December 9, 2009

The What’s What of Writers’ Groups

From time to time one of my readers will ask me to write about a particular topic, which I love (so go ahead and request away!) This writer's request was about how to start a writers’ group. Unless you know some writers you respect enough to want to get together with on a regular basis, or you get invited to join a group, knowing where to start can actually be a pretty daunting task.

Starting your own group
There are a few different possibilities here.
1. Email friends and friends of friends to gauge interest. Maybe people in your immediate circle have been writing for years and you don’t even know it. Too many writers can keep their passions and talents on the down-low, so don’t assume you don’t know any writers just because people aren’t sharing their work with you on a regular basis.

2. Go to your local bookstore (preferably an indie, since they’re way more involved with the community than your average Barnes & Noble). Ask the person who works there if they know of any local writing groups, or if they’d be willing to post something for you on their bulletin boards—physical or online.

3. Find out if you have a local writers club. I live in California, and the California Writers Club has eighteen branch websites! This is a great way to meet other writers. Attend their meetings and see who you connect with. You may find an immediate connection and grow from there.

4. If you want to work within a particular genre, consider looking into memoir groups, or fiction groups. The National Association of Memoir Writers, run by Linda Joy Myers, offers regular teleseminars (I’m going to be leading one in March 2010, so stay tuned) and workshops. This is a great place to connect with other writers who are doing memoir, and possibly to develop a group based on the connections you make there. A fun fiction outlet is National Novel Writing Month (popularly known as NaNoWriMo). This would be a good place to connect with other fiction writers online. Anyone who attempts to write a novel in a month demonstrates at least a willingness to throw themselves into something headfirst. And those might be your kind of people, just waiting for something more long-term to come along.

5. Go to book readings and strike up a conversation with the people there. You’re very likely to find writers at readings. It’s just the way it goes. Writers and book people attend lots and lots of readings!

A word of caution
I’d advise you against posting on Craigslist or Meet-up groups. I'm sure there are a number of success stories out there, but you’re most likely going to have better luck going with one of the abovementioned strategies. The group you’re creating has to be a safe space where you can feel free to share your most intimate stories and self. It can feel very vulnerable to share your writing with others, so going about finding a group you really mesh with is important---and it might take some time.

What are the parameters of your group?
Before you even start looking for people to join your group, know the answer to the following questions and get clear on what you want. Write down your answers so that you remember what you want, and so you bring to you the group you want to be a part of.
• How many people do I want in my group?
• Do I want men and women in my group?
• How often would I like my group to meet?
• Do I want writers who write in any genre, or only in my genre?
• Do I care if the people in my group are at different experience levels?
• Do I require a certain level of discipline from the other writers in my group?
• Do I expect my group to be a critique group or a support group?

Some things to consider for your first meeting (or even before your first meeting):
Make sure you take your first meeting to discuss the expectations of the group.
• What kind of feedback does each person want?
• Do you all agree to send writing ahead of the meeting and read beforehand, or will you read at the beginning of the meeting?
• Will you go around and discuss each person’s writing each meeting, or will you focus on one person per meeting?

You may also decide to create a confidentiality agreement. This can be in writing or verbal, but I recommend it as a way to honor the space you will be inhabiting with your fellow writers. The confidentiality agreement simply states that you all agree that what you are sharing is for the eyes of the group only and that no one in the group will discuss the writing or what’s shared outside of your group. It should be clear why a confidentiality agreement is important, but don’t just assume it. Speaking your intentions will get your group off on the right track.

Good luck and may you find a group that supports you or challenges you or simply helps to keep you writing!

I’d like to thank Linda Joy Myers of The National Association of Memoir Writers for her input on this post.

Until next month.



November 13, 2009

Brooke on Being Woman---a radio show with Sara Connell

This is an hour-long radio show I did with Sara Connell, who hosts Being Woman: A Journey and an Experience. This was a conversation about women and the creative process. I invite you to listen here or download it here. Go to the bottom of the page. It's Episode 3.


November 6, 2009

Getting Comfortable with Self-Promotion

Because there was so much to cover in the self-publishing breakdown for my September newsletter, I wanted to take this month to follow up with Part 2: self-promotion, publicity, and marketing your book.

The fact is that publicity and marketing isn’t going to look so different whether you’re a self-published author or an author with a book deal. Nowadays EVERYONE needs to do their own publicity. (The reason for this is yet another blog post.)

Most new writers wonder where to start, but the first question, really, is when to start. Answer: Start today. There are some easy and effective things you can do to start to at least get your feet wet.

#1. If you don’t have a blog, start one.
Free blog sites include:
Blogspot (what this site is on)

#2. Start a profile on Facebook and start building up your friend base.

#3. Get up and running on Twitter. Good news! You can link your Facebook status updates to Twitter, which means that you only have to update Facebook and you’ll be tweeting automatically.

Most writers understand the value of being online, so I’m not going to spend a lot of time trying to convince you of its merits. It is important. And it can be less daunting than it seems. One word of advice: Start slow. If you don't even know what "tweeting" means, just sign up for Twitter and start following one or two people. Follow me! Most of my writers who stumble around self-promotion tend to do so out of overwhelm. But that’s where the 1-2-3 punch comes in: 1) blog; 2) Facebook; 3) Twitter. When you post to one, post to all three. This is what we call “repurposing your content.” You don't have to come up with new and exciting things to write about all the time. Post once a week. Think of it as writing a note to a good friend about what you're up to.

In September I interviewed a couple of self-published authors and shared their stories with you. One of those authors, Rosie Sorenson, generously shared her marketing and publicity strategies for her self-published book, They Had Me At Meow.

They Had Me At Meow is a memoir about the feral cats at Buster Hollow and Rosie's care and rescue of those cats. Though her book fills a very particular niche, Rosie’s marketing strategies can serve as a template for any writer who wants to get the word out there about their book. Here’s a sampling of some of the things she’s done, and things she’s still doing:

1. Set up a website and joined social networking sites.
Rosie’s site is She’s also on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube, as well as LinkedIn and Filedby. She also set up a page on the Poets and Writers website.

