From spark to story: How books get started

Where do stories come from?

Are writers inspired from deep within the unconscious psyche by forces beyond their control? Or are they compelled by external cues that resonate without invitation – unexpected and accidental?

As an editor, I’ve seen the muse arrive in surprising and mysterious ways. The creative spark, a blessed event to be sure, can arrive at any moment in time.

Whether the source is mundane or magical, the author fans the spark into a fully realized story.

From spark to finished story

I asked two authors about their original impulses and how they developed into the books that were ultimately published.

Kristen Tracy published Lost It (Simon and Schuster) in 2008. It was her first novel for young adults and is about a young girl who loses her virginity under a canoe. Kristen has a PhD in English, a MFA in Writing, a MA in Literature and has taught writing and literature at Brigham Young University and Stanford University. She also taught at Hawthorne High School in Los Angeles, publishing many more books for teens at S&S and tweens at Delacorte and Hyperion (Disney).

Neville Frankel recently published Bloodlines, a novel about the consequences of a love affair between a white married woman and a black member of the African National Congress during Nelson Mandela’s epic struggle against apartheid in the 1960s. Neville is a financial planner and wealth manager who was born in Johannesburg, South Africa and immigrated to Boston when he was 14.

What was the original spark, the inspiration for writing your book?

Kristen: When I started writing Lost It, the concept of the novel came first. I knew that I wanted to write a funny novel about a girl who loses her virginity. Did I know this event would happen underneath a canoe? No. I didn’t. This revelation came to me while working on the first chapter.

When I began writing the novel, the quirky voice came first. She essentially delivered a monologue that recapped the big event and the canoe was front and center. Once I had the voice, I was able to draft a first chapter, which became the framework for the rest of the novel.

Neville: In 2005, I read a book by Glenn Frankel, no relation to me, called Rivonia’s Children, a true-story of three white, middle-class South African families who struggled and suffered greatly in the fight against apartheid in the mid 1960s. This was my first discovery that there were white middle class families who had put themselves at risk by helping in the anti-apartheid movement.

Having left the country with my family in 1962 when I was fourteen, I had unresolved issues about my own history so writing the book became a way of taking back my past. I began to wonder what my life would have been like if I’d come from a family that had been involved in that kind of activity. And the book came out of that question.

How did you develop the spark into the story?

Kristen: At the time I was writing Lost It, my fiction mentor mentioned to me that first novels are often the most autobiographical. This surprised me, because I believed that all of the events and characters from my novel came from my imagination, not my own high school experience.

Now that a few years have passed since Lost It’s publication, I can see where my own autobiography played its part. The setting is entirely stolen from my upbringing, as well as the main character’s interest in wildlife (particularly bear) safety. I guess that’s what happens when you grow up near Yellowstone Park.

Neville: Well, having read Rivonia’s Children, I went back to South Africa for my first visit in almost 40 years and felt such a sense of optimism in the country – black and white people in stores, behind the counters and shopping together, all smiles and delighted to be a part of the new South Africa. That experience added to the compulsion to write the book by filling me with a sense of unbearable loss at the life I might have participated in.

So I started out by weaving my own family history into the book, including a protagonist who was a painter like me, and also felt he didn’t really belong anywhere, as did I. I used autobiographical elements of my identity, sense of loss, and the way individuals get caught up in big events that can determine the outcome of their lives.

But at the end of the day, I found that I had two completely different stories, that were way too complex to interweave and had to drop about 150 pages of that material, which I’m now writing as a second book.


More examples from famous authors

Ron Rash’s spark: A mysterious visual image

Ron Rash, the best-selling poet, short story writer and novelist, had a vision of “a young woman pulling back some rhododendron leaves and seeing a bedraggled young man playing a beautiful silver flute.”

This vision eventually grew into his literary wartime mystery and romance, The Cove. Rash, a professor of Appalachian Cultural Studies at Western Carolina University wrote that ultimately he’s interested in how landscape affects a character’s psychology. “I would say, for me – in The Cove particularly – landscape is destiny.”

Margaret Mitchell’s spark: An idea for a great ending

Margaret Mitchell was recuperating from an auto accident in 1926 when she thought of the final moments of a story in which the heroine’s lover has just left forever saying, “Frankly my dear, I don’t give a damn” about where she goes or what she does, and the young woman thinks to herself, “I’ll go home. And I’ll think of some way to get him back. After all… tomorrow is another day.”

Then Mitchell went back to create a step-by-step story about the civil war and how it brought Scarlet O’Hara and Rhett Butler to that climactic scene in her epic story Gone With the Wind.

Herman Melville’s spark: An obsession with an irresistible true story

During 1841-1842, 24-year-old Herman Melville was serving as a seaman on a whaler when he met the son of Owen Chase, the first mate and one of eight survivors in the 1820 sinking of the Nantucket ship Essex after it was rammed by a large sperm whale. Chase’s son lent Melville a copy of his father’s out-of-print memoir called The Narrative of the Most Extraordinary and Distressing Shipwreck of the Whale-Ship Essex.

Melville spent the next ten years writing and researching his story, incorporating much of what he himself knew as a member of a whaler’s crew until it was published as Moby Dick in 1851.

Christopher Isherwood’s spark: An unforgettable woman

In 1931, a 27-year-old writer named Christopher Isherwood heard a singer perform at an underground club in Berlin. He didn’t think much of her voice but was very much taken with “her startling appearance, and her air of not caring a curse what people thought of her. Her fingernails were painted emerald green, a color unfortunately chosen, for it called attention to her hands, which were much stained by cigarette smoking and as dirty as a little girl’s. She was dark, her face was long and thin, powdered dead white.” Her name was Jean Ross.

Two years later, Isherwood wrote a short story based on the singer called Sally Bowles, the first of an incredible succession of stories, novels, plays, Broadway musicals and Hollywood films about a fictionalized Jean Ross that led ultimately to the blockbuster Cabaret.


What about you?

What kick-started your idea for a book? Tell us about your spark and what happened next.

The career-boosting power of your name on a book

Many authors I’ve worked with have written books that promoted and enhanced their professional lives.

Some have written a book precisely with this hope in mind: to advertise their special skills and passions. Other writers have enjoyed the surprise of being propelled in their careers with major elevations of their workaday status and financial potential.

“Writing books literally changed my life,” says author Michele Borba. “The most interesting parts of my career couldn’t have happened without publishing all those titles.”

I recently interviewed Michele and two other authors who’ve written both non-fiction and fiction books that gave them the opening to expand their non-writing professional careers. Each has a unique story, but all of them have become more visible in extended professional activities as a result of writing their books.

Three Authors

Michele Borba is the resident parenting expert on the Today Show, and has appeared in the New York Times, Newsweek, People, on Dr. Phil, The View and other mainstream media for her views on parenting, children and adolescents. The author of 22 books, she started out as a classroom teacher in special education.

Seth Kahan is a performance improvement expert specializing in change leadership, helping businesses create the vision and roadmap to achieve organizational transformation. He’s the author of Getting Change Right and Getting Innovation Right (March 2013), and writes regularly for Fast Company. His clients have included the World Bank, the Peace Corps, NASA, Royal Dutch Shell, and Prudential Retirement.

Jinny Webber taught writing and literature for 32 years, with a focus on women writers and William Shakespeare. An author of several novels, her most recent book The Secret Player is Volume I in the Shakespeare Actor Trilogy, with Volume II, Dark Venus to be released mid-2013, and Volume III, Bedtrick, coming late 2013.

Their Stories

Did you write your first book as part of a business plan to build your professional career?

Michele: No. I was a special ed teacher and developed my own original lessons for nurturing children’s social-emotional growth and self-esteem. A series of educators who visited my classroom convinced me I needed to publish the material. I was naïve – had no knowledge of how to approach the publishing industry. I wrote one chapter, submitted it simultaneously to ten publishers and, miracle of miracles, eight of the ten offered contracts.

