Friday, March 7, 2008

Chapter 9: No platform? Then build a platform that suits your personality and strengths. Recommendation: Utilize the Web

Platform as Service

Guy Kawasaki was one of the original Apple employees responsible for marketing of the Macintosh computer in 1984. Today he works as a Silicon Valley venture capitalist, listening to people’s upstart ideas and deciding who to help fund. In an interview, Kawasaki observed an important differentiator among business start-ups. From his vast experience, if a person raves about how his venture will make tons of money, he doubts it will succeed. But if someone describes in glowing terms how his venture will help lots of people, Kawasaki is all ears. Here’s one that’s likely to fly.

I think this applies to authors building platforms to publish and market their books. So let’s rephrase this chapter title. “Building a Platform” sounds like I’m doing everything I can to put myself on a pedestal. But I think the best way to build a platform is to find ways to serve. In a real sense, you don’t build a platform at all. Instead, you find ways to serve people and one day you’re rather surprised to find yourself standing on the platform that sprung up as a byproduct. So let's call this chapter, "Find Ways to Serve."

Are you familiar with the Maui Writer’s Conference? It's one of, if not the most respected writers conferences in existence. Go to Maui and you'll meet top editors, Hollywood script writers, etc.

Do you know its history? John Tullius had made it as a writer, pulling in a secure six-figure income from his articles and ten books. Then it came to a screeching halt. Mysteriously, for a three-year period, he couldn't sell anything. And he couldn't write. Maybe his muse had jilted him. Maybe he'd contracted acute writers' block. Whatever the case, the result was devastating. According to Tullius, "I lost everything - the car, the home, my self-respect."

But then a letter arrived from his uncle Frank, his successful writing mentor who'd turned Buddhist monk after a losing battle with alcohol. Frank invited him to come visit at his Thailand monastery. Enclosed was a round trip ticket. What did he have to lose? He went.

Upon arriving, Frank led him to a view of a couple of dozen children, playing in a courtyard. "They are my students," he explained. "I came to teach them."

Tullius was confused. "I thought you came here to be a monk."

Frank replied that after sitting around for about a month, they introduced him to his students. He'd discovered what everyone there discovers, that they're way to wrapped up on themselves and need to instead find ways to serve others.

Then he sent Tullius away. "You want me to leave?" he complained. I've only been here a few hours." But Frank had passed on his message, and Tullius took it to heart, starting with taking invitations to speak to writers groups about their writing. He saw writer's hunger to learn the trade and get into print. He knew the industry well and had found a way to serve.

With the help of some friends, he pulled together the first Maui Writers Conference, which eventually became the largest writers' conference in the world.

As an added bonus, his muse returned, restoring his love for writing and allowing him to write two best-selling novels. Each morning he wakes up dreaming about how to serve other writers. The more he serves, the more he receives. (Summarized from Chicken Soup for the Writer's Soul, pp. 152-158).

[Add later: Book on shameless self-promoting – used to be called “caring.” On using social media – go out to serve. Meet people’s needs.]

Benjamin Franklin ended up with one of the largest platforms ever. He was one of the most famous men of his time and will probably remain famous forever. I think one of the main keys to his success was that he woke up every morning asking, “What good shall I do today?" At the end of each day he asked himself, “What good did I do today.” No wonder he impacted the world as few before or since.

When he wanted to help the common people benefit from the wisdom he collected, he didn’t put it in a book form. He put it in a calendar called “Poor Richard’s Almanac.” It both met a need for wisdom among the common folk and contributed greatly to his ability to retire in his early 40’s to devote himself to his inventions, starting a pretty neat country, etc.

So how can you serve others with your expertise? Speak at a school? Write an article for a charity? Answer people's questions on forums? Respond to someone's blog entries?

The Traditional Speaking Platform

Today, there are many ways to build a platform. The traditional way is to brush up on your speaking skills and speak everywhere you can: classrooms, business meetings, seminars, radio, TV, business meetings, etc. Today you can start meeting people in your specialty area through and branch out from there.

This is how Mark Twain publicized his books. He was an entertaining speaker and he hit the speaker’s circuit.

Most of us know something about this type of platform. But many can’t take advantage of it because either the thought of speaking to a group makes them nauseous or they’ve got responsibilities that keep them from getting out. The latter has been my case, as I care for my elderly father who has cancer, my grandmom who’s 102, and my own children. This has forced me to build a different kind of platform. I couldn’t have done it fifteen years ago. The technology wasn’t in place. But fortunately, we can all take advantage of it today.

The Web Platform

Benjamin Franklin never considered himself a great speaker. But he found other ways to get out his ideas. I think that today he would have included blogging and other Web tools in his arsenal.

Not all of us are speakers, but we are writers, which means we are the most strategically qualified people to take advantage of the tools available on the Web. “But I’m not a techie!” you may complain.

Listen, I’m not a techie. I’ve never taken a computer class. Not one. I don’t know any programing languages. Not one. But I’ve got several websites, two blogs, a forum and a couple of e-zines going out to about 8,000 people who’ve signed-up on my sites.

I know enough of Microsoft Frontpage to write my content and design a basic Web page. That’s about 1/1000 of what Frontpage can do, but it’s all I need. I know about 1/10,000 of what PhotoShop can do. But it’s all I need to edit pictures for my sites.
I’m the Webmaster, content editor and primary designer.

Most sites and blogs today can be designed with user-friendly tools that are getting more user-friendly all the time. When tasks are beyond my skills, such as adding a database or setting up e-commerce, I pay reasonably priced programmers one-time fees to set things up for me so that I can use them.

I set up a forum last month that cost me about $200 in programming. It’s a free, open-source program that he needed to customize a little. I built the pages for the character site, but paid a KSU programming student under $1000 to add e-commerce and all the back-end stuff I’d need to have a members section, automatically process credit cards, keep up with subscriptions, send out an automatic welcome e-mail, etc.

Listen, we hear about Bill Gates and the original Google programmers and their great success. But I’m convinced that it’s not the techies who have the most to gain from this revolution. It’s the writers. I’ll tell you why.

If you read any book on having a successful Web site, blog, etc., they’ll say something like this:

“The three most important words in real estate are ‘location, location, location.’ The three most important words in Web site success are ‘content, content, content.’ And who, may I ask, writes the content?

So let’s say some geek has put together a site that has all the latest gadgets, all the latest technology and is designed to perfection. If it doesn’t have any content that you’d want to come back for, will you ever revisit the site? No. When it comes to successful Web marketing, content reigns supreme. And we, the writers, are the content masters. Can we all stand, hold hands and break out into a rousing chorus of “We are the Champions!?!.”

Now seriously, let me ask you this. When you decided to go see Kite Runner at the Theater and you searched the Web to find where it was showing, did you see one movie site and go, “Wow! What ugly colors! And there’s not even a flash presentation or podcast. That’s so Web 1.0!”

No. You went to the site for the information – the content. If it gave you what you were looking for and made the content easy to access, you were happy and may have even bookmarked the site to visit before your next movie hunt. The Web is all about finding great content.

How does this work for building a platform for your book? Imagine you’re writing a novel set in the North Georgia Mountains in the early 1900’s. You’re doing tons of research about the location and period and decide to set up a Web site for people interested in that time and place. You’ve got much more cool content than you could ever use in your novel. Why not put it somewhere? So you put it in a well-organized way on a site and people begin to come.

How the Web Revolutionizes Marketing

Note how this revolutionizes marketing. We used to be stuck with “interruption marketing,” where advertisers interrupt your favorite TV show to try to sell you such essential items as mood rings and Ginsu knives. But with social networking, we allow people who are already looking for products to find us. People out there are already searching for help with their finances or a solution to their style of worship problem or a novel set in the North Georgia mountains or materials for character education. With a well-positioned blog or Web site, I simply allow those people who are already searching to find me.

How many of you already have an author site? Another site besides the author site? A blog? Okay, so let’s start from scratch for those who have nothing.

Baby Step 1: Start Interacting on Existing Blogs and Forums

The best first step is not to set up either a blog or a Web site. Rather, go exploring what other people are writing about North Georgia mountain life on blogs and Web sites and forums. Click the thingy at the bottom of someone’s blog entry and comment on their blog. Enter a discussion of North Georgia moon shining on somebody’s forum. Now congratulate yourself! You’ve just entered the new world of social networking on the Web!

I read this “how to get your feet wet” approach in my current read, The New Rules of Marketing and PR: How to Use Blogs, Podcasting, Viral Marketing & Online Media to Reach Buyers Directly, by David Meerman Scott. I had it confirmed at SoCon, the techie conference.

