Archive | July, 2010

Self-Publishing 101 (part one)

28 Jul

During most of the 20th Century, the term ‘self-publishing’ was almost synonymous with ‘dirty word’ (insert your own choice word, if you like). Some of this was even well-deserved. There were numerous folks who were very creative indeed at finding ways to separate would-be authors from their hard-earned money, and who would then end up with either nothing to show for it, or else a garage full of boxed books that went nowhere. Granted, the books did have the author’s name on them, but not much else favorable could be said about them.

Such companies overcharged for ‘editing’ and or the actual manufacture of the books, because the poor author had no knowledge whatever of the publishing process, and so was easy game for the unscrupulous. I have in my possession a book sold by a non-profit museum for an outlandish price, that nearly defies description. It’s a hard-cover, with a dust jacket – truly a handsome volume to look at, mostly well-written, as it should have been. The writing of the book was paid for by a grant to the museum, with some left over to pay for x amount of books to be produced and sold (hopefully for profit) and thus generate funds to purchase yet more of these books. I have no idea if the plan was successful or not, but the book itself is an indictment against such endeavors.

Why do I say this? The book is quite thick- lots of pages! –has a goodly amount of photos in it, and feels substantial in your hands. As I say, it was very expensive – $30. as I recall – some twenty years ago, even, but at the time I bought it, there was no other or similar source of information about this particular museum, and having more money than brains at the time (a very rare occurrence for me, believe me!) I decided I had to have it.

There was no index, of course, which I now know to be a major omission for a reference-type book, and as I made my way through the many pages, it seemed as though they were turning very fast! And indeed they were. The book is a 6½ x 9½ trim size, but once I took a second and third look at it, with an analytic eye, I quickly realized that the margins were more than an inch on each side and nearly two inches at top and bottom! All that white space! Mercy goodness!

Now, it’s true that white space is a desirable commodity, but come on – that was milking the customer who didn’t know any better! The cost of a book is determined by how many pages it has in it, and obviously, the fewer words per page, the more pages required to house the text and the photos! Sneaky, not to mention underhanded. Oh, and did I mention the fairly large type size? Not quite Large Print, but not far from it, either!

The ‘editing’ also left a bit to be desired, as there were typos throughout. Not excessive, but they were there. For an organization of the sort that put out the book, it wasn’t very representative of a first-class museum.

This is just one example, from my own personal knowledge. I’m sure there were other little tricks that could be employed as well. It’s hardly to be wondered at that the industry earned an unfavorable reputation for itself.

To this day, there are a goodly number of mostly older authors (who have happily been commercially published) who insist that if your book is good enough, there’s a commercial publisher out there who will be happy to have it. Well, that was then. This is now, and it’s a whole different world. For the next couple of weeks, we’ll be addressing the topic of self-publishing, and especially the advent of POD or Print on Demand.

In the above paragraph, I mentioned ‘commercial publisher’. By that, I mean one who pays an advance to the author for the rights to the book, and then, after a while will hopefully be able to forward even more monies to the author, by way of royalties earned from book sales. Of course, one might be paid an advance, and never ‘earn out’ as they say. In other words, the book didn’t sell enough copies to earn any royalties for the author, who will not usually have to refund the advance, but will never be paid more than that first minimal payment.

Until perhaps 1980 or so, this was the standard of the publishing industry. The author wrote, submitted a manuscript to an editor at the publishing house of choice, and if the editor liked the manuscript (and it was appropriate to the house) then a contract was offered, and away we’d go! This scenario is a rare occurrence these days. Why? In my opinion, it’s because the advent of computers made the writing process infinitely easier.

Once the words were in the computer, printing out (hopefully) clean copies could be accomplished just by pushing a button or two. Wow! True, early printers used a lot of ink very quickly (some inkjets still do!) and paper was considered expensive, although at that time, I think it was less expensive than it is now. Furthermore, the poor typist no longer had to cope with carbon paper! Yay! And also, we mustn’t forget the proliferation of copy machines – at the touch of another button, yet more copies could come tumbling out!

