The Perfect Write® Newsletter Archives
(July 30, 2013 – December 17, 2013)

The Perfect Write® Newsletter, Vol 111 (July 30, 2013)
The Difference Between Restrictive and
Nonrestrictive Clauses

Hello Everyone,

I want to welcome the new subscribers to The Perfect Write Newsletter® and begin today’s edition on a little different tack from normal by opening with a comment on the methodology behind my critiques and their construction. My remarks are spawned by a couple of scenarios I ran into recently, and I hope longtime subscribers will agree that I discuss my profession sparingly in these broadcasts. However, I believe the issues I’ll be bringing up are important for all writers seeking professional criticism for their material.

First, however, a little history. I began writing in earnest in 1992 and sought the help of industry professionals who were recommended in one way or another. I used five editors during the first ten years, and their fee structures were as disparate as their critique “personalities.” When I decided to work full-time as in editor in ’09, I vowed never to mimic some of what I had been exposed to, which ranged from denigrating, to pompous, to downright mean. Two of these “name” editors take enormous pride in belittling writers and pointing out issues I realize today to be purely ego-driven, as I’ve gotten to know these people and how they work, and they continue to believe “tough love” is the path to good writing.

I could not disagree more, and if anyone wonders why these editors have a clientele, in my opinion, this is due solely to their work eons ago with a few name authors who provided glowing references, which they then dovetailed into successful careers when they left their respective publishers to work independently. Let me make it clear that both are competent editors, but each charges several thousand dollars for quite similar “developmental editing” critiques that many other decent editors, of whom I hope I qualify as one, maintain fee structures that are substantially less, and sometimes by as much as 75 percent!

If I had done some editing for a Pulitzer Prize Winner, even at the most cursory level, as was the case with one of these editors I’ve alluded to, my stock as well would rise substantially, but not to cause me to ever lose respect for what I consider to be the fundamental principle every editor should hold high atop the list, and it’s to understand that writers are trying to do their very best. This, above all else, must be respected. Maybe I have an advantage in that I went through these editing wars with my own novels, while many editors have not done much if anything at trying to get their own work published.

Yet I’ve found that sometimes even the tamest remark can be considered aggressive, and I’ve been considered brutally honest by some folks I’ve critiqued. I hope I’ve been honest, but I don’t know of a single instance in which I’ve been harsh with a client or anyone who’s sent me material to review gratis as a part of my normal business practice. On occasion I have had to tell a writer to take a deep breath, as work is not up to the status it’s thought to be by that author. And some folks can’t take or won’t accept even the mildest criticism. But I’ve never been rude to someone, at least certainly not on purpose, and I find it reprehensible that any editor would find this an acceptable technique for motivating a writer. However, yes, I have told people that writing at a level people would pay to read is not in the cards without some serious work on their part. Some have accepted this as an honest assessment of their work, and I’m proud to say have put in the time and effort to become solid writers.

No one has ever told me I was a mean jerk for providing what I believed was the best advice related to the specific situation. However, I’m certain there are people who weren’t pleased with my analysis and would rather have been told what they generally hear from critique groups, which is that they are wonderful writers whose stories must be told and to keep writing. This is great for amateurs giving advice to other amateurs, but not for someone paying for an opinion, or for someone asking for a critique from a person who makes a living by editing material. The latter instances are when the game changes, and if an editor exaggerates a position to make a client happy, or to gain a “customer,” this goes right to the heart of ethics.

I often receive material that is abysmal, and there are indeed times when I don’t believe there is any way the writer will ever be able to move much beyond where he or she might be at that moment. For comparison, this is no different from someone like me trying to sing, when I am 100-percent tone deaf and couldn’t carry a tune if someone put a gun to my head. I am not going to hurt a person’s feelings by stating what is obvious to me, but I will suggest some source material that can at least enable the person to understand that writing well is an art and not simply a case of banging out words on a keyboard.

Suggesting source material on my part, however, shouldn’t be construed as applying only to those people who I believe will never be able to “carry a tune,” as I recommend remedial aids for most everyone, and I keep 19 such books, which I routinely refer to, next to my computer. But there are instances in which I’m committed to a person’s not wasting time, should I firmly believe there is no prospect for that individual’s lofty goals ever being achieved, such as when the writer of a dismal work assumes it to be bestseller material.

I hope asking a writer with this mindset to temper enthusiasm is not brutally honest but just plain honest. And if any editor should be reproved for this, so be it, as I believe it’s something that those in my profession have to accept as coming with the territory. I say this because I’m abundantly aware that when I send someone an opening-chapter critique which doesn’t proclaim the writer as the next Norman Mailer or Jane Smiley, I’m not going to be viewed as anything but a lousy judge of talent.

In truth, half the people to whom I send a less than rousing opening-chapter critique don’t even give me the courtesy of a “thank you” for the time I’ve spent designing the analysis, which as everyone knows I don’t charge a fee for crafting. And if I line-edit a page or two, my critiques often require three to four hours to assemble. Yes, these comprehensive critiques drive my editing enterprise, so this is a cost of doing business, but even a person far removed from this industry has to be aware of just how much work goes into putting this material together. And I know at the outset of preparing a less than flattering critique that the odds are zero that its writer will then hire me, yet I still spend whatever time it requires to do the best job I can, because I respect the effort that person has put into the narrative, and I know how I would want to be treated under similar circumstances.

I apologize to everyone for the amount of space it required to address all of this, but I obviously felt it was important to cover in detail.

Longtime Newsletter subscriber Bill Miller sent me a note regarding my recent article, “The Accidental Metaphor,” in which he alluded to “The Intentional Fallacy,” material written 50 or so years ago by William K. Wimsatt and Monroe C. Beardsley. Here’s a link to an article that encapsulates their position, and it’s nice to know that some folks agree with my contention, even if it was a half-century ago, ha ha. The Wimsatt and Beardsley paper focuses on poetry analysis, which I found particularly appropriate, as I’ve always marveled at the academicians who “decide” the meanings of poetic puzzles such as those written by Browning or Emerson. I wonder what some of these same folks said in private after Browning admitted that in some cases he wrote the words because of their fluency and with no concern for any specific meaning that pertained to what he was writing. I guess The Browning Society, among others, has always believed it could “think” for its respective muse.

Apple lost its price-fixing suit, as expected, and the judge ruled that five of the Big 6 publishers also conspired to fix prices above the $9.99 threshold. I’ve commented on this case at length in prior Newsletters, but I continue to marvel that what was so obvious required so long to adjudicate (although Judge Cote moved everything along as best she could). This case is fraught with irony, with more to play out as time goes by. For now, Apple book customers will be receiving vouchers of some sort that will enable books to be purchased at a discount. Pretty severe punishment, huh? Again, how much does it cost to create an e-book? Yes, there are hardcopy ramifications as well, but wouldn’t we all like to have Apple’s problem with this issue? It’s one of those cases that had to go to court, but it shouldn’t have been necessary, and that statement in and of itself indicates its complexity.

Anyone subscribing to Publishers Marketplace, which I always recommend for any writer serious about becoming published in any manner, will have seen the recent material concerning the Penguin lawsuits that were dropped, and which sought the returns of advances. These suits spanned many years, and I found it particular interesting that such a large portion of the damages was predicated on interest. My question is, in an environment of low-interest borrowing, how can this possibly have escalated to the levels claimed by Penguin?

Irrespective of what I found extraordinary, these sorts of cases are the very reason I always suggest that any writer have a publisher’s contract reviewed by competent legal counsel. “Competent” in this vernacular means someone who specializes in intellectual property. Anyone who is signed by a major royalty publisher or reputable independent press might want to join The Authors Guild for the $90 first-year annual fee, and access an attorney who is available via their listing. I can’t quote attorney fees, but it’s commonly around $1,500 to have a contract reviewed, and considering some of the bugbears generally couched within publishing contracts, I consider this a mandatory requirement before signing, as a “perpetuity clause” can be strangling, and so can the nomenclature pertaining to “any works” and “other works.” And should a writer not be familiar with what I just mentioned, this would be the best indicator I can provide to seek the guidance of an attorney who specializes in intellectual property, since any one of the three clauses I just listed can bury a writer.

In April, J. K. Rowling published a crime novel, THE CUCKOO’S CALLING, under the pseudonym Robert Galbraith. By mid July it had sold approximately 1,500 copies (only 500 copies in the U.S), which falls right in the middle of the traditional sales grid for a previously unpublished novelist who is unknown to the general public. Based on a rumor I’d read in a column that was tucked-away in a broader article, I had a nice piece (or at least I thought so, ha ha) prepared on this, when it was disclosed last week that Robert Galbraith was indeed Ms. Rowling, and her book then skyrocketed to the top of the bestseller lists.

The thrust of my original piece was that if THE CUCKOO’S CALLING was left to its own devices, since it had reached the 90-day window for a book’s ability to gain traction, it would have been “remaindered.” “Remaindered” books are those we see placed in a bin at the front of the bookstore and sold at a deep discount (usually for $4 or so), with the rest sent back to the publisher for credit. But, voila! It’s leaked that THE CUCKOO’S CALLING is really written by J. K. Rowling, and it immediately becomes a blockbuster. If YELLOW SUBMARINE had been sung by any band other than the Beetles, does anyone think it would’ve been a hit, or that GIRLS WITH GUITARS by the Judds would ever have been released?

Few people on the planet have the presence of Ms. Rowlings, but the point I’m wanting to make is that visibility is everything. And this lends itself to my ongoing mantra that unknown writers have to create their own identities, as it won’t happen by itself. If J. K. Rowling couldn’t get but 1,500 brave souls to buy her book when published under a pen name, this ought to speak volumes to anyone who is expecting a book to seek an audience on its own, as if it is a living organism.

And here’s something else to consider: Ms. Rowling submitted her book to at least one publisher under the Robert Galbraith handle (I originally typed in “John Galbraith,” ha ha). It was rejected, and it’s being bandied about with great fervor that this editor refused her book. So, if J. K. Rowling, the most financially successful author of all time, submits a query and then a manuscript–as an “unknown”–and is rejected, does anyone have to ask just how hard it is to break into this industry? It ain’t easy, McGee.

Today’s article is on restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, a subject I believe to be one of the most complex elements in all of writing.

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Restrictive and Nonrestrictive Clauses

Certain books on grammar describe restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses as “necessary” or “unnecessary” clauses, and neither should be confused with “dependent” or “independent” clauses, which are also sometimes referred to as “main” or “subordinate” clauses.

To the latter, take this sentence: “I can see the birds in the distance because I have excellent vision.” “I can see the birds in the distance,” is an independent clause, as it is a self-contained sentence that can stand by itself. However, “because I have excellent vision,” is not able to stand by itself as a sentence, and it is called an “dependent” clause, as it depends on something else to make it part of a complete sentence.

Dependent and Independent Clauses

Here’s where it gets even more confusing, as there is really no direct relationship between the two sets of clauses, as commas don’t always have to be used to separate dependent and independent clauses, yet they are mandatory to distinguish between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. Then to really compound the issue, it’s the nonrestrictive (unnecessary) clauses that require commas and not the restrictive (necessary) clauses.

It’s Good to Remember What Constitutes a Clause

To begin to weave through all of this, I’ve found it best to break it down in the simplest terms. And this begins with the definition of a “clause,” which is a group of words with both a subject and a predicate.

Once we know this, in a sentence with multiple clauses, we have to ask if the one following the sentence’s lead clause is necessary to the meaning of the sentence. Here are two examples: My brother, who gets all A’s, is the star of the basketball team. Or: My brother who was a star player at his other school never made the team at his new one.

It’s All a Matter of Degree

In the first sentence, the brother’s academics don’t have any relevance to his making the team, and for this reason, the clause “who gets all A’s” would be set off with commas. Conversely, the brother’s being a star player at one school and being cut at the other is quite pertinent to the message, and consequently the clause doesn’t require commas.

However, It’s Not Always Cut and Dried

And this is the rub, as scholars have long debated clause relevancy in circumstances pertaining to an author’s intent, as few decisions are as easy as the examples provided via my basketball player. So while I opened this article with the remark that all nonrestrictive clauses must receive commas, there is discretion regarding the designation of restrictive and nonrestrictive material. But the author can make the distinction and let others argue its validity, and for clauses that are clearly subjective, I’m of the opinion that it would be impossible to effectively disregard the writer’s decision.

The Long Sentence Can Present Another Problem

Long sentences containing restrictive clauses can be very hard to read, since to be grammatically correct they will not contain commas separating the clauses. I don’t remember in which Fitzgerald story I read the sentence, but he wrote one long sentence that I had to read over and over to figure out the way it should’ve been punctuated. After the third of fourth time through it, I determined that he believed the long clause was necessary to his sentence’s meaning; hence, no commas.

I had to parse this sentence, as it was part of a project I was working on, but nonacademic readers of course won’t routinely do this. Frankly, if it wasn’t a requirement I would’ve thought the sentence was lacking punctuation and moved on. When text gets this cumbersome, my opinion is to revise the sentence. I’d hardly have advised Mr. Fitzgerald to take another stab at this particular patch of rhetoric, but most of the rest of us aren’t quite as his level; so, in this sort of situation, I believe it’s a good idea to consider a different sentence structure all the way around.

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The Perfect Write® Newsletter, Vol 112 (August 13, 2013)
What Made GREY, POTTER, and DA VINCI Mega Blockbusters

Hello Everyone,

And a big welcome to the newest subscribers to The Perfect Write® Newsletter, which is broadcast every other Tuesday at 1 p.m. EST, and is currently received by writers in 40 countries. The premise behind my Newsletters is to provide material on writing prose at a level that people would pay to read, and to offer information on the publishing industry as I’ve come to know it during the past 20 years as both a novelist and an editor.

I want to begin the main body of today’s edition by providing links to what I believe are two phenomenal Web sites for source material for writers that every subscriber should bookmark. I never “force” material on subscribers, but this is one time that I believe each person who receives this Newsletter should take full advantage of what is being presented. The first site is titled “The Writing Cafe,” which is unquestionably the most comprehensive assemblage of resource material for writers I have ever encountered. The second is the “Online Etymology Dictionary,” and I’ll be discussing a word-origin issue later in this broadcast, so this link is particularly timely. I seldom affix permanent backlinks on my company Web site at theperfectwrite.com, but I found both sites worthy of this treatment, and it’s the first time in five years that I’ve added two links at one time. Here’s some background information on both sites:

Penny Sansevieri, a book marketing entrepreneur and contributor to the Book and Writers Web site, provided the link to The Writing Cafe, which I found to be a fantastic resource for all things related to writing, and particularly beneficial if someone wants a subject pertaining to writing defined and doesn’t want to spend half a day searching for the answer. And I do mean “any” subject, and it’s not a compendium but a virtual encyclopedia of writing content. I only wish the topics were printed in normal black type and not yellow, as they are hard to read. But if the “shift” key is held down and the cursor run over the list, it turns blue, which makes the titles clearer.

One caveat: The Writing Cafe resource material comes from a vast array of writing media, and some of it is commercially oriented; specifically, the writer is given a bit of information and then a proposition to buy the “full” explanation. But from what I can tell there is not a great deal of this, and you can easily dismiss those sites. To another issue, there is going to be opinion stated as fact, no different from much of what I write. Hence, it has to be treated as a starting point or baseline from which an author can continue her or his own research to then develop an educated opinion. Frankly, I’m going to assume that in most situations a large amount if not all of the additional research can be done by going no further than the sources displayed on the list.

I stress additional research because it’s enormously important to take to heart what I’ve said in my creative writing workshops, and for as long as I’ve been writing these Newsletters, and it’s that an author must separate opinions from fact. My opinions are just that, and so are everyone else’s, so always keep that at the forefront of any personal decisions about choosing a path to follow when it involves writing. The one unwavering aspect of all of this is that the more education a writer receives, the better informed that person will be when making choices about the way to design material. And Newsletter subscribers can get a full complement of academic- and industry-accepted information via The Writing Cafe.

The Online Etymology Dictionary, created and maintained for free by Douglas Harper, is an awesome tool, as it provides both a snapshot as well as a detailed explanation of word origins. Plus, phrases can also be sourced. I want to spend a moment on etymology because I work with a great many authors who write “period” material. During the first six months of this year, for example, I’ve done work that ranged from the Civil War era, to the time of Christ, to 3,000 B.C. In the realm of critical mass, a large block of the words we use today can be traced to the 1500s and 1600s, in large measure to the literary explosion created by Shakespearean-era writers, with The Bard himself of course leading the way

However, as we all know, much of our “root” language is attributed to Latin and Greek, but there aren’t works from those cultures, of which I’m aware, that identify when a word was first used. (To clarify this remark, I’m referring to material written in 200 B.C. in Rome, for example, that states a word such as “laud” was first written in 423 B.C.) This is important because the “extant” implication is what’s cited by academicians and critics as the determining factor for when a word “officially” came into a language. Yet it’s obvious that the word was spoken prior to when it was committed to parchment or drawn in the sand with a stick or scribbled with coal on the wall of a cave. But how much earlier?

