Archive for September, 2006

Biographies and Presidents

September 18, 2006

Some of the most prolific readers among young people are in the 8 to 12 year old category. Many years ago at this age, I spent hours reading biographies. I’d go to the library and check out a large stack of biographies, cart them home and read each one of them. I believe that experience was a key reason for my fascination with the stories of people. This experience has sparked my own work of writing profiles for various magazines. Also I’ve written a number of these types of books as biographies and also as co-authored books which are like autobiographies.

This weekend, I read a lengthy profile of former President Bill Clinton in the New Yorker magazine. Editor David Remnick wrote this excellent piece. You can follow this link for an interesting story about Remnick and his writing work. Earlier this year, Remnick’s book, Reporting released and here’s an excerpt from Reporting on NPR’s website. I was interested in this brief bio of Remnick and also this interview from the Boston Globe.

David Remnick’s New Yorker article, The Wanderer, Bill Clinton’s quest to save the world, reclaim his legacy—and elect his wife isn’t available online except in an audio format. I’ve pulled together a small portion of this lengthy article for you to see some of the pieces about biographies and autobiographies. Reading the entire article, it’s evident that Remnick spent considerable time with former President Clinton because he writes about some of the different settings in the article. It includes some insight about Clinton’s bestselling autobiography My Life. One bit of background which isn’t clear from the few paragraphs is about Clinton’s editor, Robert Gottlieb. He is the chairman of Trident Media Group, one of the top literary agencies in New York City. When he worked with President Clinton on My Life, Gottlieb was the chairman of Trident. Several times, I’ve been to Trident’s offices for meetings.


“Few modern Presidents have consumed biographies of their predecessors as voraciously as Bill Clinton. One afternoon when we met for lunch, he reeled off a list of some of his favorite Presidential books: three lives of Grant, David Herbert Donald’s Lincoln, and a novelty choice, “Jack: A Life Like No Other,” by Geoffrey Perret, “which sur­prisingly received no coverage, and it had a lot of, kind of, dirt in it, like, dishy gossip I’d never heard about—Kennedy and Jayne Mansfield, and Mansfield was pregnant, stuff I’d never heard!”

As he was leaving office, Clinton told friends that he hoped to write a great book of his own, something approach­ing Grant’s memoirs. He had admired Katharine Graham’s autobiography, and so he sought out her editor at Knopf, Robert Gottlieb, who once ran the house. (Gottlieb was also, from 1987 to 1992, the editor of The New Yorker.) At an early meeting to talk about the book, Clinton informed the editor that he was actually very easy to work for. Gottlieb interrupted, saying, ‘You’re working for me now.”

Clinton had help with research, and he dictated a lot of stories to the histo­rian Ted Widmer and to his aide Justin Cooper for later use, but he also wrote much of the book in longhand, in more than twenty spiral-bound notebooks. When he handed in the first hundred and fifty pages of the manuscript, Gott­lieb said, “This is a really good story, but let me ask you something: Are you run­ning for anything?”

“No, I’m done,” Clinton said.

“Good,” Gottlieb said. “You cannot put the name of every person you’ve ever met in this book. I do not care what happened to their children and grandchil­dren, and it bothers me that my Presi­dent had enough room left in his head to remember what happened to the children and grandchildren of every person he ever met.”

So, Clinton said, recounting the story, “I said, ‘Look, Gottlieb, I’m from Arkan­sas. That’s what we do, that’s what we care about—I can’t help it. That’s who we are.’”

It’s one of the dangers of autobiographies and biographies—filling the book with so many names the reader is either 1) bored or 2) definitely can’t keep track of the different people. A massive number of names pushes the book away from the story and shifts the focus for the audience. I can see Gottlieb tried to help the former President understand this basic principle but like with any author, the editor’s success depends on whether the author will listen and be directable. In general, I’ve found as you work with higher profile authors, then your challenge as an editor to get the changes necessary for an excellent book increase. We get a hint at this difficulty in these paragraphs.

Another challenge with biographies and autobiographies is to tell interesting and different stories—but not too different. It’s a tricky balance and shows in this incident in David Remnick’s excellent article, “Clinton sent another hundred pages or so, this time on the American South of his childhood. Gottlieb called and said, “I really like this.”

“Well, you got any questions?” Clin­ton replied.

“Just one.”

“What is it?” Clinton asked.

“Did you know any sane people as a child?”