And suddenly, everyone was a writer! Editors and publishers were bombarded with (I’m sorry to say) mostly inferior submissions. Wannabe writers are sometimes so desperate to be published that upon hearing of a new (to them) publisher, off would go a submission or two or three. Never mind that the publisher wanted only science fiction or some other tightly-proscribed genre, and said so very clearly on their author guidelines. In this situation, some authors are notoriously poor readers. They see the word ‘fiction’ and off they go. Their book is fiction, and that’s sufficient for them, even though their book could very well be anything but sci-fi! Result? Editorial overload!

Bring on the agents! Actually, agents aren’t exactly a new phenomenon. The first known literary agents appeared on the scene in Great Britain in 1875, but they became an essential part of the publishing world about 50 or so years later. Come back again next week, for part two of Self-Publishing 101. Okay? See you then!

If you have questions or comments, please write to me at: bookmechanic@gmail.com Also, please feel free to send this along to anyone you think might like to know about it. Thanks!

Writing a non-fiction book – Part Two

21 Jul

Okay, here we are – part two of writing a non-fiction book.

We’re presuming that you have your idea pretty well thought out, and want to get started on your non-fiction book. First of all, you’ll need to finalize a sort of ‘justification’ for this project, in your own mind, at the very least, but also to have available to send to an agent or editor or publisher! The more you know about your book, the better off you’ll be when that time comes. Actually, it’ll help you immensely just to get started writing.

What it all boils down to really, is this. (This goes in your query letter, by the way. Unless you’re publishing it yourself. We’ll be discussing that topic LOTS in the coming months!) You are the best person to write this book, and here’s why ________ (and you list all the reasons.) This is what you’ve learned from your experience(s) _____________ (again, you list all the things) and this is what the reader can or perhaps, should do to get the benefit of your know-how _____________.

Perhaps you’re an ‘artsy-craftsy’ person who has devised several easy-to-do, or make, inexpensive gifts for a pre-teen group to produce as a fund-raiser. If they are really special or unusual objects, then surely other mothers or teachers would like to know about them, too. So, start by telling how you came to create the things, (and don’t be afraid to mention – with a smile in your words – how the first few of them crashed and burned, if indeed they did); what your girls (or boys) learned from the project (teamwork, creativity, ingenuity, etc.); how successful the overall venture was, and how it could be expanded into even different areas for next year. This is the sort of thing that never goes out of style. Simple is necessary, and if you can incorporate everyday things like popsicle sticks, so much the better!

Also, don’t forget to take photographs. Lots of them! Showing just how little fingers should hold this, or bend that will be worth more than 1000 of your words—each! This type of book really almost demands photos. (Remember: color photos can be printed in black & white, but not the other way around!)

If you’re a research nut like I am, have you ever investigated books written several centuries ago? The early 1800s was a burgeoning era in many ways. The new United States was growing like a bunch of unruly weeds in someone’s pristine garden, and the thirst for learning escalated rapidly. It was a mark of status to have a well-stocked library in one’s home. Consequently, an enormous number of books were published on an immense range of topics (even including romance novels!) and great attention was paid to paper weight and bindings, etc. Many of these volumes reside in larger public libraries even today. They’re gorgeous to look at, hefty (and very satisfying) to hold in one’s hand – and sometimes tortuous to read. Huh? Did I just write that?

Each section was indeed written by someone different with vastly varying skills at being a chronicler, (think of all the ‘begats’ in Genesis or the New Testament as compared to the almost erotic poetry in Song of Solomon) but edited by one person in the same time frame, so that it’s the same degree of readability throughout. I don’t know if anything was distorted in the assembling of the final edition, but I do know some books (Susannah) were left out, and have made their presence known in recent years.

Indeed I did. However, writing styles have changed drastically through the centuries. If you don’t believe me, look up an early book of Chaucer of Spencer. Or even early printings of the Bible. We have many reasons to be grateful to Britain’s King James for ordering the first comprehensive edition of the Bible. I’m not referring to his choice of books to be included, but simply the fact that the entire volume was part of one huge project – sort of like today’s encyclopedias.

