Jul 12 2011

To Publish or BE Published…


THAT is the real question for authors looking to become published authors.

Do you take a passive approach?

  • Wait for someone else to give approval that your work is good enough
  • Wait to fit your words into the calendar and catalog arbitrarily built for book buyers and book stores
  • Wait until someone else validates you
  • Rely on people to bankroll you
  • Rely on companies that need your existing “platform” to sell your book for you

Or do you take matters into your own hands and decide to more proactively, more aggressively make sure your message gets out and serves you (and the world) more quickly?

Such a choice doesn’t mean you must settle for inferior product, nor diminish one’s ability to reach the masses or get placed in the major bookstores, nor force yourself into a do-it-yourself labyrinth you know little about, nor put yourself in the hands of glorified printers masquerading as “publishers.”  In fact, if you look hard enough, you can find real publishers who will help you publish great books filled with great ideas on a timetable that suits you, not people whose primary interest is not your brand but their own sales.

But eventually, the choice becomes a choice you may not be able to avoid:  to be published with all its constraints and affirmations that actually benefits investors other than you…

Or not to be.

You do get to choose.book publishing


Jun 9 2011

Writing Advice from David McCullough


It’s few authors that can command a marquis like this one at a downtown theater, but two-time Pulitzer winner David McCullough can.  I took this pic during a trip to Minneapolis a few years back.

Today, McCullough was in-studio for Think, one of KERA’s best shows (if only because Krys Boyd is one of the best interviewers in the business), to talk about his latest work–The Greater Journey:  Americans in Paris.  Great stuff.

Nestled inside the discussion of the importance of Paris on Americans between 1830 and 1900, and its continuing influence today, were some great tidbits for writers.  Here’s a couple, and I’m paraphrasing here:

  1. “You have to consume 20-30 times more information than you write.”
  2. “I tell aspiring writers that if they want to write well, they should take a course in art–painting or drawing.  It teaches you to look at things differently.”

There’s more on the audio.  If you’re learning the craft, listen in between the lines of the history lesson to learn something of the technique of one of the world’s greats.

Mar 24 2011

Electronic Publishing Bingo


I totally stumbled on this “game” while looking for original-looking charts for a speech I have to make.  Too funny.  The source is the blog, Whatever, written by multi-book author John Scalzi.

I’m not going to riff on this at all.  You can go to Scalzi’s blog read his comments.  He’ll appreciate the traffic.  I like this guy’s brain.  (P.S.  If you can help me find a way to create some decent-looking charts that don’t look like they were siphoned from a tank full of Excel, I’d really appreciate the help.  Funny is good.)

Think twice before you decide to play…


So what has your experience been with electronic publishing?  This amusing?  Or not?


Mar 22 2011

Don’t Take the Advance (Part 2)


Yesterday, I urged authors to avoid taking an advance against royalties.  Today, three reasons why and when to accept one.

When to take an advance:

  1. If you don’t need the money and really don’t care about how well your book sells. If you are thinking, “It’s the publisher’s problem,” take the six or seven figures and run.  Big celebrities with gigantic advances probably qualify.book publishing
  2. If you don’t really believe the books will sell enough to cover the advance. But if you really believe that, why are you asking someone else to invest in you?
  3. If you really can’t finish the book without financial assistance. Prime examples:  needing the money for research or because you are expected to deliver art or design for the book that will come out of your pocket.

A couple extras to consider:



Mar 20 2011

Don’t Take the Advance (Part 1)


book publishing, royaltiesA quick sweep of author-oriented blogs indicates that authors think that receiving an advance against future royalties is a “sweet deal.” I beg to differ.  Seriously.

The perceived realities are two:

  1. Cash up front before the work is done (who wouldn’t love that?).
  2. Status: somebody deemed important loves you and believes in you (ditto).

But if you want your publishing experience to be FUN, consider skipping the whole advance thing.  Authors (of non-fiction, particularly), put on your business pants and follow me.

