Saturday, October 26, 2019

Warning to writers: perfection is elusive, maybe impossible, probably dangerous.


My latest book, God & Baseball, shown above,went through dozens of on-screen revisions, and six printed proofs before I pronounced it "good enough" to be sold.

I said "good enough," not "perfect."

In its 91,086 words on 382 pages I know it has at least three small errors that few people (or maybe no people) will notice. I also know that it has fewer errors than most books I've read--even books put out by the big traditional publishers with huge staffs of editors, proofreaders and fact checkers.

Lots of books and other media have easily preventable, inexcusable errors. 

  • Orange County Choppers: The Tale of the Teutuls by Keith & Kent Zimmerman has silly geography errors. It's disturbing that three Teutuls plus two Zimmermans plus fact checkers and editors at Warner Books could let obvious errors get printed. On page 11, Paul Senior talks about his parents charging people to park in their driveway on Cooper Street in Yonkers, to watch baseball games in Yankee stadium, which was within "walking distance." The famous stadium is about 8.5 miles south. The 17 mile round trip is not "walking distance" for most people. I hope he calculates more precisely while building bikes. Twice on page 15, "Senior" mentions his house in "Muncie", New York. Muncie is in Indiana. The Teutuls lived in MONSEY (which is pronounced like Muncie).
  • Principles of Self-Publishing: How to Pub­lish and Market A Book or Ebook On a Shoestring Budget by Theresa A. Moore is one of the most-error-ridden books I've ever read. Theresa  says that Lightning Source “is a full service publisher.” Lightning is not a publisher of any kind. It is a printing house that works for publishers. It does NOT provide services such as editing and page formatting, which a self-publishing company provides. Anyone who is advising publishers should know the difference between a printer and a publisher. Theresa complains that Lightning Source charges an “exhorbitant shipping fee” for a proof. Both her spelling and her assessment are wrong.
I learned the hard way that each time I make a correction, there is a good chance that I will introduce other errors. They'll need to be corrected, and their corrections may lead to more errors, and the cycle never ends.

Perfection is elusive, and perfection may even be dangerous.


  • In Greek-Roman mythology, Arachne was a skilled human weaver who bragged that she was a better weaver than Minerva. Minerva was the Roman equivalent of the Greek Athena and was goddess of weaving (and of other things, and the inventor of music). Arachne refused to acknowledge that her skill came from Minerva. According to Ovid, the goddess was so envious of the magnificent woman-made tapestry that she destroyed the tapestry and loom, slashed Arachne's face and turned Arachne into a spider. In biology, "arachnids" are the group of critters that includes spiders.
  • Blogger Hannah wrote,"The makers of those meticulous Persian carpets made obvious errors in their rugs to show that no one was perfect except Allah. Some people believe that the Gods might be angry about arrogance of a human effort to produce a work of art without imperfection."
So, I'll live with a few mistakes (I spelled "Cortez" as "Cortes" and omitted an apostrophe)--at least until it's time for a major revision. I wouldn't want to be turned into a spider, or a bookworm.

------------
Rug photo from http://www.willishenry.com.  Arachne illustration source is unknown. Thanks to all.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Bookmarks don't work with ebooks. Authors need business cards. They're better than an empty-handed elevator pitch.

People in business, including authors, are advised to develop an "elevator pitch"—a brief description of a project that can be delivered in about 30 seconds. The pitches might be stimulating enough to motivate a stranger or someone just met to continue a conversation  after leaving the elevator and perhaps buy a product or even invest in a company.

Elevator pitches are not just for elevators. They can be delivered at the post office, in a supermarket or a stadium, on a line in a restaurant or dry cleaner's, on an airplane or anywhere people come in close contact. 


Books are often sold one-at-a-time, and each happy purchaser can tell someone else, and each of those can tell others, and so on.

Authors, whether self-published or traditionally published, can't afford to be meek. You must get comfortable talking to strangers. If you're afraid to toot your own horn, you'll have to hire someone to toot for you.

A business card is an important accessory to pitching or tooting. It's a powerful and inexpensive 'souvenir' of a meeting that can lead to business. Cardboard bookmarks don't work with ebooks.

  • You can have cards that promote specific books, and cards that identify yourself as an author, as a publisher, an editor or provider of other services.
  • Always have several cards of each type with you.
  • If you are going to a trade show, convention, networking session or other business event, take lots of cards.
  • Separate them so you can quickly grab the right one.


