• January 16, 2009

    A Bit Detained… (Updated)


    Sorry for the delay in posting, but I was in a bad car accident. I was taking a field trip to visit some publishers with a bunch of graduating college seniors, we slid on a snowy road and had a very bad wreck. I'll post in a day or two (when I'm not in a vicodin-induced haze).

    UPDATE: Thanks to everyone for the prayers and best wishes. I'm doing better today. Sore everywhere, and still having problems in my abdomen, but the doctors tell me I'll be okay in a week or two. All 19 students who were with me are doing okay — 12 of them went to the hospital, and there were bumps and bruises, a cracked rib, and one person with some internal injuries, but overall we came out of well. If you'd seen the van, you wouldn't believe it. An 8-car accident, with several of the vehicles totaled. Not only did we hit the semi, but we were then rear-ended by the car behind us, and the van began burning right away. Everybody got out in the nick of time, since the fire spread rapidly and burned the vehicle to a shell. There were some real heroes at the scene (my thanks to Molly for immediately helping get people to safety). Just happy it wasn't worse. Again, I appreciate all your prayers. I'll be fine.

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  • January 11, 2009

    Building a Platform


    I've had a bunch of questions on "platforms" recently, so let me try and tackle them…

    Richard wrote to ask, "What is an author platform? How would you describe it?"

    An author platform is simply who you are and what you're known for. If you have expert credentials, or you speak around the country on a topic, or you're known by the media as a source of information on a specific issue, you have an obvious platform. All of that will help to create buzz for your book, and reaching readers is what good marketing is all about.

    I think there are two sides to understand the notion of "platforms." First, who you are in relation to your topic. If you're a recognized expert at your topic, you've got a good platform. Let me offer an example… If Warren Buffett wanted to do a book on How to Invest in Today's Stock Market, publishers would be interested because every investor recognizes Buffett's abilty to make money buying stocks. His expertise with the topic is evident. But that's not the only thing needed — there are plenty of investors who have done well and become fabulously wealthy, even in a bad economy. They know their topic, but that's only half the equation.

    The second part of understanding a platform is who you are in relation to your readers. Warren Buffett doesn't just know his material, he is known by his potential readership. Most investors recognize the name from his interviews, his letters to stockholders, his appearances in the media. He is an expert, but he's also known by potential book-buyers as an expert. Both aspects are important for an author to capture the attention of a publisher.

    In a related vein, Jim wants to know, "The topic of author platforms concerns me because I don't see myself as having a great platform for launching my book. How much consideration (by agents and

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  • January 5, 2009

    And still MORE fiction questions…


    Continuing our discussion about fiction in today's marketplace…

    Rick wrote to say, "I recently read a nonfiction author with excellent writing skills… but then I read her fiction, and found it atrocious. How rare is the ability to write both fiction and nonfiction? Why can't some NF writers transfer the skill over to a novel?"

    In his National Book Award-wining memoir, Growing Up, Russell Baker tells the story of winning a Pulitzer Prize for his political column in the New York Times, telling his mother, and having her respond with, "That's great Rusty — maybe now you can write a novel and become a real writer." Ouch. I don't know why it is some writers don't see themselves as "complete" until they've published a novel. I made my living as a NF writer for years, and never felt I had to do fiction in order to justify my writing. But many do… and with the growth of fiction in recent years, many have felt pressure to write a novel. Frankly, I think it's self-imposed pressure, or maybe just egotism, and it's stupid – akin to the lead singer of Great Big Sea deciding he's got to sing an aria from La Boheme in order to be "a real singer."  

    Writing a novel and writing a nonfiction book are different tasks. Each requires voice and content and clarity, but one is basically telling a good story, and the other is basically sharing information. (It's a fair argument to say that writing a NF book also requires telling a good story, but there's a difference — a NF book is not just a story. It's often sharing history, or encouraging life change, or offering insight and principles to do something more effectively.) I'd argue that the two tasks require some different skills. When working on a NF book, I didn't have to think about characters or setting or story arc. And a novelist doesn't have to think about

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  • January 3, 2009

    More Fiction Questions


    Happy New Year! I hope you had a fun-filled celebration, got home safely, and this morning you're probably asking the same question I am: What in the world is ABC thinking by having Dick Clark on the air? Look, I loved Dick Clark's American Bandstand. He's an iconic figure in American music, and looked 25 for roughly 40 years. But…the man had a stroke, for goodness' sake. You can't understand him. He's lost his voice. He sometimes can't think of the word he wants. He screwed up the countdown as the ball dropped (how hard is it to count down from 30?). It's like watching somebody's ancient grandpa on TV. Yikes. It makes you sad just to watch him. Why doesn't somebody put their arm around the man and say, "Times up, Mr. Clark. You've had a great run. Now we're going to let Ryan Seacrest run it on his own…"

    And with that happy opening, I've had a bunch more fiction questions come in…

    Patricia wrote and asked, "What's the difference between a fiction 'series' and a 'trilogy'? I understand in a series each book must stand alone, but what about a trilogy? It's all one big story broken up into sections, therefore each book does not stand alone. If you pick up the second or third book in a trilogy, you'll be lost because you need to start from the beginning…like the Lord of the Rings."

