September 2, 2010

The Most Important Letter in Publishing

I eat my peas with honey.

I’ve done it all my life.

It makes the peas taste funny,

but it keeps them on my knife.

–Colonial ditty

However you eat your peas, know that P is the most important letter in the alphabet stew of publishing. Here is a taste of Ps that drive publishing for you to digest:

  • Publishing: The art of transforming black lines of words into a green bottom line and an industry with an unknowable future.
  • Problems: What publishers have always had and have always figured out how to solve. When you’re using a publishing system that goes back a century to sell a technology that goes back five centuries, problems are inevitable.
  • Progress: Technology is 

              * transforming writing and publishing

              * creating profit, turmoil, uncertainty

              * forcing us to be creative and improvise

  • Power: Publishers have the power to say no and make decisions about the commitment they make to a book and how to publish it. Agents with potential bestsellers, bestselling authors, and major customers have the power to make demands. Writers have the power to be publishers.
  • Profit: What publishers must make to survive and pay authors. Authors survive on hope and a paying job.
  • P&L: A computerized profit-and-loss form editors prepare for books they want to buy guesstimating how the books will be profitable enough to justify buying them.
  • Price: An evolving number determined by costs, competition, powerful customers, the need to maximize profits, and what the traffic will bear.
  • Print on Demand: Behind the explosion in self-publishing because publishers only produces books when there are buyers for them. An alternative for new writers, if only to test-market their books, and for established authors who can reach their readers. Publishers are using it for backlist books, and booksellers are starting to use Espresso Machines in their stores to produce and sell books they can’t stock.
  • Privishing: the premature demise of most books that are deprived of the time and other resources they need to succeed because of the plethora of books published every year that prevents publishers, booksellers, reviewers, and book buyers from doing justice to them.
  • Process: From deal to bookstore, publishing a book at a big or midsize house can take two years, a process that’s hard to accelerate if you’re publishing hundreds of books a year.
  • Prose:  Style, voice, and impact determine readers’ responses to a proposal or manuscript for which the writing is crucial. Prose must be as effective as it needs to be to satisfy readers. How well writers string words together to embody their ideas will, sooner or later, determine a book’s fate, regardless of how it’s published.
  • Passion: Publishers yearn to be passionate about every book they publish, a luxury only small houses can afford. Authors have to be passionate about their work.
  • Pitch: The brief description of a book that must excite agents, editors, sales reps, booksellers, the media, and book and subsidiary-rights buyers
  • Proposal: A 35-to-50-page business plan for a nonfiction book that must convince a publisher to gamble on it. For fiction, a synopsis as  much of the novel as agents’ and editors’ guidelines request.
  • Platform: Continuing visibility, online and off, with potential readers. Authors of  certain kinds of books need one to sell books to big and midsize houses.
  • Promotion: Online and off,  marketing is vital for success, and authors do more of it than publishers. Authors and publishers can only be as effective as their books enable them to be. Promotion can’t sell a book that doesn’t deliver what it promises.
  • Publicity: Free time and space in the media are more cost-effective than touring and advertising. The Web empowers authors to publicize their books without leaving their desks.
  • Perseverance: What it takes to see publishers (and authors) through the complex, creative, time-consuming challenges of writing and publishing books, despite the hurdles involved the process.
  • Pride: Like authors, publishers want to be proud of their books. Only your best will do.
  • Promise: Publishers are perpetual optimists who let themselves be seduced by their hopes for a book and an author’s potential.

I hope this pot pourri of Ps has given you a perspective that will push you to persist in getting published.

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Overcoming Publishing’s Problems

August 26, 2010

A Sipress cartoon in The New Yorker shows a medieval prison cell in which a terrified prisoner is on a rack with his hands and feet bound. His hooded tormentor is saying: “Don’t talk to me about suffering—in my spare time, I’m a writer.”

If you’re a writer, mental suffering comes with the calling. The anguish of finding the right word, completing and revising a manuscript, hearing what’s wrong with it, finding an agent or publisher, promoting the book. All of these challenges involve effort, uncertainty, and mistakes. Getting them all right the first time only happens in heaven.

One goal of this blog is to help ease your burdens. But thanks to Steve Piersanti, publisher of Berrett-Koehler, the list that follows won’t make you any happier about your profession. But the more you know, the farther you can go. Steve recently updated

The 10 Awful Truths About Publishing.

Awful they are, but if you know them, you can overcome them. Thousands of authors do it every year, and they’re using technology to create new ways to help them. After the list, Steve offers seven ways to help you do it. Previous posts have also discussed what it takes to succeed in the brave new whirl of publishing.

