Archive for August, 2006

A Tool For Amazon.Com

August 31, 2006

Over the years, I’ve talked with a number of writers about their Amazon ranking. If you don’t know, Amazon.com ranks all of their books depending on sales. The bestselling books have low numbers and the books which rarely sell have very high numbers (in the millions). The trap with this information for writers is to fixate on your particular sales number. It’s like many other things in life, you check your number just out of curiosity and interest of what’s happening in the largest online bookstore on the planet—not so you add to your worry or concern.  Particularly for the top books, these numbers change every hour so you can waste a lot of unnecessary energy on it.

TitleZ-header

OK, with this caveat in mind, I’m going to tell you about a new tool that’s in beta format called TitleZ. (Thanks to Jerome Teel for pointing out this site to me. Make sure you read his book, The Election.) The registration for TitleZ is free and easy. The site revolves around these sales rankings on Amazon but TitleZ provides an easy method to track these sales numbers over a period of time—and also to compare the rankings to other books.

The developers have some interesting articles on their website such as What’s A Good Sales Rank for a Book? Also they have some detailed information about how to use the tool for research.

Here’s a couple of ideas about how you can use TitleZ:

First, you can see how your book is performing on Amazon compared to your competition. Every book competes with something so what is the competition for your book? Which books appear in the same section of a brick and mortar store? When you look at your book on Amazon which titles does Amazon suggest as additional titles to purchase (these titles are potentially your competition—Amazon isn’t 100% here so I say potentially). With a few clicks, you can set up this matrix and check it once a week or whatever schedule is convenient for you.

Second, when you are creating a book proposal or thinking about creating a book proposal, you can use TitleZ to learn about the sales potential for your competitive titles. Often sales numbers for books are difficult to obtain. Many publishers keep this information tightly controlled—unless they have a bestseller to trumpet then they tell the world about your book sales. If your competitive title has a very high sales rank (like in the millions), then you can guess there are not many sales for this book but if you discover a low sales number, then you can guess the other extreme—that the title is continuing to sell (even if it has been in print for several years).

Like most of these tools, they have to work for your situation or you shouldn’t bother. I have found some value to it and thought I’d pass it along to you—especially since for now it’s free (they plan to charge for it later according to the registration information). Just use the tool and don’t fixate on the numbers.

In For the Long Haul

August 29, 2006

The Jungle coverWhile in high school, I read a series of “classics” as part of my preparation for college. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair was one of those books and I “almost” became a vegetarian after reading it. If you’ve never read The Jungle, Sinclair exposes the unsavory working conditions in the Chicago meat-packing industry during the early 1900s. Like any new subject, the author has to hook the reader (which happens) and in a few pages, you are plunged into this horrible business. The book stirred lots of controversy and laws were passed to change and improve this industry. Sinclair was a writer who understood that he was in the business for the long haul.

From time to time, The New Yorker magazine will feature an author. Last week, in his excellent article, Uppie Redux?, David Denby turned to Upton Sinclair and I knew little about this author. Consider his prolific output: “In 1906, Upton Sinclair was twenty-seven years old; he continued publishing for more than sixty years, a clattering typewriter that would not stop. No two scholars seem to agree on exactly how many books he wrote, but the number is above ninety, and his output, in addition to social-protest and historical novels, includes plays, screenplays, tracts, journalistic expos�s, didactic dialogues, instructional manuals, and autobiographies. Sinclair spoke at rallies, joined strikes and protests, and repeatedly ran for political office; he sponsored Sergei Eisenstein’s epic unfinished documentary about Mexican Indians, “Que Viva M�xico.” Ezra Pound, who knew a thing or two about obsession, said that Sinclair was not a maniac but a “polymaniac.” During many periods of his life, Sinclair’s activities were widely discussed in the press, and in the eyes of some prominent contemporaries, including Albert Einstein, Thomas Mann, and Bernard Shaw, he was an invaluable guide to twentieth-century politics. To many people, however, he now seems remote and musty—the author of flaking volumes encountered in country book barns. Apart from “The Jungle,” Sinclair’s works have been largely forgotten, or perhaps simply mislaid, his name confused with that of Sinclair Lewis, the author of “Main Street,” “Babbitt,” and “Dodsworth.””