    A series is a list of books that generally have a continuing character, though sometimes it's the place that continues, or it's a family saga with various characters all related. John D. MacDonald's wonderful Travis McGee series is a great example, featuring the yacht-living fixer getting in and out of scrapes. Sherlock Holmes, Jules Maigret, and Adam Dalgleish are other well-known examples of series characters, as are the Hardy Boys, Nancy Drew, Nick Carter, Perry Mason, etc. The 82nd Precinct series uses a setting

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  • December 25, 2008

    Merry Christmas to All


    Merry Christmas, everyone. I'm one of those who really does believe in Christmas. I believe in the whole thing. I believe that Jesus was the Son of God. I believe the birth of the world's savior was foretold by prophets of old. I believe Jesus was that savior. I believe God chose to come down and live as a man, in order to reach out to us. I believe Jesus was born of a virgin, the baby inside Mary being conceived by the Holy Spirit. I believe Joseph was a good man, who assumed that Mary had been unfaithful, but was told by God in a dream that she was pregnant due to a miracle. I believe Joseph and Mary traveled to Bethlehem in order to register with the government. I believe the city was jammed with people due to the government-enforced registration, and they ended up sleeping in a stable, since it was the only place available for them. I believe while they were there Mary gave birth to a son, wrapped him up in strips of cloth, and laid him in a manger. I believe angels were so excited about the birth of the Savior they broke out into song. I believe there were shepherds in the fields nearby, who heard the singing, were amazed at what they saw, and ran into Bethlehem to see this incredible thing. I believe they saw the baby Jesus, understood He was the promised Savior, and worshipped a little baby. I believe that a bit later some wise men from the east came, because they too had been led to believe a Savior was coming, and they found Jesus, gave him gifts, and worshipped him as well. I believe King Herod was afraid of this baby because Herod was a politically-appointed king, but the baby was announced as having been "born King of the Jews." I believe Herod, who was thoroughly evil, had all the little boys

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  • December 23, 2008

    Booksignings and Websites


    I've had several people write in lately with words to the effect of, "Here's what I most want to know about publishing…"

    Tammy wrote and said, "The one thing I would most like to know is how can I make a booksigning successful?"

    Booksignings can be terribly depressing experiences. Let's face it — a signing is based on celebrity, not quality of craft. So even if you've written a wonderful book, if nobody knows who you are, they aren't apt to show up and try to meet you. (I once did a signing where a guy came and spent 40 minutes trying to talk me into signing up for Amway. No kidding.) But three people I represent (Ginger Garrett, Kimberly Stuart, and Chris Coppernoll) just had a great booksigning experience in Des Moines, Iowa. After watching these authors (none of whom are a household name…yet) get a hundred people into a store and sell ten or twelve cases of books, I asked them what they'd done to make it work. Here's a summary of some of their wisdom.

    Remember that nobody comes to  a signing for an author who is unfamiliar to them. And yet the goal is to get people in the door, meet them, and tell them about your book. So think of a signing in three stages…

    First, get people in the door. Contact everyone on your mailing and email list. Do so more than once, and be very clear about date, time, and place. Go to libraries, bookstores, reading groups, coffee houses, churches, and any organization that may find your book interesting, and solicit their participation. Don't just tell them about the signing — ask them to help you make it successful. It's numbers that drive a signing more than anything else. If you can afford it, do a mailing with postcards to likely participants — expensive, but effective. Arrange for media the days prior to the signing — a local radio talk show

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  • December 19, 2008

    The Random Stuff in my In-Box


    People send me interesting stuff, but it usually sits around while I'm answering people's questions, so today I'm trying to empty the random non-question stuff in my box…

    –The good people at Library Journal have just released their list of the Best Books of 2008, and in the religious fiction category are two friends of mine: Lisa Samson's wonderful book Embrace Me (about a group of people with deformities who earn their living in a carnival sideshow) and Claudia Mair Burney's Wounded (about a struggling woman who find peace and stigmata). Both of these are great books, from writers with talent and depth. Congrats!

    –A couple times I've mentioned marketing guru Rob Eagar's Wildfire Marketing research on CBA. In his most recent report, he offered one fascinating fact: The e-book version of Rob Bell's Jesus Wants to Save Christians has outsold the print version on Amazon. Now that's interesting…

    –The folks at www.bachelorsdegreeonline.com blog have posted a cool thing: "50 Useful Google Applications for Writers." It's free — check it out. Correction: The full address is: www.bachelorsdegreeonline.com/blog/2008/50-useful-google-apps-for-writers/

    –Terry Whalin's website, www.right-writing.com, has just posted a free e-book entitled Platform-Building Ideas for Every Author. Like most of the things on Terry's site, it's worth a look.

