Asking the $100 question

April 12, 2010

Recently a well dressed guy in his fifties knocked on my front door to say he was a real estate agent selling my neighbour’s house. He explained he had come as a courtesy to advise of the open house times and the increased traffic created by prospective buyers. I was pleased he had done so – I like courtesies. So at that point, I had a communicative, pro-active, courteous real estate agent. We chatted briefly about pricing in the area – he was informative and helpful – joked easily. So at that point I had a communicative, pro active, courteous, informative and friendly real estate agent.

When the conversation moved rapidly to my own house and the agent asked me “Are you thinking of selling?” it was pretty clear to me that the who conversation was merely a warm up for this question. It would be eccentric for me to suggest that he didn’t have the need or right to ask this question. He had both. I’m simply saying that at this moment all the value he’d built for me vanished and was replaced with a very blunt proposition. He then offered his business card – immediately becoming just another real estate agent.

Moral of the story? Well, I guess the moral is that if your dealings with an audience of any size is simply a preamble to a sale you have a good chance of appearing or becoming inauthentic. Getting too quickly to a $100 question – a selling type question – can be a barrier to allowing an audience to ask it for you.

In the online space, I’ve noticed that the prevailing if unspoken wisdom suggests of authors should build an audience with friendly interactions with “ordinary folk” simply to sell them their books. I’d recommend thinking very carefully about this before following suit. What could happen if you never asked the $100 question?


Why custom publishing works

February 12, 2010

Custom publishing holds the secret to its own success in its name. Its 75% of the word customer. The transaction starts as the customer says “yes” to the idea of getting what they want without baggage. Then they say yes to a sequence of chapters. If there’s five chapters, that five yesses, six overall. Once the product is built, there’s another yes to add to the shopping cart. That makes seven.

Custom publishing works by breaking down a sale into smaller transactions that each build value for a customer. A repeat sale is, in my experience, about 90% more likely as a result.

If you’re writing non fiction, give customers a non-linear option on your content. Think ITunes – do they want the album, or just a sweet little song?

Photo by myuibe

CASH JPublishers, and Educational Publishers in particular, are spending big money by paying writers and illustrators upfront fees in exchange for the assignment of rights. This is an opportunity for talented writers and illustrators to make a living. But what are the traps? Here is a SWOT analysis from the point of view of a freelance writer/illustrator – with some insider Publisher tips.


Getting paid up front means food can be purchased and stored in the fridge. Rent can be paid. Cash flow is the key to every business. As a writer, you know that, but oftentimes creative people, for all their talents, find find basic commerce a drag. The ability to turn your hand to educational or other content to a specific brief, with narrow research time, no fuss and short deadlines is tantamount to cash flow. Further, every time you get a gig, your your name is in the public space.

TIP: Have a look at the major educational publishers’ websites. There is a wide range of products you could consider contributing to. These include children’s literacy-based readers, school and college texts, study guides and supplements. If you write well, or draw well, find an educator who knows something about a subject area, match your skills to a category I just mentioned and look for a gap in the market. The results could be surprising.


Assigning rights means you are forfeiting a royalty and copyright for cash up front. The metric for cash is usually a minimal, break-even print run x ARP / your contribution. This means, the fee equates to a publication not making a whole lot of money. As a result, you negate the risk of massive hours down the drain but miss the chance at bigger money that comes with higher sales.

TIP: If you assign rights, you should reasonably expect to retain the moral right to be named as the author of what you wrote. Look for this in any contract you may sign. There’s no point writing if you don’t get a mention.


One successful freelance gig=more offers. A good writer could reasonably expect to book a year’s work in around 8 weeks if they knew:

– the educational market as well as I do
– how to combine with educators with little commercial experience in order to supply Publisher needs.

This post is not going to unfold all of this but I’ll start with a tip.

TIP: Have a look at government departments in your country/state responsible for education and curriculum change. See what areas they are looking at. These are exactly the same areas the Publishers are looking at. Make enquiries to Publishers you find active in these curriculum areas to see whether they are seeking good all-round writers. Remember, your pitch will be strengthened if you combine forces with an experienced educator. You write the copy, they write the questions and activities. If you are an illustrator, combine with the writer and the educator to build value.


