How do you make your book stand out from the thousands of other being published each year? It all starts with your cover. Chip Kidd, a top cover designer at Alfred A. Knopf, who brought us the distinctive book cover of Jurassic Park, and one of the best-designed, all-around-best books on my reading shelf right now, Haruki Murakami’s IQ84, explains: “The book designer’s responsibility is three-fold to the reader, to the publisher, and most of all to the author. I want you to look at the author’s book and say, ‘Wow! I need to read that.’” “It’s a billboard,” said Peter Mendelsund, Kid’s colleague at Knopf who designed the cover for the Stieg Larsson novel, The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo and its two sequels. “You hope yours shouts the loudest or entices the most intriguing way." A bad cover shouts out in a different way. “The first outward sign that your book is self-published is a crappy cover design.” said Guy Kawasaki, APE: How to Publish a Book. Let’s look at some excellent covers and some thoughts on what makes them effective.
Life can get in the way of getting your book written. If you are working at a day job and your writing is a spare time project, that spare time may be hard to find. If you have a family to take care of it may be hard to control your schedule to give yourself the time you would like to write. What’s the best way to manage the limited periods of time you have available to get your book written?
Tobias Wolff, the author of the wonderful memoir This Boy’s Life, put the memoirist’s task in this way, “Memory is funny. Once you hit a vein the problem is not how to remember but how to control the flow.” How do you decide what belongs in your memoir? Helen Keller explained her approach in The Story of My Life this way, “In order, therefore, not to be tedious I shall try to present in a series of sketches only the episodes that seem to me to be the most interesting and important.” That seems simple enough, but Mitch Albom, author of Tuesdays With Morrie, warns, “Anyone who tries to write a memoir needs to keep in mind that what’s interesting to you isn’t necessarily important to a reader.”
It's hard to describe what I do. I help authors. As you know, it’s easier to understand a process when you break it down into manageable steps. Like a recipe; you just gather the ingredients, prepare, cook, and serve, right? Yes, but it’s not really that simple. Experienced cooks know that there are lots of choices, methods and tools at each step, and these will determine how the dish tastes. My guide for authors outlines “6 easy steps” - to imagine, plan, create, edit, design and publish. At each step, some authors will need help. It’s my specialty to know all of the choices, methods and tools, to prepare the book right along with the author, and to ensure the final product is excellent. I’ve never identified with the term “book shepherd.” That implies that authors are sheep who need to be driven with a stick. I am a mentor, a skilled craftsman, and a seasoned veteran. I don’t push or carry anyone. My job is to carry the ball into the end zone. The team scores.
Recreating a person’s life is hard, but that exactly what biographers, family historians, and memoirists must do. That begins with a factual skeleton. Research can help you to answer most of the questions posed by the journalist’s 5 Ws: who, what, when, where, why and how. Gathering the accurate details of a person’s life is important, but it’s only the beginning of telling a person’s life story. An engaging account of a person’s life depends on discovering the answers to the last two questions: how and why. Those answers may not be readily apparent in the documentary records. David McCullough, winner of two Pulitzer Prizes and a National Book Award, knows plenty about how to do that. He advises, “I believe very strongly that the essence of writing is to know your subject…to get beneath the surface.” How do you do that? How can you know what a person now gone was thinking or feeling during their lifetime? That involves some speculation. The question a biographer must deal with is how to speculate within a factual framework. You have to make inferences and deductions from the facts you know to get at your subject’s inner life. Let’s look at the ways two of the leading practitioners of the art do it.
How will people discover the wonderful new book you just had published? If you answered “online” you may want to pause a moment and think a bit more deeply about that. At the recent Digital Book World Conference in New York, Peter Hildick-Smith, the founder and CEO of the Codex Group, which tracks frequent readers’ book-buying behavior, said that the way readers discover the books they will purchase and where they actually will buy those books has been “decoupled.” Laura Owen Hazard explained in a post on Paid Content, Why Online Book Discovery Is Broken (and How to Fix It), “New research shows that frequent book buyers visit sites like Pinterest and Goodreads regularly, but those visits fail to drive actual book purchases… readers are likely to go online to buy a book after having learned about it elsewhere.” So what can you do about getting your book discovered?