Yes, it’s amazing the volume and variety of Sinclair’s work for more than 60 years. But look at what he did in his early days: “Sinclair didn’t waste much time at home; he entered City College at the age of thirteen and then transferred, as an eighteen-year-old graduate student, to Columbia, where he was generally bored in the classroom and spent his time writing stories and jokes for the pulp magazines published downtown. By the time he was nineteen, he was composing pseudonymous hack novels about the debonair adventures of West Point and Annapolis cadets. With the help of two stenographers, he churned out eight thousand words a day.”

Now eight thousand words a day in the pre-computer era was remarkable. I love reading about these authors and their consistent commitment to publishing—and in different areas of the work. Many writers seem to get stuck in a particular area. Maybe they have a novel which they insist needs to appear into print. Now it’s certainly OK to be working on a novel but is that novel moving toward publication or just in a continual loop experience where it doesn’t go anywhere? At conferences in particular, I meet writers who are dreaming about publication but aren’t publishing.

I’d encourage you not to be mired in one area of the writing world. Because of the diversity of writing, one day I can write a magazine article and the next day a short book review. Or I can keep making progress on my book proposal then yet another day, I can write some words for a chapter of a novel. I’m in for the long haul and maybe you can gain something from the role model of Upton Sinclair.

Knocked Down, Not Out

August 28, 2006

No one likes rejection—at least I don’t. But it’s part of the publishing world. One of the keys from my view is how you handle such rejection. When you get knocked down, are you out for the count? Or do you get back up and try again?

Crusader's CrossIn the August 21st issue of Publisher’s Weekly, the editors include little pithy comments about various bestselling authors. This note caught my attention, “A rare winner of two Edgar Awards for Best Crime Novel of the Year, James Lee Burke has come a long way since his novel The Lost Get-Back Boogie was rejected 111 times over a period of nine years (and upon publication in 1986 was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize). Crusader’s Cross is the 14th novel in his bestselling Dave Robicheaux series. Burke’s most recent hardcover, Pegasus Descending, is #10 on hour hardcover list. Crusader’s Cross currently has 275,000 copies in print.” Crusader’s Cross was a new entry on the mass market paperback bestseller list at #14.

Did you spot the little detail that caught my attention in this quotation? How do you keep going if you’ve been rejected over 100 times for the same manuscript and over a period of nine years? It is an unusual amount of persistence and belief in the face of incredible odds. I went to find more information so I googled and found an interview with Burke which Christianity Today published in 2004. This article has some great quotes and insight about writing so I recommend you look at the entire piece—but here’s what I found about Burke’s attitude and persistence:

The Lost Get-Back Boogie was rejected 111 times, and that’s when I met my current agent, Philip Spitzer. He was driving a cab in Hell’s Kitchen [New York City], and he took my account. He was my cousin Andre Debusse’s agent and Andre, at that time, did not have the recognition that he has today. But Philip kept the work under submission all those years and Louisiana State University Press published it.”

“I really learned an old lesson that I had learned as a young man: You do it a day at a time. You write as well as you can, you put it in the mail, you leave it under submission, you never leave it at home. I had a rule for myself, I’d never leave a manuscript at home longer than 36 hours. It would be back under submission in a day-and-a-half. But I realized that an artist will never have any serenity unless he accepts the following premise: You write as well as you can, or you create a song or a sculpture or a painting, and then you turn it loose, you turn it over to some power outside of yourself and you don’t worry about its fate. If you do that, success and money and fame, all that stuff, will find you of their own accord, not because you seek them.”

