Wednesday, February 24, 2021

Authors: the lowly Table of Contents is your friend. Don't ignore it.

Apparently most authors of nonfiction wait until their books are written before assembling the Table of Contents—or they rely on an editor or designer to produce it.

I think this is a big mistake. The lowly "TOC" is not mere drudge work to be delayed or shunted to others. It's a valuable writing tool that can help you make (and sell) a better book. Instead of ignoring it until your book is written, make it a tool (and friend) to be used from the very beginning.


While the page numbering in your book will constantly change as you write, a TOC can help you keep track of what you've written—and what still needs to be written.

Even though your chapter names will likely change, too, a list of those names can help you spot names that sound silly, make no sense, or are incompatible with others or with your book's title.

While it's fine to have chapters of varying length, an author must try to balance the lengths of the chapters. Even temporary page numbers can help you determine if you are paying too much attention to (i.e.: giving too much space to) a particular topic. Maybe one long chapter should be chopped into several shorter chapters.

Maybe your sequence of chapters should be changed.

Back in 2009, just minutes before I had planned to send a book to the printer, I decided to check my table of contents. I had a feeling that as I changed the lengths of some chapters, a page number might have changed. I actually found three wrong page numbers, and two chapters were missing from the table.

Since the sequence of chapters and the numbers of their starting pages will frequently change as the book evolves, make sure that the final version is accurate.

Another time I was trying to find a chapter in one of my books that has many chapters. I couldn't find it by flipping through the pages, and I couldn't find it by studiously scanning the table of contents. When I looked even more carefully, I realized that the last entry at the bottom of one page of the TOC was Chapter 51, but the first entry on the top of the next page was Chapter 53. There was no listing for Chapter 52.

I felt like a blind idiot.

The table of contents can be an important sales medium, so make it complete, clear, informative and well-written. The TOC is normally forward in the "front matter" and one of the first things seen by potential purchasers who are shopping at either online or terrestrial booksellers.

For nonfiction, if chapter titles don’t explain what the chapters are about, add some explanation. OTOH, a mysterious chapter name might captivate readers.

For a fiction book, you can skip the table of contents, unless the book is a collection of short stories. 

Note: most ebook formats are "flowable" and the books have no fixed page numbers, just a sequence of chapters that can be reached by tapping a finger or stylus, or by lots of finger swiping.


You can call the table simply “contents” and leave out “table of.” However, James Felici, author of The Complete Manual of Typography, one of the best-looking and most informative books about the publishing business, has a full-fledged “Table of Contents.” I would never criticize him, and if you put out a book as good as his, I won’t criticize your table of contents either, no matter what you decide to call it. 

James came up with a nice innovation that you may want to emulate. Ahead of his complete ten-page table of contents he has a one-page “contents at a glance” to make it easier to find the major sections. If you have a large, complex book, try it.


The TOC up at the top is from my useful and funny bestseller, Do As I Say, Not as I Did.  It's available as a paperback and ebook.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Should an author be a bookseller? Sometimes

Credit card reader for smartphones, from Square.
You can get one for FREE. Paypal has a similar gadget.

I've written that writers can't be too timid to sell their own books. I was using "sell" as an informal and perhaps more forceful synonym for "market" or "promote."

However, sometimes a writer should be involved in the actual selling transaction and exchange physical books for money.
  • When a traditional publisher sells an $18 book through Amazon.com and other booksellers, you’ll probably collect a measly 10% ($1.80).
  • On a 300-page, $18 book sold from a self-publishing company’s website, you’ll probably make 50% ($9). Expect few sales, because of limited site traffic. 
  • But if you are an independent self-publisher selling that $18 book through an online bookseller, you can make about $10. While this is better than what you could get by using a traditional publisher or a self-publishing company, there are ways to make more money.
  • You can probably buy books for $9 each from your self-publishing company. If you sell directly to readers, you keep what would normally go to the booksellers. You end up with $9 of the $18—if you can get your customers to pay for shipping, as they often do with Amazon or B&N.
  • HOWEVER, if you buy books right from Lightning Source, you’ll pay $4.80 plus shipping, and keep about $12 from the $18. The cost from Amazon's KDP (formerly CreateSpace) is $4.45, so you can keep a bit more.
  • Even if you discount the price by a few dollars or pay for shipping to customers, you could still make more than you normally would, and you’ll get paid immediately.

