Friday, September 26, 2008

Wake Up and Start Dreaming

Who doesn't like to hear the story of an individual succeeding in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds? Some like to call it The American Dream, but truly such accomplishments are examples of The Universal Dream, because the spirit that enables unlikely dreams to come true knows no geographical boundaries.

Next to author interviews, my favorite articles to clip and save (although today it's more like print and save--or bookmark and save) are author success stories. I have real-time and virtual folders stuffed full of great things that have happened to writers and literature lovers.

Sometimes I flip through the articles and wonder, "Why them?" or "How are they different?" as I try to find the common denominator for success. I know from years of writing advertising and marketing copy that the key to success is tied to making yourself or your work stand out in the crowd.

One way to stand out is to start believing in your dream. Most people give up before they even begin. Don't buy into the naysayer "wisdom" and "facts" that run rampant in publishing. Learn the difference between facts and truth.

Facts: Less people are reading books. Less people are buying books. Newspapers are eliminating book review sections. Small, independent booksellers are being swallowed up by the chains.

Truth: This is the best time to open an independent book store. As reported in The New York Times, Jessica Stockton Bagnulo graduated with an English degree from New York University in 2001 and went to work for a publishing company. Not feeling the joy she hoped the publishing position would bring, she went back to work part-time at an indie bookstore in the West Village where she had worked during college. Realizing that she was happier there than in her full-time position, Jessica decided to open her own bookstore.

But, in addition to all the facts stated above, Jessica also had no funds or connections that could help her raise the money she would need. So she took a class from the Brooklyn Economic Development Corporation. While researching how to write business plans at the Brooklyn Public Library, Jessica saw a Citibank-sponsored contest for business plans. She entered and took first prize--$15,000.

Unbeknownst to Jessica, a business group in another part of Brooklyn surveyed their residents and discovered what people wanted most in their neighborhood was a bookstore. When the group read of Jessica's contest win in The Daily News, they contacted her and the meeting led to a fundraising party in the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Food and drink were donated by local merchants and the party was staffed by volunteers from the neighborhood as well as celebrities who read about the event and wanted to offer support. During the celebration, Jessica announced that she had a new business partner, a sales rep for Random House, who was making a sizable personal donation to the cause.

Perhaps Jessica was referring to "the facts" when she said, "Maybe I'm an optimist, but I see the other side of it. Which is that only a bookstore can inspire this kind of passion."

Why does everyone love a bookstore? Because it's filled with good stories! Love stories, adventure stories, how-to stories, fantasy stories, life stories and success stories. Support your local bookstore. Attend a book signing and buy the book. Then go home and write. Read in your genre and take time to learn about publishing. And if you believe (remember Tinker Bell), before long I'll be cutting out the article about you and putting it my success folder.

Monday, September 22, 2008

The value of good copy writing

Lessons learned:
1. Hire a professional copy writer to pen your cover copy.
2. A powerful message can be delivered in a very short format.
3. Be grateful for all that you have.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Creativity and the Successful Author

Back in the days when I toiled in advertising, those people who were locked in their offices, hunched over desks either writing copy or designing the layouts for the ads were called "creatives." The "beautiful people" were the account execs who got to wine and dine the clients as part of their job to sign and keep the accounts.

And that is how "creative" can be perceived: The starving artist, reclusive writer and temperamental actor.

I don't like clich├ęs or stereotypes, so today's myth-busting message is that authors can be both creative and entertaining. Here are three examples of writers who extended their imaginations past the page to the public's eye.

The first two were clever enough to tie their work to the event foremost in most Americans' minds right now--the presidential election.

Mark LaFlamme, author of the novel, Dirt: An American Campaign, put his protagonist, Frank Cotton, in the race with a website and blog for the fictitious character. Those who want to help promote Frank Cotton and the book can download a banner to post on their own websites or blogs and get the good deed reciprocated with their links listed on the "candidate's" site as a Friend of Frank Cotton.

My client, Feng Shui expert Pat Heydlauff, wrote and posted a press release/article analyzing the colors worn by First Lady Laura Bush, Senator Hillary Clinton, Cindy McCain and vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin during their presentations at the Democratic and Republican National Conventions. This was not a fashion article, but a commentary on how color helped deliver the speakers' messages with respect to both the outfit and the contrast against the background. The article was picked up by newspapers around the country, with Pat's short bio, website link and mention of her upcoming book, Feng Shui: So Easy a Child Can Do It.

