Archive for November, 2006

Book Sales & The First Five Pages

November 30, 2006

Book-Proposals-That-Sell-coI’m one of the almost 48,000 people on Mahesh Grossman’s e-zine list. Like many of the things that come across my desk, often I read it, then delete it. If you don’t get his newsletter, then use the link in his bio to subscribe. Yesterday’s newsletter included a couple of interesting articles from him and his newsletter gave permission to reuse them—as long as you included his bio (and I added his byline). It’s another reality check for writers in several areas—the number of book sales—and the type of effort you have to pour into your book proposals and submissions to get any place in this process. I was discussing this very topic yesterday with someone I’m working with on one of my own book proposals in the process. He said to me, “Terry, if it was easy, then everyone would do it.” It’s true. It’s not easy and takes hard work and solid storytelling skills to pull off a successful book.

I hope you will enjoy and benefit from these articles.

THE TRUTH ABOUT BOOK SALES

by Mahesh Grossman

I get a lot of calls and e-mails from the subscribers to this newsletter that start off with a comment like ‘My book is a guaranteed bestseller.’

If you say that to me on the phone, my response is likely to be curmudgeonly. If you write that to me in an e-mail, it decreases the chance I will respond to you.

Nobody actually knows that a book will make the bestseller list, especially by an author who isn’t well-known.

Here are some sobering statistics from Nielsen Bookscan, a company that in 2004 tracked the sales of 1.2 million books in the United States:

  • Of those 1.2 million books, 950,000 sold fewer than 99 copies.
  • Another 200,000 sold fewer than 1,000 copies.
  • Only 25,000 books sold more than 5,000 copies.
  • Fewer than 500 sold more than 100,000 copies.
  • Only 10 books sold more than a million copies each.
  • The average book in the United States sells about 500 copies.

(The above info is reprinted from the Levine Breaking News, one of my favorite e-zines. To subscribe, send your email address to: Join-elert@pr2.netatlantic.com.)

In other words, almost 80% of the books tracked sold less than 99 copies. And more than 95% sold less than 1,000 copies.

Now you know why The Authors Team doesn’t work on a book for part of the profits. 99% of the time we’d starve.

Here are the two main lessons you can take from this:

1) Agents and editors know these statistics. Because of that, you look like an amateur if you say your book will be a bestseller in your query letter or when you meet with them. They will then look for reasons to turn you down when they read your manuscript or proposal, rather than keeping an open mind.

2) Writing a book just to make money doesn’t usually work, unless you’re already famous. If you’re writing non-fiction, particularly as a way to promote your business, a book needs to be part of an overall strategy that includes publicity, developing a mailing list, and creating other products (paid newsletters, teleseminars, CDs, DVDs, boot camps, coaching and training programs, etc.) for which you can charge higher prices.

***************************************************

NOVEL NOTES: THE FIRST FIVE PAGES

By Mahesh Grossman

Here’s the truth about how it works when you submit your novel or a book proposal to an agent: Typically, yours is one of about two hundred submissions the agent gets in a week.

With that kind of volume, the agent or his assistant is not reading carefully. Though they have a goal of finding new properties to sell, at this stage of the process agents have a different mission: rule out as many manuscripts as possible so they can spend more time reading the best stuff.

In real terms, unless your manuscript is one of the top few in a given week, you’ll get a polite rejection letter.

Most agents will take five pages along with a query letter. And one of my agent friends says she skips the query altogether until she reads the sample five pages.

But–and this is really important–since an agent is looking to rule out manuscripts that aren’t ready, if your first page (and sometimes even your first paragraph) isn’t strong enough, you will land in the reject pile.

Literally every unpublished manuscript I have seen in the last few years has suffered from this problem. Even the best, which recently landed an agent, needed a complete re-do of the first two pages.

Maybe it’s because most people start their novels at the beginning, and they don’t know their story or characters well enough until later in the book. Maybe new writers write better as they get further into the story.

Whatever the case, you can’t afford to wait until page three (or seven or fifty) for your best writing. It has to start with page one, sentence one, and continue with sentence two, sentence three, etc. Otherwise your manuscript is bound for the reject pile.

