How to Write a Nonfiction Book that Sells — Pt. 2

Good NewsIn Part One, I talked about the importance of subject, title, and content for writing nonfiction books that sell. All of these are key elements. Missing just one could mean the difference between a publisher’s bite on your bait, or their swimming away.

Equally, if you neglect the power of your marketing strategy, including future books you can write, a publisher might say no instead of yes. Short-cutting is not worth the risk of losing a book deal.

So let’s talk specifics.

  • Intriguing marketing strategies are an integral piece of your non-fiction book proposal. Every author’s heard it, “You must help promote your own book.” But most, even those of us with sales and marketing backgrounds from other industries, can feel overwhelmed at how to effectively boost book sales on paper or in application. So what’s an author to do?

Think outside the industry. How do movies and TV programs promote their wares? What are the big producers doing to move sales? Think Coke, Wal-Mart, Apple, Under Armor, Cabelas, or others you see frequenting the air and radio waves, or filling store shelves. Learn from the big boys while creatively using your small budget.

For instance:

  • Getting Through What You Can't Get Over Book CoverBuild human curiosity into the heart of your sales tactics and specify samples in your book proposal. i.e. Six Secrets to…, How to…, What ______ Want, Three Things Most People Forget that Could Cost You Sales. See the pattern?
  • List all of your speaking events, including those you volunteer for, or that may feel more like family than a professional gig. Any exposure to a potential buying public counts — and those with built-in fans increase the odds of book sales.
  • Look at conferences, organizations, businesses, that don’t immediately seem like a fit for your message. Is there a way to connect your book to their needs? For Getting Through What You Can’t Get Over, I’m promoting the impact personal issues have on the workplace and vice-versa. I’ve booked new speaking opportunities as a result.
  • Include something unique. *Talk about the psychology of color and how you can use it in your marketing materials. Note your intent to attract those looking for peace through shades of green, your strategy to pursue passionate responses with strokes of red, or your ability to stir deeper thinking by adding blue.

*After you’ve made the sale, don’t forget to work with your publisher on appropriate colors when considering cover art for your book.

  • Future books you’d like to write are like adding scent to the lure for a publisher ready to bite. After writing your proposal on a subject matter readers are interested in, brainstorming a dynamite title, writing clear content, and adding unique marketing flavors, offer a list of intriguing future titles, true to your brand. This shows the publisher you are more than a one-hit-wonder. You are an author readers will follow for a long time to come.

In conclusion, I must stress the need for a teachable attitude and patient demeanor. Two common challenges we must overcome if we want to succeed. There is no place for arrogance or impatience in any professional venue. Be a turtle, not a hare, and in time, you will write a nonfiction book that sells.

Have you sold books and if so, can you offer insights I missed?

Asking the Question, “How Do I Get Published?”

Woman_talking_on_phoneNothing dispels the misconception that I am unique more categorically than the internet.

Case in point: Every time I embark on some new project—whether it’s growing asparagus from seed or figuring out whether to read a talked-about novel or advising a student about whether she should negotiate for a better grad school fellowship offer—I always begin by asking Google. Invariably, before I get further than a word or two, Google is already offering me the rest of my question in the searchbox, word for word exactly as I was going to phrase it, from one of the millions before me who’ve already posed it. Whatever I’m asking—however stupid, embarrassing, or arcane my inquiry—the e-populace has already considered it and devoted significant effort to answering it. Wherever I go, the virtual multitudes have already been. Truly there is nothing new under the sun.

That said, experience has also taught me that there are many who don’t seek answers on the internet. Or anyway, there may be plenty of mes out there asking my questions, but, whoever they are, they’re not the would-be authors who show up at my office or email or call wanting to know how to turn their great ideas into published books.

Computer Workstation Variables from WikimediaUsually, I concentrate my authorial-guru expertise on trying to turn their initial question—how to get published—into something more answerable, like how do you write a query letter? Or, how do you write a nonfiction book proposal? Or, do I really need an agent?

I explain to them things I’ve learned about the publishing process over the years—like that agents play an important role in the publishing process by vetting billions of manuscripts out there to find ones worth sending on to publishers. I tell aspiring authors that the 15% of what they may make and are already so reluctant to shell out for their as yet unpublished (and often not yet completed or even begun) books is every penny worth it for someone who not only knows how to navigate the crazily mysterious publishing world and has the connections to do so but who has a vested interest—namely, the desire to make money—in their clients’ success, since that’s where their success will come from.

“What you should be asking,” I say, “is not if you really need an agent but how to get one. And how to motivate yourself to finish a draft. Or how to get started in the first place.”

