6 Keys to Succeeding as a Contentrepreneur

July 29, 2010

If a word in the dictionary was misspelled, how would we know?

–Steven Wright

You don’t have to worry about the word contentrepreneur, it’s too new to be in dictionaries. But to build a career in a digital culture, you have to marry content and entrepreneuring by being a contentrepreneur: a novelist or nonfiction writer who makes a business out of creating content. Here are six keys to doing it well:

1. Look at the potential of your ideas in the largest possible way.

  • Don’t think about one book but a series of books that sell each other.
  • Don’t think about one kind of writing but about every kind of writing that you can use to express and develop your ideas, and, whether for free or fee, use to build awareness of you and your work.

            * If you’re writing a series of related novels, consider all the possibilities for developing your story, setting, and characters in all forms and media from short stories to novels.

            * If you’re writing nonfiction books, think about all of the ways you can communicate your ideas from a blog post to a multi-book series and can use your content for income or promotion.

The next two keys come from a New York Times interview with Dan Rosensweig (7/11), president of Chegg, which rents textbooks. He had worked with the founders of Yahoo and publisher Ziff-Davis, from whom he learned the importance of two things:

2. Have an “unbridled passion” for focusing on opportunities not obstacles. Passion will enable you to transcend obstacles.

3. Look for ways to improve. Stasis is history. (The American Heritage Dictionary used the word motionlessness to help define it, following the word with this quote: “’Language is a primary element of culture, and stasis in the arts is tantamount to death’ (Charles Marsh).” Fewer things than ever are impossible, but stasis is one of them. Integrate the inevitability of change into your life and do what you can to control your writing and your career. Better you than someone else or a force or institution beyond your control. When things change, they either get better or worse. The question to keep asking yourself is: “How can I do this better?”

5. Grow. Find the spot in the constellation of authors in your field that will enable you to realize your goals and devise a plan to get there. Prices rise. So must your income. Think far ahead.

6. Steve Jobs likes to quote Henry Ford: “If I’d have asked  customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse!’” More of the same is relatively easy. Creating ideas for books that readers can’t imagine is always a possibility for visionary writers. Coming up with an idea for a story or a better way to live that people couldn’t know they’d be thrilled to read is an opportunity that’s always waiting for you.

May being a contentrepreneur bring you contentment (but not enough to keep you from staying one!).

Books on Hot Subjects: Trial or Triumph?

July 27, 2010

Almost anything that happens is bad for somebody and good for somebody.


Few things are more exciting for agents than finding a story in the news and putting together a book about it fast. For writers, it represents an immediate opportunity to write about a subject they may already be covering.

The Symbionese Liberation Army enabled me to agent my first book. When the SLA kidnapped newspaper heiress Patty Hearst in 1974, I knew there was a book in it. So I called Alan Barnard at Bantam, where I had worked, and which was well-known for doing instant books, to see if they wanted a book on the SLA. No luck.

Then I called Bill Grose at Dell Books to see if he wanted one. He also said no, but after he hung up, Helen Meyer, who owned Dell, came into his office and asked him about doing a book on the subject. So he called me back and said yes.

Then I called Tim Findley who, with Paul Avery, was writing the banner headline stories on the abduction in the San Francisco Chronicle. He said no, although he did later coauthor a book. So I called Paul who said yes. Voila!, a sale in four phone calls. An exciting experience that took place within a day’s time.

Paul enlisted Vin McLellan, a reporter for the Boston Phoenix, to collaborate with him. They wrote a proposal. I sold it, and they were off to the races. Unfortunately, Ms. Hearst didn’t get captured for nineteen months, so the story was never finished. When she was apprehended, Paul, Vin, and a typist spent two weeks working around the clock in our apartment to finish the book.

But by that time, half a dozen books on the subject had come and gone and the public had been subjected to a huge amount of media coverage, so Dell was no longer interested in an instant book on the SLA. We resold the book to John Dodds at Putnam, which brought out The Voices of Guns: The Definitive and Dramatic Story of the Twenty-Two Month Career of the Symbionese Liberation Army —a first-rate 477-page book at $14.95—in 1977, three years after the event. It was too much, too late.