Author Deb Sharp overcame her resistance to what she calls "shameless promotion" by poking fun of herself both in her personal blog and in Ask Mama, the blog she created for her title character in Mama Does Time and Mama Rides Shotgun. Deb has even created some radio essays for Tampa's National Public Radio station WUSF-FM that detail the "horrors" she has faced getting ready to be a published author.

I could write a book (and maybe I will) about clever ways to promote yourself. But, you're a writer, too, so you don't need me to tell you how to be creative. Just get in the shower, take a walk, drive your car or whatever gets your muse working and think of ways to get your work in front of readers. And then send me your story so I can tell everyone here.

Tuesday, September 16, 2008

Can you handle the truth?

Remember Jack Nicholson's famous line in the movie A Few Good Men, where he explodes on the stand while being interrogated by Tom Cruise. "You can't handle the truth!" he delivered with the voice and power only Nicholson can muster, to the cross examination directive that he tell the truth.

Although most viewers would be on the side of Cruise's character, rather than the manipulative character played by Nicholson, I have to say that sometimes that's how I want to respond to people who ask me questions and then don't like the answers they receive.

I truly enjoy receiving writers' questions by email. I usually reply directly to the individual if my schedule permits. However, aside from time constraints, one reason I'm considering ceasing my personal replies and only responding in my blog or newsletter is because people sometimes get angry when they receive information they don't like and then get indignant and even arrogant about my reply. Worse are the ones who ask my advice and then go ahead and do it their way, only to experience what could have been avoided if they had followed the advice they sought.

The reason that I continue to answer questions is for the people who are serious about learning how to achieve their publishing goals and are willing to do whatever is necessary.

When Nancy Kaiser first contacted me last January, she said she wanted to self-publish her book, Letting Go: An Ordinary Woman's Extraordinary Journey of Healing & Transformation, but wanted the assistance of someone who could guide her through the process, something most POD services don't offer. When she sent me her manuscript to review, it was 180,000 words. I told her that was about twice as long as it should be for a first-time author writing a memoir. She replied it had just been cut down by half from its original size. I offered to send her a sample edit that would indicate how she could cut even more.

Nancy wasn't pleased with my suggestion, but she went back to her editor and together they managed to reduce the manuscript to a more manageable and cost-effective size. Through the entire publishing process, Nancy listened to the advice of the professional designer and editors she hired to help her. She held firm to the vision she had for the cover and the integrity of the contents, but she was willing to revise and improvise whenever necessary. She never argued or refused to comply, and often a compromise was possible.

The result? A book that tells a remarkable story cased in an absolutely beautiful cover that is receiving rave reviews from readers all over the world.

Whether you ask questions by email or in person at a writers' conference or author presentation, accept that the answer is given from the person's experience. We're not making the rules or inventing the process, so don't shoot the messenger. There's lots of things about this business that are frustrating, but I've found that many of the silliest-seeming procedures are there for a good reason, whether I like it or not. Publishing is not for the feint of heart or those easily discouraged. I'm reminded of one of my mother's favorite expressions: "If you can't stand the heat, get out of the kitchen." And for goodness sake, "Don't get saucy with me, Bearnaise." (Harvey Korman, History of the World, Part I)

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Can you help a reporter out?

I recently discovered a website that offers a terrific service for free. Whether you are a freelance writer or book author, I believe you'll be interested in checking out, or HARO. The site belongs to Peter Shankman, who heads his own PR agency. The service serves two purposes: journalists (e.g., freelance writers) can submit requests for sources, or individuals (e.g., authors) can subscribe to read the queries and send their info in response.

So whether you're writing an article or want to be cited as an expert in someone's article, this service is an amazing tool to get what you want. Once you've signed up as subscriber, you'll receive three emails a day with anywhere from 15-40+ queries from journalists (which include print, Internet and broadcast media) looking for people to interview for a variety of assignments, and if you're a match you can submit. If you're a journalist looking for a source, you can post a query. He already has over 25,000 subscribers, so getting your request in front of thousands of eyes can beat spending hours on the Internet and phone trying to find someone who meets your needs.

I subscribed to this service about a month ago and found myself emailing clients and friends who I thought were right for various stories. It got too overwhelming to read for myself and others and get any work done, so I directed interested parties to subscribe themselves and sent a tip sheet on how to respond to queries. My original intention was to share the sheet with my clients only, but then I had a "I could've had a V-8" moment and realized everyone could benefit from the tips. So read on if you want to know the right way to respond to a journalist's query or make a blind pitch. (If you need an incentive, my client, Paula Holland De Long, was recently interviewed by Aventura Magazine as a result of replying to a query using these tips.)

