• March 9, 2008

    Resources for Writers

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    I’ve got a bunch of notes and questions regarding writer resources, so let me try to get to several of them today…

    On MONEY: Patricia wrote to say, "Thanks for your recent blog post about earning money. So if a book doesn’t ‘earn out’ its advance, is the balance applied against the next book?"

    It is if your contract is cross-collateralized — that is, if all your various book advances are "basketed" into one deal. If not — if each book is on a separate contract — then no, your advance cannot be applied to your next book. 

    On REMAINDERS: DeeAnn wrote me to ask, "What does it mean to ‘remainder’ a book?"

    That’s when the publisher sells the remaining copies of your book to a book wholesaler for less than the cost of printing. It commonly happens when your book is going out of print, or when they’re down to the last 1000 copies or so, and the publisher wants to be rid of them. The books might have cost $2 to print, but they’ll sell them for $1 apiece to somebody who will buy the entire remaining stock, just to get them out of the warehouse.   

    On SELF-PUBLISHING: Gene wants to note, "The latest issue of Writers Digest is filled with ads for self-publishing. I’m on my second agent, still trying to get  published, but it takes SOOOO long. How can you convince me not to go to lulu.com and have my book for sale on Amazon tomorrow morning? When will the traditionalists speed up the process?"

    You’re right — there are a ton of self-publishing companies. Some are good, some are not. Be careful. The problem with self-publishing is not the speed, it’s the sales. If you write a book, you have to make sure the book is good (and if publishers are all turning you down, there could be a message there, Gene). You also

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  • March 6, 2008

    An Editor Drops By

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    Becky Germany is a Senior Editor at Barbour Publishing, and a familiar face at writing conferences. I recently asked her a couple questions about the industry…

    In many ways, Barbour has become a leader in Christian fiction — doing novellas, establishing a book club, focusing on mass market. Where does all the creative thinking come from?

    Becky: We’re the leading CBA publisher of fiction categorized as romance. We rank fourth in the number of units produced in fiction in CBA. We started publishing fiction as romance flip books way back in 1983 with authors like Colleen Reece, Irene Brand, and Elaine Schultze. I wasn’t at Barbour then, so I"m not sure how it was decided to settle upon romance, but it’s been our strength ever since. The Heartsong Presents book club began in 1992, the year before I joined the company, and out of that has come a number of stars — Tracie Peterson, Wanda Brunstetter, Lauraine Snelling, Colleen Coble, Cathy Marie Hake, and more (forgive me for not trying to name them all, Chip). Our fiction series have helped us remain open to working with unpublished authors and developing them into strong writers.

    Another Barbour strength has been doing series and repackaging previously published material (including Grace Livingston Hill) to extend the breadth and life of the product. Our novella collections were born when we decided we could create new short stories specifically for collections under topics of our choice. So the creative thinking seems to extend from Barbour’s roots, and builds on what we do best. Our team members are, for the most part, people who have been with Barbour many years and who know the company’s success model. We’ve learned to work within our strengths and to keep our product subjects broad, in order to appeal to the widest audience.

    What are some of the things that have worked (and not worked) in fiction for you?

    When

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  • February 25, 2008

    The Hard Questions

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    I’ve been sent some tough questions lately — questions that you might have been wondering about in your own writing career. It seems like there are some difficult publishing questions that frequently get ignored, so I’ll try to tackle a couple of them today…

    Donna wrote to say, "It seems like there are a ton of books that have sold a million copies lately. Can you tell me what the top books last year sold?"

    I can, but prepare to be surprised. There were only four books last year that sold more than a million copies — Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows (which sold more than 7 million); The Secret (just shy of 3 million); Eat, Pray, Love (just shy of 2M); and A Thousand Splendid Suns (sold 1M). That’s it. Four books.

    There were another 15 titles that sold between a half-million and a million copies: The Dangerous Book for Boys, Kite Runner, Water for Elephants, and The Memory Keeper’s Daughter all sold just under a million. Cormac McCarthy’s The Road, Jessica Seinfeld’s Deceptively Delicious, Stephen Colbert’s I Am America, Sidney Poitier’s The Measure of a Man, John Grisham’s Playing for Pizza, Bob Greene’s The Best Life Diet, the two You titles (You: On a Diet and You: Staying Young), The Glass Castle, Eclipse, and Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince all sold more than 500,000 copies. And that’s it. There were 250,000 new books printed last year in this country. 19 of them hit the big time. Yikes.

    John wrote to ask, "Do you have ethical problems with ghostwriting?"

    I hate this question, because too many people are quick to say "YES!" without understanding the terms. I used to make my living as a collaborative writer. A well-known speaker would send me his notes and his seminar on tape, and I’d turn it into a book for him. It was all his material — I was

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  • February 14, 2008

    The Four Best Words

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    Today marks the four best words in the English language… And I don’t mean "Happy Valentine’s Day, Darling" (though there’s nothing wrong with those sentiments — I got engaged on Valentine’s Day way back in 1982). No, the four best words are these: "Pitchers and Catchers report." You see, for those of us who are diehard baseball fans, today marks the start of a new season. Nobody has any losses, everybody has hopes for the future, and there are people across America who believe that this could be our year. (Not everywhere, of course. My apologies to the people of Kansas City.) So on this happy occasion, I thought we should take a bundle of new publishing questions people have sent in…

    Rhonda wrote to say, "I had a book published several years ago with a small press. It’s now out of print, but I’d love to get it back into print. Do you think that’s possible?"

