I came across a handy listing of great first lines to novels. Here is the link to the top 100, originally published by ABR and found here at infoplease.

The line that hit me between the eyes was number 12 – Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Here it is:

“You don’t know about me without you have read a book by the name of The Adventures of Tom Sawyer; but that ain’t no matter.”

There are three very cool take-aways I’d like to share with you.

1. Twain uses the line to sell two books here – the prequel (Tom Sawyer) and the sequel (Huckleberry Finn). There are no groans of having to backtrack though – the book unfolding in this line is a stand alone story as well (“that ain’t no matter”).
2. Listen to the authenticity of the voice. You get the sense that Twain knows this boy better’n he knows his own writin’ hand. The voice is true and real enough to want to hear more-much more.
3. From a writer’s-tip perspective, I get the feeling its not the stumbling grammar that achieves the voice – the voice creates the stumbling grammar. Get the character from inside of you and and it just comes out – eventually.

Over to you

What’s your all time favorite first line and why?


Four ways to get published

January 2, 2010

1. Just write something and send it around to Publishers

We’re all doing it, so if you’re new, think twice about taking the route of obscurity to discovery in one step. It does happen, but its more likely to happen if combined with some of the other ideas below.

2. Develop expertise points and cash in

Expertise points come through original research, teaching, experience or practice that makes you immediately relevant to a defined audience. Take a look at who publishes material to service the desires of this audience and contact them if you see an opportunity to add to their line up.

3. Do something amazing

A sixteen year old Australian girl, Jessica Watson, is currently sailing around the world solo, non-stop.
There is no doubt her story will attract a book deal on her return.

4. Know the formulas

The world of books seems to reward writers disproportionately. Original talent can go unnoticed and formulaic work can be wildly successful. There is a good reason for this – Publishers are risk averse and like the comfort of precedent when it comes to investment. Books exist in categories (crime, fantasy, romance, picture books for example) because the formulas please large numbers of paying customers and this is where Publishers continue to invest. In this sense, being “formulaic” is essential. At the Olympic Games, the figure skater who serves up the expected elements with originality and a fresh twist ends up with the flowers and the gold. Its much the same with books.

This is the first in a series of posts centering on my experience as a Publisher at Macmillan. I am proposing to deal with the following over the series, focusing on what actually happens inside the castle of old-money publishing.

1. Proposals meetings
2. How to be a career author
3. Planning a brand vs planning one book

If you have something else you would like to hear instead or further to this list please comment.


2364722127_6bb6b1c867 Proposals Meetings run monthly or quarterly in most Publishing Houses. At these meetings the whole interdepartmental assembly (sometimes fondly called the “team”) comes together to choose future projects. These meetings look at proposals with:

A. One eye on the past and
B. One eye on the sandwich plate in the middle of the table.

The eye on the past is to measure your proposal against past failures and successes. For this reason your proposal must be across the detail of the other key players in your space. The eye on the sandwiches is due to the fact that in publishing, most of us work very hard for wages not commensurate with the other occupants of town’s big end. Most of us need very strong proof that taking on a book is going to help us continue to eat.

For the proposing author, the dual challenge here is to ensure you know your category’s history and have developed a fresh twist to help make its future look like the newest, sexiest model of a favourite automobile. If you are writing speculative fiction, you must know that beyond Rowling’s dazzling monuments tower Philip Pullman and Garth Nix in their own citadels. You must tip your hat, do your training and be prepared to run an original race along the very same track as those who went before you. The same applies whether you write fiction, non-fiction or textbooks.