I don't want to compete with Amazon and other booksellers, but I do sell a few books each month to readers who want personalized inscriptions. I accept credit cards and Paypal, and ship via USPS. You can ship in a box or padded envelope. Flat-rate Priority Mail has gotten expensive: $7.95. "Book Rate" has been replaced by Media Mail, costing about three bucks for a book.

There are several ways to reach customers directly. They don’t apply to every book and they probably should not replace Amazon and B&N, but they could be a supplement.
  • Sell from your websites and blogs.
  • Sell during or after speeches.
  • Sell at flea markets.
  • Sell to friends, neighbors and business associates.
  • Sell at trade shows and conventions.
  • Sell at book fairs, craft fairs, festivals or events that tie in with your subject, such as boat shows or auto races.
  • Ring doorbells (just kidding).
Writer/blogger Sonia Marsh said, “Known experts should self-publish. Generally, they get $20,000 per speaking gig and sell 700 copies of a book after the gig.” I have no idea where she got her data. But even if her numbers are inflated ten times, the money is still impressive for an hour’s work. 

If you are going to sell, you’d better be prepared to accept credit cards. Some in-person purchasers may pay cash, and you may gamble by accepting checks or a promise for future payment, but most book sales are done with credit cards.

You need a merchant account. You can get one from a bank, warehouse club or merchant service provider. You will probably pay the company between 2% and 5% of each transaction. “Non-swiped” transactions, where you don’t actually see the card, cost extra; and there may be other fees.

For advice on accepting cards and evaluations of service companies, see http://www.100best-merchant-accounts.com/.

It’s also possible to process online sales by accepting payments through PayPal. It may be less expensive than credit cards, but some people don’t like PayPal.

You will need a terminal or PC software. You can even use a laptop, tablet or cellphone for wireless authorizations.

Square offers a particularly innovative system for processing credit card sales. It’s a small FREE card reader for smartphones (shown up above) combined with credit card processing with fast funds availability and low fees. See http:///www.square.com. Paypal offers a similar gadget. So do some banks.

BAD NEWS: If you sell in-person, you’ll probably have to collect and remit sales tax. It’s an ISPITA (industrial-strength pain in the ass) if you sell in several states.

GOOD NEWS: Many thousands of books reach readers without booksellers. They are distributed—sometimes for free—by entities that want information or opinions circulated. These “special sales” can generate high profits, with no risk of returns.

A book you’ve already written may be perfect for use by an association, corporation, government, charity, foundation, university or a political party. Perhaps a book you’ve written needs just slight changes and perhaps a new title and cover to become perfect. Maybe the information in your book is fine, but the book needs a new point of view or emphasis to let you make a deal.

If you want to pursue the special sales market, get a copy of Brian Jud’s How to Make Real Money Selling Books. It includes a huge number of possible purchasers, pus step-by-step instructions for making a sale.


Wednesday, February 17, 2021

A to-do list for independent authors


I've been writing professionally since 1969. I've had books published by a big-name publisher (Doubleday) and by a small, long-gone publisher—but most of my 40-plus books have been published by my own Silver Sands Books.

When others published my books all I had to do was write. I much prefer the control, speed and income when I publish my own books, but I have to do much more work.

Here's some of what's involved:

1. Have at least one book idea.



2. Unless you are using a publishing services company such as Xlibris or Outskirts Press and are willing to have its name on your books, pick a name for your own publishing enterprise. Think of several acceptable names and do some research so you can select one that’s not already being used by another company in publishing or a related field. Even if you now think you will publish in just one genre, pick a name that won't limit the kinds of books you will publish. You may think you'll publish books only about car repair, ballet or vegetable-growing, but a too-specific name will hurt your chances to expand if you change your mind later. It may be tough to market a sci-fi book if your company name is "Ballerina Books" and your logo is a tutu or ballet slippers.