What’s the biggest reason agents get turned off by a writer’s first page? Instead of starting where the real story begins, with the juicy stuff, writers fill their first pages with either dull, unnecessary scenes or background information that can be skipped. I’ve seen manuscripts that begin with the equivalent to the words that appear on the screen before a movie begins–the stuff that’s too boring to waste money filming. Obviously, this is not the kind of writing that will make a great first impression on an agent.

One of my favorite examples of a great beginning is from Jennifer Weiner’s novel, ‘Good In Bed’. It starts with a big event that propels the story. The first four words of this novel push you right into the story–the main character’s best friend simply asks, ‘Have you seen it?’

The ‘it’ in question is an article by the protagonist’s somewhat ex-boyfriend (they’re taking a break), in a national magazine, titled ‘Loving a Larger Woman.’

Her reaction to this article is entertaining and keeps you reading for a long time to come. Eventually Weiner fills you in on the story between the ex and the main character on a need to know basis, but she doesn’t let it get in the way of the important material that’s happening right now.

This novel starts with the event that changes the main character’s life–which is where most stories should begin. (There are other ways to start a novel, but this is a very good one.)

Where does your novel start? And what can you cut from your beginning without hurting your story?

My advice? Be ruthless.

Here’s to your bestseller!

MaheshgrossmanMahesh Grossman is the author of Write a Book Without Lifting a Finger (www.writeabooktoday.com) and President of The Authors Team (www.AuthorsTeam.com), a company that helps credible experts become Incredible Authors, through ghostwriting, editing, coaching, and publishing. He can be reached via e-mail at: GetPublished@AuthorsTeam.com. For a free list of more than 400 agents as well as a newsletter with tips on how to find an agent, get published, publish your own book and get publicity for it, go to www.findagreatliteraryagent.com or www.AuthorsTeam.com. ©2006

This link to the agent list is a way to get the list of the Association of Author Representatives. Many other agents follow the ethical standards of the AAR but don’t belong to the organization. The list can be a resource—but it can also be overwhelming. If you are going to use this list, understand that just like approaching any publisher requires research, it also requires research to approach an agent and make sure you are pitching something of interest for that agent. If you don’t use this list of agents with wisdom, then you are simply throwing more material into the system, clogging it and going to reap a lot of rejections. Information is power but how you use that information is critical.

Test Your Book Knowledge

November 29, 2006

BlankbookLast Sunday’s New York Times book review section included a fascinating essay by Henry Alford called Name That Book.  It’s not really an essay but a multiple choice quiz about books. You may or may not recognize all of the authors and the titles in this exercise but I’d encourage you to read through it.  Why?

Embedded in the questions and the answers are some insights into how the publishing business works. The business is constantly in motion and changing as circumstances and authors change. Just look for a minute at question #8 about Donald Trump. “By the time Donald Trump’s “Surviving at the Top” came out in paperback in 1991, Trump had declared bankruptcy and was $2 billion in debt, so the book was renamed:

a. “The Art of Survival”

b.”How to Survive”

c. “Trump: La Lucha Continua”

d. “Do I Owe You Money?”

The answer is a. The Art of Survival. See how the publisher made an adjustment so the paperback edition reflected the reality of Trump’s situation—yet still attracted readers? It reveals the type of decisions which are being made daily in the publishing world.  It also returns to a theme which I’ve hit several times in these entries about the writing life: a show stopping title is critical to finding your audience. Follow this link to get Mahesh Grossman’s report Strategies for a Six-Figure Advance. Then do more than download it. Study it and apply it to your book proposal writing.

Until The Fat Lady Sings

November 28, 2006

Maybe you’ve heard the expression, it’s not over until the fat lady sings. It’s rarely discussed in publishing (at least from what I’ve read) but it’s true in book publishing as well.  A book isn’t a book until it’s actually published. Yes, you want to celebrate if you are offered a book contract from a traditional publishing house.  But if you carefully read the contract, there are benchmarks for the publisher and for the author. If something isn’t met along the way, then the book can be cancelled and not published. It’s why I’ve encouraged authors to celebrate when they actually hold the book in their hand. Yes, work hard to get exposure and market your book but also realize you’ve achieved a real milestone when your book appears in print. As an editor and as the author, I’ve been involved in some of these challenges and it’s not easy but it does happen. I’ll not be detailing them in these entries but I have had some unpleasant experiences in this area of publishing.