Seth: Yes. I first self-published a book and was speaking regularly, but it became clear that I would need a book published in the mainstream press to achieve a new level of esteem in the market for my consulting business.

Jinny: No. I write novels for love: I have to. My first novel, Serpent Wisdom, was set in Bronze Age Greece, so I visited there to do my research. I wrote a murder mystery Paradise Bent, to teach myself plotting; it won honorable mention in the St. Martin’s Best Malice Domestic competition. Then I launched into my greatest passion, Shakespeare’s England, and began writing about a young woman pretending to be a boy who played women, after joining William Shakespeare’s troop in London. There are now three novels about her in the series.

Have your books boosted or changed your career?

Michele: Very much. My first contracts jump-started my “speaking profession”. Educational group, organizations, and church groups from all over the country began calling me. I started by speaking to local small groups and soon was doing keynote addresses. The books that followed – Parents do Make a Difference, Building Moral Intelligence, No More Misbehavin’, Don’t give me that Attitude, Nobody Likes me: Everybody Hates Me, 12 Simple Secrets Real Moms Know, and The Big Book of Parenting Solutions — and those speaking engagements became my training ground for not only how to improve my speaking ability and connect with a group, but also for media.

Seth: Absolutely. First of all it has spread my name much further than I imagined. It’s not at all unusual for me to meet people in the course of my work who’ve already ready my book. I also get inquiries from people I’ve never done business with as a result of their appreciation for the book. Most of my work is around change, innovation, and targeted growth. Being able to hand a copy of my book to a prospective client is a powerful validation of my expertise. I’m often introduced to staff or Boards of Directors by a CEO who waves my book in the air while reciting its virtues and utility.

Jinny: Yes. I’ve found that I have new opportunities, for example lecturing on “The Authorship Debate: Who Wrote Shakespeare’s Plays?” and “Sex and Gender in Shakespeare.” I’m also researching the relationship of women’s needlework to women’s writing in Shakespeare’s day. I’d never have stumbled on this fascinating topic if it weren’t for my novels. Besides the intriguing research, engaging in the writing itself, tapping into one’s creativity, is a huge boon for a professional life. We want to stay alive in our careers, and writing, even projects not directly related to our paid work, stimulates and invigorates the mind.

Was anything about this unexpected, or come as a surprise to you, good or bad?

Michele: All aspects of my career were unexpected, none planned. For example, General Mills loved my book Building Moral Intelligence, and asked if I’d fly to Rwanda as part of their Win One-Give One campaign on instilling altruism in US Kids. So I’m now the world Goodwill Ambassador for the One Laptop per Child project in Uruguay, Armenia, Karabagh, Columbia, Argentina, Nicaragua and Rwanda. Each experience has been profound. I was literally hugged until it hurt in gratitude by those kids and saw how empowering those special XO laptops were in providing not only education but hope to children.

Also, can you believe it: The Pentagon discovered my work on bullying so now I’m working for the Department of Defense on how to reduce bullying and create safer schools, training youth mental health counselors for military children in Asian-Pacific and European bases.

Seth: At first it was a bit of a shock to experience the response and even deference that I received as a result of being an author. When I enter into a conversation with clients my opinion is treated with greater respect. They’re looking to me for answers.

Jinny: It’s gratifying to see the interest in my young heroine and her life as a 16th century pre- feminism feminist. The ideas for my Shakespeare Actor Trilogy kept coming and I’ve never been discouraged about the hard work of being an author.

Do you sell copies of your book when you’re speaking or appearing at an event?

Michele: I do, but have a caveat: I ask the group who has contracted me to handle the selling and book ordering. I always include an order sheet with my audience handouts and volunteer to do any publicity for the group prior to the event.

Seth: Yes, and the amount of these sales depends on how well organized the client is. For example, I just spoke to the Center for Excellence in Educational Leadership. They had professionals running every aspect, from audio/visual to their bookstore. The book signing followed my speech and people were given clear instructions on where to go. As a result, the bookstore sold out of my book while I was signing copies.

Jinny: I do, but I’ve found it works better to have someone else at a table rather than simply me. I’m thinking of having my 18-year-old granddaughter help sell the books in the future. It’s her image that’s on the cover of The Secret Player.

Are you promoting the book in other ways?

Michele: Yes. I have a website, with bio, media clips, speaking topics and all my books. A social media platform is critical for an author’s career. I write weekly blogs and have an active twitter account (@ MicheleBorba) with close to 40,000 followers. I also keep up with parenting trends by following certain feeds.

Seth: Yes, I work at it constantly. I write a blog for Fast Company. In the signature page of every post I mention my book and I’m also beginning to include my upcoming book, Getting Innovation Right. I also write a weekly newsletter. My website has sample information and advice, testimonials, interaction, ways to order products or reach me easily.

Jinny: I have a beautiful website that features stories from the book, writing about sex and gender in Shakespeare’s time, information about upcoming speaking engagements and book signings, interviews with me on video, and reviews.

Do you have any advice for fellow authors?

Michele: Do I ever. Here goes:

1. Keep writing. The first book, second, third, even fourth, it may take awhile to create your platform.

2. Think of writing as two equal parts: publishing the book and publicizing the book – both take equal time.

3. When there’s a knock on the door, take it! Those doors open bigger ones.

4. Turn each book title into a speech and offer it. Your audience is more likely to buy the book if after hearing your speech.

5. Get involved in social networking — it’s fun! But it’s also a fabulous way to create a fan base, connect with media as well as fellow authors. Twitter is only 140 characters — you can tweet from your smart phone at a stoplight.

6. Keep it fun! You have to be passionate about your topic – that’s what the audience is first listening or looking for – energy! You can’t fake passion. For me, everything I do has to achieve one aim: make a difference for children.

Seth: Don’t underestimate the power of a book in the mainstream press. Your book is a significant accomplishment and places you in a tiny percentage of thought leaders who have a) taken the time to codify your knowledge; b) put it in a form that is digestible by others; c) achieved a professional milestone by getting it into the market. Use it as a foundation to increase your repute and help your readers get the value you’ve worked so hard to publish.

Jinny: It helps to have a publisher, since promoting a book is tough! It’s a learning process, and if I agreed with Samuel Johnson that only a blockhead writes except for money, I’d not be a novelist. Don’t do it in hopes of fame and fortune, but because you love and enjoy it. Surprising results inevitably follow.


What about you?

If you’re published, has your book had an impact on your professional life? If your book is in progress, have you thought about how it could boost your career?

We look forward to reading your comments, along with any advice you have for fellow writers.

Walking in your character’s shoes: Writing with authenticity

Bestselling crime novelist Patricia Cornwell inhabits and writes from inside the mind of her lead sleuth, Dr.Kay Scarpetta, the medical examiner in a blockbuster series of 20 forensic thrillers and counting.

To get the details exactly right, Cornwell has hung out in a coroner’s morgue to study forensic corpse dissection and body decomposition. She’s recreated fictional crime scenes in her home with accurate blood spatter patterns. She overcame her fear of scuba diving so she could write with verisimilitude about a deep sea body search. And when Dr. Scarpetta flew a helicopter, Cornwell became a certified pilot and bought her own $3.5 million Bell 407.

We can’t all afford to buy our own helicopter, but every writer can use Cornwell’s technique of walking in a character’s shoes to recreate hands-on authentic experience. Impeccably accurate details and actions go a long way in creating three-dimensional, absorbing characters readers can identify with and care about.

Eggshells on the pedal

Here’s another great example. Author Garth Stein spent three years racing a custom Mazda Miata at the amateur level Sports Car Club of America (SCCA), achieving his greatest competitive success in 2004 as the North West Region Points Champion. A year later he started developing the characters for his bestselling book, The Art of Racing in the Rain.

