Only one book? How to get it discovered, and why

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Writing a book is a wonderful achievement. Getting it discovered is wonderful, too. It’s probably a bigger challenge. The problem is that the finish line for these efforts is very different.

In the first, the writing, you complete the book. No more work is possible. The success lies in the eye of the buyer. This is a matter of taste and it’s very subjective.

In the second, the success lies in the sales numbers the author can plug into a spreadsheet—as well as the deposits and expenses related to generating the discovery. This work goes on forever, and it is never complete.

For example, look at “I wrote this great book. Some people agree” versus “I’m selling my book. Some people are discovering it.”

Being published: an author’s second act

The difference in the above is “I wrote” versus “I’m selling.” The joy of having created, versus ongoing work. This is your book being in the world at large. Much more than being available to sale on Amazon.

Creating and its joy might not be the only reason you’re writing a book. You want others to discover it, buy it, recommend it, connect with you. To be published, you need both parts. You can do it well if you have help from pros.

If you like commerce and relationships, you’re suited for the second goal. If you don’t find those fulfilling, you’re suited for the first.

But if you have something to say that only you can say — a unique voice, even more than a unique story — you’ll be motivated to learn the second part so you can make the first part more rewarding. You will read advice that says you’re not ready to push a book in the most effective way if you’ve only got one.

Books take a while to write, though. Publishing’s marketing can never start too soon. One wise answer to “What can one-book authors do?” comes from The Book Designer website. Buried in the comments are these three commandments

  • Come up with a good book title
  • Have the best cover you can get
  • Write a good blurb

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A 10-Cent Tour of Today’s Publishing

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Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 8.23.11 AMPeople with talent and a tremendous sense for story and character can succeed at fiction. (They gotta rewrite like demons, too.) So many are trying, all at once. So there’s so much competition there. It’s like making it to the NBA after being a college basketball star. Short of landing a career in the NBA, great players can land in the CBA, the D-League, China, Eurobasket, and more. Those are the indie presses. Hitting on the NBA is Big 5 money. Big 5 publishing houses own dozens of “imprints.” Avon is an imprint. Scribner, St. Martins Press, Tor. The Dogs of Babel, for example, is a book about a linguist solving his wife’s murder by trying to teach his dog—the only witness— to talk. It’s published by Little, Brown and Company. Little Brown is owned by Hatchette, one of the Five.

(If you’re keeping score, the four others are Penguin-Random House, Simon & Shuster, HarperCollins and Macmillan.)

There are other nice-sized presses out there, too. My friend Donna Johnson got her memoir sold to Gotham, a Big 5 imprint. Penguin used to own Gotham. Penguin closed Gotham a year ago and transferred all the books and author contracts to another imprint. There’s tremendous consolidation going on among the NBA-caliber publishers.

A blockbuster novel will still earn more than nearly all memoirs. There are few blockbusters. But writing a memoir can be a unique story, and it has that Real Events element to it. Nobody else will tell your exact story in their memoir, so you have a one-off product. A great novel’s premise, well, it might be a lot like another great novel’s. Novel sales are driven by the reputation of the author. Not so for memoir. Meanwhile, nonfiction and memoir outsells fiction 70-30. Look at the book sections in Barnes & Noble. Go count the aisles devoted to fiction. It won’t take long.

Bookstore sales, or the sales force for a Big 5 imprint — these are things any traditionally published author needs to ponder. That’s why you get an agent.

You can get paid for what you love. It’s happening now for me. Some days I create fiction and memoir. Other days I edit and coach writers. How much you can get paid is another question. If it’s enough, you keep doing it for the pay. If not, then you do it for the love of creating. You never work a day, I suppose—but when you’re rewriting a book you thought was already finished, it might feel like work. A good work practice is essential to getting a book published, though. More

Roots of emulation essential to grow a story

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green tomatoesThe tomatoes in my back yard didn’t need to see other tomatoes to grow. They started from seed, after all. What good does it do to find something to emulate, while growing? The tomatoes are now small and ripening. Success is at hand. But just like a book, they arrived because of something that came before them. In the case of the tomatoes, it’s the tomatoes before them. For book writers, you arrive because of the writers who came before you.

It might seem obvious, but no writer of fiction can produce good fruit, even as small as a cherry tomato, without reading fiction. Or a memoirist succeed at telling their own story in creative nonfiction without reading memoirs. For the writer who doesn’t have learning-work of making stories, reading is the only apprenticeship they have.

You’re going to want to find some fiction to read. It’s essential to writing effective stories.