Two good places to search blogs are:
Caution! Don’t fall to the temptation to just look around for discussions that allow you to push your book. Social networkers can smell shameless marketing a mile away. If you find yourself doing this, go back to How to Win Friends and Influence People, part 2, section 1:

“You can make more friends in two months of becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.” (Carnegie, p. 54)

Forget “building your platform.” Remember “helping others.” Social networking on the Web is about entering into thoughtful discussions and helping people find what they’re looking for. Bring up your book or articles only when they flow naturally in the conversation and meet expressed interests and needs. Eventually, you establish yourself as a trusted expert and become the go-to person for those needing information on the topic. As a by-product, you look around and discover that, to your surprise, you’re standing on a platform.

Baby Step #2: Create a Blog

Why a blog? First, it’s super easy. I set up my first two blogs in about an hour. Second, it gives you an easy place to collect your writing and thoughts that might later become articles and books. I started late with blogging because I didn’t get it.

Note: Don't be afraid of new technology! Learn it the way my middle school twins do it: fooling around and asking friends. A friend (Trey) shows them his Myspace page. They're impressed and absolutely must have their own. "How did you do that?" they ask. "Just go here and punch this" he replies. They do it and, after a few missteps, have a Myspace page.

"Look David, Trey's got his favorite song and a Youtube video connected to his page. Let's see where you click to set that up!" After a few mis-clicks, they figure it out.

They didn't have to take a continuing education class or read a book. I call it "learning by fooling around and asking dumb questions."

We adults get overwhelmed with new technologies because we're afraid to fool around and embarrassed to ask dumb questions. It's like we fear that in setting up a personal blog, we'll click the wrong combination of buttons and bring the Web to a screeching halt. Tomorrows' Wall Street Journal will announce to the world, "Idiot blogger Steve Miller broke the internet yesterday, causing the Internet to crash, and subsequently the entire U.S. Economy."

Get over it. When you start setting up your blog and come to something that doesn't seem to work, blame the idiot programmers who were supposed to make it user friendly. Poke around. Look in the help files or the help forum. If you can't find the answer in under five minutes, ask your 12-year-old for help or call your friend who already has a blog. The entire Web is being built by people asking stupid questions and fooling around. So get your blog started now so that in a week or two your blogless friends will come to you, timidly asking how to set up a blog. Suddenly, you're the expert!

My blog's at It's free. I set up two blogs in about two hours without reading a book on blogging or taking a class on it. In fact, I've never taken a computer class. I don't know any programming languages. Yet, I excel at asking dumb questions and fearlessly fooling around.

With so many useful technologies coming at us writers so quickly, we simply must keep learning. As Al Rogers of the Global Schoolhouse Network said, "In times of profound change, the learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists." (Al Rogers, Global Schoolhouse Network)

Baby Step #3: Get a Host and a Web Address (URL)

Pay $5.00 to $10.00 a month for a site that allows me to have more space than I'll ever need and runs every feature I'm likely to ever need. If you don’t have $5.00 per month to spend, start with a free Web space. Some Web hosts allow beginners to choose from thousands of templates and build your site without having to use additional software. Additionally, you’ll need to pay about $1 per month for a distinct URL, like You can probably get your url through your Web host, or buy it from places like .

Side note: Don’t overpay for a site! We see people paying thousands for something their middle school son could have put up on a free server. Sites like [click “reviews” , then “all categories”, then “web hosting”] review and compare hosts for price and quality. As I write (3/6/08), is very popular, starting at $4.95 per month for more space and bandwidth than you’ll probably ever need. Search cnet’s forum also for people’s experiences with various hosts. Check with other Georgia writers to see what hosts they use.

How do you choose a name for your blog or forum? Consider choosing, not just something memorable, but a word or phrase that people are already searching in search engines. But more on that later.

Baby Step #4: Create a Simple Site That’s Easy to Navigate

I’d start with an author site. First, look at a bunch of other author sites. Decide what features and organizational structure you like. Second, get it out there. Third, ask your children, husband and friends to try to find something on the site and see if it makes sense to them. Ask everybody to give their honest opinion and revise.

(Recommended reading: Don’t Make Me Think)

Baby Step #5: Make It Easy for People to Find You on Search Engines (Learn to Think Like a Search Engine)

Google spiders crawl the web to determine whether your site gets on page one or page 170 of a search. Now, try to think like a search engine. If you were Google, what characteristics of sites would you try to bring to the first page of a search? (This is a very important step, which may lead to innovations that you never see the experts recommend.)

The technical term for this area of study is “Search Engine Optimization,” or SEO. I was forced into studying it because I had more content than almost anyone at the time on youth ministry, but I couldn’t get my site positioned any closer than the fifth page of a google search (which might as well have been Outer Mongolia) for the all important term “youth ministry.”

Here are some of the basics of helping people find your site. This is the outline I use when I’ve been a guest lecturer on search engine optimization in a KSU New Media class.

1. Use a good host. (Assume free sites might not be as professional?)

2. Offer great content that people want to return for and link to.

3. Brainstorm all the words and phrases people might use to look for your material.

4. Discover which of these words and phrases are searched significantly. ( )

5. Determine which searches (words and phrases) you want to attract with each page. (Many don’t enter your site from the home page.) Some terms may be searched less, but are more targeted. (“Character Education Lessons” rather than “Character Education”)

6. Offer lots of free content out in the open (not in a database or locked away in a members’ section.) Use the word “free.”

7. Use your key words generously (but don’t get crazy: eight times in a content page might look good; fifty times may look like you’re trying to spam the system.

8. Use your key words in different ways and on different parts of the page (top and bottom, in naming links, names of images, as a “heading” [see font type in MS Word], in bold).

9. Use key words in meta tags (not visible to site visitors, but to spiders).

10. Put appropriate tags below your blog entries.

11. GET INBOUND LINKS (from other sites and blogs) and word them with the appropriate key words. This is key!

12. If you have problems attracting certain key terms, and if you legitimately consider yourself having top content, consider starting a separate portal site (Like: “Top Sites on North Georgia Mountains”) for your topic, recommending your site as one to go to.

13. Experiment with “pay per click” with Google Ad Words and Yahoo Marketing Solutions.

Warning! Don’t attempt unethical tricks like hiding key words in the same color as your background. There are many tricks out there, but search engines typically find them out and ban them. Also, don’t submit your site to places claiming, “We submit your site to 100 search engines.” Studies show it doesn’t work.

Note: When you begin to think like a search engine, you’ll have to deal with two sets of tensions:

  • Writing for people versus writing for search engines. Your titles, links, etc., can no longer be just cutesy, creative phrases. You need to consider what searches you want to find you. Since your book will be searched by topic in Amazon, consider search engines when naming your books. Example: “The Contemporary Christian Music Debate” versus “The Redemption of Rock”
  • Designing for people versus designing for search engines. (Content in an image or flash presentation may look great but won’t be seen at all by search engines.)
It’s been awhile since I researched this topic and I’m sure that I’m way behind the curve. But here’s a site I found yesterday that has some free tools and articles to help you learn more about search engine optimization.

Baby step #6: Start Putting Up Regular, Excellent Content

A good place to start is to have a Home page, another section for Articles, another for Recommended Reading and another for Links. You’re researching anyway. If nothing else, it gives you a good place to keep up with your research. Don’t try to start something like a forum unless you’ve already got a good many people coming to your site.

An ambitious goal would be to become the portal for all things about your niche. You become sort of like the trade association, the place to find the best articles and enter the best discussions and the place to discover the best-recommended books in the field or the best set of links to the most helpful sites.

Now there’s no way I could do that for personal money management in general. I can’t compete with the excellent sites of the huge mutual fund companies or Money magazine or the Microsoft Network. But I can aspire to have the go-to site for those teaching personal money management in the schools or in service agencies or to your children. You could have the go-to site for….

How I Developed My Web-Based Platform

In about 1995 I decided to serve youth workers globally. (Actually, after my wife was diagnosed with cancer and we had to return to the States from Slovakia, this was the only way I could conceive of keeping my ministry alive and supplementing my income while caring for my wife and four boys. In the former Communist block, most of these guys wanted lesson plans that had been formerly been banned by the Communists. So I began writing lessons that were translated and distributed to youth workers via CD’s. I met a need.

When I discovered how to use the Web in the mid 1990’s, I began putting the lessons on a site to reach a more global audience. Today, I offer over 150 articles on how to do youth ministry, over 3500 speakers illustrations searchable by topic or as a database, over 1000 pages of lessons and articles on how to study and how to teach. So it’s no shock that, for a time, around 700 unique visitors were coming to the site per day. (Now I’ve had to start over after a friendly parting with the organization I was with, so that today we’re still in the rebuilding stage.)

On the Character site I’ve collected scores of articles on character education by educators, experts in developmental psychology, etc.