To see Steve’s list, visit www.bkpub.com, click on Resources, then on publishing documents. (You can also subscribe to BK’s outstanding newsletter.) Here are the list’s highlights:

* Publishing produces more new products per year than any other industry.

* More than a million books were published last year, but bookstore sales are declining.

* More than 7 million books are available.

* The average nonfiction book sells 250 copies per year, 3,000 copies over its lifetime.

* A book has less than a 1% chance of being stocked in an average bookstore.

* It’s increasingly difficult to make any book stand out, in part because other media are claiming more of people’s time.

* People are reading only books that their communities make important or mandatory.

* Authors do more marketing than publishers.

* Technology is expanding the number of products and sales channels but not increasing book sales, and e-profits are slimmer than print profits.

* Technology, small profit margins, the complexities of the business, competition from other media and publishers guarantee change and turmoil.

Steve’s 7 Strategies for Responding to These Truths

1. The game is now pass-along sales, people buying books for other people.

2. Events/immersion experiences replace traditional publicity in moving the needle.

3. Leverage the authors’ and publishers’ communities.

4. In a crowded market, brands stand out.

5. Master new sales and marketing channels.

6. Build books around a big new idea.

7. Front-load the main ideas in books and keep books short.

As earlier posts suggested, reading, models, goals, craft, a series of related books, platform, promotion, commitment, and communities to help you are the keys to your career. Armed with them and your share of luck, nothing can stop you.

Next up: 13 Wonderful Truths About Publishing.


Saving Your Self for Yourself

August 5, 2010

Did you hear about the proposed merger of Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube? The new company is going to be called You Twit Face!

In an insightful article in the New York Times Sunday magazine (8/1), Peggy Orenstein, author of the fall book Cinderella Ate My Daughter, wrote about Twitter. At her publisher’s urging, she is trying to raise an army of tweeple to help promote her book. She feels that tweeting about one’s personal life to please others makes us actors in a reality TV show.

She enjoys Twitter’s “infinite potential for connection” and the “opportunity for self-expression.” But she writes: “The risk of the performance culture, of the packaged self, is that it erodes the very relationships it purports to create and alienates us from our own humanity.”

When the world shares our personal and professional lives, what becomes of privacy and intimacy? This conflict will be the basis for thousands of fiction and nonfiction books. But it brings up the challenge of separating “person and persona, the public and private self.” You can appreciate this tension as a source for writing, but how do you forge and maintain two lives—one online that’s personal and professional, and one that’s private, that’s yours and you share only with those closest to you?

Creating a Living and a Life

A song from  A Chorus Line, which is about actors auditioning for a show,  begins: “Who am I, anyway? Am I my resume? That is a picture of a person I don’t know.” There are more ways to live, write, and get published than ever. (There’s a book to be done about the vast range of lifestyles we have to choose from.) Who you are determines the choices you make, and they become part of your identity.

As a writer, you need to be able to adapt faster than ever in response to changes in culture, technology, the economy, and the growing number of options you have as a writer as your craft, promotability, and career grow.

Out of this large evolving melange of possibilities, you have to continue to figure out who you are clearly enough to create a living and a life. And you don’t have a moment to waste. Devote your time to developing your talents, skills, knowledge, and relationships. You will need them.

Life, like art, consists of drawing the line somewhere. Good thing writers always have a pen handy. May fate elevate you from the literary chorus line to a starring role, yet enable you to disappear as soon as you leave the theater. Become a bestselling author, if that’s your goal. But if you do, you’ll need a private life even more.

(My thanks to our brilliant colleague, Laurie McLean–www.agentsavant.com–for passing on the humor at the beginning of this post.)


Courting Lady Luck: Writing for Your Dream

July 16, 2010

Madison, WI

The harder I work, the luckier I get.

–(tc)

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!


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.

12 Ways to Excite Pros About Your Novel

May 13, 2010

A novel has been called a piece of prose that has something wrong with it. Here’s how to ensure your novel has nothing wrong with it: twelve ways to get agents and editors excited about your work.