It’s the same with other books since then. Just because it’s non-fiction doesn’t mean it needs to be Dry as Dust. In fact, it hadn’t better be, or it’ll bounce when the first reader throws it out the window! At the same time, if you’re basing your book on a real person or event in history, there is a limit to just how creative you can be in your approach. You shouldn’t avoid the warts if a person truly has them, but you shouldn’t pounce and shout “Ahah! A wart!” either. You can’t leave important things out, just because you might not agree with the philosophy involved, and you really cannot change truth or facts.  Those stories are more usually found in time-travel fiction!

Everyone loves to read a ‘success’ story. If you know of one, why not try to write about it? Did someone you know mortgage their dreams in order to do something that would benefit any number of people? How did they do it? Why did they do it? Did they have help? Where did the idea come from in the first place? Nearly everyone has a story to tell. It’s your job to find it, and tell the rest of the world all about it. Even if it never becomes a book, maybe there’s an article or two in there, one that will provide you with valuable experience in the process of doing it!

Try it. You might like it!

If you have questions, please write to me at bookmechanic@gmail.com
Please do feel free to pass this along to anyone you think would be interested in reading it! Thanks for stopping by! See you next week!

Writing a non-fiction book – Part One

13 Jul

Several of you have commented on the fact that so far, most of these columns have been about fiction books. That’s not only true, but also a fair assessment. I have done more fiction than non-fiction, so I tend to think about it more often when asked about writing a book. Some of you have asked specifically for a column (or even several) devoted to writing a non-fiction book.

Okay. I can do that. Actually, I’ve co-authored a non-fiction book that has yet to be published, for a number of reasons. The other author and I are working diligently at getting it into book form, but there are numerous hurdles to overcome in the process. Believe me, you’ll be among the very first to know when we are at last successful. And we will succeed!

I think the first thing you need to do is figure out exactly what sort of book you want to write, and why you are the best person to do it. Right away, you can see this is different from fiction, but for non-fiction, knowing your topic is even more important. You cannot make up facts to suit your audience. (Or at least, I don’t really think you should! You could all too easily find yourself in legal troubles if you did.) And, anyway, if you are an expert in your field, that alone will help you sell books – not to mention selling yourself to a prospective publisher. It’s called ‘a platform’ and is highly desired by agents and editors.

A great percentage of non-fiction books are of the self-help variety. This appears to be a general sort of topic that will never go out of style. So if you have overcome some great obstacle, and think you can help others should they encounter the same problem, then you most likely could indeed qualify as someone who could write a book about that experience.

Of course, the same advice I gave to fiction authors in the beginning of this blog pertains—even more so, perhaps—to non-fiction authors. You’ll probably not get rich at it, but you might earn a tidy little addition to your bank account, over time. You may even leverage it into speaking engagements at conferences, etc., and these will pay more, the higher up the ladder you go. Not to mention the advantage of the degree of expertise you possess and how well you are able to communicate with your audience.

Another bit of advice from the beginning here pertains as well. Get your thoughts in order. This is probably more important to non-fiction writers, as you can’t count on one of the characters coming to life and running away with your book! (Darn.) Write a sentence describing the intended content of the book. Then, expand your thoughts a bit and write a paragraph and then a page-length description. Once you have this done, you’ll have the basis for an outline.

Generally speaking, each sub-topic should have a chapter of its own. There may be anywhere from nine to twenty of these. (If less than nine, go back to the drawing board and think up a couple more of them. Nine will probably not be enough to support an entire book. Not even a skinny one!)

Make your outline, but don’t treat it as though it’s carved on stone. Feel free to move chapters around. And in fact, you may stumble over new ideas as you do this. That’s a great sign! Not to mention a great help.

Just as for fiction, you also need to read other books on the topic. Or near topic, in case there aren’t any on your particular subject. If you can’t seem to find any, visit your nearest library, and ask for help from one of the reference librarians. They love this kind of question (trust me on this) and will willingly spend hours helping you find what you need. (I’ve been fortunate enough to have them spend off-hours looking as well, simply because my topic sparked their curiosity!) (For instance: do swans really mate for life? If a partner dies, might the swan turn to another species for a mate? The answer to both is yes. I know this only because of a librarian.)