Where do I get these articles?

1) I ask permission for any great article I read. Most authors let me reprint them on my site, as long as I give proper credit and a link back to their site.
2) Out of print books that are still the best.
3) In print books that allow a chapter for use.

Why would they give them away free? Because they want exposure and to get links back to their sites. I’m doing them a favor!

“That’s overwhelming!” you object. “How could I ever develop such a vast resource?” Well, for me it’s the same way I’d eat an elephant - one little bite at a time. Start with reading other people’s blogs in your area of interest. Comment on them. Start your own blog. Ask your friends how they did this and that on their blog.

Ask your friends about their Web sites. Start yours. Get permission to put somebody’s article on it. Keep adding great content a little bit at a time and commit yourself to never stop learning. Ask at least one stupid question every day. That’s how you learn the Web.

Our character site, providing character education resources to public schools gets from 500 to 700 individual visitors per day. That’s about 1000 people per day coming to those two sites.

It all started and progressed with serving people and one day I looked around and, what do you know, I was standing on a platform.

A Note on Containing Costs

Sam Walton’s brother, Bud, says that they made money at Wal-Mart by saving money. Sam drove around his old truck. Their early offices were shabby. By containing our monthly costs, we can make it as writers!

Each of these sites costs me $5 per month to have the site hosted (cost for the servers that host it) and about $1 per month for each Web address (url). And as hard as I write and add new material, I’m still only using about 5% of the space I could use for that amount.

I work at home, so I don’t have to pay for an office or gas. I can’t emphasize enough – contain your costs. If your platform and publishing expenses get out of hand, you’ll never make any money selling your writing.

Sources of Revenue

My involvement with the Web has slowly morphed my thinking on books and magazines. While they’re still important, they’re certainly not the only way to disseminate ideas and support my family with my writing. In other words, these Web-based tools aren’t just a platform for my book-writing. They are worthy enterprises in themselves and in a real sense my books become platforms for my Web-writing. Here are some ways I can generate income from my sites:

1. Selling memberships to my members’ areas. On the character site I sell a membership to its members section (lesson plans, stories, activities, etc.) to individuals for $14.75 for a year or $24.75 for four years. An entire school can use it for $99.00 for one year or $199.00 for four years. Generally, this all happens automatically from my end. They find it on the Web, subscribe by credit card or request to pay by check. I check my e-mail and answer occasional questions. Otherwise, it flies on auto-pilot. I may be making sales as I speak to you today. Nobody has to wrap books and take them to the post office. It’s all online.

2. Selling advertising through Google Adsense and other services. If you start getting a lot of traffic, you can make money from ads, just like a magazine. (But please, no annoying pop-ups!) It’s easy to set up and experiment with. You can do it on your blogs as well as your sites.

3. Selling recommended books and getting a referral fee from As I researched finances, I began to write book summaries as a free service to those who would like to know the gist of some great books on personal finance. This is different from Amazon book reviews. I just summarize the advice of each book. That helps me to retain more from my reading. But it helps people studying finance to compare, for example, what Suze Orman recommends for investing as opposed to Dave Ramsey. Once you set up an Associates Account with Amazon, you can copy and paste some code into your html (You don’t have to know html code. I don’t.) that links the book to Amazon. If someone buys the book, or simply goes to Amazon from my site and ends up buying any book, I get a cut. And it all happens silently in the background without me having to fill orders, flowing into my bank account each month.

4. Selling e-books. Although I have no present motivation to read books on hand-held devices (1. I mark up books for future research. 2. I’m not on the road a lot.) I know that they’re valuable to many others. Why not make it available when it’s free? I’m working on a Kindle book and may also sell one as a pdf.

All of these products produce multiple streams of income for an author. None of these avenues were available before the Web revolutionized everything.

The End Product

As you get your blog and site set up, you can spend your time writing. If you can’t sell your article to a magazine, you can put it on your blog and your collection of articles. (In fact, I never write an article that they won’t allow to be put on my site after their publication.) If I can continue to increase the revenue from my writing, I can work from anywhere in the world that I can access the internet.

The result? I’m offering people something of value, something they’ll come back for. In my books, I’ll refer readers to my sites. On my sites, I’ll refer readers to my books. If you love to write, it’s a really fulfilling way to live!

By the way, we can all help each other out as Georgia Writers by linking to one another’s sites and blogs. It’s in all of our interest to increase our traffic by getting better positioned with search engines. Search engines strongly favor sites with many incoming links. If the thirty people here linked to your site, don’t you think that would help? So everyone get on Crowdvine, type in your author site, then ask the other authors if they’d set up a section on their site for “Author Links.” This is a no-brainer. Let’s do it.

Other ideas on utilizing the Web or on other types of platforms that work? Respond below!

Chapter 8: No platform? Then convince publishers that you can and will market the book.

Actor Johnny Depp once said in an interview that beyond learning his part, he tries to add “that little something extra.” You can see that in his films. Captain Jack Sparrow was outrageous!

Let me suggest that, in order to get your manuscript noticed, you need to “add that little something extra.”

So the acquisitions editor has narrowed down that pile of 30 queries to five. But, what’s this? One author claims that he’s put together a 30-page marketing plan that he will forward upon your request. Now that’s “something extra.” That shows initiative. That shows that this author plans to help market the book. It shows that he understands something about marketing. And that will be your answer to the marketing department’s question: “Yes, but how will we market it?”

(Note: The acquisitions editor at Baker Books wanted my music book, but the marketing department shot it down, saying they didn’t think they could market it. If I’d offered a marketing plan upon request, I could have overcome that hurdle for them, because I knew ways to market it that they wouldn’t have thought of.)

Selling a book by an unknown author without a platform is a huge roadblock. A marketing plan can overcome it.

Show some initiative with your commitment to marketing. Every publisher’s dream is to get some writers with the marketing motivation and savvy of Canfield and Hansen on board.

I don’t think there’s a standard format for a marketing plan. Mine is pretty informal, with a bunch of ideas divided into appropriate sections. One publisher that rejected me did read my marketing plan and say it was “over the top.”

Section One: Secure Blurbs

Section Two: Get Media Coverage

Section Three: Write Related Articles

Section Four: Partner With Organizations; Piggy-Back on Movements

Section Five: Utilize the Web

Section Six: Get It Into Classrooms

Section Seven: Take Advantage of Gifts for Graduation

Section Eight: Use Other Proven Methods

Where do you come up with marketing ideas? Read a book or two on book marketing, indexing them in the back with the ideas that pertain to your book. Then, put them into your plan. Two of my favorites are:

1001 Ways to Market Your Books
Book Marketing 101

Other ideas on marketing and platforms? Respond below!

Chapter 7: No platform? Then follow the standard rules for submitting to publishers.

Most don't. The temptation is this. You’ve spent all this time and energy on your manuscript. So you type up this query letter in a day and fling it out there.

An acquisitions editor told me recently, “Most submissions are worthless.” So, to separate yourself from the herd:

1. Know what the publisher is looking for. (See the current edition of Writers Market.)
2. Find how to write a query (refer to one from agent’s site).
3. Polish it and get input and polish it again.

Polish, Polish, Polish

Beware of the Writing Witch, the virus that infects Microsoft Word, who messes up your writing. I know she exists, because when I reopen a document that I self-pronounced “brilliant” the previous day, to my shock and amazement, it often sucks the next morning. I know I don’t write that poorly. The only explanation is that the Writing Witch opened into my document during the night and misspelled words, deleted periods, put ¾ of the sentences in passive tense and threw in prepositions at the end of sentences. Only time and further revision chases her away.

Remember, today that acquisitions editor has taken home 30 query letters to try to go through over the weekend. She’s looking for reasons to narrow them down. A misspelled word might be just the excuse she’s looking for.

Cherie just took a grant-writing seminar. In it, the speaker told of someone who lost a multi-million dollar grant because of misspellings in the proposal. Yes, perfection matters in a query and proposal.

Give Publishers What They Ask for in the Format They Request

Because of not paying attention to what publishers want, textbook publishers get proposals for novels and children’s books.

“How to Write a Query Letter and Proposal” goes beyond the scope of this workshop, so I’ll just refer you to a couple of helpful resources if you want more.

The Thomas Nelson Guide to Writing a Winning Book Proposal, by Michael S. Hyatt. Read it free at:

Book Proposals That Sell, highly recommended book by W. Terry Whalin.

Do you have other ideas or questions concerning book proposals and queries?

Chapter 6: No platform? Then find raving fans and top-notch blurbs.

