Writing for a Time Capsule

“No legs, no jokes, no chance.”

That was the response of a producer to an out-of-town tryout of Oklahoma! Audiences, however, were delighted. The program noted that the show went on to become Broadway’s longest running show for thirteen years.

Oklahoma! was the first modern musical because the songs and dances didn’t just entertain, they served the story. The show was based on a straight play called Green Grow the Lilacs, which wasn’t a hit and to which Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first collaboration added music and lyrics.

Elizabeth and I just saw a summer stock version of the show at the Sacramento Music Circus. More than ever, I appreciated the show as a time-capsule musical, the inspiring, quintessential play about the hope and promise of America. A century from now, if people want to watch plays that capture the American dream, Oklahoma! will be one of them.

Dreaming Big

The show also suggested a wonderful literary goal: writing books that will be read in a hundred years. Are there stories–long or short, true or fictional, American or foreign, successful or obscure–that you can re-imagine for today’s and tomorrow’s readers? Whatever narratives you choose to write, remember a simple criterion for every word: serve the story.

The Web gives you to tools to create in any medium and link your work to your e-book as well as link to anything else on the Web. This makes enhanced e-books that enable you to build a community of readers first modern books. They vastly extend your creative potential as well as your ability to reach readers. Old ideas, new techniques—the arts evolve, but the needs and desires of people and artists don’t. Seize the chance to tell the stories that only you can in the way only you can tell them.

Expect out-of-town rejections. In his outstanding keynote at the San Francisco Writers Conference, Steve Berry said that before he hit the bestseller list, he received 85 rejections on five novels before selling one. (His talk is available at www.sfwriters.org.)

Only time will tell if you’re right, and if you dedicate yourself to your craft and your career, you will be.

6 Keys to Succeeding as a Contentrepreneur

If a word in the dictionary was misspelled, how would we know?

–Steven Wright

You don’t have to worry about the word contentrepreneur, it’s too new to be in dictionaries. But to build a career in a digital culture, you have to marry content and entrepreneuring by being a contentrepreneur: a novelist or nonfiction writer who makes a business out of creating content. Here are six keys to doing it well:

1. Look at the potential of your ideas in the largest possible way.

  • Don’t think about one book but a series of books that sell each other.
  • Don’t think about one kind of writing but about every kind of writing that you can use to express and develop your ideas, and, whether for free or fee, use to build awareness of you and your work.

            * If you’re writing a series of related novels, consider all the possibilities for developing your story, setting, and characters in all forms and media from short stories to novels.

            * If you’re writing nonfiction books, think about all of the ways you can communicate your ideas from a blog post to a multi-book series and can use your content for income or promotion.

The next two keys come from a New York Times interview with Dan Rosensweig (7/11), president of Chegg, which rents textbooks. He had worked with the founders of Yahoo and publisher Ziff-Davis, from whom he learned the importance of two things:

2. Have an “unbridled passion” for focusing on opportunities not obstacles. Passion will enable you to transcend obstacles.

3. Look for ways to improve. Stasis is history. (The American Heritage Dictionary used the word motionlessness to help define it, following the word with this quote: “’Language is a primary element of culture, and stasis in the arts is tantamount to death’ (Charles Marsh).” Fewer things than ever are impossible, but stasis is one of them. Integrate the inevitability of change into your life and do what you can to control your writing and your career. Better you than someone else or a force or institution beyond your control. When things change, they either get better or worse. The question to keep asking yourself is: “How can I do this better?”

5. Grow. Find the spot in the constellation of authors in your field that will enable you to realize your goals and devise a plan to get there. Prices rise. So must your income. Think far ahead.

6. Steve Jobs likes to quote Henry Ford: “If I’d have asked  customers what they wanted, they would have told me, ‘A faster horse!’” More of the same is relatively easy. Creating ideas for books that readers can’t imagine is always a possibility for visionary writers. Coming up with an idea for a story or a better way to live that people couldn’t know they’d be thrilled to read is an opportunity that’s always waiting for you.

May being a contentrepreneur bring you contentment (but not enough to keep you from staying one!).

Writing Wisdom

A Dan Piraro cartoon in Parade showed a medium sitting across a table from a customer with a netbook computer in front of her, and she’s saying: “We don’t use a crystal ball anymore. We just Google you.”

An editor interested in buying your book will Google you to get a sense of your presence online. Instead of a crystal ball, they’ll use a computer-generated profit-and-loss statement, along with feedback from colleagues, to help justify buying your book.

What wisdom about writing can I offer that will help you convince editors to say yes to your book? One or a series of books could be written about the wisdom you can gain from doing a job or practicing an art or skill. Some examples:

Biking

  • Riding uphill is harder, downhill more dangerous.
  • You have to know your bike, yourself, and the territory.
  • You have to expect the unexpected at any second.

Photography

  • You have to be the right distance from your subject.
  • You have to balance color, foreground and background, tension and harmony, and the elements in a composition to create unity.
  • Knowing how to use your camera will help increase your creativity.

Driving a Taxi

  • You have to look at what’s around you but also in the distance both for traffic and for passengers.
  • You will have slow and busy periods.
  • You will have good and bad luck; you hope that they will balance each other.

