Archive for March, 2006

Unexpressed Messages from the Self-Published

March 31, 2006

One of the online groups where I occasionally participate raised a question about self-publish vs traditional publishing. I know there are many people who are not on that online group so I’m also putting it here. I want to be the first to cheer when someone self-publishes a book and eventually hits it big with a traditional publishing arrangement. I’ve read the stories of John Grisham selling a self-published book from the trunk of his car. Or years ago I met Richard Evans (the author of The Christmas Box) at a book show when he had self-published his book and eventually Simon and Schuster picked up this title.  But those two much touted examples are only two books in the midst of thousands of self-published books.

As an acquisitions editor, I see a number of self-published books. Writers will send me their self-published book in hopes I will acquire it for a traditional publishing house (Howard Books is where I acquire fiction).


My first question is why did this person self-publish? Often I find the motives of the writer are pure and passionate. They want to see their words in print. It’s very easy to get a book published these days–self-published. Now when you face the question of selling that book into the hands of customers, you are looking at a completely different (yet important) question. You can easily get a printed book to tuck into your garage but that doesn’t help people. The self-published writer longs to have a printed book. Most of the self-published books that I see are poorly crafted (not story driven or well-written) nor are they well-produced. The typography is poorly done and the cover is poorly executed. The overall impression is not positive and practically screams of inexperience. There are valuable reasons to self-publish–particularly if you can sell books through your speaking ministry or another way. You will actually make more money self-publishing–provided you can sell the books.


Earlier this week I wrote about the difference in books–traditional published books and self-published books after seeing them at the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. One reader questioned my statistic about the six million manuscripts which are circulating at various publishers and with literary agents. I pointed out where I got such a statistic (which is a valuable page to bookmark if you need this information). In one sense, such a number is discouraging–and in another sense it can spur your own determination to become different. Call me a wild idealist but I work in publishing every day and I believe the writer can make their writing shine and believe they can make their proposal stand out from the others in the stack. It’s not easy but entirely possible. 


Whether you self-publish or publish through a traditional press, it doesn’t matter. What matters to me is excellence–in the writing and in the book production. If you do decide to self-publish, realize you are sending unexpressed messages to the editor.

Card Exchange Opportunities

March 30, 2006

One of the great benefits of attending a conference is the opportunity to form new relationships.  Normally I sit in my office and quietly work on different writing and editorial projects.  At a conference, I’m away from my phone and in a completely different environment with the chance to interact with new people, hear their experiences and learn from them.  I tend to pick up a lot of information in these short interactions. Last week, for example, I met another speaker at the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop where I had recently sold two magazine articles.  This editor told me about the massive changes in their magazine (not a good sign if you ever hear these words and you can almost anticipate what is coming next).  Then she said the special issue was potentially going to get pulled and not printed—and she quickly reassured me that I would be paid for the writing.  This bit of information is just a glimpse at what you can learn through face to face interaction—even with someone you have never met.  I’ve learned the importance of exchanging business cards at these conferences. Some times you don’t get a card from the other person and in that case it is a one sided transfer.

Most writers and editors have a quiet and introvert personality (and I include myself in this category most of the time). For some of you, the thought of creating a business card and exchanging it might be threatening.  If you are going to a conference, please get over it and create a business card to exchange.  As you exchange information, it gives you an opportunity to follow-up or at least know how to reach a particular person.

At these conferences, it always surprises me when someone does not have a business card to exchange.  It happens frequently and the person apologizes and promises to send me their information when they get home (and it rarely happens). If you are going to invest in a conference in terms of your money and time, do make the effort to create a business card and have it readily available to exchange. Don’t be caught unprepared.

Here’s the other irony when you exchange business cards: Some people don’t include enough information on their business card.  At the Bombeck Workshop, I exchanged cards with another speaker. Her full-color business card was beautiful and included her photo but didn’t have any specific contact information. I’ve learned the hard way to glance at the card and see what information it contains. If I don’t read the card, then to my chagrin I get back to my room or home and don’t have the specific contact information. This author claimed her contact information was on the card. The only bit of information was her website address. She explained at the website you could find all of her contact information—BPTS business cardand she was insistent about this detail.  Later that night, I went to her website and looked at her contact information (an email address). For whatever reason (unclear to me), this person was controlling who reached her after the conference. Especially since I’m an acquisitions editor and collect information, I thought the lack of exchange was interesting.