Each us have today—to write as well as we can, then put it into the mail (or email). We turn our work loose “to some power outside of ourselves and don’t worry about its fate.”

A Valuable Resource–Free

August 25, 2006

Recently on my way back home from the Greater Philadelphia Christian Writer’s Conference, I picked up a Sunday copy of the New York Times and poured through it while waiting in the airport.  It’s always a personal treat to read this newspaper because it generally leads me to some idea or something valuable for my writing and editing life.  The back of the book review section contained a full-page ad for a how-to book, Get Published! by Susan Driscoll and Diane Gedymin. Driscoll is the president and CEO of iUniverse and over the last 20 years has held a variety of positions at HarperCollins and Holzbrinck including publisher, editorial director and marketing director. Gedymin is the editorial director at iUniverse but has more than 30 years of experience as a literary agent and publisher of HarperSanFrancisco and senior editor at the Putnam Berkley Group. This ad clearly promoted the fact Barnes & Noble owns iUniverse. The fact that two seasoned publishing professionals had a new book was what caught my attention. I’m familiar with iUniverse as a company to self-publish a book or produce a print on demand (POD) book. Some of my colleagues at the American Society of Journalists and Authors have used iUniverse to get some of their out of print books back into the marketplace. The ASJA has a contractual relationship with iUniverse as a service to our members.

Get Published! coverFrom this ad in the Times, I decided to ask for a review copy of this book and read it. From the beginning, I understood it would likely have an agenda or pushing authors toward self-publishing. Looking around the iUniverse website, I figured out their company formula for email addresses and wrote a brief letter of introduction to Diane Gedymin, the editorial director, requesting a review copy. My email worked and shortly I received an email from Gedymin saying they were sending the book.

I’ve been reading this book and discovered it contains a great deal of publishing insight for any author. Whether you are a novelist or a nonfiction writer or whether you are unpublished or much published, this book contains a realistic look at the marketplace backed with statistics. Also the authors include great thoughtful questions for any author as they think through how to get their idea into the publishing community.

Admittedly the book includes their agenda or the promotion of iUniverse and even includes the iUniverse editorial guide. My printed copy of Get Published! was produced using print-on-demand technology. Here’s a couple of the statistics tucked (and documented) in this book:

* Fourteen million adult Americans engaged in some form of creative writing last year.

* Finished manuscripts for an estimated 8 million novels and 17 million how-to books are lying in desk drawers all over the country, waiting to be published. (page 64)

Or here’s another one that leaped out at me:

“Most authors don’t have a realistic basis of just how serious the competition for publicity is,” remarked the publicity director of a major literary imprint, who asked to remain anonymous. “Most reviewers at major media get, on average, 300 books a week. The amount of books produced has increased while the amount of book coverage (not to mention sales) has decreased. Most authors desperately want their books to sell and would like to make livings by writing and publishing, but the sad reality is that probably 5% of authors in print are able to do that.”” (I’d encourage you to read this full article—the link was in Get Published!)

Beyond the dose of realism, Driscoll and Gedymin teach would-be writer about the traditional publishing market and the self-publishing market plus they walk any author through the necessary steps to set realistic writing goals and also do good research about the competition for their idea in the bookstore. The insides of this book are attractive with some cartoons and interesting graphics. It’s an excellent how-to book and I’m glad to have a copy.

In addition, the authors include a number of well-crafted worksheets along with a link to find them online. It’s through these worksheets that I discovered how each of you can get this book without cost in an electronic format or the printed version.  Go to this link and fill out the request for either the electronic PDF book (you get it immediately) or you can receive the printed version through the mail (a better option from my view). Admittedly you have to provide some information to receive this book—your name, email address, physical mailing address and phone number.

When you ask for this book, understand that iUniverse is using this book as a tool to generate additional business. You will probably receive some follow-up via email or on the telephone or through the mail (since you furnish all of these options with the form). Even with this caveat, I believe it’s an excellent resource for anyone and the price is right—free.