“No, but neither did anybody else,” Clinton said. “I was just paying attention more than most people.”

The first half of Clinton’s thousand-page memoir is a cross between ‘Tobacco Road” and “Ragged Dick,” the Snopes saga and “All the King’s Men.” The early pages make clear just how far Clinton had to travel before he landed in the safe berths of the Ivy League and Oxford….Clinton played it safe in his memoir, and his reasons were almost surely political. Even the publication date was politically determined. Clinton and Knopf decided that “My Life” had to come out before the 2004 campaign entered its final stage. As a result, the book was rushed and is at times almost defiantly dull. The chapters that cover 1992 to 2000 often seem as cursory and reticent as the en­tries in a desk diary. Grant’s singularity as a memoirist is safe. But then the Gen­eral’s memoir ends before his Presidency begins.”

Our challenge is to tell excellent, fascinating stories for our reader—whether fiction or nonfiction.

Certain About Uncertainty

September 17, 2006

The Making of a Bestseller coverI’ve been reading The Making of a Bestseller: Success Stories From Authors, and the Editors, Agents and Booksellers Behind Them by Brian Hill and Dee Power.  This book contains some interesting insight about bestsellers. One aspect which is emphasized repeatedly is the unpredictable nature of bestsellers. Everyone would like to do something in particular and know for certainty that a book will become a bestseller.  You can be certain about the uncertainty of bestsellers.


Here’s a partial answer from Neil Nygren, Senior Vice President, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief for G.P. Putnam & Sons to the question, “Have you ever gotten a manuscript from an unknown author that you were sure was going to be very successful?


“Absolutely. There is no such thing as an absolute sure thing, anymore in this business.; But there have certainly been lots of times when you see something and say, ‘Now this, this is commercial, this ought to work.’ Obviously Doubleday thought that when they signed up John Grisham…There are some writers who just have it. Many, many years ago, in a galaxy far, far away, when I was a younger editor for a different publisher, I read a manuscript called Storm Island. It was a World War II thriller, and it, too, just had a sure command to it. There was something about it. We wanted a more distinctive title and changed it to Eye of the Needle (Ken Follett), and there you are. That’s what you’re always looking for, what you’re always hoping for.”


Is there any consistent factor to what becomes a bestseller?


One theme which resonates throughout this book is good story—and it’s extremely subjective what constitutes a “good story.” Or the writer’s voice is another factor. Jennifer Enderlin, publisher at St. Martin’s Press said, “it all begins with a strong voice. Voice is the one thing that can’t be taught. It’s the author’s own fingerprint, their unique storytelling style. Writers with a strong voice are the ones that emerge from the pack.” Or a few pages later, Karen Kosztolnyik, Senior Editor at Warner Books said, “It really comes down to the voice. If an author has a really strong voice, even if they are telling a story that has been told a million times before, it can draw me into that story. The voice is so fresh, new, original, I feel like I’m reading the story for the first time, even if it’s a classic story line.”


For a book to become a bestseller, it has to — sell. The task of editors and publishers is to attempt to predict those sales. As Daniel Halpern, Editor-in-Chief for HarperCollins says in The Making of a Bestseller, “The truth is, unless it’s very obvious, you don’t know what’s going to sell an what’s not going to sell. Some people have a good nose for the book that is going to sell, can ‘sense’ it has commercial possibilities. Others have a sense of ‘literary merit,’ which may or may not sell but has value beyond track. You can have a wonderful novel that sells 7,500 copies and another very good novel that sells 75,000 copies…There are so many elements, and a huge part of it is luck.”


If it was predictable and simple, then it wouldn’t be so hard to achieve. Whether it is fiction or nonfiction, it comes down to a great book as the basis. While you may not be able to predict whether your book will become a bestseller or not, you can work on the craft of the storytelling and create excellence.

The Illusive Bestseller

September 15, 2006

In various entries, I’ve looked at the topic of bestsellers. I’ve had Dee Power’s and Brian Hill’s book on my shelf for several months and I’m currently reading it. What I like about this book is the realistic picture it gives about publishing.  Many authors approach book publishing with stars in their eyes and the assumption that audiences will immediately head to the bookstore for their work.  The authors include statistics to show the long odds and quotes from editors. For example, Neil Nygren, Senior Vice President, Publisher and Editor-in-Chief for G.P. Putnam & Sons responded to the question about how a book gets to be a bestseller saying, “The main thing to remember is there is no one way to be a bestseller. There are an infinite number of ways to get there—not to mention an infinite number of ways to fail.” (p. 11) See the realistic balance?