The question of “when” is one that editors must deal with when determining what the public will accept in “period” material. I was responsible for one of my client’s works being challenged by a reviewer recently, and I want to explain (read “defend,” ha ha, the editorial decision) so subscribers can make their own assessment for whether or not to use words that might not have been “officially” around in a specific era.

The word in contention is “mom,” and I let it remain in Elizabethan-era context, when its word origin is stated as 1867 (I know, go figure). However, a concession is made that “mom” likely evolved from “mama” and could be attributed to baby gibberish from the 1500s. I fell out of the chair when I read that, as this implies that babies never uttered “mama” prior to 600 years ago. What did they slobber, “rangoo” or “divulgiblob but never “mama”? And babies born to cave women babbled only “ooogoo”? I think the debate is silly. Yet some baseline for word creation has to be established, and I can understand how the printed word became the barometer for measurement. And this brings me back to good old “mom.”

I debated with myself about leaving “mom” in the text, as I was aware it wasn’t ascribed to the 1600s, and I brought this to my client’s attention. But I left “mom” in the narrative because of the author’s use of “dad,” which created the rub, since “dad” is a “legal” Elizabethan word, as it was in print sometime in the 1500s. “Mom” without “dad” seemed unnatural for a book written in 2013, and this is what swayed me to choose the editorial path I selected. This particular book with “mom” in it is doing great with the public, and all other reviewers who aren’t Elizabethan scholars. And if anyone should wonder how this sort of pedantry plays with the public, let me cite a recent piece on JURASSIC PARK that might answer the question.

It’s been determined that the mosquito behind the entire JURASSIC PARK premise could never have transmitted the dinosaurs’ DNA–because that particular insect didn’t draw blood. Woe to all of us who ever watched JURASSIC PARK or read the book. We should all demand our money back. By the way, I read that the original movie grossed $969 million worldwide, so all of us fools who have been duped by the mosquito might find ourselves in a rather long line. “Mom” and the “mosquito” remind me of a situation involving Robert Gandt, a mentor of mine, which I commented on in an early Newsletter.

Bob wrote a marvelous book, SKYGODS, about the fall of Pan Am, and the story also provides a concise history of the way aviation has advanced since the time of the Wright brothers. Poor Bob missed the horsepower by a couple of measures from an early aircraft engine’s spec sheet. He was assailed at a book signing for SKYGODS by an aviation historian who couldn’t get enough of correcting him for his two horsepower error. Granted, this was nonfiction; but, who cares? The mosquito faux pas didn’t bother the millions who went to see JURASSIC PARK and the sequels. And those who are reading my client’s book–and by all indications loving it–aren’t put off by the appearance of “mom” in the 1600s.

I want to close this section by making it clear I’m not suggesting in any way that accuracy in fiction should be ignored. Believability is crucial for any work of fiction to be effective, and it must be recognized that “believability” is the operative word. If readers accept something as plausible, this is what matters and trumps pedantry every time. I accepted that a child might well call his mother “mom” in the 1600s, especially if he referred to his father as “dad.” For me, this sort of analysis is what dictates editorial choices. Does this mean I’m automatically right? Of course not. But it’s the process I must use to determine what words make sense for a book set in the time of Christ or in 3,000 B.C., and I’ll trust the public to make the final assessment.

For Newsletter subscribers who have long lamented Lee Child’s need for an editor to oversee his manuscripts prior to publication, an editor is listed as assisting him with his next three books published by Delacorte. I find Mr. Child’s stories immensely entertaining, and my issues have never been with his grammar skills but center on the plot holes that crop up in so much of his material. This is what developmental editing is all about, and it’s an entirely separate function from line-editing or copyediting, and frankly why I have a job. Anyhow, kudos to Mr. Child allowing someone to work with him on his narratives.

Before I present today’s article on why I believe FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, THE DA VINCI CODE, and HARRY POTTER have been mega successes, I thought subscribers might enjoy this redact from a NYT article discussing a book that was resurrected from the rejection file at a publishing house and is now pushing its author to literary stardom. Rejected 47 times before an intern pulled it from the slush pile, THE THING ABOUT DECEMBER, by Donal Ryan, spawned a second book, THE SPINNING HEART, which is now being considered for The Booker Prize. Another book rescued from oblivion, Paul Harding’s TINKERS, won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for fiction. TINKERS was sooo far under the radar, the NYT passed on reviewing it prior to its winning The Pulitzer. The article also mentions that J. K. Rowling was paid a $3,800 advance for HARRY POTTER (to balance this, in my next Newsletter I’ll have a report on huge advances paid for books that were a bust). And should any subscriber not have heard the story, supposedly the Bloomsbury editor who signed HP did so at the behest of his young daughter (I seem to remember she was 8 years old), who told him she liked the Harry Potter character.

For anyone interested in reading the entire article (it’s brief, and I’ve covered most of it), here’s the link. As an aside to the main theme, the editorial board at the NYT passes along an interesting observation: Publishers make assessments based on what they feel the public will want to read. This flies in the face of literary merit, which is often claimed as the prime criterion for publication. I bring this up because I know of both agents and publishers who I believe look at quality beyond any other factor, and even go so far as to let this trump market potential. But I see the overwhelming number of agents and publishers considering market beyond all else. I unabashedly admit that I, too, make sales potential a prime consideration when analyzing a client’s work. The point is that the perception of marketability is what carries the greatest weight with most everyone, and why publishing is such a crap shoot, since no one knows if a work by a “new” author will or won’t capture the public’s attention. And since only one in five works by heretofore unknown writers sell enough to cover a $20,000 advance (in the instances when a previously unpublished writer can get this much upfront these days), the numbers speak for themselves.

The subject of what makes a book sell is what brings me to today’s article.

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What Really Made FIFTY SHADES OF GREY, HARRY POTTER, and THE
DA VINCI CODE Mega Blockbusters

I’ve read many books, articles, and reports by writers, agents, publishers, and lay readers as to what made a book a big hit. Along with my reading, I’ve attended workshops and symposiums and listened to other writers explain their rationale for success.

Some Say a Book Needs a Healthy Dose of Sex

GREY certainly proved that to be true. But HARRY couldn’t suggest even the slightest carnality. And DA VINCI’s one scene with the elderly folks my age was more laughably spooky than sensual.

Al Zuckerman Had the Answer

Mr. Zuckerman, who founded and ran the uber literary agency Writer’s House for more than 35 years, in my opinion, had it right. In his book, WRITING THE BLOCKBUSTER NOVEL, he said it was “family” more than any other factor. But how did “family” play into what have become the largest-selling book franchises of all time?

“Family” Means More Than the Word Implies

Yes, a little word tap dancing is being done, as I took “family” to mean something globally, even though Mr. Zuckerman often cites THE GODFATHER in his book as the model for his thesis. And it’s hard to argue that the Corleone troupe’s close bonds didn’t sell the story, but I view “family” from a broader sense, and this is why I believe this perspective applies equally to each of the other narratives I cited that have captured the minds and hearts of such a large segment of the reading public.

First, There’s GREY

A year ago, across a bar, I listened to three separate sets of women discussing the E. L. James book. As the titillating issues wore themselves out, the conversation settled on what would happen to Ana. One woman said she hated the story but would buy the next book in the series to see what happened to her. Another lady said the writing was abysmal but she couldn’t put down the book because of Ana and the way she played into the story. The remainder of the lengthy dialogue followed Ana, as these women in one way or another identified with her character, hence my definition of “family.”

POTTER Contained the Same Sort of Empathy

While it might have seemed so peripheral to the story that it could have been omitted, Harry’s abuse by his hateful relatives was brilliant in that it planted a seed in the reader’s (or viewers) mind that could never be removed. Kids identify with unwarranted cruelty, whether it be from a relative or a bully at school. We’ve all had to deal with some aspect of this–and we didn’t like it. Hence, we wanted to see Harry succeed. And we were part of his “family.”

DA VINCI Takes Family to Another Level

What has greater gravitas than the combination of family and religion? Relating DA VINCI to family in the context of this paper might seem like a stretch to many, and on its mere face value my own copyeditor didn’t accept my contention. But family, from a global perspective, was the premise behind the story, as Robert Langdon quest “proved” that Sophie was a descendent of Jesus. I believe, deep within many people’s psyches, a vicarious relationship with Sophie existed. In the story, she was a direct descendent of Jesus–and therefore of Christ. Each person reading this article can decide if this is or is not a “fair” family issue.

Argue the Point, Not the Reality

I could be a million miles from correct about any of this, but I find a relationship to these family-related implications to be indisputable. People care about Ana, Harry, and Sophie. Their trials and tribulations rival the readers’ concerns about like circumstances in their personal family settings, whether directly related or peripheral. It’s my opinion that GREY, HARRY, and DA VINCI’s relationship to some aspect of family are what a mass of humanity identifies with and what motivates people to maintain not just an interest but a rabid enthusiasm for the subject matter. And this is why I chose this form of syllogism, however questionable it might be.

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The Perfect Write® Newsletter, Vol 113 (August 20, 2013)
The Overuse, Underuse, and Misuse of “That”

Hello Everyone,

I want to begin today’s edition by complimenting Newsletter subscribers for taking the initiative to click the links for the resource sites I recommended in my last Newsletter. Both The Writing Cafe and the Online Etymology Dictionary are now the most accessed links in the almost five years my site has been in existence. This might not seem like a big deal, but if subscribers didn’t utilize the links I post, this would be an obvious indication I’m not providing topical information.

And I’d have good reason to reconsider the value of my Newsletters, as my rants in and of themselves are hardly justification for anyone taking the time to read through my observations about prose writing or the publishing industry. I’m not being self-deprecating, but just plain honest, as I wouldn’t feel any different about someone else’s Newsletter or blog advice, should everything be solely that person’s opinions and nothing else.

I realize that everyone is busy, but for those of you who have bookmarked either or both of those sites, it would be great if you’d take a moment and write each site owner a note of appreciation. I know from personal experience how long it takes to vet and assemble source material, and if you take a peek at the Online Etymology Dictionary, you’ll see the enormous amount of research that went into Douglas Harper’s efforts. Before I close on this subject, I noticed also that The Writing Cafe lists a dozen or so writers’ blogs, and the link will take you to them. A few might be of interest, so I suggest checking out all of them. You might also find folks who will read and review your book. Or, miracle upon miracles, buy it. Yes, that happens as well.

While I’m passing out praise, I must thank all the subscribers who wrote me with comments regarding my article on what I believe is behind the making of a blockbuster novel. I realize it’s hard to link THE DA VINCI CODE to family, but as many of you noted in agreement with me, religion and family values run hand in hand, and in many settings is impossible to separate the two (I know, who would want to?). And for those who didn’t see the correlation or disagreed with my premise, that’s more than acceptable, as my opinions should always be challenged, and I frankly recommend this with respect to what any editor might say. My contention is that only in this way can a writer truly develop a reasonable assessment of the subjective nature of so much of what is being proffered. And I don’t think it’s outrageous to suggest that perhaps no industry is both more abstract and abstruse than editing.

To switch gears completely, I’ve recently received a number of e-mails from scammers who are using Newsletter subscribers’ names as the senders. I wouldn’t doubt that some of you might have gotten the same junk mail ascribed to me. I bring this up because six months ago I opened a link a subscriber sent me and then had to have my computer “cleaned,” and it required a couple of hours to get everything removed. Most of you know my writing style well enough to distinguish what is real from a fake. And I always close my business letters with “regards.” So if you get something other than this, be assured it’s from a scammer or phisher.

Of late, I’ve been extolling the success Mike Hartner is having with I, WALTER. From a wide variety of venues, his work has received glowing praise, and he’s done what I’ve suggested with respect to seeking “reads” from reviewers with quality credentials, and not those who give every free book a five-star rating. Brandi Kosiner is a prime example. Now I have what I believe is a first, and in my little world I call it a major announcement. Barnes & Noble in the Northwest U.S. (Mike is from Vancouver, B.C.) has agreed to stock I, WALTER. Since it’s a first work by a self-published writer without an extensive following, this is heretofore not something I’d ever heard of happening.

When I was in Palm Beach County this past week to meet with a publisher regarding one of my books and that of a client whose work I line-edited, I stopped at the Barnes & Noble where I’ve attended writers’ meetings and lectured in the past. I contacted the person responsible for community relations and who brings in books for all the B&Ns in her region, and after explaining Mike’s success, and what he went through to get B&N in the Northwest to handle I, WALTER, she, too, agreed to place the book on the shelves in her stores for 90 days (the usual time for first fiction). You can only imagine how pleased I was for Mike.

I need to explain a couple of issues regarding this. First, and I must use the trite “foremost,” I would never think of doing what I’d done if I didn’t have substantial confidence in the story and if I hadn’t personally line-edited the material and also had it copyedited by my copyeditor. Second, I would never have done this if Mike hadn’t already had a signed contract with the B&N vendor in the Northwest, who agreed to distribute–and it appears promote–I, WALTER. Mike had to jump major hoops to get this accomplished, as it was a ten-step process, which I’ll be happy to explain once all of this shakes out, and of course with Mike’s permission. I, WALTER continues to receive four- and five-star reviews from a wide array of quarters, and I’m going to ask a favor of Newsletter subscribers in the Northwest and South Florida once the book hits B&N shelves in these regions, and this will be to pick up a copy for a loved one for the holidays, as it’s a wholesome read that males and females of all ages can enjoy.

As subscribers have heard from me before, I’m not a big fan of five-star reviews and believe that any writer should be thrilled with a three-star rating, and four is through the roof. I’ve unofficially given I, WALTER three-and-a-half stars, and if anyone feels that I might be shooting myself in the foot by not giving my own client a five-star review, the largest selling U.S. book of all time (other than the Bible), THE DA VINCI CODE, has a three-and-half-star rating. Mike has written a very appealing story, and I can’t pay him a finer compliment. Time will tell how I, WALTER catches on with the reading public, but all indications thus far point to it being a bona fide success. Mike is also working with a couple of publicity outfits that specialize in visibility in the blogosphere, and with Mike’s permission I’ll let you know how this goes, as well.

While I’m on book promotion, M. J. Rose’s marketing service, AUTHOR BUZZ, which I touted in my paper MARKETING YOUR BOOK FROM A TO Z, has primarily appealed to authors who want to take a book that’s “midlisting” to the next level Many NYT bestselling authors credit Ms. Rose with making this leap possible, and she’s now refined several programs so they’re geared toward the self-published author. These start as low as $995, and the average comprehensive package is around $3,500, which is in line with what I cited in my piece back in July of ’11. This is not for someone who doesn’t have the disposable income, but along with a couple of other marketing “outlets,” it could be what makes the difference between reaching the bar or not getting there at all. But, it’s not a $100 investment, so a writer without a following at the level of Meyer, Hocking, or James will want to make certain the book is in tip-top shape or the money will be wasted.

As an aside to reaching or not reaching the proverbial bar, I spotted a piece recently that listed books for which huge advances were paid and then which failed to make the numbers. These titles weren’t in any particular sequence, which leads me to believe it was just a sampling, but here they are in my order. I’ll bet almost all subscribers will be stunned by the “winner,” and the dollar amount the book’s sales missed in covering the advance.

  • SACRED GAMES, by Vikram Chandra, sold 50,000 of a 200,000-copy run, and after a $1,000,000 advance–the publisher lost $650,000.
  • THE GLASS BOOKS OF THE DREAM EATERS, by Gordon Gahlquist, sold 22,000 copies of a 120,000-copy run–and lost $850,000 (part of a $2,000,000 advance for two books)
  • BRIGHT SHINY MORNING, by James Frey, sold 65,000 copies of a 300,000 initial run–and this cost the publisher $1,060,000.

And the grand-prize winner, which stunned me, was Charles Frazier of COLD MOUNTAIN fame. His follow-up story THIRTEEN MOONS indeed sold 368,000 copies, but this was from a run of more than twice that, 750,000 to be exact, which would have been great except that Random House lost $5,500,000. How is that possible after selling 368,000 copies of the book? It was easy to do, since the company had paid Professor Frazier an $8,000,000 advance!

