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


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

Sony? Kindle? Who needs them?

Developers have announced a new device called BOOK, an acronym for Built-in Orderly Organized Knowledge.

BOOK is a revolutionary breakthrough in technology: no wires, no electric circuits, no batteries, nothing to be connected or switched on. It’s so easy to use even a child can operate it. Just lift its cover!

Compact and portable, BOOK can be used anywhere—even while its operator is sitting in an armchair by the fire—yet it is powerful enough to hold as much information as a CD-ROM disk. Here’s how it works.

BOOK is constructed of sequentially numbered sheets of paper (recyclable), each capable of holding thousands of bits of information. These pages are locked together with a custom-fit device called a binding that maintains the sheets in their correct sequence. Opaque Paper Technology Inscription Cache (OPTIC) allows manufacturers to use both sides of the sheet, thereby simultaneously doubling information density and reducing costs by half.

Experts are divided on the prospects for further increases in information density; for now BOOK applications requiring expanded information storage simply reduce the OPTIC dimensions or add more pages. This makes BOOK thicker, heavier, and harder to carry, however, and has drawn some criticism from the mobile computing crowd.

Readers optically scan each sheet of BOOK, registering information directly into their brains. A flick of the finger takes the user to the next sheet. BOOK may be taken up and used at any time by merely opening it. BOOK never crashes and never requires rebooting, though like other display devices it can become unusable if dropped overboard. BOOK’s browse feature allows the user to access any sheet instantly, moving forward or backward as desired.

Some versions of BOOK come with an index feature that can pinpoint exact locations of selected information for instant retrieval. An optional BOOKmark accessory allows the user to open BOOK to the exact location that was in use during a previous session—even if BOOK has been closed. BOOKmarks fit universal design standards; thus, a single BOOKmark can be used in BOOKs produced by different original equipment manufacturers (OEM). Conversely, numerous BOOKmarks can be used in a single BOOK edition if the user chooses to store numerous views at once. The number is limited only by the number of pages in the BOOK.

It is possible for BOOK users to make personal notes next to BOOK text entries by selecting an optional programming tool, the Portable Erasable Nib Cryptic Intercommunication Language Stylus (PENCILS).

Portable, durable, and affordable, BOOK is being hailed as the entertainment wave of the future. BOOK’s appeal is expected to be so certain and universal that thousands of content creators have already committed to the platform. Look for a flood of new titles soon. (Original source unknown.) JK

Subsidiary rights

Your book may enjoy a life well beyond that of conventional bookstore sales or of being merely pages bound into a paperback or hard bound cover. In general—and there are very specific legal definitions—subsequent permission to publish and market a work to a specific buying public or in a format other than its original book form can loosely be termed a subsidiary right. And such a right is a commodity that can be sold, giving your book greater income producing potential beyond its initial publication.

Other formats can include movie, TV, and now Web adaptations; translations; audio or video recordings; book club editions; merchandise tie-ins; premium offers; and, of course, ebooks. You can find more information at the Publishing Law Center Web site.

I once ghostwrote a book titled Fire! Survival and Prevention, which the publisher, Barnes & Noble Books division of Harper & Row, sold to manufacturers of smoke detectors and fire extinguishers to give away to purchasers of their products. To our (mine and the publisher’s) surprise, the book was also picked up both by Doubleday and Literary Guild Book Clubs for use as a pro bono premium to their subscribers.

Lucy Shaker’s book Looking Back, Looking Ahead: A History of American Medical Education, one of our Adams Press books, generated interest both from a medical college and an insurance company as a premium gift. Another Adams Press book, Kathryn Clarke’s novel The Breakable Vow, is the foundation for a multimedia presentation that includes the book itself, an instructor’s manual, audio tapes, CD, workbook, and a facilitator-led presentation that is marketed to state attorneys general, law enforcement agencies, and mental health professionals for use in workshops focused on dating and domestic violence. After selling 12,000 copies herself, the author of that self-published work sold her book to a traditional royalty publisher.

You can probably think of many, many tie-ins based upon books. Some titles have become entire industries all by themselves: J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series; Steven R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Successful People; and the books and book-related products of Martha Stewart, Wayne Dyer, Suzanne Summers, Deepak Chopra,  and countless others.

Very often the opposite happens, and books are commissioned by organizations and individuals who have already achieved success in their own field and want a book to add to their product line. ComPsych, for example,  is the world’s largest provider of comprehensive employee assistance programs. Adams Press publishes books for them to offer as resources to their client companies, books that are not available to the general public; so far we have written, designed, and printed Paving the Way to a Smooth Relocation, Living the Healthy Life, Charting the Course to College, and Solving your Day Care Dilemma—with more on the way. The Adams Press logo appears nowhere on the books; ComPsych is the publisher.

Similarly, we produced Charles Remsberg’s new book titled Blood Lessons: What Cops Learn from Life-or-Death Encounters for Calibre Press, whose books are among the product lines sold through the PoliceOne Web site. JK

Are you a writer? Really?