Recently I caught up with Dee Power and she answered a few questions which I’m including in this entry on the Writing Life.


Dee Power, MBA, was born on the East Coast and grew up on the West Coast. She started her writing career in the second grade by writing a Thanksgiving Day play that debuted before many appreciative parents.  Dee has been interviewed as an expert on the publishing industry by The New York Times, Washington Post, the Associated Press and various local publications.  She and Brian Hill are the authors of The Making of a Bestseller: Success Stories From Authors, and the Editors, Agents and Booksellers Behind ThemAttracting Capital From Angels, Inside Secrets To Venture Capital and the novel, Over TimeYou can reach her through her website,  


It looks as if you had an in-depth knowledge of the publishing industry before you wrote and researched this book.  Still, did you learn anything new that truly surprised you?

 The Making of a Bestseller cover

Even though we had written two nonfiction books prior to The Making of a Bestseller: Success Stories From Authors and the Editors, Agents and Booksellers Behind Them, I didn’t know that much more about the publishing industry than probably any other author.  Besides having the opportunity to talk with my favorite authors, I wanted to find out the answers to such questions as:  How do books get on bookstore shelves? What factors are critical to a book’s success? What role does the literary agent play? How is buzz created?   What was surprising is that while writing is a solitary endeavor; book publishing is a team effort.    The effort just begins with the author and is carried through by the literary agent, editor, publisher’s in house production, marketing, and publicity staff.  And then of course, you must include the publisher’s sales reps, buyers at the chains and independent bookstores and finally the bookseller. 


How did you gain access to such a huge number of authors, editors, publishers, booksellers, etc.? Was it difficult?


We interviewed 24 bestselling authors, 6 literary agents, 8 editors, 11 publishing industry experts, and 8 booksellers.   We also surveyed over 120 editors and agents.  We went through 2 tape recorders, 65 tape cassettes, 140 hours of transcription and 3 bottles of aspirin, but who’s counting?  Was it difficult? No, it was great fun. We found the authors through their websites, publishers, agents and publicists.   Very few authors declined to be interviewed; they were very gracious about sharing their experiences.  


Do you consider authors who are not bestselling to be unsuccessful?


Absolutely not, just having a book published is a major accomplishment.   It’s a huge challenge for a new writer to become published, never mind get their book on a bestseller list.  It has been estimated that 25 million people in the United States consider themselves writers and only 5% have been published anywhere.  Agents have told us that they receive an average of 5000 unsolicited query letters or proposals each year and accept only 11 new clients.  Editors have said they reject 99% of submissions.  Having a book published by a commercial publisher is a major success in a writer’s life.  


A literary agent is nearly mandatory for a writer and one of the first steps towards becoming a successful author.  Below are several resources that may help.


Publishers Weekly  is both a hard copy weekly publication and an online site. It includes articles on the state of the publishing industry, interviews with authors, the bestseller lists, and lots and lots of book reviews.  PW is directed toward booksellers.  The books are reviewed three to four months prior to publication so you can recognize upcoming trends. 


Publishers Marketplace is one of the most useful sites to find out what’s going on in the world of publishing. It’s not free but the cost is minimal ($20.00 per month) and well worth it.  There is a searchable database of book deals, including the author, agent, advance amount, and contact information for both the agency and the editor of the acquiring publishing house.  


The Writer hard copy monthly magazine and online website, focused on writing, selling and publishing your writing.  Often has small press publishers directories, niche publishers, and regional publishers.  


Writers Market and the online searchable database at provides contact information for agents and publishers as well as what they’re looking for. searchable online database


Most writers will never become bestselling authors, what can they learn from The Making of a Bestseller?


The primary lesson they can learn is, never give up!  Perseverance is a key characteristic of those authors who have made it.  They didn’t just curl up and die at the first ‘no.’ 


Stephen King’s Carrie was the fifth novel he’d written. James Patterson’s first mystery was turned down by 31 publishers (but later won an Edgar Award). Mary Higgins Clark’s first story took 6 years and 41 rejection slips before it was finally published. Her first novel was, as she puts it, “a commercial disaster.”  Her second, Where Are the Children? was a bestseller. Janet Evanovich’s first three attempts were, in her own words “sucky un-sellable manuscripts.”   Time and time again bestselling authors have learned the same lesson: With great diligence, and unwavering devotion to the craft of writing, “sucky” can eventually turn into sublime.