    The hard truth? Unlikely. I’m sorry, Rhonda, but the facts are there’s almost no market for books that have been in print once before. Publishers have a tendency to look at them and say, "Um…if that other publisher couldn’t sell this, what makes you think we could?" It happens occasionally, but most often with a successful author revisiting an old book, or repackaging a book that can now be tied to an event in the newspapers.

    Keep in mind that a book is like a man’s suit. It’s in style for a while, maybe even a long while, but eventually it seems dated. The culture isn’t static — things are moving forward all the time. The world is changing. It’s why parenting or relationship or health books that your parents read won’t speak to our contemporary world. So when your book releases, assume it’s going to be in style about as long as a new suit. In a while, it will start to

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  • February 9, 2008

    A Visit with an Editor

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    A couple months ago, my buddy Andy Meisenheimer stopped in to talk about one of his pet peeves: the overuse of novelists turning all thoughts into italics in their manuscripts. Andy is an editor at Zondervan, and his post caused much debate and hand-wringing with some writers. Never being one to avoid a good controversy, I asked him if he’d come back.

    Chip: So your last visit to my site created a stir, Andy. You ready to face this again?

    Andy: Yeah, my last guest blog might have come across as Andy’s Vindictive Rant About Certain Arbitrary Rules of Style. People assuring me they’d never, ever, use thought italics, and people offering condolences to the poor writers who have to obey my every whim (and Mike Snyder, constantly calling to let me know his progress in eliminating thought italics from his current manuscript). Instead of a discourse, it became an ultimatum. Instead of "okay" and "better," it became "wrong" and "right."

    My intention for that post, and any time I speak up about words, is to encourage writers toward better writing. They aren’t rants about my personal hot-button issues. They aren’t indirect ways of editing my current authors (please, Mike — stop calling). If your editors says to take out all semicolons, I encourage you to say, "Puh-leeze. You got somethin’ to back that up? The market isn’t buying books with semicolons?"

    Chip: So would you say an editor’s job is to continue the conventions? Or to help an author break them successfully?

    Andy: An editor’s job is to help the author discern what’s working. A good editor must appeal only to conventions of the craft and the effect upon the intended reader to justify editorial comment. And convention and effect are fluid things, open to change and dialogue and debate. Not that they are subjective; there are conventions, and there are effects upon readers, and their equivocation does not

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  • February 5, 2008

    Thoughts for Beginning Writers

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    A grab-bag of questions about publishing and writing today…

    Mary-Lynn wrote to ask, "What do I need to know about creating a proposal for an agent? Is it like filling out a form, or do I create the story for them to see?"

    I guess you could say that creating a proposal is a bit like filling out a form, in that there are certain elements you really need to include: title, subtitle, author bio and sales history, notes on the manuscript (word count, when it will be completed), genre and audience notes, overview of the book, table of contents or story synopsis, comparable titles, sample chapters, and marketing information. If you’re a first-time novelist, you are doubtless going to have to show the agent the entire manuscript, whereas with a nonfiction book you can still sell it based on a great proposal and some sample writings. If this is a non-fiction book, you want to show an agent what the need is for this book, why you’re writing it, and what your qualifications are for writing the book. Those are fairly universal. If it’s a novel, you want to reveal a brilliant story, interesting characters, and snappy writing. An agent isn’t usually going to agree to represent your book based solely on the idea. He or she will also want to know that you’re a fine writer, that you have other ideas, that you’re willing to help with the sale and marketing of the book, and that you’re a person who is easy to get along with. (This part doesn’t get talked about as much as it should. An agent/author relationship is similar to both a creative friendship and a business partnership — so you need to be a match, or neither party is going to be happy.) If you’d like to see some sample proposals, I keep both a fiction and a non-fiction proposal on my business web

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  • January 29, 2008

    More on the “Part-Time to Full-Time” Discussion

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    Danny wrote to say, "You’ve offered some basic ideas for those of us trying to make the move from part-time to full-time. What else do we need to know?"

    I can think of several things that might be important…

    First, invest in a separate business phone line. You can write it off as a business expense, and it’ll help you separate your private life from your professional life.

    Second, invest in the technology you need. Let’s face it, if you plan to do any serious internet research, you need a fast computer and high-speed internet. (This may sound obvious to most of you, but I was speaking at a conference recently where nearly every writer in the class claimed to have dial-up. Yikes! I wondered if they were also listening to 8-track players and watching black-and-white TV.) The fact is, you’re paying for what you need and don’t have. So if you’re trying to get by with a cheap-o computer, you’re making a mistake. (And here I’ll offer an unsolicited commercial: I finally went to an Apple MacBook a year-and-a-half ago. In that time, it hasn’t crashed once. Just so you know.) The same goes for software, a printer, and whatever bells and whistles your particular type of writing requires. Organizational theory teaches us that things don’t get less complicated over time; they get more complicated. So educate yourself on the complications, then spend the money to bring your office up to date.

