Books Craft General Writing Research

Doing Good Research

Jonathan Maberry's website header

In between the Promoting to Schools post series, I just had to share a fantastic blog post from my friend and writing colleague, Jonathan Maberry. Jonathan is a prolific author, and one of the most successful horror writers working today. He’s a very personable and approachable guy, as well, and we’ve sat together at more than one presenter’s table at writers’ conferences.

Liars Club logo

One of the strongest points of Jonathan’s writing is the research he does, and he’s generously shared his research techniques with us in a post over at The Liars Club site! As with any author, this background work serves to establish very convincing characters, settings and situations in his stories, which makes them so very believable.

Anyone who reads in this genre knows that’s one of the keys to writing spellbinding horror: creating seamless transitions between reality and fiction. In fact, this is absolutely critical to enabling the willing suspension of disbelief required of all good fiction.

If you’ve ever read a story you KNOW is fiction, but found yourself almost unable to believe what you’re reading didn’t really happen, you’ve appreciated the results of good research. Only a thorough grounding in everything about the story will help writers achieve this, and only sound research from impeccable sources produces that knowledge.

So read on to find out what Jonathan has to say about his research method. I consider myself a veteran researcher, and I sure learned a few applicable tips! Oh, and check out Jonathan’s website to see a great example of how to do an author site well.

Benefits of writing Books Motivation Promotion

Book Promotion To Schools – Part 2: Finding the Decisionmakers

Author Mary Shafer teaches elementary students about writing
Here I'm teaching a special writing class to students at the Delaware Township School in New Jersey.

If you’re hoping to promote your book to schools, several good things may happen:

  1. Teachers get interested in using your book as a classroom text that will be required reading for all their students. If they do get enthused about your book, they will talk to each other about it and may start a sales chain reaction: Teachers are the original viral marketers. This will result in direct volume sales to these classrooms.
  2. What happens at one school could create the requirement of your book as a text district-wide, resulting in possible volume sales to several schools.
  3. Your book isn’t required as a text, but it gets used by the teachers as part of their content. More about this later.
  4. Your book may or may not get picked up as a text, but you or your author gets invited to speak to a single classroom, multiple classrooms, or even to an assembly. This usually results in an opportunity to sell your book afterwards.

There’s no guarantee that any of these will occur, but I guarantee that none of them will if you don’t learn the proper way to approach schools about your book.

Understand the Culture
First, understand that academia is all about hierarchy and chain of command. If you don’t know who to approach, you can doom your efforts from the start. So learn how your state’s school districts are set up, and who makes the decisions about textbook buying. It can vary widely, but usually it’s some version of certain texts being required at either state or district level, then some local — whole school or classroom level — control for individual titles.

You could research this on the Web or at your local library, but there’s an easier way: If you have kids in school and a decent rapport with one of their teachers, simply ask. Any teacher who’s been around for more than a year should be able to tell you how this works in your state. Another option is to ask your local public or school librarian. Either one should be familiar with your state’s setup.

Manage Your Expectations
Knowing this protocol won’t help you sell at the statewide level. Unless you’re a fairly large publisher with a dedicated sales staff that knows the ropes, that’s a losing battle if you’re coming from outside the system. But what this knowledge will do is tell you the general attitude about textbooks, and how much leverage you might be able to exert at the local or regional district level. Managing these expectations for your efforts is key to being able to maintain them for any length of time.

Generally, you’re looking at a structure something like this:

State DOE > Regional Administrative Unit (optional for larger districts) > School District > Individual Schools. There will be a school board somewhere along this line, made up of local officials, parents and businesspeople. It may be at the regional (admin unit), local (district) or — in the case of really rural areas — the individual school level. For the small, independent publisher or self-published author (who is also an independent publisher), this board is who you want to make friends with, because ultimately, they will make the decision about whether your book gets exposure in the schools they govern.

Gain Advocates
Yes, you can and absolutely should approach teachers directly with your ideas, because they are going to be your strongest advocate if they believe in the power of your book to help them teach kids. But it’s fairly uncommon for teachers to have the discretion to simply adopt your book as a classroom teaching aid without first running it past at least some kind of content approval committee, if not the school board. It’s not unheard of, but it’s not common.