Why you should skip advances:

  1. If you have a day job, you probably don’t need it (though it would be great to pay off the car note). The advance-against-royalties methodology was born in the days of patronage when authors and artists of all stripe needed advances to eat.  That’s probably not you.  So ask yourself this:  if the advance-against-royalties routine is still being implemented by publishers, to whose real advantage is it?  The publishers?  Or the authors?  I’ll give you one guess.
  2. The average author doesn’t see much, if any, royalty income. Why?  Because the advance takes a long time to pay out.  The author is paying that advance back at the rate of their royalty percentage–so roughly a buck a book.  Author contracts are built so that you don’t see any royalty income until after you’ve sold enough books to cover the advance AND returns are accounted for.  So figure on twelve months before you see the first dollar.  If your book doesn’t go into a second printing, the advance won’t be paid off.  Rest assured, though, the publisher’s investment in you will be paid off and profitable for the publisher long before you collect your first royalty check.
  3. Taking money from a publisher in advance of work is like being in debt. You have investors looking over your shoulder until a profit is made.  Now you have to deliver on their schedule, not yours.  For many authors this means burning lots of midnight oil, while they still have day jobs.  If you don’t like your editor or the way they retitled your book, you have no reasonable escape hatch.  Plus, if it begins to look like you’re not going to be profitable, the phone calls can be, er, uncomfortable.  This is fun?

Consider negotiating like this:

  1. Forgo the advance and negotiate a higher royalty rate. Most publishers actually like this idea because it decreases their investment on their P&L’s.  With reduced risk for them comes wiggle-room for a heftier royalty for you.
  2. Get a contract that starts paying advances for the period immediately after the first season of sales, which still allows time for returns. (This can only work if there’s no advance.)  You’ll start seeing money come in within six months.  Much more fun.  Better yet, insist that all non-returnable sales are paid immediately.
  3. Stipulate in writing the amount of money that the publisher will invest in marketing and publicity, and make sure mechanisms for accountability are in place.  Even if you have to trade your advance for marketing money, it’s a good deal.  It’s more important that a publisher drives sales than for you to receive yet-to-be-earned income .  Any money publishers invest in you up front drops the amount of marketing money available.   If you don’t negotiate a big marketing deal on the front end, one day you will wake up frustrated because the publisher isn’t marketing your book.

Tomorrow:  When it’s okay to take an advance.book publishing



Feb 24 2011

Degrees of Self-Publishing


Laura and I moved, yet again, a couple of weeks ago.  And again, we did a version of self-moving.

I don’t know how many times you’ve moved you or your kids, but likely you’ve done some variation of self-financed moving; meaning, you wrote the check.  So you know a wide variety of self-moving options exist.

On one end, there’s the total you-do-everything approach.  You pack the boxes, rent the truck, load the truck, drive the truck, unload the truck, and unpack all the boxes.  On the other end, there’s hiring Allied Van Lines.  You write a check but they take care of the whole move…including taking responsibility for breaking your favorite picture of Grandma.  It ain’t cheap.  In the middle, several Do-It-Yourself versions exist where you pack part, load part, drive part, etc.

When Laura and I moved from Tennessee to Texas, we thought we’d arrived at the perfect mix by packing the boxes, hiring loaders and unloaders, but renting and driving the truck.  However, I didn’t get a truck quite big enough and, much worse, the truck broke down in Little Rock.  We lost a day and most of our sanity waiting for the rental truck company to transfer all our belongings from one truck to another while we waited with our dogs in a bleak, dark-paneled room with Naugahyde sofas and a small TV.  At least it wasn’t raining.  More furniture was busted than was necessary.  But we saved money.

From a quality control point of view, self-financed publishing is similar.  On the one end is “toaster publishing.”  Write your book, pop it into a website’s software, out pops your book.  Not till it’s over do you see what’s broken.  It’s cheap, as it should be.

Then there’s a true DIY kind of publishing where you hire the editor(s), designers, warehouses and distributing mechanisms trusting this disassociated band and your expertise to do the job right.  The price is moderate, but hassles and stoppages happen and things break with no available recourse.

Then there are real publishers that know how to publish good books–front-to-back–and charge you accordingly.  It ain’t cheap–they charge you the same private college tuition price that a traditional publisher would invest to publish you.  Yup, it’s pricey.  But it’s done right and at a minimum of headaches for you.

There’s no wrong way to self-publish.  But–as in most things–you get what you pay for.

book publishing

Feb 18 2011

If a Playmate Can Do It, So Can You


I’m eating dinner at a restaurant with a bank of TV’s and I glance up and see this:

Normally, I would be drawn to the blonde, but I’m not.  Okay, I am.  But it’s the words in that crawler-thing that really catch my attention:


I had no idea a Playmate-Author combination even existed, let alone being capable of showing up on a serious news show (even Fox News), but I knew it was going to be interesting–in a The Far Side way if nothing else.

Turns out a Legionnaire’s Disease-type breakout at Heff’s Playboy Mansion had affected some 200 guests.  And the news, being the news, needed to get to the bottom of this earth-rocking issue.  How else to do that than to turn to people who most notoriously inhabited the Mansion:  Playmates.

But you can’t just investigate any ol’ Playmate….You must find an expert.

