Monday, August 20, 2018

What are the main differences between an amateur writer and a professional author? Are you ready for Prime Time?



A while ago I copyedited a book written by a woman who is an excellent storyteller—but was not quite ready to be a professional author.

The book required so much editing that my hands ached from typing and mousing. I charged the woman much more than I would have if the text was prepared
better for me.

I'm sure the writer
and perhaps her friends and relativesread the manuscript dozens of times. I'm sure they loved it. I did not.

The biggest single problem was lack of consistency.

The AP book is a reference book you can actually read for fun.

You can adhere to the rules of such style manuals or combine elements of several. It's less important to rigidly follow one book than to be consistent within your text—but don't be consistently foolish.

Don't have “3 a.m.” on one page and “5PM” 100 pages later. Don't have "41" and "forty-one." Be careful to use "chairman" and "Chairman" in the proper places. 

Sometimes the style books agree with each other. Sometimes they don’t. For example, "Chicago" (which was first published in 1891) favors the serial comma, but the AP and the Times books oppose it. Their attitude may be based on the need to save space in crowded newspapers. "Chicago" style is more often used by book publishers.

The Chicago Manual of Style tells us that french fries and swiss cheese need no uppercase letters. The AP book says we should capitalize Swiss cheese.

The AP book was first produced as a 60-page booklet in 1953. Over the years, this “Bible of the Newspaper Industry” grew considerably in both size and scope. The 2007 version that I use is still a rulebook—but it’s also a dictionary, an encyclopedia and a textbook. The AP updates annually. I'm still using the 2010 edition. The Chicago and Times books update less frequently. I have the 2002 version of the Times book. My 15th edition of the Chicago book was published in 2003.

The Oxford University Press and the Chicago Manual of Style insist that an em dash should be attached to the letters before and after it, like—this, with almost no visible space. On the other side, the New York Times likes to put a space before and after each em dash. I’ve gone back and forth on this issue, with different styles in different books. As long as I publish my own books, I control my em dashes. You control yours.

While a self-publisher can choose (or create) her or his style, if you get a contract from another publisher—or even if you freelance for a magazine, newspaper or website—you may encounter "house style." Doubleday may have different preferences than Simon & Schuster, and the New York Times may disagree with Esquire.

On the web: Slate, Salon and Huffington Post may have different standards.

Just as language does not stand still, neither do the official styles. The AP recently switched from "web site" to "website" and endorsed "email" over "e-mail," "handheld" over "hand-held" and "cellphone" over "cell phone." I made those changes years ago.


Other amateurisms:
  • Rampant use of ampersand instead of "and"
  • Use of numerals instead of spelling low numbers
  • Bad spelling
  • Factual errors
  • Repeated words and phrases
  • Omitted words
  • Omitted hyphens
  • Unnecessary hyphens
  • Omitted spaces
  • Unnecessary spaces
  • Wrong words (e.g., "house" instead of "horse")
  • Lowercasing proper nouns, such as "protestant"
  • Unnecessary uppercasing, such as "Church"
  • Not explaining esoteric terminology
  • Excessive informality outside of dialog (e.g., "my mom" instead of "my mother"
  • Not knowing when to use quote marks and italics
  • Over-long sentences and paragraphs
  • Improper dashes
  • Too many em dashes
  • Not verifying spelling of names (it's the Philips company, but a phillips screw)
  • RUSHING
Control yourself.

All writers have quirks that need to be controlled by their editors or by the writers. Sometimes an editor who is paid by a writer will be inclined to not make a correction ("heck, it's his personal style") that an editor paid by a publisher would correct. That's why it's important for a self-pubber to recognize personal quirks and foibles and try hard to keep the undesirable, unnecessary and weird off the printed page.
 

Just as your style sheet specifies the type font for breaker heads and whether you capitalize the "W" in "web," it's good to have a listat least in your headof screw-ups to avoid.

One of my perpetual problems is giving too many examples. It's partly pedantry, which I inherited from my father. It may also be a bit of egomania, to show off how much I know.

My natural impulse is to write something like, "British automobile manufacturers—such as Jaguar, Rover, MG, Triumph, Vauxhall, Austin and Morris—had reputations for unreliable electrical systems."

Under my self-imposed limit, I am allowed ONLY THREE EXAMPLES," so I'd probably ditch Triumph, Vauxhall, Austin and Morris. I'd still make my point, and save some bytes and trees.