Writing

  • Reading is the doorway to writing.
  • The best reason to write is that you must.
  • You have to capture readers’ interest immediately and keep it as long as it takes them to finish your book.
  • If you have a problem with your writing, focus on something else, and your subconscious usually provides the solution.
  • Your proposal or manuscript is finished only when the people you share it with can’t figure out how to help you improve it.
  • You need mentors to supplement your learning about writing, agents, promotion, technology, and publishing.
  • The models for your books and career will light the way until you’re ready to find your unique path.
  • You have to maximize the value of your book before you seek and agent or publisher by test-marketing it, building your platform and communities of fans, and developing a promotion plan.
  • Promotion is more challenging than writing.
  • The writing you do about your writing is as important as the writing itself (Katharine Sands).
  • Publishers and literary agents are eager to find new writers as new writers are to be discovered.
  • Your passion for writing and sharing your work will see you through the challenges of being an author.
  • You will meet those challenges more easily if you’re clear about your short-  and long-term personal and professional goals.
  • You will succeed if you persevere, and the harder it is to achieve success, the more satisfying it will be.
  • And as I mentioned in the previous post, luck has a lot to do with a book’s success.

I found one of my favorite pieces of wisdom on a cloth bag that Workman Publishing gave away one year at BEA: “The more you garden, the more you grow.” You can grow by acquiring wisdom from any endeavor and you can apply it to writing. The more conscientious you are, the more you’ll learn. May you have all the luck you want, and may the wisdom above speed you on your way.

12 Ways to Excite Pros About Your Novel

A novel has been called a piece of prose that has something wrong with it. Here’s how to ensure your novel has nothing wrong with it: twelve ways to get agents and editors excited about your work.

            1. Your idea: new, creative, timely, informative, entertaining, transformative, commercial, helpful, aimed at a large, proven market

            2. Your writing: style, tone, humor, drama, inspiration, insights, voice

            3. Your irresistible first page: compels editors to turn the page

            4. Your readers: the community of readers who give you feedback while you’re writing your book and when you’re done

            5. You: your passion, commitment, track record, credentials

            6. Your platform, visibility online and off: blog, short stories, teaching, speaking, a blog, social media, networks

            7. Your test-marketing: a blog, podcast, e-book, self-published edition, serialization, website

            8. Your promotion plan: a list of things you will do, online and off, and how many of them, a budget

            9. Your book’s promotion potential: online and off, reviews, media interviews,   endorsements

            10. The markets for your book: consumers, libraries, subsidiary rights, reading groups

            11. Your future books: your book’s series potential, the synopsis for your next book

            12. Your book’s spinoff potential: merchandising products, short stories, music

There’s a Sipress cartoon in the New Yorker showing a medieval torturer in a dungeon standing in front of a guy being stretched on a rack, and he’s saying: “Don’t talk to me about suffering—in my spare time, I’m a writer.” Using these ideas will lessen your suffering on the road to publication.

I’m researching material for future blogs and looking forward to writing to you soon.

Following the Money: Publishing 2010

“Publishing exists in a continual state of forecasting its own demise; at one major house, there is a running joke that the second book published on the Gutenberg press was about the death of the publishing business.”

This is from a must-read article by Ken Auletta about the iPad in April 26th issue of The New Yorker. It includes numbers that follow the money in publishing as it migrates to the Web. They also provide a perspective on the business and where it’s going:

P-commerce

* Six publishers produce 60% of books sold.

* 70% of the 100,00 books that industry produces a year don’t earn back their advances.

*On a $26 book, authors receive $3.90 in royalties, 15% of list price on a hardcover book. Publishers make a $1 profit.

* More than 50% of revenue at Random House comes from backlist books.

* Since 1999, the number of independent bookstores declined from 3,250 to 1,400.

(On the other hand, the San Francisco Bay Guardian just gave a Chain Alternative Award to the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, which has two new members this year.)

* Independents have 10% of sales, chains about 30%, big-box stores like Wal Mart, 45%, which pressures big houses, like Hollywood studios, to produce blockbusters.

* Publishers have to run two businesses at once: a traditional publishing business and an electronic business.

E-commerce

* Marcus Dohle, the Chairman and CEO of Random, said “The digital transition will take five to seven years.”

* There are 50,000,000 iPhones in the world, which O’Reilly Media vice-president Andrew Savikas calls “a great customer base” for book apps.

* Most publishers are giving a 25% royalty on e-books.

* Amazon’s 3,000,000 Kindles generate 80% of e-book sales, which Amazon achieved, in part, by selling at a loss.

* When Amazon customer can choose between a paperback and an e-book, 40% of them choose the e-book.

* Kindles users buy 3.1 as many books as they did twelve months ago.

* An Apple adviser who used Netflix to download movies compared bookstores to video stores ten years ago.

* Three behemoths–Apple, Amazon, and Google–are competing, so one of them can’t dictate terms.

* Author Solutions works with 90,000 authors.

What these numbers suggest is that publishing is going through a transformation. Old and new media companies will in time establish a business model that works for them and makes money for writers.

What these numbers can’t capture is the article’s engaging, rough-and-tumble portrait of predators at play or the importance of

* publishers in discovering and developing new authors

* independent bookstores in launching them

* writers who keep the whole enterprise afloat by sitting in front of their computers creating the art that makes commerce possible

Former Random House editorial director Jason Epstein said: “When I went to work for Random Houe, ten editors ran it. We had a sales manager and sales reps. We had a bookkeeper and a publicist and a president. It was hugely successful. We didn’t need eighteen layers of executives. Digitization makes that possible again, and inevitable.”

Author Lee Foster says “This will be a golden age for content creators.” You will create your future as a writer with your head, your heart, and your fingertips. Three cheers for content, whatever form it takes!