    Third, invest in a great web site. People used to think of web sites more or less as freeway road signs — something you passed by on the way to your destination. Now we understand web sites are interactive places where we can get information, ask questions, and make comments. If you want to build a readership, think about spending some serious cash to create a dynamite site.

    Fourth, invest in great business cards, stationery, and brochures.

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  • January 20, 2008

    State of Confusion

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    I’m not really in the state of confusion. I’m in the state of Washington. But the two apparently border each other. A week in the mountains with no cel service, no internet, no emails — and no chance to update my blog. Sorry! I’m back at it.

    Dianne wrote to ask, "If I really wanted to move from being a part-timer toward being a full-time writer, what advice would you have? What are the steps I need to take in order to make the transition?"

    I can think of a long list of things you should consider…

    1. Find a place. Make this your writing space and designate it as your office. (If you’re serious about this, make that your official home office and start looking into the tax deduction you can get from the IRS for establishing a home office.)

    2. Establish a writing time. Having a block of time dedicated to your writing is probably the first step every professional writer takes on their way to a writing career. You want to have a protected chunk when you’re not checking emails, answering phone calls, or meeting people for coffee to bitch about how little writing time you have. For many authors, it’s simply "morning." When I began writing full time, I set aside 6 to 8 every morning to write (I had one job and three small kids, so I couldn’t do it later in the day). I would get up and write every morning before going to the office… which was amazing, since I’m really not a morning person. But it was the discipline of sitting and writing for two hours every morning that really helped me flip the switch in my head and get me going on a writing career.

    3. Create a filing system. All it takes is one office box and a set of files. You can arrange it alphabetically by topic, and create

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  • December 17, 2007

    Questions about Publishing

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    Fiona wrote to ask, "What happens when you have a good proposal, a finished manuscript that people want to read, and you know the market — but you can’t get anyone in the publishing industry to read the darn thing? Do you self-publish? This is an exhausting process, I must say."

    My dear, welcome to the world of publishing. While I sympathize with your frustration over creating something you think is good but not having the connections to get it read, you should know that’s a fairly common problem. You need to seek publishing relationships. Go to a writing conference and show your work to editors. Introduce yourself to agents. Enter some contests. Be part of a critique group to make connections. Become friends with other writers and begin to get plugged in to the industry.

    Of course,  if no one is willing to seriously review your work, the possibility exists that you’re being a bit too generous in your self-praise. I’ll admit I could be wrong here, but I’ve often had wannabe authors say to me something like, "Everybody on the planet has reviewed this and told me it was awful, but I’m sure I’m a genius…maybe I should self-publish." Just something to consider. I’ve covered self-publishing in other posts, but my basic argument is that you should only self-pub if you know exactly how you’re going to market and sell your own work.

    As for this being an exhausting process, I’d submit that it is…but that it’s no more exhausting than making a living at any other art form. If you put together a band and write some songs, you may think your work is brilliant — but you’ve got to go play some gigs at local pubs, meet producers, and get some experience under your belt before you can expect to sign that record deal. You may think your paintings are genius, but you’ve got to sell

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  • July 28, 2007

    The Wisdom of the Ages

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    Tammy wrote in to ask, "When an editor at a newspaper or magazine hands you a topic and tells you to write a story, where do you begin?" The is closely related to Dave’s question: "When writing a book, where do you begin to find your information?’

    The easiest way, of course, is to simply make them up. Specifically, create a name and a bunch of quotes. Make sure the name sounds vaguely academic ("V. Pennington Longbottom" works better than "Dan Smith.") Stick in some phony facts, making sure to use "actual" numbers (saying "9482 people believe Hillary Clinton is really Ted Kennedy in a wig" is much more believable than saying "nearly ten thousand people believe…") If anyone questions your sources, immediately attack them as heretics.

    Another thing that works well is to generalize: "EVERYBODY KNOWS that literary agents are more trustworthy than publishers." The goal is to try and make people who disagree feel stupid.

    In a pinch, citing Bible verses also helps. For example, you can say, "As the prophet Fiorello says in Formica 2:2, ‘Only the good die young.’" (Note to Biblicists: You can also simply misquote a verse, like the people in CBA who use "Publish Glad Tidings" on their stationery, as though it were a reference to publishing books in 21st Century America. That sort of establishes a link between you and God in the minds of the readers. Trust me on this.)

    In addition you can make your quotes close, even if they aren’t exactly correct. Or even germane. I once read a review of one of the 762 anti-DaVinci Code books that appeared on religious bookstore shelves in recent years, and the reviewer used these words: "As Jesus is claimed to have said, ‘Be still and know that I am God.’ If only his modern-day disciples would follow his advice." Ha! Yeah, it’s a cute line. The only problem is

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