I have created different business cards for different settings.  At my workshop in particular, I passed out a card to each person attending. You never know how they will use it. Maybe they didn’t purchase Book Proposals That Sell at my workshop (even if I gave each one a great opportunity).  At a later time, they may make a decision. I’ve made certain my business card contains the information they will need to make such a decision. Also the information gives them a mailing address and email means to easily reach me.

Don’t miss those opportunities at a conference to exchange information. You never know when the information might come in handy.

All Books Are Not the Same

March 28, 2006

I’m always interested to look at the books when I speak or attend a writer’s conference. Each conference is distinct about how they handle this aspect.  Some conferences have huge tables of books and allow anyone at the conference to bring and sell their products. Books and Company, a local Dayton, Ohio bookstore, ran this aspect at The Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop.  The only books sold at the conference were from the speakers and I was thrilled to be included and have Book Proposals That Sell available to the participants.  This conference occurs every other year and sold out in a matter of weeks.

As a reader of books and someone involved in writing books and creating books, I’ve learned that all books are not the same. I’m an unusual consumer in that I look at the content but also the packaging of the book. Who is the publisher? How does the book appear in typography and is that type easy to read? How attractive is the cover design and does it draw me to purchase the book or make me hesitant to purchase the book?

Several speakers at this workshop were promoting self-publishing. Their workshops encouraged participants to walk down this possibility for publishing their manuscripts. I understand there are a variety of opinions in this area. Writers are frustrated with the estimated six million manuscripts and proposals in circulation at traditional publishers.  Publishers (and even literary agents) often take a long time to provide answers about these manuscripts.  Some writers grow impatient with this process and turn to self-publishers for their book. This decision gains them another set of opportunities (or problems) to reach their intended audience.  In general, bookstores don’t carry self-published books and it’s difficult to sell books if they aren’t in a traditional selling environment.

As I carefully looked over some of these books, it reminded me why I’ve written for traditional publishers. If you put the product side by side, you can see an instant difference. The cover design of these self-produced products looked more amateurish and almost instantly I spotted problems in the typography.  Sometimes even the name of the publishing house (author created in a self-publishing situation) struck me as purely corny.    I don’t want to come across as an elitist or book snob but when I’ve written a book, I want to be confident of every detail of the book.  I’m eager for my books to be available in every possible bookstore outlet.

At the same time, I understand how the publishing process is a purification of ideas. Traditional publishing involves finding a champion for an editor or an agent—who carries that process throughout the house and into the bookstore.  Not every proposal or every idea will find that place. Yes, it takes persistence from the author to write an excellent proposal and sample then locate a publisher.  Just looking at some of the books during the conference reminded me not to rush this process.

How Do You Get There?

March 27, 2006

Yesterday afternoon I returned from my back to back conferences. I’m always amazed at the invigorating (and tiring) experience of going to these conferences. While almost no one believes it, editors and writers lead a pretty normal, quiet life. We sit in our offices and face the same struggles as anyone on the planet yet because of our connection to publishing, we are involved in writing books or magazine articles or other material. Occasionally I get to attend a particular conference or teach at a conference. At that time, I meet new people and form new relationships (some of which are only that time and others are lifelong). The Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop at the University of Dayton was an exceptional conference. It has a maximum of 300 participants and is held every other year. This year’s conference sold out in a matter of weeks. Over the next few entries, I’m going to recount some things I learned from this conference.

While some people may ask the question, there is a common unverbalized question from experienced and new participants in a writers’ conference: how do I get to where you are in your writing life? It’s easy to see how people create this question. They are listening to published authors or syndicated newspaper columnist or others who have achieved a certain level and been asked to tell others about their experience. After many years of going to these conferences and listening to these stories, I have gained one common fact: the journey is different for every single person. Yes, there are insights and methods for you to try. There are ways to improve your craft of storytelling but the actual route is different for each person and let me include two fresh examples from this conference.

