Archive for January, 2005

Story, The Illusive Key to A Bestseller

January 30, 2005

During the past few days, I’ve been thinking again about what makes a bestseller book and how to acquire one.  The Book Standard had a terrific article on this topic with some current numbers called “Top 200 Sellers Equal 10.8% of ‘04 Market.” Ed Christman wrote, “The top 200 bestselling books of 2004 moved a combined 73.5 million copies, or 10.8% of the total 677.9 million units sold, during the year, as measured by Nielsen BookScan. Among those 200 titles were 10 that exceeded a million copies each, 22 that moved between a million and 500,000 units and 101 that sold between half a million and 200,000 copies. The remaining 67 titles sold between 200,000 and 155,000 copies. Put another way—books that sold fewer than 155,000 copies made up 89% of the total sales tracked by BookScan.”

One of the best books that I’ve read about bestsellers is a little off the beaten track but well worth locating called Making the List, A Cultural History of the American Bestseller 1900–1999 by Michael Korda (Barnes and Nobles Books, 2001). If you don’t know the background, Korda is the long-time Editor-in-Chief at Simon & Schuster.  With a little commentary, the book examines the details of the bestseller list from the last century.  Here’s one of the nuggets of truth Korda unearths from his research, “The lesson is, yes, there are rules, but they don’t apply to writers of real talent, and they’re not absolute for anybody. The only thing you can say for sure is that, yes, the ability to tell a story matters a lot, in fiction and in nonfiction, and having something new and interesting to say about familiar subjects is maybe at the heart of it all.” (page xxvi introduction).

Storytelling is a key factor to make a bestseller. In many aspects of this business, I believe many elements agree that you can have the greatest marketing campaign and sales force—but if the storytelling and the words on the page don’t create a buzz of excitement, then little will usually happen. (Notice I didn’t say always because there are exceptions to almost every “rule” within publishing. Also notice the complete lack of certainty or predictability in this process.

For more than twenty years, I’ve personally known Jerry B. Jenkins, the writer of the bestselling Left Behind series which has sold over 60 million copies. Because of his amazing success with this series, few people recall that Jerry wrote almost 100 books (many of them nonfiction) before the first Left Behind book.

I’ve been in the publication board meetings where various publishing executives make a decision to publish a particular book. Then I’ve been in the marketing and sales meetings where they discuss different books and how to get them the best exposure in the marketplace. I can tell you that with the experience and available time, each person within the publishing house does their part to make a book into a bestseller. It’s just not that possible to predict these books. 

 

Tomorrow, I’m going continue this discussion. I plan to write about what I learned from a bestselling author regarding these factors for a bestseller. Hurry back for that one.

New For Your Favorites

January 29, 2005

For the past month, I’ve been posting something each day about The Writing Life. It’s been an interesting and on-going learning experience for me.  Please don’t worry that I’m writing my closing remarks. I’m not because this journey is continuing.

As a writer, I am constantly looking for ways to adapt and move my writing toward the largest possible audience.  I’ve been reading other people’s blogs from time to time to see what I can learn. I discovered Tracey Bateman has a blog called Leave It To Tracey! Looking around her links page, I found  Rachel Hauck’s site. Rachel is the current president of an excellent fiction writer’s group called the American Christian Fiction Writers. (I know if you follow the link, they haven’t changed their site information yet but the name has been change.). OK, let’s return to my visit to Rachel’s site. Immediately I could see it was her blog and I spotted the little notice, I Power Blogger. Yet her location didn’t have the word blogspot in it.  I wondered how she did it. To me, it looked like a smart marketing decision. When you have a simple name, it’s easy to tell people where your material is located. 

I confess I’m unsure how Rachel set up her excellent site. It looks in one sense that she’s pointed it to her own hosting place. How would I know? Her Alexa number is much higher than the lower Blogger location. If you don’t know how I could know this information, then check this page where you can test the web traffic for any site. Also you can download Alexa for your own use. It’s a free tool with the parent company, Amazon.com.

This experience sent me on my own marketing journey. How could I create a simple place to tell people about The Writing Life? My answer was using a simple URL or website name. Yesterday I took another step in my on-going learning and purchased a domain name:

www.thewritinglife.ws 

Immediately after purchasing the domain, I tried it. The name rolled from my name immediately to some weird get-rich-quick internet marketing piece. I was concerned that possibly I had purchased a URL which someone else already owned. Typically on the internet, it can take up to 48 hours for a domain to begin working. Thankfully after a few hours, my website began to function properly.