PumpkinsWhy am I introducing this topic? I was fascinated to see the detail in this article in the November 20th issue of Publishers Weekly titled, “Witch Scares Off S & S.”  It gives you a taste of this dynamic process of publishing and some of the discussions that authors and publishers have before a book releases into the marketplace. Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers originally contracted to publish  Ken Robbins’ book, Pumpkins. The author/ illustrator of over 25 children’s books, Robbins had a disagreement with the publisher about an illustration in the book with a witch.  The Publishers Weekly article includes the illustration but I could not located it online to show you. The publisher was concerned the religious right would object to the witch illustration and asked for it to be removed. Robbins decided not to change the image and got his rights back from S & S, then took the book to another publisher, Roaring Brook Press, a part of Holzbrinck Publishers. If you carefully read this article, you will see some of the negotiations and the decisions made for this particular title. It’s not an isolated story but happens throughout publishing.

I call this article to your attention for several reasons. First, some authors are pretty combative with their editor in the editing process. I mean they almost fight every single part of the process. If you are one of these types of writers, I’d encourage you to loosen your stance in this area. The publisher wants to produce the best possible book product to sell into the marketplace (which they intimately understand). The work between the author and the editor is a cooperative venture with the goal of producing excellence. Just be aware that you have to pick and choose your battles carefully because some of these battles will be a deal breaker (cancel the book which is not a happy situation for anyone). The process isn’t over until it’s over. It’s a valuable call to excellence and cooperation in my view.

Colorado Springs Publisher Overview

November 27, 2006

With great interest, I read this well-written article from Lynn Garrett and Cindy Crosby titled, “Evangelical Publishers Flourish in ‘The Springs’” which appeared in the November 20th issue of Publisher’s Weekly. I’ve been a subscriber to this publication for years and in recent months, they’ve been improving this educational portion of the magazine. Because I used to live in Colorado Springs and even work for one of the publishers mentioned, I enjoyed their detailed analysis of the various publishers. Like much of publishing, things continue to evolve and change and it was good to get some update. If you read the article carefully, you can note some of these changes. For example, they interviewed the publisher at NavPress Paul Westervelt and last I heard they were still searching for whoever was going to take this position. Without any fanfare, this type of information is inside this article.

CookbuildingHere’s a few words from the article which provide a bit of a bellwether to another publisher, Cook (where I used to work as their acquisitions editor) “The past year has brought new top leadership and reorganization to Cook, which has 336 employees in its four locations, 225 of them in Colorado Springs. Cris Doornbos took the helm as president last fall after 22 years at Zondervan. Senior v-p and publisher Dan Rich came on board in May, and Don Pape took over as publisher of the book division two months ago. In the past year Cook published some 150 titles— “to many,” said Rich, who is rethinking the company’s acquisitions strategy. Echoing many publishers these days, he said, “We’d like to do fewer better.” Its bestselling title last year was Cracking Da Vinci’s Code—which has sold almost 350,000 in the U.S. alone—but that was a unique opportunity that will be hard to duplicate. The plan is to cut down to 80 titles this year and 60 in 2007, and, Rich said, “We’re looking for more marquee authors to do books that will appeal to pastors and other leaders and help shape the future of the church.”

If you don’t know, this paragraph indicates a philosophy change which will take time to execute. Several years ago, the philosophy involved producing many different titles in a single year and consistently selling a certain amount for each title. I understand from some of my publishing colleagues that it is possible to have a successful publishing program with this model. I confess that I don’t understand it in many ways because essentially you overload your editors and run a lot of books through the publishing house. The authors and literary agents aren’t pleased with the results of such a program because most of the books have modest (read small) sales numbers. Many publishers have a different philosophy of publishing fewer titles and selling them deeper into the marketplace. It’s the philosophy that Dan Rich said above as the new philosophy. I understand these changes will not happen overnight but will take time to implement. Why? Notice the quotation above about marquee authors? Many authors who sell in large volume will be hesitant to work with a publisher who has a track record of mostly modest sales. It takes time to change the perception of any publisher.

