Archive for May, 2009

O Muse, Where Art Thou?

If you’re a writer waiting for inspiration to strike, follow the advice of Huffington Post’s Gretchen Rubin:

Don’t.

Rubin’s 13 Tips for Actually Getting Some Writing Done are among the best I’ve seen. One I especially like is “[T]ry going for a walk and reading a really good book.” Hard to do simultaneously perhaps, and that walk stuff may be way too healthful for some, but reading a book is wonderfully therapeutic for sufferers of writer’s block. There’s something about allowing thoughts to percolate in the back of your mind while reading the well crafted words of a good writer that actually helps you discover precisely what you want to write and how you want to express it.

Take a look at Rubin’s tips. It’s well worth the read. JK

BookWords

The best time for planning a book is while you’re doing the dishes.

—Agatha Christie (1890–1976)

Johnny still can’t read

Back in the dark ages of my early career, a few decades ago, I taught “survival skills” language arts (how to read newspaper classified ads, product instructions, job applications) in Ohio’s only maximum security prison. It was a terrible place—think “The Shawshank Redemption”—that opened in the early 1830s; once housed 28 of the Civil War’s Morgan’s Raiders and, 35 years later, writer O. Henry and then Dr. Sam Sheppard in 1954; and was first condemned as uninhabitable in 1902 and again in 1950. In the 1960s it remained open and still accommodated well over 5,000 inmates in an institution originally built for a maximum population of 1,200. It’s long gone now, replaced after a century and a half of “service” by—what else?—a parking lot.

The illiteracy rate at the Ohio Penitentiary in the sixties was around 40 percent, meaning more than 800 incarcerated men could do little more than sign their names. About 25 percent were hard pressed to tell one letter from another. Many were desperate to learn to read. I suspect the situation may be worse today; it’s certainly no better.

An article in the Christian Science Monitor indicates our nation’s literacy statistics today remain disturbingly low: “About 30 million people—14 percent of the U.S. population 16 and older—have trouble with basic reading and writing. ” Let’s hope for all our sakes that we’ll soon see an end to the misbegotten and poorly administered,  teach-to-the-test No Child Left Behind initiative of recent years. Congress is now revising “the Workforce Investment Act, which includes a section to help fund adult literacy and basic education programs.”

It wouldn’t hurt to let your representatives and senators know how badly schools all over the country need meaningful reform. I’m going to. JK

Writing a book? Start at the end.

People occasionally tell me they’re writing a book. When I ask them what it’s about, more often than not they begin by telling me it’s totally different from anything ever before written about their subject—a truly unique approach. And then they launch into a long-winded, rambling description that tells me they haven’t yet figured out the most important aspect of the book: FOCUS.

Leaving aside the possibility that their book might, indeed, be a radically new take on their theme, their inability to state a succinct premise means they’re going to have a hard time writing it and a harder time selling it to an agent or publisher. They’re too caught up in telling me what they want to write instead of focusing on what a reader might want to read.

I don’t mean to imply that every author must be so market driven that he or she can be successful only by pandering to the buying public. Authors should not lose sight of the integrity of their work and the importance of their point of view. But if they want their book to be read—and isn’t that the reason for writing it in the first place?—they need to consider what will make their audience want to read it.

If you’re a budding author, here’s a suggestion that might help you get your book into the hands of your target reader: Write the blurb first.

What’s blurb copy? That’s the text you’ll find on the inside flap of a hard cover dust jacket or the back cover of a paperback book. It tells briefly what the book is about; it’s the pitch that is intended to sell the book. Blurb copy is an important element in the purchase process.

A customer entering a bookstore first looks around the store for orientation to decide where to begin browsing. Once he or she gets to the section where your book is shelved, the customer scans the selection looking for an eye catcher. Some of the books will be face out on a shelf; most will be spine out. For books face out, an attractively designed front cover will grab the browser’s attention. If the customer cocks his or her head to the right and reads the array of titles shelved spine out, he or she is most likely to pause at the quirkiest or most descriptive or most boldly legible titles. Book designers who concentrate all their efforts on the front cover and add spine copy almost as an afterthought do their authors a disservice. With the thousands of titles that even a small bookstore stocks, it’s not possible to display every book face out; the spine has to help make the sale.

The purpose of a book cover is to encourage a browser to want to pick up the book. The design may be words alone or an illustration—photograph or drawing—that relates to and compliments the subject of the book. The title and subtitle should pique the customer’s interest.