Teach Them To Fish

August 24, 2006

When it comes down to it, which would you rather do: actually do the task for someone else or teach them to do it? There is an old legend about someone coming to a friend and asking for a fish. This person could have given the fish or taught the friend to fish. I’d much rather teach you to fish. Then we can leave the elementary things behind and press on to a deeper relationship. It’s part of my underlying philosophy of why I write these entries on the Writing Life.

This week I received an email asking if my book, One Bright Shining Path, Faith in the Midst of Terrorism (Crossway Books) was in Spanish and how they could get a copy for their mother who only speaks Spanish. I quickly responded with a key bit of information they didn’t have: the Spanish title for the book, Ayacucho Para Cristo.

Then I anticipated their next question: where can I find this book? I may have a copy or two some place and could have dug it out and arranged to sell it to them. Instead, I decided it was better to teach them how to locate the book. One of the best places to search for books with a wide variety of possibilities is BookFinder3U.com. When I searched for my Spanish title, I found a number of available copies through this site—and in fact through this link. The exchange only took a few minutes but hopefully this reader learned a thing or two.

Here’s my encouragement to you: what are you doing for someone else where you can teach them to handle the task on their own? I’d encourage you to teach them to fish.

Raise Your Voice

August 23, 2006

ArtHed_VOTEQuills

Last year marked the first year The Quill Book Awards. It’s a consumer-driven program to select the best books for the year. For many of these book awards, a series of judges select the winners. For The Quill Book Awards, the public votes—between now and September 30th. You have a chance to raise your voice and select these books—but only if you vote. If you don’t know about the books, there is information with each book to help you learn about each title.

As you vote, it will be a learning experience about how books are divided into different categories—something many people outside of publishing don’t generally pause to consider. Let me call several books to your attention on this list:

1. In the Romance category, Beverly Lewis wrote The Preacher’s Daughter from Bethany House. It is one of the few faith-based books on the entire list of books.

2. In the Religion/ Spirituality category, I’m pulling for Mama Made a Difference by T. D. Jakes. I would hope Bishop Jakes will win in this category. Just so you know last year Deepak Chopra won in this category.

No matter who wins, everyone should participate. It will help you learn about some bestselling books and think about some different categories of books than you normally select. I recommend each person vote.

Credibility Matters Even If You Write for Free

August 22, 2006

The world is quite small when it comes to the Internet and blogging. I’m constantly amazed at how well-known journalists and authors will connect with me because of something I’ve written in these entries about the Writing Life. Over a year ago, I quoted a brief passage from The New Yorker magazine which wasn’t online but related to publishing. Like any news story, I attributed the quotation to the journalist and later that same day I received an email from the author (who I previously had no connection) thanking me for using the material.

78 Reasons book coverOr some time ago, I blogged about some fascinating portions in Pat Walsh’s book, 78 Reasons Why Your Book May Never Be Published and 14 Reasons Why It Just Might (Here’s one of those links from my entries). Walsh is the former founding editor at MacAdam/ Cage, an independent publisher of fiction and nonfiction. Before my entry, I had no previous contact with Walsh yet later that same day as my entry, I received a brief note of thanks from Walsh.

While these experiences are a bit jarring for me, they should come as no surprise—for me or for you. In our fast-paced world, there are many tools to collect this information. You can google to find the information or set up an automated way to feed you this information as the tool finds it.

Last week I was searching for a brief biography of someone. I googled their name and ran across the website called ZoomInfo. Have you ever seen it? I recommend you give it a whirl and you will be surprised. The site stores biographical information. With my friend, the old Internet page with her biographical information had been removed and wasn’t accessible—yet the old data was stored in ZoomInfo. I suggest you type in your own name and see what you learn from it.

