5 Reasons You Should Write a Book Now

I’ve probably told you this before, but so what? When did I ever learn anything from hearing it just once? Listen up, and absorb what resonates with you–and act on it:

  1. Credential. If you become an author, you become an authority. Notice “author” in the word “authority”? If you are an author, you are automagically an authority on your topic. So then whether or not you have a PhD, whether or not you have a knock-’em-dead resumé, whether or not you are skinny and beautiful–you are now an author, almost a law unto yourself. If you are service professional–a coach, a consultant, an attorney, a health professional–you are now a (coach, consultant, attorney, massage therapist, chiropractor) with a book.
  2. Effective. It’s a good use of your time and money–and it uses much less of either than you imagine. Most people think that writing a book takes a long time, and publishing it is expensive. But actually, if you follow just a few simple rules, it’s fast. And inexpensive. Much less expensive than building a fancy website or printing an impressive brochure.
  3. Growth. There is nothing like writing a book to teach you your strengths, to inform you about your gifts, and to confirm to you what you really know. When you think through your professional approach, you will be able to speak about it with confidence, and you will have a renewed and profound sense of your destiny. (Really!)
  4. It’s a product. Your book is not only a “big business card,” it is something you can sell. When a big company invites you to speak to their 100 sales professionals for your speaking fee, you can say, “Would you like to buy a copy of my book for each of the attendees? For an audience this size, it will only be $10 a copy, instead of the $15 it costs on Amazon.” An additional $1000 for you, for $200 in costs.
  5. Fulfillment. You’ve always wanted to write a book, and with good reason. And now’s the right time.

I am testing my course on how to write a good book quickly. For the next few days, it is free. No cost. If you want to check it out, click here.

It’s time. Write your book now!

An embarrassment of riches for readers

For $10/month or less, you can get access to a library of hundreds of thousands of books. There are at least three such libraries: Kindle Unlimited (Amazon); Oysterbooks.com; and Scribd.com. All three let you try their service for a free month.

I tried all three. There is lots of overlap among them, in terms of titles. But just recently, Scribd leaped out in front of the pack by adding a collection of 30,000 audio books. I listen to audio books all the time, and have a $24/month subscription to Audible.com that I’d like to drop. If the Scribd library can satisfy my exploratory hankerings, that will be a significant monthly saving for me.

I read on my Android (Samsung Note), iPad, Mac, and Kindle. A lot.

If you are serious about writing, perhaps you too should read a lot.


Endless books

Learn about creating your author platform from Anne Hill

My friend Anne is holding a workshop on Sunday, September 22, 2013 from 11:00 AM to 4:00 PM (PDT) in San Francisco. I cannot think of a better person to learn from. If you are writing a book or have written a book, you should be thinking about creating your “author platform.”

Anne Hill

Anne Hill

Anne is an author and coach and wonderful person whom you’ll enjoy. Go to the workshop!

The semicolon

A marvelous account of infatuation, rejection, and redemption. With Kurt Vonnegut.

Semicolons: A Love Story



Draft is a series about the art and craft of writing.

When I was a teenager, newly fixated on becoming a writer, I came across a piece of advice from Kurt Vonnegut that affected me like an ice cube down the back of my shirt.

“Do not use semicolons,” he said. “They are transvestite hermaphrodites representing absolutely nothing. All they do is show you’ve been to college.”

At the time I was less struck by the cranky, casual bigotry of the statement (a great deal of Vonnegut’s advice sounds as if it was rasped between grandfatherly coughing fits) than by the thrilling starkness of the prohibition. A writer was simply not to use semicolons. Ever.

