Books Craft General Writing Genres Inspiration Motivation Promotion Publishing Industry Research

Birth of a Novel

As a published author, I often am asked the same or similar questions, and many of those were recently rounded up in an interview I did with Sandra Carey Cody at her blog, “Birth of a Novel.” Thought it made sense to share it with you here.


Speaking of which, are you working on a novel? What’s it about? Struggling with anything? Share here, or over on our discussion forum. We’d love to talk with you about it.

Books Promotion Publishing Industry

Book Tours and the Changing Face of Publishing

A fellow author recently sent me a link to an interesting story from the L.A. Times about a recent do-it-yourself book tour by a husband-and-wife author team. The article details the many adventures and a few misadventures of a married writing couple who decided to take their promo show on the road.

Not only was it an entertaining read, it reminded me how vastly the landscape of the book publishing industry has changed since I first entered it 20 years ago.

Author Mary A. Shafer signs books at the Bushkill Falls Visitor Center
Here, I'm signing copies of my flood book at the Bushkill Falls Visitor Center in the Poconos.

All but gone are the multi-city author tours subsidized and heavily promoted by all but the largest of book publishers. It was never commonplace to see long lines of eager readers snaking out the door and wrapped around the outside of the bookstore building, but now the sight has become as rare as hen’s teeth. Between the actual costs of travel, food and lodging and the high cost of promotion, such tours are simply too expensive for most publishers to afford these days.

For many of us who write, this is but one facet of the excruciating death of long-held dreams of fame and fortune as a bestselling author. Or is it?

Fact is, there was never a brisk trade in in-person book tours for any but the most promising authors. Sure, a few no-names here and there managed to sweet-talk their editors and publicity departments into building a limited tour for them. Some enterprising souls at the bottom of the newbie author bucket — myself, included — were able to squeeze a few hundred bucks in gas money out of their small publishers in support of an exhausting, self-planned tour. But in general, the full-blown, fully supported book tour was reserved for those whose writing propelled them into the rarefied air breathed by those whose titles dwelled for extended periods on the NYT bestseller list. So, if we look at it with a less jaundiced eye, we’ll see that not much has changed in that way.

And yet.

What HAS changed is the fact that the very technology that is killing the traditional publishing model is also re-inventing the author tour in a positive way. Authors of any level can now do every bit of research needed to plan and execute their own efficient, effective book tours from the privacy and convenience of their own computers.

They can easily find the location and contact information for any kind of bookseller — big box or independent — and call the store’s event director or program manager to determine whether it’s a good fit for an in-person appearance. They can use Google Maps or some other similar tool to plot out the most logical, gas-saving route, and even choose to find good restaurants along the way. They can book their lodging ahead of time using discount sites such as Travelocity or Expedia. Some, like author Stephen Elliott, put their own twist on the traditional book tour, undoubtedly using these same kind of tools.

Best of all, authors can now choose to do a virtual tour that doesn’t even require them to leave home! Free services such as Skype allow authors to “appear” anywhere in the world using nothing more than their computers, a webcam and a decent microphone. Just ask author Barbara Techel and her sidekick, Frankie, the Walk ‘n Roll Dog!

Author Barbara Techel brings her message to classrooms via Skype.

Barb would be the first to tell you how easy Skype is to learn and to use, I’m sure. There’s even a Web-based service called LongPen that allows authors to sign books for their readers, almost as though they were meeting in person.

Traditional book tours, though long celebrated for their ability to cement star status and enjoyed by writers who seek the inimitable charge that comes from pressing the flesh with fans and readers, have never been a very efficient way to get the word out. And with each passing day, they become less environmentally friendly, when you add up all the emissions from cars, buses, trains and planes.

In fact, I’m one of those authors who enjoys getting away from the lonely keyboard once in a while, and I’m pretty sure I’ll always want to do the in-person thing in my home region. I’ll take advantage of the ability to do so in other places when I’m traveling anyway. But since we can’t stop the publishing world from changing, I’m also choosing to become the best darn virtual tour producer/promoter/star that I can be.

I invite other authors to join me in being good promoters of our books, as well as good promoters of environmentally responsible choices, when possible.