First Impressions Count
Once you’ve determined who to approach, prepare a professionally produced package to send them. This should include a cover letter attached to a promo kit (your press kit, but slanted specifically to appeal to teachers), and a free reading copy of the book. If you can’t afford to give out that many free copies without knowing it has a good chance of selling more books, at least include a 4 x 6 postcard with some check-offs stating that the teacher wants more information or to request a reading copy (count on it — they will if at all interested) that they can send back to you.

Obviously, the hope is that you’ll be able to sell volumes of your book to classrooms, but it may not work that way. You may only be able to sell copies to the teachers, who will teach from it without requiring students to read it. This is not ideal, but it’s not a bad thing, either. With a teacher  in front of a class talking about your book for almost an hour (and maybe more, if you create a multi-class teaching unit) there are bound to be at least a few kids in each class who go out and buy the book. From there, it can turn into Referral City — the best possible kind of promotion!

Next: Meeting Curriculum Standards

Books Promotion Publishing Industry

Creative Book Promotion to Schools, Part 1 – It’s Not Just About Textbooks

Author Mary Shafer Presenting To a Classroom

After you’ve written your book and gotten it published, you have about a year to really make a mark with it in the reader marketplace. Hopefully, you thought about how to promote your book even before you started writing it,  and have built some great marketability into the content and format. But even if you’re coming to book promotion late in the game, all is not lost. There’s plenty to learn and lots of places to begin to make a name for yourself and your work. In the interest of efficiency, it makes sense to put most of your effort into places where you can make volume sales. And there are few such markets as interesting and attractive as the education market.

For self-published authors and other small independent publishers, the school market may at first appear untouchable. It’s a crowded marketplace, with dozens of big-name publishers vying for the volume sales generated when whole schools or entire districts buy a title. Aside from the sometimes questionable tactics used by big publishers to get their textbooks into the schools (deeply discounting or even BOGO pricing one book to make huge sales on another, more profitable title — yes, it happens, and purchases are not always based on what’s most appropriate for any given course), there are all kinds of seen and unseen barriers to entry to this most lucrative selling field. But it’s not impossible to crack, if you set realistic expectations and take the time to understand the way schoolbooks get bought and used.

It’s a fallacy that only textbooks are used for teaching in schools. Remember back to when you were in grades K-12: Remember Scholastic’s Weekly Reader, and the neat books they offered for students to buy? Well, they’re still around, and though the Reader has gone digital (what hasn’t?), kids can still buy Scholastic titles to take home. And those books are often used as integral teaching content in the classroom.

Those titles have going for them instant publisher name recognition among educators, which carries with it a mantle of trust and confidence that their books will be of high quality and appropriate for classroom use. Still, you needn’t be a mammoth, venerated publisher to get your books into students’ hands. Sure, it takes some doing, but even small independent publishers — including self-published authors — can get their books into the hands of classroom readers, if they’re willing to devote the time and energy.

For the purposes of this post series, we’ll assume a high level of quality of the book: Professionally written and edited, illustrated and produced. Something you’d be proud to put in front of anyone, and that you know is well-constructed enough to stand the rigors of rough handling. Of course, if your book is in digital form only, this isn’t a consideration. What would be a consideration, then, would be a high level of interactivity, i.e., your book isn’t just “flat,” but contains enough weblinks, 3D animated illustrations and embedded audio and video to keep modern readers engaged. That’s a whole different post series  in itself, so we’ll deal primarily with p-books rather than e-books for this series.

The key term to remember when fishing for classroom readers is RELEVANCE. Teachers are forever on the lookout for fresh materials that bring concepts they’re teaching in the classroom to real-life applicability. This is particularly true for more abstract concepts that can’t be physically demonstrated, such as loyalty, perseverance, conscience, and many science and math concepts. Since teachers typically revert to storytelling to explain these concepts anyway, why shouldn’t it be your book they use to base this teaching on?

Regardless whether you’ve written fiction or nonfiction, there are likely several ways you can effectively promote your book to schools and schoolchildren of appropriate ages. This series will explore things you can do to make your book promotable to them, including how to get in front of the eyes of teachers and others who buy books for classroom use.

Come back and visit next week, when we’ll begin a series of actionable, accessible tips you can immediately get to work on to get your books in front of those who buy books for school use, in and out of the classroom.

Books Motivation Promotion Publishing Industry

Author Book Promotion: It was never really optional.

Author Mary Shafer launches second edition of her flood book
Here, I'm addressing attendees at the official launch of the revised second edition of my book, "Devastation on the Delaware."

The biggest difference I notice between a wannabe author and one who’s actually got a book out, or between a successful author (i.e., one who’s making sales and has a good chance for a second book contract) and one who’s struggling to get her/his book into readers’ hands and having to accept that there won’t be another contract offered, is simple: Successful authors understand that they MUST participate fully in the promotion and marketing of their own book to AT LEAST the extent that their publisher does, and likely more. Struggling authors believe that somehow, there’s someone else who can do a better job representing their work than they can.

Though in “olden times” — say, 20 years ago or more — this was a common and even acceptable attitude among most authors, it was never true. Ever. No one has EVER been able to be a more passionate advocate of an author’s work than the author him/herself. And I’ll go so far as to say that if it ever WAS the case, then that person should not have been the author of that book.

Whoever is the most passionate person about the book’s topic should be the one writing about it, or at least hiring a good ghostwriter. But if you feel moved enough by your topic — be it a nonfiction subject or a fictional story — to invest the time and effort it takes to write a book about it, YOU are the one who should be doing the bulk of your book’s promotion.

Why? Because book promotion and marketing is a long-haul effort. It lasts forever. And the only person who’s going to be able to muster the enthusiasm it takes to sustain that effort is the one with enough passion to have written a book about it. Yes, you can hire publicists to help you, and maybe you should. But the messaging must come from you. The right words to the right crowds must originate with you.


Look, I’m a writer and author, too. I KNOW that what brought you to the legal pad, typewriter or computer keyboard to capture your story wasn’t the desire to turn into a marketing guru. I get that. You love your topic and you love to write. You never intended to become a pitch person. But the cold, hard fact is that we all live in a world that’s very different from what it used to be. Nowhere is this more true than in the book publishing world.

The publishing landscape is no longer littered with small, medium and large publishing houses. Much like what’s going on in our economic stratification in the US, the “middle class” is fast disappearing. Basically, in the publishing “boom years” of the 70s, 80s and early 90s, it did look that way. But then a wave of corporate greed led some of the large, well-established houses to go into a frenzy of acquisition. Much like the movie “Wall Street,” these houses often cannibalized the backlists of these mid-sized houses, keeping and exploiting the best-selling titles and authors and essentially abandoning the rest.

During this same process, in an effort to cut costs and increase profitability, many excellent editors and other staff responsible for grooming and supporting authors were fired and never replaced. The editors who stayed on were forced to take on way too much production work, so much of their direct work with authors was forced to fall by the wayside. Many authors found themselves “orphaned” — without the editors they were comfortable working with, who had championed and shaped their work — and many of those ended up falling by the wayside, too. They weren’t offered any more contracts, because their work hadn’t proven to be a cash cow.

And now there are very few true mid-sized publishers left. There are mainly The Big Six — those now behemoth houses that swallowed so many of their smaller brethren in the merger-and-acquisition madness — and the rest of us.

And that reality means every author must be his or her work’s own best advocate. Even if you have a really dedicated agent, all those folks can do is get your foot in the door and try to negotiate the best deal for you regarding compensation. Yes, they can negotiate marketing points, but the truth is, if the publisher doesn’t want to support your work after publication for whatever reason, it’s very difficult if not impossible to force them to do so. So YOU are the one who will be doing it.

Even if your publisher does provide decent promotional support, you still need to be the one out there acting as the face of your book. Your readers don’t want to see and meet your agent, your editor or your publisher. They want to meet and talk with YOU, the person whose work touched them in some way. That has always been true, and it hasn’t changed.

The other reality is that today’s reading public is far more sophisticated, demanding, picky and splintered than it ever was before, especially when you add in the whole e-book phenomenon. If there ever was such a thing as “everyone” where readership is concerned — and I vote “no” on that point — it’s long gone. This means that the old concept of writing your manuscript, turning it in to the publisher, then retiring back to your chair in front of your keyboard is also gone.

Your publisher can’t possibly know your intended reading audience as well as you do. They may not know where these people gather and how to talk with them in the most effective way to charge them up about reading your book. Technology has allowed special interest groups to find each other and stay in touch, which is great. But that means there’s no efficient way of your publisher reaching them all efficiently with the kind of basic campaigns they’re capable of running. So, once again, it’s up to you.

I can hear the arguments now: “But I’m a writer, not a marketer!” “I don’t know anything about promotion!” “I’m a shy, retiring sort…that’s why I chose to be a writer, so I can work alone.” “I thought my publisher was going to take care of that!” And on and on.

Well, I hate to break it to ya, folks, but even back when publishers had budgets big enough to hire hotshot publicity teams, they never did it for any but their A-List authors. Think Stephen King and Ann Rice. If you’re a newbie, you haven’t proven your worth to the publisher yet, so aside from a press release and — if you’re lucky — a book website with a digital press kit, you’re probably on your own.

I know it’s not what you want to hear, but it’s the truth. Take a few moments to get over your anger, disillusionment and fear. I’ll wait.

Okay, now that you’re back in the real world, you know that the success of your book is going to depend almost entirely on you. Yes, you can request help from your publisher, and a good one will do what they can for you. But the truth is, you’re just one of their authors, they likely have very limited staff and budgets, and your book’s publicity isn’t going to get any special treatment.

This isn’t to indict publishers, at least not on the whole. I AM a publisher, so I understand the very real limitations they’re up against. But they should provide at least the bare bones of a marketing plan and some of its major elements for you. Nevertheless, you’re the one whose job it is to flesh it out and work that plan with your own time, presence and energy.

How to do it is the subject of vast — and some very goodbooks in their own right. But right now it’s time for a gut check, authors:

If you’re not willing to invest at LEAST as much energy, effort and enthusiasm into getting your book into readers’ hands — and that’s all that marketing and promotion is about — then why did you bother to write it?

I welcome comments here, or invite you to join the discussion on my Nabble forum.

Books Characterization Craft General Writing Inspiration Technique

The Secret’s in the Sauce: Voice matters.

I watched a different kind of episode of celebrity chef Anthony Bourdain’s Travel Channel show, “No Reservations” yesterday. It was a re-run, but since I’m not a regular watcher, I hadn’t seen it before. And it was really interesting.

Why? Because it was less about food and Bourdain’s chefdom than it was about his career as a professional writer. If you’ve lived under a rock for several years, or are simply  not a foodie, you may not be aware that Bourdain is an accomplished author as well as a successful restaurateur. His debut work, a half-memoir, half-exposé titled Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly, was a surprise success, both to the author and the book industry. He’s had an admirable string of successful books since then.

Book cover, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly

It’s not my point here to review or describe these books, but to bring up a point that every writer should be hyper-aware of: Voice matters. Bourdain says he believes he’s a better chef than a writer, so I’d love to taste his food, because my God, this guy can write.

You know he writes his own TV scripts, because they are so evocative of his own personality: incisive, witty, detail-oriented observations of whatever locale he’s visiting, the people he meets, the cuisines he experiences. And “experiences” is the operative word here, because that’s what makes Bourdain, Bourdain. He fully engages all senses in every single thing he does. And the very able writer in him shares these experiences with engaging, compelling prose packed with his singular descriptive, appreciative and often caustic narrative.