“Everything Enzo [the dog who narrates Garth’s book] says about racing a high-performance car at more than 150 mph, I learned in my Miata. How to put your feet like ‘eggshells on the pedal’, smooth on and smooth off. Balance and kinesthetics, like driving by the seat of your pants, discipline and patience, like not slamming on the brakes if you go into a spin, but going against your instincts and waiting, giving more gas so the rear end can gain traction and move forward again.”

“Ever scared?” I asked him.

“Never. Too much adrenalin and not enough time when you’re inches from a guy on your right, inches on your left, and only a hair from the car in front of you.”

This kind of detail is a terrific source of authentic character development that every author should seek out whenever possible.

It’s like the characters are coming through you

That’s how author Lawrence Eubank describes writing his epic sea adventure Run Down the Wind. I worked with him recently on this story set in the 19th century with a first-mate hero on a fast-sailing American clipper ship. Eubank was able to draw upon experiences he’d had years earlier.

On one occasion Eubank crewed on a friend’s sloop sailing from Nova Scotia to Newfoundland when the lines got tangled so they couldn’t lower the jib, a dangerous situation requiring immediate fixing.

“They hauled me up so I was hanging at the top of the 60-foot mast, trying to sort out the cables and also change the tri-color light at the top of the mast to make sure other boats could see us in the middle of the night. It was six or seven stories high, and when I looked down the boat itself was tiny.”

Another time he was on the crew of a 96-foot ketch sailing from the Mediterranean to the Caribbean when a sneak storm hit.

“Suddenly we were caught in the middle of an out-of-season hurricane and the waves were 20 feet high, as big as a three-story house coming down on us. It was dead center across the Atlantic Ocean, between the Canary Islands and Antigua in a wind-whipped sea that was 14,000 feet deep, a long way down. I remember seeing fear in the Captain’s eyes and feeling what it really meant to be ‘lost at sea’. They’d never have found us if we hadn’t taken a sharp turn left and, luckily, the hurricane went right.”

Eubank puts it this way: “My writing has a different quality when I’m not making it up but really know what I’m talking about.”

If I were a writer…

My own recent five-day camel trek in the Sahara desert could provide a multitude of first-hand sensory details for creating a character riding over the orange dunes.

I learned to adjust to the rhythmic rolling gait of the great beast, leaning back and gripping the rear of the saddle with one hand when we lurched down steep slopes of soft sand, then crouching forward, coiled tight against the camel’s thick neck on the way back up.

My legs ached from clenching the camel’s sides without stirrups. I got welts and abrasions (known unceremoniously among trekkers as camel butt!)  The intense cold from camping out on the icy night sand chilled my bones. I was grateful when Ali, our camel driver, showed me how to wrap a long blue cheche around my head to stop the desert wind from whipping fine sand into every pore of my face.

These experiences live on in my muscle memory and my heart. All grist for the mill, if I were a writer.

Photo © Cheryl Rinzler

What about you?

What are your favored techniques in building your own authentic characters? How far have you gone for the sake of believability?  We’d all love to hear about your experience with this, and the impact on your writing.

Why should anyone give a shiitake about your book?

That’s the first question to ask yourself, writes Guy Kawasaki in the opening chapter of a definitive new book on self-publishing, APE: Author, Publisher, Entrepreneur – How to Publish a Book, written with co-author Shawn Welch.

Kawasaki is passionate about writers creating worthwhile books for principled reasons. To make a difference in people’s lives, to promote great causes, or to tackle intellectual challenges are a few of the bona fide motivations on his list.

So if you’ve got a great reason to write a book, and you’re thinking about publishing it yourself, Kawasaki’s guide will take you the rest of the way. It’s the best, most thorough book I’ve seen on self-publishing to date, packed with valuable information, techniques, tips, and advice for every author.

Who is this Guy?

Guy Kawasaki has written eleven books, including the New York Times bestseller, Enchantment, and his own self-published book What the Plus!

I interviewed him previously about his innovative process of getting a cover design for his book Art of the Start.

He’s also co-founder of, the “online magazine rack” of popular topics on the web, and he’s the founding partner at Garage Technology Ventures, a venture capital fund for tech entrepreneurs. Previously, he was the chief evangelist of Apple.

The artisanal approach to self-publishing

In this book, Kawasaki has coined a new phrase to describe the kind of self-publishing he endorses: Artisanal Publishing.

Here where I live, the San Francisco Bay Area, the word artisanal is applied to uniquely handcrafted foods, like breads and wines. As in, which cheese would you rather eat: Velveeta, or a clothbound aged sharp cheddar created by an artisan cheese maker (who also milked the cow)?

So I get it when Kawasaki asks, “What would you rather read: a mass-produced or artisanal book?”

“Artisanal publishing is the concept of authors writing, publishing, and lovingly crafting their book with complete artistic control in a high-quality manner,” Kawasaki writes. “In this new approach, writers are no longer at the mercy of large, traditional publishers.”

What a cool way to put it. I’ve long advocated that authors take charge over every part of their work’s creative and business process, and escape the restrictions and powerlessness of being published traditionally.

Market your book for as long as you want people to buy it

Kawasaki’s ideas about creating a brand or platform are among the most inspiring messages in the book. He describes creating an online persona built from the author’s authentic personality to market and sell the book. Crafting this public face is a mandatory prerequisite, he says, a major, must-do part of being an author these days.

“All authors should take control of their fate,” Kawasaki writes.

He’s right. I tell authors to think of marketing as an essential part of their creative process. Who can express better than you the core vision and value of your work? Who cares about it more than you? You don’t have to dress up or take acting lessons or post on your blog ten times a day. You can pick and choose what new marketing techniques are comfortable for you and do it all from home, in your pajamas.

Kawasaki lays out a compelling approach to selling your book during interactions with all readers, actual and virtual print and broadcast media, book bloggers, reviewers, post commenters, and any other in your social network. Here are his three pillars to building a great personal brand.  The book drills down into detail, but here’s the basic structure.


Guy Kawasaki’s three pillars of a personal brand


“If you want people to trust you, you have to trust them first,” Kawasaki advises. “Give people the benefit of the doubt and assume they are good until proven bad. Then give them another chance.”

He emphasizes the importance of doing what you say you’re going to do, doing it early, and if there’s a cost, coming in under budget. And if you can’t, never wait until the last minute but tell everyone as soon as you know there’s a problem — all of the above being excellent ways to demonstrate trustworthiness.


“Give without expectation of return.”

Put the other person’s needs and gratification before your own. Sure you want to sell books, but that only happens when you provide something of value, entertainment, inspiration or guidance to other people’s lives. It’s not “What can I get out of this person”, but rather “How can I help them”.


You’ve got to be reliable, authoritative, well prepared and with impeccable content. Your book and everything you say about it must be accurate, well researched, original and as flawless as possible – whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, technical or fanciful.

You’re the boss, so own the niche.


Kawasaki’s book also offers meticulous detail about financing your book, how to avoid the “self-published look” by choosing a beautiful font, proper spacing, getting an effective cover, converting and uploading a Word Doc to eBook, using print-on-demand services, pricing, and many other aspects of self-publishing, self-marketing, and social media, and a sympathetic but ultimately scathing indictment of traditional book publishing.

Navigating Amazon

“Self-publishing is an Amazon world,” Kawasaki cautions. “You’d be foolish to ignore it.”

He’s included in the book an outstanding glossary of Amazon goods and services offered to indie authors from Kindle Direct to their print division CreateSpace to Amazon Author Central plus too many others to mention here. I had no idea, for example, that you could hire people on Amazon Mechanical Turk to identify bloggers who might review your book. Or that Kindle Serials is looking for unpublished stories that can be released in a paid subscription format, shades of Charles Dickens.

Could be worth the price of admission.

But what about developmental editing?

A soft spot in the book is Kawasaki’s skimpy discussion of working with an editor.

At one point he writes that “Self-publishing can be a lonely path. In particular, you might not have an editor who is a mentor, advisor, and psychiatrist.”

