that translates into helping many people in the days ahead.



Sunday, January 01, 2006

Mail on Sunday

What in the world? I wondered as I walked outside to pick up my Sunday newspaper.  A large white package was perched on the top of my mailbox.  It wasn’t on top of my box yesterday when my regular mail arrived. I suspect it was misdelivered and someone dropped it off on my box.  In any case, I was glad to see it and instantly knew what was inside.

Several months ago, I was assigned to write a lengthy story for Sports Spectrum. It took a number of calls and emails to line up that interview with Shane Doan, captain of the Phoenix Coyotes Hockey team.  The complication was not reaching Shane Doan but the added request from my editor to interview Shane’s wife, Andrea. The Doans have three small children so finally my interview was set up at a nearby McDonald’s. Admittedly it wasn’t your ideal setting for an interview but I managed to gather the content for my story.

Sports Spectrum Jan Feb cover

It was one of those experiences I’ve had repeatedly with interviews. The person I was interviewing had no idea how I was going to put together the story from the jumble of thoughts and stories. Yet I had a clear-cut plan of attack for eventually writing the story.  

Immediately following my interview, I took a few minutes to scratch down some outline points.  I used these outline points to ultimately write the story and the sidebar with it. From my years of writing for various magazines and my years as a magazine editor, I suspected this story could be a magazine cover story.  While I hoped it would happen, I didn’t write anything about it because I know often magazines shift those plans at the last minute. I was waiting until I saw the printed story—and it happened this morning. Yes, you can receive mail on Sunday—even the first day of a new year.

While the entire story is available only to subscribers, you can read the first portion online. During the interview (and toward the end of the story), Shane talked about participating in the Winter Olympics next month in Italy. A Canadian,  Doan was one of 35 NHL players selected to attend the Canadian Olympic Training Camp. “There are 700 NHL players and 67 percent of them are Canadian or 469 players,” Doan explains. “It was an honor to be one of the 35 guys to possibly play on Team Canada.” Shane has never been on this hockey team and at the time didn’t know if he would be one of the 24 players ultimately selected to play in the Olympic Games. “If I get a chance to play on Team Canada. I will be there.”

Since our interview, Shane was selected to play on Team Canada. It’s something to watch in the Olympic Games next month. For my writing life, I’m celebrating the honor of this cover story. In recent years, I’ve mostly written books with a few scattered magazine articles. It was a thrill to read this story—and a good start to a new year.