The Power of Blurbs

The word “blurbs” is marketing speak for quotes from people about your book. Most “How to Get Published” books that I’ve read mention getting great blurbs as a sort of “Duh” and quickly move on to the next point. But I think that top-notch blurbs are critical and there’s an art to acquiring them. They’re particularly critical for those of us who don’t have great platforms, since they allow us to leverage the platforms of others.

If you’re Albert Einstein, you don’t need a quote from the head of the Physics Department at KSU saying you’re smart. But if you’re the head of the Physics Department, you could have used a quote by Einstein. But I should revise that statement. Even Einstein needs quotes of others to say that his book’s relevant, helpful, readable, impactful, etc.

I'm currently reading a Chicken Soup book for writers. With over 30 books to the series and worldwide sales of 50 million copies in 30 languages, it’s nothing less than a publishing phenomenon. You'd think they'd be beyond needing blurbs. Yet, a full third of the back cover is devoted to blurbs. Open the cover and you’ll find two full pages of blurbs.

If Jack Canfield and Mark Victor Hansen (the Chicken Soup authors/compilers) still need blurbs, how much more do we? So let’s camp here for a minute.

When you’re considering a book by an author you don’t know, don't you look seriously at the blurbs? Let’s say you like Sue Grafton’s style and you’re looking for other novels of her type. You find a novel with a blurb by Sue Grafton saying, “I wish I’d written this book!” Does this endorsement help sway you? Of course! If you’re looking for a book on, do you typically read some of the reader reviews before purchasing? I do. I want to know what others are saying.

I hit a local library sale last weekend, particularly looking for books on “persuasion,” for some future research. I found one book that looked like it might fit the bill, but

1) I didn’t know the author.
2) I saw no bio telling me why this author was worth reading. I started thinking, “Come on! Convince me that I should read your book!”
3) There were no blurbs, either by experts in the field or even just general readers. She failed to establish her authority and I put it back, not even willing to pay $1.00 for it! One enthusiastic blurb might have sold me.

For the low- or no-profile writer, a blurb can grant you instant authority. It’s as if someone on a higher platform took you by the hand, lifted you up and allowed you to share her platform.

Getting Your Passion into Print is a wonderful book on getting published. The authors work for a New York publisher and understand the publishing industry intimately. Understanding the power of blurbs, they put them on the front cover and even the binding, so that browsers could see a blurb without even taking the book out of the rack. Brilliant!

Why are blurbs so critical? Praise yourself and you’re bragging; let another praise you and it’s authority.

As King Solomon put it,

"Let another praise you, and not your own mouth;
someone else, and not your own lips."

Blurbs for Agents and Publishers

Don’t view blurbs as only for potential buyers. Think earlier in the process. I see them as huge for acquiring an agent and a publisher. Imagine the state of one of my early manuscripts as it sat on the desk of an acquisitions editor who has thirty manuscripts piled on her desk, of which she she can choose one. She’s looking for reasons to narrow down the list. So she sees this no-name author (me) with no publishing record and no platform. She’s ready to shove it into the return envelope with the standard rejection letter ("Doesn’t meet our present publishing needs.”) when she notices a blurb on my one page query from prolific author Josh McDowell saying that every mom dad and child needs to read it. So she reads further into the proposal and finds that Robertson McQuilkin, respected author and president of Columbia International University, calls it the best manuscript he’s read on a much-needed subject. Barry St. Clair, a noted authority on youth work and prolific author, says it’s critical for our times.

Now it’s one thing for an author to tout his manuscript as the start of the next Chicken Soup phenomenon. But when a respected authority in the field says it’s good, the acquisitions folks just have to take it seriously.

Blurbs as Platform

For Enjoy Your Money, I first got blurbs from those who gave me early input on the book. Those blurbs give me a platform from which I can pitch ideas to the media and to bigger reviewers. Example: As I write this, I've been e-mailing book reviewers to find some willing to review my book. One wrote me back today saying,

"I usually don't review books on finances, but your book has amazingly good reviews so far...." sometimes it takes good reviews to get more good reviews. My early reviews by friends and acquaintances made me look good enough to get the attention of higher level reviewers. The higher level reviewers will hopefully open up opportunities with even higher level reviewers.

On Getting Blurbs

How did I find Josh McDowell and get him to slow down enough to look at my manuscript? I knew he was traveling with the rock band Petra and would be speaking at Atlanta Fest at the Six Flags theme park. I also knew he was getting flack from traditional pastors for traveling with a rock band. So I volunteered to give him a ride from the airport to Six Flags. I picked him up, gave him my elevator speech, and put the manuscript in his lap. He started reading it on the way to Six Flags and was hooked.

Robertson McQuilkin? I graduated from the school where he served as president. Barry St. Clair? I would soon be working for his organization, training youth leaders in Eastern Europe just after the fall of Communism. I plopped it into Barry’s lap as we were flying to Europe. By the time we landed in Vienna, he’d finished it and written a blurb.

The author of a novel who spoke at Georgia Writers a couple of months ago met popular speaker and author Andy Stanley where their kids were playing baseball. He took an interest in her book and gave a great blurb that she says helped greatly in launching her book.

For my present book, here is a list of my blurbs. Blurbs are usually an afterthought to writers. But I put these together before I even had an agent or a publisher. Study these for a moment. Make a couple of notes. Circle something of interest. Note which is the most powerful to you personally. Which do you think would be the most powerful to a publisher? Note carefully the variety of takes on the book and how they might appeal to different people.

Advance Praise For
Enjoy Your Money! How to Make It, Save It, Invest It, and Give It

"A fast, fun read with practical and often remarkable insights. Should be required reading for every high school senior and every young adult who's landed his or her first full-time job. I'm incorporating parts of the book into my lectures." (Robert A. Martin, MBA, CPA, Lecturer of Accounting in the prestigious Coles College of Business at Kennesaw State University, founder of a tax and consulting firm.)

“Had I read this book in my 20’s, I’d be financially independent today. It’s a remarkable blend of fabulous research with clear and lively writing. You’d pay an expert quite a sum for this caliber of counsel. That’s why I say that the best investment you make this year just might be this book. Your second best investment will be the copies you buy for your children.” (Dr. Dwight “Ike” Reighard, Executive Vice President and Chief People Officer, HomeBanc – One of Fortune’s 100 Best Places to Work, four years in a row.)

“As a practicing CPA and financial counselor for the past 35 years, I've read scores of books and periodicals on personal finance. Just when you think you've heard it all, something like this comes along. It's rare and refreshing to find a book so enjoyable, so accurate, and so life-changing. I’m purchasing hundreds of copies to give away to graduating seniors.” (Larry Winter, Winter & Scoggins CPA's ; Certified Valuation Analyst, Certified Fraud Examiner, Personal Financial Planning Specialist)

"Financial responsibility has reached a state of crisis. This book attacks the problem in a common sense, refreshing manner that anyone can understand and apply to real life. It should be required reading for all young people, before they find themselves broke, deeply in debt and miserable." (William C. Lusk, Jr., Senior Executive Vice President & Chief Financial Officer, Retired, Shaw Industries, a Fortune 500 company and the world’s largest manufacturer of carpet.)

“A very entertaining, engaging book! The characters are appealing and aid the reader in interacting with the principles taught. Although especially geared to older teens and young adults, all ages will enjoy it and benefit. Meticulously researched and documented. Chock full of financial and lifestyle wisdom. I’ll keep plenty of copies in my office to hand out to clients.” (Dr. Ken Walker, Psychologist with the Georgia Department of Juvenile Justice and Director of Dalton Counseling Service. Former regional credit manager.)

"A comprehensive look at managing your money. For me, the genius of this book is that it gathers wisdom from top financial gurus and uses it to explain clearly and practically how average folks can apply it to everyday living." (Alan Buckler - Allstate Insurance)

"I loved the story and the characters! Read this book and you'll get the practical tools and wisdom to chart your own course toward financial freedom." (Jamie Maddox, former Senior Business Analyst, The Coca Cola Company, present Pastor of Stewardship, NorthStar Church)

"For me, the section on savings was worth the price of the book, detailing scores of hidden ways to save a fortune over a lifetime. Then, unlike many books, it goes beyond 'having more' to 'doing more with what you have.' (Bryan McIntosh, Ph.D., Dalyn Corporation)

"I really liked the format! The dramatic layout used a totally different part of my brain when I read's like watching a movie or reading a novel. The story line kept my interest so that I got through it quickly. The content was very inspiring. "Living differently" and "starting a financial counterculture" hits home to me. And it was SO PRACTICAL! I think it will also appeal to most of my generation and the one coming up behind me." (Anthony Daniel, age 28, Chemist, Tiarco Chemical)

"Clever! The movie script format pulled me into the story and endeared me to the characters. Before I knew it, I found myself thinking about money strategies that I'd have never learned from traditional finance books. Teaching finance through people stories works for me. Rather than staring at obscure charts, I just followed the lives of successful people. Finally! A readable book on personal finance for people who don't want to read a book on personal finance...which of course is me and just about everybody else!" (Mark Hannah, Film Producer)

In my opinion, the Larry Winter quote should be the most persuasive to publishers. It’s guaranteed money. Also, here’s a person who believes in the book enough to put his money behind it. So I put his quote in my one page query and scattered others throughout my proposal.