But then, after suggesting an author should send beta versions for comments to friends, family, and co-workers, plus crowd sourcing with a questionnaire on Google+, face book, and twitter to find factual errors and typos, he recommends only a copy-editor for a final go-through.

The concept of a developmental editor doesn’t appear in the book, nor are there any recommendations for professional feedback on the core content, story, characters, organization, and style of the book. In my long years of experience, most successful authors do work with developmental editors (some call us content editors) and the earlier in their creative process the better.

Self-publishing authors especially must take on the responsibility for acquiring this specialized kind of editing, given the deluge of competing titles of all sorts now available. Consequently, I advise every author to find an experienced editor with a track record of bestselling authors to insure that the line-by-line structure, plot, and literary craft of their book is as good as it can be.

But aside from this missing link, I’d recommend APE for all authors who are serious about their writing and want to be sure it has the biggest possible market.

If you doubt for a moment that you need to read this book, take the Self-Publishing Intelligence Test that Kawasaki links to in his promotion for the book.  It’s fun and I discovered a lot I didn’t know.

What about you?

What’s your take on Kawasaki’s concept of artisanal publishing? He imagines self-publishing authors adopting the artisanal approach as a bragging point. He’s always been something of a visionary. What do you think?

Ask the Editor: Can I become a better writer?

Q: Every rejection letter I get says there’s something wrong with my writing. Can I really get better at this?

A: Yes, you can!

Having edited hundreds of writers, I know for a fact that even the most seasoned, successful writers read, study, revise and rewrite, use a professional developmental editor, and continue to polish their craft.

Tom Robbins: It takes practice, patience and intense focus

When I worked with Tom Robbins years ago on Jitterbug Perfume, he told me he rewrote passages as many as 40 times and could take five years to finish a book.

Here’s what he sent me recently on the question of becoming a better writer.

“I look for a pitch next to madness. A talented writer can, with practice, patience and intense focus, always improve.  So can an untalented writer. Look at that woman who wrote Fifty Shades of Grey. She’s no more adept at writing than a cat is adept at swimming, but she’s purring and doing the backstroke all the way to the bank.”

Tom’s early novels Another Roadside Attraction and Even Cowgirls Get the Blues are revered as iconic works of the sixties culture. Each of his subsequent books – Skinny Legs and All, Half Asleep in Frog Pajamas, Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates has become weightier and more profound, in my view.

Garth Stein: It’s not a question of ‘either you have it or you don’t’

“Of course writers can get better,” says Garth Stein, author of The Art of Racing in the Rain, now 156 weeks on the New York Times bestseller list.

“And they should always strive to get better. For those who say ‘you either have it or you don’t,’ I suggest that the ‘it’ is inspiration, which can be elusive for sure, but you can teach the other aspect of writing, and that is craft.

I’ve noticed that I’ve been able to write with more economy now than I was with my earlier books. I can do more with less.  Most of that is trusting myself, and having faith that what I’m trying to do is actually getting done.”

Barry Eisler: I don’t ever want to stop being a student

“Not that I have much choice in the matter,” Barry told me recently. “The day you think you don’t have anything new to learn is the day someone’s going to teach you a lesson the hard way.”

Barry, a bestselling writer of political thrillers in a seven-book series featuring a freelance assassin, the latest one titled The Detachment, is also a one-man support team for writers through his website and appearances at writers workshops.

Here’s more Eisler wisdom on honing your craft:

“Recently, I’ve been working on a screenplay, the storytelling confines of which enforce the old “show don’t tell” rule with exceptional rigor. Of course, there are times to tell, and times to show. The reason for the general admonition is because beginning writers tend not to know the difference and resort to “tell” much less judiciously than they ought to.”

Just present the facts and let the reader figure out what it means. Why? Because of how we’re wired as humans: we tend to trust our own conclusions, intellectual and emotional, far more than we trust those of others. So if you want someone to feel something (certainly a goal that’s essential to all art), you can’t explain it – you have to make the reader feel it using indirect means, like significant detail.

What’s significant? I think part of the writer’s job is to get to the essence of things, big or small: the essence of a place, of a character, of what it means to be human. One way to develop this skill of the significant detail is to practice (shocking, I know).

When you’re in a place, ask yourself what is essential to that place – what quality, if removed, would mean the place was no longer itself. How do you know when you’re in Tokyo and not somewhere else? It could be the room, the layout, lighting, furniture ambience, a character. What is the defining element that sets her apart from everyone else? A writer wants to zero in on these significant and essential details.”

Famous writers who tripped on their first novels

Many famous writers produced first novels they’d rather forget. But they learned to correct their early mistakes, and produce the work that established their reputations.

F. Scott Fitzgerald’s first novel The Romantic Egoist was rejected by Scribner, So he revised it entirely, until they finally published it in 1920 as This Side of Paradise. Though a big hit, it wasn’t very well written or meaningful, nor was his next book The Beautiful and the Damned. Five more years of honing his craft on short stories, however, finally produced his masterpiece, The Great Gatsby.

Virginia Woolf struggled with her first novel for years, constantly revising until it was published as The Voyage Out in 1915, when she was 33 years old. It took another ten years of experimentation and innovation for her to produce her great books Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927) and beyond.

Norman Mailer’s first novel The Naked and the Dead made a big splash but was crude and derivative and is rarely read today. His second, Barbary Shore, was skewered by the critics. With nearly no sales at that point, his third attempt, The Deer Park, was rejected by seven publishers before finding a home and some literary recognition. This encouraged him to keep working and he produced a succession of increasingly successful best-selling books, including An American Dream, The Executioner’s Song, Armies of the Night, Ancient Evenings, Harlot’s Ghost and others.

Hilary Mantel’s first attempt to write a novel was put aside and only published years later as the highly revised and regarded A Place of Greater Safety. A prolific short story writer, critic, essayist, and journalist, her novel Wolf Hall, won the Man Booker Prize in 2010 and its sequel Bringing up the Bodies, won another Man Book Prize in 2012.

Learning from Juno Diaz: The importance of reading

Juno Diaz won the Pulitzer Prize for his best-selling first novel, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao. He spoke recently at Book Passage in Corte Madera, California about his process of learning to write over the past two decades.

“I move at a glacial pace. Before anything, I put in 20 years of work reading short stories and novels, so by the time I got around to thinking about writing in these forms they were a part of my life in ways I couldn’t even imagine. I write in honor of my reading.”

As a professor of creative writing at MIT, Diaz said “The worst thing on earth is the cowardly creative writing teacher. Nothing keeps you more ethical, more committed, than your students’ raw unadulterated genius.”

A tip you might try

Garth Stein leaves us with this suggestion, an exercise he found surprising and effective with an early novel.

“Go through your book and cut the last sentence of every paragraph.”

The advice had come from a writer friend who’d read the manuscript for his novel How Evan Broke His Head and Other Secrets.

“I looked over my book and realized he was absolutely correct.  In most of my paragraphs, I had accomplished what I’d set out to do, and then, because I didn’t trust myself or my reader, I said it one more time, just to drive it home.  So I believe I’ve learned to trust myself now, and trust that the reader will go with me.”

What about you?

As a developmental editor I believe every writer can learn and improve their art and craft. What do you think? What’s worked for you?

Timing your book’s launch date for maximum impact

Strategic timing of your book’s publication date can give it a jet-propelled boost and have a major impact on its long-term success.

Commercial publishers and booksellers have known this forever.

Christmas and beyond

Retailers rack up between 25-35 percent of their annual revenues during the holiday shopping season in November and December. Smart publishers start shipping their big holiday titles as early as August for publication dates in October and November – with the goal of getting those books to the stores by Halloween.

This kind of lead time is necessary for the books to build traction with online social network buzz, print and broadcast features. By September, booksellers will start to put the major new novels and A-list nonfiction in their windows and on their front tables, including novels and nonfiction books, as well as beautiful books of photography, art, travel, food, and children’s books – often high-priced and full of color.