We had the same experience with Raven: The Untold Story of the Rev. Jim Jones and His People by San Francisco Examiner reporter Tim Reiterman with John Jacobs. Tim, who was wounded in Guyana in 1978, wrote a book that was hailed as “seminal, definitive, extraordinary.” But Dutton published it four years later, and weighing in at more than 500 pages, it too was more than the media-weary public wanted to know. However, the book had a second life when the Tarcher imprint at Penguin brought out an updated trade paperback edition for the thirtieth anniversary of Jonestown. It did well enough to go back to press.

Making the World Better

It’s been said that when there’s a bunch of books on a subject only the first one and the best one do well. But the right books by the right authors published quickly enough can work. At one point, there were seven books about 9/11 on the Times bestseller list.

The New York Times (7/21) reported that at least six books on the Gulf disaster would starting flowing from publishers in September. Publishers are hoping that authors with platforms and different angles will enable these books to attract readers. An event of this magnitude and importance—Times columnist Thomas Friedman called it Obama’s 9/11—merits the in-depth analysis that only books can provide.

The question is whether these books can find readers, despite being about a depressing subject that the media has covered heavily and about which readers can do little or nothing. The better we understand what happened in the Gulf, the better able we will be to prevent it from happening again. Let’s hope they’re all bestsellers. They will be serving the highest mission books have: making the world a better place. If you’re thinking about writing a book on a hot topic, gauge carefully how salable it will when your book comes out.

Joining Your Literary Community

July 22, 2010

Groucho Marx once said that he wouldn’t join any organization that would have him as a member. Fortunately, writers welcome other practitioners of the craft to their ranks. One  reason why now is the best time ever to be a writer is that there are more ways to connect with other writers than ever. Nothing will be more valuable to you than a community of writers who share your goals and challenges and who can advise you about writing, agents, publishers, and promotion. Writers need each other more than ever.

After two posts on critique groups, a reader asked about finding a critique group if you’re new in town. Here’s one way: meetup.com lists writing groups. Type “meetup writing [and your city]” in a search engine, and they come up.

But this is part of a larger question: whether you’re new in town or not, how do you join the writing community?  

In a word: ask!

  • You can ask writers, booksellers, librarians, publishers, book reviewers, writing teachers, freelance editors, and book publicists.
  • Ask your friends, neighbors, and co-workers.
  • You can ask at writing and author events, writing classes and conferences.
  • You can ask your friends on Facebook and your peeps on Twitter and other social networks. Googling “social networks for writers” yields 12,000,000 links for sites like Red Room.
  • You can ask at businesses you patronize.
  • Since writers participate in reading groups, you can search online for reading groups in your town.
  • You can also be entrepreneurial and start a group. If you need a place to meet, at least to get organized, bookstores and libraries are logical places to try. Schools, churches, and other nonprofits are alternatives. A bank or another business with a conference room may be willing to host the group, especially if a member works there.

If you don’t have a collaborator, you’re writing alone. But you can create a continually growing community of writers and others to help you the rest of the way. Writers who are eager and able to help you are waiting for you to find them. Start now.

Writing Wisdom

July 20, 2010

A Dan Piraro cartoon in Parade showed a medium sitting across a table from a customer with a netbook computer in front of her, and she’s saying: “We don’t use a crystal ball anymore. We just Google you.”

An editor interested in buying your book will Google you to get a sense of your presence online. Instead of a crystal ball, they’ll use a computer-generated profit-and-loss statement, along with feedback from colleagues, to help justify buying your book.

What wisdom about writing can I offer that will help you convince editors to say yes to your book? One or a series of books could be written about the wisdom you can gain from doing a job or practicing an art or skill. Some examples:


  • Riding uphill is harder, downhill more dangerous.
  • You have to know your bike, yourself, and the territory.
  • You have to expect the unexpected at any second.


  • You have to be the right distance from your subject.
  • You have to balance color, foreground and background, tension and harmony, and the elements in a composition to create unity.
  • Knowing how to use your camera will help increase your creativity.