Please add this URL to your list of favorites. If you have The Writing Life in your list of links, don’t be concerned because I haven’t moved the location. It still is available through the former location. Why did I make this change? I intend to make The Writing Life easier to find in the millions of blogs. According to Jay Rosen at PressThink, there are six million blogs, 35,000 new blogs per day and 700,000 posts a day. He says these numbers are doubling every five months. The numbers are staggering but I believe it’s possible to stand out and have a growing audience for my life of a writer and editor.

I’m constantly learning as a writer and editor. In an earlier post, I mentioned BlogJet. It’s been a valuable tool to capture ideas and thoughts, then to save them and finally put them into The Writing Life. If you aren’t using such a tool, I highly recommend it. Also this week, I added the email envelope to the end of each of my posts. It’s another tool to allow readers to easily share the information with others. If you haven’t spotted it, I highly recommend you use this tool.

Throughout the final days of this week, I’ve been rewriting my book manuscript. I’m eager to write more about my writing and editing life. At the same time, I need to keep pushing the rock up the hill toward completion of my manuscript. I plan to return soon for another entry.

Oh Boy, Did I Write That?

January 28, 2005

Over the last few days, I’ve been working intensely on a writing project which has a looming deadline.  For some time, I’ve not read the material in this particular manuscript. When I originally wrote the material, I worked hard on the contents, the stories and the how-to material. I recall pouring hours of thought and effort into the project. Then I tucked it away and haven’t read it for about a year—until the last few days.

I’ve been working through each sentence and each phrase in this lengthy project. I find myself thinking repeatedly, “Oh boy, did I write that?” I’ve been amazed at the twisted sentences. In many ways, this experience reminded me of a principle that I mentioned earlier about haste sometimes makes waste. It seems like writers and editors are always chasing one deadline or another.

Slowly on my computer screen, I’ve reworked and rewritten the pesky sentences until they seem to flow in a better order. As a part of this particular writing task, I’ve been expanding the contents and adding additional stories and how-to information into the manuscript.  Whenever I come to a particular story, I’m returning to the story and looking to see if it is complete and fully told.  Often to my chagrin I’ve found it was missing some element. To help the reader, I’ve been filling out these particular stories, adding dialogue and other elements to keep the reader engaged in the content of my book.

I don’t like to face this part of my writing life. I want to move on to the next project with confidence that I’ve fully completed the old writing project. Instead, I’m mired in fixing an older project. It’s not pleasant work but it is necessary work. As writers, each of us face these types of tasks. If the language and the storytelling isn’t right, then it needs to be reworked. With each paragraph, I’m tackling this project. I will re-read my rewrite in a few days. As I’ve worked on each page, I’m confident the manuscript is improving through this process.

Currently I’m chaffing under the discipline of rewriting my own work. It’s not one of my great pleasures as an editor to have to call a writer and work through material that needs rewriting—but I’ve handled this type of conversation repeatedly.  At my former publisher, part of my task was to read a contracted manuscript after the author finished writing it and submitted it. I was reading to determine if the content was acceptable. Acceptability is important to the author because it normally means the editor is pleased with the contents and will release the second portion of their advance. The writer is happy because they get paid for their completion of the manuscript. 

Even when weighed with a great deal of responsibility, I took seriously this task of reading the manuscript for acceptability.  I recall one author had rushed through the storytelling for several of his chapters.  Instead of weaving together a story which showed the reader the events, this writer told the story.  Several times, he used the words, “Let’s listen to ______ tell the story in their own words…” Instead of involving the reader in the story, the reader was removed and listening to someone tell the story—almost like reading a transcription of an interview. This particular author had written several bestselling books with other publishers. I was reading his first new manuscript for my publisher. I marked each of these “told” stories and asked the author to rewrite these sections.  The author thanked me  which is always the sign of a true professional. He didn’t balk or try and protect his words. Instead he took my direction and reworked these stories. He said, “Oh, Terry, you are making me a better writer.” It’s one of the highest compliments to my editing.

The longer I work in publishing, I’m convinced each writer and each editor need to be pushed with our craft for it to reach the highest level. Some times you can push yourself. If you set aside a manuscript for a period of time, then return to it. You see it with fresh eyes to tear into the contents and if it needs it, rewrite the sentences.

Admittedly, it’s hard work for me to gain a confidence in the overall work of this particular manuscript. I’m determined to finish it and turn my anxiety about this project into creativity. It’s part of my writing life at the moment.

I’ve spoiled A Few Writers

January 27, 2005

As an editor, I’m always surprised when a potential author will email me about something—and if I don’t respond in a few days—then this person will repeat their email. Other times they will forward their email or a number of other variations.

