Category : Questions from Beginners

  • November 9, 2012

    How can I get noticed?


    We’re sticking with answering a bunch of shorter questions for a few days…

    One author wrote and noted, “As I research book publishing, I’m intrigued by the ‘platform’ thing. And as I think about how to build my platform, I’m having a hard time discerning whether publishers would consider my platform attractive or small potatoes. I edit a professional magazines (10,000 readers), help manage an advertising agroup (500 advertisers), am busy with the local Chamber of Commerce (another 500 members), contribute to a popular blog site, have access to a handful of other groups, and have been invited to submit articles to some very popular websites. Is that enough to get an editor’s attention?”

    That certainly sounds like the start of a good platform. Of course, some of the “platform” issue will depend on what you’re writing and who you’re writing to. If all of your professional contacts are finance related, and you’ve written a romance novel, publishers may tend to discount the value of all those contacts. But if you’re writing a book that speaks directly to your contacts, I imagine publishers would find your data base of people interesting. There’s not really a magic number that you’re trying to hit — other than to say “the bigger it is, the better they’ll like you.” However, you’re really beginning to think like a publisher when you approach your platform this way. How many people do you already reach? How often? In how many ways? How can you approach them about your book? Those are questions to talk about with a prospective publisher or agent.

    Another wanted to know, “If my book is published with a small house, what are the chances it will get into Target or Wal-Mart? Do those companies only buy books from big publishers?”

    Wal-Mart and Target use book buyers to select the books they sell. The larger companies have full-time sales staff dedicated just to

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  • November 6, 2012

    On staying current, book clubs, and drinking juice naked


    I’ve had people sending me dozens of questions recently, so I thought I’d try to catch up by changing things a bit and offering several short questions and answers. So the next few days of the blog will sort of head in a new direction…

    Someone wrote and noted, “I have a busy life, and I seem to spend much of it in front of my computer. How can I keep up with the industry? What do you fell is worth sacrificing my writing time to follow?”

    My choices may be different from your own, of course, but I subscribe to Publisher’s Weekly (the bible of our industry), and I get Publishers’ Lunch and PW Daily on my screen every day. They offer a summary of news, with links I can go to when I want to find details. (For example, today the Authors Guild asked the government to look into the proposed Penguin/Random House merger, since it turns out there just MAY be a bit of market-cornering going on.) These keep me in touch with the industry. There are a number of blogs I like, but I’ll admit that I tend to look at the blogs of the authors I represent, and I can’t quite keep up with all the good blogs that have been created. Novel Rocket is good because it keeps you on top of a lot of titles. I still read GalleyCat. Most of the publishers have their own company blogs. I like Mike Hyatt’s excellent blog,,, Digital Book World, and I belong to a couple discussion groups to talk about the business and marketing side of publishing. I’ll invite readers to suggest other good industry blogs in the “comments” section…

    Someone wrote and asked, “What can you tell me about audio books? My publisher isn’t interested in producing my books in audio, though they sell well in print. Is there a way to

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  • October 30, 2012

    Does the publisher have the last word on my book title?


    Someone wrote to ask about titles: “I understand publishers have the last word on titles — how often do they change an author’s proposed title? And if they’re going to change it anyway, how important is the title we suggest?”

    Sure, the publisher probably has the final say on your title — in fact, if you read your contract carefully, you’ll probably find a note about that very fact in the section marked “editing.”

    That said, the proposed title coming from the author is always given weight by a publishing or titling committee. They want to use a title the author likes. In fact, the publisher will sometimes bend over backwards to be polite to an author offering up a lousy title. (My pick for one of the all-time bad titles: Heism Vs Meism, a book by Michael Yousseff with Harvest House. Michael is great. Harvest House is wonderful. The book probably isn’t bad at all. But that title sucks. When I saw it, I didn’t even know how to pronounce it. High-ism versus My-ism? My guess is the stores didn’t sell many copies because staff didn’t know what the title of the book was.)

    Of course, I’ve seen both sides come up with clunkers. Sometimes an author will get stuck on a totally unsalable title and be completely unreasonable about it — so let’s face it, if you don’t have a background in marketing, you may want to give up on that title everyone is telling you is awful. (A retired missionary, who had clearly been in the African bush too long, once went to a friend of mine with a book claiming God would send a wind her way, whenever she prayed for something to cool her off. Her proposed title? Heavenly Blow Jobs.) 

    At other times, the publisher will push for a title that doesn’t fit a book — they’ll claim to be basing it on market

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  • October 26, 2012

    What should I do for my book signing?


    Someone wrote to say, “My publisher has scheduled me for a booksigning, but I don’t know the first thing about doing a booksigning, and what I’ve heard isn’t very positive. Can you help? What do I need to know?”