But they didn’t come to be nagged. They came hoping I’d help them keep on dreaming.

Here’s the thing. Getting published takes work, that’s all. And every answer you have about it has already been asked and answered, in billionuplicate, on the internet. And in more detail than any single author could ever offer. Figuring out how to get published is a matter of asking Google a question and then making your way, site by site, into the vast inter-universe of answers, refining and reasking as you go.

Interested in finding an agent? Here’s how.

Interested in getting a particular agent? Here’s how.

Interested in what clients that agent has had and how successful those clients have been in the past few years? Want to know how long your dream-agent takes to respond to queries? To requests for a partial manuscript? To requests for a full manuscript? It’s all there, often conveniently consolidated into a single, sortable site. Verily I say unto you, there is no mystery more fully unraveled in the webby bowels of the internet than publishing a book.

Which isn’t to say everyone’s in agreement about everything. Or about anything. Far from it. Finding some small clump of consensus, much less an answer you can trust, is as difficult as getting the educated lowdown on a loved one’s disease from the internet. It’s there, but you have to sort through a lot of obvious and sometimes not so obvious nonsense to discover it. Publishing questions are no different. You’ll have to winnow your findings.

But answers to your questions are out there. And, if you’re selective, what you learn is likely to be as trustworthy as and more informed than the answer of any single expert.

So, when you have a publishing question—especially THE publishing question—start with Google. Each question you ask and every answer you receive will take you deeper and a bit more confidently into the publishing world than any one published author can. If you’re lucky, you might even end up somewhere like here, where not just one but an entire community of agented writers are dedicated to encouraging, engaging, and enriching you along your writing journey. Without even being asked.Computer Keyboard

Being a Writer Means being Relational

I’m looking forward to one of the most intriguing reunions I’ve ever anticipated: reconnecting with a former cocaine dealer who I last saw — and interviewed for a newspaper column — when he was 15 years old.

FreedomThat was nearly 30 years ago.

Before he went to prison. Before his father joined him in the drug-dealing business and killed himself the night before father and son were to go to trial. Before the two of us began writing each other, off and on, for nearly three decades as he bounced from prison to prison.

Now, he’s a free man — and 44 years old. And I’m going to make good on a long-ago promise to buy him dinner to celebrate his freedom.

I sent him a copy of my book 52 Little Lessons from Les Miserables (Thomas Nelson, 2014) because the man is a living, breathing Jean Valjean. Remember? Victor Hugo’s protagonist is released from prison after 19  years, having originally been placed there for stealing a loaf of bread to feed his sister’s family.

But nobody trusts him. Nobody will even give him a room. Except for a bishop, who welcomes him, feeds him and, most importantly, forgives him after Valjean takes off in the night with the bishop’s silverware.

“I’m glad to see you,” says the bishop as Valjean stands before him, flanked by two police officers, “but I gave you the candlesticks, too, which are silver like the rest and would bring two hundred francs. Why didn’t you take them with the cutlery?”

Grace. Second chances. Redemption. The stuff that Jesus is all about.

A rare act that necessarily begins with a relationship. Which is what we as writers of faith should never take for granted: the idea that our profession is about so much more than punching words into a computer. Or even stories.

It’s about relationships. And not just the ones we write about. But the ones we create as we write — with sources, editors, librarians, archivists, a Jewish woman in Jerusalem who wound up translating all my Yiddish for a book on the first nurse to die after the landings at Normandy, American Nightingale (Atria Press, 2004), you name it.

I was 32 when I met that young who just got out of prison. I am now 61. In the intervening years, one of the most important lessons I’ve learned is that we are to be about more than writing. We are to be about relationships.

A Pharisee saw a chance to back Jesus into a corner. What, he asked, was the most important commandment? Jesus didn’t hesitate.

“’Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

As writers, I’ve often thought our privilege was getting to be four-wheel-drive vehicles with the ability to go where others can’t or won’t.

I would not have met this modern-day Jean Valjean had I not been a newspaper columnist at the time.

I would not be hiking nearly weekly with a new friend had I not met him when writing about his 125-foot fall from atop Oregon’s 9,184-foot Mt. Thielsen.

I would not have had the chance to hear a Belgian innkeeper tell me what it was like, as an 8-year-old boy, to watch Hitler’s army goose-stepping into town in May 1940, had I not been writing a book on that WWII nurses.

There’s this idea that, as writers, we’re to wall ourselves off from the world, light a candle, and write, write, write. And, frankly, I love that part of the job. But our words build bridges to countless people with whom we might be salt and light. And it behooves us to remember that before we were writers, we were — and are — people.