Use Your Early Blurbs to Leverage More Blurbs

Once you’ve got a few people saying your book is great, even if it's just people in your writer's group, use those quotes to get other people’s attention. The book review guys at Money magazine probably get wheelbarrows full of financial books that authors want them to review. But if I send my one page proposal to them with a quote from the CFO of Shaw Industries, they might actually take it seriously.

I really like football running back Warrick Dunn. Off the field, he helps people get a home who could never afford one on their own. I think a blurb from him would help me to reach athletes with my book. Also, he could give copies to the people he helps. Armed with this set of blurbs. I think he would consider reading it and commenting.

Standing on the platform provided by early blurbs, you should be able to attract higher profile people to read your manuscript and provide more blurbs.

Consider Your Target Audiences and Acquire Blurbs Targeting Them

Brainstorm a variety of blurbers (is that a word?) who might appeal to different groups of potential purchasers. The 29-year-old chemist could appeal to the under 30 crowd. A public school principal appeals to educators. The CPA’s and financial advisers let the publisher know that this isn’t hokey advice; it’s got a stamp of approval from people who work in this field every day. The businessmen appeal to other businessmen and those who respect business successes.

Now you may assume that I’m unusually well connected. But I consider myself the opposite. After my tenure at Flat Creek Baptist as minister of youth, I continued to climb down the corporate ladder. I moved with my family to Slovakia where we served other youth workers. After my wife was diagnosed with cancer, we moved to Acworth, Georgia, where I cared for my wife and seldom ventured past the mailbox. After she died, I raised my boys and wrote from my home. Then I married Cherie, blending my four boys with her three, giving us seven boys. Now I care for my parents and 102-year-old grandmom.

The point is, I haven't been able to get out much in ten years and don't consider myself well-connected at all. To find blurbs, I simply started thinking about people I’ve known and my parents have known through the years, people Cherie knows at work, any people who might have an interest in the topic, and asked them politely if they were interested.

Begin by asking for help in the form of honest input

Many are honored to give input on a manuscript. After each of my readers gave me constructive criticism, I asked if they could tell me briefly what they liked about the book and how they might recommend it to others. I took notes, then asked if they’d mind if I tried to word them a quote from what they said. I promised to come back with the final wording to make sure they felt it accurately expressed their feelings.

Tip: don’t necessarily give out your entire book to a person at first. That can be daunting. Start with one chapter; then ask if they want more.

Write Your Own Blurbs as You’d Like People to Say Them

This sounds just plain weird, but hear me out. Most of your readers probably aren’t professional writers. Besides feeling self-conscious about their writing, they're busy. Even if they are writers, their writing is on the line with their blurb and they want it to look good. So why not offer your assistance?

With your niche audiences in mind, write out your dream blurbs. I usually come up with stuff like this while I’m driving. Carry around a recorder to avoid wrecks.

As early readers try to express what they feel about your book, you’ll see that parts of your pre-written blurbs express what they’re saying and make them look better in print.

After one person read the manuscript, I looked over my pre-worded blurbs and said, “Is this what you’re saying?” He saw what I was doing, looked over my list, pointed to his favorite blurb and said, “I want that one!”

You see, blurbs aren’t just about me. They’re about making the blurber look good as well. For some, it’s free marketing that gets their names in print. It’s free advertising. It helps them with their platform. No wonder it’s not too difficult to get people to offer blurbs for an informative, interesting book.

Where to Find People to Give You Blurbs

Preexisting Connections

So I began to think through my connections and their connections. At this stage, I wanted honest input on making the manuscript better from a variety of people. Getting blurbs was secondary. They were honored that I would want their expertise.

Bill Lusk was a friend of my family when I was growing up on Dalton. Ike Reighard was at one time my pastor. Bryan McIntosh was in a small youth group I once led in Dalton, just after college.

Alan Buckler sells us car insurance. His wife Julie studied journalism. (With seven boys in our family and at least seven cars, do you think our insurance provider is willing to do us favors?)

How did the “Putting Your Passion into Print” folks land the blurb from the successful author of The Kite Runner? They were in the same writing group together before The Kite Runner was written. So network with authors wherever you are. You never know….

Friends of Friends

Do you have either a famous relative or decent connection to somebody famous? Do your friends have connections with someone famous, or someone important in the field you're writing? Ask around and you might be surprised.

Example: Wouldn’t it be cool if I could get a blurb from Warren Buffett, the wealthiest man in America and arguably the best investor to ever walk the face of the earth? Impossible? Maybe not. Warren Buffett bought Shaw Industries, of which William Lusk (the friend of the family who read my manuscript and gave me a nice blurb) was CFO when Buffett bought them. Mr. Lusk has a picture in his house of himself standing next to Warren Buffett, holding Buffett's wallet. Amazingly, I'm one step removed from Warren Buffett!

Activity for Your Next Writer's Meeting: If you got to know the thirty people at the next Georgia Writers Association meeting, your second level contacts could easily number in the tens of thousands. So make it a point to arrive early, stay late, and get to know as many as you can, exchanging business cards.

Here’s my challenge. Since it's often more who you know than what you know, make a habit of meeting new people wherever you are and finding out a little more about them every time you rub shoulders. A waitress I met at Waffle House had written two historical novels. The guy who changes your oil might have a brother who’s famous. A rocket builder in California told us at a social networking conference that although the welders in his organization work at the bottom rung of their business, he often gets his best contacts through them.

Listen: THERE ARE NO SMALL PEOPLE. Everyone is your intellectual superior in some way. Everyone has contacts that you don't have. Everyone is the gateway to someone else. So treat people with the importance they deserve. They’ve had experiences you’ve never had, gone places you’ve never been, know people you’ve never met.

Looking back to my high school classmates in early 1970’s, growing up in the little north Georgia town of Dalton, that hippie/counterculture kid now designs helicopters for NASA; the biggest goof-off now speaks four languages and serves the poor in Burkina Faso, the stereotypical nerd is a big-time lawyer and one of the flag twirlers in the marching band is Deborah Norville, two time EMMY award winner and host of INSIDE EDITION. Listen, there are no small people here today and you never know what your next door neighbor may become. So get to know them and treat them with respect.

People Who Owe You One

So much of success in publishing and marketing is about connecting. It’s about helping others, not in order to get something in return, but in order to simply serve. But as you serve, watch out as that good you’ve done boomerangs back to you

So don’t be afraid to ask those you've served to help you. Others benefit from the joy of sharing when you give them the opportunity.

That’s why a month ago I opened up a new file labeled “People Who Owe Me One”. I thought, “I’ve given away free advice and free resources to hundreds of people over the years. Some of them would love the opportunity to give back. Why aren’t I keeping up with those folks?” Now I am.

Give and it will be given to you!

Social Networking Via the Web

Some writers aren't comfortable getting to know new people face to face. Fortunately, we now have many excellent, free, Web-based social networking tools that writes can exploit. LinkedIn is a powerful networking tool. It’s basically a personal Web page where you invite your friends, associates and acquaintances to link to you. That’s level one. But once you link, you can also see your friends’ connections, which is level two. You can’t e-mail your friend’s friends without your level one friend’s okay, which protects everyone from spam.

I believe LinkedIn started among techies in Silicon Valley to connect with others in high tech. Now it’s everywhere. Journalists use it to get introductions to people they need to interview; job seekers find openings and insiders to find the real scoop on a business; you can use it to find people who might give you a blurb for your book.

So let’s say you need a blurb from somebody in PetSmart about your book on pets. There’s a good chance that somebody you know has a connection who's with PetSmart.

Example 1: Someone sent me an article showing that the Sprint Foundation was handing out grants for character education. I thought, “I wonder if any of my contacts work with Sprint?” I didn’t find any on the first or second level, but on the third level I found over 500!

Example 2: A week after I set up my LinkedIn account, a recent graduate of MIT asked me to connect, due to our mutual interest in youth ministry. He runs a site that’s a portal to inner city ministries. That’s perfect for getting the word out about my finance book and character materials, both of which work well in urban settings. Also, this guy has a contact who works at Fidelity, one of the largest investment firms. Do investment firms want to encourage young people to save and invest rather than spend. You bet! What a great contact! But I’d have never had an in to Fidelity without LinkedIn.