A fiction book starts at the beginning of a story, (or near there, anyway)  and continues until the end of it. Or at least to a place where the story can safely be left to the reader’s imagination. If it really grabs the reader, perhaps a sequel will be forthcoming.

Non-fiction can start anywhere – there really is no set or special beginning or ending place, but rather a set of steps to get from here to there. I hope this is of some help to those of you contemplating non-fiction of whatever kind.

Come back next week for part two on the topic of writing a non-fiction book! Comments welcome.

If you have questions, please write to me at bookmechanic@gmail.com
Please do feel free to pass this along to anyone you think would be interested in reading it!

Thank you for reading!

My book shelf —

6 Jul

One reason I chose the theme for this blog is that the shelf of books reminds me of my desk, where my computer lives. We’re surrounded by bookshelves crammed with books! They’re my security blanket. Really!

The ease of doing research on the web has changed nearly everything. The way we search, the things we search for, the things we find that we didn’t search for – the list is endless.

But what happens when your ISP has a failure? It may last only minutes – but they seem like hours to an impatient writer. So what do you do then? Go for a walk around the block? Re-read what you wrote yesterday? Throw the computer across the room? Probably not too productive – that latter solution. Expensive, too! So when you absolutely have to know something now, what do you do?

If it’s during daytime hours, you can call your local library. Believe me, they’ll be only too happy to answer your questions for you. No matter how esoteric – librarians love questions!

Another solution is to turn to your own library of books for help. What? You don’t have your own library? And you call yourself a writer? Good grief!

I live in an apartment, surrounded by books – and in the last three or four years, I’ve nearly cut my stash in half! I still have too many, but I don’t know what to eliminate, so I just keep them around me. They’re my wealth. Truly, they’re probably not worth all that much, but just having them around me makes me feel rich. All that knowledge—right there at my very own fingertips whenever I want it! Wow!

My interests are varied (the understatement of the century, to be sure) so I have categories of books. My very best friend is my Webster’s Tenth Edition Collegiate Dictionary. If I can’t find the word I want in its 1559 pages, chances are excellent that I really don’t need to know it, anyway. I also have a smaller Webster’s Compact (trade-paper size) more portable dictionary that usually lives beside its bigger brother on the shelf. Plus, I have a French and two German dictionaries, and a nearly ancient mini-rhyming version. And a Thesaurus, of course!

In recent years, I’ve been writing about classical music a lot! So I have a fair amount of music reference books—about the music, the composers, and a few artist biographies. But even so, they’re in the minority. Probably half of the books that live around my computer are historical reference works. They are loosely in three particular eras: Plantagenent/Tudor England (roughly 1400-1600); the Regency (1800-1820) which of course, includes the Prince Regent, the Napoleonic Wars and Wellington, in addition to the Jane Austen books, and other related things. I have several books about the British Monarchy.

My favorite book on the Regency era, however, is by Will and Ariel Durant (the famed historians): The Age of Napoleon. Why I so love this book is that they investigate every country that was thriving at the time, and discuss the military, religious, political and social history aspects of each. Beethoven was an important figure in that era, so even though he was a musician, he’s featured rather prominently. As are other composers, too, of course. I also have the Wellington books by Lady Longford.

My third period of interest is the Great Lakes area during the 1800-1900s. So much happened in these states, politically as well as socially, I find it fascinating reading. Which is why my own first two books were set there. I’m hoping to have the third and final one out next year. (If I don’t get too far sidetracked, too many times, that is!) To go along with all these books, other topics are architecture, fashion, auto racing and there are even a few on women’s history. And photography. And various crafts — knitting, sewing, painting. Travel guidebooks. Not to mention fiction of all kinds.

Of course, I have a bunch of computer books, too. Many of these are near-antiques, I’ve had them so long. (My first computer dates to January, 1988!) My problem is that I just hate to throw out a book. It hurts, and I just can’t bring myself to do it!

I’m never at a loss for something to do – as long as I have a book nearby. How about you?

If you have questions or comments, please write to me at: bookmechanic@gmail.com
Please do feel free to pass this along to anyone you know who might be interested? Thanks!