3. Register the name in the local government office that registers names, often the town clerk's office. You will get an “assumed name” certificate, “fictitious name” certificate, or a “DBA” (Doing Business As) certificate. It probably will cost just a few bucks. You may be required to advertise the business name in a local newspaper.


4. Get whatever licenses or permits that your state or municipality requires.


5. Open a business checking account under the business name.


6. Get business cards.


7. Set up a website.


8. Set up a businesslike email address, don't use your personal Gmail or Yahoo email account.


9. Write the first book.


10. Have the book copyedited and, if necessary, get more extensive editing.


11. Have the book read by several laypeople and, if the subject is in a specialized or technical field, by one or more experts on the subject.


12. Make the suggested changes.


13. Either gather the necessary photos, graphs and illustrations or have custom artwork made.


14. Either design the interior yourself or hire a pro to do it.


15. Either design the covers and spine yourself or hire a pro to do them. (You should probably hire a pro.)


16. Show several cover alternatives to people whose judgment you respect. Strive to stimulate thought and dialog—not merely “I like it,” “I hate it,” “OK,” “wow” or “hmmm.”


17. Put your manuscript into book-like format, using either Microsoft Word or a more sophisticated program.


18. Insert the artwork in the proper positions.


19. Read, read, read, and have others read, read, read—on the screen in multiple formats and on printed papers.


20. Establish an account with Lightning Source, IngramSpark, Amazon's KDP (which absorbed CreateSpace) or several of them so they will print and distribute your book—or use a publishing service if you want to do less work and are willing to have less control and make less money. If you plan to publish only ebooks you can do everything yourself with Amazon's KDP system (Kindle only). If you want broad distribution, I recommend eBookIt.


21. Promote, promote, promote. Let lots of potential readers know that your book exists and convince them to buy. Promotion includes news releases, book reviews, comments on blogs and websites, email signatures, your own websites and blogs, social networks including Facebook and LinkedIn, distributing business cards, mailing out letters and post cards, signing autographs at bookstore sessions, and whatever else you can think of. Below I have inserted a picture of one of my recent books, Do As I Say, Not As I Did. Here's a link. This is a form of promotion. If you're an author who wants to make money, you have to promote your books. If you are bashful, you may starve.







Wednesday, February 10, 2021

Nike was right. So was my father. Just do it, dammit.


When I was 24 years old, I discussed a business idea with my father. I asked him if he thought I should try it. He said he didn’t know if I’d succeed, but he did know that if I didn’t try it, for the rest of my life I’d wonder what would have happened if I did try it.

If you wonder what will happen if you write and publish a book—try it! The risk is low and the potential benefit is huge.

Words are toys for me. As a writer, I get paid to have fun. Writing books and blogs is probably the second best way for a man to make money. I'm nearly 75, so I have little chance of employment as a gigolo. (Anyway, wife Marilyn has an exclusive contract for my intimate services.) If I can publish books, so can others. (And, of course, my books can help.)

There's no reason to wait until next year, next week or tomorrow to start a book. Just do it—NOW.
  • Be innovative.
  • Be productive.
  • Be useful.
  • Change the world.
  • Let off steam.
  • Have fun.
  • Fill empty hours.
  • Make people laugh.
  • Make people cry.
  • Make people think.
  • Make money.
  • Get famous. Maybe get laid more often. Maybe get better tables in restaurants or free upgrades to first class when you fly.
  • Don't be afraid to piss people off. What you think of yourself is more important than what others think of you. Write to please yourself.
  • It's nice if your words cause others to smile, say "thanks" and pay money; but self-satisfaction is more important. Not everyone has to "get" you. Even a small, happy audience can be satisfying. One good review can make your day.
Don't leave the keyboard until you're satisfied with what you've written, because you never know which words will be your last words.