Writers must have the discipline and patience to develop their craft and build their career through a slow, steady, climb that requires patience and discipline.   Bestselling authors are very active in the marketing of their books, whether it means calling on bookstores and introducing themselves, developing skills at being interviewed by the media, or interacting with their fans on web sites.  Writing a great book is only half the battle.  You have to energetically assist your publisher in selling it.


You’ve written two books on raising venture capital, a novel, and a book on bestselling authors.  Is there a common thread? If not, what’s it like publishing in such vastly different genres.


The common thread is I write about what I know, or what I would like to learn about.   While we, I do have a co-author, Brian Hill,  will continue to write nonfiction, fiction is where the fun is at. 


Our first two books came about because our clients asked the same questions over and over again.


The Making of a Bestseller was born when we started researching how we could give our fiction the best chance possible for success. Who better to ask than those authors who had bestsellers? 


Our novel,  Over Time is a financial thriller.  The villain is a vicious venture capitalist and the hero, an entrepreneur.  Since our background is in finance we can add realism to the story.  The setting is Phoenix, Arizona and Green Bay Wisconsin, both places we’re familiar with.   


OK, that’s my session with Dee Power. I hope it was helpful to you. I recommend The Making of a Bestseller as another step toward a realistic education about the book market. 

Find Your Niche in the Market

September 14, 2006

It’s the challenge of every writer: to find their place in the market.  You have to experiment and figure out what you like to read and what you are drawn to write. For some people, it will be children’s books while others it will be novels and others nonfiction books. Still others will not write books but will write reams of magazine articles or newspaper articles.

If you read these entries, you’ve learned that each month I read a number of printed magazines. A few weeks ago, I spotted this article in Forbes, which has a circulation of around five million: Publish or Perish by Susan Adams. The subtitle also drew me to this article: A passion for out-of-print mysteries gave birth to a small press that might just make it. Publish or Perish is a common saying among academic professors who are required to write so many professional papers to maintain their status in the university. And what does that have to do with mysteries?

New York City bookseller Maggie Topkis was missing some of her favorite books because they had gone out of print. Learning about a machine to take out of print books and print a paperback in 17 minutes, she wondered if she could become a publisher. In about a year, she released 42 titles which included one hit (always important if you ware going to continue in publishing). Here’s her target market from Susan Adam’s excellent article: “Topkis puts out paperbacks only, with 11-point type (you’re reading 9.7-point type) and generous margins. “The market for our books is definitely over 35,” says Topkis, who is 46. “They’ve got older eyes.” She sells mostly to nonchain stores; her list is packed with books she adores. “My stuff is pitched to women, and 60% to 70% of the line is British,” she says. “Prose-driven, intricately plotted stuff.” 

Notice how Topkins has defined her target. The old saying is true—if you aim at nothing you are sure to hit it. This bookseller understands the wisdom of marketing to a particular audience. You’d be surprised at the book proposals which I’ve seen from writers who claim their book is for everyone.  It’s simply not true.

If you study this article, you can see some of the economic considerations if you launch your own publishing imprint: “List price for Felony & Mayhem titles is $14.95, yielding an average $7.47 to the publisher. The variable cost of a volume averages $4.32. For a 300-page book with a press run of 1,200, she pays about $2.70 for digital printing. That cost drops significantly with runs of more than 2,000, because Topkis can use an offset printer. The remainder of the $4.32 goes for sales commissions, shipping, royalties (80 cents for a recycled title) and fulfillment fees. That leaves Topkis an average of $3.15 with which to cover fixed costs. For each title she pays $700 for the cover and $1,000 for editorial production. Topkis invested $1,200 in a Xerox DocuMate scanner that allows her to convert an out-of-print novel into a Word document that gets proofread, typeset and sent to her printer. She budgets $37,800 in salary and benefits for an assistant and pays $12,000 for twice-yearly catalogs. All told, fixed expenses come to about $250,000 a year. Topkis figures she can cover that by selling 80,000 books. Doable if she can add another small-scale hit like Garden.”

Now this article in Forbes with it’s large circulation is a huge boost to this mystery book business. One of the elements not included in this article is the distribution for these mysteries. Because Topkins has a dozen years as a bookseller, she’s hooked into the realities of the need to have a distributor and how to get her books into the proper chains.  Some of you could look at this article and say, “OK, I’ll become a publisher and get books out there.” It’s possible but just make sure you have a full picture before you take the plunge.