Driving a Taxi

  • You have to look at what’s around you but also in the distance both for traffic and for passengers.
  • You will have slow and busy periods.
  • You will have good and bad luck; you hope that they will balance each other.


  • Reading is the doorway to writing.
  • The best reason to write is that you must.
  • You have to capture readers’ interest immediately and keep it as long as it takes them to finish your book.
  • If you have a problem with your writing, focus on something else, and your subconscious usually provides the solution.
  • Your proposal or manuscript is finished only when the people you share it with can’t figure out how to help you improve it.
  • You need mentors to supplement your learning about writing, agents, promotion, technology, and publishing.
  • The models for your books and career will light the way until you’re ready to find your unique path.
  • You have to maximize the value of your book before you seek and agent or publisher by test-marketing it, building your platform and communities of fans, and developing a promotion plan.
  • Promotion is more challenging than writing.
  • The writing you do about your writing is as important as the writing itself (Katharine Sands).
  • Publishers and literary agents are eager to find new writers as new writers are to be discovered.
  • Your passion for writing and sharing your work will see you through the challenges of being an author.
  • You will meet those challenges more easily if you’re clear about your short-  and long-term personal and professional goals.
  • You will succeed if you persevere, and the harder it is to achieve success, the more satisfying it will be.
  • And as I mentioned in the previous post, luck has a lot to do with a book’s success.

I found one of my favorite pieces of wisdom on a cloth bag that Workman Publishing gave away one year at BEA: “The more you garden, the more you grow.” You can grow by acquiring wisdom from any endeavor and you can apply it to writing. The more conscientious you are, the more you’ll learn. May you have all the luck you want, and may the wisdom above speed you on your way.

Courting Lady Luck: Writing for Your Dream

July 16, 2010

Madison, WI

The harder I work, the luckier I get.


With my patient mentor Phil Neumark leading the way, I bicycled 54 miles yesterday, the last leg of my Midwest tour. Hot, a few hills but good shoulders and a bike path part of the way, altogether a fine ride. After biking 73, 60, and more than 90 miles on previous days, it was relatively easy. Arriving on State Street in Madison, Wisconsin, made me appreciate how Lady Luck had smiled on me: I had biked more than 270 miles in four days of riding and arrived safely.

(Riding a bike makes you appreciate things like seamless, light-colored pavement, a rare combination.  A national bike path is in the works, adapting unused railroad tracks when possible. Wouldn’t it be great if it was covered symbolically yet practically in light green pavement?) 

Madison is a very nice, beautifully situated city surrounded by lakes. Although it’s the state capitol–with a beautiful, art-filled building to attest to it–more than 50,000 UW students—Go Badgers!–make it more gown than town. And the first six, tree-lined blocks of State Street are college-town central: a collection of shops, restaurants, bookstores, and Yellow Jersey, an excellent bike shop from which I Fed-Exed my bike back to Citizen Chain, another fine bike shop, in San Francisco.

Courting Lady Luck

To have the best chance for maximum sales, your book needs a lot of luck:

* The right idea 

* Writing that makes every reader a salesperson

* A passionate agent who can

  • Make sure your book is as strong as it can be before submitting it
  • Get the best editor, publisher, and deal for it

* An editor who can 

  • Help you improve your book even more
  • Be a passionate in-house agent for it

* The publisher that can do the best job 

  • Copy-editing, designing, producing, selling distributing, and reprinting your book
  • Selling subsidiary rights
  • Collaborating with you to market your book to the trade and consumers with the right promotion plan

 * The right response from booksellers

 * The right time for your book to be published

* Selling reviews in the right places

* The right media breaks

* Word of mouth and mouse from readers

This magical combination of elements rarely coalesces on first books. Authors usually reach the bestseller list by writing a series of related books that build an audience for their work. Then they write the breakout book that lands them on the list, and by that time, they have enough fans to keep them there. Sue Grafton’s first hardcover bestseller was H is for Homicide, the eighth book in the series. (Part of the price she paid to get there: five of her first seven books were never published.)

A bonus: once you’re a best-selling author, you can write other kinds of books, and your fans will make them bestsellers too.