At the height of her career, Erma Bombeck’s newspaper column was syndicated in over 900 newspapers and reached an estimated 35 million readers. Because of this history, I met several conference participants who were newspaper columnists and interested in syndication for their own work. One of the workshop leaders was Craig Wilson. For many years, I’ve read the material from Craig Wilson, a USA Today columnist on the front of the Wednesday Life Section. I listened to Craig teach his workshop, It helps to be human: Tips for making your writing life-like! and it was excellent. Craig’s column appears in one of the largest circulation newspapers in the United States. Many people want to know how he became a columnist. He wrote a column for years at a smaller newspaper before coming to USA Today and during his workshop, he made clear his column is unusual for his newspaper. He was in the right place (a feature writer for USA Today) at the right time with the right editor (the editor of the Life Section). If you want to follow the same path, it’s hard to hear that advice but part of the key from my perspective is to be writing and be out there. Syndication of a column will never happen if you aren’t writing a regular column for a newspaper or a publication (any size). It has to begin at the beginning.Syndication secrets-book

Another speaker at the conference was Jodi Lynn who spoke about How to get syndicated … or self-syndicate. I wasn’t able to attend her workshop but I sat beside Jodi for several hours during a book signing. During this time, I learned about Jodi’s new book which has just been released, Syndication Secrets. This book looks packed with practical and seasoned information. I brought it home and look forward to reading it in the near future.

As for the answer to the question I posed with this entry? For me, it’s a matter of trying different types of writing to see which takes off for you. It’s a matter of continuing to grow in your knowledge about publishing and how the industry works. And most important, it’s a matter of learning your craft and working at it every single day.

A Day of Contrasts

March 24, 2006

I’m still on the road traveling but thought I’d take a few minutes to tell you about yesterday.  For my writing life, it was a day of complete contrasts. I left home on Tuesday to attend two back to back conferences and they could not be more different in focus and nature. It’s part of what happens as you move into different situations.

The first conference as an invitation only conference on the Middle East called Sounds of Hope. An invitation only conference gathered about 80 leaders from North America with leaders from the Middle East. For two and a half days, the North Americans listened to speakers from the Middle East speaking about different current event topics. The format alone was unique. The speaker would talk on his topic for 30 minutes and the participants carefully listened. The room was organized into different tables of eight participants and one of those participants was from the Middle East. They spent the next 30 minutes discussing the topic. I found the interaction greatly enlightening and a lot of material that isn’t commonly told in the news media about that part of the world. These meetings were held on the campus of Wheaton College at the Billy Graham Center.

For example, yesterday morning, I heard His Grace Bishop Marcos, who is the Bishop at Large for the Coptic Orthodox Church in Cairo, Egypt. Bishop Marcos spoke about how the ancient church views western evangelicals. The information was fascinating. Then since I had a flight, I had to miss part of the remainder of the conference. I slipped away from the conference and spent a few minutes inn the Billy Graham Center Museum. This exhibit is dedicated to documenting America’s Spiritual Heritage with a visual presentation about the growth of evangelism in the United States. You can spend literally hours at the museum and I’m thankful that I’ve been there before since I only had a limited time to see it again. It is a celebration of what God has done in the past as well as a look to the future.

I took a quick flight from Chicago to Dayton, Ohio yesterday and arrived for a completely different conference—the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop.  It was my privilege to ride to the conference with Andy Bombeck, one of Erma Bombeck’s sons. After checking into a new hotel and getting registered, I attended the opening session of the conference. The keynote speaker was humorist Dave Barry. The conference has been sold out for weeks with 300 attendees. Tomorrow I’m presenting about Book Proposals That Sell tomorrow for two different sessions. Dave Barry could not be more different than Bishop Marcos.  I could not escape the contrasts.