To me, it looks like a certain segment of the culture has become addicted to email and instant message. I understand when you hit the send button, the other person instantly gets your message. This fact does not mean the person (the editor) will instantly answer your email. In the first portion of Book Proposals That Sell, I attempt to help writers take a tiny step toward understanding the pressures and life of an editor. Throughout their work day, editors are involved in many more things than answering email or reading unsolicited material. Noah Lukeman has excellent advice for writers to improve this first impression in his book, The First Five Pages, A Writer’s Guide to Staying Out of the Rejection Pile.

As an editor, I’ve always been committed to communication with my authors. When people listen to my teaching at writer’s conferences or we meet in person, they understand how I give any type of communication a high value (phone calls, emails and mailed submissions or communication). It’s because I try and treat writers as I would like to be treated. In the New Testament, it’s called the Golden Rule. You will noticed I said “try.” Each of us have a finite number of hours in the day and we can’t always meet our own expectations because of other priorities.

When I left my full-time acquisitions position at a publishing house, I turned over all of my email files and communication to my colleagues. In almost two years time, I had sent over 4,000 emails to authors and would-be authors. This number didn’t account for the many phone calls and then the mailed submissions that I handled.  Because of my committed communication, there was a loud outcry from my authors when I left that position. I recall one author writing me saying how I had spoiled her. When her manuscript came into the office, within a few days I told her that I had received it. Within another short span of time, I read the manuscript and gave her some feedback about it. This author had contracted for several books and some of them were delivered after I left the publisher. With her new editor, she turned in her manuscript then waited weeks—hearing nothing about a contracted book manuscript. Finally her editor communicated and eventually the book was processed and published. Just remember some editors are less responsive via email than others.

If you are looking for some insight into how to process email, I recommend following the wisdom built into the two posts from Michael Hyatt (CEO and President at Thomas Nelson Publishers). He’s put together two valuable tips about taming the email box.

It’s common for writers to wonder about standard rejection letters and why they can’t get more details from the editor. There are many reasons from a magazine editor and a book editor. I know since I’ve filled both of these roles. The key one is simply time. It isn’t there. Also as an editor, it’s not my role to give detailed information about why a particular article or manuscript or proposal did not work for my publication or my publishing house.  There are other places for writers to get this feedback. One of the best places for writers to get feedback is an organized critique group. I’ve provided detailed information about how to find a critique group then ideas what to do in this article.

I’m committed to answering my email in a timely fashion but my current writing and editing life also has pressures. If you don’t hear from me instantly, there isn’t a problem. I’d ask you to have some patience. If you wonder about spam filters and whether your email has been blocked, don’t send it a second (or third) time (yes, it happens). You can always mail it to me for a response. As my wife likes to remind me, I only get one chance to make a first impression. Make sure it’s a good one.

 

If You Don’t Have Patience

January 26, 2005

Patience is a necessity in this business. It’s a lesson that has been drilled into me repeatedly—even if I continue to chaff under that necessity.

I trained in the newspaper business where instant gratification is the norm for the writer.  Each afternoon, we had story deadlines and our articles appeared in the next day’s newspaper.  Some times the stories were held over until the following day—but they appeared in print and were read right away.

The magazine business takes longer with three to four months of typical lead time for many magazines. Other publications take even longer before they appear in print.  Last fall during a writer’s conference I had a face to face meeting with a magazine editor.  Several of us on the faculty slipped away one evening and grabbed supper in town at a restaurant. We told each other stories about the publishing business and enjoyed getting acquainted. 

Several years ago, I had ghostwritten an article for this publication when I worked at another company (and the “author” got paid for my work—which was fine back then because I was eager to promote the topic). I’ve never had my by-line appear in this particular publication with a large circulation. In rare emails since our meeting, I have been offering to write for this magazine. Late yesterday, I received a specific assignment from the editor.  See what I mean about the need for patience?

In my fiction acquisitions editor role, I’ve been working on contracting one of the novels since last summer. In mid-October, the publication board voted to accept the novel and yesterday I received the go-ahead from the literary agent to issue the contract.  This particular arrangement is still in motion. The deal will not be finalized until the author and the publisher sign the agreement. At this point, both parties have agreed to the general terms. The scheduled publication date for this completed novel is Spring 2007.  It seems like a long-time—even to the author and agent—but it’s one of the realities of book publishing. Patience is required for novelists as well as nonfiction authors. 

For me, the writing life reminds me of the regular act on the old Ed Sullivan Show. A man would walk out on the stage with some china plates and tall sticks. He would begin with one plate, then slowly add a series of spinning plates. When one plate began to fall, he quickly gave it another spin. If you need a reminder of the act, check out this link. It will take you to a real 4 1/2 minute show.