Oh, the wicked tales all this tells. The Vikram Chandra book was almost 1,000 pages long, and for this reason I’m surprised it sold 55,000 copies. I have to guess a lot of that was the result of book clubs. I know nothing about Mr. Gahlquist’s book, but it’s hard to have sympathy for an imprint that would publish anything by James Frey. At least that’s my opinion. After Oprah, and his operating what appears to be nothing more than an intern sweatshop, I have zero respect for the guy. Regarding Charles Frazier and $8,000,000 advance? Come on. And when I did the math, I had each of these publishers losing substantially more, but BookScan provided the sales figures, based on two-thirds of the eventual sales number and each publisher’s recouping $4.50 on every sale and this being applied toward the advance. Don’t even try to figure out these numbers, as the bookkeeping in the industry is like trying to understand a proforma devised in cuneiform.

On another topic, which I’ll discuss in much greater detail in later Newsletters, Harvard and Notre Dame, as well as every other revered institution of higher learning with an enormous library, could ultimately place all its respective material in a digital format, but would that capture the experience of walking down the aisles and seeing the tattered covers and wondering which people–who later helped shape the future of the world–might have checked out and read those very books? I realize it sounds corny, but that sort of thing gives me goosebumps.

Today’s article is on the simple word “that,” which seems to give a lot of folks untold grief.

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The Overuse, Underuse, and Misuse of “That”

Few words in our language cause as much trouble as “that.” Not surprisingly, this is because “that” is a pronoun, adjective, adverb, and conjunction, and it also appears in a number of idiomatic phrases. And, should this not be enough, “that” is often substituted in casual conversation for “which.”

Definitions, Definitions, and More Definitions

Defining “that” would consume this article. And the “that/which” explanation would cover another paper, and I indeed wrote on this very subject at length at another time. Hence, I want to focus on the subject of this paper, which is the overuse and underuse of “that.”

One Self-Proclaimed Guru’s Answer to “That”

Some years ago, when I had the time to participate in other folks’ writing-related blogs, I remember being set back in my chair when a message-board “leader” informed his acolytes of his decision to omit “that” from every line in which it appeared in his latest literary wizardry.

I always wondered what happened when one of this fellow’s characters should “realize the cherry” or “understand the toilet,” instead of “He realized that the cherry had a pit in it only after he broke his tooth on it,” or “He would understand that the toilet in the gas station needed a key after it was too late.”

Then There’s Too Much Clarity

At times I’ll read something such as, “That is the thing that we need to be told that will make that clearer.” The easiest fix for this is, “That is the thing we need to be told to make it clearer.” I generally try to eliminate multiple uses of “that” in a sentence, when this is not impractical, and I recommend this for my clients, as well.

Substitute “Which” for the Second “That”

Many grammar experts don’t agree with this, but I always like Dr. Jacques Barzun’s contention, which states that “which,” when substituted for “that” when the latter occurs twice in a sentence (and it fits and makes grammatical sense) creates more fluent prose.

And in those instances when three “that’s” occur, I’ll generally place “which” between the first and last use of “that.”

Misuse of “That”

“That” defines with specificity–and tautology if you write what I just wrote, ha ha–but I want to get my point across. It can’t be substituted for “which” when the context is nonrestrictive any more than “which” can be substituted for “that” in restrictive text.

The Best Determinant for “That”

I obviously disagreed with the guy who decided “that” was a bad word and it should be banished forever. However, I do believe “that” is overused. Strict grammarians might say I needed a “that” before “that” in the previous two sentences. It’s easy to find a place for “that,” if for no other reason than its abundant uses.

The old rule of thumb is to read the sentence with and without “that” and decide what makes sense, applying the method I used with the cherry and the toilet. For me, both examples indicate a clear-cut need for “that.” When it’s not so absolute, my advice is to omit “that” and read the sentence aloud to determine if the decision was a sound one. Sometimes I place “that” back in the syntax, yet just as often I don’t, letting sound and fluency always decide the fate of “that.”

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The Perfect Write® Newsletter, Vol 114 (September 3, 2013)
How to Get a Self-Published Book in Barnes & Noble

Hello Everyone,

Today’s Newsletter is a “Special Edition, as I’m devoting this entire broadcast to a “success story,” and in more ways than the material’s being a quality read.

As early as Tuesday of this past week, I was going to write my normal Newsletter. I’d already decided on the accompanying article, which would pertain to assessing manuscript revision suggestions provided by an editor. Revisions are a topic of enormous importance, but I’m holding the article and the rest of what was to be in that Newsletter in abeyance so I can take this opportunity to explain via a step-by-step process how one of my long-standing clients has just gotten his self-published book in Barnes & Noble stores throughout the Northwest. Yet, perhaps of greatest significance of all, his book is also being stocked in the B&N warehouse in New York City, for distribution to stores across the nation.

The book I’m discussing is I, WALTER by Mike Hartner. Mike resides in Vancouver, British Columbia, maintains an office in Seattle, and is an IT professional. I have asked for and received Mike’s permission to detail what he has done to accomplish having I, WALTER accepted by B&N, but I first want to provide subscribers with a little history on Mike’s and my professional relationship.

When I first began editing full time in ’09, Mike was one of my early clients. What began with a free query review on April 29 of that year, for a novel originally titled ETERNITY FOR A POPSICLE, later became a critique of this manuscript and then a revision and another critique. After another revision and numerous false starts, I line-edited his draft and he began the process of pursuing agents. I believed that the story still needed more work before it was ready for agents, but Mike, as with most writers I know, was eager to test the waters

ETERNITY was now titled A NEW BEGINNING, and while it indeed had gone through quite a metamorphosis, agents weren’t enamored with the story, considering some of the scenes choppy and not transitioned well, and with characters that didn’t display enough dimension, issues I’d contended all along, and why I wasn’t jumping up and down when Mike decided to begin querying. However, the best way for an author to learn where a book stands is to indeed have agents present their positions, and for this reason I decided this was perhaps the one sure way for Mike to realize what I’d been saying was correct. Alas, after a long campaign without any bites, Mike decided to pull the plug on this story.

I had a couple of long conversations with Mike regarding fleshing out scenes and characters, and of course about the need to acquire a firm understanding of transitioning elements. In was now late in ’11, and I reiterated what I’d said all along, which was that he had a wonderful work ethic and a great imagination. Then I suggested what had been niggling at me for some time, and this was that his story, which involved a group called “The Organization,” needed to start in the “real” beginning and not in 2011. Mike liked my idea (maybe “acquiesced” is a better word choice, ha ha) and set up a storyboard with the progenitor of “The Organization,” a young boy who leaves home in Elizabethan England at the age of 12.

Mike had what I found to be a brilliant idea for the boy’s story being told when he was an old man stricken by malaria, believing his death was imminent. We worked on this story through most of last year, and on February15 of this year, I deemed I,WALTER ready for market. I made this assessment for the simple reason that I was now firmly committed to the story’s premise and the way the material was being presented. It had it all: an interesting period in history, adventure in a number of exotic locations, strong family values, a terrific romantic thread, and perhaps its greatest virtue of all, a true Horatio Alger plot that made it impossible not to root–with gusto–for the protagonist. And spliced in with everything was a healthy dose of betrayal, treachery, and deceit, providing one plot twist after another that Walter had to weave his way through to reach an enormously satisfying conclusion (and set up for a spine-tingling sequel).

I, WALTER’s current acceptance by readers–and now Barnes & Noble–is not the result of a 90-day write, and personal edit, and then hauling it in front of bookstore managers. Instead, it’s been a consistent labor to improve the story to get it to the point that Mike could take it to the first step, which was to get it on Amazon so it could be purchased in both paperback and digital (he also had it done in audio, for which he himself provided the narration). He received one excellent review after another, and then he did as I’ve suggested over and over in my Newsletters and went to work on the blogs and at finding other writers and reviewers who would read his novel. This has produced a groundswell of rave reviews, not only in Amazon but in Goodreads and other highly visible sites devoted to writers.

Newsletter subscribers are aware of my disdain for five-star reviews, and I’ll be writing a paper on this for a future broadcast, but the undeniable fact, regardless of what I think of the actual ratings themselves, is that readers love I, WALTER. And so do bookstore managers and bookstore reps who sell to these retailers, which now brings me to the way Mike was able to get a B&N manager to agree to stock his self-published work. Mike graciously provided me with a ten-point outline that, when modified to meet specific situations, can also apply to book placement in independent stores as well. Here, now, is his road map for placing a self-published book in Barnes & Noble.

1) Have the book available via Amazon. In Mike’s case, the paperback came out a month after the Kindle edition was available.

2) Mike went to the B&N in Bellingham, Washington, and asked the manager what needed to be done to get his book in that store. He also provided a copy of I, WALTER, which was in published form and replete with EAN/ISBN barcode (this is a must).

3) The manager gave him the name of Partners West, a book distributor based in Renton, Washington, that is the primary vendor for the B&Ns in the region.

4) Mike sent a request to Partners West and ended up talking with one of the company’s major account reps, who requested two copies of I, WALTER and a business plan from Mike that indicated what he was doing for publicity and media, and his plans for promoting the novel during the fall and winter. (These are the same questions asked of a major publisher.)

5) Mike assembled and sent the rep the information he had requested. Then the rep suggested that Mike contact the B&N Small Press Division in New York City to ask that this operation carry his book for national distribution. It’s important to note, since his initial contact with the B&N in Bellingham, only three weeks had passed.

6) Mike contacted the B&N Small Press Division with what was happening with I, WALTER in the Northwest B&Ns, and requested to have the book stocked by this national distribution outlet on the East Coast.

7) In early July, Mike contacted Partners West to let the company know what was happening with B&N Small Press, and with his updated marketing plans, which the firm had requested.

8) On August 8, Mike received a contract for distribution from Partners West.

9) The next day, Mike received a letter from B&N Small Press asking that he contact them when he had a contract with Partners West, as B&N Small Press would then “endeavor to carry his book” in their stores.

10) Mike then contacted the B&N in Bellingham with the news, and the manager, who liked I, WALTER (apparently a lot) had his district manager brought in on the conversation because he liked the book, as well. They were now waiting on the execution of the contract, which would then enable them to not only stock the book but also plan for book signings.

The signed contract arrived a few days later, and Mike has received a purchase order for 50 copies! Seriously, isn’t this great. It actually brought a tear to my eye. I’ve of course had other clients who have achieved publishing success, but most have required confidentiality agreements, so it’s a tribute to Mike that he was so willing to share this step-by-step information for Newsletter subscribers.

Mike has also provided some advice that I found most important. At the top of the list was respecting everyone’s timeline and waiting three or four weeks before following up with either the B&N store manager or the contact with the Small Press Division. However, when he had pertinent information, he made certain that the B&N manager was made aware of what measures were taken and where things were going.

Mike learned that the B&N manager was behind him and wanted his book to succeed. B&N employs what is called a Customer Service Manager (in the prior Newsletter I mentioned my contact with B&N in West Palm Beach, who is the counterpart to Mike’s CSM in Bellingham), and these people have enormous influence with respect to bringing books into the stores, as they have ordering authority and also plan community events such as book fairs and school benefits. The charity side of this is great publicity, and participating will ingratiate you with both the school and the CSM. Of course at the book fairs you’ll be presenting your book for sale, so it’s a no-brainer as something all authors would want to support.

Mike finished his notes to me by saying that if the manager at the B&N sees you working hard, this person will be even more interested in helping you make sales. This can mean better-advertised book signings, more advantageous positioning of a book on the shelves (don’t think for a minute this isn’t a big deal), and author showcasing in the “New Release” or “Local or Regional Writer” section in the store. This is often delineated by genre, as well. It really gets down to how much oomph the store manager wants to put behind the in-house publicity. And with the Customer Service Manager supporting the book, too, this teamwork can create substantial visibility for both the author and the work.

In closing today’s Newsletter, as the holiday season approaches I hope that subscribers will be kind enough to go to a local Barnes & Noble and either pick up or order a copy of I, WALTER (it more than likely won’t be available for national release until October, and yes, I’ll remind subscribers of the date, ha ha). Not many people would be as open as Mike about what he’s had to do to get to this point, and this is the very first time I’ve ever heard of a major bookstore chain accepting a self-published work, by a non-celebrity, that’s just come into print. I couldn’t be prouder for Mike, and this proves that “it” can be done. For me, the one thing that came through in all of this is that everyone with B&N who read I, WALTER adored the story. Pick up a copy, and I have confidence you will be in that group as well.

FLASH! FLASH! FLASH!

Mike e-mailed me late Sunday evening with the following:

On Thursday of last week, he was contacted by the Customer Service Manager at Seattle’s Pacific Place B&N, telling him that his book had been ordered for this store and asking if he’d like to come in the next day and talk about I, WALTER, as a charity event was taking place that was sponsored by another author, and Mike could be part of that program. Mike agreed to participate, and what he saw when he arrived was staggering.

This B&N had ordered all 50 books from Partners West’s original purchase order, and when Mike walked into the store, 44 of his books were on display just outside the “down” escalator to street level! The other six books had already been sold to educators in Seattle who “knew about Mike,” with his not being aware that he’d received any publicity for I, WALTER. Mike was asked by the CRM to autograph the 44 books on display. And in the course of the three hours he remained at the store, patrons purchased 8 copies of I, WALTER. The CRM told Mike–to facilitate sales–the display at the front of the store would be left intact for the remainder of the weekend.

In all candor, the entirety of what occurred is so extraordinary that I don’t believe words exist which can adequately do it justice. I’ve been to book signings by well-known authors with major imprints, and eight books weren’t sold. And for a self-published writer, without a following, to have his or her book displayed in America’s preeminent bookstore in the manner described is unheard of. It again comes back to what I had originally closed with, and it’s that I, WALTER is a work which bookstore executives found to be a quality reading experience.

The quality of the I, WALTER narrative is the one constant in all of this, and my hope is that every Newsletter subscriber recognizes just how important this is to the process. The rep with Partners West, after reading the book and liking it, indeed provided the impetus to start the plane rolling down the runway. But it was the B&N manager and CSM who provided the tailwinds for I,WALTER to take flight.

I hope each and every subscriber enjoyed today’s Newsletter as much as I enjoyed writing it. Nothing has ever given me greater pleasure.

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The Perfect Write® Newsletter, Vol 115 (September 17, 2013)
Revisions Suggestions and How to Deal With Them Effectively

Hello Everyone,

I want to begin the rebroadcast of this edition, which was originally sent on September 17, by explaining that I’m sending this to all subscribers because there was some confusion as to when James Babb’s free offer for THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE would be in effect.  The novel will be available in an e-book format via this link tomorrow, September 25.  Please take advantage of James’s generosity and you’ll be rewarded with a fine reading experience, as his two opening chapters received the highest click rate of anything I have posted to date on my Critique Blog, and by a substantial margin.  And Newsletter subscribers raved about the story’s setup.

To be clear on this, James is offering a free Kindle copy of THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE on Wednesday, September 25.  This free offer is for one day only, and the link will enable folks to receive a free copy of a superb story that can be enjoyed by readers of all ages.  James tells me, “I am scheduled to speak at three schools already and have teachers pushing me to contact the Arkansas Department of Education about having the novel included in the list for all Arkansas schools.

James paid close attention to historical accuracy, in the areas that count, and I have to believe this is why educators believe their students would benefit from the reading experience, even though this is a work of fiction.  It’s always easy to pick apart any work of Historical Fiction, and it’s a tribute to the writer when he or she can be granted some leeway to create more fabric for a storyline.  Gore Vidal’s BURR is the finest work of Historical Fiction I have ever read, yet am I to believe there wasn’t an anachronism somewhere in the story?  Or that an event might really have occurred on a Tuesday and not a Monday?

THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE truly paints what it would be like to live in rural America circa 1880, at least as I perceive the way it would be in that era.  Mike Hartner’s tale does the same for Elizabethan England in I, WALTER, as his many readers have most zealously pointed out.  The reading public wants a good story, and overwhelming this trumps a juxtaposed battle scene .  Would most people know that the origin of “hallucinate” was 1595, “plastic” was extant in 1625, yet “hooligan” was first used in print in 1895?  Conversely, I can’t see a character “flipping one’s lid” in A.D. 1000, even though the word “lid” was written at that time.  Word usage is a matter of degree as much as it is acceptance.  I bring up all of this only to point out that there is some leeway with word chronology and scene depiction, if handled prudently, and while there is some flexibility, the line is a thin one.

I am making a change to one of my fees for editing services.  Effective January 1, my critique fee will be $2.00 per 280-word page, up from $1.50.  My critiques, while advertised to be composed of 3 to 7 pages of single-spaced material, average from 14 to 21 pages, and a few have even breached the 30-page mark.  And while quantity has zero relevance to quality, I’ve seen many of the critiques my colleagues provide, and they are nowhere near as extensive.  Yes, they may well be better editors, but we are generally of the same mind when it comes to assessing material, at least from the perspective of the “global” issues.