There are many other “seasons” and strategic tie-in dates to consider. Right on the heels of Christmas, for example, comes January ready with a new crop of self-help and how-to books to attract shoppers flush with New Year’s resolutions to lose 10 pounds or finally learn Spanish.

Of special interest to agents and publishers are books that can be tied into annual events and anniversaries. Featured now in the New York Times book section, for example, is the title 360 Sound: The Columbia Records Story to coincide with the company’s 125th anniversary. Two years in the making, written by Princeton historian Seth Wilentz and loaded with “delicious” archival photos of Columbia’s vast roster of stars like Bob Dylan, Barbara Streisand and Billie Holiday, the book’s publication will be boosted by related events, including an exhibition opening this week at the Grammy Museum in LA.

* Scroll down for a starter list of publishing tie-ins.  You’ll think of many more.

Pitching tie-ins to agents and publishers

Savvy authors highlight tie-ins and strategic launch dates when pitching to literary agents and publishers. For example: “This will be the first book with previously unknown cables, photographs, and log entries made during the sinking of the Titanic, perfect for this year’s 100th anniversary” or “This will be the first cookbook ever for a Mexican-American Thanksgiving dinner, and I know exactly how to sell it to the huge first and second generation community in the USA.”

Self-publishers use the same strategies

Indie authors can leverage the same strategies when planning the release of their books. Two authors I know are self-publishing their memoirs to coincide with Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October 2013. This means finishing the editorial development, jacket and interior design and platform building so they can have both eBook and print editions available for release about four weeks before their launch dates.

Shipping and launch dates: Planning ahead

Print books need to be ready to ship and arrive in stores at least four weeks before the official publication date. This means that authors going the traditional agent-to-publisher route must allow at least eight weeks to find an agent, another eight weeks or more for the agent to sell the book to a publisher, then an average of twelve months more for the publisher’s official pub date. So the total process takes about 16-18 months, and that’s optimistic.

The self-publishing author with an edited manuscript and jacket design can cut that spread radically but should nevertheless have the book ready for sale in ebook or print form the same four weeks before official publication date.

Here’s a partial list of traditional special pub dates, keyed to holidays and significant times of year.


Tie-ins by the month


Post holiday: Prime time for diet books, celebrity exercise books, and how-to books, including self-education, home repair, adventure travel planning, languages, and self-help books about finding a new relationship, renewing a marriage, or becoming a more effective parent.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day: For inspirational books about African American history, civil rights, peace and freedom.


Valentine’s Day: For loving gifts of books with hidden agendas, including collections of lyric poetry, romance novels, dreamy photos of romantic foreign cities like Paris or Prague.

End of the month: Books related to Major League Baseball’s spring training, with celebratory biographies, compilations of new statistical records, glossy picture books, and metaphorically inclined literary novels, all in place for the sport’s big opening day in April.


International Women’s Day:  Books on the latest topical or historic issues around women’s health, reproductive rights, freedom from oppression and exploitation in hostile cultures, personal memoir, biography, quality fiction.

Easter: Books about Christ, biblical exegesis, inspirational, archeological, and illustrated children’s books about the resurrection and other relevant topics.


Holocaust Remembrance Day: Books about Jewish calamities and heroism during World War II, personal memoirs, new research about partisans and German rescuers. There are always many new titles for this large book-buying demographic.


Cinque de Mayo: Books targeting the rapid growing market for Hispanic-American fiction and nonfiction, history, politics, culture.

Mother’s Day: An occasion perfect for celebrative fiction, memoir, and appreciation to go with that bouquet of roses.


Graduations: Gift books for high school and college students. And in these economic hard times, a new category for graduating college students has emerged like Finding a Job When There are No Jobs, Guerilla Marketing for Job Hunters and many others you’ll see on the front tables during June.

July and August

Summer reading: These are the weeks devoted to summer book sales, the season for category fiction like paperback mysteries, romances and science fiction.


The anniversary of September 11th: The events of that day have inspired books in many genres, including politics, history, memoir, biography, education and children’s books.

Off to college: Books for for college freshmen learning the ropes about class and time management, roommates, and coping with issues like sex and drugs, loneliness and insecurity. Also advice books for parents seeking guidance for their 18-year-old’s first time away from home.

Back to school: Children’s books, also parenting, education, technical, professional, literature and fiction.


Halloween: Horror movie tie-in books and new titles in costume, art, graphic novel and other fiction.


Thanksgiving: Books for children, cookbooks, history and spirituality are popular markets for this holiday.


Holiday books for Christmas, Chanukah, the traditional African American Kwanzaa feast, and other special year end observances.


What a writer can do

Whether you’re a writer under the auspices of a commercial publisher or you’re planning to self-publish, seasonal marketing is largely the responsibility of the author. Only bestselling authors with huge advances can count on their publishers to do the heavy lifting. This means that to give your book the best possible publication, you need to consider any possible special tie-in date.

Obvious calendar connections are easy: the birthday of a biographical subject, the anniversary of a famous event, or a national holiday like the Fourth of July. But to stand out from the crowd, some creative thinking will be necessary.

For example: An author’s written a historical romance about two brothers on opposite sides of the civil war, one in the Union Army, the other Confederate, each in love with the same woman. So how about publishing the book on the anniversary of the firing on Fort Sumter or Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. This gives the author the chance to send advance sample chapters, press releases, maps and illustrations, and do interviews with special interest groups online or in person, including civil war buffs, bodice-ripper addicts, re-enactment groups, interest groups and book bloggers.


Developing a tie-in for your book

Identify any seasonal or calendar relationships for the topics in your book.

Connect that topic and date to all large potential tie-in markets for your book.

Seek endorsements from recognizable names or affiliations associated with the subject of your work.

Pitch with press releases, YouTube videos, and other virtual and actual social networking the aspects of your book that relate directly to that special interest niche.  Approach your targets online, via snail mail, and in person, including conventions and conferences, websites and book bloggers, organized email lists, on FaceBook, tweeting and with other niche creative techniques. For more on this, check out an earlier post on boosting your sales with the magic of niche marketing.

Send sample chapters, cover design, any special materials, such as illustrations, photos, and maps. Offer special event-week premiums like free copies for the first hundred requests. Consider related timely gifts, like illustrated buttons, baseball caps, Tshirts, or posters.

Be creative and the sky’s the limit in utilizing the potential benefits of season book release. Think of it as part of your creative process. You want people to know about and read your book, the more the merrier.


What about you?

Have you tried building a marketing campaign around a seasonal theme, anniversary or other type of tie-in?  We’d love to hear from you about your experience and any suggestions you have for fellow authors.  I’ll watch here in comments for any questions.

Great reasons to self-publish: 7 case histories

Writers who self-publish often reap enormous benefits that are personal and unique.

This goes way beyond the usual notion of self-publishing as either an alternative or a pathway to a traditional book deal.

Writing and publishing a book can strike an emotional chord of meaning and importance for the author that is rewarding beyond expectation.

Some experience the profound satisfaction of leaving a family legacy, or finally making sense of life experiences, or raising public awareness about a serious issue. Publishing your own book can also make sense financially and strategically for business purposes, as many writers have found.

Here are seven great reasons to self-publish with case histories from authors I’ve worked with.

Making sense of life experiences

Baby boomers of a certain age are reaching a life-cycle plateau past their years of building careers and raising children. They’re asking themselves: What happened? What did it all mean?

In his recent memoir Wrong Side of the Tracks, Ron McElroy, a flourishing real estate developer in Hawaii, Mexico and Southern California, tells the story of his struggle to overcome poverty, discrimination and violence as the son of an indigenous Hawaiian mother and emotionally shell-shocked, physically abusive father.

