Cover Stories

Today is a big day.

I received an e-mail this morning from the head of marketing at the University of Nebraska Press … and attached was what should be the final version of the cover for my next book, Go, Flight! The Unsung Heroes of Mission Control. After what had become a little bit of an odyssey to determine an appropriate image, it looks marvelous. I love it.

If your manuscript is an unborn child in the womb, that first glimpse of the cover is similar to one of those amazing 3D sonograms that allows you to begin imagining what the youngster will look like. It’s a stunning moment and one that never, ever gets old. After all that time and expectation … this … is … getting … real.

Race To The Moon Sept 2009 006

Apollo 16 moonwalker Charlie Duke holds a copy of the cover for Footprints in the Dust, which features a photo of Duke during one of his explorations of the lunar surface. I contributed the lead chapter to the book.Fourteen years ago — not long after the birth of our twin sons, as a matter of fact — I got the cover and first color proof pages of my first book, Second to None: The History of the NASCAR Busch Series. It was a day neither I nor my wife, Jeanie, will ever forget.

Today’s e-mail brought back a lot of memories. Fourteen years ago — not longer after my twin sons were born, as a matter of fact — I received the cover and first proof pages for my first book, Second to None: The History of the NASCAR Busch Series. It was a day neither I nor my wife, Jeanie, will ever forget.

Jeanie is a district court judge here in North Carolina, and that particular week, the boys and I had tagged along to a conference she was attending. She had already left for that morning’s first session when the call from the front desk came.

Mr. Houston, a package just arrived for you if you’d like to come get it.

I knew exactly what it contained. I had not showered or shaved yet. The boys were just beginning to stir and had … well … very, very full diapers. I didn’t care. I pulled on a pair of ratty shorts and threw the kids into their monstrous side-by-side stroller. We must’ve made for quite the pitiful sight, but off we went nevertheless.

To get to the lobby, we had to go down a long hallway with large banquet rooms on either side. We made it to the front desk without being seen and tried to sneak back down the hallway to return to the safety and anonymity of our room.

We weren’t as lucky the second time.

At that exact moment, Jeanie’s conference took a break. Out of the rooms streamed every district court judge in the state of North Carolina. There I stood in the T-shirt I’d slept in, gym shorts, unshaven and sporting hair that might or might not have been combed, with boys whose diapers were already stinky … and getting stinkier by the second.

Oh … hey, Honey.

Jeanie forgave me. I had my cover and my color proofs. They were beautiful. So were Jeanie and the boys, dirty diapers and all. This is my most memorable cover story. What’s yours? If this is your first book, what are your expectations for the cover?

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The Unfastened Safety Harness

Working on my most recent book, Wheels Stop: The Tragedies and Triumphs of the Space Shuttle Program (University of Nebraska Press 2013), changed my life forever.

The date was June 22, 2010, and research for Wheels Stop had led me to Johnson Space Center in Houston. Astronaut Doug Hurley was kind enough to invite me to do a run on the Space Shuttle’s motion-base simulator, an ultra-high-tech contraption that tilted upward to simulate the launch position, and then shook and rattled to prepare astronauts for the ride uphill.

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Although I was smiling alongside astronaut Doug Hurley (left) in the Space Shuttle’s motion-base simulator, my heart was broken. A major life change was already beginning to take place.

I couldn’t wait to take him up on it. I have dreamed of being an astronaut my entire life — my last name is Houston for crying out loud — and this was as close as I would ever get. Slowly, I fastened four of the five safety harnesses as we prepared for the run. The fifth belt refused to buckle due to the size of my belly. It still hurts to think about that fifth seat belt even four years later.

This wasn’t happening. I’d been embarrassed many, many times by my size, but never with an honest-to-goodness astronaut standing over me, trying to figure out a way to help. Doug never said anything ugly, but he didn’t need to. I was devastated, and becoming more and more so as I desperately tried to force the issue. My ribs hurt so badly, I could barely breathe.

SLIDE THREE

My before …

Fortunately, we proceeded with the simulation of two launches and five landings. It should have been one of the most memorable moments of my career, and it was, but inside my heart was absolutely broken. I had to change something, and I had to do it quickly. My wife needs a husband, and my sons need a daddy. Heading the way I was headed, I wasn’t going to survive.

Rather than going on some crazy diet when I got back from Houston, I simply started eating like I had some sense. Chinese buffets were my absolute favorite, but they had to go.

Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups were were like my crack cocaine. No more. Not even half of one. Oreo cookies … country fried steak … it was once nothing to eat nearly two pounds worth of bacon and tomato sandwiches. I’ve never been drunk or high, but I know full well what it means to be addicted.

I could do one lap of a half-mile track near our local YMCA without feeling like I was going to break. Then, I could do two … and then four. I signed up to walk in my first 5k, and then I signed up for another. I took a class at the Y on how to actually train for a 5k, and ever since then, I’ve been running. More than four years later I’ve run seventeen 5ks, four 10ks, and three half-marathons. I’ve lost approximately 110 pounds.

houston5k1

… and after photos.

Today, I’m satisfied with my weight. I’m not skinny by any means, but I’m happy with where I am. There’s nothing all that special about my story. Yes, I’ve been able to drop a significant amount of weight, but it wasn’t some super-secret diet or workout routine that did the trick. I was a writer who was almost completely sedentary behind a keyboard and computer monitor, and once I started moving, I haven’t stopped.

Trust me. If I can do it, anybody can. Working on your latest project is important, yes, but not at the expense of your quality of life. Hang in there. You can do it. I promise!

Stretch

For the last several years, I’ve worked an assignment that has stretched me as a writer as much as anything has in a long, long time.

WritingI’ve never sat down with the intentions of putting a fictional story to paper, but some of the sports I’ve covered for NCAA.COM are just about as close as I will ever get. NASCAR, I know. I worked that circus full time for nearly ten years. I’ve loved baseball since I was a child. I played football in high school.

Technically, I didn’t exactly play high-school football. I was on the team. I had a uniform and everything, but to actually play, you have to see time on the field. I was such a stellar athlete, I rode the bench for a team that went 0-10.

Seriously.

I still loved football, and knew it well. But men’s gymnastics? Lacrosse? Track and field? Swimming and diving? My very first exposures to those sports were the days I sat down in the press box … or tent … or grandstands … to work their national championships.

I had a decision to make, and I had to make it quickly. I could treat these sports as some sort of quirky and obscure sideshow attractions, or I could handle them the way I eventually did. These coaches and student-athletes were absolutely as passionate about their respective endeavors as any involved in more well-known sports like football, basketball, and baseball.

How could I treat them with anything less than the utmost respect? I had to learn, and I had to do so fast. Admitting ignorance can be a wonderful thing sometimes, as I learned from the NCAA committee member who patiently explained the difference between a game, set, and match in tennis. I understood completely, I think.

As a result, I’ve come away with some of the most memorable stories of my career. There was Mo Imel, the women’s lacrosse star who gave up a Division I scholarship to move to a Division II school closer to her cancer-stricken sister. After her sister passed away, Mo and her parents attended the funeral in Maryland and then made the spur-of-the-moment decision to drive overnight to Mo’s lacrosse match the next afternoon in Florida.

Mo scored two goals that day, including the game winner.

So, Tip Number One is to broaden your horizons as a writer. What’s that one subject you’ve always considered writing about, but haven’t gotten around to actually sitting down and tackling just yet? Go for it, and you might be surprised at how it turns out.

Then there’s the sheer volume of copy I’ve been called upon to file for NCAA.COM. My personal record for churning out stories — and I’m talking career-wise, not just for NCAA.COM — is thirty-seven 800-word stories in sixteen days. Producing such a massive amount of work in that short a timeframe was one of my toughest challenges in nearly a quarter of a century as a full-time writer.

Again, I had a decision to make. When filing that much copy, it would have been easy to “phone it in” on a story or two. In other words, I could’ve simply slapped a bunch of words up on my laptop screen and sent them in without really caring about the result.

Aside from the theological implications of not making the best use of your God-given abilities, there are a few problems with this approach. Turn in too many “clunker” stories, and the assignment may go to somebody else the next time around. And for a freelancer like me, that’s a bad thing. A very, very bad thing.

Also, that story might very well be the only one ever written about a given coach or student-athlete. It’ll probably be posted on their Facebook page, or maybe even printed out and placed in a scrapbook or on the family refrigerator. If it’s under your byline, you want it to be the best story it can be, regardless of how many came before or after it.

Tip Number Two is to give yourself plenty of time when writing, if at all possible. If your deadline is tight, don’t just pound the story out and file it. Do your best work, always.

Believe it or not, I’m actually headed to Louisville, Kentucky this week to cover an NCAA Division II championship sports festival. Six different sports in three days, and filing what I’m assuming will be multiple stories for each. Say a prayer for me!