Monday, February 8, 2021

Legibility is much more important than looking cool/hip/exciting/glamorous etc.


The plain old basic black-on-white is obviously much easier to read than black or red on royal blue.

I'll never understand why people who put great effort into their words make it so hard for people to read them. This happens with books, websites, magazine articles, advertising, store signs, menus, catalogs, maps, graffiti. . . any appearance of text.

People shouldn't have to squint, magnify, adjust, or solve a puzzle to read what you wrote.

If you have an unstoppable urge to use reverse type (light text on a dark background) limit it to a small block of type, such as a headline, but NEVER put an entire page in reverse. And if you do use a dark background, provide a lot of contrast. White on black or yellow on navy blue are OK. Red on purple sucks. A web page or book cover is NOT a Day-Glo concert poster.


And don't use a decorative typeface that looks like it was attacked by bacteria, or those annoying distorted letter sequences you have to retype to prove that you're a human being and not a robot in order to subscribe to a blog.

And choose a type size that's big enough to be read without a microscope. A book or a website has more space than the back of a credit card. I have several books that I just can't read. This is a frustrating and unnecessary waste of money.


(above) The text on this cover is much too hard to read.

(above) The third word in the title is "key." It looks like "hey." FAIL.

Don't let your medium hide, harm or destroy your message.

Eschew obfuscation and espouse elucidation, in content AND in form.

Thursday, February 4, 2021

Here are my ten literary gods.
Who do you worship at your keyboard?

(above) Creations of Groening, Martin and Ward.
Barry, Shepherd, Lehrer and McCahill.
Creations of Solomon & Hirshey, and Douglas.

I thank them for entertainment, stimulation and setting high standards.

Dave Barry is a Pulitzer Prize-winning humor columnist and author, and the funniest writer I know of. He is so funny that I had to stop reading his column because I got so jealous. Dave used a picture of my dog Hunter in one of his books. It's called Dave Barry's Money Secrets. Here's a Dave Barry money secret: Dave didn't pay me any money for the picture, but I did get a few free books. I'll let Dave read my books for free, too. See: www.DaveBarry.com

Jean Shepherd (1921 - 1999) was a radio and TV raconteur, and he probably ties with Mark Twain for story-telling ability. Shep's books include In God We Trust, All Others Pay Cash, Wanda Hickey's Night of Golden Memories and A Fistful of Fig Newtons. Twain was a great writer, but Shep was funnier. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jean_Shepherd

Jack Douglas (1908 - 1989) was an Emmy Award-winning comedy writer on The Jack Paar Show, The George Gobel Show, Laugh-In and other TV programs. I remember him most for his book titles, which include My Brother Was an Only Child, Shut Up and Eat Your Snowshoes, The Jewish Japanese Sex & Cookbook, a
nd Never Trust a Naked Bus Driver. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Douglas_(writer)

Michael Solomon and David Hirshey edited and did the headlines for the annual Esquire magazine “dubious achievements” awards in the 1990s. Why is this man laughing? See: http://observer.com/2008/01/beloved-iesquirei-franchise-dubious-achievements-becomes-one/

Don Martin (1931- 2000) was an extraordinary cartoonist best known for his work in MAD magazine. Don created such notable characters as Fester Bestertester (top, center) and Freenbean Fonebone, and printed sound effects like “FAGROON klubble klubble.” Don's books are available from Amazon: www.amazon.com/s/ref=nb_ss_b/102-1200899-0172121?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=don+martin 

"Uncle" Tom McCahill (1907-1975) was an automotive journalist who wrote for Mechanix Illustrated magazine in the 1950s and 60s. He rated car trunks by the number of dogs they could hold, and described the ride of a 1957 Pontiac as “smooth as a prom queen's thighs.” Tom was a Yale graduate, and knew classic literature as well as cars. When a reader asked how to pronounce “Porsche,” Tom answered, “Portia.” Some of us understood. Another time another reader asked, without specifying a vehicle, "How much is the parts cost and how much do the car?" Tom had a great answer: "Sure." See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_McCahill