Books Craft Promotion

Your Public Face: The function of voice in your website copy

Typewriter keys

This morning I received a post from an old friend and colleague who lives in a rural area and is just starting out as a freelancer. She’s building her website and wanted to know whether I thought she should use first person or third person voice in her web copy.

It’s a great question, and one I hope you’re paying attention to, as well. Doesn’t matter whether you’re selling products (including books) or services (especially writing, and lots of authors make part of their living as freelance writers), you need to consciously decide the tone your Web copy needs to have. Here’s what I told Lisa:

It depends what I’m trying to do with the site. I use first person when I want to be more informal, friendly, approachable and personal. I use third person when it’s all business. I think it makes the business sound maybe bigger than just this little one-person shop. Which is true, because I do use subcontractors if a team approach is necessary, so often the effort behind any given project is a group one, not a just that of a single person.

I’d say that since you’re starting now, go with first person. The Net is getting way more personal in every way, and since at this point of the global economy we’re all something of a commodity, the only way we CAN stand out is to differentiate the personal experience. This includes customer service, of course, but in the beginning, it’s all about sounding approachable, talented and easy to work with.

There are all kinds of blogs and stuff that deal with this issue.

I tell my clients: If you’re on Facebook, your presence can be personal or business or both, so write your profile copy and posts accordingly. I use FB for both. But my websites (I have quite a few now) each take a different approach based on the audience I’m trying to reach, which is how EVERY piece of marketing/promo in your kit should be. The key is to remain consistent in voice for each separate piece, i.e., don’t flip-flop back and forth between first and third person or present and past tense, etc.

The other thing is that, unlike past years, you should revisit your web copy at least once a year to make sure it’s still current and maybe freshen it up a bit. Net Years are fast and short, and things change quickly. Updates also boost your search engine rankings.

She also asked, in typically straightforward and humorous fashion, “And how much person do I really need? Not sure everyone needs to know I own a farmette and am a chicken freak!?” Here’s my reply:

I say: Include what’s germane to whatever it is you’re trying to promote and leave the rest out. Your Web copy has but ONE job: Get the prospect to call. So you have to get right down to business, because these are busy people and they don’t have time to indulge your personal stuff.

However, once you have them on the phone, if you pay attention when you’re talking with a new prospect, you can sometimes pick up on clues that they may be interested in some of the same things you’re passionate about. Grab those and run with them!

If you hear someone mention they’re interested in or enjoy farming or livestock, jump right in and tell them, “Oh, me too!” And enthuse a little bit about your chickens or whatever, then wait to see if they take that bait and chew it awhile about their own stuff.

THIS is exactly the kind of small but important thing you can bond over with a potential client, and — given that your skill set is what it needs to be to get the actual work done — can be the deciding factor in you being the person they choose to work with. After all, all else being equal, who wouldn’t choose to work with someone they enjoy outside the actual work, rather than just some old someone?

The caveat to this advice is that the bonding needs to happen over something real. Don’t be insincere and make stuff up just trying to find some common ground — that’s the oldest trick in the book in the Smarmy Salesman’s Guide. (No, it’s not a real book, but I’ll bet you’ve met someone who subscribes to its rules!) People can sense when they’re being lied to or jerked around. Besides, it’s bad karma, so just don’t do it. Find that bonding agent where you can and hope that your knowledge, skills and experience can dazzle them where you can’t find common ground outside the work.

Books Genres Promotion Publishing Industry

The need for authors to promote their own books

A legacy blog post that first appeared August 24, 2009:

Author Mary A. Shafer promoting her books at a July 4th event
Here I'm promoting my titles at a local bookstore's Independence Day event. Yep, while everyone else is out partying, the author works to promote.

As a self-published author, I knew when I was starting my publishing company that sooner or later I’d want to help other writers become published authors, too. I already do speaking on the topic, but I knew I’d want to take a more active role in creating new authors. So I purposely did everything it took to become a “legitimate” publisher in the industry’s eyes.

I registered with R.R. Bowker and paid my fee to get issued my publisher prefix so I could get ISBN numbers for my books. I designed a logo and stationery. I created an invoicing system and registered my new business name with the state.