I applaud Maggie Topkis in that she spotted a niche in the marketplace which she could fill. It’s the same challenge for every writer.

The Power of Word of Mouth

September 13, 2006

Word of mouth marketing or buzz is one of those intangibles to establish or orchestrate.  Many people would like to initiate word of mouth marketing. As people are talking about your book, it can lead to book sales and eventually getting on the bestseller list.  Some people take months to build this word of mouth experience. It’s why some books have been in print for several years before they show up on a bestseller list.  Some books have sold substantial copies and been in print for years—but have never been on any bestseller list. The bestseller list isn’t the only indicator of the book sales—but it is one indicator.

Buzz or word of mouth interest doesn’t necessarily translate into book sales. Over the last few days, I was talking with an editor in another publishing house. I inquired about the sales of a particular author. Across the blogsphere, this author has been much touted for their visibility.  During a single day in recent months, the book was near the top of Technorati beating out some other popular best-selling books. Yet I’ve never seen this author nor his book on any bestseller list.  Is the book selling? It’s where the rubber meets the road for the author and the publisher.  This editor friend admitted the sales numbers for this book were lack luster—nothing to talk about or tout. So what made the difference? You had a great deal of buzz or word of mouth about a book yet few book sales. It looks like everyone spun their wheels if it didn’t translate into sales.

As I’ve talked with a few people about this situation, here’s my conclusion—the difference is in the craft of storytelling and writing a good book. Now some books beat this difference too. You get the book, read it and wonder how it managed to get published—yet there was huge buzz and word of mouth talk about the book.  In the long run, I believe it comes down to craft and quality of writing. The authors who can communicate, tell good stories and write good books, will last—provided they get the right marketing push and other factors. It isn’t just one thing that makes a book successful but a number of factors working in harmony.

Womma-logoDuring the last week, I’ve learned about the Word of Mouth Marketing Association or womma. (Thank you, Vicki) I’ve looked around this site a bit and noticed that some companies like Zondervan Publishing House are members. They have some interesting material and pages to download from their members. I’ve added their newsletters to some material that I read on a regular basis in hopes to learn something interesting. Here’s what I did not find in this material—how to translate the word of mouth buzz about a product into actual sales.  I suspect there isn’t a single answer to this question—just more learning ahead.

Work with the Middleman

September 12, 2006

Middleman-graphicSeveral days ago, I wrote about how many writers are attempting to get devotional books published yet publishers are using book packagers or book producers to make these books.   I’ve been doing some additional thinking about this topic because it’s my turn to lead a discussion on an online writer’s group (which isn’t as public of a forum as this blog).  Many writers are approaching a publisher for a devotional book or children’s book. They are trying to work with the wrong person.  In many cases, the publisher isn’t using individual writers for these products. They are using a middleman. If you don’t know about the middleman or book packager, then you can’t find the work. Packagers hire writers.

Publishers use packagers or book producers because these sources have earned their dependability and trust.  With a high level of confidence a publisher can give a packager an assignment usually based on a small sample of the design and writing. The publisher doesn’t have to use much internal energy from their editors or graphic designers (I say much because someone in house has to monitor the packagers work but it involves a small amount of time). And the publisher can depend on this packager to deliver excellence on time (and writers are notoriously late).

When I was doing some research for this online discussion, I learned about the American Book Producer Association which has been around since 1980. I should not have been surprised there is a trade organization of packagers.  These packagers hire writers and graphic designers to pull together these finished books for publishers. Their site includes some excellent articles including What Is A Book Producer and Why Publishers Use Packagers. Also notice a valuable resource for writers—a directory of their members including name, address, phone numbers and email addresses.

Hold up a minute before you flood their offices with submissions and paperwork. Do you want to get some of this writing work? The majority of it is work made for hire and some writers resist this type of writing but I’ve done a lot of it over the years.  If you decide you want to pursue some of this writing, then like any type of submission, you need to make a good first impression. What do you have to show these book producers that you can write and deserve one of their assignments? What types of books do they produce? Have you written the type of material the producer has done in the past? How can you show the packager that you will be an excellent choice to meet their needs? These questions are a few of the ones you will answer with your approach and it will increase their interest and your possibility for an assignment.