Patience is a necessary part of the writing life. If you don’t have it and want to be published, then you will learn to get it.

Discipline and the Writing Life

January 25, 2005

Yesterday I had a doctor’s appointment but I had no real health issue. Last August, we moved and I needed to connect with a family practice doctor. During the time with the doctor, I was going over my recent changes in my health. Last year, I dropped about 35 pounds and I’ve managed to keep that weight off for an entire year.  My new doctor said only 6% of people manage to maintain this type of weight loss after a year.  I’ve made a major lifestyle shift and with discipline, I’m sticking with that determination. Why? I know firsthand that discipline is a large part of the writer and editor life.

It’s true as writers and editors we sit a great deal. I’ve been working hard to find the right balance. It’s pretty easy for me to get engrossed in my computer and writing work so I don’t get up and stretch or move around on a regular basis. I find if I do take the effort to move a bit, it helps my productivity.

Over the last year, I’ve been learning about balance in the physical side of writing. I’ve made a greater
commitment to exercise. I’ve been regularly getting on my treadmill at least 30 minutes a day and often
closer to 45 to 50 minutes. On my treadmill, I’m watching the daily news (something I often did sitting down on the couch). Now I find exercise helps reduce my stress level. In addition, I’ve been learning about diet. In my younger days, I was able to eat anything–donuts, candy, you name it–and control my weight through workouts. That’s not the case any longer. I have to be more balanced with diet and exercise. For me, it’s been watching carbs (more of a South Beach Diet approach). The results shrank my waist size from a 42 pants back into a 36 size and dropping about 35 pounds. Keeping this weight off for over a year on this type of program has not been easy or simple–but it has been concerted and intentional. It’s how I’m managing this physical side of the writing life.

Some people wonder how I managed to write such a large volume of material over the years. And these new writers that I meet at conferences wonder if they will ever measure up. I tell them absolutely.  While I attended a top journalism school in college and worked hard, I never made an A in my major. Now years later I’ve published more books than many (if not all) of my classmates. My journey has not been without problems, stress and many issues to work through along the way. Do I have it all together? Hardly. I’m still a work in progress and learning constantly about this business.

As writers and editors, we walk to the beat of a different drummer. Discipline pours through many different aspects of the writing life.

The Power of Keeping Track

January 24, 2005

For almost twenty years of my writing life, I’ve been automatically keeping track of different little bits of information. I tuck an address into my address book or I update a phone number or a new email address. It doesn’t take a great deal of time but it’s a consistent and conscious act on my part.

I know some of the data in my rolodex is a bit dated. Yet I keep it there because I understand some times even an out-of-date address has value. Several years ago, I needed to reach an author for the publisher. Because of my role in acquisitions, the managing editor turned a project over to me. This author who has a busy counseling ministry owed the publisher a manuscript.  There had been some back and forth correspondence via email to talk about the editorial details with this manuscript. When I took the background information including the book contract from my colleague, I asked, “What’s a current phone number for _____?”

This busy managing editor said, “I’ve never talked with him on the phone. We’ve only communicated through email.” Heading back to my desk, I knew I needed to reach this author on the phone and talk through these editorial issues.  Email has it’s purpose—but it’s also a less personal means of reaching someone. It’s pretty easy to turn someone down via email or reshape their request or idea. I knew on the phone and in person, the conversation would be much more ground leveling with this bestselling author. But where do I find the phone number since it wasn’t in the file?

About fifteen years earlier, I had worked with this author as an editor and ghostwriter on one of his books. During that brief experience, we communicated a great deal but I hadn’t talked with this author in over fifteen years—yet his old information remained in my rolodex. It was a starting point. I called the old phone numbers and they didn’t work. My only choice was the front door approach. I called this author’s office and reached his assistant. When I explained the need, this assistant said, “You could be anyone on the phone, Terry, posing as a publisher. I can’t give you that information.”

I tried a different tact, “Does _____ still live in (name of the city), California?”

“Yes.”

“Does he live at (specific street address)?”

“Yes”

“Is his home phone number (specific area code and number)?”

After giving this information, the assistant made a long pause on the phone. Then with a sigh, she said, “Yes, that’s the phone number but the area code has change to ____.” I thanked her for her “assistance.” In a matter of minutes I was talking with this author’s wife (another bit of information in my rolodex) and beginning to connect with him about my editorial issue.  I understand the power of keeping track.