Members of Georgia Writers can join the Georgia Writers Group at Linkedin, giving you many ready-made connections. Check the Georgia Writers Website for more information.

Blogs, forums and other free social networking sites such as MySpace, Crowdvine, Ning, and FaceBook allow us to connect with many, many people who are already interested in the specific topics we’re writing about. Some of them may read an advance copy and give you a blurb.

Take a class on social networking or read a good book about it if you can. Or, just do what the young people do - play around with the tools until they start making sense to you. If you get lost, ask a neighborhood middle schooler.

Start connecting by going to or finding it on the Georgia Writers Web site. Sign in. Then, throw caution to the wind! Be bold! Randomly invite people to be your friends. Ask questions. Put up a funny picture of yourself (or of your cat, if you don’t want to be identified). Suggest solutions to others’ questions. Make some mistakes by randomly clicking obscure buttons. Sit back and see what happens. We’re all new at this because the technology is so new. I just learned Crowdvine a month ago. It’s really fun and useful!

And it can make connections that lead to great relationships and blurbs and publicity for your books.

Once You've Acquired Some Blurbs, Use Them Everywhere!

1) In your query and proposal.
2) In your marketing plan.
3) Scattered throughout your Web sites. (Example:
4) Collected on a special page on your site. (Example: )
5) In Amazon reviews.
6) For targeted marketing.

To sum up the importance of blurbs to those without platforms. You’re at a bookstore looking for a book on personal finance. You first notice the high platform authors. “Ahhh…Dave Ramsay…I’ve heard him on the radio and seen his billboards. Hmmm…Suzie Orman…I’ve seen her on Oprah. “J. Steve Miller…who the heck is J. Steve Miller?…hmmm…these business leaders say it’s the most innovative, readable and accurate financial book on the market…that’s exactly what I’m looking for…I wonder what others are saying (as he flips to the first page to find ten other blurbs).

Your ideas or questions concerning blurbs? Post them below!

Chapter 5: No platform? Then out-write the competition.

Imitate the Masters of Your Preferred Style

You don’t have to study great musicians very long to discover that they start by imitating the techniques of their heroes. I recall an early interview with Eddie Van Halen where he challenged the interviewer: “Name me any song by Cream and I’ll play it for you.” Who was the guitarist for Cream? Eric Clapton. Well, Eddie certainly developed his own unique style, but he began by imitating the masters.

Before I acquired a publisher for my music book, I gave the manuscript to Josh McDowell, one of the most popular writers in Christian evidences and Christian issues. He also had a huge platform, having spoken on more university campuses than probably any living person.

Now why would Josh McDowell be interested in the youth minister at Flat Creek Baptist? Because he was currently traveling with the Christian rock band, Petra, and was getting flack from traditional pastors. I knew he was into the subject and would be interested in my manuscript.

One of his comments on my manuscript was that I needed to declare war on any academic language, editing it down for the common reader. “If you write for academics,” McDowell told me, “only academics will read it. If you write for a broader audience and everyone begins to read it, then the academics will have to read it to be in the know.” Wise advice.

Thus, my mantra became “well-researched, simply written.” Is there a place for academic writing? Certainly. But it’s not my chosen style for the audiences I’m targeting and the subjects I’m tackling.

Dale Carnegie (How to Win Friends and Influence People) mastered the nonfiction style I imitate. It’s not “great literature” as most would define it. Rather, he wrote plainly and simply, similar to how he spoke. I prefer that type of writing for most non-fiction that I read, although some would snub it as "dumbed down" or "journalese." (And those who snub his style, I might add, are generally not consistently ranked in the top 125 sales of Amazon 70 years after their publication, as is the case for Carnegie.)

You can’t write for everybody. Choose what style works for you and your audience and simply ignore the critics who don’t like it.

Carnegie did extensive research, but presented his research as fascinating stories. In his book on public speaking, Carnegie notes,

“The rules from How to Win Friends and Influence People can be listed on one and a half pages. The other two hundred and thirty pages of the book are filled with stories and illustrations to pint up how others have used these rules with wholesome effect.”

It’s not easy to do this style well. To say this style is breezy doesn’t mean it’s easy. Carnegie was a master organizer and story-teller.

Your chosen style may be different from mine. That’s fine. Whatever your style, study authors who have mastered it. (2)

Get Lots of Honest Feedback

It’s one thing to know the principles of great writing in your genre, quite another to be able to objectively evaluate your own writing.

I want to emphasize “lots of” in this subtitle. (I could have entitled it “a plethora of,” but remember, I’m the simple writer.)

Three thousand years ago, Solomon wisely wrote:

“In the abundance of counselors there is safety.”

The Hebrew word for “abundance” here means “lots of.” Why not get input from just a few? Simply because those few may not appreciate your style or might not share your passion for the subject matter. I suppose Solomon could have also written, "In just a few counselors, there might be lots of b.s."

Before I decided to write the music book, I sent an early, thirty-page manuscript on the music issue to some people I respected - the president of a college and a couple of musicians. Not “lots of.” Just three. Since I never heard anything back I assumed that I wasn’t saying anything important.

Then, years later, I heard back from the college president: “Our music department is in turmoil over the music issue and your manuscript was the best thing I’ve ever seen on the subject. But I’ve lost it. Could you send me another copy?” That reply let me know that I was onto something. As a result, I began writing the book.

Now doesn’t it give you the creeps to realize that I took the silence of three people as rejection and wouldn’t have written the book at all had this academic not lost my manuscript?

Catherine Lanigan grew up dreaming of becoming a writer. Pursuing her dream, she took a creative writing seminar in her first year of college, led by a traveling Harvard professor. One of the assignments was to write a short story. But the day before she was to read it to the class, the professor called her to his office, telling her that her writing stunk. Among other things, he said,

“You have absolutely no idea about plot structure or characterization. How you were ever recommended for this class is beyond me. You have no business being here. One thing’s for sure, you’ll never earn a dime as a writer.”

But this pompous twit of a pseudo-professor (my characterization) encouraged her that the good news was that he’d caught her at this cross-roads of life so that she wouldn’t waste her time and money studying something she wasn’t suited for. So he worked a bargain with her: “I will get you through my class and give you a B if you promise never to write anything ever again.”

She didn’t write again for fourteen years. Fortunately, after those wasted years she mentioned her story to a journalist who said, “Why, I’m ashamed of you. You never even tried. Here’s my card. If you ever write anything, give me a call. “ She immediately went home, wrote her first novel, and sent it to the journalist. A month after receiving it he called her, pronounced it good and asked if he could send a copy to his agent. The agent called her from New York, referred to her as “startlingly talented," and immediately starting asking whether she thought soft cover, hard cover or trade would work best. A publisher snatched it up by Christmas.

She went on to write twenty novels in twenty years, including Romancing the Stone, Jewel of the Nile and Wings of Destiny. But what kills me is that she might have written 37 novels had she not trusted in the counsel of one supposed authority who just happened to be an imbecile disguised as a scholar with his professional degrees and tweed jackets. (From Chicken Soup for the Writer's Soul. Yes, you should read it.)

My point? Don’t base your opinion on one person’s input or a few people’s lack of enthusiasm. The fourth person may rave over it, or have one suggestion to fix the problem that turned off the first three. Get lots of input. A writers' group is a great place to start.

Great Businesses Are Idea-Driven

Cherie and I read a good deal on great businesses, looking for the characteristics that distinguish them from losers. One common characteristic we’ve found is that they are idea-driven, searching constantly for the best ideas for direction and improvement. Rather than just listening to the MBA’s with their formal training, the leadership listens to people at all levels of their organizations. They also listen to their competition and their customers.

So we find Michael Dell listening intently to his computer customers, Jack Welch at GE finding creative ways to get everyone sharing ideas openly, Sam Walton waking up early on Saturday mornings to buy donuts for his truckers to get their insights on the stores they visit.

I don’t know about you, but I’m not very objective about my own writing. One day I’m overconfident, thinking I’ve come up with a brilliant angle that’s never been explored in the entire history of ideas. The next day I wonder why anyone would ever buy this crap of a manuscript from such a low profile amateur. That’s why, after doing some initial edits with my wife and mom, I put my Enjoy Your Money! manuscript into as many hands as I could, including my children, experts in the field, and anyone who owes me one or might be remotely interested in the subject. I even got input from an 8th grade writing class. They were honored to meet a real live author. Their input was unique and led to several important changes.

After getting input from well over thirty people (not counting the writing class) I can say pretty confidently that there’s a niche of people who would love my book on finance. I also know what others won’t like about it, but I’m okay with that. It’s not for everybody. I’ve found my audience.