“I never really dug down beneath the funny bad stories,” Ron says, “like picking up my big brother in jail or getting beat up by neighborhood gangs or helping my mom get my father back home in one piece. Writing it down showed me it wasn’t so funny at all, in fact it was awful. It nearly killed me. How did I ever escape? I had to figure out and explain it to my wife and kids.”

This kind of self-discovery often produces a sense of urgency. It can’t tolerate the kind of frustrations and delay usually involved in getting an agent who can sell a memoir by an unknown writer with no platform.

Leaving a legacy

One writer wanted her children to know the true story of their grandmother’s escape from Germany during the holocaust.  The author’s mother had never wanted to speak about her experience as a nine-year-old thrown from the train just before reaching Auschwitz. But finally at the age of 88, she agreed to let her daughter tape a long series of interviews.

“I wanted my own kids had to have this information before it was too late, not only about their beloved Nana, but also her parents and older brother who died in the concentration camp. My mom had incredible stories of being protected by a network of German farmers who risked their own lives hiding Jews in their haystacks. They kept Nana alive until she could come to America. What a legacy! She always wanted to forget about it and just have a normal life, so no one knew the details of her experience. I had to preserve this.”

I’ve also worked with innovative entrepreneurs who built family fortunes, courageous creative artists, and other authors of multi-generational memoirs and novels eager to pass on their stories to generations to come.

These authors aren’t trying necessarily to win a Nobel Prize for Literature, though of course it would be nice. Their goal is to preserve the most significant details about what exactly happened that only they know. They envision their great-great grandchildren will one day read the memoir and understand more about their family history.

Why wait? There’s a lot to tell and life is short. Self-publishing provides a perfect solution.

Setting the record straight

John Montandon, a co-founder of several business media companies including magazines, radio and online publishing, wrote By His Own Blood about his 81-year-old father’s experience after he got AIDS from a bad blood transfusion in rural Texas. He remembered the way his father fell victim to heart-breaking prejudice and was shunned and denied proper care from the local institutions. So after his father died, Montandon felt compelled to write the shameful and infuriating true story as a testimonial to his dad and also to prevent this from happening to others.

“I’m most surprised and pleased that many of my readers who responded to the book with emails, blog posts or Amazon reviews find that they relate very directly to my story in various ways,”  he said.  ”One lady whose gay son committed suicide says the book has changed her life and she can now put a lot of her negative past behind her.  That is an example of an unintended consequence; one that I find extremely rewarding.  Other readers have shared with me how they think the book should be required reading in college psychology classes.”

Seizing control of the publishing process

Lee Geiger, a fast-moving day trader in the stock market, wrote a transgender love story called Pearls of Asia, and was able to get a literary agent pretty quickly. But then things began to sour. “During my very first meeting with Random House, a fresh-out-of-college kid looked me up and down and asked, ‘So how many Twitter followers do you have?’ I told him three, and that two of them were my kids. ‘That’s not going to help us market your book,’ he said. I walked away from this meeting wondering how many Twitter followers Ernest Hemingway had.”

Geiger is a successful guy who doesn’t suffer fools gladly. As he began to realize how the book business really worked, he was increasingly appalled.

“Even if a publisher bought my book that very day, it would be 12-18 months before it ever saw a bookstore shelf,” he said. ” It would then be included in a quarterly catalog, along with dozens of other books. If a bookstore decided to carry my book, it would have only six weeks to prove it could sell before being returned and replaced by another book. ‘Ninety percent of all published books don’t make money,’ this rep told me, ‘so we have to keep bringing in new books.’

Are you kidding me? I sweated over this novel for three years, you want me to sign my rights away to a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately publisher, and it only has six weeks to prove itself? Thanks, but no thanks. My book is like a fine wine, and it needs time to age.”

Making More Money

Simon Royle is a British-born international businessman who wrote the techno-thriller TAG and a follow-up novel called Bangkok Burn. He was impatient with the traditional agent/publisher process and also confident he’d make more money on his own in the long term. So he self-published both books, in 2010 and 2012, respectively.

“The financial reward is not insignificant,” he told me. “I have already earned back the money I spent on developmental editing and self-marketing and am in profit; meanwhile the combined income from both books is roughly $1K a month. That income will grow with each book and although the fortunes of each wax and wane, the trend is upwards every month.

Changing the World

An attorney who specializes in food and drug law, Margaret Kathrein’s son Jonathan was nearly killed in a great white shark attack off Stinson Beach in Northern California. She decided to self-publish because of the urgency of her mission to increase knowledge and safety in the public consciousness regarding living near sharks.

Therefore, instead of focusing on his horrific trauma and painful recovery, Margaret’s book Far From Shore explains the dangerous misunderstandings most humans have about these iconic creatures. Meanwhile Jonathan used his reluctant fame to speak at schools and colleges about living near sharks and wrote his own book Don’t Fear the Shark. They’ve appeared together at bookstores and in major national print and broadcast media, including Dateline NBC, the Discovery Channel’s “Primal Scream” special, Sports Illustrated and elsewhere in their mutual campaign, and both books have sold widely.

Creating a calling card for business

Charles and Elizabeth Schmitz are a husband and wife team of psychologists who help sustain long-term marriages at workshops and trainings. They self-published their book Building a Love that Lasts and used it to promote their weekend workshops. They’d give away free copies when they spoke at conferences and couples’ retreats, build the cost of a copy into the price of one of their many training sessions, and put discounted copies in the back of the room whenever appropriate. Eventually they had sold and distributed more than 15,000 copies and were approached by a major book publisher who made them an offer they couldn’t refuse.

Many other authors who offer training or consultations in the field of relationships, parenting, cooking, dieting, health and fitness, real estate, wealth management and investing, and other self-help fields publish their own books. Some have the intention of pitching to commercial publishers eventually, but many don’t.


What about you?

Authors, does self-publishing make more sense for your book and circumstances than taking the traditional route to finding an agent and commercial publisher?  If so, what are your reasons and motivations?  If not, same question!

We’d love to hear your story here in comments.

Ask the editor: An agent said my novel needs emotional glue. Help!

Q. An agent said my novel is missing emotional glue. Like it doesn’t stick together. What is emotional glue and how do I get it into my story?

A. Emotional glue reveals a character’s internal reactions, ruminations, and anticipated responses to the dialogue and action of the story. It’s the unspoken ideas and feelings that focus and hold together the narrative and keep the reader right there with you, caring and excited about what’s gradually evolving.

Adding this sticky stuff fuses the narrative with the core combustive material that drives the book forward. It creates a pervasive climate, helps the reader feel the mood that hangs in the air, and compels us to keep turning the pages.

Scroll down for my tips on injecting emotional glue into your story

Here’s an example

In a widely-reviewed first novel, The Evolution of Bruno Littlemore by Benjamin Hale, the emotional glue is supplied through the first person narrator, a chimpanzee. We see everything through Bruno’s eyes as he tells us his story as a baby primate from a local zoo nurtured by a university primatologist named Lydia Littlemore. This kind and patient woman teaches him to speak, and brings him into her home, where she encourages him to paint collectible abstract canvases, and dress like a man. Eventually Bruno evolves to a point of intelligent sophistication, while at the same time falling in love with his benefactor.

We readers enjoy a built-in subtext to the narrative, since at first Bruno can hear and see everything but not speak. Only we know his true thoughts about these mysterious human creatures and their often-humorous attempts to coerce him into what they think is more civilized behavior. And when he does learn to speak and interact as a strange but respected creature, we are privy to the internal conflicts he experiences between his inherent animal bestiality and his new access to polite society. Eventually Bruno’s love for Lydia and horror about the cruel experiments on his little sister create violent and calamitous results, but profound meaning for what in fact it means to be human.

How a developmental editor can help

As a developmental editor working with authors on early drafts, I frequently go back to find and help fill in the spaces, so the reader can understand a character’s private process that leads to new behavior.