2. Created unique video content and posted it to YouTube.
Rosie created a book trailer that includes some of the cats featured in her books. In addition to being on YouTube, they’re also posted to her website.

3. Sent the book out for early endorsement.
Sent the book to prominent people in the area of interest of the book. Among them were the cat program manager of the Humane Society of the United States, who ended up writing the foreword, and the founder and former director of Fix Our Ferals in Berkeley, who wrote an introduction.

4. Set up her own book readings.
Rosie organized a reading at her local independent bookstore as a benefit for Fix Our Ferals, The Humane Society of the United States, the Marin Humane Society, and Marin Cat Connection. She invited representatives from each of these organizations to appear with her on a panel. In addition to reading from her book, she also presented a slide show. Eighty people attended and she sold 35 books. She also organized readings at a Barnes & Noble in Oakland, CA.

5. Secured corporate sponsors.
This isn’t possible for every book, but if you have a book with a cause, setting up sponsorship can be a wonderful way to get more promotional copies out into the world. Rosie used the books purchased with corporate dollars for community outreach, humane education, and fundraising.

6. Pitched herself to TV and radio.
Rosie appeared on a local show, “Bay Area People,” on KTVU-2. The broadcast is available at Comcast On Demand and YouTube, which Rosie highlights on her website. Rosie did a radio interview with Bonnie Colleen’s program, “Seeing Beyond,” which is broadcast throughout Northern California. Radio opportunities are vast, and pitching yourself to a radio show that’s in line with your audience can be a stepping stone to other publicity opportunities. Rosie has recently pitched two other radio shows and three other TV programs and she’s waiting to hear back.

7. Sent out post-publication copies for more endorsements and reviews.
Rosie was able to garner more reviews and blurbs for her book once it was out. She sent her finished book to Self-Publishing Review and the editor there wrote a positive review. If you Google Rosie’s name, this is in fact the first link that comes up. She was also featured in two (one and two) stories on

8. Followed up on leads that resulted from these stories.
The Communications Director of Alley Cat Rescue in Maryland contacted her as a result of these stories, which led to her being featured in their newsletter (650,000 members strong!).

9. Speaking opportunities.
Rosie volunteered to speak at a local animal welfare conference in March 2010. This opportunity may well lead to other paid engagements and keeps the campaign alive and thriving even months after publication.

10. Opportunities for joint ventures.
Rosie found out about a documentary film producer who’s working on a film about feral cats. She is now going to be filmed with the cats featured in her book.

11. Keeps copies of her book on her at all times.
Rosie has given away about 150 copies of her book for marketing purposes. She recently ran into Halle Berry at a restaurant in Berkeley and struck up a conversation with her about her book. Halle told Rosie she had four cats and Rosie, on the ball, offered Halle an autographed copy of her book. You never know who you’ll meet, or where. So be prepared!

Rosie has been an incredibly active self-promoter who's found a way to get her very niche book out to hundreds of people. She's done a tremendous job of identifying her audience and focusing her attention on those people who care about cats as much as she does. This is part of the key to success. Don't dilute your efforts. Know your audience and go after them.

A few other areas of online interest for those of you who want more more more.

• Check out She Writes. (Men are welcome, too!) There's an excellent webinar by Lauren Cerand called “Innovative Publicity Now!” It's worth the $30!

Shelfari! For people who love books.

BookTour: A site for author appearances, book events, and literary happenings near you.

Two final points:
(1) Don't get so sucked in that your writing starts to suffer.
(2) And have fun.

Until next month.



October 10, 2009

Memoir Glut and How to Stand Out

People often ask me about the types of submissions I see in my role as Senior Editor at Seal Press. Of the agented manuscripts, a good 70% are memoir; of the unagented submissions, it’s closer to 90%. We’re known for memoir, and we’re a women’s press, but still. Memoir is where it’s at---and where it’s been at for a while. Despite the fact that it’s difficult to get memoir published, the industry still loves a good memoir.

I tried to get some up-to-date stats on memoir, but because I’m late in getting to the newsletter this month (real excuse---I got married earlier this month!), I’m citing some older statistics. This 2008 USA Today article says that 295 memoirs were signed by publishers in 2007 compared with 214 memoirs in 2006. So right off the bat let’s say that today that number is 350. Then there’s the question of how many deals went unreported to Publishers Marketplace. There are many many editors who do not report, or only report some deals. So let’s tack on another 250 (yes, that many) unreported. Add to that number the self-published memoirs, and we’re conservatively looking at about at least 1,000 memoirs a year, though even that number seems small to me given what I see on a day-to-day basis.

So where does that leave you, the aspiring memoirist?

The point of this post is not to discourage you from writing your memoir. It’s to encourage you to consider what an editor is looking for when they read your memoir. Here are several major things I look for in a memoir---after good writing. But you don’t have to be a brilliant or natural writer if you understand and execute the following takeaways:

1. Relatability. Consider some of the top-selling memoirs out there: Dave Eggers’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius; Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle; Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love. All of these writers came to the table with pretty unique stories. It’s not that most of us can relate, per se, to Eggers’s experience of having had our parents die within five months of one another of unrelated cancers, or Walls’s portrayal of growing up with pretty much insane and neglectful parents; or Gilbert’s capacity to leave everything behind to tour the world in search of herself. And yet these authors wrote in a way that moved their readers. Sometimes a random or strange life story is what moves people to write memoir in the first place, but if you don’t know how to invite the reader into your inner world, to a place where they not only see you but relate to you because of what you’re willing to show them once they get there, then you’re not going to make it past the editor’s desk. Editors are looking for stories that have universal appeal even if the story itself is really out there. They’re looking for writers who know how to make an unusual or heartbreaking or tough situation be something everyone can relate to and understand.

2. Insights. Most writers are insightful or they wouldn’t write in the first place. But do you know when and how to deliver your insights? For that matter, do you consciously do this when you sit down to write? The number one reason I reject memoir is because of the “and then this happened and then this happened and then this happened” mistake of telling rather than showing. This is a classic mark of a novice writer. If you’re writing memoir, you must slow down. You must share your insightfulness and own the fact that you have something to say. (I know it’s scary! Wait till we get to transparency.) But if you sacrifice your insights for the sake of getting all the details of something that happened just right, you’re probably being more self-indulgent than you need to be. The insights are more important because those are the times when you’re reaching out to your reader rather than asking your reader to be with you. It’s a give and take. Don’t forget that we want to be moved.