Even with a good pitch, you should be prepared to try out on speculation. A few times, I’ve tried out for some packagers and not received the assignment. That experience always feels bad for the writer because essentially you’ve poured creative work and energy into something which hasn’t gone ahead—or has gotten rejected. But I want you to know you can be rejected for your try out work with the packager. It’s another reality of the business of publishing. For whatever reason, they didn’t feel like it was a good fit—and it’s their call (which I respect). Other times, I’ve tried out and received the assignment, met the deadline and received fair compensation for solid work (all that anyone can ask for in this publishing business).

As I’ve mentioned in the past, there are no short cuts or quick fixes. Just understand using a book producer could be another opportunity for you to practice your writing craft and build some more experience. In this case, you can’t cut out the middleman but need to work with this company.

When Your Experience Is Fresh

September 11, 2006

LHJ-Oct-2006-coverThis weekend, I received my October issue of Ladies Home Journal.  It was good to read the second part of a personal experience story from Lisa Collier Cool, one of my colleagues on the board of directors for the American Society of Journalists and Authors. If you don’t know Lisa, she’s a past ASJA president and a prolific writer for magazines. One of her books is How To Write Irresistible Query Letters (which is excellent).

Lisa’s article was a personal story called Rescuing Rosalie and begins, “We were overjoyed when we found our runaway 16–year-old after eight desperate days. Little did we realize that the tough part was just beginning.” Using the dates from 2005 as subheads, Lisa writes in first-person about this personal struggle.  I found this article was a delicate balance between personal information and education for the reader. This well-written piece is loaded with takeaway value for any parent. Now if you don’t know, Ladies Home Journal has a circulation of over four million and compensates their writers well for such work.  While I have no firsthand information about how Lisa wrote this story, I do know it isn’t easy to write these personal experiences and share them with the world.  Lisa was writing dialogue and feelings. I would encourage you to find these two stories—one in the September issue and another in the October issue and study them. Many of these mainstream publications use first-person stories.

I’ve written a number of these types of articles.  Unlike many writers, I’ll admit I don’t keep a journal. I’ve read where Mary Higgins Clark has kept journals since childhood and has all of this information (which no one other than her has ever read). A personal journal is a great place to capture the raw emotion, thoughts, dialogue and feelings of a personal crisis or situation. It doesn’t have to be a crisis. Whether you journal or not, make sure you take a minute to capture the raw emotion of the situation and get it down on paper. It is not what you send to the magazine, but it will give you a running start toward completion of a personal experience magazine article.

Many writers make the key mistake of believing they can take their personal experience story and weave it into a full-length book. To get a publisher interested in your book idea, you must have a high level of visibility in the marketplace (like Robin McGraw on the cover of Ladies Home Journal—which is an excerpt from her new book, Inside My Heart Choosing to Live With Passion and Purpose from Thomas Nelson). If you don’t have this level of visibility (and most of us do not), then you are spinning your wheels to try and publish a book. Instead, you need to be writing magazine articles because magazines use this type of material.

Why write these personal stories as magazine articles? First, because that’s where you have an opportunity. Many publications use these stories—but only if they are well-crafted with a solid point or takeaway for the reader. It’s a skill I encourage you to hone in the magazine world. Second, publishing in magazines builds credibility as a writer. You gain experience but you also gain credibility. I receive many manuscripts from people who have written a book yet never published. Your level of interest from the editor will dramatically increase if you have published in magazines. Why? Because the editor will know that you have worked at your craft and the validation of your craft shows with your ability to get into these magazines.  You are building publishing credits and also valuable experience.  Finally, never forget these magazines reach more people than the average book. The average book (not a bestseller) is fortunate to sell 5,000 copies. Magazines reach many more people with the message.

From Simple to Milestone

September 8, 2006

In December 2004, I decided to try a new forum for me called blogging. My first entry, “Dream About Full-time Writing?” is still out there—one of the characteristics of these entries unless the creator removes them. For my second entry, I asked, “Why Begin Writing Books?” For my third entry, I wrote “ I Resolve Not to Resolve But to Change.” Can you tell it’s written on December 31, 2004?

Over the months, these entries about the writing life have improved and changed (at least I hope they are improving) and my number of readers continues to increase. I know the appearance of these entries definitely improved (thanks, Darlene). In recent months, I added a search tool to the blog in the right-hand column. You can type in key words like rejection or submissions or manuscripts or children or bestsellers or books or whatever—and easily find my different entries. If no one else uses it, I use it almost every day in my writing and editing life.