But the most difficult thing I do as a publisher is convince authors that active participation in promoting their own work is NOT optional nor negotiable. And that’s why it’s spelled out in our contract what we expect our authors to do to help sell their books.

I find that many people have a skewed vision of what it means to be a successful author today, the operable word being “successful.” Sure, you can yourself an author as soon as you get published, but that’s a technicality. To REMAIN an author is the challenge. And that means two things: you continue producing good new work, and you maintain enthusiasm for promoting the work you’ve already done.

As I’ve said before: The days of churning out a manuscript in the haze of a smoke-filled garret somewhere, sending it off to your publisher and then getting started on the next one are long gone. Today, if you are a successful (read: selling) author, you are a full participant in the marketing and promotion of your books. Even the biggies — Steven King, Janet Evanovich, Nicholas Sparks — are required by their publishers to support their books with personal appearances, book signings and similar efforts.

Yes, the big houses that publish them also have full-time PR departments to help, but their efforts would be wasted without the authors following through with their participation. Mid-size pubishers can afford to hire outside firms to help with their marketing and PR, and small ones must do their own. But they all depend on the author getting out there, too, to make the rounds of bookstores, introduce themselves to readers, blog, and generally get themselves known. This is called, in marketing lingo, “establishing your brand.”

Some authors are doing an incredible job at this. Two I know personally: Laurel Bradley is a tireless promoter of her work, and it shows. This time travel romance author is serious about doing what it takes to get her books into the hands of readers, and she does it with style and enthusiasm. Art Adkins is another promotional dynamo. This Florida cop knows his material but also understands that without him out on the street putting it into people’s hands, readers will not just magically find him.

And here’s one guy who takes promoting his book so seriously, he quit his job to do it!

Despite the best promo campaigns a publisher can put together and the biggest budgets they might spend on advertising and PR, the fact is that most people don’t buy books based on this kind of messaging. They buy books for one of two reasons: They heard about a new book from a friend who was raving about it, or they met the author personally and developed a connection that makes them want to buy.

Sure, sometimes an author gets lucky, appears on Oprah, and makes a million dollars. It happens. But not often. For every story you hear like that, there’s another one — just as true — about an author who appeared on Oprah, had a temporary uptick in sales, then disappeared again. And there are hundreds if not thousands more authors who WISH they could appear on Oprah but, for whatever reason, never will.

Bottom line: Yes, luck plays a part in book sales. So does timing, the economy, and many other factors authors really can’t influence. But the one factor you CAN influence is how much work you put into making people aware of your work and making them want to buy it.

Authors, what have you done to promote your books today?

Books Genres Promotion Publishing Industry

The importance of a good author website

Another legacy post from June 18, 2009:

Mary Shafer author website home page

One thing that’s really important for authors is understanding that the days of just writing your manuscript and turning it in on time are over. In this marketing-driven world, you must also be your book’s most passionate, dedicated promoter. Your publisher will, at best, do only half the work required to get your book onto store shelves and into readers’ hands.

This topic could cover several posts, but the one part you can easily do something about in your promo effort RIGHT NOW is to create a professional-looking, content-driven author website.

You can’t expect anyone to take you seriously as an author without one. It’s just like back in the 80s, when fax machines were new. At first, people asked, “Do you have a fax?” Then, within a few years, they just assumed you did and asked you for your fax number.

Now, people may still ask you, “Do you have a website?” But most of them will assume that, as a professional published author, you do have one. They’ll just ask you for your URL or web address. Even unpublished authors should have a website, so they can build that all-important platform before approaching publishers with their book proposal.

But what to do if you’re not an experienced web developer? Do you have to settle for some ugly, first-generation site your nephew might be able to crank out with FrontPage. Heaven forbid! No, you have options.

One thing is that you can become an Authors Guild member and take advantage of their wonderful hosting service. It provides a fairly feature-rich, web-based site builder, complete with attractive visual themes. You’re looking at a website right now that was built this way.

Or you can go with another web hosting service such as or that also offers a web-based site builder.

But if you’d rather have a more feature-rich development application that you can use on any server (even with no experience and a small learning curve), then you may want to check out Joomla.