In an earlier post, I wrote about the Devil In the Details. It’s true you have to keep track of the details in the writing life. I love what Ellen J. List has written about the value of networking at a writer’s conference—which is a valuable first step to connecting with the editor.  It’s important to exchange business cards every possible chance.

One key from my perspective is what do you do after you get the business card? Tuck it into your desk or put it in your computer where you can easily access it? For many years, I keyed the information from my business cards into my computer rolodex. Now I use a Targus Mini Business Card Scanner. The device isn’t perfect in the scans. I may still have to type a few bits of information. But overall it’s a huge timesaver and helps my process of keeping track of information. I understand the power of such information—even if it’s old.

What’s Your Reader Tolerance?

January 23, 2005

I used to be a pretty patient consumer. I would read a slow starting novel and give it at least 100 pages before I stopped. Or with nonfiction, I would faithfully plow through every single page of information and consume it. Or with a dull movie, I would sit with the video or DVD version until the last frame of the movie. Last night my wife and I rented a recently released film which we missed when it came in the theater. We watched about 45 minutes of the 125 minute film, then looked at each other and turned it off. Our reader tolerance hit the ceiling.

These days I’m finding my reader tolerance level isn’t very high. Maybe it comes from seeing too many poorly-crafted manuscripts on the fiction side of things—where the story actually begins way into the manuscript. Or maybe it’s from seeing too many nonfiction manuscripts that have no readers or market in mind when they were created (or seem that way from the writing). Or maybe it’s the piles of books with great promise and not enough hours in our hurry up world to possibly read them.

In fiction, the story situation or the character or some other fiction element has to grab me. For nonfiction, the topic has to have enough storytelling to keep me turning the pages. If not, I find that I flip ahead and some times I don’t finish the book.

For a positive example in this area of reader tolerance, I turn to a general market book that caught my attention (and I haven’t read yet). I know Jack El-Hai, the author, from my involvement with the American Society of Journalists and Authors. I was looking at Jack’s website to promote the book and this paragraph jumped out at me, “As gripping as a medical thriller, The Lobotomist examines the motivations of a man whose personality combined brilliance with arrogance, compassion with egotism, and determination with stubbornness. The result is an unforgettable portrait of a physician who permanently shaped the lives of his patients, as well as the course of medical history.” It looks fascinating to me.

With reader tolerance, here are a few tips for the writer to keep in mind: show don’t tell, begin with a bang, and write in the active tense. Each of these articles in the links have detail information for these tips. You may think you handle all of these elements with excellence—but I’d encourage you to return to your manuscript and make sure it’s present.

Reader tolerance is a subjective matter. Your reader tolerance will be different than my reader tolerance. As I write or edit, it’s an important element to keep in mind.

Another Tool For The Writing Life

January 22, 2005

I’m constantly looking for new ways to improve my posts about The Writing Life. Today I managed to get a beta tool from Technorati to work called a Searchlet.  After free registration, members are given the HTML code for the search tool.  I tested it a bit and it seems to have a high level of functionality.  If you recall something I wrote in a previous post, but can’t easily find it, now you can use this search tool to locate it.

I’d encourage readers to check out this new tool and see how it works for them. I hope it serves you and The Writing Life.

Audience in the Cross-Hairs

January 22, 2005

Are you focused on the audience when you write or simply throwing words on the page? It’s one of the basic questions for all writers—and something your editor will be considering when evaluating your writing. Each publication is different and the readers or the audience has to be firmly in the cross-hairs of your writing. If not, then you will miss the target.

I was thinking about that audience when I wrote a new article for Right-Writing.com. I posted it yesterday on the home page. For about a month, I’ve been constructing this series of short articles about the writing life. I’m glad a number of people are beginning to read it on a regular basis. I’ve been wondering how to expand this audience. I’ve determined a number of people who blog have fallen into this world—and are often talking with themselves. I’m not eager to fall into this type of discussion since a few months ago, I had never heard the word blog.  My article is titled, “What’s a Blog and Why Do I Care?”  I believe many people who write haven’t tuned into this genre of writing and I attempted to introduce the topic yet with a twist.

Each of us are pressed for time to read other people’s writings. How do you know if someone has added a new article to their particular site or weB log? One of the most useful tools for this particular need is MyYahoo.  I detail in this article how to use My Yahoo to quickly notice if something new is available for reading. It saves time from going by the actual blog and seeing the update. My Yahoo added this free service to their site in the last few months and I’ve found it invaluable.

Not looking for the audience first or not looking for a market is one of the top ten mistakes for magazine writers according to much published author, Kelly James-Enger.  No matter what type of writing you are doing today—make sure you have the audience as your ultimate target.