How the heck do you find an expert Playmate (at something other than the, er, obvious)?  Ah….you find the one that has written a book! In this case, it’s the author of “Bunny Tales:  Behind Closed Doors at the Playboy Mansion.” She may be a Jeopardy Grand Champion or a blathering bimbo. It really doesn’t matter. She’s written the book. She’s the expert.

And she’s the one being interviewed on cable news.

You see it time after time on news shows, at business conferences, tech seminars, corporate boardrooms, and academic panels: until you have a published book, you can’t be an expert.

Famous thought leaders don’t become Famous Thought Leaders until they publish a book.  Period.

book publishing

You’re smart; you’re a pro; you’ve developed your own technique.  You’re a specialist.  You’ve been there.  You’ve done that.  You’ve earned the T-shirt.  So why haven’t you published?

Write it.

I apologize for staying with what is probably an unfair, sexist stereotype…but if a Playmate can pull it off, so can you.


book publishing

Jan 12 2011

Would You Go on Letterman with a DIY Haircut?


I know you can probably cut your own hair. It’s economical. Quick. Utilitarian. Passable.

Convenient that you can’t see the back of your head, isn’t it?

But if David Letterman asked you to be on his show one night, is that the haircut you would sport on national television?  Maybe if you were Joachin Phoenix and you were pulling a prank you would.  But you’re not and it’s your one shot to tell your story, sell your idea, show off your brand, or live out your dream.

That self-published haircut.  Really?  You’d do that?

Of course not.

If you were ever going to lay down serious jack for a haircut (or suit, good socks or a manicure), Letterman would be the day.  Right?

So why would you ever, even with the greatest idea in the world, take your “product” out to the world unscrutinized?

Whatever your art, imagine you have to introduce it on Letterman–then decide how you want to approach the idea of someone editing your work (Stupid Human/Pet Tricks excepted, of course.)

book publishing

If hairless, go with meat

Free advice from a guy who sees multiple (brilliant and horrible) submissions every day:

Don’t hire friends or family.  Economical?  Yes.  Accurate and honest?  Not likely.  You’re spouse should be you’re first critic, but she probably loves you.  Your brother-in-law likes you, but secretly hates your guts.  And your granddaughter may be a high school teacher, but she’s not richly educated in the niche you need.  Avoid. You need t-r-u-t-h.
Crave criticism.  Not from professional critics. Nor from rank amateurs who would never in a million years understand your art. And not from your fans. Crave the criticism of people who inhabit your field of endeavor–people who want to love what you do and who know what it takes to be good at it.  Beg them to spill red ink on your work and then don’t fight it.  This community of people will make your work better, more communicative, more palatable, more expressive, and more marketable.
Find pros.  That’s the people who get full-time paid

    • who instinctively hear on-pitch,
    • who can look at two paragraphs and know where trouble looms for the whole book,
    • who can tell periwinkle from mauve without a color wheel, and
    • who know an f-stop from a backstop.

You’re right, not all paid professionals burn particularly bright.  But nearly all of them wake up in the morning knowing more than you and I do about our art’s potential impact on the world.  It’s ALL they do.  Take them with a grain of salt, perhaps, but take them.

Hire a team, not a smattering of individuals.  Imagine hiring your own defense team by acquiring your lead attorney from one firm, your paralegal from another firm, and your co-counsel from yet another…and they only meet on court day.  You’re going to jail. The smarter way:  go for the synergy of a real team–a group of people whose own self-interest drives them to regularly work on your project.  They’re called “companies” most of the time.

Pay top-dollar.  Or at least make sure you’re getting top-value.  Taking your art to the world is Business.  It’s no time to cheap-out.

We live in a new media, blog-eat-blog world that says all you need to do is amass fans:  Do-It-Yourself and let the public sort out the junk from the gems.

I say…it’s a high-def world out there.  Get a decent haircut.

book publishing

Dec 28 2010

Business Reasons for Publishing


Edgar Allen Poe made $15, total, for The Raven. And he never made more than $100 on anything else he wrote. He had virtually no understanding of copyright laws.

“The tool, the instrument that is most vital to [a musician’s] success is an email service provider…[and] is much more cost effective than a guitar.” ( Greg Rollett from Gen-Y Rock Stars via The Musician’s Guide to World Domination)

What do these two little anecdotes have in common? Both are reminders that successful (you do want to be successful, don’t you?) artistry of any kind requires some business acumen.

As we’ve noted in earlier posts, publishing (as opposed to writing) is a business matter. It’s hard to fully appreciate this fact.  Internet searches on “business plans for musicians,” “business plans for artists,” or “business plans for writers,” magically produce dozens of pages of useful articles.