3. Through-threads. Don’t lose site of what you’re talking about. If you’re writing a continuous narrative, figure out the question you’re trying to answer before you even start writing. What’s the payoff for the reader? If you’re writing a memoir in essays then you do this for each chapter—in these instances the chapter itself functions much like the arc of the whole book and requires you to hold the reader’s hand. It’s not easy to juggle these threads, but the mark of a good memoirist (and novelist for that matter) is someone who remembers to tie it all together. I often liken this to wrapping a present. You have to make all the right folds and tape the sides and then tie the ribbon across the package. You wouldn’t bring a half-wrapped package with an untied ribbon to a party, right? So don’t send sample writing off to an editor that doesn’t have all your through-threads cleaned up. True, sometimes these threads can be difficult to see, but if you’re answering the questions you set out for yourself at the beginning of the journey then you shouldn’t lose your way.

4. Transparency. This includes honesty, truth-telling, and being vulnerable. For some people this comes so naturally that it’s a nonissue. For others it’s like pulling teeth. Many writers don’t realize how much you have to put yourself out there until they’ve delved into some memoir writing. Most memoirists, other than those who don’t even know the meaning of the word shame, will freak out at various junctures. This probably means you’re writing a good memoir. We live in a tell-all culture and if you don’t want to tell all then you should consider writing a novel. It’s important to distinguish the difference, however, between telling everything about yourself and telling everything about other people. I’m not suggesting that you sacrifice family relations for the sake of your memoir (though many people do), or that you bash all your exes for a good laugh (though many people do). (As a side note, I know lots of writers who have waited till certain family members were dead to be able to tell the truth of their life story, and there are some horrible people out in the world who don’t deserve to be spared. It of course depends on what kind of story you’re writing.) You don’t have to alienate everyone you know to tell the truth, but you do have to take risks. If you’re being transparent and telling your story as it happened and providing insights and nuance, then even those people who lived through the experience with you will likely, some day, understand why you wanted or needed to write your story.

Until next month.



September 12, 2009

Breaking Down Self-Publishing

Since my June newsletter I’ve gotten a handful of requests from writers looking for a quick rundown on self-publishing costs. Whether self-publishing is worth it for you depends on a lot of factors. If you have a niche book and known audience, it can be a worthwhile endeavor. You can sell books directly from your website, or you can partner with companies like Lulu, Amazon, and other printers/distributors to sell your book.

This is going to be a long post, but if you’re considering self-publishing, there’s lots of valuable information in here. I’m comparing four possible routes you can take with self-publishing:
1. Lulu
2. CreateSpace
3. Lightning Source (LSI)
4. Traditional printing company (two examples below)

Our hypothetical book, for the purposes of this study, is a standard paperback. A trade paperback is generally 5.5 x 8.25 or 6 x 9, and approximately 250-300 pages (generally 80,000 words). Our list price is $16.00. Any variations on the traditional trade paperback model can cause your costs to fluctuate quite a bit.


The Basics
•It’s free to use.
•$99 if you buy their distribution package (there is a free alternative—which requires that you provide your own ISBN)

Charges and Fees
20% of the profit from a purchased item. The purchase price of all products includes a base cost for raw materials and printing service, which they calculate out for you and presumably they hold against royalties. Royalties on Lulu vary depending on your list price. The higher you price your book, the higher the royalty, but be careful not to price yourself out of the market! Royalties for our standard book are going to be approximately $2-$3 per book.

•Most value for the money, even with less royalties
•They offer assistance and have an active and helpful forum
•Good options on trim size and packages

•Their distribution relationship with Amazon is not very clear and seems to need to be better articulated on their site. If customers are buying from Lulu it’s a great set-up. If your consumers are Amazon worshippers, you might be better off with CreateSpace.

What you pay for:
•$99 for the distribution package (optional)
•proof copy + mailing = $30
•approximately $6/per standard trade book


The Basics
•It’s free—no set up, no charge for one of their ISBNs
•They offer a Pro Plan for $39 per book, which seems to offer a pretty good savings if you’re buying more than a handful of books.

Charges and Fees
•Without pro plan
Fixed Charge: $1.50 per book
Charge per Page: $0.02
$6.50 per book

•With Pro Plan
Fixed Charge: $0.85 per book
Charge per page: $0.012
$3.85 per book

Other costs:
•Proof copy of your book + shipping = $30
•Shipping costs for however many books you order

What they take:
If sold in the CreateSpace eStore: 20%
If sold on 40%

If sold in the CreateSpace eStore:
Their share: $7.70
Your share: $8.30

If sold on
Their share: $10.90
Your share: $5.10

•Their relationship with Amazon means that they take less royalties than Lulu to sell through Amazon. This can be reason enough to go with them, though the consensus is that Lulu is the most user-friendly service available to date.

•Less variation than Lulu where trim size is concerned
•No assistance—you have to know what you’re doing


Charges and fees
•$75-$150 title set-up fee (average out at $100)
•$1.30/unit + $.018 per page, so for our 250-page book = $4.50
•Total cost per book = $5.30
•Distribution fee: $12/year per title
•ISBNs from Bowker at $245.00 for a block of ten
•One-time fees: $112
•Another good option for ISBN/barcodes is Bar Code Graphics, which allows you to buy single ISBNs.

•They’re great if you’re ready to be a business rather than an author. They provide distribution relationships with third-party distributors like Ingram, Baker & Taylor, etc., and so it’s easier to get into bookstores with LSI than with Lulu or CreateSpace.
•Good variety/options for trim sizes.
•Best consideration if you're printing color interior.
•Respected in the industry since they’ve been around for a while and have long-standing relationships with traditional publishers. They’re owned by Ingram, which also owns a major distribution company.