How To Create An Author Press Kit

ImageOne of the most effective strategies for book marketing is to create a press kit. This costs no money, but it’s a worthwhile investment of time because the kit will be used from pre-launch throughout the full life of the book.

WHAT IS AN AUTHOR PRESS KIT?

A well-designed author press kit serves as an easy-to-read source of information about a particular book. The goal is to convince folks to read this book and to share it with others.

Of course, the author’s unique skills should be highlighted as well, because media outlets need a reason to interview an author OTHER THAN the fact that their book is for sale. In other words, what makes THIS particular author worthy of air time/ink/review/shelf space?

WHO READS THE PRESS KIT?

The kit should be designed to reach:

  • Bookclubs
  • Booksellers
  • Print and online editors (magazines, newspapers, review sites, etc.)
  • Media outlets and journalists (print, radio, web, podcast, etc.)
  • Librarians
  • Readers (as far reaching as possible but target specific readership)
  • Reviewers (both professional and arm chair)
  • And anyone interested in the work

With millions of books on shelves/cybershelves, the kit must convince people to choose THIS ONE.

HOW TO CREATE AN AUTHOR PRESS KIT:

An author press kit consists of five components.

  • Cover Art: A high resolution jpg of the book’s cover.
  • Sell Sheet: A quick list of the book’s publishing information. Include back-cover copy, the specific editions of the book and availability; date of publication; name of publisher; and a general scope of the marketing/promotion plan (regional vs. national tour, blog tour, media interviews, advertising campaign, publicist, etc.). Give folks an idea of how much effort is being put into this campaign and be sure to include contact information for author and/or publicist.
  • Press Release: This serves as the official press release for the book. Follow the traditional format and exhibit professional know-how.
  • Interview Q&A: Provide a sample interview. Let this show the author’s personality, interesting background, or special skills. Offer something unique that would engage listeners/readers.
  • Sample Chapters: Link to a free chapter or two on Scribd. Offer a sneak peek that showcases the author’s talent and the tone of the book.

HOW TO SHARE THE PRESS KIT?

Once the kit is complete, convert it to PDFs and organize a PRESS KIT folder.

  •  Upload pdfs to an author website for easy download.
  • Before launch, research bloggers, media outlets, libraries, booksellers, bookclubs, etc. and create spreadsheets for each. Send email or postcards to these targets inviting them to download a free author presskit with sample chapters of the soon-to-be-released book.
  • Also share links via social media and other sites geared toward reaching readers.

With a little effort, a proper press kit can impress and intrigue. If done right, the kit will lead folks to a new book before it ever hits shelves.

Julie Cantrell is the New York Times and USA TODAY bestselling author of Into the Free and its sequel, When Mountains Move. Learn more: www.juliecantrell.com

Why Should I Go to a Writer’s Conference?

I believe there are three compelling reasons to go to a writer’s conference and as many, or more, conference “genres” to choose from.

Mount Hermon Azalea

Mount Hermon Azalea

  • You will dwell with a community of writers. The benefit is not only the chance to meet other people who think like you, but you will gain affirmation, encouragement and support. Perhaps you will meet a Facebook friend or an online writer’s loop member face to face for the first time and a lasting friendship blossoms. Or you might sit next to someone at dinner   who writes in your genre or lives nearby and a friend and/or critique partner is found. “A generous man will prosper, he who refreshes others will himself be refreshed.” Proverbs 11:25.
  • There is no better place to learn the writing craft. Most conferences will have an ???????????????????????????????array of workshops and tracks for every level of writer, whether you only have a vague idea about what you want to write or you have a whole drawer full of manuscripts. You can learn specifics about the publishing world from editors and agents and gain insight to what each is looking for. And you can learn from authors who have found success and are generous in sharing what they have learned along the way. “For wisdom will come into your heart, and knowledge will be pleasant to your soul, discretion will watch over you, understanding will guard you.” Proverbs 2:10-11
  • You will have the opportunity to make an appointment with an agent, editor or mentoring author. Beyond learning, building relationships is really the core and the blessing of writer’s conferences. Editors and agents are very interested in finding excellent writers who they enjoy on a personal level as well. The ability to work together is almost as important as your ability to write. If the thought of sitting down
    A meeting waiting to happen.

