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6 Secrets to Reading Like a Publisher

Publishing is a competitive business. Can you recall a writing conference that did not include overcrowded sessions on how to pitch an editor? 

Neither can I.​

As Stephen King once said...

"Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work."

While conference speakers expound on the editor as "champion for your book," they pay scant attention to an editor's process of reading a manuscript. Granted, every editor is different; but, every editor is also responsible for turning a profit on the books they acquire for publication. Successful editors have a process for reading manuscripts with business acumen and efficiency.

A major part of the "hard work" King refers to means that you, the writer, must broaden your reading skills in order to think like an editor who acquires manuscripts. 

In this post, I share my 15-years of experience reading and buying nonfiction books for publishers such as HarperCollins, Van Nostrand Reinhold, Routledge, and McGraw-Hill International.

Talent is cheaper than table salt

Reading Like a Publisher 

Secret #1: The writer's voice is obvious in a 90-second cold read​.

I love an amazing first sentence as much as the next editor. However, I like to pick a manuscript page at random in order to start reading wherever my eye lands on the text. I do this because I know you've been trained at workshops to make the first page sing like an opera star. But can you sustain your voice throughout the manuscript? That is the question I turnover in my mind while I read on. 

Secret #2: From reading the manuscript, what other medium could showcase the writer's voice and story?

​In my General Interest Books (trade publishing) course at Pace University, I required the graduate students to read Another Life: A Memoir of Other People by Michael Korda, now retired editor-in-chief at Simon & Schuster. These students represent the future of publishing. One day soon, these new editors will evaluate your manuscripts. When I opened our class discussion by asking about their first impressions of Korda's book, the first student said, "it would be a great book if it had pictures."  The rest of the class agreed.

This soon-to-be editor knows by instinct that the future of storytelling is visual. And, a good agent knows that the greatest earning potential comes from the myriad of licensing opportunities in multiple mediums for your work. The more licenses sold, the more opportunities for the publisher to sell books.

Today's editor reads manuscripts while thinking about tomorrow's new revenue sources.  

Secret #3: The market for this manuscript is ....

A book's category must be clear to the editor, the marketing and sales teams, and, most important, to readers. Editors understand the market dynamics in their list category, including the nuanced differences among authors. 

While reading a manuscript, even now as a consultant, I jot notes while making comparisons based on the subject, the market, your brand, platform, and how your book compares and contrasts to other titles. To learn more about specific categories, I recommend that you review the BISC codes. Published by the Book Industry Study Group, these codes are used by publishers and booksellers to place your title in the appropriate category on the bookshelf and to appear in reader search queries on Amazon. Like the editor, your job is to be confident where your book fits in its category. 

Secret​ #4: What is different in this manuscript and what makes this difference significant? 

Here's where your title and subtitle are critical. The main title represents the book's promise to the reader. The subtitle explains how you deliver the promise to the reader. In marketing parlance, this is your value proposition. To illustrate this point, here are three nonfiction books I'm in the process of reading.

1. ​Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering by Makoto Fujimura. The main title marries two evocative concepts: silence and beauty. The subtitle sends me off on a challenging journey. Suffering is a necessary catalyst in order for me to uncover, feel, accept, and transform my personal understanding of faith. 

2. Blockchain Revolution: How the Technology Behind Bitcoin Is Changing Money, Business, and the World by Don Tapscott and Alex Tapscott. Revolution is a powerful word. What kind of revolution am I going to learn about? The Blockchain Revolution. What do these authors promise to explain to me? They are going to show me why they believe the technology behind Bitcoin is going to transform how people conduct all business and social financial transactions. 

3. Scratch: Writers, Money, and the Art of Making a Living by Manjula Martin​. Love it! The main title is slang for money. The subtitle explains who needs the money (writers) and what writers want most (after readers, of course) to make a living from their writing. Hallelujah.  

Secret #5: How has the manuscript changed and/or deepened my perspective?