•It’s more complicated, no question. They don’t offer assistance and you have to figure out the distribution situation, which aren’t such big considerations on Lulu or CreateSpace, in part because the major distribution on those sites is online venues.

I talked to two different authors whose experiences I’m going to share in this section. If you go this route, the biggest thing you’ll need are the printer’s specifications for printing, and with this option you will gain by ordering larger quantities of books. Printers won’t set you up with distribution relationships like the other options will, so this is a better choice for people who are planning on selling their books through their website, or who are interested primarily in corporate deals.

Author 1 is Annette Fix, author of The Break-Up Diet
Annette chose to establish her own imprint, which entailed getting a resale license and business license and working out a distribution arrangement to get her books into bookstores.

Annette’s costs:
•Block of ISBNs: $245
•Editing and design: $6,000 (with some admitted missteps)
•Printing costs: 2,100 copies printed by McNaughton & Gunn for approximately $2.14 per unit on a 285-page trade paperback that retails for $16.95.
•Shipping costs for stock sent to her (600 units) and to the distributor (1500 units).

Annette’s word of caution: “If I had known then what I know now about paying monthly storage fees to my distributor, and shipping costs and the invoicing/accounting/paperwork nightmares of maintaining my wholesale account with Baker & Taylor, I would’ve set up my book POD through Lightning Source.”

Author 2 is Rosie Sorenson, author of They Had Me at Meow Rosie wrote that she decided to go with a traditional printer because: “I wanted a special size (7.5 X 5.5) and I also wanted it in all color (cover, photos, and some colored text on each page.) I also wanted the photos placed near the text where each particular cat is mentioned – it takes a seasoned designer to do that. I looked at POD options and I couldn’t find anyone who could produce a book to my specifications.” She printed with Vaughan Printing in Nashville and had a great experience with them.

Rosie’s costs
•Because of the fact that her book is four-color throughout with lots of spot photographs and design elements, she paid a lot more than Annette per book. She paid approximately $8 per book and ordered an initially quantity of 1,000 books.
•Editorial: approximately $200-$300
•Design: $865.00
•1 ISBN/barcode with Bar Code Graphics
Rosie’s word of advice: “One thing which should probably be highlighted is that self-publishing is a whole lot more work than anyone could ever imagine—getting all the details right, developing a marketing plan, implementing the plan, etc. It's definitely not for shy, introverted writers! The writer has to want success more than anything and be willing to do whatever it takes to make it happen.”

*Note here that next month’s newsletter will cover the marketing side of self-publishing and will include Annette’s efforts to promote herself by sending out ARCs (Advanced Reading Copies) and getting her book modeled at B&N, and Rosie’s tremendous success at getting her book reviewed and partnering with corporations who support her cause—cat rescue.

When you self-publish, you are not just sending your Word files to the printer. Besides having your work copyedited and proofread, you also want to have your book professionally designed. If you have any images in the interior that you do not own, make sure you secure permission to reprint those images. If you’re excerpting anything over 50-100 words from another source, make sure you get permission to excerpt. Other costs are nontraditional bindings, buying your own ISBN, getting barcodes made, and fulfillment if you choose to do your own fulfillment rather than partner with a distributor.

Editors and proofreaders can range in cost from as low as $20/hour to as high as $80/hour—and I’m sure there are those who charge more than that. you can estimate how many hours a copyediting and proofreading job should take with the following formulas:

Word count divided by 310 divided by 5 for heavy copyedit
Word count divided by 310 divided by 6 for medium copyedit
Word count divided by 310 divided by 7 for light copyedit

So a heavy copyedit for a 80,000 word manuscript would run:
80,000 ÷ 310 = 258.06 ÷ 5 = 51 hours

Word count divided by 310 divided by 8 for heavy proofread
Word count divided by 310 divided by 9 for medium proofread
Word count divided by 310 divided by 10 for light proofread

So a light proofread for a 80,000-word manuscript (running approximately 250 pages or longer) would run:
80,000 ÷ 310 = 258.06 ÷ 10 = 26 hours

There are lots of freelance designers out in the world, and you can find them through MediaBistro or by looking at the back cover of books you love. Designers’ names and even their websites are often on the books they’ve designed.

The Book Designers are a one-stop shop for everything from creative consultation to design samples to cover and interior design to helping you find a printer if one of the abovementioned options isn’t right for you. They do standard text-driven books and four-color design-heavy books, too. I got on the phone with them to ask about their pricing, and the basic range for our straightforward 250-page book is going to run in the $3,000 range. Sounds like it could be more or less depending on how many passes are needed on cover and/or interior—and design-heavy and color books are going to naturally be more expensive. They’re very responsive and samples of books they’ve worked on can be found on their site. Check them out.

You might be wondering why Rosie, author of They Had Me at Meow, only paid $865 for her design. It’s possible to find designers who charge less, and her book is very short. Although it has spot illustrations, she has a fairly simple design and she knew exactly what she wanted. The more you’re clear on your design expectations and the better you can convey this to your designer, the less money you’ll spend. Most design costs get ratcheted up when you need to see multiple variations of the interior and/or cover design. Knowing what you want in advance and prepping your designer with a cover memo and an interior design memo is a very good idea!

So what are your total costs going to be and can you really make a profit?

Lots of people say don’t go into self-publishing if you want to make a profit, while others would never touch a traditional publishing deal because they’ve had great success in marketing their work to their audience.

So, yes, it’s subjective and dependent on who you are and what you’re writing.

If you like to market yourself and feel comfortable in that role, self-publishing can be a good thing. If you don’t, you might want to reconsider.

If you know you have a built-in audience and you know where to find them, self-publishing could be a great option. If you have no idea who your readership is, or think your readership is “everyone,” don’t self-publish.

If you know upfront that you are going to be super invested in having your book look exactly the way you want it (ie, have specifics about the trim size, must have color photos), then self-publishing might be a great option. Publishers will often opt for the cheaper option and certain things you desire that are cost-prohibitive, meaning that you need to be prepared to compromise if you go with a traditional publisher.

Until next month.



August 15, 2009

What Exactly Am I Writing?