Joomla is a free, open-source, highly usable content management system you can use to build personal or business sites. It’s a proven tool: Websites made with Joomla can be found in many sizes, varying from a few pages up to entire community websites containing 10,000+ pages.

But even this great little app requires some training. So if you’re interested in using it, do what I’m doing: Take some video tutorials.

I’ve heard a lot about Joomla and have been wanting to learn, but haven’t had the time to do a lot of reading. So I’m doing the time-saving thing and downloading detailed, easy-to-follow tutorials I can play right on my computer as I follow along in the actual application. has just what I need, at way reasonable prices. I consider it an investment not only in my author career, but also in my future, for any other sites I may want to build later on.

Whatever works for you, but this is the way to go for a busy multi-tasker like me. And best of all, I can still host my updated, Joomla-created site right here at! I can heartily endorse the tech support team here at AG — I’m a stickler for customer service, and can give these great folks two thumbs up for responsiveness, helpful, friendly attitude and knowing their stuff.

So jump right in and get yourself on the Web. Now there’s no excuse not to!

Books Craft General Writing Genres Promotion Research Writing process

Researching Historical Nonfiction, Part III: Finding Sources and Archival Photos

This is another legacy blog post from April, 2009:

Researching in a library

As promised, here are some tips on starting out with historical research:
Local Media Sources – It seems a no-brainer that you’d start your research with media outlets that exist today, especially if they were around during the event you’ve decided to chronicle in your book. That’s certainly what I believed. I looked forward, too, to talking with other professional writers and journalists at our regional newspapers and other outlets.

Sadly, I discovered that certain of our regional newspapers — the Easton Express-Times being the most egregious — were unwilling to let me use their photos, even though I offered payment for that right. The EE-T re-publishes their own photo essay on the flood of ‘55 every 25 years on the anniversary, and somehow felt that allowing me to use those shots would lessen their sales, I guess.

Stupid, because that original booklet, published about a week after the flood, was what started my whole interest in the subject. I would have GLADLY included a page in my book promoting their booklet as a great addition to anyone’s flood collection, because obviously I couldn’t include all those photos in my book. Not only was this very short-sighted and promotionally retarded on their part, but I also think it was a real evasion of their responsibilities as a keeper of important historical public records.

On a more positive note, several other papers, such as the Pocono Observer-Record, was fantastic and very helpful. More than one staffer there went out of their way to help me make this the best book it could be. I’m grateful for their interest, help and dedication to their craft.

Regional Sources – Running into that roadblock, I had to depend on other sources for the images I’d use in my book. So, I got creative. I put out a call for people along the river to let me know they had private photos. It was a huge task, with many related efforts:

  • I put out several press releases to newspapers from Trenton to Port Jervis on both sides of the river.
  • I posted requests on some websites including those for historical societies and any private historical groups located in those areas (Craigslist would be a good one.)
  • I wrote to some historical societies in the affected regions with my requests, and that was productive. Many referrals to members and then those members referred me to friends and acquaintances they knew had photos and old newspapers, etc.
  • I also put up posters in as many communities as I could get to in the affected areas.
  • One element I will add next time I’m doing this kind of research is a website about the project. I’ll make sure it has lots of relevant keywords and phrases that people might search on for that subject. Then I’ll post my requests on there.
  • I’ll also blog regularly there on the progress of my project. This creates activity on your site and that excites the search engine crawlers to pay attention to you and rank you much higher than a static site.

A nice by-product of this kind of blog is that it makes people aware of what you’re doing and creates automatic customers of your regular blog visitors when your book comes out. They will have followed you from the beginning and have a sense of personal investment in the success of your project.

This is called “platform building,” and any publisher you talk with will want to know what kind of promotional platform you have before they commit to your project.

With any historic nonfiction project, don’t overlook any group where older folks congregate: civic organizations (Kiwanis, Lions, Knights of Columbus, etc.), church groups, senior centers, book clubs and reading groups in retirement villages, etc. Call them and send a request letter to be published on their website and in their newsletter.

Not only will you find many people to interview in these places, you’ll also find they’re enthusiastic about what you’re doing. They’ll be excited that someone cares about something they personally remember, and will lead you to all kinds of other interview subjects and people with archival letters, diaries, photos, etc.