Another case in point: Steven King’s wife found her husband’s first book manuscript in the trashcan, read it, and encouraged him to seek publication. Apparently, even though King was a college English professor, it was hard for him to see his manuscript objectively. He went on to publish it and see it made into a film: Carrie.

And don’t just ask writers for their opinion. We’re not normal. Writers look for cool turns of phrases, complex sub-plots, etc. Normal people will tell you the important stuff, like if it makes sense and entices them to read the next chapter.

What to Do with All that Advice

Take it seriously, because each opinion probably represents a group of people. But also take it with a grain of salt. You can’t please everyone. Concerning my book on money, some tired of the story angle and just wanted me to tell them what to do with their money. Others loved the story angle, saying it was what kept them reading.

Several said that the mild cussing by some characters in my book was a deterrent and that they couldn’t recommend the book in its present state. I had no idea that they would react so strongly to it. The opposite opinion came from a chemist in his late 20’s who helps lead worship at a church. He said, “you’ll never know how much it means to younger people to include those cuss words.” I’ve got to make the final decision on this issue, but I’m glad to know where both sides stand.

A Writer’s Group and the Georgia Writers Association

Benjamin Franklin met with Junto, a varied group of people whom he described as ingenious and lovers of reading. They would write papers, have each other read them, then critique them in the group, thus improving their writing. C.S Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien met regularly with The Inklings, a group of writers who gave input on each others’ writing. It’s doubtful whether Einstein could have figured out e=mc2 without the collaboration of The Olympia Academy, an informal group of thinkers who would go for long walks in the mountains and talk about subjects of import and interest.

Sometimes writers can be private folks. But I can’t urge you enough: FORCE YOURSELF OUT OF YOUR SHELL AND SPEND TIME WITH OTHER WRITERS.

Listen, you don’t have to be good at every aspect of writing. My mom never got a four-year degree, but loves to read and is a stickler for grammar. She and Cherie (my wife) are my two, frontline editors. I don’t care how much I polish something, they almost always find multiple goof-ups that should have been obvious to me. George Lucas never learned how to spell well. But he's a great story-teller. You may never be a great speller, and spell check on your computer won’t solve all of your problems. But you can work around that. Just pull people around you who are great spellers.

Study and Apply Great “How to Write” Books

Although I had to do a lot of writing in college and graduate school, I never took a class specifically on writing. I did study public speaking and applied those communication concepts to my writing.

So when I began writing books, I did my own self-study on writing. One of the most important books for me was The Elements of Style, which is about sixty pages. Read it and digest it. I read it again recently and was shocked to discover how many grammatical mistakes I've been making. An acquisitions editor at InterVarsity Press suggested that anyone writing for publication should read William Zinsser’s On Writing Well and do what he says. I read it and made a little checklist for self-editing, such as, “Am I using active rather than passive voice?"

(Word to the wise: Don’t go to the bookstore manager and ask for “On Writing Good.” He won’t find it and you will be embarrassed.)

I’ve continued to read writers on writing and find that there’s always more to learn. Cherie and I listened to Steven King’s book on writing via CD in the car. Fun, fun, fun!

Professional Courses of Study

Cherie completed her undergrad degree in Communications and Masters in Professional Writing at Kennesaw State University over the past five years. I bugged her relentlessly each week to tell me what she was learning, so that I benefited from her experience as well. One of her texts on writing stories gave the most wonderful synopsis of a great story. I put it on my pin-up board beside my desk:

"According to Rubie and Provost, the following is the plot for 90 percent of the stories you’ve ever read, 90 percent of the films you’ve ever seen…in fact, 90 percent of all stories ever told in all the world in all time."

“Once upon a time, something happened to someone, and he decided that he would pursue a goal. So he devised a plan of action, and even though there were forces trying to stop him, he moved forward because there was a lot at stake. And just as things seemed as bad as they could get, he learned an important lesson, and when offered the prize he had sought so strenuously, he had to decide whether or not to take it, and in making that decision he satisfied a need that had been created by something in his past.”

In one brilliant paragraph, the author gave me a template to compare my stories to. It’s not that I want to always follow it to the letter. But I typically find that if I’ve missed an element, my story will be better by adding it.

This little tip helped me in a way that none of my 30+ readers ever mentioned. Comparing my book to this template, I decided that there was not enough at stake for my characters. So these high school seniors wanted to do better than their parents with their finances. Let’s do a collective yawn. It’s not exactly Luke Skywalker longing to get off the farming planet and save the universe from the evil emperor with the beautiful Princess Leia.

So how can we up the ante, making the stakes higher? Let’s make Akashi, my oriental character, the intellectual black sheep of her high achieving family. Her older siblings are studying at Georgia Tech and MIT, while she struggles to eek out “C’s” in high school. Her problem? She has undiagnosed learning disabilities. Her nonchalant and counter-cultural attitude towards school hides a relentless fear that her C average will result in a C career and a C life. She desperately needs someone to tell her that she can make it in life.

With that small addition, I’ve made the stakes higher. Now readers are identifying with Akashi and pulling for her. Now I’m interested in where she goes in life and care about what she becomes.

Learning the Craft as Platform

In an earlier article, I mentioned the literary agent who soundly snooted me. One of the questions she asked to size me up concerned what writer’s conferences I had attended. At the time, I hadn’t attended any. I’m sure that she took it that I wasn’t serious about my craft. So in your proposal and author site, include information about your writer’s group, your membership in the Georgia Writers’ Association, your attendance at the Georgia Writers conference, etc., to establish that you’re a serious writer.

Even better, get into a good writing program.

So keep growing as a writer. The better your write, the better your odds of getting published. There's always more to learn!

Input: What do you do to improve your writing? What are the best books on writing that you would recommend?

Chapter 4: No platform? Then out-research the competition.

How Research Helped My Book

My music book stood out for its research. At the time, church leaders who spoke on controversial music issues based their opinions on personal opinion and personal experiences, while throwing in an off-beat psychological study or two to try to give it some intellectual credibility. This left a niche (see chapter 3) for me to fill.

I proposed taking the arguments pro and con for the church using modern music, subjecting them to rigorous research in the appropriate fields, and reporting my findings in an objective manner. I actually felt that a respected professor of Psychology, another of Church History, and other scholars should collaborate. But fifteen years ago, the intellectuals weren’t taking the issue too seriously. Christian rock was just a bunch of leftover hippies from the Jesus Movement who decided to mix their new-found faith with rock music. If the big intellectual guns bowed out of the fray, I felt somebody needed to dive in.

So I used Georgia State’s Psychology library to go through decades of research on the psychological and physiological impact of music. I used Emory’s excellent religious library to study the history of church music, discovering that most of the hymns we consider traditional today were often taken from tunes already popular in the secular world at that time.

By pulling together the legitimate research that had already been done in various fields, I offered something of value that others didn’t.

Some of you who aren’t research nerds like me, are asking, “Do I really have to do all that mega research for my book?” Not necessarily. Plenty of popular books are based solely upon personal experience. Some don’t have high profiles. But documented research is a great way to make your proposal stand out from the crowd of purely personal experience books.

In fact, many high platform people depend so heavily upon their platforms that they write sloppy work without doing their homework. Some advice by high profile financial writers is hysterical until I realize that someone may actually take their advice and ruin her financial life. Doing some research and documenting your sources can set you apart from many high profilers and position you as the expert on the subject, giving you a wonderful platform from which you can market your book.

I believe that my objective, dogged research is what motivated people in other countries to translate it into their languages. It’s also why about 30 radio stations wanted to interview me in the months following its publication. I didn’t have to call them. They contacted my publicist at Tyndale House. Positioned as an expert, I also took advantage of speaking opportunities in such neat locations as Holland and Moscow.

A Great Model for Self-Help

Want a great model of a successful self-help book? Take a second look at what some refer to as the daddy of all self-help books, How to Win Friends and Influence People, by Dale Carnegie. This time around, don’t read it to get help with your relationships. Read it to figure out why it’s one of the all time international best-sellers, having been translated into almost every live, written language. Although first published way back in 1937, this publishing phenomenon is still ranked #125 (the last time I looked) in Amazon sales, almost 70 years after its original publication!

I attended a conference on Web-based social networking a few weeks ago with about 250 techie types in attendance. At one point, the keynote speaker asked how many people had read Carnegie’s book. From my vantage point, it looked like every hand went up. Techies and entrepreneurs. Not Psychology majors and salesmen.

Now doesn’t that strike you as odd? So much Psychological and Sociological study of relationships has been done since the publication of this book. And culture has changed significantly since 1937. Wouldn’t you want to read something more current? What’s the appeal?