I attended the PNWA writers conference earlier this month, where I sat on the editors’ panel and answered questions (along with six other editors) from an audience of 400+ writers and aspiring authors.

I was inspired to write about this topic this month because of how many questions were about trying to get to the root of how a project ought to be labeled. Among them: What’s the difference between high-concept and low-concept? What’s the difference between commercial and literary fiction? Am I writing creative nonfiction or narrative nonfiction? What’s a hybrid?

This has everything to do with category, which is a critical thing you need to know before you approach a publisher with a book idea. If you don’t know what category your book falls into, walk into your local bookstore and figure out where your book would be shelved if it were there. If it straddles two categories, that’s okay. You might well be writing a hybrid.

But back to the questions asked by the audience, which I’m going to answer here because I think the answers are worth sharing.

What’s the difference between high-concept and low-concept?
The answer to this one came from Rose Hilliard* at St. Martin's Press (and I’m paraphrasing all answers). Rose gave the example of a novel she acquired about women who get sick of doing all the work at Christmastime and decide to go on strike. That’s an example of a high-concept book. In a single sentence you can imagine how this novel will capture its intended audience’s attention.

So what’s low-concept? Rose followed up with an example that went something like this: The protagonist commits a crime and so he has to go back to his hometown and connect with his family, and from there he meets a bunch of guys who are up to no good. And then those guys decide to go to France and take the protagonist with them, where he gets mixed up in some stuff he shouldn’t be mixed up in because he’s trying to get away from all that. You get the picture, right? After two run-on sentences, we’re not hooked. There’s no sense of what the book’s about.

So is it important to have a high-concept book if you want to get a publishing deal? Not necessarily. Some low-concept books are simply too complex to be captured by a quick get-to-the-point pitch. And that's perfectly okay---and a beautiful segue into the section question:

What’s the difference between commercial and literary fiction?
The answer to this one came from Katie K. Gilligan* at Thomas Dunne Books. She’s a runner, and so she told the audience that this is how it breaks down. If she’s able to read a book while running on the treadmill and it keeps her attention, that’s a commercial book. If there’s no possible way she can read on the treadmill because she needs to curl up on the couch with a glass of wine to really enjoy the prose, that’s a literary book. I loved this distinction.

As a side note, there’s also such a thing as commercial and literary nonfiction. It’s a little different only because commercial nonfiction is usually high-concept. These are books you might find at Chronicle Books, for instance. A book like The Worst-Case Scenario Survival Handbook is a great example because it’s fun, full of cool and funny anecdotes, and it makes you want to pick it up and buy it as a gift. Commercial. A good example of literary nonfiction is almost always going to be a memoir, or a biography that’s beautifully told. Examples of literary memoir abound, but as an example I offer The Story of My Father, by Sue Miller, who’s a novelist. And a literary novelist at that.

And so to the next question:
Am I writing creative nonfiction or narrative nonfiction?
This was the one I took. I said there was no difference, though some disagreement followed. The biggest issue where creative nonfiction is concerned is the word “creative,” which really, when you think about it, doesn’t jive with “nonfiction.” Creative implies creating things out of your mind while nonfiction implies truth. Of course, memoir is creative nonfiction because no one is capable of remembering the exact details of what happened to them when they were five years old. If you think Running with Scissors and The Glass Castle are examples of authors will phenomenal memories, well…. I’ve heard Augusten Burroughs does have a fantastic memory, but even still. For an in-depth read on the variations of creative nonfiction, I highly recommend “The Meandering River: An Overview of the Subgenres of Creative Nonfiction,” by Sue William Silverman.

And finally, what is a hybrid?
A hybrid is a book that straddles more than one category. Practical nonfiction is often hybrid in nature because it’s prescriptive nonfiction, but the narrator’s voice is key. Oftentimes these books are memoir in nature because they tell stories about the authors’ experiences. Smart Women Finish Rich is a good example of this. It’s clearly a prescriptive book meant to help women understand their finances and money issues, but it’s also very full of the author’s personal story, as well as the story of women he’s helped. Eat, Pray, Love is another. It’s memoir, but it’s shelved in travel. This oftentimes happens because publishers want to keep books out of memoir whenever possible. Why? Simply because it’s an overcrowded shelf. If you’re writing a memoir, don’t despair. It’s not a bad thing. But if you’re writing a memoir about sports, travel, food, a personality disorder, you name it, you’re better off positioning yourself in the sports, travel, food, or psychology category when pitching your book to an agent or publisher. It’s just another one of the quirks of this industry.

That’s it for now, though hey, if you have a question about category or terminology, leave it in the comments section and I’ll happily respond.

*Editor bios for those of us who attended the conference can be found here.

Until next month.



July 10, 2009

too many cooks!

It's July, so I'm keeping it short as I prep for my upcoming week off.

Being that July is a season of BBQs and outdoor eating, this month's topic takes a look at what happens when there are too many cooks in the kitchen. This is a common creative trapping, one I see all the time with my authors who show their chapters, book covers, titles, catalog materials---you name it---to their friends, family, writers' groups, and other trusted allies.

Having too many cooks in the kitchen only works when you know who the kitchen boss is. And when you're writing a book, you're always the kitchen boss. Last month I had at least four writers realize that some essential ideas and concept for a piece of their writing had gotten lost in the overwhelming rewrite that followed a critique or feedback from one of the aforementioned trusted allies. Whether these people have your best intentions at heart is inconsequential. If you want to write, you've gotta know when to take feedback and when to say no thank you.

This particular knowing is just like cooking a burger. Leave it on too long and you'll have a burnt-to-the-crisp patty that no one wants to touch. Don't leave it on long enough and you're gonna have a bloody burger that's probably not fit to eat. It's the same with writing: Let it be overcritiqued and reworked to the degree that you don't recognize it anymore and you've gone too far; don't accept any editorial feedback and turning the other way when someone offers you legitimate advice, and you're left with something that could have used a little more cooking. It's not easy. It takes practice. And it takes working with people you really trust to give you consistent, solid feedback that's not about coopting your work or turning it into something it was never meant to be in the first place.