            1. Your idea: new, creative, timely, informative, entertaining, transformative, commercial, helpful, aimed at a large, proven market

            2. Your writing: style, tone, humor, drama, inspiration, insights, voice

            3. Your irresistible first page: compels editors to turn the page

            4. Your readers: the community of readers who give you feedback while you’re writing your book and when you’re done

            5. You: your passion, commitment, track record, credentials

            6. Your platform, visibility online and off: blog, short stories, teaching, speaking, a blog, social media, networks

            7. Your test-marketing: a blog, podcast, e-book, self-published edition, serialization, website

            8. Your promotion plan: a list of things you will do, online and off, and how many of them, a budget

            9. Your book’s promotion potential: online and off, reviews, media interviews,   endorsements

            10. The markets for your book: consumers, libraries, subsidiary rights, reading groups

            11. Your future books: your book’s series potential, the synopsis for your next book

            12. Your book’s spinoff potential: merchandising products, short stories, music

There’s a Sipress cartoon in the New Yorker showing a medieval torturer in a dungeon standing in front of a guy being stretched on a rack, and he’s saying: “Don’t talk to me about suffering—in my spare time, I’m a writer.” Using these ideas will lessen your suffering on the road to publication.

I’m researching material for future blogs and looking forward to writing to you soon.


Selling by Telling: Speaking from the Heart

April 15, 2010

Jerry Seinfeld once said that people are more afraid of public speaking than they are of dying. This means that at a funeral, you’d be better off in the coffin than giving the eulogy.

Speaking, like writing, is exposing yourself in public, so  fear is natural. But readers want to connect with authors in person, so speaking can accelerate sales and the development of your career.

If speaking about writing, your work, your subject, or yourself makes sense for your book, consider these suggestions:

Giving talks will help you

* promote and build an audience for your book and other talks

* get feedback on your ideas, your humor, the impact of your stories, and the difference you make in listener’s lives

* build

–sales of your books, products and services

–word of mouth

–online buzz

–relationships with your listeners

–your email list, if you ask for addresses

–a collection of videos for fans, agents, editors, the media, book buyers, and people who book talks

The challenge is making your listeners share your passion for your book. Look at a talk as having three parts: an introduction, the body of the talk and a conclusion. Or as someone once said: Tell’em what you’re gonna tell ‘em, tell ‘em, then tell ‘em what you told ‘em.

As with your book, don’t think about what you’re selling, think about what people are buying. What’s the best way to present the essence of your book so it serves and excites your listeners? Appealing to the head is easier than appealing to the heart. People understand the value of ideas. The heart part is harder. 

The most effective talks inform, enlighten, entertain and inspire. They

* provide valuable information

* present a vision or perspective based on that information

* hold listeners spellbound

* inspire audiences to act, if only to buy what you offer

* continue to improve as speakers learn from responses to them and find ways to make them more effective

Unless you can read a section of your book that will have a strong affect on audiences, the impact of reading isn’t clear to me. Usually, the Q & A session that follows readings is more interesting. But reading is a standard part of book-signings for novelists and memoirists, and if it will help sell your book, do it.

Use handouts. They add lasting value to your talks and can include your contact information, events, products and services, and order information. The organization that  invites you to speak may print them for you.

Want the best intro? Write it yourself. Also write your outro, what you’d like to have said after you speak about book sales, upcoming events, your blog and website.

Most of what you communicate isn’t the words; it’s you. It’s everything else that audiences experience: your clothes, movement, gestures, voice and passion.

To minimize the fear of speaking:

* Attend talks, watch them on YouTube and television, listen to them on iTunes and CDs. Use the best as models.

* Write and revise your talk until it’s as strong as you can make it. Use stories and humor. Credit the work of others.

* Practice your talk as often as you can.  

* Audition your talk. Ask people to make suggestions, and grade the content and impact on a scale of one to ten.

* If you’re planning to read your talk, underline the syllables you will stress. Professionals memorize talks. They look at the parts of them as modules that they can shift and eliminate, depending on the length and subject of the talk.

* Attend a talk at places where you’ll speak, if you can.

The better you know your talk and the more often you give it, the more confidence and less fear you will experience. The kicker: the fear of speaking is a good thing if you use it to energize your talk.

Business, professional and nonprofit organizations need speakers. As soon as you feel ready to speak, begin doing it. You’re an amateur until someone asks you how much you charge.

At the end of your talk, ask your audience to tell you if they know of any organizations that would like you to speak. If you’re speaking before publication, they may welcome you back when your book comes out.

What are the joys of speaking?

* Audiences laughing at your jokes and being moved by your stories

* Listeners telling you how much they enjoyed your talk

* Changing people’s lives

* Getting paid to give voice to your passion

* Creating a community of fans and customers

* Being asked to come back

* Getting referrals for talks

If corporations, associations and nonprofit organizations will pay you to speak, you may be able to make more income from giving talks and selling books after them than you can in royalties.

To develop your speaking skills, join Toastmasters, www.toastmasters.org. If you want to become a professional speaker, join the National Speakers Association, www.nsaspeaker.org.

The pen is mightier than the sword, but the tongue may be more lucrative than either.  

Comments, questions and humor welcome.