I worked recently, for example, on a memoir by a writer who grew up in an enmeshed relationship with his beautiful, narcissistic mother. With no other men on the scene, she recruits him in an unscrupulous series of fraudulent swindles that lead to her arrest and lengthy imprisonment. The author’s core motive for writing the book was to show how despite this dysfunctional childhood and adolescence, he’d grown up to enjoy a healthy productive life.

The first draft of this work-in-progress was packed with glib dialogue and fast-moving high jinks, but there was no way the reader could take the author seriously or care about what happened to him. So our job was to create a sense of his transformative journey, his survival over amazing and uniquely bizarre obstacles from dysfunctional struggle to high functioning happiness.

We went through the book and inserted his internal feelings and responses to the dialogue and action around him. At first, for example, he’s delighted by his mother’s shenanigans, the sudden flights from house to house and across the country, the mad schemes and unpredictable windfalls of luxurious gifts. Then we gradually increased his unspoken concerns about getting a formal education and having stable friendships. His reactions become incrementally different, more aware, sophisticated, able to understand how he’s a separate person, different from his mom.

By the end of the book, the author is more confident, able to appreciate his intelligence and ability build a separate life, with long-term relationships and meaningful work, leaving the reader uplifted with the prospect of more good things to come for this young man.


How to inject emotional glue into your story

Clarify your intention

Stay focused on why you’re writing this story and what’s it actually about – the theme, message, vision of it. What happens at the end and what’s the point? Hold that motive in your mind from the first sentence, and shape all of the internal spaces, reactions and responses so they’re consistent with that ultimate goal.

Focus on the narrative voice

It’s always the narrative voice that conveys the internal response, the feeling and attitude that holds the story together and moves it on page by page. This is true whether you’re writing in first person, as in the mother-son memoir described above, or the opening of Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby “…frequently I have feigned sleep, preoccupation, or hostile levity when I realized by some unmistakable sign that an intimate revelation was quivering on the horizon.”; or in third person, as in the exquisitely revealing first sentence of Virginia Woolf’s novel “Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.”

Provide clues and unspoken detail

Give us the occasional clue, the unspoken detail that reflects what just happened or effects the character’s future actions. Describe the emotional event that can’t be seen or heard. But don’t explain or interpret.  Don’t tell the reader what you want them to feel, or try to control what the story means to them.

Be economical

Inject these moments of emotional glue from the beginning of the story, infrequently at first, with just a bit more as the book progresses. There’s no formula or rule about this but rather a need for good literary craft. Don’t let the new material stand out, slow the pace or become repetitious. Think of it as part of a seamless story-telling voice, either the character’s or your own.


What about you?

Does your story have enough emotional glue to keep a reader affixed to the page?

Sometimes a writer doesn’t discover there’s a problem until an agent or other professional reader takes a look.  It’s better of course, if you can resolve these issues before sending out your book!  I’ll watch here in comments for any questions that come up.

Big-6 publisher jumps on the indie bandwagon

Was it just a matter of time?

The news came recently that Penguin Group, one of the largest book publishers in the world, has acquired Author Solutions Inc (ASI), a leading provider of services for self-publishing writers, for $116 million.

Penguin’s CEO, John Makinson, waxed rhapsodic in remarks made at the time and quoted this week in the Atlantic Monthly, saying:

“Self-publishing has moved into the mainstream of our industry over the past three years. It has provided new outlets for professional writers, a huge increase in the range of books available to readers and an exciting source of content for publishers such as Penguin.

This acquisition will allow Penguin to participate fully in perhaps the fastest-growing area of the publishing economy and gain skills in customer acquisition and data analytics that will be vital to our future.”

What does this deal say about self-publishing’s evolving position in the industry?

That depends on who’s talking. So I asked two insiders. One is an upbeat proponent of self-publishing, Keith Ogorek, the Senior VP for Marketing at ASI. The other is a caustic critic of the deal, a source at the highest levels of traditional book publishing, who requested anonymity in exchange for his candid views. I’ll call him James Doe.

Ogorek told me: “This answers the skeptics and naysayers who doubt the permanence, importance, and benefits of self-publishing,” he said. “It validates self-publishing because one of the world’s largest and most respected traditional publishers has made us a part of their company.”

And on a darker note Mr. Doe told me:  “Buying an author services company gives Penguin access to the sub-slush pile, which is the realm of self-publishing,” he said. “From Penguin’s perspective why not make a nickel off the zillions of people who just because they have ten people reading their blog think they can command a substantial audience. Vanity publishing indeed!”


OK, so we have a major difference of opinion. Penguin’s acquisition of ASI is either a marriage made in heaven for the benefit of self-publishing authors or it’s a desperate preempting of David by Goliath motivated strictly to grow corporate revenues.

The big IF: Potential benefits for self-publishing writers

Penguin CEO Makinson told the Wall Street Journal, “Authors increasingly are willing to pay for self-publishing if the publisher plays a big role in distribution, marketing and promoting the title via social media.”

So what happens if an author, frustrated by years of no response, rejection or disinterest from the traditional folks decides to self-publish with one of ASI’s imprints? Will signing on with ASI get the author an audience with Penguin? Will Penguin really play a “big role” in distributing, marketing and promoting that self-published book, like Makinson said?

I asked Keith Ogorek about this. Here’s our exchange:

How does the Penguin acquisition help writers published by ASI?

We’re setting up an early warning system, so books being self-published at ASI can be flagged by our team and called to the attention of Penguin for consideration. In some cases, the books can move from our radar system to Penguin’s, even before publication or a title can move out of our previously published books that our editors feel are exceptionally good writing or have sold very well.

What should an author do to get the attention of editors at ASI or Penguin?

Go on the Author Solutions website and sign up for what you want. There’s no direct access or way to pay for getting into the early warning system or on Penguin’s radar. That will happen through our internal operations.

But how can an author get to the top of the list of those who are noticed?

Just what any author should do: write a good book. I don’t have to tell you how important it is to work with an editor to get the best book possible you can write, to build your platform, including the website, public appearances, social media, direct sales of your own through local or regional bookstores.

What do you predict for the future of the book business?

I think the whole publishing model for title acquisition is going to change as traditional publishers look to self-publishing as a source of new books.

It’s analogous to the film industry, where small independent producers, directors and writers have made low budget films and shown them at film festivals. Then the big studios have either bought the independent films outright and put them into their own distribution systems, or hired the producers, directors and writers to make films for them.

Similarly, I don’t think the traditional book publishers are going to go away. There’s always a need for good curation and distribution, but the method of title and talent acquisition will change. It’s already changing, as this Penguin acquisition of ASI has shown.”

Do you think other traditional publishers will be making these kinds of acquisitions and mergers with self-publishing companies?

Yes. I have no direct knowledge of this but I’m certain that other big traditional companies are now looking at self-publishing companies as sources of new content and profitability.

The view from behind closed doors: More from James Doe

If James Doe was thinking along those lines, he didn’t reveal it to me. But here’s more of his response to Penguin’s purchase of ASI and self-publishing in general. I find his remarks an accurate reflection of the attitudes and opinions I’m hearing from other friends and colleagues in the traditional side of the business.

“Publishers are struggling with two things, first, the rapid emergence of the eBook and, second, the related impact on books prices in a distribution world where Amazon owns the biggest chunk of the pie and is willing to drop eBook prices below the cost of publishing to entice more of their customers to buy refrigerators and other products, which is where they make their profits. All traditional trade publishers are impacted negatively by these trends and the related closing of hundreds of brick and mortar bookstores.

So what do publishers do when prices drop and margins go south with them? They look for new streams of revenue hopefully with higher profit margins. This is a necessary survival tactic.

In the last five years or so we have seen the transformation of vanity publishing into a new, viable publishing model. Of course, we only hear about the self-published books that make it big on their own or establish themselves through large initial sales in a way that entices established publishers like Penguin to sign their authors’ up for a new edition or their next book.