My assumption is many of the people at this conference would aspire to be a full-time humorist like Dave Barry. His talk was full of twists and turns and loads of lines that elicited laughter.  Underneath the laughs, an unexpected theme ran through it. Barry told his personal story and how he became a humor writer. It wasn’t something planned.  In college, he majored in English and after graduation was hired as a reporter on The Daily Local News in West Chester, Pennsylvania. He wrote many stories for the newspaper and once a week began a humor column. After about the third week, Barry said you begin to think you aren’t as funny as you used to be.  Notice the insecurity that creeps into every writer. After about five or six years in journalism, Barry went to the Associated Press and didn’t like it because he didn’t write any humor at AP. Then he began teaching Effective Writing Seminars and working as a consultant and traveling around the country. He continued writing his humor column for the Daily Local News. He received a request from another newspaper to run a past column and slowly learned about syndication. Ultimately he and his family moved to the Miami, Florida area where he continues writing today.  It wasn’t an overnight success story but involved the discipline and perseverance of writing and writing consistently. Barry told us that he doesn’t believe in writer’s block or writing under inspiration.  Instead he writes with the discipline and persistence of the work.

That’s a glimpse at my day yesterday. It was definitely a study in contrasts.

Still Learning

March 21, 2006

In these entries on The Writing Life, I’ve been explaining a number of lessons about publishing. I freely admit that I don’t have every situation figured out and I’m still learning a great deal in the process. For the growing writer and editor, this process will never end and seems as natural as breathing to me.

Recently I heard Davis Bunn talk about writing a novel with bestselling author Janette Oke. He mentioned Janette continues to read how-to books about the craft of novel writing. Davis also mentioned his ongoing efforts to grow in his craft of fiction.

In the next few days, I’ll be hard pressed to add any entries. I’m headed to an intense conference in Chicago tomorrow. On Thursday I go on to Dayton, Ohio and the Erma Bombeck Writers’ Workshop. I’m looking forward to teaching two sessions about Book Proposals That Sell.

If I find a spare moment or two, I’ll see if I can write something—but I make no promises because of the pure intensity of the schedule.


March 20, 2006

I’m always amazed at what some writers manage to slip into their pitches. Over the weekend, a writer asked if I would be interested in looking at a friend’s fiction manuscript.  In the brief email, she mentioned that the novel started slow (took a bit to get into the plot), was self published and needed some editorial help, and was a bit long. I’m sure this writer was being honest with her information about this friend’s work but it certainly didn’t score any points to encourage me to read it.   I consider almost anything (as least for a few seconds) as a fiction acquisitions editor.  I wrote a short email encouraging the submission—but some of my expectations have already been set from the pitch. This writer could have used some self-investment—before she self-published her book.

Many people have dreams and aspirations to publish a nonfiction book or a novel.  Are these people willing to do the self-investment to achieve those dreams? I find many writers lack self-investment.  This weekend I was reading the journey to publication for Austin Boyd. His first novel, The Evidence, released this month from NavPress. Boyd wrote about his experience on his website. For eight years, Boyd read books and articles about how to write a great novel. He mentioned reading nearly 30 Writer’s Digest books about novel writing.The Evidence cover

In addition to studying the craft of writing and working hard at a quality novel, Boyd made an additional investment. He hired a freelance editor for a developmental edit. From his story, you will notice Boyd sent through this process several times and involved paying someone else and 15 months of hard work. Then Boyd worked with a professional to develop a query letter and book proposal which was sent to 50 editors and 50 publishers. When the publishers rejected the submission, he concentrated on finding a literary agent. Notice Boyd’s persistence and perseverance in this process.

After six more months, Boyd signed with an agent. This agent advised Boyd to attend a writer’s conference and recommended two forthcoming conferences.  This conference was another self-investment step and a great career move because of the new relationships Boyd formed at the conference.

We live in this instant society where people want instant everything—including a published book.  Often these individuals don’t make the necessary self-investment to follow the two common themes Boyd mentioned: produce quality work and sell what the editor is buying.  This need for self-gratification leads many writers to self-publish before their work is ready for public consumption. Then they are disappointed with the lack of interest and results.

Where are you on the journey to publication? Are you making that self-investment to grow as a writer? Take some action steps today and tomorrow. I’m convinced it will pay off in the long run.

The Perils of Pitching

March 18, 2006

It’s a common activity for writers—pitching. You create ideas for books and pitch literary agents or book editors. Most of the book ideas involve creating a book proposal. Or you pitch magazine ideas to another set of editors. In the case of a magazine, you write a one-page pitch letter called a query.

Over the years, I’ve written for a number of different magazines. Gradually I’ve spent the majority of my time working on longer writing or books. I’ve taken a few magazine assignments but mostly from editors who approach me with an idea. When the editor approaches you, it doesn’t involve any pitching but simply doing what the editor has asked.

This past week, I’ve been working on a project where I returned to some of my older contacts with magazine editors. I’ve been reminded about some of the perils of pitching to dated information. Magazine editors are as mobile as book editors. Many people in publishing seems to move from place to place—not all the time but over the years. While I’ve tried to keep up with the changes in my magazine friends, I know some of the information in my Rolodex is dated and incorrect.

Before I pitched to several places, I made sure I was pitching to the right person. In one case, because I’ve known this editor for many years, I picked up the phone and called him. It’s not something I recommend new writers attempt because in general, you are better communicating through email or regular mail rather than the telephone. Intentionally I had a short conversation and found the name and email of the person to contact. In a matter of minutes, I had the correct person for a pitch to that publication.

For another pitch, I didn’t think I was pitching to the right person—and I said so in my pitch. This editor was gracious enough to pass my pitch on to the right person in their company—and he sent me the name, title and phone number of this person so I could follow up in an appropriate amount of time. In a sense, I made the wrong pitch, but it turned out OK.

Besides reaching the right person, you also need to make sure you spell that person’s name correctly—both the first and the last name. Writers pitch me all the time for my fiction acquisitions editor role at Howard Books. I received another pitch this week whMaking the Perfect Pitch coverere I just shook my head in wonder. This writer sent the email to my correct email address yet began her pitch, “Dear Mr. Whalen”—wrong. From those first words, you’ve set up question marks about the writer. If they can’t spell my name correctly, it casts doubt if they will be able to properly execute whatever they are pitching. Other people will pitch children’s books (which Howard Books doesn’t do according to their guidelines) or a nonfiction book (which I don’t handle since I only handle fiction for Howard books). I hope you see some of these perils in pitching because you want your idea to be fairly considered and receive a decision (hopefully a go-ahead to send the material).

Here’s another great tip from Making the Perfect Pitch by Katharine Sands. She writes, “Writing is solitary; publishing is collaborative. The key point to understand: you want to get others excited about what is exciting to you. If you don’t get them to read your work, you are not going to get anything else.”

Will I succeed in my pitches? I have no idea at this time. In many cases, the verdict is still out and I’ve not heard the decision from the editor. None-the-less, I’ve made some solid headway in the process because I’ve been proactively pitching my ideas. If you don’t throw the ball or pitch, then you can’t even get into the game.

Manage Expectations

March 17, 2006

Have you ever managed expectations for a particular project? It’s often a wise management principle. Rather than promise something you can’t deliver, it’s much better to deliver an excellent product ahead of schedule.

I was reminded of this principle when I was listening to a series of tapes from a writer’s conference. I’m not going to identify this particular speaker but he’s been in publishing many years and has a high position within a well-known book publishing house.  I was impressed with his honest evaluation of publishers when he said, “Publishers are great at manufacturing product. You should act like they are only going to manufacture the product—not sell it. You should expect their sales potential for your product is zero—and all of the sales and marketing will be on your shoulders.” Now, this executive admitted, the publisher has plans and expectations to sell your book. Just imagine if every author had this perspective about their book and what a difference it would make—in their expectations and also into the energy they pour into personally marketing their books. 