But type in “business plans for authors” and the number of quality articles greatly diminishes. Those that do appear, sadly, devolve into the “how to get noticed by a publisher/write an attention-grabbing proposal” variety.   Deborah Riley-Magnus does the best job of anyone I’ve found so far in lucidly outlining what the author’s path-ahead looks like, and how to navigate it. [Note that I’ve added Riley-Magnus to my blog roll.]

Still, nearly nothing I read gets to the heart of business reasons WHY you want to publish.

book publishing

A business reason does not necessarily mean that what you publish must make a profit; it means you must understand and embrace the business consequences of what you publish. You may deliberately make a bad business decision if you desire—just so you know you’re doing it. Of course, it’s better if your long game is indeed profitable.

A business reason is not, “I want to impact the world” or “It’s been a lifelong dream to be published.”

Here are some legitimate business reasons for publishing what you’ve written.

  • ‘I want to legitimize my authority as expert in my field.” (By the way, nothing accomplishes this phenomenon quite like authoring a book.)
  • “I need to expand the reach of my brand/ministry/company by educating my customers and prospective customers.”
  • “I want to provide a value-add to my clients.”
  • “I need a unique vehicle for housing the DVD I’m selling.”
  • “I want to launch a writing career.” (Emphasis on “launch” because you probably won’t make money for a while.)
  • “My time is being consumed with advising people. If I could get my advice into the hands of my customers, I could save time…for other more profitable or important endeavors.”
  • “I want to hone my craft and get feedback as I develop.”
  • “I want to increase the number of my speaking engagements and what I can charge for them.”
  • “This book will make me money.”
  • “I want to defer the lion’s share of the business decisions and economic realities of publishing to someone else—a publisher/investor.”

(These last two reasons aren’t, in my judgment, all that smart, but they are business reasons.)

Start here.  Become brutally, even egotistically, honest about what you want in publishing.  Why?  Because publishing your book is first-and-foremost YOUR business.  If you can grasp this idea, you increase your chances of using the publishing process and its ambassadors for your purposes rather than the other way around.

Why do you want to publish?  Really.book publishing

Dec 27 2010

Story Arc




Alone. With.  Alone. With.  Alone. With. Alone. With. Alone. With. Alone. With. Alone.









book publishing


Dec 21 2010

Top Ten Travelers Who Took You Along for the Ride


How many countries have you been to?  How many worlds?  Dimensions?

Though I’ve never left North America (where exactly are the Bahamas, though?), through story I’ve traveled to places I’ll never physically go and that don’t even exist.  So have you.

Tripbase departed from their usual business of recommending earthly places to tromp around in long enough to release its Top 10 list of fictional travelers.  You or your kids have ridden along with most of them.

10.  Henry DeTamble (of The Time Traveler’s Wife)

9.    Paddington Bear

8.   Carmen Sandiego

7.   The Baggins Family (of The Hobbit, Lord of the Rings)

6.   Alice (as In Wonderland)

5.   Ishmael (of Moby Dick)

4.   Santa Claus

3.   Piscine “Pi” Patel (Life of Pi)

2.   Waldo

1.   Ah…you’ll have to travel to Tripbase to find out.  But it’s perfect.

Personally, I think Luke Skywalker, the kids from the Narnia Chronicles, Dora the Explorer, and Phileas Fogg (of Jules Vernes’ Around the World in Eighty Days) are worthy of at least an honorable mention. Chris Guillebeau, too, but he’s not exactly fictional.

Where have stories taken you?  When you get back from finding out Tripbase’s #1, come back and tell us.book publishing

Dec 20 2010

Okay, So You Can Write…But Can You Publish?


The economics of book publishing a first book do not work.  Period.  You will not make money.  You will not break even.  You will not be the exception to the rule.

Embrace this reality (please!), and you might be ready to publish.  You might even have a truly great publishing experience.

So start by internalizing the distinctions between writing and publishing

book publishing

Writing a book is a huge PERSONAL achievement. If you have written a book—you scribed a beginning, a middle, and an end—be proud of yourself. Very, very proud.  Even if your book is badly written, you’ve accomplished more than most people–by far.

Printing your book (or converting it into an eBook) is merely the functional and spiritual equivalent of taking the disc in your camera to Walgreens to make prints.  It is little more than COPYING.  Don’t confuse it with publishing:  printing is one, relatively small function of publishing.

Publishing your book—that is, broadcasting it to the public—however, is a BUSINESS decision, an entirely different matter.