True to full-on Chef Mode, he’s got an ego the size of Montana, for which he doesn’t apologize. But his writing, whether TV script, book or magazine article, keeps this from becoming tedious because his narrative is often self-deprecating. He’s not averse to making himself the butt of the joke, often citing some foible or perceived character flaw in himself. This device also has the effect of bringing him down to our level, the “just an average joe” who’s doing the best he can despite himself. You get the feeling he’s just ever-so-slightly uncomfortable with all the accolades and attention, yet all the time fully aware of how lucky  he is to have these things.

On camera, Bourdain is the jokester, the preternatural pre-teen always testing the boundaries of good taste with potty humor and sexual references. If you watch closely, you can see just the wee-est little bit of shyness and discomfort in front of the camera. He can’t hide his constant underlying surprise that people are so interested in what he has to say about food and people the world over. Beneath the tough, New York City veneer, you can see an awestruck kid who made lots of bad choices growing up and still came out on top, but expects each minute that it will be his last as a star. It’s as though he knows this whole celebrity thing is just a house of cards, one puff away from collapsing and leaving him back in the kitchen to his own devices. The effect is both enlightening and endearing. But it’s the voice-overs that give the show — and his books — their real impact.

His commentary lifts the edge of his ego so we can peep inside at the soul of an essentially decent, compassionate man with a curious mind and an artist’s soul. It works because Bourdain writes exactly the way he speaks. Sure, he might don the chef’s coat for appearances, but he doesn’t gussy up his words with more syllables than he’d ever use in real life. He doesn’t affect a new author vocabulary. All the bodily function references and gross-out visual descriptions he clearly uses so frequently keep him honest, grounded in his reality, offering the viewer/reader his absolute here-I-am-love-me-or-leave-me attitude and worldview.

Whenever I watch his show, I bounce back and forth between “God, this guy is full of himself!” to “God, this guy can write!” And the telling thing is that I always come back for more.

Bourdain admitted in yesterday’s episode that he never “agonizes over craft” in writing. He doesn’t need to. He’s not reaching for literary immortality. But his use of voice and language is so uniquely his own, I posit that his writing is at least as exciting and evocative as that of many classic novels.

Book cover, Anthony Bourdain's Typhoid Mary

I will likely never read Bourdain’s foodie or travel books. But he’s got a novel out and a nonfiction docu-drama about Typhoid Mary. I may just have to pick those up, because ego or not (and let’s face it — what author doesn’t have one?), this guy is a refreshing, entertaining and accomplished writer whose voice another writer could learn a lot from.

General Writing Inspiration

Yeah, What Janet Said: 10 Really Good Rules

Los Angeles Times Book Section Header

Just had to share this post from Janet Fitch’s “Jacket Copy” author blog for the Los Angeles Times. Janet wrote “White Oleander” and other bestsellers, and teaches writing at USC, so she knows of which she speaks. Here, she gives her version of Ten Rules That Can Help Any Writer. I know I learned something, and hope you do, too.

Books Craft Dialog General Writing Genres Promotion Publishing Industry Research Technique

Narrative Nonfiction or “Faction” – What is it?

I had a question yesterday from a writing colleague, whom I met at last year’s annual conference for ASJA (American Society for Journalists and Authors — if you’re not a member, I encourage you to look into joining. My ASJA network alone is worth the cost of dues).

Anyway, this friend is about to embark on a book proposal about a lesser-known historical figure. There isn’t a lot written about him, and she’s having difficulty locating much reference to this figure in her research. There are no heirs to his estate that she could contact for further elucidating material, though she has  contacted some well-known archives whose staffs should be familiar with him.

Now, this author is an experienced, skilled, detailed nonfiction writer. This story she’s considering writing has plenty of Important and Exciting Plot Points. It’s mundane details of the subject’s day-to-day life that she doesn’t know about–other than the time period in which the story takes place.

Bottom line, she’s overwhelmed with the thought that, although what she’s already learned has been exciting and she’s sure there’s a salable book in it, she may not be able to find enough actual reference material to be able to fill in the gaps in her knowledge about this figure. But she really wants to treat this as nonfiction.

Her question was blunt: Do I make it up?