Tom Lehrer claims he "went from adolescence to senility, trying to bypass maturity." That's my life path, too. Maturity is elusive, unnecessary and over-rated. Tom was a Phi Beta Kappa student who taught at MIT, Harvard, and Wellesley, but is best known for hilarious songwriting, much of it political satire in the 1950s and 60s. Lehrer's musical career was notably brief: he said that he had performed a mere 109 shows and written 37 songs over 20 years. Tom developed a significant cult following in the U.S. and abroad. Britain's Princess Margaret was a fan, and so am I. I can still sing lyrics I first heard in seventh grade. Some of his first songs were recorded onto flexible records bound into MAD magazines. See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tom_Lehrer

Matt Groening, creator of The Simpsons and Life in Hell. The Simpsons has been the longest-running comedy show in American television history. Because it's a cartoon, some people make the mistake of assuming it's for kids. It's not, but kids love it. See: http://www.thesimpsons.com/index.html

Jay Ward, creator of Rocky & Bullwinkle, Dudley Do-Right, Mr. Peabody & Sherman and  Crusader Rabbit. The Rocky show was filled with literary allusions and magnificent puns (or horrible puns, depending on your outlook on such things). Unless you are an old fart who watched TV in the fifties and know that Durward Kirby was the sidekick on "The Garry Moore Show," you would not appreciate the pun in "Kerwood Derby," a hat that increased the intelligence of its wearer. See: http://bullwinkle.toonzone.net

Monday, February 1, 2021

I'm a funny guy, but I won't use funny spelling in a title


Most people who know me (except for those who hate me) probably think I'm a pretty funny guy.

My wife often complains that I have a reckless sense of humor and I “go too far.” She’s afraid that I’m going to get into trouble like Lenny Bruce and George Carlin. I think artistic expression outranks domestic tranquility. In my domicile, we have much more expression than tranquility.

Like Penn and Teller, Bart Simpson (above) and the folks on Jackass, I’ll do almost anything for a joke.

Some people have occasionally described my humor as sick, tasteless or black humor. That’s because I can find humor almost anywhere and anytime—and that can make people uncomfortable.

I designed and wore the shirt shown up above when I went to the hospital to be treated for a kidney stone. It made people laugh—and laughter is the best medicine. Most people are too serious most of the time b
ut I’m frequently able to find humor when others can’t, like when I'm awaiting surgery.

Sure, humor can hurt. Just ask the victims of laughing bullies in school, or those in nightclub audiences singled out by comedians like Don Rickles (at left).

Authors and publishers I've criticized in this blog may not have laughed at what I wrote about them. Too bad.

As it says in the left-hand column, "
If you present work to the public, you may be criticized. If your feelings get hurt easily, keep your work private. When you seek praise, you risk derision. Either produce pro-quality work by yourself or get help from qualified professionals."

Some literary critics use sophisticated scholastic analysis in their book reviews. I prefer to go for laughs. A few victims and observers of my criticism say I should be nicer. If you want nice, buy a puppy; don't write or publish crappy books.

Sometimes humor can backfire and hurt the joker. I recently contemplated that possibility and slightly changed the titles and covers of two books. My efforts at humor could limit my books' sales and my income, so I decided that it would be better for me to be more serious than I had planned. 

Both titles had intentional spelling errors. I initially assumed that every potential reader would realize that. But maybe they won't. Maybe some super-serious (or stupid?) people would think I accidentally made the errors and didn't catch them and fix them.
  • Maybe some people would think I'm guilty of the same shortcomings that I criticize in others. (Heaven forbid!)
  • Another reason to not have deliberate misspellings in a book's title is that search engines like Google don't understand jokes (at least, not yet). They will index the misspelled term, and anyone looking for links to the properly spelled phrase will not find my books. That's not good.
Old and New, #1
Old and New, #2

Of course, just because I made these books more serious doesn't mean that I'll stop laughing, even at myself.