If you’re looking for a way to tell your story whether it’s fiction or nonfiction you’d be well advised to look at the lessons offered by Tom Wolfe. His nonfiction, which reached its apogee in The Right Stuff, was a prototype for the so-called “new journalism.” His sharp reporter’s eye worked just as well when he began turning out novels like Bonfire of the Vanities and A Man in Full. In his New York Times review of Wolfe’s new novel Back to Blood, novelist Thomas Mallon wrote: Tom Wolfe’s move from the New Journalism to fiction writing, undertaken a quarter-century ago, now seems on a par with Babe Ruth’s shift from the pitcher’s mound to the regular batting order. But from genre to genre, the fundamentals of Wolfe’s game have stayed the same… Let’s look today at the time before Wolfe made the shift from the mound to the batting order, the days when he was changing the way true stories were reported. There are some key lessons there for anyone who wants to write good nonfiction.
You are finished, or almost finished with the manuscript for your book. You have revised it diligently and asked friends and family to act as beta-readers. You are happy with what you have, but you understand why people like Ricky Pittman of Writers Weekly say, ““Every writer has blind spots to his or her own writing.” You know that when Jerry Simmons of Readers and Writers says, “Having an objective, experienced eye to evaluate and edit your work is worth its weight in gold,” he’s right. You want to find a good editor for your book. How do you know when a person is the right editor for you? Here are five questions that will help you decide.
How much does it cost to self-publish a book? That’s a simple straightforward question. Unfortunately, the answer is not nearly as simple. Let’s take a look at the reasons.
This Sunday’s a big day in living rooms across American. The San Francisco 49ers will square off with the Baltimore Ravens in the Super Bowl Okay self-publishing writers pull up a chair in front of the TV. The San Francisco 49ers and the Baltimore Ravens are about to square off in Super Bowl XLVII. You should be watching. No, not the game! The marketing. The Retail Advertising and Marketing Association estimates that 179 million football fans will it tune in to the big game. “The average game watcher will spend $68.54 on new televisions for viewing parties, snacks, décor and athletic apparel…” There are lessons there for authors.
Aging rock stars, sports heroes, entertainment icons and politicians can get away with simply telling occasionally sanitized stories of their lives in their memoirs. Our celebrity-obsessed culture laps them up. That won’t work for the rest of us. The reading audience wants more. Vivian Gornick in The Situation and the Story, put it well when she wrote, “Truth in a memoir is achieved not through a recital of actual events; it is achieved when the reader comes to believe that the writer is working hard to engage with the experience at hand. What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the large sense the writer is able to make of what happened.”
Should you publish your family history as a print book or an ebook? The first place to look for an answer is your audience? How do they prefer to read books? Their preferences should guide your decision on the form your book should take. But they are not the only consideration. What are your goals for your family history? In most cases, preservation is a high priority.
Did you hate it when they taught outlining in school? The teacher went on and on about where the Roman numerals went and whether this line should have a capital letter, a lower case letter or an Arabic number. I hated it. I think a lot of other people did too. I was speaking to a group of people this weekend who were in the process of writing family history books. I asked how many had an outline for their book. Only about a third did. Too bad! What they were doing was letting straight chronology lock them into the way they told their story. More importantly, by being guided solely by chronology they were risking taking only a superficial look at the events they were describing. Deeper insights that reflection on those events might have produced went by the boards. The result was almost sure to be strictly reportorial rather than dramatic. Developing a good outline (not the one you learned in school, but a well thought out plan of major topics and subpoints) before you begin to write allows you to discover ways to engage your readers that aren’t immediately apparent when looking at the facts you know. Experimenting with different ways of telling your story can help you to discover new insights into what happened and to show them to your audience in a more interesting way than a plodding chronology can ever do. Let’s look at some.
If you are doing genealogical research, you’re a bit like a geologist searching for precious metals. You’re drilling back into the past looking for connections among generations of ancestors over time. The bore hole is deep, but narrow. When you write a family history book that focus on people connected by blood is only part of the story. A family historian seeks not only to establish such kinship connections but to relate ancestors to contemporaries beyond the family. The result connects your ancestors to the times and places in which they lived as well as to each other. Your family history puts the lives of the people in your pedigree chart or family group sheet into a historical context.
We’re looking forward to the Arizona Family History Expo which begins Friday in Mesa. One of the things we enjoy is that the participants come ready to learn. Many come equipped with questions they want answered before the expo ends on Saturday. If you have attended a few genealogy conferences you know that the questions people thinking about writing or already working on a family history book will ask usually follow a predictable pattern. Here are five we are sure we’ll here more than once.