It is often said that Joseph Campbell, the preeminent American mythologist and author of Hero with a Thousand Faces, stood on the shoulders of C.G. Jung, father of analytical psychology and author of The Undiscovered Self: The Dilemma of the Individual in Modern Society (a must read now more than ever!). In other words, no writer is an island. We all stand on the shoulders of our teachers, mentors, and the people who inspire us to pursue our passions and to share them. 

I believe this question of how the proposed manuscript is advancing ideas and conversations is a critical factor for an editor to consider when making a publishing decision. Every editor wants to believe that his or her publishing decision contributes to making the lives of people better. Another way to think of this secret is: why does the world need your book? 

Secret #6: I would recommend this book to ....​

This is the best part. After I've read the book proposal, sample chapters and/or the manuscript, I make a list of 10 people that I believe will like the book too. Within a publishing context, I consider booksellers, bloggers, reviewers, the sales reps, other authors, friends. Who would enjoy and/or benefit from the book?  Enthusiasm is contagious.

Publishing is a networking business. If 10 people do not flow easily from my pen in a stream of consciousness, ​I know I have an interesting book, but not necessarily a marketable one. This why I pass on interesting books. The standard is interesting + marketable. 

Read On and Rock On

So, we know you are talented. Now, you have a process for doing the hard work. With this knowledge, you will be able to put yourself in the editor's shoes while reading your manuscript. Raise your game and compete to win in the publishing arena. 

When You Give an Author a Cookie

How is your business journal coming along? 

In the post, Keep a SMART Business Journal (Part I), ​I wrote about the Forgetting Curve and the Learning Curve. While working on Part II of the post, I started listening to the audiobook Smarter Faster Better: The Secret of Being Productive in Life and Business by Charles Duhigg, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter at The New York Times

​Not only is Duhigg's second book excellent, the publishing professor part of me wants to write an entire post, right now, on how an author builds a body of work and the elements of packaging and branding. Instead, I am taking a page from Duhigg's first book and practicing self-discipline. 

Choice or Habit? ​

For instance, did you know that more than 40% of the actions people perform each day aren't actual decisions, but habits? When I read this in Duhigg's first book, it blew my mind. When am I choosing versus only thinking that I am choosing? Which actions fall into the 40%? ​

In his first book, The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business, Duhigg explains in clear language with interesting examples what habits are and how they serve us. In fact, I added a question about best/worst habits to my client questionnaire; by doing so, clients have a better understanding of "noticing" the world around them more clearly.

So before I publish Part II of the business journal post, I think it is helpful and fun to watch the video of Duhigg talking about his cookie habit and what he learned about how his brain works. ​Plus, I've included five quotes from The Power of Habit that I feel have helped me become more productive. 

Habits, scientists say, emerge because the brain is constantly looking for ways to save effort.

#1  

The problem is that your brain can't tell the difference between bad and good habits, and so if you have a bad one, it's always lurking there, waiting for the right cues and rewards.

#2  

Habits can be changed if we understand how they work.

#3  

Dozens of studies show that will power is the single most important keystone habit for individual success.

#4 

Small wins fuel transformative changes by leveraging tiny advantages into patterns that convince people that bigger achievements are within reach. 

#5

Keep a SMART Business Journal (Part I)

The other day, while flipping through my business journal, I found this quote (post graphic) by writer Barry Eisler. This particular business journal was one I wrote three years ago. When I read this quote again, I felt reassured that I am still aspiring and perspiring in the right direction.

Like you, I'm familiar with advice about keeping a journal for story ideas, plots, characters, titles, pitches, etc. But, I think it is rare to hear advice from successful writers about keeping a business journal. We still have work to do around fusing the divide between creativity and sustainability. This post underscores how we can grab hold of Eisler's quote and build on it by keeping a business journal.    

The Forgetting Curve

Even though I've been working solo for 10 years, I am as guilty as the next writer when it comes to this lie we all tell ourselves: "I keep a solid, working idea of my business in my head. I know what's going on. I have notes." 

No. We don't retain as much information as we believe we do. Further, when we go to those fancy workshops, we forget most of the strategy details we learned before the cocktail hour begins. 