If you always write for cash, you may undermine your passive income opportunity. Royalty payments are a passive income opportunity in the sense that, with a successful publication, you continue to be paid while a book is selling. If you are only known as a freelance writer, you lose the bigger opportunity of becoming a capital A Author.

TIP A capital A Author will seldom write under any agreement other than a royalty-based contract, but an emerging writer fond of food and shelter will need to be flexible.
My advice is to build a portfolio of successful cash-based contributions and use this to help drive a royalty based deal over the line. Freelance gigs are always useful – try and keep both types of gig rolling out simultaneously, building your name and value one word at a time.

Photo by Franco Folini

The Green RoomEvery year for the past 4 or 5, I’ve been approached by parents of students and students themselves for help with study and preparation for exams. As an English teacher turned publisher-writer, my tuition gig is mostly the study of literature and writing. Every year, I am both delighted and amazed to see how much and how little my students know. By “how much” I mean their powers of literacy- their street-smartness in hearing (for example) the tone of a piece of writing and responding to it. By “how little” I mean their level of intellectual engagement with what they have to read and write. This is no rap of the knuckles of today’s students. Education, like most large sectors, has become a furious flood of data that stymies engagement for all but the naturally academic. I’ll leave that for another post.

Anyway, my job as a tutor is to work on the “how little” (engagement) so that the “how much” (powers) can shine. The “how little” work begins in a place I call the green room. In common vernacular, the green room is where entertainers and preachers sip a cool beverage before facing the stage. In my vernacular, it’s similar, with a fresh twist. My green room is a place where students come to see that they themselves are the only way forward. They’re it. Whatever they have to put on the table is all we have to work with. At this moment of realisation, engagement occurs. At this moment, students listen, they read more, scribble notes, ask questions, grow, learn and push me over time. Before or outside this moment, they tend to believe the answers lie in a far off horizon – external to their own commitment. If only the right amount of note-taking, study skills and time management were applied, they might then achieve good results. Alas, these are all external measures of no more help than skin lotion to treat a weak heart. In the green room, we learn that whatever has been placed inside us will have to do. I find this is a lesson that leads to surprising outcomes by students previously considered “average”.

Photo by All about Eve

A guy came in to sell me a manuscript. It wasn’t especially difficult for him to get to me. In my quarter of the publishing jungle, (Educational Publishing) unlike Trade Publishing, I’m fairly available. I think my direct line was on our website for years. I’m pretty sure my email is now. There are simple reasons for this – number one being that most of our authors are technical experts who we seek out to match our own commercial ideas. We don’t get a whole lot of unsolicited material, probably because people who make money as writers in our trade are not lauded by anyone. They simply bank cheques and gain their kicks in other ways. The writing work requires certain structure, the observance of particular editorial rituals to satisfy our sense of risk that if an unruly text made its way into print our brand would be diminished. We ask authors to pour their words into our templates. If they’re creative, they make the templates as well. In this sense we are more like content manufacturers than creatures of literary exploration.

So, to the manuscript, and the author. The manuscript was a good one. Well conceived. Well structured. I could see, even by skimming it, that it was going to sell. It said “send me to market”. I spent about 45 minutes with him, the author. He talked in clipped sentences, but with an easy tone, like a practice piece for beginning piano requiring the use of the softening-pedal. He was pretty nervous. He wanted to make sure I didn’t miss a detail. I let him point out things and tuned in and out, according to my interest and need. I made a few jokes, to put him at his ease. He smiled, but only briefly. His default look was “fairly worried” throughout. Tense. Really keen to make the deal work. He stayed a little too long. I was sympathetic. The deal was important to him. I eventually gestured towards the lifts and he asked me one more time if I liked the idea, we shook hands, and that was that.

On the way back to the corner office, one of the girls (female employees) told me her friend (her colleague), who answers the phone, had found the author rude on the phone. I wasn’t surprised, but I quizzed her. She told me a few things about the lead up to our meeting. He’d called a number of times. He’d assumed that she was fobbing him off when, in response to his question on procedure, she asked him to send the work in for me to look at. He’d assumed the deal was never going to make it unless he met me face to face and pointed out the detail. This was two years work on the line. Under pressure, he pressed hard to ensure he gained my full attention. He was snappy, short, cynical.