The first step toward getting those perfectly cooked burgers, though, is remembering who's boss.

Until next month,



June 9, 2009

new media and the future of book publishing

I’ve been going to BookExpo America for close to a decade. It's a huge convention filled---for one weekend every year---with people whose life pursuit is all about The Book. Once you've gone for a year or two (particularly if you're working), it's easy to forget how glamorous and intriguing it seems to the outside world. (After all, Kathy Lee Gifford and Eduardo Galleano were in our booth this year.) For the past few years I’ve suffered through BEA rather than really enjoy it. A fellow editor captured the typical mood for those of us who spend the whole weekend working the convention floor when, in response to my question, “How was BEA for you this year?” he answered, “Both invigorating and depressing---as usual.”

This year, I have something different to offer. A bit of hope. The book business is still thriving and getting published doesn’t need to feel like an elusive dream. However, for those in the business, comfortable with a certain model and hoping against hope that we can turn this tide and go back to the old ways of doing business, the news is not so upbeat. Publishing is changing. But in my mind, this is a good thing.

The most interesting part of the Expo to me, aside from scoping out the competition, was new media. There are amazing services that promise to revolutionize publishing. (And yes, threaten the status quo and upset paper-lovers who think the Kindle is the Devil.) I have a Kindle, and I love it.

One cool new Amazon service is Create Space, a self-publishing tool that looks like a good alternative to Lulu. Self-publishing, in fact, was the most improved service offering at the show. No longer is it the maligned pitiful creature it once was----in part because of online marketers like Amazon that allow you to distribute your book on their sites. With print-on-demand (POD), no one has to warehouse your book. No one is going to inform you that they’re pulping your entire inventory unless you can buy all the stock at cost. Not only are these services smart, they’re offering another small step toward saving the planet.

I will say this: I am an optimist. There are people in publishing (and lots of everyday Luddites who fear that the printed word will disappear) who don’t like what new media promises to do to the industry. There are authors, too, who wouldn’t dream of self-publishing---and I understand that. DIY publishing is no small undertaking, after all. Self-publishing is to book publishing what blogging is to the news industry. Anyone can publish, and some stuff is better than others and so it falls on the consumer to figure out what’s good and what’s bad. Which is an exercise in subjectivity, clearly. And this model takes control away from the Decision-Makers (people like me who make our living deciding what’s fit to be published on our respective lists). Lots of Decision-Makers do not like it and want it to stop. In an April decree on Publishers Weekly, Jonathan Karp, celebrated publisher of Twelve, wrote about all the ways publishers need to do publishing better so that Decision-Makers like us can continue to control what gets published. The article is an excellent example of paternalism at its worst in that he exerts it’s the responsibility of the publishing industry to undo what’s not ours to control. (To me it also echoes the CBS exec who offered his assessment of the bloggers who were damaging his news team as a “guy sitting in his living room in his pajamas writing what he thinks.”) And he doesn’t take into account all that’s brilliant about the changes in the industry. Just as the music industry has summarily freaked out over the impact of the Internet on music, so too has the publishing industry reacted to new media.

New media has been featured at BEA for years, but never has it been so front and center, occupying good floor space and commanding a different type of attention. Maybe it’s Amazon and their ability to convince readers (even book lovers who like to stick their noses in the spines of new books) that they can and want to read on e-readers. Or maybe it’s just the sea change in the public’s attitude toward self-publishing and POD and e-products. Bottom line: There’s more digital everything. And for writers, this is a good thing. It opens up the possibility for you to say yes before you say no---or to say yes after you’ve heard no---and encourages you to be open to all the possible roads you might walk down when exploring your publishing options.

I left BEA this year feeling invigorated, like my colleague in Seattle, but far less depressed than I’ve felt in past years. Maybe it’s my own shift in perspective. A reframing that’s been needing to happen. That instead of buying into the idea that we’re somehow witnessing something in dire need of fixing, perhaps we’re instead experiencing a new beginning that we can only truly understand when we stop reacting and start asking ourselves what's possible.

Until next month,



May 11, 2009

Going Back to School

Getting published doesn’t have to be hard or scary. The easiest way to understand it is to think of it like schools---and like getting into school. Not everyone expects to get into Harvard. Similarly, not every writer should expect to get a six-figure advance and get published with a major New York publishing house.

When you’re trying to figure out what school to go to, you have your long shots, those programs you really want to get into because they’re a perfect match, and your back-ups. As is the case when you apply to undergraduate programs, what you want is probably going to vary dramatically from your peers and colleagues. For instance, just because Dartmouth has an excellent reputation doesn’t mean that that’s the school for you. For instance, maybe you knew you would benefit from smaller class sizes, so you really wanted to go to a liberal arts school. Publishing has these tiers, too: they’re called small presses.

So how do you mentally prepare yourself for diving into all of this? After all, when you were in high school you had guidance counselors to help you navigate the college system. You probably had a sense of where you could and couldn’t go based on money, GPA, and/or SAT scores. But now you’re an adult and you want to shop your book project. So where to start?

Make a list of what’s important to you. Is it money? Acclaim? Having a say? Just getting published anywhere?

Next answer this: Were you the type of student who was willing to pursue your education no matter what? If you couldn’t get in to your first- or second-tier schools, were you willing to accept junior college as an alternative? If so, you might be a candidate for self-publishing. Sure, you might not want to consider this until you get back notice that you haven’t been accepted into the big leagues. But it’s good to know before you even get started whether or not it’s an option.

It’s also important to consider these questions before you’re too far along in the process in part because of a little thing called managing your expectations. There’s a whole industry out there, and then there’s you. You might be talented and feel like this article doesn’t even apply to you. You might catch a lucky break. You might sign with an agent who loves your work. They might sell your book straight out the gate for five figures or more. Or they might not. They might sit on your project, unable to sell it for years. Or, you might pursue a publisher yourself and get immediate feedback that your work is directly in line with what they do and they can’t wait to sign you. Or you might receive rejection letter after rejection letter and feel like you want to give up.