With few exceptions, my critiques are substantially more comprehensive and lean more strongly toward the developmental side, which is vastly more expensive in the world of editorial fee structures.  By comparison, others charge $3,000 to $7,500 (or even more) for what I provide for $400 to $700, and I’m often spending 30 to 40 hours on a single critique.  I admit I’m slow, but I have to increase my fee structure in this area or I’ll no longer be able to continue this service, as critiques are overwhelmingly where most of my editing hours are allocated.

I absolutely hate raising rates, and I assure each of you that I am not increasing this fee because a couple of my clients have had some recent success.  I have many clients who have become published during the past five years, but I’m unable to discuss them because of nondisclosure agreements.  My decision is based solely on needing to make a living, and nothing else.  In advance of this increase, I want to thank each of you for your understanding.

My wife was recently reading THE HELP and couldn’t put it down.  Her enthusiasm for the story led me to look up some material on Kathryn Stockett that I had archived.  Here is a paragaph from an interview Ms. Stockett granted:

“In the end, I received 60 rejections for The Help. But letter number 61 was the one that accepted me. After my five years of writing and three and a half years of rejection, an agent named Susan Ramer (at Don Congdon Associates) took pity on me. What if I had given up at 15? Or 40? Or even 60? Three weeks later, Susan sold The Help to Amy Einhorn Books.”

I’m not comparing Mike Hartner’s book to Ms. Stockett’s, but in the realm of achieving publishing success mirroring eating an elephant one bite at a time, Mike is indeed gnawing away.  He could have quit after his first manuscript’s not going anywhere.  But I wouldn’t let him, as I saw something good in his writing, and enormous enthusiasm on his part in wanting to improve his storytelling skills.  Five years, and a half-dozen drafts later, and Mike now has a work in which he can take enormous pride.

By unofficial count, the average Big 6-published writer has written six novels during a 14-year period–before having a book signed.  I say “unofficial count” because during a several-year period I compiled this statistic myself from published-writers’ reports of the chronology of their respective “acceptance curves.”  I cite this not to discourage but to encourage writers to realize that writing material people will pay to read is a marathon and not a 100-yard dash.  Anyone writing a draft, revising it once, and expecting it to be ready for market is not being realistic.

Fitzgerald was 22 when Maxwell Perkins published THIS SIDE OF PARADISE.  He expressed his concerns for the story, but recognized Fitzgerald’s potential and took a chance (this probably wouldn’t happen today).  Faulkner wrote SOLDIER’S PAY while in his 20s, and, yes, it contained his stream-of-consciousness style.  And I seem to remember Steinbeck and Hemingway also having work published while they were in their 20s.  Can anyone name four other writers in their 20s who have had material signed by a major royalty publisher, pre-Internet?

The four writers I just mentioned were pretty good ones, and unless one of us feels that he or she is equal to Fitzgerald or Virginia Wolfe (whose first novel was published when she was 31, and MRS. DALLOWAY not until she was 44) it has to be accepted that writing is a skill that takes time and a lot of work to become good at.  And, remember, we should never end a sentence with a preposition, ha ha.

To change topics in a major way, I noticed last week that a writer had rights returned in a settlement involving Damnation Books/Eternal Press.  It seems the author found her book, after publication, containing 260 copyediting errors.  This begs the question, did the writer send back the galleys “clean” and the publisher create the errors during the reconstitution of the text?  If so, this seems quite odd.  Regardless, Damnation didn’t want to return rights to the author, but via a settlement agreed to do so.  What a mess, especially when the book was far from a bestseller.

The crux of the settlement wasn’t discussed in detail because the author agreed to nondisclosure, but in reviewing some of this imprint’s earlier treatment of authors, Damnation Books/Eternal Press appears to be involved in a number of what I consider to be shenanigans that could cost authors dearly, should they wish to recover rights to their respective works.  This is another example of why writers should scour the Internet for “history” before hooking up with any publisher.  With all the recent mergers, it takes a scorecard to keep the companies straight, and most people don’t possess either the wherewithal or comportment to bring a publisher to court, so a little time at the keyboard might prevent a whole lot of lost sleep.

Newsletter subscribers have long read my laments regarding the disappearance of brick and mortar bookstores.  It was just made public that the leases are not being renewed for two B&Ns in the Ft. Worth area, furthering what I’ve been saying about the death of major stand-alone bookstores.  I’m saddened because I remember the first time I saw a B&N.  I was driving by a large strip mall where I lived in Kennesaw, Georgia, and saw the Barnes & Noble logo, having no idea that the chain existed.  When I walked in, I couldn’t believe it.  All those books and so little time, ha ha.  I think I became that store’s biggest retail customer, and 90 percent of my library today is the result of purchases I made at that location.  Wow, do I hate to see this end.  But I’m convinced the kiosk approach, which I’ve discussed many times with subscribers, will take over.  It all gets down to economics.

Kudos to subscribers, since almost all of you, no matter where you are in the 41 countries this Newsletter now reaches, clicked The Writing Cafe to place that massive resource base at your fingertips.  For new subscribers, this virtual vault of material has it all, which means it also contains materials for sale.  So it requires a little effort to weave through everything, but it is by far the most complete list of source material I have found to date.  However, I cannot get the first item on the list, billed as “Massive Dictionary for Writers.” But for Mystery and Thriller writers, I recommend a link that does work, and it’s to James Scott Bell’s site, “The Kill Zone.”  Writer’s Digest rates the site as one of top 100 for Writers in 2013, and it’s as good as any I have come across.

For anyone wondering just how hard it is to break in with the Big 6 at this moment in time, “Boston Book Reviews for Fall” features almost all established writers with sequels to existing plots and/or characters.  And we wonder why it seems we have sequels for any movie that made a sizable profit, regardless of its inane premise.  Pretty soon, Freddie Kruger is going to be making his way around the campsites in a walker.  Those poor werewolves in THE HOWLING series will be biting their victims via dentures. Schwarzenegger will be getting a cane from Stallone, saying “I’ll be back,” as he goes to the restroom in the nursing home and doesn’t come back, leading to another gripping sequel.

I noticed that both e-book and print sales are off by 11 percent because GREY finally faded.  This clearly demonstrates the way one big book can control the industry.  Look how many GREY offshoots were published, which in its own way is comparable to what occurred with THE DA VINCI CODE.  And the TWILIGHT, HUNGER GAMES, and TRYLLE megahits are undeniable testimony to the groundswell that can occur if the right theme is exploited by a writer who intimately understands the model.  No one has proven the effectiveness of modeling any better than James Patterson.  So, like or hate his writing, he has captured the pulse and pace of the critical mass who buy thrillers.

Today’s article is on how to access revision suggestions.

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Revision Suggestions and How to Deal with Them Effectively
 

When I first started editing for a living, the most difficult part of my job was having to tell a writer that something was not working, which could be anything from a plot element to a character to a run of dialogue to a passage of exposition.  But I soon learned that I had a greater challenge, which was really a responsibility, and this was to dissect the job of an editor and the way a writer should interpret revision suggestions.

Revisions Are Suggestions and Concepts

My critiques are littered with the words “I suggest.”  The reason is not because I’m not sure of the advice I’m offering, nor is this phrase meant to mollify.  Instead, the words are provided as a statement of fact, since editing is largely subjective and editorial opinions should be treated as such.

A Revision Suggestion Is a Call to Action

Simply stated, a suggestion to revise text is designed to get the writer to consider alternatives, not that the editor’s idea is the only way something can be written.  Often I’ll give a client several ways to face down an issue.  In this manner, the writer can make a decision based on more than one option, and it also shows that there are indeed many ways to resolve the problem.

However All Revision Suggestions Don’t Require an Action

A suggested revision doesn’t force an author to automatically do anything to the text, but it does point to something the editor found problematic, and this is what’s important.  The writer can then take a hard look at the contention and make a choice, and there are certainly times when the choice is not to do anything.

No editor should ever be offended if a writer chooses to eschew a suggestion, just as no author should be distraught by editorial opinion.  It’s the thought processes that matter, and if an editor substantiates a contention, the writer can make an educated assessment of what, if anything, should be done to improve the text, always knowing that there was an issue or the editor would not have broached the subject in the first place.

However, the ultimate decision should always rest with the author, and I believe this is the one inviolable aspect of the entire revision process.

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The Perfect Write® Newsletter, Vol 116 (October 1, 2013)
Publishers, Large vs. Small

Hello Everyone,

I’m going to begin today’s Newsletter in a more traditional manner by welcoming the new subscribers to this medium, since during the past two weeks a substantial number of writers have signed up for my drivel. For those who are new to these broadcasts, the premise is to provide information on writing prose at a level people would pay to read, as well as data on the publishing industry as I’ve come to know it during the past 20-plus years as both a novelist and an editor.

When I began these broadcasts in June of ’09, I focused solely on the premise of being published by a Big 6 imprint or quality independent press. I maintained a “follow the pack” mentality regarding self-publishing, eschewing it at every turn. However, now that the major publishers have scouts scouring the Internet for self-publishing successes, I’ve softened my stance. I still evaluate material based on what I consider to be Big 6 criteria, but with the recent success some of my clients are having with their self-published work, I’m becoming more open to this option. Mitigating my initial disdain for self-publishing is the fact that it now can be done cheaply–and with enough competition to keep it this way.

If writers want to spend thousands of dollars with the ASI self-publishing imprints, that is each author’s individual decision, but there are scads of less-expensive vehicles for doing the same thing, with The Expresso Book Machine in my opinion leading the pack. If any subscribers aren’t familiar with this concept, the link is to a five-minute video that shows the machine in operation. It’s pretty cool, so anyone who hasn’t already done so might want to take a peek at the way it works. The video takes the viewer through the entire process and shows how a softcover book can be printed, paginated, and made into a bookstore-grade product in the aforementioned five minutes. And the cost, if someone wants 100 copies (and as long as it’s not WAR AND PEACE length) is around $5.00 per book, including a four-color cover. So hook up with Kimberly Hitchens at Booknook.biz (http://www.booknook.biz/bk_about), and for $185 or so in most cases she’ll format your manuscript (and if you’ve ever tried to do this yourself, you’d gladly pay her three times as much), and you’ll be on your way to fame and fortune.

Fame and fortune! I’m constantly driving just how long it takes on average for a writer to make it with the Big 6. I’ve consistently mentioned the number of writers who espouse the 6 and 14 model, which equates to writing 6 books during a 14-year period before the first one is signed. I’ve recently read about two authors many subscribers will be quite familiar with who had to wait 20 years before their first book was published. One is the immensely popular Debbie Macomber. My wife recently handed me a book by Ms. Macomber in which the author alludes to her early struggles. She states that during a 20-year time frame she wrote a dozen books before the first one was signed, and now she has 136 books in print, with more than 100 million copies of her work sold in 23 languages! None of that is an exaggeration. Here’s an article in which Ms. Macomber discusses her success and her early failures. The article is brief, but subscribers might find it of benefit, especially those who might be thinking about tossing in the towel.

My fabulous copyeditor, Martha Moffett, whose talent many of you have experienced if you’ve ever had me line-edit your work, sent me an interview by David Gaughgran. It’s with another “overnight success,” Michael Wallace, who states that it also required him 20 years to “make it” as a writer. Since 2011, he’s sold 400,000 of his e-books on Amazon, and he prices his digital material at 99 cents. The article is a long one, and comes in two parts. I pulled a quote from the early Q&A that I trust subscribers will find interesting, as it follows Mr. Wallace’s homage to becoming published:

Q. “Are you one of these classic ‘overnight’ success stories with ten years of hard work behind it?”

A. “Make it twenty years and that’s about right. The Righteous was my ninth completed novel. Toss in over a hundred short stories and maybe a thousand rejection letters and you start to get a picture of how persistent I was. Or maybe stubborn is the right word. I was not able to give up even in the face of overwhelming indifference on behalf of the publishing industry.”

The article goes on to explain his success with Amazon’s thriller imprint, Thomas & Mercer. With his success with Amazon still fresh, I found it rather significant that Mr. Wallace says he would jump at a deal from a major publisher. With all the big houses following the blogs and e-book sales, I’m surprised no one has signed him yet. As an aside, Thomas & Mercer is the same imprint who told my agent they would do my latest book and then said “later,” and now I’m once again looking for a publisher. Back to Mr. Wallace, he does admit that Amazon’s marketing was able to shoot his books (there were three to start with) right to the top. And he also concedes that he had a bit of luck in being selected by T&M for a major advertising campaign, which is exactly why I was interested in this opportunity and hung in there for so long time before moving on.

Diana Krause, a long-time Newsletter subscriber and I’m happy to say recent client, brought another success story to my attention, in this instance involving Hugh Howey, the author of the very successful WOLL Sci-Fi series. The link is to a three-minute video that I encourage anyone considering e-publishing to read. I found two things above all else that should be taken from his interview. One is, even though he is a writer who is selling at a rate of $100,000 in monthly volume, he sells his e-books for 99 cents, a price point I’ve suggested for all authors starting out. And didn’t Amanda Hocking also choose this price point for her digital material? There’s a story here, and I’m not making a pun. The $.99 to $2.99 retail for e-books is not something I’ve been throwing out without foundation for the past couple of years.

The other thing beyond good pricing that in my opinion helped Mr. Howey was his genre. Sci-Fi fans are often quite “vocal” on the Internet when they get behind something. And this is what occurred with WOLL. So if you write Sci-Fi, and have self-e-published, by all means start working the Sci-Fi blogs, another issue I’ve been adamant about for some time. This is a requisite, not something that falls into the “Oh, well, I might do this if I have the time” category. This is a “roll up your sleeves” and “dig in” must. Again, here’s the link to Mr. Howey’s interview. He mentions how digital books have lowered the barrier to entry for writers. But he also explains the correct way to view this, and I believe he’s spot-on. I know I’m beating this to death, but I encourage all Newsletter subscribers who are involved with digital publishing to take the three minutes and listen to his interview.

I want to take a moment to thank each of you who took advantage of James Babb’s generous offer for a free copy of THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE. Even though it was free, your support helps James. And I thought you might like to hear of James’s success at a recent school that allowed him to present his work to parents and students. James sold 87 softcover copies of THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE at $8 each. He has a cost of approximately $4.50, so this leaves him with a 45-percent margin. Do the math and I hope you’ll agree this isn’t bad for a few hours. If you ask around, you’ll learn that many even well-known writers don’t sell anywhere near 87 books at one sitting. James was also featured on a local TV station as “Arkansasan of the Day” because of his novel’s Arkansas presence.

James tells me that there’s serious interest in having him present his book throughout the Arkansas school system. So if you have written a novel with historical relevance, by all means contact the local school system and see if a “Book Fair” is planned or if you can perhaps speak to the students, parents, and faculty about your story, independently. If you missed the free offer but would still like a copy of THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE at the $2.99 Kindle price, by all means click the link and find your favorite chair and kick up your feet, as you’ll be settling in for a most enjoyable reading experience. As with I, WALTER, this is one darned good story, and I only critiqued James’s book, so I have no “editorial claim,” ha ha.

To finish up on this segment that pertains to James’s novel, I have to admit that I welled up and couldn’t keep from crying when I read one of the reviews given THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE:

First novel, September 12, 2013

By Mary Wilhelm – See all my reviews

Amazon Verified Purchase

This review is from: The Devil’s Backbone (Kindle Edition) Wonderful start to what I am certain will be a successful career in writing. Hard to imagine this hard to put down story coming from the little boy I knew so many years ago.

I’m unashamedly crying as I finished posting this, as I can only imagine how proud James must have felt the first time he read this lady’s comment. How special can it get?

Now that I’ve wiped my eyes, today’s article on big publishers versus small was requested by my copyeditor, Martha Moffett, and here it is:

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The Pros and Cons of Signing with Big and Small Publishers

I believe it’s fair to state that the size of the publisher is probably the last thing on the mind of most writers who receive a contract in the mail. But there are issues to consider, especially with the groundswell of consolidation at the high end of the publishing industry and the proliferation of publishing options at the entry level, with small presses in the middle.

Big Means Big

The good part of this is that a writer has signed with a mainstream publisher, and that can never be taken away. How much is that worth? If it’s like the job market, a survey was done years ago that indicated that the majority of people would take a substantial pay cut to receive a more prestigious job than the one they were in. No joke.

Big Means More Advertising Dollars Are Available

The question is, how much of that advertising money will be spent on your book? And if your book doesn’t “take off” right away, how long will the major house stay with you before saying “sayonara”? A small house might be inclined to be substantially more patient with a book, since each work it publishes will have a stronger impact, by percentage, on the bottom line than one book “placed” within the larger number of books published by a major imprint.