Read more

Comma, comma, comma, comma, com-comma

James Taylor

James Taylor

(My goofy title is an allusion to the first line of “Handy Man,” of which Wikipedia says: “Handy Man” is a rock and roll song credited to singer Jimmy Jones and songwriter Otis Blackwell. It was originally recorded by The Sparks Of Rhythm, a group Jones had been a member of when he wrote it, although he was not with them when they recorded it. In 1959, Jones recorded the song himself, in a version which had been reworked by Blackwell [1], who also produced the session. “Handy Man”went to number three on the R&B charts and number two on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1960, becoming a million seller [1]. The song was a hit again in 1964 for Del Shannon and again for James Taylor in 1977. Taylor’s version of the song was the most successful, peaking at #4 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topping the adult contemporary chart [2].})

I’m a fair grammarian, but this NY Times piece taught me a lot. Here’s a snippet:

The Most Comma Mistakes

As I noted in my earlier article, rules and conventions about when to use and not to use commas are legion. But certain errors keep popping up. Here are a few of them.

Identification Crisis. 
If I’ve seen it once, I’ve seen it a thousand times. I’m referring to a student’s writing a sentence like:

I went to see the movie, “Midnight in Paris” with my friend, Jessie.

Comma after “movie,” comma after “friend” and, sometimes, comma after “Paris” as well. None is correct — unless “Midnight in Paris” is the only movie in the world and Jessie is the writer’s only friend. Otherwise, the punctuation should be:
I went to see the movie “Midnight in Paris” with my friend Jessie.

If that seems wrong or weird or anything short of clearly right, bear with me a minute and take a look at another correct sentence:

I went to see Woody Allen’s latest movie, “Midnight in Paris,” with my oldest friend, Jessie.

You need a comma after “movie” because this and only this is Mr. Allen’s newest movie in theaters, and before “Jessie” because she and only she is the writer’s oldest friend.

The syntactical situation I’m talking about is identifier-name. The basic idea is that if the name (in the above example, “Jessie”) is the only thing in the world described by the identifier (“my oldest friend”), use a comma before the name (and after it as well, unless you’ve come to the end of the sentence). If not, don’t use any commas.

Grammatically, there are various ways of describing what’s going on. One helpful set of terms is essential vs. nonessential. When the identifier makes sense in the sentence by itself, then the name is nonessential and you use a comma before it. Otherwise, no comma. That explains an exception to the only-thing-in-the-world rule: when the words “a,” “an” or “some,” or a number, come before the description or identification of a name, use a comma.


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Painting with Numbers

“Presenting financials and other numbers so people will understand you.” That’s the subtitle of “Painting with Numbers,” a book by my client, Randy Bolten, that’s just out from Wiley. It’s getting enthusiastic reviews from sources as diverse as academics, bankers, politicians, and IT professionals, and its initial sales are gratifyingly strong.

From the book’s introduction: “This book is not about numbers. This book is about presenting numbers, and doing it clearly, concisely, elegantly, and, most of all, effectively.” And it successfully conveys its message in practical, take-it-home-and-put-it-to-work terms.

Bolten served as chief financial officer of several Silicon Valley firms and learned his skills “in the trenches.” He endured numerous presentations that left him scratching his head and wondering, “What was that person trying to say?” Determined to never do that himself, and to help others do better, he began to record and organize his insights regarding good and bad communication behavior in the numerical context.

This is a “how-to” book in the very best sense of the term. You can read it cover-to-cover and learn a great deal from it; you can also flip it open anywhere and gain helpful tips for the presentation you’re supposed to give in the next 10 minutes.

If you are an aspiring author, here are some key learning points you can model from Randy:

  • The focus of the book is his unique expertise, organized and articulated in bite-size chunks for easy consumption.
  • He invested time in learning what others have to say on the topic, and cites items of interest that can help his readers.
  • He micro-managed the book design process. Specifically, he knew that his spreadsheet examples would have to look like screen-captures, not like a gussied-up artist’s version of spreadsheets, if readers were to feel, “I can do that!”
  • His writing demonstrates his awareness that his reader is unlikely to feel excited and enthusiastic about his topic, to begin with. So he makes excellent use of humor and beautiful layout to engage the reader and drive home the power and utility of learning the skills he so eloquently presents.

He went with a major publisher, although we had considered self-publishing. Here are some reasons:

  • He didn’t want to undertake the work of creating a business to produce and market the book.
  • He was able to network his way to an appropriate editor, without an agent.
  • The implied imprimatur of a major publisher was meaningful to him.
  • Maximizing his profit was not his major goal.