Instead most authors have the opposite expectation. They expect to write a great book, send it to the publisher and depend on them for all of the sales and marketing efforts.  Then six months or a year after the book releases, the author receives his royalty statement and an accounting of the sales of this book. The author is extremely is disappointed and he is operating from the wrong expectation.  I’ve had to field those disappointed calls from authors when they receive their royalty statements. It’s no fun as you try to express empathy yet balance it with realism.

I like what Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry say in their book Putting Your Passion Into Print, “We often advise authors to pretend their publisher is their printer—and that’s all. That way, they won’t be disappointed when their publisher disappoints them.”

If you take this type of attitude, it will propel you into marketing your own book. You aren’t sitting back and counting on the publisher’s sales force or marketing team. Instead you are walking to a different beat. I guarantee this stance will make you stand out to the publisher because so few authors understand this element.  It doesn’t matter whether you are writing fiction or nonfiction, you’ve got to be involved in the marketing of your book.  Even Now

Several weeks ago I interviewed Karen Kingsbury for a Writer’s Digest article. On her own initiative, Kingsbury began to target a particular sector of the market—the retailer.  Her efforts were not a one time experience but repeatedly Karen Kingsbury has reached out to this retailer with contests and other means. Long before anyone was doing it, Kingsbury purchased some writing pens and had her name and website imprinted on these pens. Then at book signings and other events with retailers, Kingsbury made a gift of these pens. It wasn’t cheap and involved several thousand dollars of her own earnings.  I included some of this information in my magazine article and my editor asked me if it had paid off.  Has it? Yes, I shouted to this editor (not really but I felt like it). Even Now, Kingsbury’s most recent novel, released in December and has been back to press five times with over 200,000 copies in print.  (You can read my review to see what I thought about it.) Even Now has been perched on the Christian fiction bestseller list. It’s an excellent book. Kingsbury genuinely cares about these retailers but she’s also wise in understanding the necessity of marketing. Also about 70% of Karen Kingsbury’s sales are not in the Christian bookstore but in the general market.

It is great to be motivated and have goals for your own writing. But make sure in the overall big picture that you are planning to market your own books—and managing your expectations regarding sales. Then if your book takes off like a rocket, you will be pleased and surprised. Or if you book doesn’t have the level of sales you expected, you will not be disappointed—instead you will grow more determined to reach your audience for the book.

A Creative Idea Which Took Off

March 16, 2006

As much as I read magazines, newspapers and books plus follow other types of media, I completely missed PostSecret—until yesterday when it was featured in an article on the front page of USA Today. If you haven’t heard, blogger Frank Warren started PostSecret and individuals anonymously mail them to his Washington, D.C. home. To date, they’ve mailed over 30,000 postcards.

These Secret-Tellers have earned Warren what his publisher, Judith Regan, calls the title of “the most trusted stranger in America..” Some of these secrets are sad and some of them are funny. Warren reads every postcard then selects 10 to 20 each week which are posted to his blog—and millions of people are eagerly waiting to read these postcards with secrets. Postsecrets

Some of these postcards are admittedly “adult” rated in their content but I want to use the story to point out several things about the writing world.

First, Warren had a creative idea which took off in terms of popularity and audience. Millions of people wanted to read these postcards and even lined up for an art exhibit.  Because of the growing audience (which doesn’t hurt if you are on the front page of USA Today), a book publisher (Regan Books) brought out his first book in December. In three months, the sales for PostSecret: Extraordinary Confessions from Ordinary Lives have been brisk so they are planning four more. The book is a compilation of 400 postcards.  To validate the sales number, his number was #29 this morning.

Notice the book title is more than PostSecret—but has some extra words in the subtitle to draw you to the book.  Also I noticed the reader reviews for this book which has been on the market three months—over 100 of them.

To me, Frank Warren’s blog, his book and other aspects like the art exhibit, point out how a niche market can take off and be successful. Some days you may feel like there is nothing else to be written or proposed to an editor.  Can you tap a felt need for readers and put it into a magazine article or a book proposal? Can you go ahead and begin to reach those readers through a website or a blog or some other mechanism (other than a postcard) which will collectively show the publisher that a ready-made audience exists?

The opportunities are there simply waiting to be created.