A Number Rather Than a Person

Then there’s always the problem of getting “swallowed up” in a large organization, no different from the workplace, a school, a church, or whatever. Once the handshaking is over, at a major publisher, unless the book is a blockbuster, phone time will likely be at a premium. And at a smaller publisher, a writer might be more able to sit down and discuss marketing options face-to-face rather than via the vapidity of an e-mail.

I’m not implying this lack of personal contact isn’t available with a major imprint, but the opportunities for one-on-one contact will likely be less unless the writer is a star.

Small Can Mean Small Budgets

The opposite of Random House, D&W Publishing (a name I’ve made up for this illustration) will almost certainly have a small marketing budget, so a writer can forget about a full-page ad costing six figures in the NYT. And a small publisher might expect more individual marketing by its writers, and at each author’s expense. However, to that point, it seems that all publishers are expecting their writers to hit the bricks now more than ever.

Smaller Budgets, However, Can Have Advantages

A small press will almost always provide its authors with a closer sense of family, and many writers find this of great value. And while a smaller publisher will most often “stay with” a book longer, I’ve been told by authors who have signed with firms of both sizes that the smaller press was easier to work with all the way around. However, I’ve had others tell me there was no difference, or if the big press paid a larger advance it made the lack of “homeyness” a nonissue.

Time Enters into the Equation

If an author has spent years trying to land an agent, then more years pursuing a Big 6 publisher, all to no avail, there can be huge satisfaction working with a small press. Some of these smaller publishers are renowned for their high-quality work and for the care their editors provide writers, and many “indies” can be approached without an agent’s assistance.

And, Yes, the Money

For many years, the major houses seemed to have a “standard” advance for new fiction novels that was $20,000. During this same period, the smaller independent publishers’ advances were in the $5,000 range for new work. Today, I’ve heard of major publishers’ imprints paying $5,000 to debut authors. And I know of several quality upstart independent publishers who sign work on consignment; meaning, the author is paid royalties on sales, with no advance.

Advances Have Been Reduced

When a reduced advance is involved, the major house versus smaller house scenario becomes easier to evaluate. If both publishers offered the same advance, it would seem to be hard to turn down going with the larger house; still, it might be prudent to consider the issues I’ve broached in this article. And while these are by no means all the areas to analyze, they are certainly some of the major ones.

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The Perfect Write® Newsletter, Vol 117 (October 15, 2013)
E-Book Success, Proven Tips to Increase Sales

Hello Everyone,

I’ve decided to once again devote substantial space in a Newsletter to self-publishing, as several recent clients’ successes, some of which I can’t discuss because of confidentiality agreements, have increased my confidence in the potential this medium can provide. Of the material I have permission to discuss publicly, I hope all subscribers are heartened by what I’ve been reporting regarding the superb early sales numbers for I, WALTER by Mike Hartner and THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE by James Babb.

As for I, WALTER, just this past Wednesday I learned that it is now available for national distribution by Barnes & Noble. I contacted the Barnes & Noble Customer Service Manager at the store in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, where I used to participate in a writer’s group, and she immediately placed an order for I, WALTER to stock it on that store’s shelves. I cannot express how excited I was when she sent me an e-mail that said “Ordered.” A few years ago this never would’ve happened, as self-published books were considered substandard and generally unmarketable outside of the author’s friends and family.

I’m going to ask subscribers in Palm Beach County who reside near Legacy Place in the Gardens (via the I-95 PGA Boulevard exchange, this quite nice shopping center is only a mile east on PGA Boulevard), to please stop by and pick up a copy of I, WALTER. Politically, this will help me and can in turn aid any of you who may follow in Mike’s footsteps, as this will assure that I’ll have the CSM’s ear when I make a future book recommendation for her to stock. And the book at that time might be yours! So please help me and potentially yourself by purchasing a copy of I, WALTER. It’s a story for all ages and would make a lovely holiday gift.

I said that self-publishing would provide the focus for today’s broadcast, and I want to mention a way to view this medium which may not have been considered by many writers. I’ve often seen self-publishing described as a developmental option, but for me this sounds like the D-League in professional basketball. Where did that marketing genius come from? “D” sounds like anything but connoting development, instead coming across to many if not most people as one step from “F” and failure. For this reason, I’ve decided to place self-publishing in the realm of a “proving ground.”

If a self-published book can acquire a following, it has proven that it is marketable. How marketable of course is dictated by actual sales numbers, and these are going to be based almost entirely on the aggressiveness of the author related to his or her commitment to the story. If Mike Hartner hadn’t done all the legwork with B&N, and the managers of one store hadn’t been behind him and I, WALTER, I would never have been in a position to have the CSM–cross-country from Mike’s home area–stock the book. Likewise, if James Babb hadn’t worked to get his book in his regional Arkansas school system, he and THE DEVIL’S BACKBONE would have never been showcased by a local TV station, and there would not be a movement afoot to have his book presented to Arkansas schools statewide.

I honestly believe that both books have an excellent shot at someday being signed by a major house. Hence, self-publishing is the perfect proving ground for material, and in my opinion there’s nothing developmental about it. And it certainly is not the “D-League” in the sense of automatically pertaining to substandard issue. The key is figuring out ways to get traction, and I want to suggest one method that doesn’t cost anything beyond a gallon or two of gas, and this is to make a visit to the local library.

A wonderful friend of mine is a library manager at the facility where I used to conduct writing workshops sponsored by the Palm Beach County Library System. Some years ago she mentioned to me, yes, at a time when I hadn’t yet embraced self-publishing as anything more than a hobby, that a writer with a self-published book would be allowed to provide a reading at her library and then sell the book afterward to patrons in attendance. What makes this even more spectacular is that the library would provide publicity, at its expense, for the author and the work.

I encourage any writer of self-published material to explore this option in your own community. I believe it’s fair to imply that the rules which governed Mike with B&N and James with the Arkansas schools will apply, in that the person in charge of the decision will have to like the book. Hence, and I’m not trying to sell editing, the material will need to be sound grammatically while at the same time providing a satisfactory reading experience. For those of you who should approach libraries and be granted a “reading,” please get back to me with the results and I’ll publish them in an upcoming Newsletter(s).

And while I’m discussing e-publishing on one’s own, I always suggest doing this as inexpensively as possible. But to do this effectively, your book has to be correctly formatted. Anyone trying this without a lot of knowledge with this discipline is all too aware of what a horror story it can become. I have consistently recommended Kimberly Hitchens, the founder of Booknook.biz, for this service, and I continue to extol the benefits of using her.

For around $185 for the average-size novel (100,000 words or so), you’ll receive a text that will work beautifully with Kindle or Nook (which combined control 90-percent plus of the e-book reader market), as well as a lot of what else that’s out there. I realize I gave Booknook.biz a nice plug in my last Newsletter, but the link code was corrupted and I couldn’t repair it without retyping the entire Newsletter (don’t ask, but I promise I’m not exaggerating), so I’m mentioning Kimberly’s service again, and I’m happy to do so, as she does fantastic work and she’s just as OCD about her projects as I am about mine.

It might be of interest that half of all e-books next year will be purchased online, at least according to an article I read in Publishers Marketplace. In truth, I found this odd, as I thought 99 percent of all e-books were purchased online. Ignoring my ignorance, which I realize at times is hard to do, ha ha, I can only assume that this apparent upsurge in book e-commerce would primarily be of concern to publishers who are having to pay higher fees to both Amazon and Apple.

The same article in Publishers Marketplace that alluded to e-book sales also pointed out that the volume of six-figure deals was on the rise, and rather substantially. Specifically, this September, 51 major deals were catalogued, which was a 20-percent increase from September 2012 numbers. These stats are for advances of $250,000 or more. And 17 of these deals were for $500,000 or more. How nice it must be to wear the name Patterson or Roberts.

Interesting vignette I read regarding Midnight Ink, a quality indie Mystery imprint many subscribers may be familiar with, just winning a bid for a book that was auctioned. I’m not aware of an indie seriously bidding for a project in the current publishing climate, so it shows that good material will be highly sought, and not just by the Big 6. In all candor, I’ve found Midnight Ink a close match for any major when it comes to selectivity. And Terri Bischoff, whom I chatted with at length during a conference a few years ago, is an extremely competent submissions editor for this house.

I have a story about Terri Bischoff I want to relate. Some years ago I sent her a book I’d been trying to peddle for at least a decade, thinking it might be a good match for her imprint, only to get a rejection sent via her personal e-mail address, which is something like “[email protected]” My immediate response was, “Oh, my gosh, she thought my book was terrible.” She had a good laugh when I told her about this, and said I was the second writer who’d had the same reaction to her e-mail address. You have to admit, seeing “terribi” in a tagline wouldn’t exactly give a writer the warm fuzzies when waiting on pins and needles for a decision on a manuscript. FYI, Terri used to accept unsolicited manuscripts but no longer does, so Midnight Ink is very much like the Big 6 in this respect.

The only major publisher I’m aware of that continues to consider unsolicited material for its imprints is Kensington, which is not categorized as a Big 6 publisher because it remains independent and not part of a conglomerate. Regardless, Kensington has imprints covering a dozen or more genres, and subscribers can query any of them if their material fits. But make certain it’s an “exact match,” or I can attest from personal experience that the outcome will be frustrating. I’ve written two stories for Pinnacle, the firm’s Thriller imprint, and I missed on the criteria in both cases and was never able to massage the plot elements in a way that would be acceptable.

And the editor in chief of Kensington had personally edited an early manuscript of mine, and she continues to take my phone calls on a very friendly basis, so I can’t stress enough the importance of genre specificity, as it also varies from one publishing company to another. Meaning, a Thriller perfectly matching the guidelines for one might not pass muster with another. This is the reason it’s so very important to read what a publisher is putting out there in the genre in which material is written.

I can guarantee that any writer doing this will have a much better shot than going at it based solely on his or her idea of genre. As everyone knows all too well who has tried to become published by a major royalty publisher, it’s an immensely complicated process. What I’m suggesting can smooth out the bumps somewhat, in that a writer will be presenting a book that will at least fit a respective publisher’s guidelines. Then it’s down to likes or dislikes, which it the way it should be, and not that the book didn’t replicate that imprint’s model.

Instead of a formal article to finish up today’s Newsletter, I’m offering excerpts from a link I provided in the prior broadcast, which was to an interview with Jupiter, Florida’s, Hugh Howey, who’s had substantial success by selling his WOOL Sci-Fi series in a digital format for $.99 per volume. This material was initially suggested by Newsletter subscriber Diana Krause, who I’m happy to report is also a client. And I once again want to thank Diana and the other subscribers who were kind enough to mention Hugh Howey’s interview.

To get an idea of how well regarded Mr. Howey is with Amazon, the firm’s vice president of publishing says his sales numbers are equal to that of Tolkien, Martin, and Bradbury. Now, it has to be understood that none of these authors’ books sell for $.99, but I believe that most people would agree that to compete in the volume-of-copies-sold category with THE HOBBIT is quite an accomplishment.

From the perspective of his timeline for success, his inspiration for his first story came during the tragedy of 9/11. His path to writing his first book seven years later is another story in itself, but the short of it is that he found himself working in a bookstore in Boone, North Carolina, where he realized that very few authors who “signed” at his store actually made a living from writing. He was quick to figure out that a $50,000 advance (which I might add is high for an average author’s advance, especially if the person is new or a midlister) didn’t go very far after paying agent fees, taxes, and author’s expenses associated with book promotion.

He published his first successful e-book in the WOOL series on Amazon in July 2011, and pitched it via his blog. It was a novella at 12,000 words, and he priced it at the aforementioned $.99. For three months, nothing happened; then, in October, he sold 1,000 books. He wrote the next segment of his storyline and published in on Amazon the next month. By the first of the year he was raking in $200 a day. WOOL was ultimately published by a U.K. house and became a bestseller in England–and it’s now sold in 32 countries.

He was eventually offered a deal by Big 6 imprints, but he turned them down because they all demanded e-book rights–and he was making $100,000 a month from his Amazon sales. Now that is a WOW number, and it definitely deserves the capital letters. Here’s an interesting side-note: Simon & Schuster agreed to sign the book for print only, and it has done reasonably well but not great. Howey has his opinion why, feeling that the e-book sales have eliminated many potential print buyers who would’ve otherwise paid a higher price. I’m of the opinion that the higher price is the bugbear–regardless of the publication medium. If he’d priced his initial public e-book offering at $7.95, for example, I’m not convinced he would’ve sold 200 copies to this day.

There’s a moral here. And it’s one I’ve been harping on for several years, which is to offer that first book as inexpensively as possible and provide free giveaways to the widest possible audience. Freebees will provide publicity, and when a writer is starting out, word-of-mouth is more critical than ever. To another aspect of this, paying customers aren’t going to complain about spending a buck for a book (it also makes a novella-size work a nonissue, which is another subject altogether), and readers are apt to sample something at this price point even at a stranger’s request, which is also something not to lose sight of.

I mentioned in the last Newsletter that the Hugh Howey article points out what I’ve mentioned previously, and it’s that some genres have more rabid fans than others. Romance is a no-brainer, but Sci-Fi as well as Fantasy is right with it in the realm of fan fervor (read “frenzy,” ha ha.) Find the right vehicle and big things can happen. Ask Meyer or Hocking, and Erika Leonard in particular, since she wrote GREY using TWILIGHT via “Fan Fiction” as a template, which brings me to mention Fanfiction.net and its benefit as a staging point, as I’ve heard it referred to by many successful writers. But if you want to write the next HARRY POTTER, be prepared for some competition, since as of June of this year there were 644,000 eager souls vying for entrance into Hogwarts via fanfiction.net.

Should Newsletter subscribers not be familiar with Fan Fiction, and I’m using upper case for the start of both words as it is indeed a discipline unto itself, I’ll write a piece addressing this medium in detail in an upcoming edition. As to the current bill of fare, I hope you enjoyed this somewhat change of pace from my normal Newsletter format. Frankly, the e-book material I provided was too voluminous for an article, so writing it out in this manner seemed to make the most sense. Hope you all agree. Bye until the 29th.

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The Perfect Write® Newsletter, Vol 118 (October 29, 2013)
Memoirs, and Why So Few Are Published by Royalty-Paying Imprints

Hello Everyone,

As is my custom, I want to welcome the most recent subscribers to The Perfect Write® Newsletter. The purpose behind these broadcasts is twofold: to provide insight into the publishing industry as I’ve watched it evolve during the past 20-plus years, first as a novelist and later adding the mantle of editor; and, second, to offer advice on writing prose at a level that people would pay to read.

I have never deviated from my self-imposed charter, ha ha, but while I will be providing an article in today’s Newsletter on memoirs and why it is hard to get them published by a royalty-paying imprint, today’s edition will focus on an Internet scam that targeted my Web site recently, and I foresee this tomfoolery morphing in the not too distant future and inveigling anyone with an IP address. For this reason, I decided to break with tradition and alert subscribers to what I was recently presented with from a firm in China.

If anyone should wonder why a Chinese company would concern me, here’s the exact reprint of the initial e-mail I received:

Dear Manager,

(If you are not the person who is in charge of this, please forward this to your CEO,Thanks)

This email is from China domain name registration center, which mainly deal with the domain name registration and dispute internationally in China.

We received an application from Huaxiong Ltd on October 8, 2013. They want to register ” theperfectwrite ” as their Internet Keyword and ” theperfectwrite .cn “、” theperfectwrite .com.cn ” 、” theperfectwrite .net.cn “、” theperfectwrite .org.cn ” domain names etc.., they are in China domain names. But after checking it, we find “theperfectwrite ” conflicts with your company. In order to deal with this matter better, so we send you email and confirm whether this company is your distributor or business partner in China or not?

Best Regards,

Jim

General Manager

Shanghai Office (Head Office)

3002, Nanhai Building, No. 854 Nandan Road,

Xuhui District, Shanghai 200070, China

Tel: +86 216191 8696

Mobile: +86 1870199 4951

Fax: +86 216191 8697

Web: www.yg-registry.com.cn

Two things struck me as legitimate about this message. One was the awkward writing, giving the appearance that it wasn’t a “form letter,” and the second was what appeared to be an honest concern for whether or not Hauxiong Ltd was a partner or affiliate. Oh, and a third thing, the company’s Web site was enormously impressive, as it looked every bit as good as that of GoDaddy or BlueHost or anyone else I’ve used for IT-related services. Frankly, the firm’s scope of operations was greater than anything I’d seen, with offices in major Chinese cities and offering every conceivable service. But, the fees were in Eurodollars, and the picture on the home page was remarkably similar to the Western likeness of the fellow on BlueHost’s site, so I was beginning to at least waver a little.