About a year and a half ago, I found Jon Bonne’s interesting commentary on MSNBC called, Blog nice, everyone, Why Credibility Matters Even if You Write For Free. Here’s a significant quote from Bonne’s article, “A credible reporter should remain credible no matter where he writes, or who is paying her (or not).”

One of the keys from my view is to be aware of the power of information and the visible forum of anything that is online—including these entries on the Writing Life. As I’ve mentioned in other entries, the active publishing world is a small community (notice how I qualified it). For me, I only want write things which are going to continue to build my reputation and foster new friendships in this business. It’s the best way to operate and maintain a lasting career.

Why Book Titles Are Important?

August 21, 2006

I’m often surprised when I receive a fiction query and it doesn’t have a book title. Or from what is there, it’s obvious the writer didn’t put much thought or energy into the title.  While ultimately the publisher will select the title, I regularly tell authors if they create an excellent title, it will stick throughout the publishing process. Book-titles

Book titles are one of the key ways you can hook your editor. It’s a topic to pour some considerable thought and creativity because it might pay off for you—with a book contract.

This past week the publicity wheels on television have been turning for the movie, Snakes on a Plane. While I don’t plan to see this film, I understand the draw of the title. Repeatedly I’ve seen Samuel Jackson say, “All I needed to hear was the title and I knew I wanted to be in this film.” It’s the same with books. I’ve been in publication board meetings with a room full of executives. Everyone will get excited about a particular concept and most of the enthusiasm comes from the title.  Inherently they know people will be drawn to the book.

A recent New York Times article, Titles That Didn’t Smell As Sweet by Thomas Vinciguerra was fascinating. [If for some reason this link doesn’t work, google the title to see if you can find it—I did in a matter of seconds. The original place I had stored wanted to charge me $4.99 to access the full article. I hope this link works for you and I purchased the newspaper.] I love the story which opens this article, “In late 1924, a young writer sent his new novel, “Trimalchio in West Egg,” to Charles Scribner’s Sons. The publishers hated the title. “Consider as quickly as you can a change,” wrote the editor, Maxwell Perkins. F. Scott Fitzgerald quickly complied; he substituted “The Great Gatsby.”” Who would have purchased the first title? I certainly read The Great Gatsby

Sometimes a book title will become a phrase that enters the culture. For example, if you say something is a catch-22, you know the quandary of the situation. Yet this best-selling novel from Joseph Heller was almost Catch-18 according to the article. While it’s perfectly OK to have a “working title” with your book, make sure you give it your absolute best before you pitch the title to a book publisher. If you need any more encouragement about titles, go over and sign up for Mahesh Grossman’s free report on Strategies For A Six-Figure Advance. You will get on Grossman’s newsletter list (which I find valuable). One of the keys to getting published is an excellent book title. I can’t overstate the importance of a good title.

Irresistible Subject Lines

August 19, 2006

Like most people inside the publishing world, I receive a high volume of email. Unlike some editors, I attempt to answer a high percentage of it each day—even if it’s a very brief response. At least the sender knows someone read it and responded. Yes, I use form response letters to submissions since that is the only practical way to cope with the onslaught of submissions. The majority of these manuscript submissions use the standard subject line which is automatically generated when they click the link from the guidelines website: Fiction Manuscript. I know it’s not specific but I instantly know where the sender found my email address. Other writers are a bit more creative in this process and I appreciate this effort.

First Place coverImagine my surprise yesterday to my permanent email address when I received this subject line: “are you from Raceland, KY?” Everyone would have hit the delete button and thrown away this email but I had to click it. It was irresistible.  Then look at the first paragraph of the email, “I recently purchased the “First Place” book at our local Christian bookstore, thinking of maybe leading a study for our church.  When I saw your name on front, I couldn’t help but wonder if I know you.  The Terry Whalin that I know is from Raceland, KY. If you are a different Terry Whalin, please just delete this email and accept my apologies for bothering you.”