She’s an ethical writer and is well aware that nonfiction means FACT-based, not made up, so she was not being serious. What is serious is her desire to write a historically accurate account of this fascinating figure. She’s wondering if perhaps she should do most of it as nonfiction, but write a fictionalized version of the story to fill in the missing parts.

What my friend is struggling with is something historical writers have always come up against: How to remain true to historical fact while still painting a complete word picture of a specific time, place and subject, even when there is simply no extant material to verify the smaller details. Enter “creative” or narrative nonfiction.

This type of writing has been with us for some years now, and allows such complete storytelling to take place. Here’s Wikipedia’s explanation of the format, which of course has been decried by many purists as simple fraud. Essentially, narrative nonfiction uses fictional techniques to make a story come alive. Sometimes this must include the author’s conjecture on what happened in a given situation, because the people who actually experienced the situation are either no longer with us to bear witness, or simply don’t want to talk about the traumatic situation.

Book cover, The Perfect Storm

Sebastian Junger opened that door with his book The Perfect Storm, when he gave us his idea of what it must have been like as Capt. Billy and his crew went down with the Andrea Gail. No one who was there lived to tell about it, so he HAD to make it up. But it was a very small part of the story, and he made very clear in his notes that it was only his conjecture. And readers accepted it. The publisher took a chance with this maverick move, and it paid off — not just for them and for Junger, but it opened up a whole new world of possibilities that had heretofore gone unrealized for writers of historical nonfiction.

So now it’s acceptable in this format, if you have enough fact-based stuff, to fill in a few details based on conjecture and logic, as long as the vast majority — like 99% or more — of your story is provably accurate. And you must also explain in an Author’s Note that you have done so. Otherwise you MUST list the book as fiction.

I did this in my book, “Devastation on the Delaware: Stories and Images of the Deadly Flood of 1955.” Because so many of the story’s subjects had either perished in the flood or were no longer with us when I was writing the book 50 years later, I needed to be able to take some license if I were to write it in a readable, engaging style.

Book cover, The Perfect Storm

And so I simply let my readers know that if dialogue appeared in quotation marks, it actually came out of the subject’s mouth that way, witnessed by someone verifiable; and if the dialogue appeared in italics without quote marks, it was something I conjectured might have been said. I was clear in my note that I only took license with relatively minor passages, and based my conjecture on what would seem reasonable to most folks to have happened in the given situation.

And you know what? People LIKE this. They’ve actually said things to me about this particular practice, all positive remarks. Now, no one has ever said anything to me about other techniques I use. But they have said things like, “I really like the format. Your book reads like a thriller. I couldn’t put it down!”

When I ask specifically what they liked, they note three things:

  1. The dialogue sounds like real people talking, not stilted, perfect prose. I use sentence fragments and contractions, because people are lazy and want to get their ideas out quickly.
  2. That I did try to imagine what dialogue might have taken place when I didn’t know for sure. As long as they’re aware of which is which, no one feels duped.
  3. I use tactics of good fiction writing: varying story pace, jumping back and forth between characters and scenes to set up easy-to-follow chronological order, giving enough background info to interest readers in characters and make them care what happens to them, and ending each chapter on a cliff-hanger that makes them want to keep reading to find out what happens.

If you’re interested in learning how to write using the narrative nonfiction format, I highly recommend Junger’s book and mine. I can also recommend three others that just happen to also be weather-related, because that’s what I read, as excellent examples of this type of format:

As to whether you should or shouldn’t engage in narrative nonfiction writing, I really do think it’s a matter of how much you’re comfortable fictionalizing. If you’re a purist, don’t even try — it’s not worth the internal struggle you’ll continue to have with yourself. But if you’re open to new approaches, here’s an online link that should help you learn more:

The Reading Experience – Forget Fiction (July 26, 2010)

And here are some books on the subject, both by Peter Rubie.

The Elements of Narrative Nonfiction: How to Write and Sell the Novel of True Events

Telling the Story: How to Write and Sell Narrative Nonfiction

I hope you learn something that will pique your interest in tackling this flexible approach to historical nonfiction.

Books Craft General Writing Inspiration Plot Technique

How Do You Develop Your Plot?