I wrote back that Huaxiong Ltd was not a partner and assumed this would be the end of it. Clever bastards, here’s what followed (and this letter was not it blue):

Dear Sirs,

Our company based in chinese office, our company has submitted the “theperfectwrite ” as CN(.cn/.com.cn/.net.cn/.org.cn) domain name and Internet Keyword, we are waiting for Mr. Jim’s approval. We think this name is very important for our products in Chinese market. Even though Mr. Jim advises us to change another name, we will persist in this name.

Best regards

Jiang zhifa

Now, the whole thing has my attention. Again, poor grammar and calling the other fellow “Mr. Jim” gave this instant credibility (I’ll explain this latter point later). So I sent an e-mail to “Mr. Jim,” letting him know that my trade name was registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and that I would aggressively protect it. I don’t have a clue about international law, and if there was much leverage anyone in the States would have with a Chinese company, but the last thing I wanted to do was contact a patent attorney in D.C. and start a very expensive meter running. However, as I reviewed the letter, a little bird was niggling at me regarding the ability for any firm to acquire rights to an “Internet Keyword,” as this seemed impossible. Yet I decided maybe there was something the firm could do to direct traffic away from my site, so I waited for what I knew would be quick response

A day later, I received this from “Mr. Jim” Wang:

Dear Robert,

Based on your company having no relationship with them, we have suggested they should choose another name to avoid this conflict but they insist on this name as CN domain names (.cn/.com.cn/.net.cn/.org.cn) and internet keyword on the internet. In our opinion, maybe they do the similar business as your company and register it to promote his company.

According to the domain name registration principle: The domain names and internet keyword which applied based on the international principle are opened to companies as well as individuals. Any companies or individuals have rights to register any domain name and internet keyword which are unregistered. Because your company haven’t registered this name as CN domains and internet keyword on the internet, anyone can obtain them by registration. However, in order to avoid this conflict, the trademark or original name owner has priority to make this registration in our audit period. If your company is the original owner of this name and want to register these CN domain names (.cn/.com.cn/.net.cn/.org.cn) and internet keyword to prevent anybody from using them, please inform us. We can send an application form and the price list to you and help you register these within dispute period.

Kind regards

Jim

General Manager

Shanghai Office (Head Office)

3002, Nanhai Building, No. 854 Nandan Road,

Xuhui District, Shanghai 200070, China

Tel: +86 216191 8696

Mobile: +86 1870199 4951

Fax: +86 216191 8697

Web: www.yg-registry.cn

I had already checked out Huaxiong Ltd and couldn’t find the company listed anywhere on the Internet, but that didn’t mean the firm didn’t exist, as it could be a start-up or an nonlisted affiliate of an established firm. But as I scoured the Internet further, I located a number of people who had received the identical e-mail I had been sent, claiming Hauxiong Ltd was seeking to steal their respective domains and subsets. I don’t want to tell Mr. Jim’s company how to do this, but he would’ve at least gotten his scam to the next level with me if he’d used a different handle for each company that “desired” to use an existing domain name. No doubt this will be the next “tweak,” so I’m confident I’m not giving away anything. Whoever is behind this is damned sharp. But to let this play out, I asked “Jim,” with whom I’m now on a first-name basis, to send me the “forms” with the fee structure so I could be certain to file payment within the “3-day compliance window.”

Here is the immediate follow up from “Jim,” along with the forms. You’ll notice I’m asked to also send a copy of my business license, and I’ll have more on this later, as well:

Dear Robert :

Thanks for your email. We send your company the application form to fill in (PDF format), please check the attachment. You can find the cost from this form. If your company want to make this application, please fill in this form and send it back with your company registration certificate (business license) by email within 3 business days.

Best Regards

Jim

General Manager

Shanghai Office (Head Office)

3002, Nanhai Building, No. 854 Nandan Road,

Xuhui District, Shanghai 200070, China

Tel: +86 216191 8696

Mobile: +86 1870199 4951

Fax: +86 216191 8697

Web: www.yg-registry.cn

The forms were sent as a PDF, and I was unable to copy and print them for this Newsletter, but the thrust of everything was that for around $500 U.S., which is five times what I spend each year with GoDaddy et al., I could have my “Internet Keywords” (the perfect write) and my domain name and its four subsets “protected.” Payment was requested in Eurodollars, as I mentioned previously, and I was to send a copy of my trademark certificate. No doubt the latter was so that the image, along with the serial and registration numbers, could be manipulated. This could be done anyhow, but they wouldn’t have my actual document to copy (another topic altogether, which I’ll explain to any Newsletter subscriber who is interested). For a good chuckle, if anyone should type in theperfectwrite.cn/com, you’ll see a letter I wrote—containing this domain name in the body of it–thanking a Serbian blogger who’d exposed the scam via his Web site.

Regarding my comment on “Jim” Wang, I can assure anyone that his first name isn’t “Jim,” and “Wang” in China is like Smith or Jones in the U.S., as I read somewhere that more than 1 million “Wangs” are listed in Chinese census stats. All in all, what I just reported is the most devious scam I’ve run into, and this is why I devoted this Newsletter to it. And I’m certain that each and every person with a personal IP address will someday be approached by another “Jim Wang” under a pretext that at first pass will seem quite credible, i.e., someone somewhere desires your IP address, so if you want to continue receiving e-mails at your current address, send me $10. And to protect your e-mail address in all 141 countries in the world (or whatever), you should send me $10 for each of them, or $1,410–in Eurodollars, of course.

Hope no subscriber is offended by this complete departure from the norm. Today’s article in on memoirs, and I hope you enjoy it.

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Memoirs, and the Problems Getting Them Published

I’ve mentioned often that for many years I facilitated a series of creative writing workshops sponsored by the Palm Beach County Library System. My programs were attended by an age demographic that ranged from 14 to 89, but since South Florida is a retirement haven, I believe it’s fair to state that the most common age of the attendees was over 70.

Everyone Has a Story to Tell

Wonderful people all, and I enjoyed the experience immensely and developed a lot of great friendships. My workshops differ from critique groups, since I don’t utilize the reading of individual material as a segment of the program. But to get to know the skill sets of the participants I always ask each one to read a page of something she or he had written.

Memoirs Abounded

If I listed the categories and subsets, memoirs, in some form or another, dominated the readings. And when I asked if a memoir is what the person was planning to find an imprint to publish, and the reason for attending the workshops, the answer was generally an enthusiastic “yes” to both queries.

First, What Is Unique?

It’s quite hard to tell someone that the life this person led, while genuinely special for this person in relationship to her or his peers, might not be as unique as it might appear. Really. Most people have had life-altering experiences, daredevil sex, weird encounters that defy explanation, and the list goes on. Frankly, it’s endless. For everyone!

Second, What is Unique?

Same question; same answer. I walked across a lake when I was 9 years old and it cracked in the middle. I had a choice of turning back to going forward. I went forward. I can still hear the crack 55 years later. I had no idea why I went forward except there was snow on the ice and I must’ve thought it was more frozen underneath, and behind me and to the sides of me the ice was clear.

A year or so later, I climbed up in a derelict grain elevator and crossed from one side to the other on a 2-by-4 to get a pigeon. Halfway across the board it creaked and some change fell out of my pocket. It seemed to take forever to hit the water 100 feet below. I scampered back to the wall ladder on the side, knowing that if I’d fallen in I likely would never have been found, as I didn’t tell anyone I was going after pigeons.

Everyone Has a Story to Tell

Each person has a half-dozen stories to tell that are more hair-raising than those I just related. Then, at middle age, a half-dozen more, and at retirement another complement of the unusual to relate. And that’s the problem. People are encouraged to write on the premise that everyone has a story to tell.

The problem is the market for the narrative, because once grandpa tells about his butcher shop in the Bronx and dealing with the thug he later had to dismember because he was constantly demanding protection money, or the contractor who talks about having to pay off the unions so he could get work until he gives a labor representative some concrete shoes and tosses him in Chicago River, or the female tavern owner in Boston who’d carried on an affair for years with a priest everyone thought was gay, and had two children by the man, what’s really going to set off any other story?

Only Heritage and Celebrity Sell

If you are a Jewish woman who as a young child was raised by wolves during the Nazi occupation, you’ll have an audience for your story, as this was wildly successful until the author admitted to its being a fraud.

Should you be the son or daughter of a famous entertainer, or the attorney for one such as Mr. Buskin was to Johnny Carson; or Winston Churchill’s granddaughter, and know a lot of scintillating tidbits about grandpa, you won’t have a problem signing with a Big 6 publisher. But the person whose life doesn’t fit within these very narrow parameters is going to have mighty tough sledding, I’m afraid.

Most of the Time, a Memoir Can’t Be Given Away.

And I’m dead serious. Unless there is widespread publicity, such as the book I alluded to with the bogus premise, nobody, and I mean nobody, is going to read the material outside of family and a few very close friends. And if the truth be told, unless these folks are in the will, neither category is really interested.

With rare exception, when I’m sent a memoir to edit, I send it back, telling the person to save the money and to go ahead and print the book as is. And do it as cheaply as possible, as the family will love the author just as much whether or not the verbs agree with the subjects or if the modifiers are left dangling. In all candor, most memoirs are written for the ego of the writer and not for the reader, anyhow.

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The Perfect Write® Newsletter, Vol 119 (November 12, 2013)
Turning a Book into a Screenplay,
and the Cold, Hard Facts About Options

Hello Everyone,

After the personal Internet mayhem I discussed in my last Newsletter, I had hoped to be through with this topic for a long, long time, but my copyeditor, Martha Moffett, is now the latest victim of a scam.

I mention this because many Florida subscribers know Martha through various writer’s workshops and other literary milieus, and they recently might have received an e-mail from her IP address @[email protected], asking for a donation to save her sick sister from dying, who is in a hospital in the Philippines. The e-mail’s poor grammar was a dead giveaway that it could not possibly have been sent by Martha, yet the IP address was indeed hers, as it had been hijacked. She has since changed to a different e-mail account.

I made the comment in my last broadcast that it would just be a matter of time before the sophisticated Chinese scam would spawn equally devious counterparts in the personal e-mail environment (beyond that chap from Nigeria who keeps wanting to send me $16,000,000, ha ha), and do I ever wish I had not been so prophetic and that a new wrinkle would not have manifested itself so soon. Especially since many of us are continually being inundated with “Look at This” from a known personal contact only to open the e-mail and discover it’s sent from some “mobile phone” via an address and sender who is a mystery.

The first time this happened to me, about a year ago, a “Great Article” tag came from a fellow I know quite well and with whom I’m always eager to correspond. Hence, I opened the attachment, as well. I was offered a deal on vitamins and a backpack, which I agree is quite a combination. I still receive these “Great Article” tags, as some algorithm has identified that I write articles and targeted me, as such. If you should ever receive something like this from either the [email protected] or [email protected], please let me know, as I’ll do everything I can to nip this in the bud right away.

Now, to today’s Newsletter, after what I hope will be the last space I’ll have to devote to Internet scams affecting writers. And I begin with an immensely happy issue, as Mike Hartner’s work of Adventure/Historical Fiction, I, WALTER, was featured on Amazon for a two-day giveaway of the digital version. The final numbers were extraordinary, as Amazon acolytes downloaded a total of 19,486 copies. That’s not a misprint, so you can imagine the publicity this sort of volume will create, and it even produced 12 sales while the book was being offered at no charge! At one point I, WALTER was listed in the Amazon “store” as #1 in several genres, including where it should be listed in Action & Adventure and Teen & Young Adult. Oddly, for a brief time it was listed in the Kindle store as a high-ranking Romance title.

The problem with the Romance handle is that I, WALTER is not a Romance, even by applying the loosest of criteria, and someone purchasing the book for its Romance-genre specificity will likely return the book, as it doesn’t fit the category. A great example of the way genre can get all fouled up is when analyzing a book such as NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN. I don’t think many folks would argue that Cormac McCarthy writes Literature, yet OCFOM is a dead-on Thriller. However, would anyone tag his book by that genre? How many Romances by major authors in this genre, such as Barbara Taylor Bradford, Nora Roberts, Danielle Steele, and Fern Michaels, are in fact Mysteries? Yet they would never be classified as that.

I’ve written many articles on genre, and the examples I’ve just alluded to are why it’s such a complex issue. The takeaway from this is that readers expect a certain “package” from both the genre and the writer, and this is why many imprints maintain such rigid guidelines. I’ve often cited Kensington’s Pinnacle imprint as one with strictures I’ve never been able to contend with. But Pinnacle readers expect a story that falls within clear-cut parameters, and this is not going to be challenged in any way. And, frankly, why should an extremely successful platform in a horrifically difficult business environment be tampered with?

To switch gears, I’ve often commented on the conflict of interest I believe is created when a literary agency affiliates directly with a self-publisher. Dystel & Goderich seemed to start the ball rolling in this regard, and their jumping into this saddle was the “charge full speed ahead” signal that encouraged a plethora of other big-name agencies to join the vanguard. Some are industry bellwethers, the latest of which is William Morris Endeavor, which hooked up with one of my “favorites,” Argo Navis Author Services, a part of the Pearson/Perseus/Penguin/Random House apparently still counting “menage a whatever.” I find it beyond odd that Perseus’s CEO didn’t offer the usual hype surrounding landing this client, considered to be one the world’s true uber-agencies.

I’ve read of just one of these agency-sponsored self-pub’s making any inroads whatsoever into the mainstream market. Just one, by the aforementioned Dystel & Goderich, and this “success” was presented in Publishers Marketplace some time ago. It sure ain’t easy, even for the very best, to market a book in today’s environment. Amazon’s private imprints are a prime example, as it’s been widely reported that their general trade lines have fallen woefully short of expectations. I commented in a prior Newsletter that Larry Kirshbaum, Amazon’s private label CEO, was not going to publish any more singles, and this was why he would not do my book. (A single in book-publishing vernacular is a work by an author who was previously unpublished by a major house.) Surprising to me, the Amazon edict includes nonfiction, which is generally an easy market match if the material is topical. The Amazon private label list is reported to be 14 overall titles for spring release and reduced even further for the fall.

The point of this is that Amazon cannot effectively market even its own titles. Yes, it can make any specific title a bestseller, but if all or most of its efforts are placed in one basket, what happens to the rest of the authors in whom the firm has invested considerable time and resources? Consider this: Amazon/Kindle has more than 1,900,000 e-books in its catalogue. Amazon itself has published the bulk of these titles via authors who elected to use the firm for self-publishing, and CreateSpace has issued more than 200,000 ISBNs since the start of 2012. This is why a book such as Mike Hartner’s getting 20,000 “pickups” is so incredible,

A reason Amazon has difficulty marketing its own books can be explained by analyzing their vertical marketing capabilities that either aren’t exploited effectively or cannot be fully utilized because of the immense number of titles the firm has in its archives. I believe the answer lies with the latter. Amazon purchased diapers.com, and this, odd as it might seem, is an excellent vehicle to highlight the problem. With more than 2,000,000 purchasers of diapers, it’s a no-brainer that Amazon would send its diaper customers a notification whenever a new children’s book is published. This enables what is referred to as “the high percentage capture,” since the children’s story is being marketed to a theoretically pre-sold audience. And if it were just one story, all would be well in the kingdom. However, if there are 100,000 books on Amazon’s Children’s list, the dilution rate is extreme. In doing the math, in the world of absolute numbers, this means that each title would sell at a rate of 20 copies.

Now it must understood that in the real world it doesn’t work this way, but there are some undeniable conclusions to draw from these metrics. Then, of course, there is the 800-pound gorilla in the room, which is what book(s) Amazon chooses to present to its captive market. This, more than anything, seems to me to be where their marketing team has come up short in the past. And if a new Children’s author is expecting phenomenal sales via Amazon exposure, will that person stand much of a chance against the likes of Jeff Kinney or Dr. Seuss?

My contention is that the impetus to gain Amazon’s blessing–resulting in marketing support on its site–in the vast majority of instances must come from outside the firm’s glass dome. Hence, a book will have to be a bona fide winner of substantial magnitude before standing any chance of becoming anointed. This is solely my opinion, and I could be all wrong, but take a look at this issue during the next year and see if my postulations are accurate or pure poppycock. Regardless, something is drastically wrong with Amazon’s marketing, as the firm seems to have had a horrible time acquiring traction for its own imprints, evidenced by the departure of its private label CEO.

Here are a couple of “shorts” before today’s article on screenplays and book options:

The number-one bestsellers on USA Today’s list during the past 20 years can be accessed via the link. There are 320 titles in all, and subscribers might find it interesting to learn just how many they have read, as well as what works made it to the top spot.