500th-PostLike any worthwhile venture, I’ve taken my share of criticism for this effort on the writing life. Some people wonder why I do it or they dream up other ways I should be using my time. Others have written and told me I need a copy editor. You know who you are. I’ve encouraged those folks to not read it. I spell check it and put it out there—not laboring over every word like a book manuscript or a magazine article or a book proposal. It’s a different quick format where I hopefully have provided encouragement and insight and a slice of what I’m learning as an editor and writer (and it’s a continual learning curve here).  There is a lot of my life over the last year and a half that I’ve left out and that’s OK. This place is focused and themed and directed (something else to think about for your own writing).  Why am I rumbling about the journey? Don’t worry, I have every intention of continuing. This post marks my 500th entry about the writing life and it seemed appropriate to mark the milestone.  They say a new blog is launched every eight seconds and many of them have half a dozen entries (or less). Consistency and volume count for something.

I’ve always loved the comic pages of the newspaper. I’ve got a small collection of books from one of my favorites “Shoe.” Several years ago I protested when the Colorado Springs Gazette Telegraph took Shoe out of their newspaper. Now I have to read it online since it is also not in the Arizona Republic.  The humor in comics is a great teacher for writers—because good humor is always based on some truth told in a funny and thought-provoking manner. While I haven’t seen all of them, I’ve enjoyed Tales from the Slush Pile which appears in Publisher’s Weekly. It follows the trials and tribulations of a children’s book writer. Just look at installment #39 about how writers get lost in their writing. Or the first installment about how everyone is trying to write the great American novel (more truth than fiction here or so it seems to this editor).  I created this little link to take me to the latest installment each time.

Until my next entry, don’t forget to find moments to laugh and keep writing. I’ll do the same.

The Perfect Bookends

September 7, 2006

PushingBookEndsThere is no single formula to write an excellent magazine article or a chapter of a book.  Yet there are techniques and methods which are regularly used in this craft. I was reading latest issue of The New Yorker and found an example of a technique called bookends.  To take this approach, you begin the article with a story but you don’t tell all of the story. Instead, you judiciously hold back a detail of the story which you use for your ending paragraph.

Radio broadcaster Paul Harvey has been using this technique for years with his Rest of the Story program. He hooks the reader in the opening then tells about a single life. In the final sentence, he reveals the subject of the story with the line, “And now you know the rest of the story.”

To illustrate this technique, I’m going to turn to this New Yorker article by Malcolm Gladwell called No Mercy. Here’s the lead paragraph, “In 1925, a young American physicist was doing graduate work at Cambridge University, in England. He was depressed. He was fighting with his mother and had just broken up with his girlfriend. His strength was in theoretical physics, but he was being forced to sit in a laboratory making thin films of beryllium. In the fall of that year, he dosed an apple with noxious chemicals from the lab and put it on the desk of his tutor, Patrick Blackett. Blackett, luckily, didn’t eat the apple. But school officials found out what happened, and arrived at a punishment: the student was to be put on probation and ordered to go to London for regular sessions with a psychiatrist.”

It’s an interesting story but do you notice what Gladwell has left out of the story? One of the most difficult things for anyone to find is something which is not there. You don’t know the name of this “young American physicist.” At least you don’t know until you read the end of the article, “As for the student whose career Cambridge saved? He left at the end of the academic year and went to study at the University of G�ttingen, where he made important contributions to quantum theory. Later, after a brilliant academic career, he was entrusted with leading one of the most critical and morally charged projects in the history of science. His name was Robert Oppenheimer.”

In the overall structure of this magazine article, the bookend technique cements the article into a cohesive unit. It’s a deliberate storytelling technique which the writer uses with his reader. I’m not recommending overuse of this technique—just awareness so you can weave it into your own writing. 

Knocking on the Wrong Door

September 6, 2006

Knock1At various writers’ conferences, I’m able to interact with writers about their dreams and aspirations. Over the years, it’s been interesting to listen to their pitches and see the projects they want to get published. All too often I find they have poured tremendous work into something which will probably not be published in a traditional way. Why? They haven’t bothered to see what publishers need and present their material in the right way which meets that need. It’s part of the writer’s responsibility to learn as much as they can about the publishing business and one of the best reasons to attend a conference.