Any time you sign or send a book, stick in three to six business cards that show the book cover and maybe "at Amazon and B&N" or your website address if you prefer to sell directly. Make it easy for happy customers to recommend the book to others. While some of the cards may be used as bookmarks, crumb sweepers or be thrown away, I assume that some will be passed on to potential purchasers.

For years I've gotten my cards from VistaPrint, a major maker of business cards and other printed products for businesses. For the cards shown here, I uploaded a TIF image copied from the PDF of my covers. Most of my paperback books measure 6 x 9 inches, and fit fine on the business card with a little white space above and below the cover image for promotional copy. Keep in mind that the more text you use, the smaller it gets, so write efficiently as well as effectively.

The recent price was just $20 for 500 cards—just four cents each with shipping. If you spend a little more, you can have VistaPrint use the space on the back to print some blurbs from readers or reviewers who like the book.

My wife and I carry the cards around to give to possible "customers." Marilyn has turned out to be an excellent salesperson. She motivated our dentist to order a book from Amazon and I signed it for him when I had my teeth cleaned. My podiatrist, however, asked for a freebie. I gave it to him and he displays it in his office. So does my urologist. Nice.

Monday, October 7, 2019

Book titles and covers must be allowed to evolve while you're writing

I often get an idea for a book title, and even a cover, months or years before I start to write. Sometime an initial idea is so fabulous that it becomes the final idea. But that scenario is very unusual. It's much more common that as I start writing (and interacting with others) that my cover and title will morph many times (hopefully for the better).

Every baby needs a name and every book needs a title. Many book titles are cliché phrases which seem to be absolutely perfect for a particular book. Unfortunately, many cliché phrases are absolutely perfect for lots of books, and a title can’t be copyrightedMore than a dozen different books are titled Caught in the Middle. I met Deborah Burggraaf, the author of a very good one, on a plane trip a few years ago. If you like her title, you can use it, too—but please don’t.

Both Danielle Steel
 and Queen Noor of Jordan wrote books called Leap of Faith. At least five books are titled Fatal Voyage. At least four books, two songs and a movie are named Continental Drift. At least 24 books are titled Unfinished Business. You can write books with those titles, too—but please don’t.

If you want to call your next masterpiece Holy Bible, Hamlet, War and Peace, From Russia with Love or The Da Vinci Code, you can. You might get sued. You might win, but it won’t be a pleasant experience. You’ll probably also confuse and annoy a lot of people—so try to come up with something original.

An identifying term in a book series can be trademarked. If you publish The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Harry Potter, you’ll probably be sued by two publishing companies, and lose twice.

Some people think it’s bad luck to announce a pregnancy before the baby is born. Others start blabbing and buying baby clothes on the day after conception. There is similar disagreement about announcing a book’s title long in advance. You may think that you should keep your title secret so nobody copies your idea. But the loss of advance publicity and the delay in moving up through search engine rankings is probably worse than helpi­­ng a twin title. If you think you have a hot title, try to publish fast, and maybe your book will be on sale before another one with the same title.

One possibly bright note: if another book has the same title but better publicity, people searching for that book may find your book by accident and buy it.

Come up with about a dozen possible titles. Print them up in big type, one title per page. Hang them on the wall. Stare at them. Close your eyes and say the words and analyze what you visualizeor don't visualize. Within a few minutes, you’ll likely eliminate a third of the titles.

Try multiple variations of your favored titles with minor differences, just changing or dropping a word. Sometimes substituting a shorter word will mean that your title can take up two lines instead of three, so you can use bigger type or a bigger cover photo or both. “Club” and “group” take up less space than “organization.” “Pasta” is shorter than “macaroni.” It's OK to use a single-character ampersand instead of a three-character "and" in a title.

When you get down to two or three "finalists," make dummy book covers with appropriate type and artwork. Print them out and wrap them around real books (even if you plan to publish e-only). Hold them at different angles. Carry them around with you. Ask typical purchasers (if you know some) what the titles mean to them. In 2008 I was shocked to learn that people completely misinterpreted my favored title for a future book. I changed it and the book has sold very well.



(above) Here’s an early concept and final version of one of my books. Try for a title that calls for action. The cover that starts with a bold “GET THE MOST” is much stronger than the wimpy “How to Get . . .”