Novelists have to read novels. Emulating somebody is a good thing. You then have a model to study for voice, for structure, for characterization. New writers so often want to leap to the business of the writing, which we like to call publishing. You can follow this simplistic trail in your life as a writer — show me the money — and still see it lead to reading. What am I telling, a writer must ask, that people have connected with before? I tell writing clients who I coach to find a published book that feels like their own. At the back, read the acknowledgements, and query the agent who’s mentioned.

It’s a trick, really. To find that book just like theirs, they read work in their own field. Like a painter emulates other, more famous artists, trying to master techniques of creating dazzling visuals.

Many of us dream of writing a bestseller, lauded on the New York Times list. But here’s my truth about that list. Books rise up there which the Times doesn’t think much of. Its literary reviews were not good for some of those books. Some were not even Notable Books. Bestseller lists are about business, and some of that business grew up from the roots of good craft. The craft is the success that’s sure to be within our grasp. An apprentice learns craft. Bestsellers mean almost nothing during the pursuit of writing a good book. Wonderful, long-lasting novels never see the light of that list.

This is what we care about: writing the best book we can, and growing our craft while we do. We need to read whatever is out there as if it were seeds, the seeds of what we want to write.

Loving A Book From An Editor’s Catbird Seat

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A few weeks ago, PBS ran a encore broadcast of “Hey Boo: Harper Lee and To Kill a Mockingbird.” The book needs no introduction, of course, being one of the essential novels taught from high school right through to university-level English and writing courses. 30 million copies have been sold in the book’s lifetime, and each year of its current life brings another quarter-million new volumes into reader hands.

tay_and_catWere it not for a gifted editor at a 1950s publisher, the book may never have changed so many lives. Few of those millions of readers probably know the name Tay Hohoff, but without her work, Harper Lee might only be a retired airline reservations clerk or a schoolteacher of English in Alabama. Garrison Keillor wrote a 2006 review of a Charles’ Shields’ Harper Lee biography, and in the review titled Good Scout he noted how Shields tipped his cap to Hohoff.

A year later, Lee has the beginnings of a novel, “Go Set a Watchman,” which becomes “Atticus,” which, under the tutelage of a patient editor at Lippincott named Tay Hohoff (“dressed in a business suit with her steel gray hair pulled tightly behind her, . . . short and rail-thin with an aristocratic profile and a voice raspy from cigarettes”), after a cold winter night breakdown, she finishes in the summer of 1959.

An editor can make all the difference, but like the editors in cinema toiling over final cuts in dark rooms, these stewards of story don’t come out to take a bow very often. Hohoff wrote one book of her own, a 1971 salute to cats. Some of her best writing came in notes to authors like Lee.

Hohoff’s best work was in the service of someone else’s story. From a Newsweek article about who created To Kill a Mockingbird came this version of the genesis. It also explains that cold night’s breakdown.

“There were dangling threads of plot, there was a lack of unity—a beginning, a middle, an end that was inherent in the beginning,” said Tay Hohoff, an editor at J.B. Lippencott, who described the submission to Lee’s biographer, Charles Shields. Still, Hohoff and the others at Lippencott saw something promising in it and took a chance. Lee clearly needed guidance — but she would get it. Lee rewrote the novel three times over the next two and a half years. At one point, she threw the manuscript out the window and called Hohoff. Her editor persuaded her to go outside and gather the floating pages.

There’s another editor in the wings of an even greater classic, Gone With the Wind. Lois Cole discovered the manuscript that Margaret Mitchell hurled at a “book scout” for the novel’s publisher. Revisions took three years on a novel that Mitchell drafted over the course of six years. The work of an editor was once the most essential part of lifting books into publication, but it’s a spotty experience by today. Novelists who have good editors rave over the collaboration rocket fuel that produces high fliers of books.

Self-publication route smooths with editorial support

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On the website Writer Unboxed, an article proposes that the movement to self-publish will break down barriers enough to entice writers with traditional deals. It already has; a best-seller like Steven Pressfield (Legend of Bagger Vance, the War of Art) has founded Black Irish Press for his latest book. The net result? Books get into the markets and onto readers’ devices, books that the traditional houses won’t invest in with a traditional deal.

But these self-published books still need support from editors and marketers to wear down the prejudice against this route.

They succeed for one main reason–the ability to price, package and reach your own audience without gatekeepers who need to publish blockbusters. It’s a tremendous amount of creative freedom that has already created some new sub-genres because there was no editor or marketing panel to say, “We don’t think stories about post-high school will sell.”

There is also the money. The average return for a writer on a trade paperback book is about a dollar. On hardcover, maybe you get a bit higher. On mass market, it’s a bit lower. Still. You have to sell a heap of books to make a decent living, and the truth is, shelf space has shrunk insanely over the past five years. In digital publishing, the return on even a $2.99 book is around 2 dollars. At higher price points, it goes higher. Do the math.