Wondering what to do while you’re waiting to sell your first million books?


Write to build credentials, confidence, and prestige.

Write for practice. Write for experience. Write for money.

Think of yourself as a writer. Tell people you’re a writer. BE a writer!

When asked, or when you find the opportunity to slip it into a conversation, describe yourself as a writer—but not a freelance writer. If you think you need to add a qualifier, say you’re an independent writer or an essayist or a novelist or an author. Why? The perception of freelance writers often is that they’re out of work and trying to make some money until they can land a full-time job. They get the same respect as someone who says he or she is working as a temp. You know, and I know, that temps generally work just as hard—sometimes harder—as their coworkers who are “on staff.” But that dismissive attitude is always there: Why doesn’t he or she have a real job? The same applies to freelance writers. Which is not to say you can’t be employed in a related or totally different field and still be a writer. A lot of successful writers (and painters, musicians, and other creative types) have done just that.

Independent writers are viewed as professionals who take their work seriously; it’s how they earn their living as self-employed contractors. Many independent writers (or illustrators or actors) earn some or most of their income doing something else while devoting as much time as they can to their creative endeavor. The impression you should strive to project, though, whether you’re writing full time of part time, is that this is your business; this is what you do. You are a writer.

Improve your skills
There’s no question: The more you write, the more comfortable and capable you’ll become with your craft. Good (and marketable) writing is both an art and a skill—an art insofar as invention and creative expression are concerned. Many of your skills as a writer can be learned, however, and are not necessarily wholly dependent upon actually possessing a great artistic talent. You can learn structure, syntax, and diction. You can learn grammar and how to produce a workmanlike product. Sure, I’m assuming here that you have at least a modicum of native ability and a proven capacity to use words to convey abstract ideas. After all, you certainly wouldn’t undertake to do any serious writing if you didn’t have at least some measure of facility with words and a good foundation in the mechanics of spelling, punctuation, and usage. Lacking those abilities, you’d undoubtedly be happier and better suited to following a different path.

Although practice doesn’t always make perfect, it does help improve both your skills and your marketability. The better writer you become, the more likely you are to gain the respect of your readers, and the sooner you can begin earning some (more) income from your work. Exactly how much might there be to be earned? A lot depends upon the type of writing you choose to do. Poetry, essays, and short stories? Very little. Journalism? A bit more. Business writing, such as newsletters and brochures? Still more. Web support and technical content? You’re moving up. High-end advertising, on-air scripting, speech writing? A very comfortable income.

Corporate clients usually pay more than not-for-profit organizations. If you can consistently turn out winning grant proposals, whether for commercial corporations of nonprofit institutions, you’ll never go hungry. If making your mark in a particular discipline is your highest priority, choose to woo clients who not only can use your services but who can also direct you toward others, especially respected leaders, in the field. If earning maximum dollars is where you want to concentrate your efforts, join and use influential professional societies, build relationships with key decision makers, maximize opportunities, and brush up on etiquette and self-presentation. JK


No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money.

Samuel Johnson (1709–1784)

How much do writers earn?

There are differing levels of compensation for writers depending upon the type of work they do. Although a number of factors tend to define a writer’s income—type of industry/client, geography, economic climate, among many—it is possible to apply some generalizations. For example, a good, high level speech writer usually can expect to earn more than a commercial script writer. Similarly, script writing pays more than copy writing . . .

which pays more than technical (computer-based or related) writing . . .

which pays more than instructional (staff training) writing . . .

which pays more than public relations . . .

which pays more than magazine writing . . .

which pays more than book editing . . .

which pays more than newspaper writing . . .

which pays more than copy editing . . .

which pays more than proofreading . . .

which pays more than even the pittance that some clients are willing to part with. I once had a potential client (it didn’t work out) tell me, “You know, I’d ask my wife to do this job. She’s an excellent writer. She used to teach third grade.”

Many public and private service organizations pay competitive rates, but be wary of agencies that tell you, “We can’t afford to pay very much because we’re not-for-profit. ” Just because they’re not-for-profit doesn’t necessarily mean that you should be as well. Choose your charities and “good works” carefully. Is the organization paying standard rates for other services and commodities while expecting their creative suppliers—writers and artists—to make unreasonable sacrifices?

A good friend and a seasoned writer was confronted with this not-for-profit argument while being interviewed by a person looking for assignment writing help and help to work on brochures, annual reports, and other general assignments. Always cool in such situations, my friend looked around the client’s well appointed Chicago Loop high-rise office and began offering compliments about the agency’s location and tasteful furnishings. “So,” said she, “I’m sure the office building manager, phone company, and electric company all give you substantial discounts because you’re not-for-profit, right?”

“Oh, no,” said the client. “We would never expect that to happen.”

“But you do expect me to discount my writing services because, as you say, you’re not-for-profit. Perhaps you can explain that contradiction to me.”

She decided not to accept what the client described as a “prestigious assignment.”

Successful writer-client relationships are built upon mutual respect and trust. JK

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