I’m very proud of Randy, who has become my close friend from what began as a coaching relationship. Check out the book!

Tell a story. But how?

Humans love stories. “Once upon a time…” immediately engages us.

I don’t know why; I’m not sure anyone does. But if you just list facts or events, you will lose your audience quickly. If you tell a story, in which one thing leads to another,

The Jerk

reveals a conflict, and ultimately resolves in one way or another, you hold their interest.

This is easier to do in a blog post or a short story than in a book. Plotting a story “arc” is more difficult when you want to fill 150 pages than if you are trying only to fill one or two. Of course, the short story is an art of its own, and one that is not easy to master. But the book-length story requires logic and intuition. What will engage the reader? What will cause them to care about the people and events of the narrative.

We long for familiarity; we want our stories to follow a pattern we recognize. Evil is punished; good is rewarded; virtue is its own reward. We can be held and entertained by violations of these conventions: We can sympathize with the professional assassin, who only kills bad guys, and want him to “win.” We can feel for the prostitute with the heart of gold.

We expect consistent chronology; first this, then that. Flashbacks are ok, but we need to be anchored in the timeline, or we’ll get confused.

Chekhov,  the renowned Russian short-story writer,  said, “If in Act I you have a pistol hanging on the wall, then it must fire in the last act.” The story sets up expectations for us, and we feel frustrated if they are not satisfied.

How does a narrative become a story? Here are some ways:

  • Chronology. “I was born a poor black child,” says Steve Martin in the film, “The Jerk.” The chronology continues from there. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times,” says Charles Dickens in the opening to “A Tale of Two Cities.” We set a stake and continue.
  • Causation.  It all happened because…
  • A question that must be answered. “How was she killed? There was no weapon in evidence, no mark upon her body. Yet it was clear she had not died of natural causes.” Our curiosity is piqued. How indeed?
  • A promise: “Although you have never written a sonnet, by the time you’ve completed this slim volume, you will have written one.”

I work mostly with non-fiction writers. Yet the story is just as important in a work of non-fiction as it is in a work of fiction.

What’s your story?


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The publishing war is over; self-publishing wins

I’ll start from the conclusion. Here’s why you should ONLY self-publish, and not seek a publisher:

  • publish #01

    You get to market MUCH more quickly by self-publishing (days or weeks versus a year or more)

  • You keep your intellectual property; you can reprint, translate, sell movie rights, go to multiple distributors without limitation
  • You keep 70% or more of the book’s selling price, versus 14.7% or less with a publisher (including for the ebook version)
  • You are in control of everything from design to editing to production to distribution

In the past, before the Web and print-on-demand technology, authors were at the mercy of publishers. That’s when the “rules of engagement” were established by the publishers, and they remain today as they were then: The publisher controls everything about the relationship, if the author signs the standard agreement. That means a production schedule that commonly stretches out 15-18 months from receipt of manuscript; a royalty rate that is nominally as high as 15%, but due to hidden costs, is more like 10% (payable six or more months after it is earned); total transfer of ownership of intellectual property to the publisher (meaning that if the publisher decides not to reprint the book after the first printing, the author must negotiate to re-acquire the rights to it); and other onerous strictures.

The author was ostensibly relieved of all responsibility for editing, design, production, distribution, and marketing of the book. Unfortunately, the author usually learned that she was actually stuck with marketing the book, and all the costs thereof–at the paltry royalty rate specified in the standard contract.

In recent years, an author could not even submit a manuscript to a publisher; he had to find an agent who would agree to undertake on his behalf, for 20% or more of the deal. And finding an agent was no simpler than finding a publisher had been in earlier times. A common question posed to the author: “Do you have a platform?” Meaning, do you have a coterie of loyal fans who are likely to buy your book? If not, your chances of finding an agent or a publisher were small.

Today, the author has been emancipated in the age of self-publishing. She is no longer in bondage to the system of publishers and agents. She can have her manuscript edited herself, get a cover designed to her liking, and take them to CreateSpace.com or Lulu.com, set her sale price–and have the book available for purchase within a week of submitting the manuscript and cover. At no fee for the service; production costs are taken out of the sales price for each book, and the balance sent to the author. Monthly.