Books Craft General Writing Genres Promotion Research Writing process

Researching Historical Nonfiction, Part II: Finding old maps

This post originally appeared on my legacy blog on April 11, 2009:

1838 Philadelphia map

Revisiting Amanda G.’s discussion forum post, she asked:
 How do I get maps of old towns that no longer exist?

That could probably be a little tricky. Depending on how old the towns were at the time they disappeared, there are a number of places you might look for maps. Here are a few ideas:

Historical societies are often the best place to start. Find the “keepers of the collections” and you’ve likely identified the people who not only know best what the collections include, but also about other resources you can consult, like other people and their personal archives. The trick is to really let them know you value and respect their vast knowledge.
Municipal or county clerks or recorders of deeds — depends on the town. They have official records of any properties that ever existed in their area of authority.

Public Libraries – They usually have a local history collection, and I have made some of my most interesting and surprising primary source finds in these. Make sure you as for the reference librarian, not just a page or front desk worker. You want someone who knows that collection up and down.

University and college libraries – They often have collections donated by alumni and other individuals in their immediate communities. East Stroudsburg University has lots of info on the flood of ‘55. The public library there has an awesome local history collection, and I’m thinking this would be your best bet.

Government Agencies – If you’re researching an area now encompassed by a national park, recreation area or other official preservation designation, the National Park Service will be a primary resource for you. They always have vast historical archives, usually have designated park historians (who are almost always obsessive about their subject). They’ll likely have lots of maps, photos and other visuals available. They’ll also want to stock your book in their visitor center gift shop when it comes out!

Secondary sources – Though this isn’t always the case, often if you’re looking for a map to an old place that no longer exists, you’re not the only one looking. It’s likely others before you have wondered the same thing, and sometimes were persistent enough to find what they were looking for. This helps you, because they’ve already done the work. So don’t pooh-pooh secondary sources as legitimate places to do some research. No use reinventing the wheel if it’s not necessary – remember, work smart, and you won’t have to work so hard. Think of other people who may have need of the same map you’re seeking, and try them first, before launching off on your own search. Lots of people need or want locator maps for now-extinct municipalities: land surveyors, real estate developers, fossil fuel energy companies, metal detectorists. See if maybe they haven’t already done the work for you!

This is by no means an exhaustive list of sources for research, but it’s a good starting point. Good luck to everyone taking on such a project. It’s a worthwhile effort, but a challenging one.

Books Craft General Writing Genres Promotion Research Writing process

Advice to a would-be author: Researching Historical Nonfiction

This post from my legacy blog was initially posted April 11, 2009.

Archival research for historical items

Montgomery County, PA, writer Amanda Greenfield posted to my discussion board with several questions about how to go about researching a historical nonfiction book she’s working on about the Delaware Water Gap. It’s a huge subject area, and an ambitious project.

I wish her all the luck in finding a focus for her work that will allow her to cover what she’s most interested in, while making sure she can also delve deeply enough to add the detail her readers will want. It’s always a balancing act for any writer. In my experience, knowing what to leave out is at least as important as knowing what to put in.

Amanda asked where I got all the historic photos I used in “Devastation on the Delaware,” the documentary I wrote about the flood of 1955. She said, “I have been making phone call after phone call to only be on a wild goose chase.”

Unfortunately — and this is especially true for a first-time author who’s never done this kind of project before — finding sources for images and other archival material can prove more than daunting. And since — as a responsible historian — a writer needs to start with the research, such an issue can bring your project to an abrupt halt.

It helps to have a guide, a place to start. I’ve often thought about this since I completed that book, which was my first effort in writing contemporary history (the kind where there are still people alive who lived through the event you’re chronicling).

I wish I’d had such a guide myself, but I didn’t. I figured other writers could benefit from having one, so I’m actually formulating a workshop right now, titled “Researching Historical Nonfiction.” I’ll be teaching this course live in some of our local community schools, but I will also eventually be offering it as an online course. If you’d like to be put on the notification list when I’m actually ready to teach it, let me know: Put “Historical Research course” in the subject line.
Meanwhile, my next entry will include a few observations and pointers to help you with your own historical research projects.