More advice in my Self-Editing for Self-Publishers (What to do before the real editor starts editing-or if you're the only editor)

I am available for editing. Email me.

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Top illustration from http://www.123rf.com. MG photo from Brett Weinstein. Thanks.

Friday, August 17, 2018

To me, authoring is no longer awesome. To many readers, it is.

I majored in journalism in college. I've written many hundreds of articles for newspapers and magazines. I was an award-winning advertising copywriter. I've written more than 40 books.

For a while I kept a "clip file" of all of my published articles, and had a portfolio of my ads that I could use to impress a prospective employer.

But, after 49 years making money by tapping a keyboard, I no longer think writing is a big deal.

I won't say it isn't fun anymore. One fundamental Marcus maxim is, "If it isn't fun, don't do it." If writing wasn't fun, I wouldn't still be doing it.

When  I was younger, I loved getting fan mail from people who liked my articles and reviews in Rolling Stone. Later there was lots of satisfaction when I was told how many dollars my ads and websites generated. It was cool seeing people wearing T-shirts I had designed. In more recent years, I've enjoyed reading the mostly good reviews of my books.

I still love to tweak, adjust, manipulate and rework blogs, websites and book pages so they sound and look just right.

But writing a good book in 2018 just does not generate the same smiles and internal giggles as the first big cover story I wrote for High Fidelity Trade News in 1969, or getting into movies and concerts for free when I showed my Rolling Stone press ID in 1971, or getting laid after giving a girl a stack of records I had gotten for free when I worked for Stone.

Maybe the problem—if it is a problem—is that writing is much easier than it used to be, so I don't feel I am overcoming a challenge. I was fired from my job at High Fidelity Trade News when I had a two-week dry spell, but it's been decades since I've suffered with a severe case of "writer's block."

Maybe simply getting older—and accumulating more experiences—makes it easier to write. (But harder to type accurately.) 

At age 72, I can write about almost anything.

I had a demented high school English teacher [she's in Stories I'd Tell My Children (but maybe not until they're adults)] who made 'surprise attacks' on our class. One day she commanded us to "write 500 words about tobogganing." Another time she wanted 500 words about "How Capri pants are the downfall of western civilization."

I hated the evil idiot, but she provided good preparation for later on when my paycheck depended on my being able to write about things I knew absolutely nothing about (ads for women's bathing suits and the Metropolitan Opera, and a fundraising letter for the YMCA, for example).

Getting published is infinitely easier now than when I was younger. Years ago, if I had a brilliant idea for an article or book, I had to query editors and publishers to try to ignite their enthusiasm and open their checkbooks.

Today, if I have something to say, I write a book and publish it with my own Silver Sands Books, or post something on one of my blogs or on Facebook or Twitter, or comment on someone else's blog, or start a new blog or website. It's infinitely easier than pitching an article to an editor or convincing investors to put money into a new magazine.

Those of us in the book biz know how easy it is to publish now. But many “civilians” are still in awe of authors.

I was reminded of this a few years ago when I was at a brunch meeting of about 25 members of a "burial society" that I’ve inherited membership in.

Although I’ve theoretically been a member since birth, this was the first time that a meeting was held near enough for me to conveniently attend. I was surrounded by relatives I am scheduled to spend eternity with, but I had never met any of them before.

During the meeting, someone spoke about a milestone in family history that occurred about 100 years earlier. I casually mentioned that I had written about the incident in one of my books.

I was surprised by the response. Some people were in awe! Someone said, “Oh, you wrote a book!” and there was at least one “Wow.” People asked the name, the subject and where they could buy it.

I answered the questions quickly and politely. I didn’t want to hijack the meeting and turn it into a book promo event.

My extended family (mostly 'sophisticated New Yorkers') thought that meeting a writer is unusual.

I certainly don’t think writing is unusual or that writers are unusual (well, maybe a little unusual). I spend a lot of my online and offline time communicating with writers, editors, designers and publishers. My close relatives and neighbors and employees know that I write and publish and they are not impressed. (Well, actually, a few are.)

I know how easy it is to get published; but to the group of strangers at the meeting—who share some of my genes, and will share a final address—it was a big deal. I’m certainly not a celebrity like Elvis, JFK or Shakespeare, but some of these folks seemed to be a bit excited to be related to an author and maybe even to be buried near one.