    Sure. Let me offer some wisdom on book signings and other pieces of information you can’t live without…

    1. Remember that the FIRST rule of marketing is that “YOU are responsible for marketing your book.” So don’t leave the marketing up to the store manager, the publisher, the shipping clerks, or your publicist. Instead, take the initiative. Call people and invite them. Turn it into a party. Let everybody know about it. Contact the local newspapers, radio shows, and tv stations. Send promotional announcements. Get it announced in your church, and in other organizations who know you or have had you as a speaker. Make sure it gets placed in more than one spot in the paper — for example, in the “calendar” section, the “entertainment” section, and the “book” section. Talk with the bookstore management about using their marketing to promote the event.

    2. If you want to get more people there, offer to give away free books. I know an author who once got a radio station to do a remote broadcast from a bookstore just by offering to let them give away a few copies of the book. Free books bring people in, and that’s the key to having a successful signing event.

    3. Learn to work a crowd… even if there’s a handful of people there. Take the time to talk with people, ask questions, and listen to answers. Tell them about your book, and express appreciation for their coming. Have a couple stories from the book (or a scene from the book, or some wisdom from the book, or something) at the ready so you can share part of your work with the people who come

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  • October 24, 2012

    If the publisher has said "no" to my book, can I try again?


    Someone wrote to ask,  “If a book publisher turns down my proposal or manuscript, does that mean everyone at the publishing house rejected my proposal? Can I try with a different editor? And how long do you have to let it cool with this publisher before I try again?”

    A writer needs to understand the entire decision-making process at most publishing houses. First, your work is more than likely getting into the building by way of an acquisitions editor — often a friend of your agent, somebody you met at a writer’s conference, or the person who lost a bet. They’ll read through it, maybe make some suggestions, and eventually make a decision on whether or not they think it is worth pursuing. (And a note on the process: more and more acquisitions editors are relying on agents to do the filtering out of junk, so the slush pile has largely moved from publishing house to literary agency… which means you may have to sell it to an agent first, therefore adding one more step to this process.)

    Second, the acquisitions editor will generally take it to some sort of editorial committee, where they sit around and make literary jokes (“I’m having a DICKENS of a time with this one!” “Yeah, let’s take a TWAIN out of town!” Editorial types love this sort of stuff… that’s why they’re editors and not writers). Eventually they’ll be forced to talk about the merits of your proposal. If it passes muster, it then moves on to the next step.

    Third, the ack editor takes it on to the publishing committee. This is a group of people generally made up of someone from editorial, marketing, sales, and house administration. The sales people will research how many copies their accounts might buy, the administrative people will explore what the hard costs of producing the book will be, and the marketing people will complain that

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  • October 23, 2012

    Should I negotiate my own book contract?


    I’ve had a number of people write to me and ask something along the lines of,“How can I negotiate my own contract?”

    Okay, let’s get something straight right off the bat: You probably aren’t ready to talk contracts with a publisher. Just admit it right now. You spend your time plunking away at a keyboard, and most of what you learned about publishing contracts came in a 45-minute workshop at some writer’s conference, or possibly in a book you barely understood, entitled something like Understanding Publishing Agreements in 6 Easy Lessons. If that’s the case, let me help educate you: When you start discussing contracts with a publisher, you might want to remember that he (or she) has a team of professionals backing him (or her) up. There’s an entire group of people whose professional existence is to make mincemeat out of you. Lawyers, accountants, bookkeepers — even the assistants probably know more about contracts than you do. Have I scared you yet? I hope so. Because I’m not trying to sound superior — I’m trying to get you to understand how important a contract is in your life. A publishing contract is a legal document governing everything about your book for as long as it’s in print… so you don’t want to sign something without having read it carefully, and without knowing what you are signing. There are going to be clauses that sound like they were created by lawyers for whom English isn’t their first language. There’s fine print. There are terms used that are completely foreign to you. And while the publisher isn’t necessarily trying to force you into signing a bad deal, he (or she) is in business to get the best deal possible and to make as much money as they can.

    Think of it as going to a garage sale and finding a great book — a leather-bound, first edition. Maybe it’s

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  • October 17, 2012

    How can I get the most out of my writing group?


    A reader wrote to say, “I’m going to a big writing conference that encourages us to join a critique group. You’ve talked before about the benefit of being in a critique group, but I was in a critique group that didn’t work. What I’m wondering is how to make a critique group actually WORK. Can you help?”

    I’m a huge fan of critique groups, and have participated in several until I moved or they wised up and threw me out. The experience has taught me a few principles for getting the most out of the group. Here are my Ten Laws of Critique Groups:

    1. Ask yourself why you want a critique group. What do you hope to get out of it? You ought to have clear expectations going in, so that you’ve got something to evaluate the benefits later. Some people basically want to hang out with other writers — more or less the same reason they attend writers conferences. There’s nothing wrong with that, and if that’s your reason for joining, you should easily find a group that fits your needs. Others really want a dedicated group of professional writers to take a careful and thoughtful look at their material. If that’s what you’re after, you’re going to need to put a lot more thought into your group.

