Jun 16

From "Complaining is Like Bad Breath" to Bestselling Author

This past week the St. Louis Publishers Association brought in best-selling self-help author Will Bowen, a Kansas City minister who started a 21-day "No Complaining" campaign at his church, handing out purple rubber bracelets. When the participants caught themselves complaining the bracelet had to switch arms. “Complaining is like bad breath,” he said. Word spread about this concept and before Bowen even wrote a book he'd been on Oprah Winfrey's show. Then he decided to write a book. He told us all about it.

After being turned down by one agent and then sucked into the scam "New York Literary Agency," he contacted the agent he wanted and got him. The book, A Complaint-Free World, became a monster bestseller--especially in China. Chinese book piracy is rampant, but Bowen's publisher undercut the six pirated editions by pricing the genuine book for less than the pirates charged, and bundling the bracelet with the book. The Chinese publishers also broadcast a weekly cartoon starring an animated Will Bowen on various positivity adventures, and booked him for a fashion shoot (he’s trim, bald and wears an earring) for Asian Harper’s Bazaar. “Now, those people are creative,” he said. “Most U.S. publishers try pretty hard but they really have no idea how to do it [marketing].” He went to Toastmasters to learn to speak, and arranges his own speaking engagements: one church per week. His intention for his new book is to sell 2.6 million copies.

Other things Will Bowen said:

  • The joke is that the Random House-Penguin merger will create a publisher called Random Penguin.
  • “Publishers want to build on the last big thing but are very conservative about the next big thing.”
  • Hard-copy books will become extinct.
  • “Everybody has doubts, but most people won’t face the doubts.”
  • “We judge a book by how well it’s edited. There is nothing more important.”
  • An author goes through three stages with an editor. 1) “I hate you.” 2) “You might have a point there.” 3) “Thank you.”
  • “The editor is always right.”
  • The formula for success: “Success equals consistency over time.”
  • He knew an author bent on making The New York Times bestseller list. This guy, who had money, went to every bookstore he could and bought up 25,000 copies of his own book, which got him on the bestseller list.


Bowen believes in writing down his goals each day, writing daily, and having a wish board. He wanted Maya Angelou to write a foreword for one of his books, but she is reclusive and doesn't do favors. He pasted a photo of Angelou on his wish board and told everyone he met that he wanted to meet Maya Angelou. One day he told an actual friend of Maya’s who arranged the meeting. I guess they spoke about positivity. Bowen tape-recorded what Angelou said and asked if that might become the foreword to the book, and she agreed. Thus, "foreword by Maya Angelou." That's a heck of an endorsement.

I’m skeptical about lists and wish boards, but they can’t hurt, and increasingly I’m becoming convinced that writing is becoming a spiritual rather than professional pursuit. I know I went home from Bowen’s talk inspired, and boldly did something I’d never imagined I’d do, which I’ll blog about next.

Jul 20

Find Your Publisher in Less Than One Day

While your professional editor finalizes your book manuscript, begin seeking possible publishers. Taking one afternoon to do the following simple steps will save you days and weeks of scattershot effort.

1. Find books similar to yours in your personal library, public library and bookstore, and write down the names of the publishers. Don't quit until you have at least 20 names (there are so many publishers nowadays!!).

2. Take this list and find each publisher's website to see whether the publisher is still in business, has a current catalog, and, under "Writers Guidelines" or "Submissions," read about what kinds of books or authors they are looking for; and YOU decide whether it looks like a publisher YOU would like to work with. Make a note of your best finds.

3. While you are on "Writers Guidelines," check whether the firm likes to correspond 1) by snail mail or 2) by email; and whether your first contact should be with a) a query letter b) a query letter with sample chapters, synopsis, or table of contents ("T of C"), or something else, or c) if they want you to send the full manuscript. Write down the editor's full name so you will have someone to address your correspondence to.

4. Having now narrowed your list of possible publishers, Google each to find any news, reports, reviews, complaints, or other material confirming the reputation or economic health of this publisher.

5. Browse amazon.com or the shelves for recent books similar to yours. Make note of any books strongly resembling your own. These are "competing titles," and your publisher will want to know how your book differs from the books already available. That will be an important selling point.

Feb 18

I Have a Dream for Writers

Feb. 18, 2012

I am happy to join with you today in what will go down in history as the lowest point in the history of American writers.

Two score and nine years ago, a great American, in whose symbolic shadow we stand, gave a speech known as “I Have a Dream.” A great statesman and great writer, he spoke of another American who had lived a hundred years before, also a great statesman and great writer. Their speeches and writings are read and studied to this day and remain beacons of light and hope for millions in America and the world.