The reason I include the worst-case scenarios here is because I firmly believe that if you have the conviction to get published, you can get published. Just like schools, there’s a place for everyone. And just like undergraduate programs, not everybody can get into Harvard or Yale. But that doesn’t lessen the value of state schools or junior colleges.

So hang in there if you’re contemplating shopping a book. Aim for the stars, but have your back-ups, too. Having an action plan in place before you start can help you better deal with the inevitable rejections and keep you in the driver’s seat when you’re pursuing this important dream!

If you found this post interesting and want to learn more about how publishing works, check out Putting Your Passion Into Print, by Arielle Eckstut and David Sterry. Or comment below and start a conversation about what you’d like to know. With ten years in the industry, I’m happy to lend insight to this very subjective and complicated-to-navigate industry.

Until next month,



April 13, 2009

Enneatyping Your Way to Being the Best Writer You Can Be

I’ve been a huge enneagram fan for a few years now. It first blew my mind because of how closely my own type description mirrored the way I am. Then it helped me in my understanding of others and the way each of us is driven---and similarly paralyzed and triggered---according to the virtues and passions of our type. According to Sandra Maitri’s The Enneagram of Passions and Virtues our virtues and passions are both motivating forces that stem from our inner attitudes. They are the light and the dark, in that our virtues are driven by feeling into our true nature, our sense of who we are when we’re aligned with Soul, while our passions are driven by attempts to fill a void and are present when we’re aligned with Ego.

Understanding your virtues and your passions is a crash course to beginning to understand what motivates you and what keeps you stuck. If you don’t already know your type, you might be able to determine it just by seeing which type listed below most fits your sense of who you are. If you’re intrigued, I encourage you to take the test.

One (The Reformer): "I perfect, therefore I am."
Ones are dutiful, principled, self-doubting, see things in black and white terms
Virtue: Serenity
Passion: Anger

Two (The Helper): "I love, therefore I am."
Twos are emotional, empathetic, proud, lose self by taking care of others
Virtue: Humility
Passion: Pride

Three (The Motivator): "I succeed, therefore I am."
Threes are workaholics, driven, vain, succeed at any price
Virtue: Veracity
Passion: Deceit

Four (The Individualist): "I suffer, therefore I am."
Fours are passionate, desire to be authentic, moody, stuck in melancholy
Virtue: Equanimity
Passion: Envy

Five (The Investigator): "I think, therefore I am."
Fives are observant, independent, self-depriving, reserved
Virtue: Nonattachment
Passion: Avarice

Six (The Loyalist): "I doubt, therefore I am."
Sixes are loyal, suspicious, self-doubting, fearful
Virtue: Courage
Passion: Fear

Seven (The Enthusiast): "I enjoy, therefore I am."
Sevens are enthusiastic, self-indulgent, dilettantish, scattered
Virtue: Sobriety
Passion: Gluttony

Eight (The Leader): "I dominate, therefore I am."
Eights are leaders, forceful, impulsive, power-seeking
Virtue: Innocence
Passion: Lust

Nine (The Peacemaker): "I connect, therefore I am."
Nines are accepting, generous, distractible, indecisive
Virtue: Action
Passion: Indolence

Your virtues are those things that bring you into alignment. They are the calling of your Soul. So a One will be operating at an optimal level when he or she is in touch with their Serenity; a Nine may realize that consistency of practice---Action---is needed in order to realize their potential; a Six will see great movement when in touch with Courage.

Alternately, your passions are “deficiency-motivated drives,” according to Naranjo, which, for many of us, are default modes. The Seven operating from a place of Gluttony can never get anything done because there are too many other things to distract her; the Two, flipping between her paradoxical belief that she’s better than others and not good enough, will never take the necessary steps to show her writing and to grow by exercising what she most needs: Humility.

This is profound work to consider, especially when you’re stuck. So go forth and familiarize yourself with your enneatype. It’s amazing personal-growth work, and it will help your writing.

Until next month,



March 15, 2009

Three Ways to Invite Balance

Balance is elusive in our culture—particularly for those who aspire to create. I work with lots of writers who write every day, focused intently on the doing of writing. Lots of writers write obsessively, getting caught or addicted to the momentum of their creative process. You might fall into this category of writers even if you’re a person who obsessively thinks about your projects, regardless of whether you actually sit down to write every day. Perhaps you’re one of those writers who is plotting scenes in your head, or one of those who’s beating yourself up when not writing, thinking about what you could or should be creating.

Let’s say the balance/imbalance spectrum looks like a seesaw. The middle represents a place of balance. At the extreme left are those of us consumed by “doing” our writing. You’re a lefty if you find that you’re consumed by your work but dying for a break; if you find yourself overwhelmed by your project but not knowing how or when to give yourself space; if you find yourself thinking that you should be writing when you’re going about your day; if you beat yourself up for not accomplishing what you set out to do. At the extreme right are those writers who want to live their process, often so much so that they’re not very productive. These are the rare artistes that our culture doesn’t value as much. They’re the artists who embody their art, who live for nothing but their art.

So where do you fall on the balance spectrum? I’m going to venture to guess that almost everyone who’s reading this falls somewhere on the left side. Why? Because we live in a culture that values doing—even when the doing is just thinking about what we should be doing, or wondering how we could be more accomplished than we are.

I would argue that most of us need to bring a little of that right energy into our lives. To embody a little more of our own inner artiste. But how?

1. Start by scheduling your time. Set aside certain times of the day for writing. If it’s 9 to 11, sit down and write from 9 to 11. Don’t skip it just because you don’t feel inspired, and don’t think to yourself, If this goes well, I’ll pull another four hours tonight. Limiting the hours you write, or forcing yourself to adhere to scheduled time is an invaluable practice.

2. Consider meditating for 10-15 minutes before you sit down to write, or listening to music that puts you in the mood. This will settle you into a creative space and sets the tone for the work you want to get done.

3. Start to get curious about what motivates you. Are you motivated by money or power? Are you motivated by validation and accolades? Are you motivated by the feeling of creating and being moved by the emotional energy of something you’re giving life to? It might be a combination of things, but it’s good to get real about what’s bringing you to your desk every day, or what’s causing you to be stuck in not doing. Don’t choose to be in denial about what you want from your project. Understanding what you’re attached to can help you move into a new perspective. It can open doors and allow you to loosen the hold the writing has over you. Simply acknowledging what exists here can allow your shoulds to disintegrate.