It made me feel good. Not as good as getting laid because I was an editor at Rolling Stone—but nevertheless, good.

Magicians don’t explain their best tricks. Maybe we shouldn’t reveal how easy it has become to publish books and have them sold by Amazon and B&N.

Monday, August 13, 2018

It's time to abolish the term "published author." It's easier to become a published author than a Cub Scout.



A great many years ago I was a Cub Scout. I have four memories of scouting:

(1) At one meeting some of us stood behind cardboard 'rocks' and held up a flag to re-enact the Iwo Jima flag-raising scene from WW2.

(2) At another meeting my father won a prize for bending some pipe cleaners into a horse and cart.

(3) As part of a fundraising project three of us went door-to-door trying to earn money. The kid in charge would ring bells and ask "Do you have any chores to do?" He should have asked if there were any chores that WE could do for money. This sinful sentence was spoken more than 60 years ago but so hurt my ears that I have not forgotten the sin nor forgiven the sinner.

(4) The lowest rank in Cub Scouting is Bobcat. Every Cub starts as a Bobcat. You can't be a Cub Scout and not be at least a Bobcat. A Bobcat is lower than a Wolf or a Bear. A Bobcat doesn't have to start a fire by rubbing two sticks together, build a crystal radio, bandage a wound, walk on snowshoes or help an old lady cross the street. To be a Bobcat a kid has to learn and say the Cub Scout motto, promise and the Law of the Pack--and tell what they mean; show the Cub Scout sign, salute and handshake--and tell what they mean; and show that he understands and believes that it is important to be honest and trustworthy.

Since those requirements were so basic, (if I remember correctly) we were not allowed to wear our Bobcat pins on our spiffy new uniforms.

I thought of that recently when I was reading an introduction from a new member of an online group for authors.

The newbie said, "I am a published author."

I wanted to say, "BIG FUCKING DEAL!"


At one time being a published author implied that either:
  • A person wrote something so important or wonderful that a publisher paid to publish the book.
  • A person is so famous (like Levi Johnston, the almost-son-in-law of Sarah Palin) that a publisher paid to publish the book.
  • A person is egotistical and wealthy enough to pay thousands of dollars to a vanity press to publish the book.
Today, it takes almost no skill, time or money to become a published author.
  • If you can click a keyboard and move a mouse, you can be a published author.
  • The cost can be ZERO.
  • You don't have to impress anyone.
  • You can be a terrible writer and still be a published author.
  • It doesn't matter if nobody reads your book.
  • It's easier to become an author than to become a Bobcat.
  • You don't even have to learn to salute or promise to follow Akela.
Since it is so easy to become a published author, it means nothing to say you are one.



(By the way, it means almost nothing to say you're a bestselling author--but I'm one.)





Friday, August 10, 2018

Authors: here's an easy, effective alternative to elusive celebrity blurbs


Every author dreams of having cover blurbs (endorsements) from famous people who'll say nice things which may entice other people to buy books.

Often, especially for a new author with a new book, it's just not possible to get the attention of a superstar or an expert who will add authority to yours.

That doesn't mean your book has to be blurbless.

There's nothing wrong with asking for and printing blurbs from friends and family, if it's appropriate to your book. Later on, if Arnold Schwarzenegger or another celeb falls in love with your words, you can revise the cover to incorporate the new comments.

My first self-published book I Only Flunk My Brightest Students: stories from school and real life, deals with my life. So it made perfect sense to use blurbs from people who know me, rather than some distant Nobel Prize winner.

The book is funny. Identifying Howard Krosnick, the source of my front cover blurb as "author's classmate since first grade" is almost a parody of the traditional stuffy IDs ("professor of Indo-Eurasion folk medicine at the University of Guatemala), and reinforces the mood of the book.

Stories I'd Tell My Children (but maybe not until they're adults) is an updated replacement for the flunk book. It has a fantastic cover blurb which says, "This book is so funny that I nearly peed in my pants. My girlfriend didn't think it was funny, so I got a new girlfriend."

The blurber, Nicholas Santiago, is someone I know through business. His words are sufficient. I see no need to explain who he is, and I doubt that Oprah could have written a better recommendation. I received "five stars" and some nice words from the Midwest Book Review -- but those words are not as funny as Nick's words.


There's nothing wrong with your acting as a writing coach for your blurbers. You can even write a complete blurb and ask someone to "adopt" it.