And oh, it comes in monthly. Monthly! For a great many established authors, this is mind-boggling.

It’s true there is less respect for self-publishing, for all the reasons that have always existed. But I predict that the support systems of editorial and design will continue to improve and writers will be able to hire the teams they require. Many of us are already doing it.

This dispatch came from the latest Romance Writers of America conference. Just this morning I was talking about Jodi Thomas, a writer of bestselling romances who taught me at the Writer’s League of Texas Writing Academy. Jodi stays busy with a couple of books per year. But she was glad to admit she needed help from editors.

At one point in her career, she was frustrated with the revision letters she was getting from her editor about punctuation. She joked, “I just typed up a page of commas and sent them to her and said, ‘You put them where they belong.’ ”

Jodi’s a best-seller because she’s an ace with characters, draws vivid settings (her latest is the Harmony series, set in the made-up Harmony, Texas) and knows story structure cold. We all need another set of eyes for something in our work. Outside editors are essential. If you don’t get a deal from a small press, you can still get an editor. Your compensation comes in $2 increments off that ebook. Every month — not by the quarter like a traditional deal.

Most editors let us pay by the month for services, too. Look into it if you’re getting a book up on its feet and need coaching or editing.

Limelight burns more than Twilight

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There’s a great interview with Stephanie Meyer in Entertainment Weekly’s Web site. The best-selling author of the Twilight series of teen vampire love said that being this successful — first three books becoming movies, fans clamoring for more writing — has blocked her on the project.

Everyone now is in the driver’s seat, where they can make judgment calls. ”Well, I think this should happen, I think she should do this.” I do not feel alone with the manuscript. And I cannot write when I don’t feel alone. So my goal is to go for, like, I don’t know, two years without ever hearing the words Midnight Sun. And once I’m pretty sure that everyone’s forgotten about it, I think I’ll be able to get to the place where I’m alone with it again. Then I’ll be able to sneak in and work on it again.

While you work on your first book, you can be alone. But once a book hits with the splash that Twilight gave to Meyer, you’ll never be alone again. This is the business side of writing, the one that creates fans, makes you a celebrity and rich. Meyer is about the same age as J.K. Rowling was when Harry Potter ascended. But the Twilight empire has emerged much faster (some say the writing is a little under-baked) and this is Meyer’s first dance in the limelight. She talks of a new project she wants to work on that revolves around mermaids. You can look back at the movie careers of Quentin Tarantino, Orson Wells, even Kevin Smith after Clerks to see the challenge. The limelight was so hot that their second act was where the twilight fell on them.

You can climb back to the light, but it helps to be able to foresake the fame and quiet all those voices. An artist has to stay true to their own voice. If not, then your romance in the world of vampires might be dead to you.

As for waiting two years to release the next installment of Twilight, it’s a period where her publisher gets to prove its faith. They may need to release an imperfect Twilight book to be able to let Meyer cast off the yoke of Edward and friends. Two years is an eternity for an impatient publisher. Time means something different to the undead, though. Last week Meyer was looking toward the movie screen, not the word processing screen. Her blog reported:

We only have to wait 71 more days until New Moon the movie hits theaters! In case you don’t want to have to count the days on your calendar (like I just did) every time you think about Edward and Jacob, I’ve added a countdown widget to the New Moon Movie page

How hot is Twilight’s limelight? Hot enough to withstand the wisecracks and endure self-parody. On Facebook you can find a group called Because I Read Twilight I Have Unrealistic Expectations in Men

Of course, that should be “expectations of men,” but it’s only English written by 266,000 fans in the group. This is fame and fun we’re witnessing. And after 29 million copies sold, it would seem we’re all witnessing.

Mind-meld character and setting

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Donald Maass offers a lot of advice on getting your book written well enough to break out in Writing the Breakout Novel. In his first chapter he gives you all the motivation you will need: Scenarios of writers with ongoing careers, already published, but sliding downward. He calls himself the agent who gets the 911 call when the latest novel doesn’t get picked up.

That scary scenario is available for your consideration at the Amazon.com Web page for the book, in “Excerpt.” But the problems which Haass offers up also have solutions in the book. Amazon’s site lets you Look Inside the Haass book, and in a “Surprise Me” click I found this advice on making setting and character merge to lift a book into breakout:

You can deepen the psychology of place in your story by returning to a previously established setting and showing how your character’s perception of it has changed. A useful principle for making place an active character [in your story] is to give your characters an active relationship to place; which in turn means marking your characters’ growth or decline through their relationships to their various surroundings.

Haass has a good handle on how to do this, since he says it’s not as easy as it sounds. “Go inside your characters and allow them a moment to discover their feelings about the place into which you’ve delivered them.”