According to Art Kohn, author of Communicating with Psychology and expert in performance improvement, we forget 90% of what we learn in seminars, workshops, and training programs. In his article, Brain Science and the Forgetting Curve, Kohn explains the intricacies of our neural networks, how our brains parse stimuli, and he translates the evidence into our Forgetting Curve. Acknowledging that we cannot hold everything in our heads is a good start. We are now ready for a different curve that is more useful for our goals. 

The Learning Curve

One of the biggest takeaways I have from my coach training is a frame for how we learn. Learning how to drive a car is a good example. In the beginning, our position is unconscious incompetence (we don't know what we don't know). After a few driving lessons, our position is conscious incompetence (we recognize what we don't yet know). The day of the driving test, we have conscious competence (we know what we know). We pass the driver's test. Driving becomes routine. We've reached unconscious competence (we don't think about what we know; we do it automatically). 

Unconscious incompetence

Unconscious Incompetence: we don't know what we don't know. 

Conscious incompetence

Conscious Incompetence: We recognize what we don't yet know. 

Conscious competence

Conscious Competence: We know what we know. 

Conscious Competence

Unconscious Competence: We don't think about what we know; we do it automatically. 

In my case, after working as a publisher for 15 years, I had unconscious competence when it came to writing business plans. Most writers do not realize, or if they do, they may not appreciate, the time and effort an editor puts into a publishing plan for each manuscript purchased for the publisher. Each book has its own business plan. Each publishing program (the entire list) has its own business plan, which is the foundation for the editor's performance evaluations. Over the course of 15 years publishing books for my list, plus working in various managerial roles, reading and critiquing the plans of the editors who worked in my groups, I've read more than one thousand plans easily. 

When I went solo I thought, "hey, I'm my own boss. I can lighten up. I know all of this planning stuff." I kept writing my business journal, but I did not write a formal business plan (until several years ago).  Today, my written business plan continues to pay off. When people ask me what it is like to be self-employed and what's my best piece of advice, I suggest that they set aside all the bonuses, awards, accolades from their employers.

Start with a beginner's mind and be open to not knowing what you do not know. Then, start writing it all down.  ​

How to Start Your Business Journal

Accountability is what makes a business journal powerful. As I will discuss in Part II for this post, accountability is the foundation for your business plan. Keeping a business journal is the first step. To get started, I offer three tips.

Tip 1: Choose a method that complements your learning and working style. If you are an  auditory learner, someone who takes and gives verbal instructions easily, record your journal using a voice notes application. Every few days or once a week, carve out time to replay your voice journal and jot down key points, phrases, observations. 

When I work with musicians, I find they like to work out the basics of their journal through chords and songwriting. Writers, on the other hand, like to use a notebook or a note-taking application such as Day One Journal or Evernote. If you are artistic, you might choose to draw and sketch a few notes using storyboard frames.

Once you have a method, your goal is to be consistent with recording entries.

Tip 2: Choose timing that works for you. In his insightful book, The Diamond Cutter: The Buddha on Managing Your Business and Your Life, Geshe Michael Roach suggests keeping a Six-Times Book, where you are checking in with yourself six times each day. Most of us, myself included, have yet to obtain this level of enlightenment. 

I notice that most people develop the discipline for business journal writing when they do it for 15 to 30 minutes each morning, or several times per week. You might also try two-minute writing exercises. For example, choose one word to associate with a specific goal.

Try it right now. Jot down your goal. For two-minutes, write whatever comes to mind around the word "happiness" in relation to your goal. Then, do the same with two other value-oriented words such as "courage" or "serendipity." Now that you've written for a total of six minutes, put the pen down. Stand up, read these entries aloud. Your goal now has a voice! Go for it!

Tip 3: Choose to Make it Easy. ​When you move from beginner's mind to developing the new habit of business journal writing, your inner critic will scream, stomp, and say whatever it takes to maintain the status quo. This signals true progress on your part. Rather than resist this inner critic, acknowledge it and move forward. Keep recording entries.  