(below) The ebook version has an even stronger title, How to not get Screwed by a Self-Publishing Company. I could have made it "Don't Get Screwed . . ." Maybe I'll change it.



If you’re writing a nonfiction book, the subject will suggest the book’s title. The subject has to be in the title to attract browsers in stores if your books are sold there. The subject-in-title is also critical for online shoppers searching for keywords or key phrases in search engines or on websites. Assuming the core of your title is something like “auto repair,” “retirement” or “sailing,” you need just a few words to fill it out. Some typical phrases are “learn about,” “all about,” “how to,” “plan for,” “introduction to” and “buyers guide.”

(below) Try this handy Title Generator Table to get started. Pick one item from each column:



Any of those titles should make it very clear what your book is about, and—except for the sex—would also be boring and forgettable. With nonfiction, strive for a title that explains the book’s benefits and the problems it solves. Try to inject a little bit of humor, whimsy, mystery or novelty. Find something that will separate your book from competitors’ books without hiding its subject.

(below) Search engines can help you choose words to go in your nonfiction book’s title and subtitle to improve online “searchability.” In the examples below for a book about “vitamin deficiency,” Bing and Google revealed popular related search terms that will help you choose words to appeal to potential book buyers.


(below) Whoopi Goldberg is both funny and smart. Her book’s title, Book, is only slightly funny, and not at all smart. It provides no indication of the subject (“Whoopi!” might have been a better title). A Google search for “book” shows over ONE BILLION links. Most are not for Whoopi’s book.




(below) Sometimes a title like Star Crossed seems "blah" and forgettable in simple textbut absolutely ignites when combined with the right graphics. Using a title that depends on a visual image to go from "eh" to "WOW!" is a gamble; but this image, while subtle, is so powerful and unforgettable that I think the gamble was worthwhile.


The simple title is absolutely perfect, and intriguing for Bette Isacoff's memoir about religious intermarriage. Bette was a 21-year-old Catholic student teacher who fell in love with a 17-year-old Jewish student (who lived across the street from me in New Haven). This was in 1968, when Jews and Catholics rarely married each other, and there was lots of opposition. Bette and Richard rebelled, got married and are still very much in love. I'm not exactly macho, but I seldom read love stories or chick-lit; however I strongly recommend Bette's book—and love her title and cover.

(below) Your title should not promise to reveal secrets unless it really does. Few “secrets” are secret—and no secrets are secret after even one person reads your book.


Unlike nonfiction, keywords don’t matter for fiction, humor or poetry titles. You just want something distinctive and mem­orable. Short is often better than long.



(above) F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby is a great short title. So is I, Claudius by Robert Graves. Tom Wolfe’s The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby, Zac Bissonnette’s How to Be Richer, Smarter, and Better-Looking Than Your Parents and Erma Bombeck’s The Grass Is Always Greener over the Septic Tank are great long titles.
  • Pick words that sound good together. People like and remember alliterations. If your title uses the name of a fictional character, pick a name that will help your book. Saving Silverman beats Saving Berkowitz. The Great Gatsby beats The Great Murphy. With actual names, you can do an alliteration like The Obama Overture or The Kennedy Killing.
  • A short title is easier to remember than a long one, and leaves more room for enticing artwork on your book's cover.
  • Avoid awkward word combinations like “and end,” “usually use” and “be because” on and in the book.
  • (Mostly for nonfiction) The subtitle gives you a second chance to sell your book. It’s very important online, and in stores. Pick a good one. Sometimes a title and a subtitle can be switched, or a new title can combine elements of both. 
  • You can also have a 'fake' subtitle loaded with keywords that would be ugly on a cover, but are very effective for capturing searchers on Amazon.com. Publishing expert Aaron Shepard is a wizard with long subtitles. He has a lot to teach you. Pay attention.
I once modified a subtitle on Amazon long before I changed what was printed on the book. No one complained.

The subtitle printed on the cover of Fundamentals of Public Administration is “A Blueprint for Nigeria Innovative Public Sector: Understanding the dynamics and concepts of Public Policy Administration, Local Government Administration in developing countries, Servant Leadership in Public Sector, Leadership, Budgeting and Financial Fiscal Responsibility in the Public Sector.” I think that’s a bit too much.



(above) My newest book has a very different cover and title than what I started with and experimented with (below)
 


 Want more book tips? Buy my 1001 Powerful Pieces of Author Advice: