Category : The Business of Writing

  • September 24, 2012

    Should I write my cool personal story?


    I frequently get proposals telling me about someone’s cool personal story. Right now, I’m looking at a New York cop who busted several organized crime figures, a guy who spent his life in the bush, the child of an on-the-road professional musician, a former Islamic soldier who came to see the world differently, and a very talented poet and songwriter who survived breast cancer. These are all fairly interesting stories, and I doubt very much I’ll take any of them on. Why? Because there’s very little market for personal story books. 

    Here’s what I consider to be a hard truth: You may have led a fascinating life, seen incredible things, and even had miracles happen to you. But in today’s market, there’s not a ton of interest in publishing this information in book form. And while you may not like that truth, the fact is, it’s where we are in today’s publishing economy. No matter how successful these books used to be, or how interesting your story is to you, publishers just aren’t selling enough copies of personal story books to make it worthwhile anymore. 

    I mention this because I’ve been seeing more and more personal story proposals cross my desk. (In hard economic times, MORE people create proposals, apparently thinking they’re going to cash in and make some easy money. Ha!) But right now network television is filled with reality shows — and these are basically personal stories. There are 20 million blogs — many of them people sharing their stories. In fact, the web is filled with people who want to tell the world about their stories. So there are cool personal stories everywhere, and they’re free. And that’s taken away the incentive people have to purchase a personal story book, unless there is a great sense of celebrity or media associated with the book. I represented Lisa Beamer’s post-9/11 memoir, LET’S ROLL, a few years ago,

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  • August 29, 2012

    What else will help my book sell?


    A few more thoughts that came out of my conversation with some marketing people at a recent conference…

    4. Another step in selling your book, and one that relies almost completely on the author, is that there needs to be a successful and growing internet presence surrounding your title. Right now we’re seeing too many novelists visit the same 30 or 40 blogs, shilling their book (and, in my view, not selling many copies). But in a successful marketing campaign, the discussion of the book grows beyond that same chat-fest of blogs. The author seeks out new groups, who share an interest in her stories or topics, and finds ways to talk about the basic ideas in a wider setting. Let me offer an example: If a crime writer can get law enforcement sites to talk about his book, or can link into some networks where people discuss crime and culture, the book is much more apt to take off, and that allows the marketing people to reach more potential readers. For a nonfiction writer, I would venture a guess that your speaking and media platform is vitally important toward making this piece of the equation work. Again, this is an area that is almost the exclusive domain of the author, since publisher helps in this area have a tendency to be a bit flat. YOU know your book best, so YOU should be doing this. Doing regular work in creating an internet presence will require a significant investment of time and energy.

    5. In discussing fiction marketing with this group, they came to the conclusion that space advertisements were an important piece, but ONLY if they reach a targeted audience.Here’s an example: If you’re doing a historical novel set in 17th Century Scotland, getting some ads into the magazines and websites subscribed to by those who love Scotland and its history is crucial. (Okay…I’ll admit that I subscribe

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  • August 28, 2012

    What has to happen to make my book sell?


    I thought it would be interesting to tell you all about a conversation I had with some marketing types while at a conference recently. I was particularly interested in what they perceived as being the components of a healthy novel marketing campaign (and if you’re a nonfiction writer, keep in mind that I was talking with these folks specifically about fiction marketing). We brainstormed what works and what doesn’t, talked about about the various issues involved, and in the end came down to just a half-dozen important steps…

    1. Most successful marketing campaigns are focused on a high concept book. That means the book isn’t just another familiar story, but a BIG story, a BIG idea. People hear about it and immediately understand what the story will be focused on, and that it’s a big, over-the-top idea. Not every book you write will be in this category, but it’s worth understanding that a high concept idea can help you succeed in today’s market.

    2. The second step we noted is that successful marketing campaigns usually have a book with a great cover — which is important to remember when dealing with your publisher. You see, your editor is going to get a couple sample covers from the art director, and is expected to pitch you on them. (One of the little secrets of publishing is that everyone wants to save money on art costs, so they’ll sometimes try to twist your arm to accept whatever they’ve got. It’s cheaper that way.) It’s why sometimes a book will come out with a terrible cover, and everyone is wondering “why in the world didn’t the author complain?” The reason is usually because someone at the publishing house told the author it was great, and to trust them, since they know how to craft great covers, etc. I think this speaks to the importance of educating yourself about covers — what makes a

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  • July 13, 2012

    What’s a fair advance?


    Kathy wrote and asked, “I’m in negotiations on my book contract. What’s a fair advance?”

    Um…that question is impossible to answer, Kathy. “Fairness” depends on your mood today, the publisher’s perspective, your expectations, and a hundred other variables. But the advance will largely come down to “how many copies can the publisher can sell?”

    Agents will sometimes create a formula to try and establish a book’s worth based on past sales, your history of advances, size of audience, and the proposed marketing for the book. They may take into account what you think the book is worth to you, based on your time and energy. It’s funny, but authors often approach a negotiation as an emotional thing — i.e., “I feel this advance isn’t big enough.” But that’s a trap. Your feelings may not be correct. And you can’t always compare your contract to someone else’s contract and be sure you’re comparing apples to apples. (You’ve seen this before — “They offered Nick Sparks a million bucks, but all they could give me was ten thousand?!”)

    Try not to think of the advance as the only important part of a contract. Some of the romance publishers pay fairly small advances — but they sell a lot of copies, and the authors don’t complain when those big royalty checks come in. Instead, think of your book as a project that has a lot of opportunity to earn money for you, over the long haul. We’re all moving away from an advanced-based way of earning a living, so here’s your chance to get ahead of the curve. Think long term — advance, royalties, ebooks, foreign income, etc.

    If you need a formula for determining the immediate value of your book, you might find it helpful to think like a work-for-hire writer. If he needs to make $1000 per week in order to meet his budget, he’ll try to determine how long a

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  • July 11, 2012

    Do I need book discussion questions?


    Timothy wrote to say, “Some book clubs have asked me for discussion questions for my book. I took a stab at it, but came away sounding like my high school English teacher. What do book clubs like to discuss? Do your clients develop book club study guides, or is this rare enough it can be handled on a case-by-case basis?”

    Book clubs are looking for 7 to 12 open-ended questions (i.e., questions that can’t be answered “yes” or “no”) that explore the themes of the book and allow them to either debate the choices made by the characters, or discuss how to apply the situations to their own lives. So for a novel, coming up with questions that foster debate is probably more important than coming up with questions that examine the accuracy of the story. For a nonfiction title, coming up with questions that take your principles and ask people to apply them to their own lives is imperative. Get people telling their own stories and interacting with the text, and you’ve got a great book club.

    I’ve had several authors create book club questions. Again, they usually sit down and get about ten questions that all inspire discussion. Some publishers will put these on a page in the back of the book. If yours doesn’t want to do that, here’s an idea to try: Post book club questions on your web site. It will offer readers genuine value, while increasing traffic to your site and allowing you to cross-sell your other books.


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  • July 7, 2012

    Cheryl Jarvis does some Reviewing of Reviews


    A GREAT bit of writing from author Cheryl Jarvis, looking at the various reviews her book received. Jarvis wrote a nonfiction book, The Marriage Sabbatical: The Journey that Brings You Home, that told the stories of women who took time away from domestic life to pursue their passion. She then stayed away from all reviews of the book for six months. At that point, she printed up every review she could find, to see what people had to say.

    If you’re an author, by all means read her article in Publisher’s Weekly:

    It will offer you perspective, the next time some bonehead who hasn’t read your book says something completely stupid on Amazon, or the reviewer in PW notes that “this is good if you like this sort of thing.” (I particularly like the conservative talk show host who scorched the book, then admitted he’d never even seen a copy.) What’s clear is that “journalistic integrity” has little to do with the world of reviewers. Worth reading!

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  • May 4, 2012

    When a writer needs a staff person to help…


    In response to our series on writers and staff, Susan sent this: “What success tips, or pitfalls to avoid, can you provide for hiring part-time staff?”

    First, I think you can ask yourself “what is my single greatest point of vulnerability? How could I get help in that area?” That will help you figure out when you need help most. All of us have stuff we don’t want to do, or don’t have the training to do, and it’s often best to bring in a professional who can help us get it done. 

    Second, before hiring anyone, even on a short-term contract basis, make sure you have your own life organized. If you have a calendar, a filing system, an address book, and a clear “to do” list with A, B, and C priorities, you will be better prepared to work with someone else. Without your own personal organization, you’ll find it nearly impossible to organize others.

    Third, keep in mind the best time to fire a person is when you don’t hire them. (Kudos to Bobb Biehl, management guru, for phrasing this so well.) All of us have had to fire a person who didn’t work out after we’ve invested a lot of time, money, and energy into their career. It hurts, and it puts us further behind. So don’t just hire anyone — hire the right person to work with you.

    Fourth, if the person you’re interviewing simply doesn’t have the skills you need, ask yourself if you have the time and desire to train them. Sometimes a person YOU train is better than the person somebody ELSE trained. If they don’t have the experience the job requires but they have the skills, ask yourself if the position needs that extra level of sophistication, or if you can offer them the experience they need.

    Fifth, keep in mind that all of us were once beginners. Look

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  • May 2, 2012

    More on “Does a writer need a staff?”


    As a follow-up to yesterday’s question, Jim wants to know, “How did you find the right person to work with? And how did you justify the expense?”

    I asked around, found candidates, then I asked them hard questions. Most of us want to hire someone because we LIKE them — and, unfortunately, we end up hiring someone just like ourselves. So that individual always feels frustrated and they never quite have the skills to fill in the remaining gaps. So let me make a suggestion: BEFORE you start interviewing anyone for the job, create a simple position description that describes what it is you need done. 

    It will look like this:

    Job Title:

    Here’s What I Need Done:

    Here are the on-going responsibilities:

    Here are the hours I’d like:

    Here’s my definition of success:

    Skills required:

    Experience I’d prefer:

    Additional thoughts:


    If you do something like this ahead of time, you can evaluate a candidate against your expectations and their skills. It’ll keep you from hiring that nice, perky assistant who, unfortunately, doesn’t know how to read.

    As for the additional expense, I make my living representing authors. Any help I can get to take away other responsibilities and work more effectively with authors is generally worth it. In the long run, I make MORE money paying somebody else to do my taxes and mow my lawn and copy-edit my manuscript and double-check all the citations than if I were to do it myself. Does that makes sense?

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  • May 1, 2012

    Does a writer need a staff?


    Veronica sent me a question about working with outside help: “Do you think writers should ever hire a staff person? (And what sort of staff do you use?)”

    I think it’s possible for a writer to have others helping in various ways — research, editing, design, marketing, branding, etc. But I want to encourage you to expand your vocabulary a bit… Think of the word “staff” as being defined as something like “all those people who work WITH you to help you succeed at your job.” If you do that, you’re not just “picking up a freelancer” to assist you. Instead, you are “working with your staff.” So, the way I look at it, any time you use another person to assist you, you’re hiring staff to help you get your job done. 

    With that in mind, I’ve had a number of part-time staff work for me in different capacities. When I ran a writing and editing service, I would hire (on a contract basis) people to transcribe speeches, to read manuscripts and give me their evaluation, to copy-edit, to create an index, to write back-cover and marketing copy, to research, to create study questions, and (sometimes) to simply sub-contract some of the writing jobs I’d taken on. I also hired a bookkeeper to take care of checks, a tax guy to deal with Uncle Sam, and an artsy type to assist in discussions over covers, posters, web sites, etc. All were part time. And though none were official employees, they were all part of my “staff.” I paid them a fair wage, but I wasn’t interested in making anyone an employee.

    Some writers who have had success and need assistance in particular areas use this sort of approach — specialists who can help in specific areas. Others use more of a generalist approach, hiring someone to assist them in whatever comes up. There’s no right way to do it

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  • April 27, 2012

    Who do you do with a bad review?


    Colleen wrote me and said, “I just got a terrible review on Amazon. I hate even going there to look at it. Tell me, what do you do with a bad review?”

    It’s one of the things unpublished authors don’t realize… once you put something into print, it’s there forever. If you say something stupid, and you’re stuck with it. You can go to the person and apologize, but the words are still out there, waiting to be discovered by millions of other potential readers who will never get to hear your personal explanation or apology. 

    Writing is a scary thing.

    I’ve often done fairly blunt assessments of books and articles, and at times I’ve hurt people’s feelings. But I never set out to do that. I mean, it’s not like I saw the book, didn’t like the author, and decided to toast them just for fun. When I’ve said something was stupid or badly written, it was because I was trying to offer an honest evaluation of a project. But that’s not universally respected. Let’s face it — plenty of people ONLY want you to stay something nice, or to say nothing at all. 

    So if you’re asked to review a book that’s awful, what are you supposed to do? Lie about it? It seems to me like the best thing to do is to be honest but as gracious as possible, speaking the truth (or at least the truth as you see it) in love. It’s those sorts of jobs that can get you into trouble.

    Unfortunately, a bad review like that can hurt an author’s career (to say nothing of the author’s feelings). So I find that when I’m simply asked to review a book for a friend, I tend to simply stay away from reviewing a book I didn’t love. That means the title will get a falsely-positive set of reviews, but  I don’t have to

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