Is it OK to take a long time? Yes. Writing a book is like a lasting friendship. If you don’t abandon it and periodically give it “quality time” your book will become stronger. Over an extended period of time, you evolve, both as a writer and as a person. Writing itself makes you more skilled as an author. Not only should you consciously attempt to learn the craft, you will inevitably develop a greater sense of command and strengthen your voice. And, assuming you grow wiser as you age, your point of view toward your subject will shift, too. What are the negative consequences to writing a book over a long period of time? How can I benefit from taking more time, and do this right? Should I go back to the beginning each time I’m away for a while? What if I never revisit my earlier material, and resume writing where I left off? How can I make my pieced-together book cohesive?
Your book is written and on its way to the printer. What’s next? You need to get people talking about it. A recent study by the Keller Fay Group, a marketing consulting firm, titled Finally Proof That Word of Mouth Isn’t Just Nice to Have But Drives Measurable ROI, reports that word of mouth is responsible for as many as 54% of buying decisions. So let’s look at some tools to help you create a buzz about your book.
You are writing a memoir. You have an amazing story to tell. Your account of the remarkable experiences you’ve had is sure to captivate readers… Hold on for a minute. Before you go any further, consider Douglas Crow’s comment on the Working Writers Blog: Nobody cares about your book. What people TRULY want is to improve THEIR lives. The only reason someone may find your story interesting is how it relates to them. The old radio station, WIIFM (what’s in it for me) is the most popular thought on the planet. The reason people read memoirs is to gather perspectives, insights and lessons that they can apply to their own experiences. The things which allow memoirists to connect with readers are universal themes viewed in a new or unique way. (See our post Writing a Memoir: Unless You’re a Celebrity It’s Not All About You) To tap those themes you as a memoirist could use some guidance from your potential audience. As they read your story, what touches them? How do you get that kind of feedback?
The New York Times’ Sunday Dialogue: Tumult in the Book World took on the question, “Can traditional bookstores survive the digital marketplace?” Reader Barry Brisco didn’t think so. His assessment of the situation is that the same thing which happened in the music and video business will happen with books: …because the barrier to entry is lower than in the past and the means of distributing the content is vastly more efficient. It will be the same with written expression. Writers will still enjoy creating stories using the written word, and people will still enjoy spending time with a “good book” — regardless of the technology used to consume it. Brisco’s view seems to represent pretty accurately the people who think that the changes in the publishing world will have few consequences beyond opening up the path to publication for authors. There’s a problem with that view. If self-publishing and e-books have eliminated the barrier to market entry they have also eliminated the processes that created a “good book” that people will still enjoy reading.
I was drinking my coffee this morning and perusing the Times Book Review. Flipping to page seven, I found a full page ad titled Brilliant books for your bookshelf! Normally I skip over the ads, but as I did some logos caught my eye – AuthorHouse, Trafford, and iUniverse. Going back a page I saw Xlibris with a full page under Fresh Ideas. Unforgettable Stories. Wow! Penguin’s new subsidiary Author Solutions out there at work for “self-publishing” authors. Having followed the tactics of Author Solutions (which includes imprints for AuthorHouse, iUniverse, Xlibris, Trafford and several others), I was interested in what I saw. A quick look at the Author House site indicated that the authors whose books had appeared paid $5,899 for the New York Times Media Marketing Package. What does that buy?
One of the first pieces of advice a novice writer is likely to hear is, “Show don’t tell.” But what does this really mean? Essentially it means learning how to use descriptive details to give your stories a sense of time and place and an emotional tone which will help readers feel what is going on in the story as you relate it. Let’s look at some ways to do that.
Most people who want to write a memoir or family history aren’t professional writers. For them the process of writing a book is a trip through uncharted territory. They are full of questions about how to go about the process. It’s been a while since I read William Zinsser’s, essay How to Write a Memoir written for The American Scholar in 2006. But when I reread it this afternoon I couldn’t help but believe that Zinsser packed more insight about what it means to write a memoir or family history into fewer words that anybody else has been able to do.
