Saturday, February 27, 2010

The Non-Fiction Book

I haven’t been taking as many nonfiction books to represent as in the past. Why? There are several reasons.

First and foremost is all of the free stuff on the internet. Fast, convenient, easy to search out, it has made writing and selling non-fiction books a much more difficult proposition. So, what does it take for a non-fiction book to be a success?
Wendy Lawton at Books and Such did a nice blog on this at their blog (click here to visit) and caused me to start thinking about this topic. To read more I recommend you go there, but her main four topics were:

1. The book must meet a “felt need).
2. It must contain information not available for free on the internet.
3. Must be the right topic by the right person.
4. Writing has to be exquisite. All of the elements that make good fiction must also be in good nonfiction.

Can’t argue with a one of those, particularly not the third one. A key ingredient for being successful with a nonfiction book is the authors’ credentials for writing it. I got a book a few years back claiming to have the solution to a majority of the world’s problems. Wow, such a book should be in great demand, right? The problem is the author was 22 years old. Do you think the world would believe he had enough life experience to even know what the world’s problems are, much less have them figured out? Maybe it was true, maybe he really had figured it out, but without credentials the reading public would simply not believe it.

By the same token I really don’t want a book on brain surgery written by an auto mechanic, or vice versa for that matter. Could they know what they were talking about? Sure, under some circumstances, but would the reading public believe it? No.
Platform, platform, platform, critical in non-fiction. For a publisher to get behind a book they would like to see an author with a recognized name, or with a speaking circuit where they would be out creating visibility and causing the book to sell. A non-fiction proposal that does not have a very strong section on platform is at a great disadvantage.

I’m a Christian, a daily Bible reader and study the Bible on a regular basis, but even at that I don’t consider myself a theologian and I don’t consider myself a good judge of strongly theological work so I leave it to others.

Memoirs and personal experience books, how about them? Everybody wants to tell their story, but do you want to read everyone’s personal story? The general reading public for the most part is only interested in memoirs and personal experiences if they know the person. So how well is the author known? I have encouraged several authors to take these personal experience books and make them a work of fiction if they have some interesting material in them. Then it becomes about the story and not about the person that the reader does not know.

We have to remember that we don’t get published by writing a book that we really want to write, but instead by writing a book that others really want to read. That means a non-fiction book has the same challenge that its fiction counterpart has. It has to force the reader to turn that first page and has to hook them into wanting to read it inside the first dozen pages. It has to maintain their interest and move them through the book. Even textbooks and reference books are not popular if they are a dry recitation of facts and have nothing in them to maintain the interest of the reader.

All of these things and more come into play choosing to represent a non-fiction book. Small wonder that I find myself doing less and less of it. But one that meets these tests should be an easy sell.

Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Free books?

It is a good idea to think it through and decide what our free book policy should be. I did think it through and came up with one before I had books to give and made it known. That’s easier than trying to change policy midstream.

I do give copies to immediate family, mom and kids, although one or two like to have a collection of them but rarely if ever read them.

Traditionally one is given to whoever the book is dedicated to.

To other family and friends I make it clear that I get a limited number of author copies and once they are exhausted have to buy books to have personal stock so I expect people to buy them. I have a local bookstore that I consider my ‘home store’ and keeps my books in stock. I apologize for being out of author copies and refer family and friends there to get them. I also count on family members to come to book signings in their area and to help turn out a crowd. It is a key factor for a decent book signing to have someone who will assume a personal responsibility to have people there and make phone calls to make that happen. Family are the most likely candidates if that role is made clear to them.

Blog tours and reviewers plus any that might be given away with an interview I don’t consider giveaways but advertising and they show up on my income tax just that way. It’s hard to quantify what sort of impact these have on book sales but all contribute to the ‘word of mouth’ promotion that everyone agrees is the most important of all of the strategies for book promotion. There are some reviewers that have to be done in advance of the release of the book and often these have to be done by the publisher rather than the author. These are the critical reviews, the ones that book buyers for libraries and bookstores count on for selecting products they will acquire since they obviously cannot read all the books.