In our case, people called to relationship — with God and with other people.

How a Non-Writer Like Me Got Published (Part II)

(Continued from Part I)

I began writing my memoir by starting near the end. That first night, while sitting in front of a blank computer screen, I tapped out the images closest to memory, and likely closest to my heart. It was the account of a remarkable day… the day I delivered my daughter, Annie, to a drug treatment center in California.

 “It wasn’t at all the institutional setting I’d expected for detox… At that late hour, the street was quiet and still. A woman emerged from the far side of the darkened house, brushing by a wall of hydrangeas that cast an eerie glow of amethyst and silver in partial moonlight. Her hushed tones made it seem a clandestine transfer as she took hold of the pull handle on Annie’s bag and turned to escort her inside… Just before both disappeared into the darkness of an open gate, Annie turned around to me and mouthed the words, ‘Thanks Mom.’ I thought I might burst. “

Within a week, I had one, full chapter completed. “Not bad,” my college-aged son reported after a quick read. He showed all the enthusiasm of dry cement. My husband refused to read it at all.Image, post-its and pens

My brother, Paul, on the other hand, provided terrific support for my intentions with the book. He had been the smart one, the accomplished student. While I was sunbathing and reading Cliff Notes during our college years, Paul studied Comparative Literature as a graduate fellow at a top university. “So Goose,” he asked (yes, he calls me Goose), “are you going to write this sequentially or thematically? You also need to pay close attention to your voice.

My what?

I struggled with how to continue. What was a “voice” and where could I get one? Was I really capable of writing a book? What initially had seemed nothing more than a quick chronicle of a story I already knew, the magnitude of the task ahead started to overwhelm me.

Image, Book binder

I decided equipment would help. A lover of bins and boxes and anything organizational, I ventured into Office Max and filled my cart with a large black binder, numbered dividers, a year’s supply of yellow sticky notes, white 3×5 cards, and multi-colored mechanical pencils. Once home, I affixed a sticker to the spine of the binder with the word “Book” written on it in blue felt tip marker.

I placed my new materials throughout the house: at my desk, on the coffee table in the great room, at my bedside table, near the bathroom sink, and in both cars. Ultimately finding it perilous to jot notes while driving, I purchased a small recording device. “Don’t forget to tell them what happened in the garage,” I recorded into the mic.

Each night before I sat to write, I filed the day’s sticky note inspirations onto the dividers throughout the binder. Then I prayed. “This was your idea, God. Help, please!”

Six months later I had an outline and about six chapters written. This feat coincided with the weekend visit of a close friend, and one of the smartest people I know. Bright, articulate, and extremely well read, my friend-who-shares-the-same-name-as-me, demanded to read what I’d written. She in fact seemed hurt that I hadn’t yet asked for her input and advice. I knew better than to share my work so early in the process, and especially with someone who tends to be critical, but I yielded to her insistence. I really hoped for some encouragement.

You see it coming, don’t you?

My friend emerged from our guest room the next morning, with the “Book” binder in hand, avoiding eye contact as she headed to the coffee pot. Oh boy, I thought.

“So Barb,” she finally said, once settled in at the breakfast bar, “I, uh, think, uh, this is an important story for, uh, people to read. It’s not, uhhhhh, gonna be a best seller or anything, but it’s, uh, good.” She then looked up at me and added enthusiastically, “You sure have a great memory!”

I laughed. Kind of. “Memory isn’t exactly what I was going for. But I guess that’s something. Thanks for reading.”

Unable to leave well enough alone, she added, “You sure didn’t use many big words, did you?”

At that point my heart went “thunk”… and I stopped writing.

(Stay tuned for Part III when I share how the Jordan River helped me start writing again… and how A Very Fine House got its name.)

Rock Bottom

Who we are as writers is a direct result of who we are deep, deep down inside as people.

CliffWSOf course, a lot goes into making us who we are. For me, it’s the entirety of those life experiences that cause me to strive to be a better person tomorrow and vow never to return to the circumstances in which I found myself during those long ago yesterdays.

One night in particular changed everything for me. It was the night I hit rock bottom, the end of my rope, the worst night out of many, many bad ones. It was late Friday, October 2 and the earliest-morning hours of the following day in 1992, and I was in the media parking lot of North Wilkesboro Speedway.

I’d gone through the agony of a divorce back home in Nashville, and after my ex-wife remarried, my son Richard was calling another man Daddy. That was a pain unlike anything I’d ever experienced, even more than the breakup of my marriage.