    –While I'm mentioning resources, the folks at ECPA have revamped their www.ChristianManuscriptSubmissions.com site. The proposals can now be screened by literary agents, which is a good thing. I've not always been a huge fan of the program, but this is certainly a positive step.

    Bad news for the industry: Random House made some more staff cuts this week. So did Macmillan and Chronicle. I don't have the gift of prophecy, but with all these cuts going on at houses that have already contracted books, I'd like to predict that people in publishing next year will either be (A) very busy, or (B) looking for a job.

    On the good news side, Wiley,

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  • December 14, 2008

    Business Questions


    I've had a bunch of questions about the business side of writing lately…

    Dawn asked about a reprint issue: "I noticed that Amazon allows people to search inside my books — but that  means they've posted a sample chapter. Is that legal? Isn't that giving away a section of the book in violation of my publishing contract?"

    If you'll take a look at your publishing contract, you'll see in the "marketing" section some wording that allows the publisher the right to use short sections of your book for marketing purposes. That's the clause allowing publishers to work with Amazon's "Search Inside" feature. They monitor how many pages a customer can actually view, and they limit the page count so that nobody can read the entire book. In cases where the Table of Contents is critical, they don't make that available. Amazon also blocks readers from copying the text, so they've created a feature that helps sell your book, but tries not to give too much away.

    The folks at Amazon have noted that this is their way of competing with your local bookstore. If you walk into any Borders or B&N, you can take a book off the shelf and flip through it. (In fact, you could sit at their cafe and read the whole thing — a feature you cannot do on Amazon.) So the "search inside" aspect is a form of marketing — letting potential readers get a peek at your book. Perfectly legal.

    Jessy wrote this: "I'm a volunteer writer for a quarterly publication. Recently the publisher told me he would be issuing a special anniversary edition, and would include all my stories. I've never received any monetary compensation for my writing, so my question is: To whom do those stories belong — the magazine or me?"

    First, take a look at your publishing agreement, Jessy. If you've got a written contract of some kind (whether

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  • December 10, 2008

    Some Personal Questions


    Over the past couple of months, I've received a boatload of personal questions about agenting in general, and my agency in particular. Instead of taking each one separately, I'm going to clump them together and try to answer as many as possible. But be warned: Some of this reads like a commercial. I'm sorry about that — my intention on this blog is to answer the questions that come in. But since I've had so many questions like this, I decided it was best to try and answer a bunch of them at once, rather than routinely sprinkle self-serving questions throughout my posts. Here goes…

    David, Tracy, and several others asked, "How long have you been an agent, and how did you get your start?"

    I used to make my living as a collaborative writer, and about 20 years ago I decided I needed to educate myself regarding the industry. So I became the writer at conferences who could talk to authors about contracts and negotiations, about what makes a good proposal, and about who is buying what. Soon I had authors asking me to look over contracts, help them shape proposals, then help them talk with the right people. Eventually I figured out I was working as an agent (without actually getting paid for it). I spent three years as the Senior Editor for Harvest House Publishers, then Alive Communications came calling and asked if I was interested in becoming an agent. It took me a nanosecond: "Yes!" I joined them, and spent six years working as a literary agent at Alive, which at the time was the 800-pound gorilla of Christian agents. I learned a lot from experienced agents Rick Christian and Greg Johnson, and we were representing all the major properties at that time: the Left Behind series, the Thoenes, Karen Kingsbury, Terri Blackstock, the Every Man's Battle series, etc. A huge list of hits. I got into the agenting business early,
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  • December 6, 2008

    Talking About Fiction


    Teresa wrote to me and said, "I'd like to know about creating stronger characters in my novels."

    There are a bunch of books out there on creating great characters, and all of them point to one basic idea: Give your characters something unique so that they are memorable. Let me toss out five quick things I think help make characters stick in the minds of your readers:

    1. Give your characters something to do. This is a piece of advice I got from my writing instructor in college (famed fantasy novelist Ursula K. Le Guin). She pointed out that I was trying to describe interesting people, or have them use colloquial terms, or have them dress a certain way…but they were flat. I was trying to tell about the characters, rather than allowing them to reveal themselves. As the author, I could picture them in my head, but my readers couldn't picture them on the page. The solution to making them more full? Give them something to do. That allows the characters to demonstrate who they are and what they're like, rather than forcing me, as the narrator, to simply tell everyone what they're like.

    2. Show, don't tell. Yeah, yeah, you've heard this a million times from fiction editors. But it's one of the easiest ways to create more interesting characters on the page. Think about it…let's say you're trying to create a tense, Type A businessman as a secondary character in your thriller. If you tell the reader ("He felt nervous"), the character remains flat. It you show the reader ("He paced back and forth, chewed on his pencil, picked up his coffee cup, and wiped the sweat from his face"), the character begins to take on his own identity.

    3. Give them attitude. One of the things I often see in historical and romance manuscripts is that the characters are all bland. The heroine probably has

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