These publishers take no ownership of the content. The author is free to submit it to multiple such services.

Moreover, both they and others offer a service to convert the book to the most popular ebook formats. Since the production cost on an ebook is virtually zero, it is reasonable that the authors receive 70% or more of the sales price of their books, and they do. If the ebook is published by, say, John Wiley and Sons, the author gets 14.7%.

Well, what about editing? It is true that the leading publishers employ competent editors. But so can an author–and at a lower rate by far, with the expectation of far faster turnaround.

And marketing? Most authors seeking to be published by one of the “Big Six” do not realize that the big marketing bucks are reserved for the “sure bets”–books by celebrities and already-popular authors. All the other books on the publisher’s list get very little in the way of marketing dollars. And if they do not sell in significant numbers–thousands–in the first three months after their debut, they will not be reprinted.

A client asked me the other day about the “cachet” of being published by a well-known publisher. Certainly there is something to that. But let me ask you, prospective published author: What value does it actually have for you? Will it establish you higher in the firmament of author/experts? Will it get you more clients? I doubt it.

The big publishers are not foolish, and they employ very smart people. But the traditional publishing world is stuck in an antiquated paradigm, and has not found a way out.

If you are an author, save yourself grief: Do not invest your energies in petitioning agents and publishers. Recognize that your book represents a business, of which you are the ceo. Act accordingly. Self-publish.

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The secret to a successful book

There are more books being published now than ever before. UNESCO (via Wikipedia) says:

  1. United States (2009) 288,355 (“new titles and editions”) [3]
  2. United Kingdom (2005) 206,000 [2]
  3. China (2007) 136,226 [4]
  4. Russian Federation (2008) 123,336 [5]
  5. Germany (2009) 93,124 (new titles) [6]
  6. Spain (2008) 86,300 [7]
  7. India (2004) 82,537 (21,370 in Hindi and 18,752 in English[8][9]
  8. Japan (2009) 78,555 [10]
  9. France (2010) 67,278 [11] (63,690 new titles)
  10. Iran (2010) 65,000 [12][13]

How many of these sell more than 50 copies? I haven’t found exact figures, but my guess is that the percentage is below 10.

Why? And how can you get your book into the 10%?

“Why” is the secret: Most authors write from their own need or desire to do so. They have a vague idea about who will buy their book or want to read it. But they are focused on their message.

That is a mistake. A HUGE mistake.

If you want your book to be read by more than your mom and your close friends, you must view the book as a product, and its publication as a business. Even if you plan to give it away for free.

So the first question you must answer is: Who is the audience for my book? Who will want to read it? And you must study that audience and refine your understanding of who is in it, so that you can be sure that your book is something they will want.

(Notice that I said “want,” not “need.” People buy what they want, what they desire. Their desire may or may not stem from need.)

Does this sound backwards? Shouldn’t you focus first on your message? Not if you want to reach an audience.

You must first pick your audience. Define it narrowly, as narrowly as possible–age, gender, family situation, profession, and so on. If you address the wants of a highly targeted group of people, those who share some of their attributes will also be interested. But if you attempt to address everyone, your content will not attract anyone.

Who is your audience? Dentists who have just opened a practice? Stay-home moms with 2-3 kids under 10? Harried executives in large corporations who have been at it for 10 to 12 years, and are thinking about entrepreneurship? Owners of Golden Retrievers? Once you define your audience, you can figure out what problem your book should address. You’ll know what title will capture their interest. And you’ll know where to find your readers, and how to help them find you.

What are your thoughts about audience? Please comment.

Seth Godin: The single biggest change in book publishing

Seth Godin is amazing, and you should follow his Domino Project. In this brief article, he summarizes a key point about publishing books that is overlooked by most authors and many publishers. Go there and read the whole thing.

The single biggest change in book publishing is this:

The industry was built around finding readers for its writers.
And new technologies and business models now mean that the most successful publishers and authors find writers for their readers instead.

Go here to read the whole short piece.


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