I just read a most interesting post over at The Creative Penn blog about mind-mapping your novel scene by scene. I encourage you to visit this well-written and idea-filled blog, regardless your writing experience. None of us has ever been at it long enough that we can’t learn something of value from someone else.

The Creative Penn blog logo

You really need to check out this awesome writing blog.

For those of you not familiar with mind-mapping, it’s a cool idea. Not entirely sure where it originated, but I’m guessing it was a business thing. At any rate, mind maps are visual or graphic representations of concepts associated in one’s mind with a particular project or idea. By presenting ideas in a radial, graphical, non-linear manner, mind maps encourage a brainstorming approach to planning and organizational tasks. Here’s a more comprehensive definition from Wikipedia.

I suppose I’ve done “mind mapping” for my current novel, Lonely Cottage Road, though it was more linear than lateral. This format sprang not from a desire to prioritize scenes, but because I was struggling with development of timelines that all fit together logically and rationally. I’m writing a historical drama in which my fictional characters and their lives intertwine with actual historical events, and there are a few parts where the two meld — kind of starting with reality, then making up stuff to advance the plotline. I’ve read novels like this and I love it when I can barely tell the difference between what actually happened and what might have but who knows?

This linear map I made was actually a spontaneous thing. I wrote in v-e-r-y small letters with a purple pen on a long, narrow strip of left-over drawing paper that I couldn’t bring myself to throw away even though it was too odd-shaped to do much with, because it cost $8 a sheet. So the timeline runs in two layers on both sides of the sheet. It was not just a good exercise in scene clarification, it was a sensual pleasure because that paper was so soft and thick, it was just awesome to write on. Anyone who knows about me and my paper and pen obsession will understand this.

And here’s something I learned that may be helpful to other writers: Purple ink is NOT permanent. Though the pigments are beautiful, they are fugitive and will fade over time, even when not exposed to light. Trust me on this. Thank God I looked at them when I did, because over a few years, they’d already faded so badly that I had to go over them again so I wouldn’t lose all that info…this time in black ink!

So, have you ever done this kind of graphical interpretation of your plotline, or any other elements of your story? Has it worked for you? why or why not?


Books Craft Genres Promotion

Rebirth of a Nonfiction Success – The Revised Edition

Well, after a month-and-a-half of Book Production Hell, I finally sent the final files to the printer yesterday for the revised second edition of my book, Devastation on the Delaware: Stories and Images of the Deadly Flood of 1955. And all I can say is, “WHEW!”

Book cover, Devastation on the Delaware, Revised Second Edition
Book cover, Devastation on the Delaware, Revised Second Edition

Compared to the initial 3 years of research, interviewing and writing for the first edition, this was nothing. Yet 45 days with no break — no days off, no weekends — is an endurance slog no matter how you look at it. This was a rather small update — I added 40 pages of new material including new stories, maps and photos — to an existing 456-page book. That brings this puppy in at just under 500 pages now, a hefty tome you wouldn’t want to drop on your head from a high shelf, for sure. Not to mention the additional shipping weight and larger mailers it will require.

Still, I opted to keep the retail price at $19.95 — that magic number for all TV product offers, for those who pay attention to such things. But my reasons are that in this day of a contracting print book market and shrinking leisure time in which to read them, I wanted to keep my book attractively priced. That, and I’m aware that most of my primary readership — people who live in the Delaware River Valley — are just like me: middle-class Americans struggling to maintain a decent quality of life on shrinking incomes in a crappy economy. Yet another reason not to raise the price.

But that’s really a publishing issue, not so much that of an author. What I want to talk about here are the concerns any author might have when considering updating a nonfiction work. What do you think about when you want to update an existing book, and how do you decide when it’s the right time to do an updated edition?

For me, and this work in particular, it was kind of a no-brainer. Devastation is a documentary treatment of an historic weather disaster. I first published it in 2005, on the 50th anniversary of the event. The entire first printing of 2,500 copies sold out in 42 days — probably a reflection of the fact that it came out just a month after Hurricane Katrina decimated the Gulf Coast of the US, and hurricane-caused flooding was on everyone’s mind. That was a serendipitous stroke of timing I couldn’t have planned, and as tragic as it was for the Gulf, it was absolutely awesome for this book’s sales.