Broadcasting your book is a business decision because now you must care about “the market.” Dozens of factors come into play that didn’t matter before you thought the word “publish.”

Now you, or someone else, must care about packaging, barcodes, distribution, warehousing, editing, shipping, payments, receivables, quality product and quality control, deadlines, customer-base, gatekeepers, design, credit, publicity, marketing strategy, returns strategy, special markets, numbers, numbers, and more numbers. Self-publishing, vanity publishing, author-subsidized publishing, “traditional” publishing, “powered by Amazon,” or publishing by the-seat-of-your-pants does not change this set of realities.

Be not confused: writing/printing and publishing are entirely different processes.

  • Writing is creative; publishing is commercial.
  • Writing arises from passion; publishing raises money.
  • Writing reaches within; publishing reaches to the universe or a specific region within it.
  • Feeling fuels writing; reason rules publishing (theoretically).

True, good publishers care deeply about good writing.  They want to publish good books; they know them when they see them.  But they also have a fudiciary responsibility to themselves and their investors to find (and create) books that sell.  Unfortunately, publishers must all too frequently choose:  good book?  or book that sells?  In our dream world, this is one and the same.  But we all know better.

Now you–the writer who has chosen to publish–are throwing yourself into this world in which you possess only cursory knowledge.  Yep, it’s scary.  But if you start by taking off your writer’s hat long enough to be a business person, you are half-way there.

book publishing

Dec 18 2010

Best Stories of the Week, 12.18.10


A North Dallas school (Arlington Park) jammed with homeless kids and a poor record of performance is turning around thanks to teachers who help children as if they were their own and a principle who keeps the bar high.

It’s not the child’s fault a parent is out of work, on drugs or in jail. But that doesn’t change anybody’s job. At Arlington Park you will learn. And everyone will defy the odds so kids can shine.

In a small Minnesota town on the border with Iowa, a frugal, 94-year-old retired farmer named Loren Krueger died last year, but left behind a$3 million legacy the whole town would remember.

Dec 14 2010

Suspending Belief


The first two times I attended the Chronicles of Narnia films I couldn’t help but get caught in the Christian hype. Everyone was talking about C.S. Lewis’ books as if they were the greatest allegories since Pilgrim’s Progress. So I spent the movies looking for all the theological nuances in the story and by the end wondered what all the fuss was about.  In more than half the screen time, any allegorical truth you might have pulled out of it seemed pagan, not Christian.  It was weird for me, and confounding.  And, worse, I decided I thoroughly disliked both films–storyline was confusing, CG sub-par, animals don’t really talk, et al.

Because I love my wife, who loves the Narnia books and movies, I joyfully attended the three-quel last weekend (The Voyage of the Dawn Trader), but with all the eagerness of a motorist looking up at a trouper.  But about the time I slipped on the 3D glasses, I said to myself, “Phooey on the theological allegory, I’m going to try to watch this movie like the audience Lewis wrote it for–a 9-year-old kid–and in my case, a boy.”

Wow!  What a movie.  I came out feeling like I’d just ridden Space Mountain six times in a row (the seventh time, by the way, is actually quite painful).  And, bonus, a couple of the encouraging messages weren’t lost on me or the other 9-year-old’s in the audience.

Since then, I’ve realized that two important things happened that night:

  1. I suspended disbelief, like one must do to enjoy any fiction.  I allowed myself to believe such a place as Narnia existed so I could go on the ride.
  2. More important, I suspended belief.  If I hadn’t talked myself out of worrying about my belief-system, I would have never enjoyed the beauty and exhilaration of this great film.

For your audience (customer, reader, listener, student, etc.)  to hear you, they must either

  • wholly trust you to deliver a message with which they can mostly agree, or
  • they must suspend their beliefs long enough to give you a chance to tell your story to an “open mind.”

Many of us try to suspend our beliefs before we enter a book, movie, or presentation partly because we want to be critical thinkers and pride ourselves in being “objective.”  Reality?  Most of us–all of us at times–aren’t ready to hear what you have to say.  We come to your story or idea with our particular world view–our beliefs about politics, religion, race, global warming, fashion, Jersey Shore, Sarah Palin, country music, and the list goes on and on and on.

Whatever we may believe about these things, we believe these things to be true.

So, you, as the storyteller, need to find a way to help us suspend our beliefs so we will hear you.  Change the title. Start with a joke. Put a bright color on the cover.  Tell a story, not data.  Start with fresh data, not a story.  Alter the lighting.  Put on a suit.  Wear shorts.  Play music.  Admit you’re a failure.  Put a face on the dust jacket.  Take the face off the dust jacket.  Ask a question you don’t know the answer to.  Be less in-your-face…or be more.