But the tragic fact is that the American writer of our time lives on a mental diet of worry, doubts, and wishful thinking. While new communications outlets multiply, the professional writer, journalist and creative writer live on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity, saying they have no work, they can’t make themselves work, that there is no point in writing. Fifty years later, writing seems to have lost its power to move the writer or the reader, and writers languish in the corners of American society, which gladly lets them languish there. So I have come here to discuss our appalling condition.

In a sense I have come here to cash a check. When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was a promise that all men would be guaranteed the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. And it was later agreed that among these rights was the right to a free public education that would allow the nation’s citizens to read and understand the nation’s basic documents and discover all the rights, the history and the literature they were heir to.

It is obvious today that America has defaulted on this promissory note insofar as her citizens are concerned. Instead of honoring this sacred obligation to ensure public literacy and reasonable mastery of written language, America has given public education a bad check which has come back marked “insufficient funds.”

But we refuse to believe that every school district is too short of funds to have good schools and enough teachers to teach reading and writing. We refuse to believe that every newspaper and magazine and employer is too short of funds to pay writers what they are worth. We refuse to believe that there are insufficient funds in those great vaults that hold plenty of money for entertainers, politicians, the insurance industry, the oil industry, the defense industry, and drug companies, none of which could function without writers to put words in their mouths or on their websites.

So we have come to cash this check -- the check that will give all citizens upon demand the education they were promised. We have also come to this hallowed spot, the printed page, to remind America that the matter is fiercely urgent. America’s schools produce masses of functional illiterates and dropouts, and their school boards tell us nothing further can be done. Some enroll in America’s colleges, in which I taught for twenty-five years, where technical, business, or athletic skills are favored over learning how to write and speak. Teachers of college composition find their students painfully unsure about their writing skills, and unable and ashamed to communicate their needs. Teachers are expected to give inflated grades to students who cannot write a coherent paragraph in their native language, students who might, if given a grade of C, try to get the teacher dismissed or start shooting.

Those who never learn to read and write well are slaves--but not to those who do read and write well, because those two almost never meet. They are slaves to those who ensure that those two will never meet by demeaning both and instilling in them contempt for one another.

Writers, this is no time to engage in the luxury of saying “Writers can’t ever make a living,” or “Only chumps pay for content,” or “People don’t read anymore,” and resign ourselves to doing something less. Now is the time to see the doors of opportunity opening to all who are gifted with writing ability, disciplined and driven to follow it as an honorable profession. Writers, it is your choice whether you write to inform, educate, inspire or entertain, but never should it be your choice to mislead. One day you must account to God or to yourself for what you did with your gift. You are fate’s finest instrument.

Writers, contradict those who say that mastery of the English language is an indulgence or a privilege or very common. It is not. Literacy is the right on which all other rights depend. The powerful of America know this, and that is why they shut their doors against you and will you not to thrive. You have heard about the power of the pen. Significantly, that phrase declines to identify the source of power as the one who holds and guides the pen. You may be poor. You may be unhappy. You might not even write very well. But you should never be deterred or ashamed or afraid to act because it might result in error. You and your fellow writers are a source of power and light, kin to Lincoln and King. Take courage during this time that literacy is low, joblessness is high, and the publishing industry is in chaos. It looks bad. Yet this is the moment to act because you can only do better.

It is fatal for the nation to overlook the urgency of the moment and to underestimate the writer at this important juncture between printed and digital communication. The year 2012 is not an end, but a beginning. Those who hope writers will now be contented to blog and tweet will have a rude awakening as the nation continues business as usual. One day the hunger for knowledge and understanding, so basic to humankind, will outgrow the pleasure of passing one's time unencumbered by the thought process. There will be neither rest nor tranquility in America when the pleasure of mindlessness wears off like silverplate on brass, when more Americans than in 1963 are homeless, jobless and don’t have enough to eat.

But there is something I must say to my fellow American writers who stand on the threshold peeking into the halls of power, wondering if we can market our way in. In the process of gaining our rightful place we must not be guilty of wrongful deeds. Let us not seek to satisfy our thirst for freedom by drinking from the cup of bitterness and cynicism. Let us reject hucksterism and cheap shortcuts to "getting known" when our goal should be work of such quality that employers and readers will seek us out.