I had a good chuckle when I read the final legal disposition regarding the film company that was suing Clive Cussler, his agent, and his publishers as a result of SAHARA’s producing less than desired box office receipts (way less). Seems everyone was suing Mr. Cussler et al. for overestimating his sales at 100 million books when in fact he sold just 40 million. Huh? This case began in the mid ’70s and has just recently been adjudicated with no winners except for the attorneys. Sound familiar? It required an independent forensic accountant to come up with the 40 million figure (actually 42 million) after sifting through 1,500 documents. Aren’t writers always told “It’s all right there in the royalty statements?” Of course it is–when donkeys fly. Here’s a link should subscribers desire a little more background on this case, which I found fascinating.

The topic for today’s article has wide interest, as it’s easy for a writer to believe that a story is cinematic and Hollywood will come calling once the material is published.

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Turning a Book Into a Screenplay–The Truth About Options

With a certain degree of frequency, I’ll be approached by a client about having his or her work turned into a screenplay, as there is confidence from some quarter, if not directly from the author, that it will make a great movie, TV show, miniseries, etc. And I’ve been asked, since I’ve worked with this client’s material, if I’d be willing to write the screenplay. Invariably, it also comes up if I’d consider becoming a “partner” and write the screenplay without payment but with the prospect of a split of the profits when the work is purchased. This is when I split, and what follows explains why.

Screenwriting Is an Art Form All Its Own

Above all else, I do not take any work on consignment related to a project’s being signed by any medium. If I did this, I would have a library full of unpublished manuscripts sitting next to my cardboard house abutting a Dumpster.

Ignoring the necessity of shelter and food, the next reason is because I have never felt qualified to write a screenplay, as it is a separate discipline from crafting a novel. Screenplays have their own set of requirements related to layout and structure, and I’m not versed in any of them.

But of greatest importance, spending the funds to turn a manuscript into a screenplay in my opinion is a colossal waste of money.

It’s Important to Understand the Process

Once a producer likes a storyline, the normal modus operandi is for that studio executive to commission a respected screenwriter to design the screenplay. Any screenplay submitted by a layman would be revised substantially, and it would be just as easy to work from the manuscript. For example, an experienced screenwriter’s knowledge of what can or can’t be converted to film based on budget is no minor detail and something the average individual would not know much if anything about.

How an Option Plays Into This

An option to purchase a work is not a contract for the material but essentially buys time for the studio to consider the project. This sort of “wait and see” agreement generally ranges from 12 to 18 months, and an unknown writer can earn on average from $500 to $5,000 for granting this right, which is aptly referred to as “the option payment.” The lower range is more common, and any previously unpublished writer getting $5,000 should run around the town square naked at noon.

The Purchase Option

If the option is executed, this means the writer would be entitled to “the purchase price” established by the original options agreement, and is why an experienced agent or lawyer (or both) is mandatory. Fees for the exercising of the option are often tied to a project’s budget, and as it increases so does the writer’s stipend. But this is all over the place, ranging from the low five figures to breaking seven.

One Definite Author Advantage Provided by Options

The nice thing about a properly structured option agreement, if the work is not “greenlighted,” is that the rights are returned to the author and the writer is allowed to keep the original option fee. And at this point the work can be shopped around without any fear of legal repercussions.

Author Realities

How many times have you heard of a writer’s work being re-optioned? And how often have you learned of a writer, whom you know, whose material has been turned into a movie, TV series, or miniseries? I have one associate during the past 20 years who had a short run with a cable TV show, and I know a lot of people who write.

To put this in perspective, some insiders say having an option exercised is 10,000 times more difficult than getting a book published by a Big 6 imprint, and how hard is that in today’s sardine-crowded market? This, as much as anything, is why I never wanted to learn to write screenplays.

I won’t accept work to edit unless I believe in my heart of hearts the story has a shot at finding an audience in some milieu. And even at 1,000 to 1, I’m okay with this, as my clients at least have a chance at success at some level.

The Cold, Hard Facts

But when the odds become 10,000,000 to 1, I have to bow out, as I can’t take a person’s money when the possibility of success is right up there with getting bitten by a mountain lion in Manhattan, killed by lightning in Death Valley, or hitting 10 of 10 numbers on a keno card. This last example is around 9,000,000 to 1, but who’s counting at this point, right? And it’s what I’m really getting at in all of this.

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The Perfect Write® Newsletter, Vol 120 (November 26, 2013)
Proofreading by Nonprofessionals
and the Problems This Can Create

Hello Everyone,

And a special welcome to the newest subscribers who signed up for my Newsletters during the past two weeks. My normal broadcast cycle is every other Tuesday at 1 p.m. EST. I’ve been writing material for my Newsletters for the past 4 1/2 years via this schedule, but I’m going to deviate this December and provide only one edition, which will be transmitted on the 17th. My reason for this is that folks are so busy with the holidays that I believe they can use a break from my drivel, and I also can use a bit of a respite.

I’m often asked how long it takes me to write an average Newsletter, and the answer is that I generally devote an entire afternoon on the Thursday preceding each release date to collate the material I’ve written during the previous two-week period and to craft the article on writing or the publishing industry which accompanies each broadcast. I then send the draft off to Martha Moffett, my copyeditor extraordinaire, to check for typos and grammar, as I can never adequately edit my own material. I’ve written about this many times, since this shortcoming pertains to every writer I know, yet some are loathe to admit it, ha ha. She returns the clean draft to me on Friday and I review her suggestions and make the revisions I deem appropriate.

In regard to any element I might disagree with, if it concerns me so much that I don’t want to make the change as it’s presented, instead of mentally fighting it out, I’ve learned that the best recourse is to revise the sentence entirely. This course or action is one I suggest to all writers who receive revision suggestions from any editor, as I tell my clients that a revision, especially if it’s of the line-editing variety, is just my opinion and should be treated as such. If the writer likes my word selection for the revised text, by all means use it. But if the author should believe that the revision suggestion doesn’t capture the essence of what is intended respective of the voice, tone, pitch, or mood of the passage, then I strongly advise composing a new sentence from scratch. I’ve found this to be the only way to have true peace of mind.

I want to comment on the past two Newsletters that have focused on negative topics. I absolutely hate discussing the warts inherent within this industry, but I believe writers should have an honest understanding of the market so honest assessments can be made and realistic goals established. I believe my clients would tell anyone that I am as quick to point out what is positive about their respective works as I am to discuss something problematic. But I have a responsibility to discuss the reality of the material as I view it, and there are indeed elements that cannot be sugar-coated.

I liken what I just wrote to a discussion I had with the pastor of a local church who had encouraged book censorship during one of his sermons. I was playing golf with the fellow, and after listening to a long harangue from him about the evil that vile literature can shower upon our youth, I asked him if kids shouldn’t know about pedophilia, incest, drug abuse, STDs, and a host of other not-so-pleasant topics. My position has always been that a kid shouldn’t be so sheltered that the child might venture into the adult world, which isn’t always gentle, ignorant of what can be around the corner in even the most benign of settings.

I’m not going to debate what is right or wrong about my contention, simply because this isn’t the point, which is that kids aren’t as incapable of judging for themselves as parents sometimes think they might be, and writers aren’t either. But there are things none of us can know about unless we are told. I’m not going to compare a child’s not being aware it’s wrong to be molested by her or his father with being asked to hire a publicist for a book with zero marketing behind it. But there is a correlation to the ignorance of both, and I cannot believe in my heart of hearts that writers shouldn’t be alerted to the mistakes others have made while trying to achieve publishing success, especially when I’ve made some of the very miscues myself. If I’m not going to discuss these issues I’m a hypocrite of the worst kind.

To reiterate, my comments regarding parenting are not something I’m going to debate, as parents have a right to raise their children as they see fit. With this comes a responsibility that is enormously complex, especially with the Internet and what all kids are assailed with these days from every quarter, not the least of which is television, which at times I’m embarrassed to watch (I turn down the volume or switch the channels when an ED commercial comes on, I find them so utterly tasteless). My concern is with censorship as it pertains to not making issues available so that people can make their own assessments. Nothing more, nothing less, and I hope all Newsletter subscribers will accept this and not take offense at what I’ve written.

To change topics (I know, happily), I’ve discussed at length the question of whether or not mainstream publishers edit. A former Random House editor-in-chief, Dan Menaker, in the Daily Beast lists four book he considers “under-appreciated” books that he edited. They are Zoli by Colum McCann, Serpent Girl by Matthew Carnahan, Blood Kin by Ceridwen Dovey, and Safelight by Shannon Burke. I’ve not read any of these works so I can’t comment on content, but his admission once again illustrates that publishers do in fact edit. The issue is when, meaning at what point in a book’s “curve” does this occur. My contention is that a previously unpublished writer expecting an executive at a Big 6 publishing house to edit her or his material is about prevalent as a hound dog turning down a biscuit.

Not that the editing wouldn’t occur, it’s getting this unedited material in front of the Big 6 publisher in the first place that is the issue. Writers must accept that before a draft reaches its “final” form, publishers will change things, and the author will likely be asked to revise text, as well, and often a lot of it. But a manuscript needs to be in the best shape possible to get it to an agent to have it reach that point. And it’s likely the agent will make revision suggestions, or with the author’s permission do some of the revising personally. Constant revising is a part of the writing process, and anyone not accepting this will be sledding up the mountain.

For any writer who’s distraught at reading this, I’ll ask how routinely has this author revised material after being 100-percent certain the draft was in its best possible shape? That should give all of us a hearty chuckle. All good writers I know are never satisfied with their material, and this is especially true of the best authors–both past and present.

I normally don’t comment when a prominent author dies, as that person might be noteworthy solely to me, but I was deeply saddened to learn that Syd Field, who is pictured below, passed away last week at age 77. Anyone who has attended a creative writing workshop series of mine will have been asked to pick up a copy of SCREENPLAY, THE FOUNDATIONS OF SCREENWRITING by Mr. Field, as I have long considered this book and SCREENWRITNG by Irwin Blacker as marvelous resource material to assist writers at developing an understanding pacing.

At first pass it might be easy to ask what writing a screenplay has to do with learning pacing, and the answer is “everything.” Most people new to writing are unaware that a page of screenplay normally equates to one minute of stage or air time. When I have asked in my workshops how many pages are written for a two-hour movie, I generally hear from 600 to 1,000 pages–and not the more miniscule reality of 120. I always explain to my group that this goes to show just how important a director is to a play or movie, as this person has to set up the scenes based on what is little more than a snapshot of information provided by the screenwriter. And directors require (read “demand”) screenplays at this minimalist level, so please don’t consider revolutionizing the industry by sending David Cameron a 1,500-page opus in an attempt to make his job easier.

In recent Newsletters I’ve my contention that large brick and mortar bookstore will sadly become a thing of the past, and sooner rather than later. I noticed recently that Books-a-Million is placing Espresso Book Machines in stores of theirs in Birmingham, Alabama, and Portland, Maine. This might seem insane, as it will cannibalize sales, but in reality I find this to be clever retailing, since a book that’s not in stock can be printed within the time it takes to drink a cup of coffee. I have also predicted seeing this equipment in every Starbucks before it’s all done. I’ve certainly found Starbucks in many B&Ns, so why not reverse the process by placing Espresso Book Machines in stand-alone Starbucks?

Starbucks’s CEO Howard Schultz isn’t aware of my plans for his stores, ha ha, but I’m using his company only as an example of what I view as the perfect platform for book buyers having their selection(s) printed while they enjoy a cup of their favorite latte and a cookie. Pricing for POD books at Books-a-Million wasn’t listed, but I’m going to assume this will sync with regular retail, as it will keep people who want a title in hardcopy from going to Amazon or a competitor.

Once it’s determined that an Espresso Book Machine can be cost-justified related to the small space it consumes, all sorts of business scenarios can play out, ranging from straight-out purchases to capital leases to off-off balance sheet “click plans,” the latter for which Starbucks would have zero outlay for the machines and pay for each book only as it’s purchased. I don’t in any way mean this invidiously, but in a three-year period during the late ’90s I sold $50 million worth of CT scanner contracts via this very premise, so I’m certain something such as what I’m suggesting can be done if structured correctly.

I read recently that Allison Winn Scotch, author of the bestselling TIME OF MY LIFE, is self-publishing her latest novel THE THEORY OF OPPOSITES. She said, “After a terribly discouraging experience with my fourth book, based not on the book (which I loved) or the reviews (which were the strongest of my career) but things totally outside of my control, I knew I had to change something.” Scotch writes a thoughtful and thorough piece about her self-publishing process: “I hired an editor who ran a top publishing imprint, and who did not hold back on her editorial advice; I hired the jacket and layout designer who had created my books at Random House; I hired a copyeditor; I invested in an amazing publicist; I am printing the books via one of the same printers that the ‘traditionals’ use.”

What I just posted is indeed self-serving, but I wanted to illustrate that even a successful writer hired both a developmental editor and then an independent copyeditor. One or the other likely provided line-editing suggestions, as this is of course another step in the publishing process. In Ms. Scotch’s case hiring a publicist is a sound idea, since she’s an established author, but I would have suggested she hire a book marketer first, such as M.J. Rose with AuthorBuzz.com.

Ms. Rose is also an accomplished author, and she just signed a three-book deal, so congratulations, and if any of you should ever desire book marketing by one of the industry’s foremost professionals, she is regarded as one of the best. I’ve found M. J. (she uses her initials because her first name is difficult to remember and hard to pronounce) to be scrupulously honest and a real breath of fresh air in a swamp (did I write this?) that’s full of alligators. Writers with the means can get started with her firm for about $3,500, and I’ve not heard the first complaint from anyone I know who has used her. For anyone interested, I do not receive one dime for recommending her but wish I did receive a kickback, ha ha.

Today’s article is one I should have written a long time ago, as it involves writers using nonprofessionals to proofread material, which is the purview of a trained copyeditor.

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The Problem with Using Nonprofessionals to Proofread Material

No one likes spending money to hire an editor. I certainly don’t, and I am an editor. But it is a necessary evil, should a writer view it this way, and there are specific reasons why proofreading/copyediting by an untrained person is a recipe for problems if not disaster.

The Secretary

Several distinct categories of amateur proofreaders exist that I’ve found writers gravitate toward, and at the top of the list is the personal secretary. I’ve been blessed with a number of extraordinary secretaries in the 35 years I worked primarily in the business side of the healthcare field. And each one was able to spot my typos and instances of missing words and punctuation, and I had a couple who routinely provided better ways for me to phrase something. But better ways to present my position? Never! If that had been the case, I should have been doing their jobs and they mine. And I’m dead serious about this.

A secretary who can clean up a boss’s hurried or sloppy writing is an immeasurable asset, but having the skill sets to understand the nuances of copyediting is like implying that a bookkeeper is also an accountant. These aren’t the same jobs any more than secretarial responsibilities can translate to understanding what is or isn’t a restrictive clause and if commas are or aren’t required. Sure, some secretaries can accomplish all of what any editor can provide. Look at J.K. Rowling. But how many Ms. Rowlings are out there, and do we know that she never used an editor?

The Spouse

Has anyone had a significant other provide golf lessons? Shouldn’t the response to that be the answer? I don’t know of any editor who hasn’t at one time or another had a client’s spouse question the editorial decisions. I had to drop a good writer because his wife decided she could edit better than I and my copyeditor. She made wholesale changes to a draft, which combined amounted to more than 200 hours of work, and effectively drove the material to perdition with no hope of absolution. This can apply to any relative, but I’ve found the spouse to be the primary culprit in the realm of bad decision number two.

The Friend

The third worst offender is the friend. Usually this person is considered really smart and often incredibly well read, having consumed thousand of books in his or her lifetime. I have a simple analogy for this, and it pertains to the beekeeper. If a person tended bees for forty years and was renowned as the most prolific beekeeper in history, could that individual make one dollop of honey without the bees?

Reading for enjoyment is not going to make a person a competent proofreader any more than looking at pictures will assure a person proficiency as an artist. Reading or looking at art obviously helps on the appreciation side of things, but has little if any relevance to practical application, as easy reading is the byproduct of very hard writing, something that’s been cited quite often recently by a wide array of noted authors.

Proofreading Is a Specialty

I estimate that I can catch 95 percent of the copy errors a writer would make, while the remaining 5 percent would take me another lifetime to master recognizing. Simple things like writing height and weight or the length of a room or the width of a board are missed by almost everyone who is untrained.

Pronouns such as “their” being used with singular antecedents can foul up the best writers. Using “different than” when it should be “different from” (unless you’re in the U.K.) is easy to miss. Applying “him” when “his” should be used to indicate the possessive is often overlooked. Past progressive tense when past tense is correct is a common error.

Proofreading Requires Enormous Knowledge and Intense Training

The list of anomalies that apply to the English language is in the thousands, not hundreds, and no wonderful secretary, loving spouse, or uber-intelligent friend can be expected to demonstrate proficiency in a science that is all its own and which requires a precise level of learned and practiced expertise. It’s just the way it is. And I wish it were different myself.