    2. The value of a critique group is based almost entirely on the membership. So look for people who are AT YOUR LEVEL or maybe just a bit better than you (if your ego can take it) and talk to them about the group. Basically, people want to know what the commitment will be (a weekly or maybe twice a month meeting that lasts a couple hours), what the expectations are (that members will actually READ the other member’s writings before coming to the meeting), and what the benefit is to them (you’ll hear advice for improving your writing).


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  • October 16, 2012

    How can I improve my online writing group?


    Someone wrote to say, “I signed up for an online writing group. The first meeting was great. Then… nothing. There’s no direction. I don’t know what to do. Help!”

    I know what you mean: You sign up for a writing group, and you’re excited when you receive an email telling you who else is in your group. You introduce yourself to the others. Maybe you go back to check out the things these folks have said on recent topics. One morning you sit down at your computer, log on, and can’t wait to start emailing back and forth with your writing buddies. Then something deflating happens…nobody has much to say. You’re not sure where to start. There’s not really a “leader,” so you don’t want to be the one pushing the group toward a topic, but everybody just seems to be sitting there, waiting for someone else to DO SOMETHING. You start to wonder if this group is a bit off the mark…or if it’s you. Instead of participating in the group, you start thinking of spending your time at something considerably more helpful — like online mah jong.

    If that describes you and your online writing group, may I offer a handful of helpful thoughts?

    First, some perspectives regarding a writing group…

    -The group should be a SUPPORTIVE experience. So keep it positive.

    -The group should be an EDUCATIONAL experience. Share your thoughts openly.

    -The group should be a CHALLENGING experience. Learn to listen.

    -The group should be a FOCUSED experience. The others are there to critique your work, not your character.

    -The group should be a FUN experience. Let people vent, say stupid things, poke fun, make jokes…and you do the same.

    Next, let me offer some ideas to get the most out of your group:

    1. Everybody read an article (maybe an online article) and discuss the writing.

    2. Ditto with a book…but this is considerably

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  • October 2, 2012

    Why does an agent accept or reject an author?


    A prospective author wrote me a note and asked, “What is the main reason you choose to accept or reject an author?”

    An interesting question. The “rejection” part is easy: Most of the people whose projects I reject are NOT turned down because I don’t like them, or because they’re unknowns, or even because I dislike their ideas. Most authors are turned down because they can’t write. Simple as that. Not all, of course. I just saw a very good nonfiction idea, but I’m already trying to sell a similar project and felt it would be unfair to take on something so similar. And with the advent of so many good writing resources, I’m often seeing novels that are well-done, but not of the knock-my-socks-off quality. So a bunch of things I see aren’t bad, but they aren’t great. Or they are 70% done, and they need to be 100% done. I’d say under-writing and under-finishing and under-editing are the reasons so many projects with some merit don’t get picked up. The author gets started, but can’t get finished — or perhaps he or she doesn’t know now to finish. That’s why having a critique group or writing partner can help offer you perspective on your work. Another set of eyes can really make a difference on a manuscript.

    Still, I do get sent some really crummy stuff. Bad ideas. Projects where the author doesn’t speak English. Proposals written in crayon (presumably because the wardens won’t let them play with anything sharp). I hesitate sharing some of them, since I’m always afraid I’m going to really tick off someone who sent me an idea they thought was brilliant, and I found laugh-out-loud bad. But…

    A while back I got in a proposal for a book called “How to Make Out With Chicks.” The author was apparently thirteen, or at least stopped growing emotionally and intellectually at thirteen. (From the tenor

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  • September 25, 2012

    Should I write my friend's memoir?


    After yesterday’s post, I had someone write and say, “I’ve been approached a couple times to collaborate on a book, but I’m not sure I want to go that route with my writing career. Any advice for me?”

    1. Collaborating writers come in four basic packages: COLLABORATORS (they take the miscellaneous meanderings of a smart or interesting person and shape it into coherent text, often finding pertinent material to supplement the content), CO-AUTHORS (they add their own content and generally get some credit for having a mind of their own), GHOST-WRITERS (they create the material, which is often used by a putative “author” with an ego too big to acknowledge the use of a writer), and EDITORS (they simply re-shape or sharpen the cogent thoughts and writings of the author).

    2. What’s most important? Clearly define your roles. No sense writing for someone who really wants you to edit. (This has happened to me on more than one occasion. I do great work…and they toss it out so that they can use their own, lousy wording and feel better about themselves.)

    3. What’s also important? Clearly define your agreement. “I will do THIS for THAT AMOUNT OF MONEY. It should take me THIS much time, so if you give me the material you’ve promised, I should have it for you on THAT date.”

    4. One more thing: Define what “success” is. If they’re paying you for a rough draft, produce it. If they’re paying you for a polished manuscript, produce that. If you don’t define success, you’ll find that YOUR expectations may not match up with the OTHER’S expectations.

    5. Make sure you can do the job. I love writing, and I love learning new things, so I always enjoyed taking on collaborative projects. I learned about guns, about investing in stocks, about fathering, about history — writing collaboratively was as good as any class I ever took

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