Your proposal must have already sold itself to the Publisher you or your agent submitted it to, so at the point of the Proposals Meeting, they are your Sales Representative. The key to keeping all available eyes off the sandwich plate and on your very best assets, is to have your Publisher emotionally connected to your work. This means:

– Writing your precious heart out in the cold, dark and lonely hours and leaving nothing in reserve
– Being prepared to walk away and start again
– Trusting the Publisher will judge the work by:

(1) The current opportunity afforded by the category
(2) Your own platform as a professional person, and
(3) The intrinsic strengths of the work

– Trusting the Publisher will get every nuance you left for them
– Following the Publisher up in brief, polite, well worded emails sent between 8-9am, and finally, a phone call

So, over to you. Can I answer a question for you? Help explain an experience you’ve had with a Publishing House?

http://www.flickr.com/photos/lumaxart/ / CC BY-SA 2.0

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97009376_39d20f6b18Commercial publishers have never been terribly enthusiastic about selling direct to audiences. Through relying on third party distribution, most have neglected their consumer brands so badly that today very few of their consumers are able to name them. Stocked in a sea of sameness, logos and values all bleed into one. Let’s be honest, how many people who loved Harry Potter know the publisher was Bloomsbury? Or who knows the name of Dan Brown’s The Lost Symbol was published by Bantam Press? Heck, I wouldn’t know who published Stephanie Meyer without looking it up myself (like I did Dan Brown – and that was just to sound informed). In reality, there are probably only a handful of publicly-recognisable brands in the entire industry – chief amongst them the Oxford University Press dictionary range. In a cute reversal, now no-one can name the author!

In reality, authors become brands through the sales-success facilitated by their silent partner, a publisher. However, when you self-publish, you become the publisher and the author in one dynamic person. This means that, like it or not, you are the brand. Given that we’ve already demonstrated that huge publishers don’t always get recognised as such, this has its advantages. One of these advantages is not the ability to muscle into wide retail distribution. Doing so requires you to have written twenty books and hired a team of sales people to make any kind of go at it. This is the bit publishers are best left to do. A herd of books is required to crash through the brambles of retail.

Self publishing is an invitation to become a social networker par excellence. The free tools we all enjoy in this space means selling direct through our blogs and online resellers avoids the pitched financial battle of retail. Going forward, with or without a publishing deal, you’re going to be your best publicist, promoter and salesperson, and your best mechanism will be your own online and public activities. If you’re going to go there anyway, while a big publisher steamrolls you into retail, there seem to me to be good reasons to think about starting there and allowing yourself and your audience to grow.

Audience demographics – who are the 7 million people who bought The Shack?

The Shack, by first time author William P. Young, has sold 7 million copies according to Windblownmedia the company formed initially to “self-publish” the novel.  This amazing feat demands attention from anyone interested in reaching a large audience. So, who is the 7 million-strong audience of The Shack ?

The following  statistics  (from quantcast.com) show who visits TheShackBook.com. This is a pretty good sample for our 7 million, assuming the people visiting the site correlate to the people who bought the book. As you can see from the graph below, this group consists mostly of Gen X and Boomer,  affluent, female readers.

Shack Dem

This overlaps with broader purchasing data about who is dominating book buying in the US, published by PubTrack and viewable here:

Female book buyer

Whether by design or accident, (and without going into the story – which I recommend for its courage by the way) The Shack brought a mix of thriller, mystery detective, inspiration and speculative fiction to an audience of well-resourced buyers already active in the market. The book categories (or genres) combined in The Shack align with female purchasing preferences:

Today's book consumer 3

Having bought and enjoyed the book, its pathway to recommendation followed word of mouth as well as social networking, given the under girding influence of women aged 30-44. This was a core group in the buying breakdown (above).

Age breakdown - social networks

This data suggests that The Shack was pitched into the middle of the heaviest book buying traffic in the US with a mix of categories they already knew and liked. Using categories is pretty well a baseline formula for any successful publishing. Going a step further with a fresh twist on the question of “Who is God?” took The Shack from the baseline to what might well be a record in self-publishing. William P. Young is to be congratulated as a fearlessly original writer. But his “self-publishing” pit-crew deserve just as much praise for a well designed assault at the main artery of book buying in the US today. They really handed the pros a lesson in how to maximise sales impacts using demographics.

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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.