For the rest of the scribblers, if you can’t get published by a ‘real’ publisher, you can get published in many other places and maybe do more than brag about getting your first novel into a bookstore or at least on Amazon (for a price).

If Penguin is proposing to expand its revenue by controlling a greater flow of published manuscripts, they need to wonder if they aren’t cannibalizing their existing business by increasing the number of publications and unwittingly supporting the downward pressure on prices, which is at the center of Amazon’s efforts to control the print and digital book distribution business and sell more other stuff to the unwitting.”


What about you?

What are your thoughts about all this? Is this revolutionary acquisition of a self-publishing conglomerate by a traditional big-six publisher good or bad for writers?

We welcome your opinion of the points of view expressed in this post. What are your own predictions for the future of writing and getting published?

The bears and bulls of publishing: An insider steps up

EBook buyers read more books. They’re the future! We’re in the midst of a fantastic transition.

Words from another outsider advocating the overthrow of legacy publishing?

Nope. Not this time.

Instead, these bullish sentiments come from a consummate insider, John Glusman, editor-in-chief of W.W. Norton, a mainstream highly regarded traditional house that publishes bestselling authors like Michael Lewis, Rita Dove, Sebastian Junger, Jared Diamond and Paul Krugman.

A new age

“We’re at the beginning of an age where we’ll be able to reach a book reading audience exponentially bigger than it was before,” Glusman told an audience of writers last month at the venerable Squaw Valley Community of Writers summer conference in a session on eBook publishing.

As one of the faculty, I sat in on the revealing and occasionally contentious discussion with other panelists from traditional publishing expressing profound misgivings about eBooks and what they felt was the dangerous success of digital publishing overall.

Bears don’t read eBooks

One literary agent announced he would never ever read an eBook, period. Another warned that digital publishing would be the death of literacy and the end of qualified professional curators and gatekeepers such as himself.

“Who needs agents and publishers if authors can post their own work online so easily and reach readers directly? It’s going to put me out of business.”

These particular panelists believed eBooks represented a threat to literary art and the sanctity of the traditional publishing business model. To them, the experience of reading an eBook was actually repellent and discomforting. Lower prices per eBook title cut into their margin of profit, and worst of all, they feared that the opportunities for self-publishing could eliminate their existence altogether. They were certain eBooks spelled the death of the book business, the oft-evaded Armageddon finally overwhelming us, the end of literature and reading as we know it.

A woman sitting next to me leaned over and whispered, “If these big-time agents are right about eBooks and self-publishing destroying literature, I’m going to give up and shoot myself!”

A brighter vision

Then John Glusman stood up to these dire prophecies of gloom and doom with refreshing clarity and optimism. He threw back his shoulders, thrust out his chin, and seemed disturbed by the negative and recalcitrant remarks of his colleagues.

“Let’s be careful not to give the authors here any misinformation.” He went on to present a completely different and hopeful vision based on a whole-hearted open-mindedness to a vigorous future for writing and publishing.

I was impressed. So after the conference at Squaw Valley ended, I followed up by asking him a few questions.

AR: What do you think is the impact of the digital revolution in the book business?

JG: There’s no doubt that we’re in a period of extraordinary change in terms of how we read, where we get our reading material from, and what platforms we use to access that material. The mere fact that there are so many devices on which one can read is tremendously encouraging, since distribution has always been the Achilles heel of book publishing.

EBook readers buy more books than those who buy traditional books. Children are reading hardcover and paperback books. Baby boomers have both the resources and the time to buy books in whatever format they find most desirable.

So our goal as publishers is to reach as many readers as possible across all formats.

AR: What are you doing differently now in light of this transformation in reading and publishing?

JG: We’re trying to think creatively in terms of eBook publishing, social media, where and how we market our books, and how we can use one format to help another. We have a very busy and social media team. Norton has the most followers of any trade book publisher on Tumblr, and one of the largest followings on Twitter. Additionally, we communicate with readers through Flickr, Facebook, YouTube, and GoodReads.

We’re using new ways to attract attention for our books online; it could be a blog contest, a competition for advance reading copies, advertising over a broad spectrum of specialized outlets.

AR: What role do you expect an author to play in marketing the book?

JG: Authors are key to marketing. We continue to send our high profile authors on more traditional publicity tours so long as those venues are capable of selling books, and we will continue to advertise in print media. But these days we expect all of our authors to have interesting, lively, up-to-date websites, and to be active in social media. It’s essential that they be our partners in publicity and promotion and make the most of their contacts and expertise.

We want authors to consider self-marketing very seriously since the traditional opportunities for promoting books with in print review media and readings in independent book stores can no longer produce the kind of results they once did.

So our marketing people work closely with authors to discuss blogging, tweeting, making videos for their websites or to post on You Tube. Every author has a unique comfort zone for self-marketing. Some enjoy blogging, others making videos, but some kind of online social networking is definitely an important part of our collaborative effort.

AR: Where do you see self-published books in this new era?

JG: Certain kinds of authors and certain categories seem almost readymade for self-publishing. It’s also an interesting way of testing the market. The success of the Fifty Shades of Gray trilogy shows how a self-published series that originally came out from the self-publishing imprint Writer’s Coffee Shop in Australia can be converted to a traditional company like Random House/Vintage.

The three books had sold more than 250K copies and reached the bestseller lists even before Random picked it up and got that story on the front page of the New York Times. Then more millions of copies were sold and the three books are still on top of all the bestseller lists.

AR: How do you acquire new titles? Are any of them self-published?

JG: Most of the books I acquire still come in from agents, but there have been several that were self-published or that the agent has developed from online materials. I haven’t signed any up yet but I’m certainly in favor of this kind of far-reaching source of books.

But I think there’s some self-publishing that is tantamount to vanity publishing. Being able to put words down on paper and having them distributed electronically is no more apt to make you a writer, to paraphrase Donald Hall, than scratching a violin is going to turn you into a musician. Which doesn’t mean that the traditional publishing community always recognizes everything of value.

The history of publishing and literary criticism has some fairly egregious examples of authors whose greatest work was underappreciated in their lifetime, such as Melville, who couldn’t sell 3K copies of Moby Dick.

AR: How do you see the role of agents changing as the industry continues to shake out?

JG: Agents are trying to bolster their businesses in several ways. Some are venturing into YA publishing; others are starting up their own ebook publishing operations; and others are selling directly to Amazon. There are some interesting opportunities for backlist publishing that didn’t exist before ePublishing.

AR: Do you think technology changes what readers are buying?

JG: I think we’re all experiencing frequent and constant shifts in our attention throughout the day. Our time is more fragmented as we listen to thirty-second news bites and write short text messages and emails. We’re moving faster and spending less and less time on our daily writing and reading. I don’t know of any studies that show more readers are looking for shorter books that require less of an attention span, but there may very well be one out there.

I for one find it a huge release and a great pleasure to read a long and serious book for an extended period of time — but then I’m over fifty.

AR: Are you concerned that younger people today will read less as a result of all the changes we’ve been discussing?

JG: No, not at all. Children are still reading all kinds of books in the millions. The difference between them and us older folks is they’re not concerned about whether it’s a hardcover or paperback book in their hands, or a digital representation on their cell phone or tablet e-reader.

But I think this fantastic electronic revolution and digital transition has really influenced how children learn. I have two daughters, 19 and 21, and a son who’s 15. They all began using computers in the fourth grade for almost all of their schoolwork and assignments. But they also began reading physical books and still do.

My son, though totally attached to his iPhone, iPad and Mac, never reads a book electronically. He’d rather have a 600-page Stephen King novel in his hands – yes, the real thing!


What about you?

Readers, what do you think of all this?  Do you find it reassuring or troubling to look through the window at traditional publishing and observe how people on the inside deal with the sea change that technology is bringing to the industry?  Feel free to weigh in here. We’re all interested in your views.