See the tone and creativity in this paragraph? It’s short and to the point—yet targeted. For me, it was irresistible. I had to read the entire email, then answer it. The writer tapped something that only a few people would know about me. I spent the first eleven years of my life in Raceland, Kentucky—a small town in northeastern Kentucky.  It is something that I constantly carry with me as a part of my growing up years. While few people remember it, my name is on the cover of every one of the First Place books. It’s work that I finished years ago and have pressed on yet this writer made a connection with me in her thoughtful email.

Far too often, I see emails that have “Hello” in the subject line or something completely unthinking. After all, we are writers and editors who should be able to muster a tiny bit of creative energy—even for the subject lines.

Amazon Tightens Rules for Reviews

August 18, 2006

In past entries, I’ve mentioned about writing customer reviews for books on Amazon and other places. It’s a practice that I’ve encouraged you to do for books that you love and for your writer friends. Over the last few days, Amazon has changed the procedure for these reviews and greatly limited the opportunity for these reviews. I’ve emailed Amazon a note of protest but I doubt it will change anything.

 

Copper Scroll cover

I’ve blogged about Joel C. Rosenberg and his new book, The Copper Scroll. My review of the book appears on Faithful Reader.com. I read this book before it’s release and before Amazon allowed customer reviews of the book. Typically the customer review feature isn’t turned on until the publication date for the book. Last night, I went to the Amazon page and was going to post a few words about the book with a five star review. I couldn’t add my review. Why? I did not purchase my book through Amazon and they’ve restricted these customer reviews. The only way you can write a review is to purchase the book through Amazon.

 

I checked their guidelines and found:

 

“General Review Writing Guidelines

Amazon.com wants your comments to be heard! The recommended review length is 75 to 300 words.

Authors, publishers, and readers have separate review mechanisms. Please use the appropriate page.

Who can write customer reviews? Customers! Anyone who has purchased items from Amazon.com and is in good standing in the Amazon.com community can write reviews.”

 

If you look at my Amazon reviews, you will see that I’ve written over 100 customer reviews—yet I purchased very few of these books directly from Amazon. This wide open door of opportunity for authors and publicists has slammed shut. For example, Faithful Reader and Book Reporter.com and other sites associated with this group, go to the particular page on Amazon and paste in the review. It’s been part of their efforts to promote good books yet with this new policy, these reviews will not be appearing on Amazon since the books come directly from the publisher—and are not purchased through Amazon.

 

Many books have no customer reviews. My Running On Ice by Vonetta Flowers with Whalin has one customer review—from my friend, Crystal Miller—and I suspect it will remain this way. Recently I wrote about Childproofing Your Marriage by Dr. Debbie Cherry. At the time, my review of Debbie’s book was the single customer review on the Amazon page (now there are two customer reviews).

From a policy viewpoint, I understand why Amazon has initiated this change. Over a year ago, a group who disagreed with the viewpoint in a book attacked one of my author friend’s book page on Amazon. This group posted all sorts of derogatory things in their customer reviews and the author worked with Amazon to remove these reviews. The new policy will greatly reduce these problems for Amazon customer service personnel.

 

While I understand the reasons for this change, it’s bad news for authors. They will not be able to encourage honest feedback about their book on the largest online bookstore on the planet. It’s bad news for publicists and publishers since they will not be able to use this avenue to promote a good book. It’s bad news for customers who read these reviews and make decisions every day about which books to purchase. It’s bad news for the book. I was sorry to see this policy change. I do purchase some books from Amazon but I receive books from many different places—including other authors and publishers. With this change, I will not be able to write a few sentences of review for Amazon.

 

Update

 

OK, I stand corrected–things are not as bad as I proclaimed in these previous paragraphs. I had not purchased any books with the email address I was using with my Amazon profile. Thanks to Robin Lee Hatcher’s note to me. I went over to my Amazon account and purchased a book–then my ability to write reviews on any book have been restored. The entries on this blog are a work in progress—and this incident just proves my point.