First, it’s simply a collection of well-told stories of the relational techniques of great and fascinating people. That makes it imminently understandable and interesting. But secondly, he convinces us in his preface that this is no book of fluff. He did exhaustive research. Allow me to read from Carnegie’s preface, where the master influencer is going to try to influence me to take his book seriously.

“In preparation for this book, I read everything that I could find on the subject – everything from newspaper columns, magazine articles, records of the family courts, the writings of the old philosophers and the new psychologists. In addition, I hired a trained researcher to spend one and a half years in various libraries reading everything I had missed, plowing through erudite tomes on psychology, poring over hundreds of magazine articles, searching through countless biographies, trying to ascertain how the great leaders of all ages had dealt with people. We read their biographies. We read the life stories of all great leaders from Julius Caesar to Thomas Edison. I recall that we read over one hundred biographies of Theodore Roosevelt alone. We were determined to spare no time, no expense, to discover every practical idea that anyone had ever used through the ages for winning friends and influencing people.”

Well, consistent with his title, he just won me and influenced me by that paragraph. But there was more to his research. He interviewed people. He prepared a short talk on people skills and encouraged the attendees to try out the principles and report back, so that his book “grew and developed out of that laboratory, out of the experiences of thousands of adults.”

Now, are there books out there that exhibit no research at all, but simply relate personal experience, that sell well? Yes. But to make your odds better, and to publish a book that might last past the first printing, do some research. To make your odds really great, do fabulous research.

Collecting Research on Your Web Site

Beyond your book, I’d encourage you to start collecting helpful resources on your Web site. I’ll hit it lightly here and come back to it later under building your platform. But since you can’t put everything you researched into your book, why not put the rest on your site?

I found it easy to get permission from the great authorities in my fields to use their articles on my sites. Thus, on my ministry site, I’ve got over 150 articles by top youth workers. By collecting articles, your site becomes sort of a trade association for your subject. Search engines love that wealth of excellent content and will direct people to your site. On money management, I’m writing book summaries on the books I’ve read. This is very different from Amazon book reviews. I actually summarize their financial advice. Let’s say you want to compare Dave Ramsey’s financial advice with that of Clark Howard or Warren Buffett. You can go to my site and see.

How does putting that information on my site help a publisher take my book seriously? Because about 1000 people visit my sites each day. My book will be advertised on the sites. If publishers see that you’ve collected research on your site that thousands of people draw from, they’ll start thinking, “This guy’s got a platform. If we publish his book, I can keep my job and my children can eat.”

Research and Novels

Does research enhance the quality and respectability of novels as well? I think a large part of the DaVinci Code’s popularity was that author Dan Brown claimed up front that it was all based on solid research. Thus, in reader’s minds, it could have actually happened.

I would hear people quoting the DaVinci Code, a novel, as fact and I thought it was some kind of confusion of genres, sort of like saying that Bart Simpson is a great actor. But when I saw in his preface that he claimed it was all based on fact, I understood how he pulled people in.

(Now, when you look at his sources, you find that they’re actually laughable. The sources he describes on his site read like a who’s who of quacks and revisionist historians. At least one of his sources was used at Berkeley as an example of hokey research. He quotes “ancient societies” which were actually formed in the 1900’s on the basis of revisionist history.)

But my point is that even his claim to have done solid research made his novel more compelling.

Add Some Original Research

Now maybe you’re not as obsessive a researcher as Carnegie. It doesn’t have to be that extensive. Let’s say that, in writing a book about how to manage your money, you get input from several large Senior Adults ministries at area churches. Nobody asks those folks for their wisdom and they’d love to give you some. So you stand at the front of a class and say, “Could you tell me one thing you’re glad you did with your finances and one thing you regret.” Or, “Tell the younger generation what you wish you’d known in your youth about personal finance.”

Now you can put a couple of sentences in your preface that give your book added authority. “In preparation for this book, I got input from over 100 senior adults, representing well over 7000 years of personal experience.” And it may have taken you only a few weekends of getting input. Since it’s fresh research, you can write an article, “Personal Finance: The View from the Far Side of Life,” and a big magazine just migh pick it up. Why? Because you’re offering the results of fresh research that they won’t get from Warren Buffett or Dave Ramsey.

I don’t remember if it was an acquisitions editor or just an informed book buyer who said, “The first place I look in a book is the acknowledgements page.” Why? Because that’s where you’re likely to find if this author’s just writing off the top of her head or if she’s indebted to a host of others she’s learned from.

Benefits of Great Research

  • You appeal to a wider range of people.
  • Big-time reviewers may take you seriously.
  • Libraries will take notice.
  • Schools may use you.
  • You can publish your research in multiple ways: Web content, articles, etc.
  • You become a respected authority (think: “platform”).
So that acquisitions editor has five proposals for books on personal finance, all of which seem equally compelling and well-written. But only one is documented with top authorities or includes original research. Which does he choose? It’s a no brainer.

Input: Respond below with your ideas or questions.

Chapter 3: No platform? Then find a niche.

And don’t just find it; prove to publishers that it’s a legitimate niche. Why? Because if your manuscript is no different than 100 other books in its field, buyers will consistently choose the big name authors over the no name authors.

Rich Dad Poor Dad was published and became a best-seller. I doubt he had a platform before the book was published. But it stood out because of its unique angle on finances.

Imagine that you’re down and out financially. You have $20 left to your name and you’re browsing at the personal finances section of Barnes and Noble to find a book to help you put your finances in order. You see Dave Ramsey’s Total Money Makeover and think: “I’ve seen him on the radio and on billboards. He must be good.” You see a book about Warren Buffett’s financial secrets. “Best investor ever,” you think. Then you see a book by Steve Miller. You think, “Didn’t he sing ‘Fly Like an Eagle?’ Why is he writing about finances?”

Placed among a crowd of high platform authors, I’ve got to convince publishers and readers that my book’s different. Here’s what I’m telling publishers up front in my query:

The Breakfast Club (An Amazon "Essential Video") meets The Wealthy Barber (two million books sold) as MONEY: HOW TO MAKE IT, SAVE IT, INVEST IT AND ENJOY IT! teaches personal money management in a story form that captivates both young and old. It seeks to answer the financial cry of our times, especially targeting those who are just starting out in finances (18 to 25-year-olds) and those who are already reaping the results of unwise and detrimental financial decisions (26 to 39-year-olds).
Okay, so this book is a story targeting young adults. That sets it apart from 95% of the financial books. Then I explain other distinctives:

  • Well researched and documented, giving it the ring of authority  Multi-Cultural (Afro-American, Hispanic, Oriental, Caucasian)
  • Multi-Generational, including characters from eighteen to eighty
  • Defies stereotypes of various cultures and sub-cultures
  • Story form grabs and holds the reader's attention
  • Likeable characters
  • Neither talks down to students nor ridicules teachers
  • Encourages learning from one another and reliable sources
  • Includes building knowledge, life skills and character, so that schools and social organizations should find it useful
  • Encourages giving, not just getting
  • Empowers the learning disabled
  • Includes reviews, thought questions and assignments
  • Practical
  • Realistic
  • Broad use of real life stories
I want publishers and readers to say, “I get it! This draws from the great financial minds, but puts it in a story form so that I can read and understand it. Now that’s different!”

Think of your current project. Yes, it’s unique. Otherwise you wouldn’t be writing it. But how will you convince the publisher that it offers something of value that’s very different from the high profile Donald Trumps of your topic or genre?

Input: Post your ideas or questions on "niche" below.

Chapter 2: No Platform? Then put the right spin on your vocation and experience.

Who wants to read a book by the minister of youth at Flat Creek Baptist Church in Fayetteville, Georgia? Nobody. So I pitched myself as “serving on the ministerial staff of a large, metro Atlanta church.” Are both accurate and truthful? I felt they were. In a way, the “real” title is misleading, conjuring up visions of college students planning activities for teens to keep them off the streets. Yet, most of the fellow youth-ministers I hung out with had Masters degrees, with professional training in fields like Psychology and Education. I felt very comfortable describing my position in different terms.

By putting the appropriate spin on my vocation and experience, I’ve helped publishers to overcome a huge hurdle to publication.

Let’s say you’re a checkout lady at Wal-Mart and you’re writing a book on finances. How do you spin your work and experience as a platform? (How about, “I work with financial services in a Fortune 500 company.”) If you’ve trained other cashiers, you’re additionally a “trainer at a Fortune 500 company,” or “team leader.”

Let’s say you’re writing on real estate and you’re a realtor. Are you a member of some associations that you could work through? Have you taught a seminar? Put those ideas in your file and figure out creative ways to spin them.

Now think about your current writing project. What vocations and experiences do you have that can be spun in a direction that readers and publishers will respect?

Input: Give me additional ideas or ask questions by responding to this blog.