Some of you might be asking if this change is good for authors. From one view, it’s less opportunity for your book to be published because the publisher is planning on less books. That’s one view. Also it means that writers need to work harder on the ideas they propose to show the publisher the sales potential of that particular idea. I’m undaunted with the reduced list because it means the books which are selected are expected to sell more copies (which is always good for the author in the long run). It means if you are going to succeed at this publisher, you will need to sharpen your book proposal and rejection-proof your submission giving it the absolute best chance of success. It will take hard work and imagination and creativity to succeed. These elements are something that many people aren’t willing to put into their proposals but if you do it, then you will find a publisher for your work.

When You Can’t Finish

November 26, 2006

Maybe you’ve always been able to finish a book project that you’ve started, if you fall into this camp, you can quit reading this entry and go on to something else since you will not be able to relate to this entry. If you’ve struggled to complete a nonfiction book or a novel, then you are in good company. I’ve had it happen to me often in the writing process. It’s not that I recall these incidents, but my wife certainly recalls them. I will begin the conversation, “I can’t figure out how to finish…” and Christine will cut me off in mid-sentence saying, “Oh, I’ve heard you say that before, go back there and finish.” With this verbal equivalent of a kick in the backside, I return to my chair and finish. It does happen.

StrangerThe writer’s struggle to complete the work is the main premise behind the movie, Stranger Than Fiction. Check out the button characters and the different little fun motions for the gadgets. Author Karen Effiel can’t decide how to finish her novel about Harold Crick, who turns out to be a real person. While I knew this movie was about a writer and several friends encouraged me to see it—I didn’t choose this film. I left it in the capable hands of my wife and her youngest daughter. They looked over the various possibilities and yesterday they selected Stranger Than Fiction and I got to see it too.

It is not a blockbuster sort of film which will top the box office yet to my surprise every seat in theater was filled. The author Karen Effiel (actor Emma Thompson) has some quirky writer habits such as chain smoking cigarettes and extinguishing them with her saliva (or worse) in a piece of paper towel which she holds. Effiel narrates the film and tells her story about Harold Crick, who turns out to be a real person (actor Will Ferrell). Crick begins hearing this narrator’s voice in his head telling me about things as he does them. Increasingly it becomes an annoying experience for Crick and he yells at the unseen voice. He appeals for help from a college literature Professor Jules Hilbert (actor Dustin Hoffman) and eventually he tracks down the mysterious author Karen Effiel (who is a recluse) but Harold Crick is an IRS agent with his own resources for locating people.

Overall it’s an interesting story about the creative process, writer’s block, the difficulty of finishing a long book and some of the ups and downs of the writing life. It’s a bit slow in a couple of places and there is an unnecessary (but startling) scene where Frick and Hilbert walk through a men’s locker room shower. You can close your eyes if you don’t want to see some old guy’s back side. One balancing figure for Karen Effiel is Penny Escher (actor Queen Latifah), who has been sent from the author’s publisher to help her finish the novel (which is late). Escher plays part psychologist and part assistant but encourages Effiel to complete the book. It’s a role that I’ve often played in the lives of writers.

I recommend this film but make sure you take your family members and watch it with them. It may help them understand a bit of where you are coming from in life and how you approach the different parts of your own writing life.

Dan Poynter on YouTube

November 25, 2006

For many years, I’ve heard about Dan Poynter and his self publishing efforts. I’ve yet to read one of his books or attend one of his seminars.

Today I located this short ten-minute clip on YouTube and enjoyed watching it. I’ve never embedded any YouTube clips in my entries about the Writing Life but this one is relevant and I learned something else in the process. I’m intrigued about how Poynter is using this clip as another viral marketing effort for his work and his business. Maybe it will spark an idea for one of you and how you could use it for your own writing efforts.

Money, Books and Other Statistics

November 24, 2006

During the last few days, I read through my blogroll, checked some links and made a few modifications. I don’t get to this task as often as I would like but I learned a great deal from the exercise.  Several months ago, I exchanged links with Big Bad Book Blog from the Greenleaf Book Group. They have some interesting articles if you haven’t checked this one in some time.