    A meeting waiting to happen.

    and chatting with an industry professional fills you with anxiety, say a prayer, take a breath, and know that the person you are talking to is interested in what you have to say and wants you to succeed. One of the biggest blessings I have found at conferences of any size, is that those who are there to instruct have a big heart for what they do, and are glad you are there. “Be strong and courageous. Do not fear or be in dread of them, for it is the Lord your God who goes with you. He will not leave you or forsake you.” Deuteronomy 31:6

There are many conferences to choose from, Christian and secular. And there are many good secular conferences so don’t be afraid to attend and be a light to the world. But if you desire to write for the Christian market, you really need to also attend Christian conferences. I like to break them down by size, and each has its benefits. I’ve attended the Romance Writers of America conference (this July it’s in San Antonio!) and a plus is meeting with the Faith, Hope and Love Chapter.

  • The small, weekend workshop. You can usually find one of these close to where you live, and they often are the best place to dip your toe in the water, or your pen into
    Beachside 2011      The Weight of Words

    Beachside 2011 The Weight of Words

    the ink. Especially great for newbie writers. and also those who write because they love to, but don’t necessarily aspire to be traditionally published. Choose one that is lakeside, beachside, or mountaintop for an extra dose of inspiration! My favorite is Bob Welch’s Beachside Writers with Jane Kirkpatrick. They are a dynamic duo and the weekend offers a unique blend of learning the craft and practicing your writing skills. It’s on the Oregon coast in Yachats, and I try to go as often as possible.

  • Regional conferences. Once again, most likely you won’t have to travel far to find a writer’s conference that is still small but offers much to the writer who wants the chance to meet editors from publishing houses and magazines, agents, librarians, freelance editors, and multi-published authors who enjoy “giving back” and sharing techniques or writing methods they’ve learned along their journey. Most likely there will be an amazing keynote speaker. I have just returned from the Mount Hermon
    Mount Hermon Check-In

    Mount Hermon Check-In

    Christian Writer’s Conference in Santa Cruz, CA. Author and speaker Glenna Salsbury was the inspiring keynoter this year and next year Author Robin Gunn will be speaking. The campus is in the redwoods, with dogwood and azalea in bloom, and I can’t imagine a more beautiful spot to be inspired to write. The sense of being among a community of writers is awesome, and as you drink in the beauty and tranquility you can’t help but experience God’s presence. And  the Oregon Christian Writer’s Conference has fantastic conferences ranging from one-day to a full four-day conference in Portland with keynote speakers such as Author Jane Kirkpatrick, Allen Arnold of Ransomed Heart Ministries and Author Dan Walsh.

  • National conferences. This is where you will find a compendium of knowledge about all aspects of the writing world. It’s most likely located at a conference hotel and
    Enjoying friends at ACFW

    Enjoying friends at ACFW

    maybe only occasionally near you. But it’s worth the time and effort to attend. The pace might seem hectic and you will literally fall into bed each night, but you will come home filled with enthusiasm to finish the book or start the next one! My favorite one is the American Christian Fiction Writer’s Conference, held this year in beautiful St. Louis, MO, with keynote speaker, Author Lauraine Snelling. The conference dates this year are September 25 – 27th. And remember, if you feel overwhelmed, there is always a chapel or prayer room arranged at ACFW with Brandilyn Collins and volunteers there to pray with you and/or beside you.

I’d love to know if you have attended a conference or if you are planning on attending one in the future. Which are your personal favorites? Why? If you’re attending one for the first time what do you look forward to the most? What do you fear?

Your Friends in the Book Marketing Business

Book marketing can be rather overwhelming, especially here in the middle of the publishing revolution. The good news is that there are more and more emerging companies out there who bring a lot of light to this dark arena. Whether you are an author looking for assistance or a reader trying to find the best deals available, this post is to create a compilation of resources you may find helpful.

Pubslush: A global, crowd funding and analytics platform for books only. This platform allows authors to raise money and gauge the initial audience for new book ideas, and for readers to pledge their financial support to bring books to life. Pubslush is entirely about giving: giving an opportunity to authors, giving a voice to readers, and giving books to children without access to literature. http://www.pubslush.com 

Businessman Midair in a Business Meeting

Author Marketing ClubAn author member can submit books for promotional opportunities, as well as access free online training and resources related to book marketing. A reader member will get notified about new and discounted books, and can discover new authors. This service is free for both authors and readers. You can upgrade to the Premium program if you wish for additional benefits, but it is not required for you to do so. Some of the options offered under a Premium membership include an Amazon book reviewer tool that can help you find reviewers who focus on your literary genre.  http://authormarketingclub.com/