Look, it’s not like there are rules here (except the trusty “introduction” by a trusted and famous celebrity, of course).  You just can’t assume that just because someone picked up your book or sits in your audience or downloaded your whatever that your audience is buying what your selling.  And that’s what matters.

So unless you’re delivering an un-televised acceptance speech to the faithful, you better be asking yourself…

How can I get my audience to suspend their beliefs long enough to hear what I’m saying?

Dec 10 2010

Your Idea/Story is Good–But Your Book is Lousy: A Rant


‘Powered by Amazon gives authors “full creative and editorial control”‘

When I read a phrase like this one, my inner-consumer chafes and my publishing skin crawls.

Really? Is that what authors want? Is that what publishing in a digital world needs?

Creative and editorial control may be enticing to authors, but it signals the end of book sales–digital, print or otherwise.

Let’s count the reasons why it’s a bad idea.

One, writers are not artists like painters or sculptors. On the creative-discipline level, authoring a book is more akin to writing a song, recording a CD or film-making. These latter disciplines usually involve shared creative and editorial control, partly to keep the product from become self-absorbed and intensely dull to the rest of us. Leave the average filmmaker to his own devices…90% of the time it turns to crap. The same holds true for book writing.

Two, most authors are amateurs. Writing isn’t their day job, and when they turn to writing–ask any professional book editor–it’s quickly clear that most are out of their element. Just because you’re a good communicator in one medium (say, speaking), or do a lot of business writing or blogging, or a profound earth-shattering idea inhabits you like E. coli in a treatment plant doesn’t mean you’re capable of writing a complete book that

a) contains readable prose, or

b) is capable of holding a reader’s attention page-after-page.

I’ve learned that even professional writers in one field (say, journalism) often can’t write in another genre or medium without making a sizable number of errors. If you’re an amateur writer, turn the reins over to professionals if you want someone who doesn’t already love you to read, let alone buy, your work. Turn it over, then don’t seek their affirmation–beg them, pay them handsomely if necessary, to spill red ink on your project until it’s the best it can possibly be.

Three, when it comes to the written word, beauty is NOT, first, in the eyes of the beholder. Every time you pick up a book, you instinctively expect the book to be written and edited at a certain, acceptable level, or you will put it down. And so will everyone else. Books require a culturally understood minimum standard unlike any other artistic endeavor. The editing of grammar, syntax, story arc, correct spelling (of every word) transitional phrasing, logical argumentation, good pacing, accurate, documentable facts, noun-verb agreement, correct punctuation, overly long sentences like this one–just to name a few tiny, little issues–may be part of a process you know little or care little about, but they are the DNA of readable writing.

Four, the VAST majority of manuscripts turned into agents, publishers and editors–at some level–stink. They don’t stink because they contain tired ideas or are not marketable (though that’s certainly true for some), they stink because they contain traces if not entire vats of linguistic, rhetorical, or analytical chicken manure. The solution for this wide majority of badly composed manuscripts waiting to become bound into appealing little book nuggets isn’t to let former English teachers and really smart sisters-in-law continue to edit the work, it’s to let qualified, credentialed pros do the disinfecting.

Five, on the visually creative side (read: book covers and interior design)…well, don’t get me started on why authors have little business snooping around in that barn. That’s for another rant.

Forty percent of America can’t read above the 8th grade level, which means that any entertainment that involves reading has–by far–the smallest possible audience in America. Reading and book buying gets its collective butt kicked by everything from movies to playing solitaire on iPhones to anything you can download from iTunes. So the path to getting a book read is not traversed by letting authors police themselves–it’s by using every available tool at our disposal to create better products for our eyes and ears than the competition.

Opening up the distribution spigot, ala “Powered by Amazon” and its kind, may put more books into the marketplace faster, easier, and cheaper, but if what starts running through that pipeline increasingly smells like sewage, America will simply turn it off.book publishing

Dec 5 2010

Sideways Stories


“Come on, Grandpa…don’t you remember when…?”

What usually follows is a story–you, with exasperation, detailing the event you want Grandpa to remember.  Also, usually, it doesn’t help.  Unless you hit the right trigger, Grandpa’s memory isn’t going to click in.

Likely, however, Grandpa hasn’t forgotten the event.  A week later, seemingly out of nowhere, while someone is talking about something else entirely, Grandpa will start to hold court about the very memory you tried, directly, to evoke.

It’s all about the story you hear in your head.