It went on to sell another 2,500 copies over the next five years, giving it a sales average of 1,000 copies a year. Given that most small press books sell less than 1,000 copies total, I am of course pleased and flattered that so many people find my work interesting enough to fork over $20 for. Initially, the book was supposed to have been published by another publisher, and the estimate was to sell that many in the first year. Had that happened, it would have officially qualified as a bestseller in small, independent press parlance.

However, short of having taken off work for that entire year (after having already taken so much time off to write it) to do nothing but promote it, I’m not sure I could have done anything more than I did to make that happen. I spent nearly every evening and almost all my weekends either sending out promo messages or making appearances on behalf of the book for the first year, about 75% of that effort the second year, and leveled off at about 50% of that effort in the remaining few years until now, mostly because I had another new book of my own and a couple of our other authors’ works to promote, as well (The danger of being both author and publisher).

During that time, as the book sold and awareness of it grew, I was contacted by more and morepeople with their own stories and pictures of the flood to share. Always, my first reaction would be (to myself, of course), “Where the heck were you when I was desperately seeking information about this in the first place?” But that kind of attitude is unhelpful, so I simply listened and followed up with gratitude for these people who felt that what I was doing with the book was of value, and who wanted to add to that value.

As I reached the four-year mark after the original publication, I realized it was time for an update. Enough folks had written in to correct me — usually gently, but sometimes not so much — on errors I had made in the original manuscript. Nothing hideous, mostly embarrassing things like geographical errors due to my less-than-stellar ability to read maps or names that were close but not exact. But it was enough all together to make the responsible historian in me wish to correct the errors in the interest of making the book as accurate an historical document as possible. Plus, there were some clarifications and enhancements of existing stories, and a few new stories whose addition I felt would add to the narrative.

As for timing, I realized that August 18 of this year would be the 55th anniversary of the ’55 flood — in essence, a Golden Anniversary. What better PR hook to hang all our promotion on? So I set that as our pub date, and backtracked the production schedule off of it.

So, for the past year I have been gathering all the new material, clarifying stories, getting photo permissions and doing a few new phone interviews. And in mid-June, as I returned from a ten-day road trip that served to both give me some time away from this office and to allow me the relaxation necessary to face the endurance race ahead of me, I started in on the actual work of updating the manuscript. We also launched a cover contest to allow the public to vote on three possible designs, which was a fun and very informative exercise that — happily — ended up confirming our own choice by an overwhelming margin.

Devastation on the Delaware 2nd Edition Cover
This is the cover for the new edition.
By mid-July, we were ready to start into production on the new layout. My poor designer had to endure many changes, as her layout process ended up coinciding with my last-minute writing changes because our production timeline had been inadvertently telescoped by other work I had to do in order to keep paying the bills. But she was a real trouper and got ‘er done. Between the two of us, and a VERY professional and excellent indexer who produced incredible work and delivered EARLY, we managed to pull it off on time.

Of course, if I had only been the author and not the publisher as well, this schedule would have been very different. Automatically add at least 6 months to a year to the whole process. Just another reason to be glad to be an indy publisher/author. And this time, we’re going the POD (print on demand) route. After all, I’ve already saturated my primary market of local and regional readers with the first edition. Few of them will pop for the second edition, too, so I’ll have to seek new readers. It took me five years to empty our warehouse of the original edition’s 5,000 copies, so it stands to reason I don’t want to be sitting on that much inventory again. The higher per-unit price will even out in my not having to pay to warehouse, ship and inventory that large run, not to mention carrying the large debt for its printing.

So now, with writing and production behind me, it’s on to the third and most critical step of the publishing process: promotion. Thanks to a fast, talented and affordable web developer — Caryn Newton of Lantern Glow Design — I’ve been able to streamline this process to include both traditional and online elements, and I get better at its implementation with every new book we do.

Just thought a window into one author’s updated edition process might be enlightening.

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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.