BookBub: The best marketing dollars I have ever spent have been with BookBub. BookBub is a free daily email that notifies you about deep discounts on acclaimed ebooks. You choose the types you’d like to get notified about — with categories ranging from mysteries to cookbooks — and they email you great deals in those genres. BookBub features ebooks ranging from top-tier publishers to critically acclaimed independent authors. During my last campaign with BookBub, I spent about $260.00 and yielded thousands of downloads as a result. If you are looking for new readers, do yourself a favor and check out BookBub: http://www.bookbub.com/home/

Other great resources for readers:

Pixel of Ink: A website which features daily publishing of Free Kindle Books and Hot Deals. On any given day, there are thousands of Free Kindle Books available.  http://www.pixelofink.com/

Inspired Reads: The best Christian Kindle books on a budget. http://www.inspiredreads.com/

Kindle Daily Deal: The best deals available for Kindle. http://amzn.to/KindleDailyDeal

What are your favorite book marketing resources, websites, and venues?

Scenes From a Street Fair

Writers, have you ever participated in a street fair?

I recently had the opportunity to represent local authors through Read Local San Diego at the Encinitas Street Fair. The total cost of the booth for a couple of days was $300.00, broken out into time slots for authors to utilize at the price of $25.00 for a two hour period. Considering that literally thousands of people attend the annual Encinitas Street Fair (situated two blocks away from the Pacific Ocean), it was clearly a cost effective way to gain exposure in the community. 

Parking nearby was out of the question. My husband was good enough to drop me off near the booth, using back roads to weave in and out. Realizing this would be the case, I took a roller bag with wheels to carry my books, a desk easel to display my books at the booth, several pens, a pad of paper, and a set of business cards. As far as the number of books, they suggested at least five, so I brought twenty. Next time, I’ll go with around forty or fifty. I pre-signed the books with a “hope you enjoy the read” type message, so I could quickly fill in people’s names and the dates and facilitate the process.

There were three other authors at the booth with me. We had two six-foot tables, with two authors per a table. “Oh, you’re here,” my table mate said when I arrived about five minutes before our shift began. “I was about to take over your table space.”

I became acquainted with him and the other three authors in my shift. At first, none of us were sure of how to engage the throes of people walking by our booth. One author called to people like a carnival barker, offering a chance to win one of his books if people would fill out a slip with their email and mailing addresses. Most folks, there with the intention of being out for a stroll and buying no greater purchase than a funnel cake, weren’t too receptive to this approach. The four of us did some brainstorming and giveaways seemed to be the way to go in this environment. I gave away free signed copies, asking for an honest review on Amazon in lieu of payment. That seemed to go over pretty well. In each book, I placed a business card with my contact information on one side and my book cover on the other side.

Next to our booth was a fifth local author, a gentlemen of a certain age who writes for the Young Adult market. He has quite a following and teenagers kept coming by throughout the day to say hello to him. He has nineteen books to his credit and required his own booth. He is an adjunct professor at a local university and asked if I would like an opportunity to speak and / or teach. The street fair was proving to be a good opportunity to interact not just with the public, but with like-minded authors.

Street fair

During the slow moments of the shift, our group compared notes and talked shop. An elderly man in the group who was intimidated by social media went home with an education about how to use Twitter. One lady needed a reasonably priced editor and received a referral. Another writer needed a graphic artist referral for book covers, and was given several suggestions. I became familiar with the San Diego Writers Guild and started looking into their upcoming meetings.

We also worked as a team, which was fun. If someone approached an author whose book wasn’t their cup of tea, then there were four other writers of very different genres available to meet. Several authors had huge display posters with the covers of their books. They said these can be ordered online, and all one has to do is send in the content and a digital file. We learned that coffee and books and wind are not a very smart combination. We learned that a roll of duct tape is imperative in order to fix issues such as crooked signs or tent tables that needed more infrastructure. Bringing a box of pens and having a way to make change is also advised.

All in all, a street fair is probably not going to yield thousands of sales, unless the fair specifically focuses on books. Most people going to a street fair may not have books on the mind, but it is a wonderful networking opportunity, and you just can’t beat the exposure for the price. You may want to check out street fairs and rental booths in your own area, because people really do like to support local businesses, including their local writers and authors.

Have you had any experience with street fairs or book expos?

Any suggestions on how to best leverage this kind of marketing approach?