MoneyI stumbled across this article from Justin Branch called, “How Much Money Do Most Authors Make? And Other Provocative Industry Stats.” Occasionally authors will ask me about how to find sales numbers and other information for their book proposal creation. Sales numbers are good to include, if you can get them.  You will quickly discover that some publishers are more liberal with this information than others.  I’ve found most of the time, it’s a challenge to find such information.

What I found attractive from this article was not only the information from Branch but that he included the basic website links where he located the data.  Notice his opening paragraph begins with a large caveat about the statistical information in the article?  I was interested to see the quotation from the Authors Guild: “A successful nonfiction book sells 7,500 copies.” The figure that I’ve heard is often less and that anything over 5,000 is good. The last time I mentioned this figure during my teaching at a writer’s conference several large gasps came from the audience since they figured the number would be much higher. Naturally every author and publisher want to sell much more than 7,500 books. At the same time, you want to feel good about how your book compares to other titles and it’s a number to keep in mind. One of the keys from my view is to find different ways to bring the book in front of your audience.

I appreciated Branch’s key takeaway from these numbers: “The most important thing to take away from this is that the book industry is a competitive one. To have a shot, a book must be well written, well packaged, well distributed, and well marketed. Above all, the book needs an audience and that audience must want the book.”

Speaking of competition, for several days this week my Straight Talk from the Editor, 18 Keys to a Rejection-Proof Submission (the Amazon Short) was in the number one spot for best-selling Shorts. It’s an instant download in a PDF file. If you haven’t picked it up, I’d encourage you to do it—and whether you write fiction or nonfiction

One writer picked up Straight Talk, read it and commented she felt it only applied to nonfiction writers. She wondered why I posted about it on the American Christian Fiction Writers forum.  The majority of my personal examples in the Short were from my nonfiction writing. I’ve not published any novels—yet I feel that every writer can profit from learning more about how the editor thinks and processes submissions. Also whether you write fiction or nonfiction, every writer who applies the last six keys to their submission will differentiate their submission from anything else under consideration and increase the attractiveness of their submission.  If you are reading Straight Talk expecting some guarantee, you will not find it. It is impossible for anyone to guarantee anything since the process is as much art as science. It’s a matter of giving each submission your best possible effort. Then maybe you can beat some of these statistics.

Bridge the Chasm with Grace

November 22, 2006

Bret-LottLast summer I attended the Christy Awards Banquet in Denver. It’s an annual celebration of the best of Christian fiction and the room was filled with some bestselling authors along with editors and others who just love a good book. Best-selling author Bret Lott gave the keynote address. From his words, I could tell he was a bit out of his element—and even felt the need to give his background and validate why he was speaking to the group.

Why would I return to such an event months after the fact? After the dinner, I asked the Christy Awards Director, Donna Kehoe if the beautiful speech would be available online for others to read. As many writers, Bret wrote exactly what he said to the group, Donna promised to check on it. Yesterday Donna wrote and told me the keynote address had been posted on the Christy Award site for the last month. I’ll admit that I don’t go to this site often so without her email, I would not have known about it.

Last night, I printed Bret’s speech and relived the experience of hearing it last summer. It stirred something inside of me and hopefully it will for you as well. One of his challenges to the audience was to be a Christian who writes rather than a Christian writer. It’s a message that resonated with me and some of the circumstances that I find for my writing life. It’s a good theme to revisit occasionally. Here’s one paragraph of a terrific keynote which stood out to me: “Christ’s stories surprised His listeners. They were unexpected, yet the surprise of them was totally logical and clear and, finally, the kind of surprise that makes good literature good literature: the surprise turn in a story—not of plot, but of character—when the reader must come face to face with himself, and his own failures, and the dust of his own life, a dust with which we are each of us fully familiar, but which we forget about or ignore or accommodate ourselves to. The dust of our lives that we have grown accustomed to, and which it takes a piece of art created in the spirit of Christ to remind us of ourselves, and our distance from our Creator—and the chasm that is bridged by Grace.”

Christian-Short-StoriesNo matter what you are writing can you bridge the chasm with grace? It’s worthy of our consideration. Whether you are writing nonfiction or fiction or if you are writing a magazine article or an article for something online, are you devoted to the craft of writing and producing the best possible end result?