In Keeping a SMART Business Journal (Part II), I share what I've learned about breaking the rules of SMART goals and rewriting them to work for creatives.

You know I love to hear from you. Please share your thoughts, questions, and resources in this blog's Comment section. And, let's connect on other social platforms, including Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook, and Instagram.

Happy business journal writing! ​

 ​

Live a Committed Life

You are meant for something special.  But are you awake, really awake in the world?

In this inspiring Ted Talk by philanthropist and writer Lynne Twist, she describes leading her life not only by her wants and needs but by her commitments. Her commitment, to end world hunger, brought her to the Amazon Rainforest. Her talk is fascinating.

My introduction to Lynne's work was through her book, The Soul of Money: Reclaiming the Wealth of Our Inner Resources. I recommend it to different clients and the book's impact transforms their life choices. It is a powerful book. 

What are you committed to?

Are you prepared to initiate action around what you fear most? ​

Hold this question in your heart​ while listening to Lynne's talk about our collective dream and what she's committed to in the Amazon Rainforest. 

Then, ask yourself the following question: Am I asleep or awake in my own dream? ​

Live a Committed Life​

7 Keys to Changing Agents

It is mid-July and that means one thing: summer writers' conferences are in full bloom. In addition to networking, refining craft, and reading their work, many writers hope to meet the literary agent of their dreams. At these conferences, you will also meet a good percentage of agented writers who want to change agents. 

On any given day, there might be 100 good reasons to change your agent. However, to do so is not a simple decision. Making the change requires careful consideration and a strategy. Otherwise, all you are doing is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic. You'll have the same frustrating experience with the new agent because you did not take the time to define your needs, goals, and communication strategy. In today's post, I cover seven questions and four tips. 

The 7 Questions You Need to Answer Before Changing Your Agent

1. At the start of the relationship, what convinced you that this agent was the right agent for you?

2. Did you sign an agency agreement? Do you know the mechanism for termination or renewal? Did you have it reviewed by a publishing lawyer?

3. What projects did you submit to the agent? What books were sold? Also, what projects did you discuss?

4. From the time you hired the agent, what are your most recent accomplishments in regard to building your brand and platform? 

5. What are your publishing expectations and how do you convey these to the agent?

6. How does the agent work with clients? When you started working together, did you agree on communication style and frequency?

7. What is motivating you to make this change now? ​

Bonus Question

If you achieve your goal of retaining a new agent, how do you envision your writing career will be different in 6 months? #womenwriters

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Okay, I know. More than seven questions. But, I what you to achieve the success you deserve. Now, let's move on to the four coaching tips. 

4 Coaching Tips for Your Writing Career

1. Do Your Homework: ​It's a tough publishing world out there. Your agent might have the most amazing reputation for the breakout books of 10 years ago. Today, publishing business models continue to change. Ask what the agent has sold in the last 12 to 24 months. How do you fit into the agent's business strategy? Why is he or she taking you on as a client?  

2. Be Clear on Business Details: A literary agency provides its clients with expert representation in the publishing industry. It is a business relationship. Therefore, before you sign an agency agreement, you would be well served to have a publishing lawyer advocate for your interests. Have your agreement reviewed. It's your career.  

3. Work from a Plan: It is wonderful to have a great agent who is working hard to place your book with the right publisher. You can check GET AN AGENT off your list. With this goal accomplished, revise your writer's business plan accordingly. What's next on the list? If you do not have a plan, I'm curious why. 

4. Define Your Working Relationship: ​Agents say "no" to projects much more often than they say "yes." Once an agent says "yes," it means the world to you. For the agent, your book represents one more selling opportunity among others in the hopper. The agent has a much broader focus than your book alone. It takes time to trust when silence means the agent has the project in hand, no news. Or, silence means your forgotten.  A conversation about communication is the key to a successful relationship.

Key to Changing Agents

"Talent is cheaper than table salt. What separates the talented individual from the successful one is a lot of hard work."

-- Stephen King

Change my literary agent

​Please share your thoughts and any tips with this community.