What he missed was this. I was already easily available. My name is on the website. Had he called the switch and asked for me, through he goes. One call, no friction, no bad report.

Lesson? Whoever it is you have to speak to to sell your work, be nice to everyone you meet on the way through.

If looks could sell

July 2, 2009

How leading Publishers create impact on target audiences through covers – Amazon Top 5 Tour (accessed 1.7.09)

Today, Seth Godin commented on the purpose of book covers.

“Is the purpose of the cover to sell books, to accurately describe what’s in the book, or to tee up the reader so the book has maximum impact?
The third.”

Let’s take a look at Amazon’s top 5 titles to see what is making an impact, how, and on whom. These successful approaches provide guidance on how to package your ideas successfully in a very congested marketplace.

1.  Glenn Beck’s Common Sense: The Case Against an Out-of-Control Government, Inspired by Thomas Paine

Designer: Ruth Lee Mui
Publisher: Simon and Schuster


To handle the amount of text the background image is plain. Soft, aging paper evokes a sense of history.This ties into the reference to Thomas Paine, and is reinforced by the 19th century style typeface. The centre-justified text tends to stack up like a “Wanted” poster of that time. This sets the tone that someone (the Government) is about to get a shellacking! All these features tie together successfully to impact on older men seeking a return to common sense.

Main appeals: History, lost wisdoms.
Target audience: Baby Boomer skewed strongly to male.

2.Sookie Stackhouse, Books 1-7 [BOX SET]
Designer: Uncredited
Publisher: Penguin


This is a striking physical package. The box set leads with a relatively sexy vampire licking her bloodied lips. Her pale skin contrasts with the shadows and lipstick and the trickle of claret. This creates a certain voyeuristic intrigue. The spines facing out of the box approximate a rack of glam-rock coffins that say “fiendish and fun” – aiming to impact on female readers seeking some escape from the mundane.

Main appeals: Horror, sex, gothic mystery with shades of romance.
Target audience: Gen X to Boomer skewed to female.

3. Catastrophe (How Obama, Congress and the special interests are transforming…a slump into socialism ad a disaster into a Catastrophe…and how to fight back)

Publisher: Harper COllins
Designer: Unknown


This cover uses typography and colour only. The effect is like a busy political poster.
The sans serif type adds a contemporary appeal, although the drum-beating message seems as old as Adam. The author’s names and the title are brought forward through the use of white against the orange background. The subtitle, which strategically reads like a cloud tag of high volume words, is stacked like film credits. Overall the effect is of accumulated, building urgency and impact on mature, conservative men worried about America.

Main appeals: Call to arms on big issues.
Target audience: Boomer and beyond,  skewed to male.

4. The Shack
Designers: Marisa Ghigleri, Dave Aldrich, Bobby Downes
Publisher: Windblown Media


This cover is a graphic tiramasu. We move through three vertical layers, top and bottom ones mirrored. The effect is literally peering into a gap of a fence. This creates a rich sense of symbolism about borders, eschatology and the construction of the universe. To offset this, the actual details are earthy and real:  timber grain. snow. A little ladybird, perches innocently – or so it seems. The big serif type promises a big, serious story. This  creates impact on mature female readers looking for just that.

Main appeals: Call to arms on big issues.
Target audience: Gen X to Boomer, slightly skewed to female.

5. The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society
Mary Ann

Designer: Roberto de Vicq de Cumptich
Publisher: Random House


The high word count on this cover is managed by overlaying an image of an angled envelope. The typeface on the envelope effects handwritten text which further humanises the tone of the eccentric title. The soft yellow pastel of the envelop ends in drop shadow, and the image of the lonely, mature woman gazing out to sea.  The colours blend easily, warmly. There is no challenge here. This has all the markings of a warm and fuzzy “feel good” story, impacting on a mature female audience.

Main appeals: Lovable human eccentricities. Women’s wisdom.
Audience: Baby Boomer, skewed strongly to female.