A couple weeks ago, when I moved into a new apartment in Dallas, I woke up the following morning unable to locate my car in the parking lot.  I asked myself a hundred times, “Where did I park it?,” “What were my last steps yesterday?,” and so on.  I had no luck at all recalling yesterday’s story.  MY yesterday story.

So I called the police.  They arrive and we go through all the double checks and cross checks and have-you-checkeds?  His conclusion:  “Yeah, it’s gone….It doesn’t happen often to that kind of car, but it does sometimes…We’ll try to find it.”  Then he offers me a lift to work–which I gratefully take (all of a sudden I really like the Dallas Police Department).

As we slowly leave the complex’s parking lot–both of us with our heads on swivels thinking we might spot my Altima–the police officer starts telling me stories about times when the “victims” came to realize they had left their vehicles in some unusual spot and simply forgotten that they had gotten a ride home from someone else, or…walked home from where they had last been…

Oh, crap.  Although I wasn’t the stories’ protagonist, all of a sudden I knew where my car was.  I’d walked home from the Rent-a-Truck place, just one block away.  Yes, I felt stupid, but the kindly cop assured me this kind of thing happens all the time and it’s no big deal.  I immediately decided to adopt his assessment of (my) human character.

But I learned a couple things…

  1. It helps to be–as the psychologists (and my first seven wives) say –“present” as much as possible.  You’ll remember more.
  2. A story’s power is in its sideways attack.   Stories rarely place us directly in them; the power is in the “I did that once!” or “I’ve felt that!” experience.
  3. Cops have good stories.

What could you remember if someone told the right story?book publishing

Nov 29 2010

Kids Lost at Sea…Found


No, this kid isn’t in trouble.  In fact, he’s a  survivor.  Not some manufactured, ridiculously pop-cultured TV survivor.  But a real survivor of a horror we can’t imagine.

Kids lost at sea.  A 14-year-old boy and his two 15-year-old cousins ran out of gas in their 12-foot boat on their way to a neighboring island within their archipelago (large group of islands) off Tokelau, located about 900 miles from Fiji.  They left in late September; they were found last week–over 55 days later, 800 desolate miles from home.

Read the AP story for yourself.  You’ll see how they did it.  It’s a story about living off rain water left in the bottom of their boat by storms that nearly sank them to their deaths, and eating the occasional tiny flying fish, and lots of prayer.  Their village had given them up for dead and conducted funeral services in their absence, and then celebrated like it was 1999 when they learned of their salvation by a fishing trawler.  But this story is only a kernel of a story.  Dozens of questions remain that, when answered, begin to flesh out a real story.  Somebody needs to tell it.

  • What about their upbringing taught them the survival skills?
  • How did their deep, Christian faith (and that of their community) give them stamina?
  • Why did they thank God rather than curse him?
  • How much trouble were they really in later for taking the boat without permission?
  • Did they ever laugh to keep their spirits up?  And if so, about what?
  • How does a small community survive such a tragedy?  How does it celebrate?
  • How do any of us find the courage to survive?

Eventually, of course, most of these details will leak into our newsosphere.  You can bet that the Today show will strike an exclusive so that Matt Laurer can ask them six-ways-to-Sunday how it felt to be them.  Maybe newspapers will put the story on their front pages, rather than bury it deep inside (oh, who am I trying to kid?). Maybe Hollywood will do a white boys version of the tale so we Americans can identify with them.  I vote for rushing Steve Hartman down there to excavate the mirth and wonder of it all.

But regardless…this is the kind of story we need to have implanted in our own hearts.  Somebody please go get it, and tell the rest of us.  Inspire us.

What kind of questions do you want to ask?book publishing

Nov 28 2010

12 Stories of Families in Need


Normally, the good newspaper stories are buried several pages into a newspaper, if they show up at all.

But  the Austin Statesman outdid themselves today by devoting most of the Life & Style section of its paper to launch this year’s Season of Caring campaign.  Sponsored by the paper, the Statesman has raised over $5.5 million in cash, goods, and services for Austin area families who need stuff most of the rest of us take for granted.

They do so by  telling the stories of the families, provide their wish  lists, and then collect and distribute the contributions.  And on the website, they display  video for each of the families.  This year, with the help of prominent, respected local charities like Hospice Austin and Wonders & Worries, 12 families were selected.

…and with them, twelve stories worth reading and watching that will inspire you, make you  grateful, and maybe even cause you to shed that tear of simultaneous joy  and concern.  They will bring out the best that is human in you.