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The Perfect Write® Newsletter, Vol 121 (December 17, 2013)
Book Reviews and How to Properly Evaluate Them

Hello Everyone,

As this is the final Newsletter for 2013, and the lone broadcast for December, I want to begin this edition by thanking each and every subscriber who has been gracious enough to support this premise. And I want to express my appreciation for your continued interest not only during this past year but for prior years as well, with many of you extending your enthusiasm for my drivel all the way back to the inaugural broadcast in June of ’09.

With the new year, I am going to be making some changes, and while I’ve discussed some of them in recent months, I’ll recap these along with the biggest difference subscribers will be seeing in the upcoming year, which is that my Newsletters will now be coming out once a month instead of every other Tuesday. My Newsletter will now be broadcast on the third Tuesday of each month at 1 p.m. EST. I will continue to include an article on a specific topic germane to the nuances of writing or the publishing industry as I’ve come to know it during the past 20-plus years as both an author and an editor.

The other changes involve fees for my editing services. Before addressing this, no one hates price increases any more than I, but my critiques, for example, have become developmental editing models rather than basic criticism. For this reason my critique fee will be $2 per 280-word page of double-spaced material, up from $1.50. My critique fee will still be substantially less than what many other editors charge for this service, and I’ve yet to see anyone else in this industry supply anywhere near the level of content I provide and the result not be classified as a pure developmental edit and cost thousands of dollars.

The second fee modification is for line-editing, which includes copyediting, as this will be going from $6 to $8 per page to $8 to $10 per page. The same metric of 280 words per page of double-spaced material applies. This year, I averaged 150 to 200 hours on the drafts I line-edited, and this did not include my copyeditor’s time. And this brings me to my next point, which is my client load.

The proudest thing I can say about my editing business is that I enjoy a marvelous client retention rate which is currently exactly 83 percent. And because I am first and foremost loyal to the wonderful writers I work with, I am not going to be able to accept much additional outside work. It’s a nice problem to have, but I wish I could accommodate more new writers, as like anyone I can use the money. But I’m painfully slow and there are only so many hours in the day (and night); hence, I’m about to my limit time-wise and for this reason will be even more selective regarding new authors.

I try my best to offer honest lead times to my clients, and I couldn’t do this if each of you didn’t deliver your material in an equally timely fashion. So, by keeping your promises to me I’ve been able to do the same. Things can always crop up to hinder any of us from meeting our goals, but overall each of you did a fabulous job on enabling me to keep the wheels moving–and the pages turning, ha ha.

I’m going to devote most of this Newsletter to issues concerning book reviews, as this can be a sensitive topic, but before I delve into this subject I want to first mention that Dave Mallegol has sold 458 copies of THE BRONZE HORSEMAN. He has marketed 350 on his own, with the remaining books divided between Nook and Kindle sales. I use the word “market” as a euphemism, since Dave has made the bulk of his sales at Green Markets within an hour of where he lives in South Florida. He has his protocols for selling in this environment down to a science and agreed to let me share his knowledge and experience with subscribers.

His primary consideration was, not surprisingly, expense; as, not including gas or monetizing one’s time, some of the markets can be just plain too expensive. Regardless of the cost, he suggests splitting space with another vendor, as long as the person is not selling vegetables. And he’s dead serious about this. The second issue was lowering the price of his paperback from $20 to $18. Even though this was only $2, he says his sales improved dramatically. He also provides a nice book marker at no charge. But he says the one thing he did that improved his sales the most was when he harkened back to his days as salesman for J&J and began offering THE BRONZE HORSEMAN with confidence and enthusiasm.

From personal experience as a career peddler prior to “retiring” to editing, I can assure everyone that nothing nurtures a selling opportunity more effectively than enthusiasm. In my opinion, Emerson defined this best in his CIRCLES essay via this line that the great coach Jim Valvano often cited to inspire crowds when he was losing his battle with cancer: “Nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm.” Wow, was there ever a truer statement?

Dave reaffirmed his commitment to this aphorism and his sales increased. As to his digital sales, if someone wants an e-book he hands out his business card, and he says that almost all of his Nook and Kindle sales have been the result of folks he’s met at the Green Markets. Dave’s next edition in his series will be released in the not too distant future, and I’ll be posting the opening chapter on my Critique Blog so subscribers can see a sampling of what it was like as man in the Bronze Age learned to master what is taken for granted as “just happening.” Dave cleverly illustrates what really occurred–and why.

I also want to offer my sincerest thank-you to past writing-workshop participants of mine who have purchased a copy of Mike Hartner’s YA adventure, I, WALTER, from the Barnes & Noble in Palm Beach Gardens. I’ve discussed the way this can help other writers who might self-publish in the future, and if anyone in Palm Beach County is still considering stocking stuffers for the kids or grandkids, you won’t find more wholesome entertainment than I, WALTER. And a great many adults as well have found Mike’s tale of adventure on the high seas a joy to read.

This brings me to understanding and evaluating book reviews. To give the subject its due is not easy, as it requires the removal of a lot of the veneer to get to the core of the matter, and there’s hard lacquer and other residue that require considerable elbow grease to dissolve before the wood lies bare. But before attempting to eradicate the outermost glossy coating that reflects light from its shiny surface in an often dazzling manner, it’s crucial to know who applied this material. Reviewers come in three categories: the academician who reviews work for scholarly purposes or pursuits, the professional critic who writes for a newspaper, magazine, or some other established media, and the lay reader who offers abundant opinions on the Internet and elsewhere.

I chose this order for reviewers because I imagine all Newsletter subscribers had to write book reviews in junior high, high school, and college. And in doing so were influenced by reviews that were considered exemplary by whoever instructed the respective class. The further education advanced, the more elaborate the reviews, until it was impossible to differentiate these often cryptic theses from academic papers submitted to a professional organization for publication. Words such as diurnal, antediluvian, valetudinarian, abiogenesis, consanguinity, circumbendibus, entropy, and concatenate abound, forcing all mere mortal underclassmen and underclasswomen to run for their Funk & Wagnalls–and rue the day Samuel Johnson was born.

I spent considerable time in my healthcare career sourcing material that was submitted to medical journals for publication. The goal was to determine the scope and validity of a particular study as it applied to the field in which I worked, which was a discipline in cardiology called Phase 2 Cardiac Rehabilitation. Everyone has heard the “publish or perish” maxim as it applies to academia, and anyone doing my work would quickly learn that some scholars must have felt that if they could overwhelm their peers with recondite syntax, this would automatically establish the study as a good one.

My favorite paper was written by an educated bozo who titled it something such as, “The Nescient Irresolution of Ambient Diurnal Inotrope Titration When Applied to the Epicardia as Indicated by Regression Equations Utilizing Correlation Coefficients in an Ambit-Sensitive Quotidian Cohort.” In real words, this says something like there’s no evidence to support that a diagnostic test of heart muscle function would produce the same results from one day to the next. I’m exercising a great deal of latitude with what I wrote, as I’ve been away from this for many years, but I distinctly remember this clinician using “diurnal” and “quotidian” in the title, and both words mean “daily.”

The point is that many quite bright people write to impress while having no real idea of the utility of some of the words they use, which brings me to the professional media reviewer. I wrote about this topic a while back because reviewers employed by newspapers seem to love certain words. “Kafkaesque” was so common in the ’90s that for a while I assumed every book had to present a character who awoke one morning to look in the mirror and witness a grotesque physical change in appearance.

It seemed that every reviewer read from the same playbook, as they couldn’t get enough of using words such as meme, one-dimensional, involuted, linear, spatial, sobriquet, tenuous, nexus, limbic, anathema, corpulent, patina, absolution, contrarian, egregious, coruscation, machination, cabal, tortuous, and cobble. Then the reader was assailed with phrases such as nom de plume, rare avis, roman a clef, deus ex machina, mare’s nest, fait accompli, nota bene, idee fixe, and anything else these folks remembered from college and always wanted to use.

I bring this up because I once had lunch with a well-known and highly regarded book critic whom I complimented on a review of his I’d read just that morning so I could have something topical to discuss to break the ice. I mentioned a word that escapes me now but which I’d never seen before and asked him what it meant. He told me he didn’t know. Stunned by his reply, from then on I wondered if he gave common words to a staffer to pump up via a thesaurus to make him appear more erudite to his audience. So, subscribers who see reviews with words such as apagogic and anxiferous, don’t fret, since the reviewer who wrote these words likely doesn’t know what they mean either, or found out their definitions just two minutes before putting the finishing touches on the column.

Then there are the 2 billion souls who now write reviews on the Internet. Some use big words as well and like to copy the template used by newspaper reviewers, and I often chuckle when I see the patterns employed by these folks in an attempt to demonstrate adroitness. Regardless, each and every person who reads a book is absolutely entitled to an opinion. But that’s all it is, no different from the academician who’s wired for sound or the modern-day Dorothy Parker wannabe. However, we all want our material to be loved, and nothing hurts more than a negative review. So to put this in perspective, here are a few things to consider, some of which I’ve discussed in previous Newsletters:

GONE WITH THE WIND has received one-star reviews. So have THE GREAT GATSBY, THE CONFESSIONS OF NAT TURNER, BREATHING LESSONS, and even HARRY POTTER. So have THE DA VINCI CODE, NO COUNTRY FOR OLD MEN, TWILIGHT, and FIFTY SHADES OF GREY. And I know of no books more vilified than THE SOUND AND THE FURY and ULYSSES. I’m certain many subscribers would give either or both of these books one star, such as I would BREATHING LESSONS, yet Anne Tyler’s story won a Pulitzer.

People hate and continue to revile THE SOUND AND THE FURY and ULYSSES because of not understanding stream-of-consciousness writing, which also plagues many Virginia Woolf readers. But learn what the style is all about and these writers then become recognized for the genius they possessed. Let’s also consider William Styron and the abuse he took for NAT TURNER. No one disputed his brilliance as a writer, and crafting a novel solely in backstory–that was readable–a monumental achievement. Yet he got one star from many folks because they felt he should not have been allowed to write African-American dialect since he was Caucasian. Thus, the one star in this instance was based solely on race.

Margaret Mitchell received one star from Civil War buffs who believed her battlefield depictions couldn’t be correct since she wasn’t there. Wasn’t the rest of the book pretty good, though, even if Ms. Mitchell might have stumbled on the composition of a wound dressing or the size of a cannon ball? Stephen Crane wasn’t born until 1871, so what could he possibly know about the Civil War when he took it upon himself to write THE RED BADGE OF COURAGE, which is why his book has received one star from some reviewers? To take the review process one step further, I did some research and found an article that listed the greatest American novels of all time based on the opinions of nine contemporary “experts” (the entire piece can be assessed via this link).

I found a variance so wide it could best described as a dichotomy. The book list included HUCK FINN, which has been canonized to the extent that some colleges offer Huck Finn Fellowships. Why is this book revered, so much so that Hemingway offered it the ultimate encomium, essentially saying that the model for the great American novel ended with this book? Based on material I’ve read over the years, for most academicians the primary thrust behind HUCK FINN is that it showed the way America thought of the Negro at that time in our country’s history, and no other work up to that point had been anywhere near as accurate. I’ve always wondered if Samuel Clemens wrote the book with that in mind. Regardless, it’s the negative Negro stereotype above all else that carries this book in the minds of scholars.

One “expert” chose MOBY-DICK, the book I hated the most of all I had to read as a youth and later as an adult. Still think it’s the most boring, overrated tripe I’ve ever encountered. E.L. Doctorow, whom I consider to be a fabulous writer, as RAGTIME and BILLY BATHGATE both hold space in my library, loves Herman Melville so much that he was the keynote speaker at a Melville Society annual meeting. I listened to him offer an hour-long panegyric to MOBY that bored me as much as the book, hoping he’d move on to something else. E.L. Doctorow disagrees with my assessemnt of MOBY and gives the book a five-star review to my one-minus. Who’s to be believed?

I mentioned a dichotomy, and who could be more divergent than Mario Puzo and Edith Wharton? Yet both THE GODFATHER and THE HOUSE OF MIRTH made the list of greatest American works. THE GODFATHER was indeed a terrific book and an even better movie in my opinion, but the greatest American novel of all time? And I’d certainly pick THE AGE OF INNOCENCE over THE HOUSE OF MIRTH, as the structuring of the former is truly a stroke of genius. Again, this is my opinion, as all of this is, and someone else’s is no more absolute than mine, although in the case of Mr. Doctorow certainly his is more revered, as it should be.

LOLITA was on the list, I guess because Henry Miller ordained it the ultimate love story, as apparently pedophile lust was the quintessential variety in his mind and for this reason should be considered “great.” But what I found to be the oddest choice for greatest American novel was CORREGIDORA by Gayl Jones, which was published when she was 26. Long story on this one, and I’d like to know how many Newsletter subscribers have heard of this work, let alone read it. The book has been given fabulous reviews and dead-bang horrible ones, with what seems like little in the middle. Again, race was a prime motivator with respect to those who supported the story via sterling remarks.

I don’t want anyone to think I’ve singled out several of these stories because of race. It just happens to be the rationale behind why some reviewers immensely like or dislike the material I discussed. The real point is, doesn’t this clearly demonstrate that every reader possesses a personal agenda influenced by individual bias? We all promote our tendencies, and this is as normal and natural as one bloke liking cereal for breakfast while another prefers eggs.

Now let’s take a look at another aspect of why a book can get great reviews but then come up with a dud here and there. One reason is the genre in which the book is placed and what readers of that category expect. If, for example, someone is a Civil War buff, this person will likely know the types of buttons on the officers’ uniforms on both sides as well as the exact distances between battle sites.

This careful reader is not going to be happy with any author who is not a documented Civil War authority, even if the writer’s name is Mitchell or Crane. And this type of student of the War Between the States doesn’t likely read much fiction, period. So a book listed as Historical Fiction is really expected to be accurate down to names of the horses the characters rode, and fiction only with regard to the weather on a given afternoon that has nothing to do with a battle scene.

The issue of nonfiction versus fiction is an element that cannot be sidestepped. And as I stated, nonfiction readers as a class do not like fiction, and for this reason are quick to dis anything they think is out of line, even if it isn’t. So pity the poor novelist who places Evanston west of Chicago and not correctly north of the city, or President Obama’s Illinois residence in Oak Park and not in Hyde Park. The hard fact is that some writers of excellent fiction are given low marks solely because the reader wouldn’t accept that “novel” denotes a work of fiction.

I mention this because I’ll read reviews that castigate a novelist for fouling up minor geography much less egregious than where Evanston is located or President Obama’s house. Really, who cares? Did you like the story other than that in a single day the protagonist couldn’t have walked the 50 miles from Indianapolis to Kokomo? I don’t know how many times I’ve analyzed fiction reviews and found the negative material coming from those who predominately read nonfiction.

It also must be understood that some people have no life, and the joy they receive is by doing whatever they can to hurt other folks in retaliation for the cards they believe God dealt them. This sort of person can’t get enough of criticizing someone and seeing the vitriol in print or on a computer screen. There are even people out there who purposely antagonize writers for the sole purpose of getting a rise out of them. Some know exactly what buttons to push, and they “sit” around chat rooms bragging about what grief they have caused someone.

If you are getting the impression that I’m suggesting ignoring the reviews, to some degree you’re right. Today, writers with enough 10-dollar bills can buy all the five-star reviews they want. A clown I discussed in a prior Newsletter made huge money gang-mailing five-star reviews until he was finally shut down. But he’ll surface again, and if not him there will be others.

Heck, there’s a firm in Southern California that buys a writer’s books and in turn guarantees a place on The New York Times bestseller list. It costs around 70 grand, and the books are later returned to the bookstores. The returns aren’t tracked, hence all TNYT sees is the volume and velocity of sales. Remember, with the algorithm this paper uses, velocity trumps volume. TNYT might have taken steps to remedy being scammed as I’ve described, but I’ve not heard this to be the case. This book-buying “service” is especially popular with someone who wants to claim guru status on the self-help seminar circuit, as this “authority” can point to his or her TNYT bestseller to establish instant credibility.

I’m going to close this long exegesis by sparing everyone an article to follow, as the topic of book reviews is too important to diminish by including it with something else. Just understand that I’m not saying reviews aren’t important. They are, and I continue to strongly encourage doing everything ethical to have people comment on your material. Just be certain to put the entire review process in perspective. Everyone gets bad reviews, and they are often horribly unfair. But as I’ve illustrated in this expansive explanation, a great many factors influence what is written about a book, and some of the reasons have very little to do with the actual story.

May each of you enjoy a wonderful and safe holiday season with those you love, and I look forward to our next visit, which will be on January 21.