How to Respond to a Journalist's Query or Request for Expert Sources
It's very exciting and a good opportunity to reply to a journalist's query or request for expert sources. However, there are conventional rules of procedure to follow, or you risk being labeled a pest rather than a valuable resource! Here's how to submit your expertise, book or product to a media request. (These rules apply to "blind" pitching, too.)
Only respond or pitch if you are an appropriate match for the topic. Don't try to stretch the truth, present yourself to be something you're not or promise what you can't deliver.

Give the request serious thought before dashing out your information. Read the request carefully. What is the angle of the story? Who is the audience? Then present your material in a manner that is consistent with the needs of the story and the audience.

Open with an introduction about why you are writing (I'm writing in response to... or to suggest...). Indicate why you are an expert, but keep to a sentence. "As a licensed physical therapist with Such and Such Medical Group, ...."

Present your information and specify how it is relevant to the subject of the article or show. Make your presentation to the journalist very clear; don't assume that he or she will connect the dots between what you are sending and what they need. If this is a blind pitch, then it's even more important to establish how your information can benefit or be of interest to the audience.

Put your short bio at the end, with your contact information. If you have a book, include "[your name], author of..." Always end with "I'd be happy to provide additional information for this or any other article (show, etc.) that you are preparing about (the subject). Please let me know how else I can help you."

Keep it short. This is not the time to submit your media kit, photo or any self-serving attachments. The purpose of your response is to feed enough information to the journalist to prompt a call or email for more information. If you are contacted, remember that the goal is to serve the press, not to get free publicity. If you help the journalist, your name or product may be cited in the newspaper, magazine or media broadcast. Although that's the ultimate payoff for you, your purpose in replying to requests or sending pitches is to help the journalist do his or her job, which is serving the needs of the audience.

Be mindful of deadlines.

Be realistic. You may think you're the perfect source or match for the journalist's needs, but you won't get a call every time you submit. However, if you establish a pattern of consistent quality and reliability (they can call you for a quote when their deadline is in 15 minutes), then you'll develop a valuable relationship that will pay off for you many times over.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Should you pay others to publish your work?

I had a new writer contact me about an article she had written for a photo-editorial fashion spread. Here's what she wanted to know:

"A photographer friend and I recently did a fashion shoot as a part of a fashion and environment awareness idea that we came up with. The images are beautiful and the story is relevant to the 'going green' movement showing how. Because it is not your typical fashion magazine spread that's trying to sell a specific product, but is more of an informative approach, I am trying to figure out which publication it is best suited for. Possibly a magazine that's in need of content? Should I expect to pay to have this first item published? and if so, how much should I expect to pay?"

Here's my response:

Sounds like a great concept and very timely, too. You should not pay to have your work used; you should be paid. I'm guessing that the photographer has either given you the rights to the images or you will be submitting the work as a photo editorial. You both should be paid for your contributions. What you can get depends on the quality of the work and the publication's budget. Small, regional magazines don't have big budgets, but typically would be interested because they lack the staff to do it on their own. Many fashion spreads are shot and written by freelance contributors. What about the fashions featured? The designer or the store that supplied the clothes should be credited.

Paying to have your work published in a magazine or other print publication is advertising. Do not confuse it with self-publishing a book, where the author assumes the production costs but receives all the profits from book sales.

Tuesday, September 02, 2008

How much is your time worth?

If you are a consultant, coach or freelance writer, your fee is probably based on your time. Most likely you have an hourly rate or you base a project fee on the amount of time you estimate it will take you to do the work. I've been working as a freelance writer, editor and consultant since the late 80s, and I can say I've yet to find a great formula. So this blog post will not be about how to set your fees. Something came up this week that opened my eyes to the value of my time.

I had an unhappy client. That was distressing to me, but it got even worse. The client complained to someone else who is well known in the community and whose opinion is highly valued. I cannot deny that my client had a valid complaint. However, to my knowledge all that was mentioned was the mistake without acknowledgment of the months of good service.

While I lived in Florida, I went to the same hairdresser for over 20 years. We often talked about business and he had a great attitude about customer service. "You're only as good as your last haircut," he told me many times. I'm just now realizing how well that applies to any service.

In my mind, I had served my client well, giving far more hours worth of service than I billed. Yet from her perspective, the one bad "haircut" was what she remembered. It was a good wake-up call for me. Now I understand that it's not about what my time is worth or how I set my fees; it's about how my time is spent delivering what I promise--because good customer service is all any of us have to offer. It's really never about the money.