Give it a try. And breathe!

Until next month,



February 15, 2009

Befriend Your Daemons

I was prompted by one of my writers to go check out Elizabeth Gilbert’s TED talk, “A Different Way to Think about Creative Genius."

I was not a fan of Eat, Pray, Love, but this talk gave me new respect for Gilbert herself. Here’s a woman who understands the “freakishness” (her word) of her own success. And she eloquently addresses something I see ALL THE TIME, which is the way we approach writing—and many creative pursuits—from a place of fear.

She poses this question: “Is it rational to be afraid of the work we feel like we were put on this planet to do?”

In the talk, she shares how so many people, in response to her “freakish” success, approach her with their own fears about the inevitability of future failure. They wonder if she’s afraid that she’ll never be able to live up to the success of Eat, Pray, Love. And, refreshingly, her answer is of course she’s afraid!

Our creative pursuits scare us because nothing is guaranteed. When Gilbert asks why no one ever asked her father if he was afraid of being an engineer, the answer is obvious enough. There’s stability and assurance in certain jobs. Even if I lose my job tomorrow, I can go out and find another job. But if you write a book, there’s no guarantee that you’re going to be able to sell it. This is why so many creative pursuits are passions of the heart or soul. You have to have incredible stamina and perseverance to make a living in the creative arts. There’s actually good reason why parents worry when their child decides they’re going to major in Poetry.

I know, however, that creative pursuits are not solely about making a living. For Gilbert, this is not the case. But many many many creative people are holding down fulltime jobs and writing or creating after hours and on the weekends. And many of these people are still scared of their creative pursuits.

What if I fail? What if I can’t do it? What if I don’t get published? What if no one likes what I’m doing? All this before they’ve even begun.

Gilbert tells of the moment when she decided that she needed a protective psychological construct to guard herself against the inevitable backlash or failure she too feels is inevitable as she realizes that her greatest success may indeed be behind her. And the constructs she finds, which I loved, are Daemons and Geniuses.

Daemons and Geniuses, in ancient Greece and Rome, respectively, were the entities or gods or voices that were given credit for successes or blamed for failures. Gilbert talked about how, in these societies, the people didn’t believe that creativity came from human beings, but rather from these distant entities—people’s daemons or geniuses. She then calls on her audience to take heed here, and to reject the current belief, which is around “being a genius” rather than “having a genius.”

Here’s where I disagree with her, however. Here’s where Gilbert is playing to her own fear daemons. Because in saying she would rather be credited with “having” a genius—her own entity upon whom she could assign blame or success—she in fact distances herself from her own genius. I believe that these geniuses or daemons are part of us. The Greeks and Romans, brilliant as they were, didn’t have the modern psychological sophistication to articulate the complexity of the human personality construct. These daemons and geniuses were simply ancient names for the parts of us—or saboteurs, gremlins, superego, whatever name you wish to give them—that sit in our head and alternately fuel the flames of our creativity or knock us down and tell us we can’t do it.

Learning to harness the power of your daemons, saboteurs, geniuses is where the solution lies. The connection to our creativity can be blocked or promoted by our daemons. But they are absolutely a part of us. We “are” them; we do not “have” them. The trick is in deflecting their power by inviting them in. Ask them what they need in order to stop blocking you. Invite their insight rather than fighting against them. That’s the way to ensure a different path to connecting to our creativity. And connecting to it without fear.

For those of you who are interested in delving into this idea a little deeper, check out Feeding Your Demons, by Tsultrim Allione. And watch Gilbert’s talk. It’s a good jumping off point, and I certainly encourage everyone who has creative aspirations to make their daemons their allies.

Until next month,



January 27, 2009

tenacity versus talent

Just do it!

Most writers, at some point, find themselves wondering, Is this worth it? Anyone who's ever practiced a sport or an instrument and ran into that nagging voice that wonders about effort expended versus value gained knows exactly what I'm talking about.

More times than I can count I've been confronted with writers' doubts about what they're doing, what they're producing, whether they're good enough, and whether their efforts are ever going to pay off. These are the nagging voices of our saboteurs, whether they're telling us that we could be doing something more fun, something more worthwhile, or perhaps just that we don't have what it takes, and that the people who are getting what we want---getting published, recognition, kudos---are just better than we are.

Writing talent is not something to be underestimated. I know writers who have very little discipline who have gone pretty far in their careers because of their talent. But there are far more writers who struggle to produce every day, who treat their writing as a discpline and find pleasure in the results, and more seldomly in the process. For writers who have "always written," the flow of good writing can be a little bit like chasing the dragon. It can be that elusive space that you strive to get back to, and yet the very fact that you've been there makes the day-to-day that much harder.

Writing is hard. It is a passion and a hobby and a beautiful expression of self. But anyone who thinks you don't have to work your butt off to create, especially something as massive as a book (or a screenplay---to honor my script-writing client) is operating under an illusion that stems from some romanticism about how writing is supposed to be. Writing is not supposed to be easy or seamless or always a pouring forth from our souls. Sometimes that happens. And those of us who know that zone may think that it's the norm. I liken this to my yoga practice, though. There are probably one day in twenty or even thirty when it's amazing, when I leave thinking, That was an awesome class. More often I feel like it was the hardest class I ever had and I don't know how or why I keep on doing it. But I go back, time after time, because I love the way it makes me feel.

I told one of my writers recently that tenacity was more important than talent. I think this is true in life. There are those lucky few whose talent propels them along, but for most of us the desire to create and achieve and give birth to our dreams is the foundation upon which those very dreams are manifested. The dictionary defines tenacity as "seeking something valued or desired." I wish for myself and for all of us that we be the type of people who seek out what we value or desire rather than the type of people for whom everything we desire comes easily. It's the truism that nothing worth fighting for ever comes easily. And when it comes to builidng and manifesting your dreams, persistence is the thing that's going to serve you above all else.

Until next month,