We must always conduct our struggle on the high plane of dignity and discipline. We must not be lulled into passive acceptance of industry norms and the social opprobrium directed at us. Again and again we must rise and meet institutional exploitation and poor-mouthing with soul force and confidence. If we can't get published we now have cheap and free means to publish ourselves. Our marvelous new militancy must not lead us to distrust the publishing or communications industries, and academia, because many of us depend on them to make meager livings as freelancers, adjuncts, temporaries, and contract workers. It is our fault. It is our fault because we agreed to write for nothing and the next writer and the next were asked to write for nothing. We have defaulted on our own self-respect and should not be surprised that we receive little respect in return. We believe that businesses, editors, agents and institutions control our destiny. Their destiny is indeed tied up with ours. But understand that it is not we who depend on them; the truth is that they are dependent on us, and not just for manuscripts and money but for our creative ideas and our capacity to inspire.

And as we begin to walk, supporting the tottering publishing industry that was once so eager to shut us out that it refused unagented submissions or works that challenged the views of their stockholders, we must pledge to look at one another and understand that a writer is not a lone figure in an ivory tower, as that great American myth would have it, but part of a vast community growing vaster--although they call us the unknowns, the unpublished, the unemployed, the unwanted. We can never be satisfied as long as there is a talented writer too poorly educated to fulfill his or her potential, or a talented writer who thinks that survival depends on work corrosive to the spirit. Writing is our mission and our service to humanity. There is nothing wrong with it or with us. We will not be satisfied until a writer can be a writer. We will fight for the independence of literature. We will demand value for our labor. We will not be satisfied with less and will use every instrument to achieve it. We will not be bought by sponsors. We will not be embedded. We will not sell ourselves short. We will not allow ourselves and our profession to be demeaned and disparaged. We are fate’s finest instruments. We are truth's finest instruments. We are not less than those those who lie down at night saying, "Thank heaven that no one in America wrote or read the truth today."

I am not unmindful that some of you have become writers out of great trials and tribulations. Some of you have come fresh from narrow cells. Some of you have come from areas where your dedication to truth left you persecuted and brutalized. You have weathered censorship and exile and depression and death threats. You have suffered for your creativity. All writers have been told that unearned suffering can be redemptive, a kind of honor. It is your choice to decide whether that is true and what your suffering accomplishes. The citizens of the United States of America are guaranteed freedom to write and publish, perhaps without honor, but also without retribution. We are proud of this. And we intend this day to take advantage of it, and to reclaim honor for our profession, if not for ourselves then for the writers of the future, who will have to be bolder than we were.

Writers who cannot concede a need to act should go back to scouring Writer’s Digest and attending conferences on using social media to market and promote themselves until they can admit that those petty, discomfiting tactics almost never work.

I have a dream that writers one day will not be judged not by whom they know but by what they do and how well they do it.

I have a dream that one day children will sit down together, read the same news or the same novel, and assume the freedom to assess, discuss and act on their reading and to write about it.

I have a dream that one day our news industry will be transformed into an instrument of truth and justice.

I have a dream today.

I have a dream that writers will one day will not brawl for a slot on the bestseller list or on the faculty, but as colleagues will dedicate a portion of themselves to the advancement not only of their own interests but that of the whole profession.

I have a dream that American writers will one day value themselves not because they won prizes but because each writer, whether journalist, novelist, poet, letter-writer, scholar, or student performs a service to humanity, a service of perception, of a kind no one else ever born will ever give.

This is my hope. This is the faith with which I return to my writing. Have this faith and with me hew out of the mountain of despair a landmark of hope. With this faith we will be able to transform a nation and a profession in desperate need of transformation. With this faith we should study together, struggle together, support one another, stand up for our rights together, knowing we are fate’s finest instruments and our fate begins now.
Jul 21

More Writers than Readers?

9 February 2009

Worry of the week (overheard): Won't self-publishing create more writers than readers?

Let's examine this question. Self-publishing doesn't "create writers." Self-publishing requires a text already written. Self-publishing creates authors -- writers who have their names on books. Self-publishing generates authorship.

The word "readers" in "more writers than readers" really means "readers who purchase books." There are plenty of readers. They're all reading stuff on the Internet, or at the library, or magazines, or books by their friends or faves. The real worry is, "Can publishers sell enough books to make profits?"

The question then becomes: Does the existence of more self-published authors generate less money for publishers and their authors -- less money than formerly?

Well, the vast majority of authors -- the unknowns, the rookies, the "mid-list" --could hardly make less money. But self-publishing could possibly generate more for them.