I’d moved to North Carolina a few weeks before, trying to find my way into the wondrous world of NASCAR. I had no real job, no money and very nearly no home. I was being paid nothing for the stringer work I was doing — nothing for the stories I filed, no expenses, no nothing. The only thing I received was a press pass.

Having covered a race in Martinsville, Virginia the week before, I wound up sneaking food out of the press box for dinner and sleeping in my car. The plan was to do the same the next weekend in North Wilkesboro, but when I arrived, it didn’t take long to figure out that meals wouldn’t be provided to the media until race day on Sunday.

It was Friday morning, and I had not a cent to my name. Panic set in. I was devastated. Scared. Hungry. And worst of all, completely alone. There was nowhere to turn. More than two decades have passed since that day, and even now, I can smell the personal-sized pizzas other reporters were able to buy from the concession stands.

After practice and qualifying that day, I waited until every other media member left the grassy parking lot behind the frontstretch grandstands. No way did I want them to see me setting up shop for the night in my car, and in that car in particular.

The next twelve hours or so were the longest — and emptiest — of my life. I cried that night, not knowing how things were going to turn out. I was more than 400 miles away from anybody I knew well enough to ask for help. I tried to pray, but had no eloquent words. There weren’t even any complete thoughts … all I could manage was the same basic phrase, over and over again.

Oh, God … 

I was scared and saw no way out of the fix I was in.

Oh, God …

Oh, God, please … 

Oh, God …

Sleep was next to impossible. As soon as day broke, I washed off, changed shirts and walked to the garage. Not long afterward, I ran into Deb Williams, the editor of Winston Cup Scene. 

In the NASCAR world, Winston Cup Scene reigned supreme. It was The New York Times, Washington Post and Sports Illustrated of NASCAR, and its writers were the best of the best. Deb let me know a story I’d written was going to run in the next week’s issue. It wasn’t a full time job, but it was at the very least an opening. Maybe I did belong. Maybe.

I headed to the press box overlooking the track, and it was there that I encountered Jerry Lankford, a reporter for the local newspaper in Wilkes County.

“Rick, I don’t know why I didn’t tell you about this yesterday,” he began. “The family that owns the paper I work for owns another one not far from here, and they need a sports editor. Would you be interested?”

Before I could stop myself, I bellowed, “YES!!!” I didn’t ask about the details, because they didn’t matter in the  least. I didn’t ask where the paper was located — it turned out to be in a little town in the mountains of North Carolina called Sparta — or how much it paid. All I cared about was that it was a job, and even better, it was a job with an established newspaper.

Just a few days later, I had my interview. By the time I made it back “home” to the motel where I was staying, I had a call that I’d gotten the job. I was officially the sports editor for The Alleghany News. I started on October 15, 1992 and almost exactly two years later, I landed my dream gig when I was hired as a full-time staff writer for Winston Cup Scene.

Amen … amen … and amen!

Some would call it a simple coincidence that I’d learned of my story running in Winston Cup Scene and the job possibility on the morning after such a terrible, dark, lonely night. No. No way. God heard the simple prayers I prayed that night, and He honored them.

I’ve never forgotten that night. I certainly never want to go back to those kinds of circumstances again, but I don’t want them to slip entirely from my mind, either. I want to remember the bad times so I can rejoice all the more in the good. I want that kind of raw emotion to be present when I write.

Always.

How I Discover New Books– Hint, Not in a Bookstore

It’s been said that the reason an author should stick to traditional publishing is book discoverability and distribution by way of a publisher’s marketing budget and sales staff.

bookstore-482970_1280I was fortunate to get a three-book deal with a mid-size Christian publisher who did get behind my book generously with marketing dollars. They even landed me in Sam’s Club with my first two books in hundreds of stores nationwide.

Just, why, didn’t I hit the bestseller lists? I think the books are good. Proof and Poison got starred reviews from Library Journal. Both were nominated (though never won) for awards. Lots of favorable reviews.

In fact, I might even say that landing in Sam’s Club hurt me a little. Why? The issue with Sam’s club is it’s a BIG order. It’s a risk for the publisher. If you’re not a well-known name who can move those novels many are going to get returned and your royalty report is going to look like a defaulted home loan and the bank is knocking on your door.

I began to analyze how I discover books, and does it match with the way a traditional publisher markets novels?

Sure, your best chance of getting into a bookstore is partnering with a traditional publisher but how often are you going to bookstores anymore? I used to go weekly, when they were close. There aren’t any close ones anymore. The one at the mall I would stop in while shopping for other things . . . gone . . . both of them. The closest bookstore is a 15-20 minute drive. And as NYT’s bestselling author Jamie McGuire blogs here— even she wasn’t seeing her novels in bookstores during release week.