At church I will often give signed books if they will put an appropriate amount or more in the building fund in my name, then I deduct that amount from what I give to the building fund. That means I am putting the amount in the building fund I intended to give and putting a few books out in the process. That also makes me feel less like one of the ‘sellers in the temple’ where Jesus overturned their tables and tossed them out. That’s not company I want to be in.

The point is, the smart thing to do is to think it through before the process starts in order to be able to articulate just what the policy is. The most important phrase for those family and friends that think they should get a free copy is “I’m sorry, I have exhausted all of my author copies now and have to buy them just like you do.” But be careful about exceptions, exceptions lead to more exceptions.


Interview with client Vickie Phelps

What is your latest project? Tell us about it
Moved, Left No Address is the story of a man who finds himself alone in the world after his father's death. While going through his dad's possessions, he finds some old postcards postmarked Santa Fe, New Mexico, from an uncle who disappeared the year before he was born. He decides to find out if the uncle is still alive and goes to Santa Fe. What he finds there is a life-changing experience through the people he meets and the choices he makes.

How did you research for this book?

I've been to Santa Fe twice and love the ambience of the old city. I ate the food, explored the shops, visited the museums, and observed the people. In other words I soaked up all I could while there. I also read several issues of a local magazine about Santa Fe, did some online exploring, and studied a map to be sure I had correct streets, etc.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

From personal experiences and stories I hear other people telling. I don't use their stories necessarily, I use an idea or thought that sticks with me from listening to them.

What has been the hardest part of writing your latest book and how did you overcome it?

Rewriting the book or parts of the book over and over until I felt like it worked. Sometimes I had to lay it aside for awhile and work on other projects. My critique group has been invaluable to me. We're very honest with each other about whether something works or doesn't work.

What do you hope people will take away from reading your book?

That we all need someone else. No man is an island unto himself. We can't hibernate or stick our head in the sand.

What new projects are you working on?

I'm working on some personal experience articles and some poetry. I also have a devotional book that's been in the works for some time.

What is the best writing advice you ever got?

An editor once told me that the mark of a professional was someone who could take criticism. I've never forgotten that and try to keep an open mind when people comment about my work as long as their comments are constructive.

The worst?

I don't know if I've ever gotten bad advice, just some poor criticism that threatened to sideline me as a writer.

Anything else you'd like to take this opportunity to say?

Persistence pays off. This can be a tough business, but if you feel writing is more than a hobby, that it's a real calling for you, stick it out. Don't give up. When I first started writing, I sent a children's article to a magazine which they promptly rejected. So I sent it somewhere else, but it came back again. I kept sending it out to different magazines and it kept coming back. For ten years. Meanwhile I was selling other articles on a regular basis, but I wouldn't stop submitting this one because I'd had it professionally critiqued by an editor who told me she saw no reason why it shouldn't be published. Ten years and 31 submissions later, I sold that article to the first magazine who had turned me down ten years earlier. Persistence pays. Don't get discouraged.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Interview with client Barbara Warren

What is your latest project? Tell us about it.

My latest project, which Terry is pitching for me is a mystery set in the beautiful Ozark Mountains where I live. Cassie Richards, whose parents were town trash, drug dealers, you name it, has come a long way from her upbringing. She has a thriving business, an elegant home, a good bank account, and none of it matters anymore. Her sister, LeAnn is missing. Cassie leaves town and goes to Tolbert Springs determined to find her sister, even though Police Chief Ike Carpenter has made it clear he doesn’t want her help. Cassie soon finds she has an unknown enemy in Tolbert Springs, and as several attempts are made on her life, she finds she is turning to Kip Horton, reporter at the local paper for help. Cassie, who accidentally killed a man, doesn’t think she’s good enough for Kip and the people he goes to church with, but God has plans for Cassie Richards, and when He gives, it’s full measure, tamped down, and running over.

How did you research for this book?

We often hear true stories of serial killers, psychopaths, people who do terrible things, yet live normal lives, often working in the community or church. Their neighbors are astounded that that nice person they know and trust could be guilty of such horrible crimes. The monster living among us, the darker side of human nature and what it does to its victims. I read a lot of those stories and I tried to imagine what I would do if someone I loved disappeared, and found it was too horrible to contemplate. I understood how Cassie felt, her pain became my pain. And I knew what it was like to stray from God and have to find my way back. The setting is at a lake where my family and I go every summer for a week. I’ve walked around that lake, sat on the dock, seen the herons and otter. I could picture it in my mind, and picture Cassie walking where I had walked.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

From many places, stories I hear, comments someone makes. I collect newspaper articles about crimes that grab my attention. And I get inspiration from my own life, my fears, my desires, and from the lives of my family and friends. I carry a small notebook with me everywhere to jot down those little snippets I might be able to use later.

What has been the hardest part of writing your latest book and how did you overcome it?

The hardest part was thinking of how I would feel if a member of my family disappeared. We have a family in our area whose daughter disappeared ten years ago. Nothing has ever been found that would point to where she is. I know that mother’s pain, and sometimes I had to put that aside, concentrate on Cassie, and remember this was just a book, not something that really had happened.

What do you hope people will take away from reading your book?

That we can never run so far from God that we can’t come back. And that no matter how dark our valley, God is there, and He’s our light.

What new projects are you working on?

I have just finished a manuscript set on Dauphin Island, Alabama where I went with my sister and her family two years ago. It’s a mystery, of course, a young woman is forced to go back to Dauphin Island because her grandmother needs her. But Kelsie fled the island the year she graduated from high school because someone tried to kill her. She doesn’t know who her enemy is, but she does know he’s still after her because every year on the anniversary of the time he tried to kill her she gets flowers. The first year she also got a book of the language of flowers, and the offerings she receives mean things like rejected, deceit, heartbroken. Now she has to spend a week on the island, and she’s afraid she’ll never leave alive.
Now I’m working on a humorous mystery about five women in their sixties who decide to start a murder solving club. There hasn’t been a murder in their town in years, but it isn’t long before they stumble over a body and end up being the prime suspects. I’m having fun with it.

Where can people find out more about you and your writing? The programs and speaking that you do?

I have a website, I also send out a monthly online newsletter featuring writing news, book reviews, wacky news stories, and writing tips.

What is the best writing advice you ever got? The worst?

The best writing advice was to be myself. The worst was to pick out my favorite author and try to write like her.

Anything else you'd like to take this opportunity to say?

I appreciate the opportunity to interact with other writers. Only another writer can understand the pain of rejection, or the joy of acceptance. And I’m grateful for a hard working agent like Terry Burns who does so much for his clients. He’s truly a blessing.

Monday, February 8, 2010

Is my publisher going to sell my book?

The question: Typically, when it comes to promoting the book, once published, what promoting is done on the publisher’s side? I understand my side, ie: signings, radio, speaking… but what should the publisher be doing?

That is the ultimate measure of a publisher. Think of it as a scale with a print on demand publisher or vanity press on one end and houses like Random House and Simon Schuster on the other. There is a difference in the amount of editing houses do and how good the final product is, but setting that aside and assuming all books are the same the difference would be distribution and sales. On the very low end the author gets a book in print, period, and the sales and promotion are strictly up to them. On the high end, particularly with an A list author, there is advertising and sales and representatives selling into bookstores and into chain stores and buying end-caps and placement, etc etc. With a mid-list or more so with a new author even the big guys offer less support and depend more on the author to generate sales.

The question is where does your publisher fall on this scale. The one you described would be on the low end, but some low end publishers work very hard at helping their authors get books sold. One caveat, however, hearing that your publisher distributes through Ingrams or Baker and Taylor or some other known distributor does not mean your book is going to be in stores. It simply means it is available for order. Someone has to make the sales calls or contacts to get the stores to order books. It is unlikely that a very small press would have a sales force out doing this so most of the burden is on the author but they may have a sales strategy to help. Some discussion with them on this would certainly be in order.

There are a lot of strategies out there on accomplishing this and some good books on the subject. I would make it my business to see what tools are available to me and set about using them. I hear some authors say they can hardly wait until they are well known enough that they don’t have to do this. I smile as I tell them that even Stephen King and Tom Clancy and the other big name authors do publicity and promotion, they just get a bigger stage to do it on. They do Good Morning America or the Tonight show or something like that instead of trying to get a plug on the local radio station.

That is called platform, and the better the connections we have to create that invaluable word of mouth publicity the better the sales and the more attractive we are to publishers. So you see, there isn’t a simple answer to your question other than to work with your publisher to see what they’ll do to help and to find out everything you can do to make it happen as well.

Once you choose to publish with a small press or even more so if you self publish and you do it as a strategy to interest a larger publisher in your work, it becomes all about sales. You need to generate enough sales to interest a larger publisher. Since your book is already in print and the first rights are consumed, that generally means selling reprint rights and not a lot of publishers are interested in reprints. For those who will look at them having those good sales is critical.

Regardless of the size publisher we work with the author has far more at stake on the book being successful. The publisher has a model where they expect to be okay on the book and they don't expect every book to sell through anyway. The author on the other hand has all their chips in the game and need to do anything and everything they can to make the book a success.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Interview with client Sherri Gallagher

What is your latest project? Tell us about it.

I always have something out there, I'm always writing, so I have a couple of them in the works. I wrote "Love Finds You in Lake Placid New York" specifically for the Summerside Press "Love Finds You" series. I hope they want it! It's about a young widow raised in an atheistic household. She takes a huge leap of faith, starting her own environmental engineering firm and moves to Lake Placid to understand her relationship to God. The odds are against her, she's undercapitalized, her father and in-laws try to sabotage her efforts, and the man she falls in love with is leading the opposition to her project. Through it all she reaches out to God in the one place she could find Him, the cool beauty of the Adirondack forests and mountains.

The other project is very close to my heart and I pray daily that it will be picked up. It is a young adult book titled "Turn" about a fifteen year old boy working toward his rank of Eagle Scout. While physically he has all the potential to be a bully, his gentle nature turns him from that road. He's a little lost and struggling to identify just who he is and how does he fit into the world. He joins a canine search and rescue team and with their help reaches for his dream of becoming an Eagle Scout with lots of fun adventures on the way, including getting his own pickup truck. My son is an Eagle Scout and Order of the Arrow and I remain a merit badge counselor. I watched Scouting help lead my son to be a man I am proud of and I believe this book will help other boys find the path to Scouting and their way to valuable members of society.

Where do you get your inspiration?

Mostly from every day incidents and the things I see around me. I think it was Louis L'Amour who said something like 'if there was a stream in my book I've drunk from it'. I try and take places I've been and describe them so the reader can see, hear, smell, taste and feel what I felt in that place. My call to service has been canine search and rescue, I use my dogs to find lost people, so I've been to a lot of interesting places. Of course my canines are a big part of my life so they're always sneak onto the pages. I just wish they were as well behaved in real life as they are in my books.

What has been the hardest part of writing your latest book and how did you overcome it?

The key to any book is making the reader want to turn the page to find out "what happens next?". It's easy to slip into a passive voice that lulls the reader to sleep. If my reader picks up a book I wrote at ten in the evening planning to read just one chapter and the next time they look at the clock it's 3 AM, I've been successful. I learned to outline each chapter in my books so something happens and the energy never stops flowing. My first couple of books were written "seat of the pants" and I only had a vague idea of what would happen. I'm in the process of ripping those early works apart and fixing them now. Having the discipline to write that outline is difficult. It's a lot more fun to jump into the story and find out what happens, but if the true recipient of your writing is the reader, than you owe it to them to plan and work at bringing them into the pages of your book so they are living in the skin of your main character.

What do you hope people will take away from reading your books?

That depends on the book. Young adult is a different audience than romance with a different level of maturity. I guess if I really looked for an underlying message it is best summed up in Joshua 1: 9 "Be strong and courageous. Do not be terrified; do not be discouraged, for the Lord your God will be with you wherever you go."

What new projects are you working on?

I write devotionals and short stories so right now I am focused on them. It is giving me time to outline a romance set in the early 1920's about a young Italian couple that meet in a small city in New York. Will they be able to establish a new life and foundation for generations to come or will the seductive hand of organized crime follow them to the new world? I'm also working on a romance set on a search for a missing caribou hunter one degree south of the Arctic Circle that travels to the Caribbean. Will the heroine trust the hero and God or will she lose more than her life trying to handle things herself? I'm also working on the third book in the young adult series that starts with "Turn". I need to come up with a good title. It is the story of Shane, the most spiritually grounded of all the teens and the struggle he faces to forgive himself for getting one of the search dogs hurt while avoiding the recruitment efforts of a white supremacist group. Can he and the new protection trained search dog save his family from the retaliations that come their way?

Where can people find out more about you and your writing? The programs and speaking that you do?

I have a shoutlife page that focuses on what I do as an author. Facebook is more about the dog activities and LinkedIn is focused on my engineering business (I have to pay for kibble somehow!) I constantly do demonstrations with the dogs to civic groups - Scouts, church groups, retirement centers, park districts. If they call, I do my best to be there. I'm also going to be teaching a devotional writing seminar at our local church. I called in the big guns from my critique group for help on that one.

What is the best writing advice you ever got? The worst?

No one is all bad or all good. Give you protagonist feet of clay and your antagonist a reason for being so mean. The worst advice I ever got was give up; the publishing industry will be dead in a few years so why waste the effort. Nope, Joshua 1:9, give up is seldom part of my vocabulary, and while the format might change, there will always be room for a good story.

Anything else you'd like to take this opportunity to say?

Thank you to a true Texas gentleman and my agent, Terry Burns. Thank you to Maureen Lang, Julie Dearyan, Dawn Hill and all the members of the Fremont Christian writers group for guiding my writing to ever better levels in the craft. Thanks to Linda Mickey for understanding why self-publishing is not my path and remaining my friend anyway. Thank you to my husband for getting a bowl of cereal for dinner with a smile because I was so involved in a chapter I lost track of time. Thank you to my son and all the members of Troop 198 for their inspiration and antics, I'm proud to know you even when you make mistakes. Finally, thank you to all my canine partners; past, present and future, my life is richer for having known you.

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Why read the genre we write in?

On a writing list a person said "I once was in a critique group with a writer who wrote Westerns. Except she'd never read them. Not one." Let me put my writing hat on for a moment and comment on that.

There are reasons for reading in the genre we are writing in. First, we should be aware of our competition and know how and what they are writing. There will come a time when we need to identify comparables that will help us define our reader base. We’ll need to know why we consider them comparables but also how our books differ.

Second, it is terribly difficult to do a credible job writing in a genre if we are not steeped in that genre. If we are reading literary fiction, for example, but trying to write genre westerns, it is likely to influence our writing in a manner that editors who know what that particular reader base like will not appreciate.

Third, how do we know if our writing is any good if we don’t have anything to measure it against?

Fourth, there are a lot of “conventions” particularly in writing genre fiction. We may can find classes to teach us that, but still one of the best ways is to read in our genre a lot so we know how similar stories are constructed. To know what reader expectations are.

And finally, why on earth would we not be supporting the genre we are trying to write in?