Nov 25 2010

Medical Students Become Friends with Cadaver’s Family


Medical students have, notoriously, been giving impersonal and often unseemly nicknames to the cadavers in and on which they’ve learned their craft for a very long time. Check out this Facebook page with a list of some of the kinder ones, if you have the stomach for it.

So one of my favorite stories of 2010 was a story the AP ran about the medical program at Indiana University Northwest in Gary, IN that requires its medical students to meet, befriend, and engage the cadaver’s families.  (Here’s a link to the written story, which I think is better than the video.)

The program’s impact was personalized by telling the story of Dot Purcell who had donated her body to such science and the bonding of the medical students who were entrusted with her body and her widowed husband and 9th child.  It’s not an easy process for either party, but worth it.  And worth reading about.

“I was not that eager to meet them,” Purcell said. At 90, the retired public relations executive is still grieving for the woman who ran their busy household and made him feel whole.

Throughout the semester, while working in the dissection lab, the students kept in touch with the Purcells, gaining an understanding of the family’s deep grief while getting to know who Dot was.

She loved books and music, going out on the town with her husband and ice-skating with her kids. She had a great sense of humor, and taught her children to challenge everything.

Coincidentally, the music Dot’s student team chose to listen to during dissections was the same kind of classical music she loved.

“We knew right away that they clicked with my mom,” Mike Purcell said.

Personally, I want one of these students to take care of me.  May their tribe increase.

Nov 23 2010

eReaders: Reading and Buying More Books


She must have heard me tell the chatty bartender that I was in publishing, and she couldn’t help herself.  Said forty/fifty-something Coleen,

“I LOVE my eReader.  I bought a Pan-Digital–you know the people who first made digital photo frames?–from QVC and I am so hooked.  I’ve read probably twenty times more books in the last three months than I have in the previous five years.  I’m discovering books by authors I didn’t know existed and I’m finding books by similar authors that I’d never heard of.  I was watching Ravi Zacharias this morning and he mentioned his weekly book recommendation, so I just pressed a button and downloaded it.”

Then she whipped out the eReader nestled in her purse and proceeded to demonstrate its coolness, its slick interface.  “It’s way better than a Kindle.”

Always the book salesman, I asked, “But how many more books have you purchased in those same five months?”

“Oh, at least 20 times.”

Then I saw the book faces of the Stieg Larrson trilogy atop her iPad-like/library-like bookshelf and asked if she’d read them.

“No, not yet.  I’ve been told they start slowly.”  I encouraged her to read them.  Once you get past the first two-thirds of the first book, it’s worth it.

It was almost poetic.

In five minutes my suspicions about the beauty of the eBook were confirmed.

  1. The eBook is the new, ultimate instant purchase.  Make a recommendation…click.
  2. People will read more (at least some will) with such a compact, simple technology.
  3. More important, people will continue to buy more than they read (at an even faster pace than before).

Bring on the stories.book publishing

Nov 19 2010

After-Work Story Time


The best part of my day is Story Time.  That’s when Laura and I sit down after work and before dinner out on the porch and tell each other what happened during the day.

In the morning we’re analytical (how can we fix this, help the kids with that, what’s our schedule for the day, etc.?).  In the later evening we become a little vegetative.

But after work, we just dump out our stories.  Unvarnished.  Not always clear (what did you mean by that?).  Filled with everything from contempt to humor to fascination to utter frustration to joy, we’ve been known to forget dinner we’re so busy swapping the stories and opinions about what we experienced that day (and, oh, what I forgot to tell you yesterday, sorry).  The stories can sometimes spill out so fast we not only interrupt each other—because what she said reminded me of…–but we often interrupt ourselves!  It’s a little tough to follow sometimes, but Story Time is well worth it.

I’ve noticed we get a little cranky if we’ve missed a day or two of Story Time.  I’m not sure why.  Maybe it’s because we were created to be storytelling beings, not just a bunch of information-crunching beings.

One thing for sure, if you’re well-married, there’s at least one person in the world who likes your stories and the way you tell them.book publishing

Nov 19 2010

Still Pictures Tell Stories


Pictures tell stories.

Some better than others.

Not all pictures are worth a thousand words.  Some are worth three:  “Wow, great apple.”

But other pictures do, in fact, make your brain crank out thousands of words.

I recently saw a well-taken picture of a bridge wiped out by a flash flood.  It took only seconds for my brain to start trying to calculate

  • what the flood waters must have looked like,
  • the financial toll, and
  • the daily impact on the humans that had used that bridge.

I’m sure my brain pumped out a good five hundred unspoken, unwritten words in a matter of 60 seconds because the picture was good enough to hold my attention that long.

There’s more than one way to skin the Story cat.book publishing