Eight Steps for Seducing Lady Luck 

* Use books you love like yours and their authors as models for your books and career. 

* Learn about writing, publishing and promotion, and from your mistakes. 

* Have a dream:  a clear, motivating vision of the success you want. 

* Create a plan for achieving it. 

* Dedicate yourself to producing your best work. 

* Be passionate about your books. 

* Get the help you need with writing and promotion. 

* Let nothing stop you. 

New writers succeed every day, and you don’t have to hit the list to be one of them. I hope you have all the luck you need to become as successful as you want to be. You can do it! Make it happen!

Making It Up as You Go Along

July 13, 2010

La Crosse, Wisconsin

Phil Neumark, who’s cycling across the country and shepherding me as I accompany him for a few days, doesn’t like the noise and traffic on main roads. So he looks for state and county roads that go through towns and have more picturesque views. This requires him to supplement his map for the day by improvising, and asking for directions on which roads to take and where to stop for lunch.

People are always impressed with Phil’s mission and are as helpful as they can be.  They aren’t always right, which can mean climbing hills in vain, asking for more directions, and climbing the hills again to get back on the right route. But then, an adventure is what happens when things go wrong.

I had my first flat ever not long after leaving St. James, where we had stopped for lunch. It was on the rear tire which is harder to fix. Phil was too far ahead of me to help. Left to my own devices, had enough time elapsed, passing motorists would have spotted my bones, like a steer that didn’t make it, next to the bike. But the first vehicle I waved to, driven by Kathy and Laurie, two angels in distress, gave me a lift to our hotel in Mankota.

Writing and building a career involves asking for help and improvisation: choosing the right idea, word, agent, publisher, and ways to reach your readers. Not of your choices will work, but keep asking for advice and improvising, and you’ll get where you want to go. Assume that you will back into accomplishing your goals by trying alternatives that don’t work. What you will have left are the right choices for you.

Stay loose!

Changing Your Sales

July 12, 2010

On the  Road: Rochester, Minnesota

Met a delivery man in Brandon who drives up to eighty miles a date delivering Hostess Cakes. He talked about the  wind: it blows hot and humid from the South and cool from Canada and can change at any moment. Controlling the wind is somewhere in our future, but meanwhile what you can do as a writer is change your sails (apologies for the homonym).

Like the wind, publishing is changing faster and more unpredictably than we can understand or hope to control. What you can do is to be clear about where you want to  go as a writer and the best ways to get there. Then you can chart a course and set your sails to get there.

Based on what you’re passionate about writing, the markets for it, how promotable it is, and your ability to promote it, you can  choose from the greatest array of options , writers have ever had for every aspect of writing, publishing, and promoting your work and connecting with readers. Make the most of it!

Tomorrow: LaCrosse, WI-

Minnesota as Metaphor

July 11, 2010

Satisfaction guaranteed or your children back.

–Sign in front of an elementary school in Brandon, Minnesota

Phil Neumark, a friend who believes I can ride a bike much farther than I do invited me to join him for a short mountain-free stretch of his cross-country tour from Astoria, Oregon to Boston. So here I am bicycling through Minnesota finding metaphors as I pedal.

Farmers are using  state-of-the-art technology: lasers to ensure straight rows of corn and soybeans, agricultural prose, planted as close together as possible for maximum productivity; and satellites to help run tractors that drivers only have to turn.

Minnesota is a beautiful, ubitquitously fertile place, a sea of green produce and the pigs and cattle that consume it in the service of a nineteenth-century model of nutrition ripe for change. A symbol of the new model: small growers growing organic produce for farmers’ markets, agricultural self-publishing.

There’s a farm machinery store in Worthington with a $100,000,000 inventory, which can add up when a single monster machine costs half a mil. Bet the manufacturers sure want that store to stay in business, no matter how slow  business is. It reminded me Borders, perpetually troubled, but the recipient of publishers’ prayers.

I passed a sign that said “Reading 5” and wondered what I would find if I could wander off the beaten track: a library, an independent bookstore, or just a comfortable armchair with a reading light shining over my shoulder and a copy of Anne of Green Gables? 