Anyone offering making suggestions to authors about how to sell their books includes the advice to exhibit at trade shows and book festivals. That can be a great idea. Or not. Nancy and I have attended two this year, the Tucson Book Festival and the L.A. Times Book Festival, and we’re gearing up for the Sonoma County Book Festival , Wordstock in Portland, Oregon this weekend and the Miami Book Fair International in November. We really enjoy the events and meet a lot of wonderful people, many of whom eventually become Stories To Tell clients. At the same time we have the opportunity to observe a wide variety of authors who are on hand to sell their books. The results appear to be all across the spectrum. Our advice to authors is simple: If you are going to market your book at events, do it right. Here’s how.
New York Times columnist Bruce Feiler asked himself, “What is the secret sauce that holds a family together? What are the ingredients that make some families effective, resilient, happy?” The answers he discovered appeared in a piece in the Sunday Times titled The Stories That Bind Us. It should be required reading for genealogists and family historians. Feiler consulted Emory University psychologist Marshall Duke who had explored myth and ritual in American families. What he learned was that, “The more children knew about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.” Family historians and genealogists must be onto something. The large majority of people I talk to about writing their family history say that their goal is to create something to pass on to the grandchildren. Writing a family history will, they hope, help those grandchildren have a greater sense of identity.
How much research is enough? When we speak at family history conferences we talk to many people who say they would like to write a family book. But not right now. They need to do a little more research before they weill be ready. I thought about those dedicated researchers recently as I was rereading Practicing History, a collection of essays by historian Barbara Tuchman, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes, one for The Guns of August, an account of the first month of World War I, and the second for Stillwell and the American Experience in China. Tuchman offered a great piece of advice on when to quit researching and begin writing. She said: “The most important thing about research is to know when to stop. How does one recognize the moment? …One must stop before one is finished; otherwise, one will never stop and never finish."
You’ve traced your lineage back ten generations. You know who came over on the Mayflower, or crossed the Middle Passage on a slaver, or came steerage to Ellis Island. You have all the details documented to the highest possible level of proof. How do you pass the product of your years of diligent research on to the next generation? Put it in a book!
For self-publishing authors word of mouth is the most powerful tool in building an audience. That’s no news to anyone. Nor is it any surprise that positive reviews online are the key to triggering that positive buzz. What authors are looking for is a way to make sure that they have those positive reviewers to get the ball rolling. Many are shy about asking people to review their books in the wake of the pay for positive reviews controversy exposed in the articles like the N.Y Times piece The Best Reviews Money Can Buy. But the mistrust created by the exposure of this practice didn’t make positive reviews any less important to an author’s sales. So let’s look at some ethical ways to obtain positive reviews:
Family historians are always looking for stories about ancestors. They want to embellish the facts – names, birth, death, dates, marriage, children, and location with tales that bring their progenitors to life. Many rush to interview aging relatives to capture those stories before they are lost. Others bemoan the fact that they didn’t ask about their ancestors before members of the previous generation passed. Some are able to congratulate themselves on having collected the family stories in audio or video recordings. That successful few are confident that they have the benefit of primary sources – accounts by people with direct knowledge of the stories they have told. Primary sources are wonderful, but they come with a caveat. As Ronald Reagan once advised, “Trust, but verify.” The stories passed down by aging family members while interesting and colorful sometimes are less than wholly accurate from a factual standpoint.
Planning a family history book is all about making choices. Having done many years of research and accumulated mountains of information, you may feel a bit overwhelmed when you begin to think about turning it into a book. One of the first realizations most of us have is that research is nearly infinite (You’ll probably continue to research for the rest of your life.) A book, however, is finite, subject to limitations of both physical size and reader interest. You realize that not everything you have learned about your ancestors will fit in a single volume. The question is, “What gets into the book?”
You sit down to plan how you will market your book. (Last week’s post 7 Things You’ll Need For Your Marketing Plan discussed some things you’ll want to have ready when you do.) It’s likely that one of your first thoughts is that this is a big job, maybe too big for one person. A lot of authors who have never marketed a book think about hiring a publicist or a book marketer to do it for them. That can be expensive. Let’s look instead at how you can tap your personal network to help you create a buzz about your book.