If you’ve written a how-to book, the best blurbs will come from people who have actually been helped by it.

A good way to find “amateur” blurbers who might write sincere comments about actually benefiting from your book is to observe online communities that are concerned with your subject. If you find articulate people with problems your book solves, offer to send them free advance copies (even PDFs if bound copies or ebooks are not yet available) in exchange for their comments. You can say that you’d like to know if the book was helpful and how it can be improved. Mention that you might like to quote their comments, but don’t guarantee it.


Here's a great blurb, from a new author, for one of my books about publishing: "Michael Marcus’s book on self-publishing was detailed, complete and easy to read. It is the best I have read on the subject. It was very helpful. I do highly recommend this instructive book to anyone who wants the complete instruction guide to getting your written works out there.—Charles Eastland, author of The Fire Poems"
  • If you get a good blurb, identify the blurber in some way that may help her or him. In an ebook or online, provide a link. Like it or not, blurbing is often mutual ass-kissing. Play the game if you want the benefits.
  • If you have a connection to a real celeb it may be tempting to ask for a favorbut make sure the fame is relevant to your book. If your college roommate lives next door to super-chef Mario Batali, Batali's comments about your book about bicycle repair probably won't mean much. 
  • Beware of self-serving blurbs that say more about the blurber than the book, or blurbs that were obviously written without reading the book.


James & Geoff. Which one did I sit next to on a plane?

Don’t be too timid to approach famous authors, politicians, business leaders and celebrities, especially if you have something in common which can create a bond. You might be pleasantly surprised. Write a good letter and explain how you think the book relates to the prospective blurber. Find a reason to compliment the candidate. If possible, refer to a time when you were in the same place, perhaps during a speech or a book signing or on an airplane. (I once sat next to James Earl Jones. Hmm. Actually, it may have been Geoffrey Holder.)

Short blurbs are usually better than long blurbs. Humorous blurbs (if appropriate) are often better than serious blurbs.

Request blurbs as long in advance as possible—as soon as you have a draft of your book that is good enough to show. The book does not have to be complete. You can probably get by with an introduction, a table of contents, and a few chapters sent as a PDF. If you want a blurb from someone famous, it’s probably better to send an ARC (Advance Review Copy) than a PDF.

Incorporate good “early” blurbs into your back cover and first page as soon as possible. If other blurbers read them, they may be more likely to write similarly positive comments.


left-click to enlarge for easier reading


Blurbs go on your book cover, inside pages, Facebook, Twitter, business cards, sell sheets, booksellers' websites and your own website. The website for my book about Donald Trump includes this: "Remarkable" and "Powerful."


(Schwarzenegger photo from TV Guide)

Wednesday, August 8, 2018

Authors: who cares who published your books? Probably nobody



I was at a community social event a few years ago to meet some people I knew only through Facebook. I had taken a few copies of my newest book to give to them. We were seated in a huge room with hundreds of people and we talked to strangers who were sitting near us. 

When I took the books out and signed them for the FB friends, the strangers immediately asked if they could see the books. They flipped through the pages and smiled (a good sign). 

One said, "I never met an author before." Another asked where she could buy the book. A third asked how long it takes to write a book. Someone asked if I find it hard to write a book. Another asked how I decide what to write about. 

One question that nobody asked is "what company published the book." 


From what I've observed, a publisher's name on a book is very different from a brand name on a bottle of wine or a pair of shoes. It's more like the number of a TV channel—close to completely irrelevant.

Readers are interested in a book's content and maybe the author's reputation—not the name of the company that delivered the content. 


  • Zoe Winters writes quirky and sometimes dark paranormal romance and fantasy. She says, “The average reader doesn’t care how a book gets to market. If the book is good, it doesn't matter if your Chihuahua published it.” 
  • Author Simon Royle wrote, “People don't buy books from publishers. They buy them from authors.” 
  • Edward Uhlan founded Exposition Press—an early and important pay-to-publish company—in 1936. He said, “Most people can’t tell the difference between a vanity book and a trade book anyway. A book is a book.” 
Concentrate on producing top-quality books.

Choose a good name for your tiny publishing company that does not limit you to one genre, or sound like another company in the book business. My company is Silver Sands Books. Here's some advice for choosing a name for your publishing company.


Don't for a minute fret that readers will reject you because the logo on your books doesn't belong to Penguin or Simon & Schuster.