Mankota tonight, Rochester tomorrow.

Phil’s blog with pix: thisisamericabybike.blogspot.com

Social Media to the Max!

July 8, 2010

There’s a cartoon showing two Native Americans standing on a mountain looking at another mountain from which clouds of smoke are rising. One says to the other: “Makes you wonder how we ever lived without it.”

One editor at a major house went from loving Twitter and editing a book about it to ignoring it because of the signal-to-noise ratio. His interest was worn down by the gap between the number of tweets he saw and their value.

Delivering Value

Using social media like Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and author communities like Red Room to build an online network of people interested in you and your books is essential. Building and sustaining that network requires you to get people to know, like, and trust you. This will take time, patience, and persistence. How can you transform noise into signals and earn the respect of potential book buyers?

  • Delivering value with the information you provide and the information of others you share
  • Being responsive to those who contact you
  • Being creative by offering what only you can provide
  • Being consistent 
  • Separating personal from professional communications by having a fan page on Facebook and a personal address on Twitter
  • Balancing the time you devote to social media with your other efforts 

The more valuable you make yourself to people, the less you will have to sell what you create. Your online community will know that your books will be worth their time and money, and worth letting their online community know about.

What Social Media Won’t Replace

Social media can enrich your life, but it can’t replace

  • Writing books that deliver
  • Meeting you; readers want both kinds of connections, and the relationships that your books will lead to will be best enjoyed in person
  • All of the other growing number of  ways you can connect with readers online that I’ve mentiond before, including: a blog, posting to blogs, articles or short stories, videos, podcasts, and a Web site
  • All of the ways you can connect with readers off-line such as talks, teaching, other events, bookstore and media appearances
  • The private pleasures of experiencing your books in whatever form works best for your readers around the world:

              * the feel, smell, and beauty of a well-designed book

              * an audio book or MP3

               * an E-book

                * serialization

 I hope you find the wealth of possibilities for sharing your ideas and getting responses to them inspiring and exhilarating. Someday you’ll wonder how you ever could have lived without them.

11 Important Elements in a Novel or Memoir

July 6, 2010

A computer lets you make more mistakes faster than any invention in history, with the possible exception of handguns and tequila.

–Mitch Ratliffe

Your computer ends the physical drudgery of writing. But it can’t prevent you from making mistakes or ensure that what you write is salable. You may have only seconds to seize the interest of agents and editors who are swamped with submissions. In descending order of importance, here are the eleven most important elements in a novel or memoir:

  • The idea: Will it excite editors because it’s new or a fresh take on an old idea?
  • The first page: Do the first sentence, paragraph, and page compel readers to keep going? (For more about this, please see my earlier post on The S Theory.)
  • The story: Do your conflicts, story twists, and subplots make readers want to know what  comes next?
  • The people: Will your readers connect with your characters and care what happens to them?
  • Page-turnability: Does the pace vary and does the tension or suspense keep your readers turning the pages?
  • The dialogue: Is it varied and distinctive enough and to portray the characters through  tone, emotion, and the way they speak?
  • The writing: Is it good enough for the kind of book you’re writing?
  • The setting/s: Does it reflect, enhance, or drive your story?
  • The structure:  Is how you constructed your story the most effective way to build tension until the climax?
  • The ending: Is it the perfect dessert at the end of a great meal?
  • Your future books: Do you have a synopsis or proposal for a follow-up book?

 Also Worth Noting

The synopsis: Does it tell the whole story in a way that will make agents and editors who read part of the manuscript eager to read the rest of it?

Rising Fast in Importance

  • Your promotion plan: Will it help get enough books to the cash register?
  • Your platform: Do you have continuing visibility, online and off?

You need knowledgeable readers to help you answer these questions. Ask them to use this list when you share your work. My partner Elizabeth Pomada, who handles the fiction and memoirs in our agency, and our assistant, Claire Cavanaugh, helped with this list, which doesn’t claim to be definitive. These elements may vary in importance.

Two suggestions to help you:

  • Make your models first resource: the books you love that inspire you to write yours.
  • As in all things, trust your instincts and common sense.