One of the gifts each person at the Christy Awards received was a copy of The Best Christian Short Stories edited by Bret Lott. I love the short story but I confess that I haven’t had a chance to read this volume. It looks excellent and is worth knowing about it’s availability.

Let me conclude this entry on the writing life with the words Bret Lott used to wrap his keynote: “Rather, I’d like you to think, he wanted me to think for myself, and to create–and to edit, and to market, and to sell—books that will magnify Christ in the way that only I—you listening to me—can magnify Him. That’s all. And it is work enough—and joy enough—to last each of us our own lifetime.”

Yes, it is work enough —and joy enough—for a lifetime.

Watch for Fake PR

November 21, 2006

Maybe you’ve heard about Michael Crichton’s forthcoming book, Next.  Right after Thanksgiving, it will release into the bookstores. HarperCollins is printing two million copies for their first release—which is a large number of books for any publisher.

I’d encourage you to watch for the Internet ads related to this book. I’ve already spotted one of them on Shelf Awareness but when I tried the link I had saved to show you, another ad was appearing. Last week’s Wall Street Journal included an article called “Believe It or Not, Fake Biotech Firm Is Key Marketing Ploy for Crichton Novel.” As the article explains, some of these fake schemes can lead to a backlash. It will be interesting to see what happens with this Crichton book. I’ve read many of his books over the years.

I am not a proponent for this type of marketing campaign but it will definitely catch people’s attention. For my way of thinking, there is something with a switch and bait feel about using a fake biotech company as a lure to get readers to learn about a new novel. It risks potential backlash from the public.  It’s something interesting to watch in the days ahead.

Straight Talk For Less than 50 Cents

November 20, 2006

Every writer struggles to understand rejection.  You have a brilliant idea and craft a query letter or a book proposal.  Then you come up with a list of possible book publishers and submit your material. Then you wait (some times months) for an answer—which comes from the editor. And it’s a form letter with nothing personal and no insight for you to improve on the next submission.

I completely understand the unfair nature of a form rejection letter.  I dislike sending these form letters but as an editor, I have little choice.  It’s not my responsibility to critique the writer’s work or tell them why I returned their work. Also there are simply not enough hours in the day to accomplish even a brief specialized note to these authors. Since January, I’ve rejected over 350 submissions with my part-time editor role. You can assume the volume of submissions is even higher many other places. You want to manage your own expectations about receiving any details from the editor about the reason for the rejection letter.  I continue to receive rejection letters for my own submissions—often form letters.  Now many writers will resist seeing the rejection letters.  If they have a literary agent, they feel like they don’t need to see these letters. It’s not true in my view. If I work with a literary agent, I encourage that agent to send me the rejection letters. Why? Then I know my materials are being submitted—and processed through the publishing houses.  It’s frustrating to ask an agent about your book proposal and hear, “I showed it all around and everyone passed.”  Who is “everyone?” The rejection letters give validity that the agent is indeed working for you.  I’ve dissolved my relationship with agents who don’t send rejecStraight-Talk-covertion letters when I’m one of their clients. It’s something else to consider in your own relationship with a literary agent.

Out of my own frustration about not being able to respond to writers and give them reasons, I wrote Straight Talk from the Editor, 18 Keys to a Rejection Proof-Submission. This new Amazon Short gives six keys why book ideas are rejected, six keys to guarantee rejection and six keys to gain the editor’s attention. Now you know how I came up with 18 keys in this original piece. I could have used this article in many other ways. It could have appeared as a magazine article or as the first chapter of a new book project. Instead, I sent it to Amazon.com for their Amazon Short program. It’s not free but at 49 cents, it’s certainly affordable for every person and you receive it instantly as a PDF download.

It’s part of my ongoing commitment to educate writers and help them understand how to improve their submissions and distinguish their submissions from others.  I hope you will check out Straight Talk from the Editor, give it a Five Star Review on Amazon—and tell all your writer friends about it.  My greatest hope is for you to study these words and apply them to your writing life.  We need more writers who understand the process and can give editors what they need. It’s the editor’s hope for each email and each package. When the rejections pile up, it’s easy to grow discouraged.

Every editor and every literary agent that I know is actively looking. The key is giving them the right project at the right time at the right place.