For publishers - well, you had your chance. When writers sent you these same manuscripts, you wouldn't even look at them. So they turned themselves into authors without you. They're happy. They sell their own books at least as well as you would have sold them; maybe better.
Jul 21

Unagented YA Manuscripts Sought

3 January 2009

Wide open market for UNAGENTED young adult fiction -- a new Harlequin imprint, actually -- reported on Tricia Grissom's Coffee and Critique blog. I know that you know somebody with a YA novel, so please pass the information on.
Jun 27

Hell Freezes Over; Publisher Gives Away Books

The late Carol Bly wrote a probing, wholly adult textbook on short-fiction writing, called The Passionate, Accurate Story (1990, Milkweed Editions), always my choice as the fiction text for my Introduction to Creative Writing course. Heather Clark of the Washington University Bookstore told me that Milkweed had 5 copies left, not enough to fill my order for this fall, and it wasn't printing more, but would send those 5 if I wanted; plus:

"[Milkweed] cannot technically sell the books to us since it has been declared out of print. They are going to 'donate' them to us. I cannot charge a student for a book that was donated to us. So I gave her my shipping number so we can be charged for the shipping. I will contact you when the books arrive and give them to you to distribute to your students, or for your students to share. If you have any questions, let me know."

Free books for my students, direct from the publisher!? What a delight! For such a great book! (It's available used.) Ms. Bly (1930-2007; pictured) would have loved this! I'd be a fool to ask questions!
May 08

Bookstores Are For Famous People

Overheard re the issue of book distribution: "Bookstores are for famous people."

That seemed so right. Bookstore coups by the likes of Madonna, Barack Obama, & c. But that sort of throwaway book, usually nonfiction, isn't anything new. Then there are the "famous writers," mostly of fiction, who churn 'em out, reap a fan base and dominate their genre. Some can really churn 'em out. That's not new.

Individual writers making millions by selling books, even before writing them -- that's what's new. We tend to fixate on those grotesque but interesting sums of money. Suddenly agents don't wanna represent other kinds of authors. Publishers feel hogtied by "the need" to give a few celebs huge advances. Writers who aren't among the 10 or 12 getting multi-millions say they're being pushed out of the picture.

What to do? Go to a bookstore and see if the statement is true.

But what not to do: Expect publishers to come to their senses and redistribute money more fairly. Expect bookstores to give equal space and positioning to all books. Expect things to go back to the way they were when the publishing world was perfectly sane and fair.
Mar 03

Don't Let Your Prologue Give Your Novel Away

I'm having the most fascinating experience: reading and critiquing the first 30 pages of the manuscripts of almost 30 different novels. The first 30 pages is what agents and editors ask for, and it's said, "If the novel doesn't take off in the first 30 pages, it will never take off" and they won't read more. Some of the mss. are good, some are better than good, but close to three-quarters of them have introductions and/or prologues.

Leaving aside the dedications, acknowledgements or introductions that "explain" the book, or why or how it was written -- "front matter" which in novels will always be cut -- there's often a prologue describing the climax of the story. And then the actual story begins, in chapter 1, with a flashback. Apparently the whole novel will be told in flashback, leading up to the climactic moment that has already been described up front and has given the whole story away.

And then, reading the novel's Chapter One, I see that the novel would work perfectly fine without the give-away prologue. I believe that the give-away prologue is the child of noir or detective movies and fictions which start with a corpse and flash back to tell the story of how and why the person was murdered. Authors of other kinds of fictions who want to use prologues should be reminded: PROlogues are for telling the PRE-beginning of a story, not giving away the end of it!
Feb 25

Idea for Your Next Workshop

Just an idea: Instead of workshopping your poems or fiction at your next workshop meeting, devote the session to discussing the changing publishing industry and what it means for writers such as yourselves. Don't know anything about the publishing industry? Maybe it's time to catch up!
Jan 22

The Future of Writing: Read Locally

The latest issue of Creative Nonfiction, #31, is about the Future of Writing.

In the future, says one of the essayists, Astro Teller, huge omnimedia publishers will publish and mass-market seven books a year. People will buy and read them. But readers will be far wiser about the string-pulling and adthink that goes on behind those books. They will want to do a new thing: seek writing directly from the writer, guaranteed no middleman -- the Real Thing, the Genuine Item, pure and honest. It will be "in" to "read locally."

Writers will still want to write and sell one of those seven big bestselling books. There will be more writers, which means more competition. But you won't be looking for an audience; the audience will look for you. Books will rise to the top by choice of the readership, not the publishers. Local will be cool. And with no middleman, you will get 100 percent, not 10 or 15 percent, of what your writing earns.
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