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dog pic from Google Images

Monday, August 6, 2018

A bigger book may not be a better book. Plan carefully.

The thicker the book, the longer it takes to finish writing, editing and formatting it, the more it costs to produce and purchase, the more errors it will have, and maybe the fewer people who will buy it.


I almost never go to movies that are longer than two hours, because I know the movie will become a $14 nap. I am similarly reluctant to buy books with more than about 350 pages, because I doubt they will keep me interested.

In an online forum for authors, a newbie recently discussed his debut novel—which will have more than 800 pages.
  • It will be extremely difficult to persuade people to buy a huge and expensive book written by someone they've never heard of.
Maybe that book should become three books, or should be drastically cut. Almost any page can sacrifice a sentence or two without suffering. Most sentences can shed a word or two, and no reader will miss them. The maxi­­mum number of pages for a book is determined by print­ing and binding equip­ment (if the book is printed) and what people are willing to pay, carry and read.


One the other hand, the United Nations’  Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organ­iz­a­tion declared 49 pages to be the min­imum length for a book. A publication with fewer pages can be a leaflet, pamphlet, booklet or brochure. Call it a book, and you risk offending nearly 200 nations.

Despite the UNESCO decree, no printed book has 49 pages. Pbooks have an even number of pages even if some pages don’t have numbers on them. An individual piece of paper in a book is called a leaf. Each leaf has two sides, called pages. A 100-page book contains 50 leaves. Or leafs.

Publishers don’t have to obey the United Nations. Outskirts Press can make “books” with as few as 18 pages, the minimum from Create­Space is 24 pages, and Lulu can do 32 pages.

Most printers can produce books with as many as 800 to
1,000 pages, but books with more than 500 pages are unusual. With nonfiction, you need to have enough pages to cover your topic adequately. Don’t skimp, or pad.
  • The book should not be so big that it will be priced a lot higher than its competitors or seem like “too much to read.”
  • It should not be so short that it seems incomplete, or doesn’t offer value for its cost.

The form of a book affects the acceptability of its size. A printed book with 600 pages could be heavy to carry and difficult to lay flat (and expensive to print and ship). 

The cost of each additional page printed is insignificant. The cost of each e-page is zero. There is a prejudice against very thin books, so try for a minimum of about 120 pages. Thin books just don’t seem like real books, and the printing on the book’s spine will be tiny.

Novels can be much longer than nonfiction. Tolstoy’s War and Peace is about 1,300 pages long, and some of Rowling’s Harry Potter books have over 700 pages.

A book’s page count is not final until it is ready to be printed. Many factors determine how many words fit on a page, including page size, type size, line spacing, margins, headers, number and size of illustrations, front and back matter, etc.

An 8.5-by-11-inch manuscript page holds about twice as many words as a common 6-by-9-inch book page. A 200-page manuscript can yield a 400-page book (with no graphics), and have about 100,000 words.


Most ebooks don’t have real pages. I know of one ebook with just nine “pages” and one with 1,594—unless the person reading makes an adjustment which changes the total.

With most ebooks, the readers can adjust typeface, type size and vertical/horizontal orientation. That changes the number of apparent pages. A hundred people could read a particular ebook, but they’re not necessarily reading the same book. 

Publishers Weekly analyzed data from Amazon.com and declared that the median average "word count" for books is 64,531 words, which translates to about 290 paper pages. While a mean average might be more useful than the median (half of the books have more words, half have fewer), the number from PW is still useful. It’s probably best for new writers not to stray too far from the average.

It’s normal for writers to love their words—but readers may not share the love. Some writers who love their words recognize that there are just too many words. I voluntarily cut a book I wrote from 518 pages to 432 pages, and it’s better because of the cuts. It may have been even better at 396.

The cost for printing books generally depends on the number of pages—but not the size of those pages. A bigger page (with a bigger front cover, of course) can make a dramatic statement. It probably will cost less to produce than a book with a larger number of smaller pages. If you are paying someone to format book pages, you probably will not pay more if the pages are big.

My latest book, What's Wrong With Trump?, has 316 jumbo 7x10-inch pages instead of my usual 6x9-inch size. The book contains nearly 100,000 words, and if I did not use large pages, the book would've required more paper, raising the manufacturing cost and retail price.
My first 7-by-10-inch book has nearly 100,000 words.