In Sally Stuart’s Christian Writers Market Guide, she analyzes the market and the book topics which are most popular with publishers. It’s another tool or gauge of what publishers want to see from writers. The first and second topic were tied: inspirational and prayer.  With all of the continual buzz about Christian fiction, here’s a revelation: #16 Fiction: Adult/ Religious (the first place fiction appears on this list of 148 topics and the next place is #38: Fiction: Juvenile (ages 8–12)). One of the topics in the top ten category is devotional books (#7). Because of this level of interest from various publishers, it makes sense that writers pitch devotional books at conferences.  They are knocking on a door or topic which publishers want but are they knocking on the right door?

Yesterday in an online forum, someone asked about finding a how-to on writing devotionals. It was a great question and showed a willingness to learn how this area of the marketplace works. I think the majority of people on the list were stunned with my answer because it was not what they expected—yet it was a solid dose of reality.  I’m going to include some of my response in this entry with some expansions.

I know many writers want to get into devotional writing yet many people wander around trying to get into it—and not succeeding. I see a lot of book proposals in this area at conferences- -because Howard Books publishes devotionals and writers think I can help them (even though I’m only acquiring fiction). Basically they are tackling it the wrong way—with about 99.9% of their ideas being rejected. I’ve written a couple of devotional books which have each sold over 60,000 copies and I have some experience in this area.

First, hone your craft of devotional writing in PRINT magazines. The format is shorter and the likelihood of your success is increased since it’s not a full length book—which is more involved. I’m not suggesting you hone your craft with Internet devotionals since anyone can throw out their devotional materials on a web page. There are a number of magazines that take devotions—so use Sally Stuart’s Market Guide to read and learn about them. Here’s an example, Upper Room—reaches about six million readers each month. They need devotions from men and in particular from the Old Testament—I hear this detail over and over at conferences. They have lots of specific information on their website about how to write for their needs.

Each of these devotional publications have their own format and their own expectations. If you get published here, it will build credibility with the editor. I’m much more interested if someone has published with a well-known place like The Upper Room than they have some home-grown audience on their devotional website. It means more to the editor—and not just me—any editor.

Second, take a continuing class on this devotion writing topic from one of the Upper Room editors like Susan King or Mary Lou Redding—who regularly teach at different writers conferences. If you can’t get to the conference, get their tape and learn from that tape. Do a simple google search to locate these tapes from writers conferences like the Glorieta Christian Writers Conference or the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference or the Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference.

Finally, you need to understand that most book publishers are NOT going to take your devotional book idea—no matter how excellent your proposal or your pitch or your material. OK, look at it from the editor’s perspective. Why should I take your single book idea or single series idea, when I can turn to a packager and have the packager deliver excellent writing and graphics which the publisher prints and sells to the marketplace. Book packagers produce the bulk of these products—and with excellence. If you want to get into this market—write for the packagers. I’ve been in these editorial meetings where a packager will pitch 200 books in an afternoon. Yes, a bit overwhelming but how this part of the business is conducted. From these pitches, the publisher will like up their devotional book needs for the next season (or maybe two seasons). You can waste a ton of time and energy trying to pitch your own devotional series. It’s the way the market works right now in the devotional book area. 

Also you need to understand these types of books are not author-driven products.  In general, the author’s name doesn’t appear on the cover of the book because that’s not why people purchase these types of books. They buy a book because it’s geared for mothers of little kids or grandmothers or working mothers. The reader buys the book as a gift for a graduate from high school or because they want a new Christmas book.  If you are looking for a book with your name on the cover, you will likely be disappointed if you try and begin this process in the devotional book area.

OK, one final story and I’ll quit. I’m rather passionate on this topic because I see writers stumbling around in this area. At the Phoenix airport the other day, I noticed a bright, red hardcover The 100 Most Important Bible Verses (W Publishing Group). I looked at the copyright page—and spotted the packager credit for this book.  The packager found the writer, edited the manuscript, hired the designer and then delivered the material on deadline to the publisher who printed it and sold it into the market. There is an entire series of these books called “The 100 Most Important ______.” They are content driven and not author driven. If you want to write these types of books, you need to be contacting the packager.

If you want to write devotional material, then take the time to learn how this area of the market works. Approach the right person—the packager and not the publisher. If you are knocking on the wrong door (the publisher), then you simply glut the system with more inappropriate submissions which only increase your frustration as a writer.