What does a customer do after taking a book from a bookstore shelf? Most browsers will turn the book (paperback) over or open the cover (hard cover) to read the jacket blurb. Imagine you’re that browsing customer. Ask yourself what would interest you enough to want to actually leaf through the pages and read a couple of sentences. That’s what you as an author should put in your blurb. That’s the focus, the appeal, the pitch that will help sell your book. With luck the customer will go on to check the table of contents, perhaps read a page or two, and then decide to take the book to the cashier.

*   *   *

It’s unlikely that the blurb you write now for the book you’re planning will ever actually be used. But you should still do it because

1. It will help you make a sales pitch to an agent or editor.
2. It will help you focus on target readers who will want to buy your book.
3. It will help you stay focused as you develop your book. Tack it up above your computer.
4. It will help the marketing and publicity departments work out a sales plan.
5. It will help you create sound bites to use during promotion appearances and interviews.
6. It will give you a quick answer to the question: What’s your book about?

Unless you self-publish, in the end a new blurb will probably be written by someone in the publisher’s marketing department. Also the artwork you originally foresaw anchoring the front cover illustration and the title you’ve been using since the book’s inception will undoubtedly be changed for marketing and promotion reasons.

None of your first blurb-writing attempts is wasted, however, because each step you complete on your way to a finished manuscript is an important component of your book as a final package, a focused package that will have maximum appeal to many book buyers.

It all starts with your blurb. JK

“Come, Watson, come! The game is afoot!”

“It’s a game of Whac-a-Mole,” said Russell Davis, an author and president of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America, a trade association that helps authors pursue digital pirates. “You knock one down and five more spring up.”

This time the game has to do with copyright violations and the posting of books on the Internet without permission from their authors or publishers. And there’s not much point in calling Mr. Holmes and Dr. Watson in on the case because there’s little likelihood the thieves will be caught. It costs too much time and effort to pursue them, and as author Steven King sees it, “The question is, how much time and energy do I want to spend chasing these guys . . . [a]nd to what end? My sense is that most of them live in basements floored with carpeting remnants, living on Funions [sic] and discount beer.”

Literary pirates see books that have been published in PDF versions or digitalized for Kindle or Sony Reader downloading as easy prey. One publisher alone, John Wiley & Sons, claims to have sent take-down notices to more than 5,000 violators during the past month, a figure that’s up more than five times from a year ago. Wiley now has three full-time staff persons whose job is to track offenders.

Mokoto Rich, writing in the New York Times, says, “Sites like Scribd and Wattpad, which invite users to upload documents like college theses and self-published novels, have been the target of industry grumbling in recent weeks, as illegal reproductions of popular titles have turned up on them.”

Digitalizing books, then, seems to be a double-edged sword: Yes, it may make the book more widely available, but there’s also the risk that the book could be illegally picked up, entirely or in part, and displayed on a site that does not compensate either the author or the publisher. What do you think? Digitalize or not? JK

1…2…3…Gone!

How’s this for a book title: Fleeced: How Barack Obama, Media Mockery of Terrorist Threats, Liberals Who Want to Kill Talk Radio, the Do-Nothing Congress, Companies That Help Iran, and Washington Lobbyists for Foreign Governments Are Scamming Us … and What to Do About It.

Really makes you want to curl up on a rainy afternoon and dive right in, doesn’t it?

Author Dick Morris—or more likely some marketing genius at HarperCollins—burdened his book with this10-line, 205-word winner.

David Baker, writing in MediaPost’s blog email|INSIDER says, “The average consumer spends less than three seconds scanning titles of books on a bookshelf in the store, and then spends roughly 20 seconds scanning the contents before making a decision to either purchase or sit down with the book to research further. We have turned into a culture of top 10 lists and recommendations.

“It’s not surprising that publishers recommend book titles that are three words or less. Much of the focus of book marketing today is on the design of the cover, the author’s bio and leveraging recommendations.” JK

“I read more . . . but I understand less.”

John Keilman, once a voracious reader of books, used to lose himself in novels seemingly written by the pound. Now he finds his mind wandering after just a few pages.

Keilman’s patience runs out, and he can’t sustain interest long enough to plow through anything much longer than a text message. Although he reads all the time, the words are on screen: BlackBerry, Google, Kindle, Twitter, and iPhone vie for his attention, and he no longer has the endurance of a long-distance reader. Asking, “Is the novel too much for [a] tweet-addled brain?” Keilman cites research showing that the immediacy of online reading may actually alter the brain’s ability to absorb information. He wonders “what will happen to us when we stop reading books not because we don’t want to, but because we can’t.” JK