Here is a list of how I now discover books.

1. Goodreads Reviews. Goodreads is the place for people who LOVE books and where book lovers leave reviews. I find I have more Goodreads reviews than Amazon reviews. I have close to 2,500 friends on Goodreads. Every day, I get an e-mail of their reviews. I’ve come to know whose reading tastes are similar to mine. A good review of a book will cause me to look further on Amazon. Plus, since I’m friends with so many, I get exposed to a wide variety of books outside my general reading genre (suspense) that I probably wouldn’t have heard about– even browsing bookstore aisles.

2. Amazon Lists. Amazon lists are fun to browse. Of course, there is always the 100 top paid and free Kindle lists but I also look at genre specific top 100 lists. I also pay attention to novels getting a crazy number of reviews and try and read those to see what is catching the reader’s eye. So, from my first two examples, I don’t think any author can say that reviews don’t matter . . . they do.

3. Advertising Lists. There are a couple of advertising lists that I belong to– BookBub and Inspired Reads. On these sites, you can narrow down the types of e-mails you receive to genres you like. Every day you’ll get an e-mail about books that are on sale. Bookbub lists are the primary way I’m buying books. If I see an interesting book cover then I click the buy link for Amazon and check out reviews. Based on the number of reviews, I make a decision about whether or not to buy the novel. BookBub has a very good reputation among authors that though pricey– is generally a good investment of your marketing dollars. I think the same is true with Inspired Reads for their reach/price ratio.

4. Word of Mouth. I’m like every other human being. If a good friend says, “You must read this book.” it will climb up to the top of my TBR list. The more people that say it– the more likely I am to read it. One author I’d almost given up on until a good friend said, “Just read this one. If you don’t like it, I give you permission to never read this author again.” Reading that novel changed my opinion of the author and their work.

What I find is that I’m rarely in a bookstore anymore but I’m discovering a lot more books because these things are available to me every day.

For my fall release, this is how I’m spending my marketing money. I’ll likely not be arranging bookstore book signings, but that’s a topic for another time.

How are you discovering books? Does that determine your marketing plan?

Why the Ninja? And Other Great Questions Your Writers’ Group Will Ask

NinjaWriters are a strange breed. We pretty much live inside our own heads, which isn’t a problem as far as we’re concerned. In fact, inside our heads is a pretty great place to be. Kind of like Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory, where anything is possible, including eating a three course dinner in the form of chewing gum, or turning into a blueberry as punishment for being greedy (a little something we writers like to call poetic justice).

There is a downside, of course, which is that non-writers don’t always get our compulsive need to take ten minutes to compose a grammatically correct text while they’re standing in front of a wall of cereal boxes waiting to hear which one we’d like them to buy, or our propensity for bolting upright in bed at 3 a.m. and shouting “Yes! That’s how she did it!”
Which is why we writers need to seek out other writers–to convince ourselves that we’re not really crazy. Or, if we are, that there just may be a way to convert all that crazy into an actual career (yes, Dad, you can still call it a career if you don’t have regular hours, a place of work, or any viable income, per se).

A writers’ group is a fabulous place to find that support and encouragement. Connecting with people who have a mutual passion for wordsmithing and a mutual penchant for consuming copious cups of coffee daily–which is critical to maintaining both sanity and an ever-increasing word count.

One of the keys to an effective group is trust. Putting yourself out there as you share your work requires tremendous vulnerability, something we self-preserving writers aren’t that keen on. Remembering that other members only want to encourage you to make your work as good as it possibly can be is the secret to surviving (even embracing) the process.

Another key is honesty. Feedback such as “that’s the most amazing writing I have ever read; don’t change a single thing” is all well and good. Very well and very good, in fact. Only it’s not all that helpful. Something like, “I really enjoyed the dialogue between the butcher and the housewife over the meat counter at the grocery store, but I didn’t get why the Ninja darted out of the back room and grabbed a rump roast before back-flipping his way down the International Foods aisle” is much more useful. Now you can go back and read that scene over, realize that the Ninja, while really, really cool, is in fact unnecessary to the plot, and take him out.

Painful as it may be at times, a willingness to receive constructive criticism and honest feedback from people you trust (and who are always willing to make allowances for the fact that you live life on the outer fringes of reality, especially since they usually share the same postal code) inevitably leads to stronger, tighter, more excellent writing.

And there’s nothing crazy about that.

Are you part of a writer’s group? Have you found it helpful?