Finches tweet with grammar!

There’s yet another animal with a syntactical language: finches. And they get cranky about other finches who speak poorly, too.

Publishing a 3rd-party book about your company’s products

My previous posts have shown you how to get into the usually exciting and occasionally high-paying field of book writing. Now I’m going to tell you how to arrange for a book through a publisher about one of your company’s products. (Note: The principles I’m describing will apply to any non-fiction book about any product or service, such as stereo gear, cars, legal services, or specialty catering.)

A thought about getting rich

(Well, I’m back from travels to Dallas and Portland looking for work, grading final projects for students, and a few other things. The blog beckons me for updating with increasingly plangent tones.)

I woke up this morning and remembered something that a good friend, Paul Peck, said to me decades ago. “Nobody never got rich but what they weren’t doing something on the side.” We talked about it. It could be one of several things, all of which are equally true:

  • Busy people are always more likely to get rich. Doing something on the side is a sign of that.
  • The side job generates extra income that provides that bit of grease and financial latitude you need to start building a huge nest egg.
  • The side activity may not generate money because it’s all volunteerism (such as being a Big Brother/Big Sister or building houses for Habitat for Humanity), but it gives you extra skills/contacts/oomph that you can use in your day job.
  • You’re putting your time to better use than just watching TV.

…and several other possible interpretations that also tend to be true.

Whatever the path to riches, I think it’s true: you’re more likely to get rich if you’re someone who does something on the side. Whether it’s the extra cash or the visible manifestation of extra energy or just that you have ADD and can’t sit still so you’re doing something, it’s a pretty safe bet that you stand a better chance of getting rich–and probably having a lot more fun, regardless–when you’re doing something on the side.

Knowing when to quit

Something that thankfully doesn’t come up often is knowing when to quit a book. This is not something you should ever do lightly, but it’s also important to know when you should say “This is just not working out. I think I need to leave this project.”

Some of the reasons you might want to quit a project are:

  • You won’t be able to finish the book in any reasonable amount of time. This may be because you’ve got too much going on in the rest of your professional life (you just had a new contract land in your lap or a promotion happened at your day job) or your personal life (deaths, divorce, illness, and accident are the biggies).
  • You and the editor aren’t clicking. This isn’t a frequent problem, but there are times when you and the acquisitions editor are getting along like cats and dogs. This better not be something casual. Just being uncomfortable with your editor isn’t good enough: a good editor will make you work hard and will also kick your ass when it needs kicking. That’s their job and you should accept this gratefully because they’re usually doing it to make you a better author now and in the future. But if there’s a lot of friction–and I mean a lot of friction–and you’re absolutely certain that it’s not you and there’s nothing you can do about it, you may want to consider leaving a book.

    I’ve almost always had good editors, but there’ve been one or two pills over the years. The worst was legendary in the business for her unprofessional behavior. I’d already passed once on doing a book with her after she’d phoned me directly and tried to get me to disregard my agent’s advice. I inherited her only after the great editor I’d had on a book got laid off mid-project and his work was reassigned to existing staff. I described her as a “bullet,” someone who sits in her chamber waiting to be fired. She got laid off about a year later and is out of the business now. There was many a dry eye in the house when this happened.
  • When you can’t get the support you were banking on. None of us are in this business for our health. We’re writing books for the money. If you’re writing a book based on the idea that you’re going to get support during or after a book and you don’t, you may have a problem. If you were depending on information from the company, advance PR such as email blasts or prominent blurbs on their website, chapter reviews, or other marketing, and the company completely fails to come through, you may be in a no-win situation. If you go from “Oh, we’re really keen to do a book!” to “We’ll get back to you with an answer,” it may be time to leave.

So what do you do if you can’t win? Or the book can’t be completed in a timely fashion or you’ll spend every cent you have just to complete a book that won’t pay you a dime? You need to talk to your agent (if you have one) first and find out if there are options. Your agent will give you the benefit of their experience. That’s what your agent is there for, after all; s/he is your mouthpiece. If you’re dealing directly with the publisher, you need to let them know what’s happening as professionally as possible and with a minimum of drama.

Leaving a book project is not something you do casually, ever. But if it’s going to cost you a fortune just to stay on the project or you’re not going to be able to finish it for other reasons, it’s best to bow out as gracefully as you can.

User registration is off now

For some reason, I’ve been getting hundreds of spam user registrations for the last week or so. Since I’d been away at the STC Conference in Sacramento, I’d not had great access to my tools and couldn’t turn off user registration, so I have a couple thousand user registrations to weed out.

So, if you’re legitimate and want a registration–and there are some of you, I know–please ping me. If I accidentally delete your registration when I’m doing clean-up, I apologize.

It’s Friday, I’ve just gotten home from a week on the road, and it’s my wife’s b’day, so I’m not doing much work today. I’ll be getting to the blog, a few thousand emails, and my students tomorrow.

Waffles for writers

Here’s a great article for how to turn an obsolete typewriter into a waffle iron. You can make keyboard-shaped waffles. (This is just too cool!)

A novel way of marketing (or a way of marketing novels)

People who enjoy fiction of all kinds should check out the Book View Café. To quote from their FAQ, the Book View Café is a cooperative site created by a group of writers who want to take advantage of the internet’s possibilities for reaching a wider audience and to distribute their work directly to their readers. There are many titles for sale, but there’s always some free, original fiction available for download. It’s a place that you need to look at for inexpensive, quality fiction.

Why am I bringing this up on a blog that’s focused on nonfiction? Well, apart from the fact that I think more people should buy fiction from the authors here, the BVC is a dazzlingly good idea for people who write and sell nonfiction, too. If you have a catalog of books, booklets, and brochures, you might consider creating a website that sells downloadable versions inexpensively and even gives some of them away. The value of a loss leader (that happens to talk about your other books on a page in the back with hot links) could be a lot, particularly if you’re writing books on related topics. You can use a giveaway ebook as a live marketing brochure that you’re guaranteed people will read.

Look carefully at the Book View Café website. It’s attractive and approachable. It’s also very easy to navigate. You could do far worse than to emulate what they’re doing. And while you’re there, consider buying an ebook or two!

Transitioning to a different writing field

After you’ve been writing about one thing for a while–software, in my case–you may come to a point where you’re not getting the work you want in that venue. Or you may just be ready for a change. How do you jump from writing about software (with a specialty in my case in accounting software) to something else? The solution is not that you need to go to school to get more skills each time, but you just need to sell yourself a little differently.

What I suggest (and do, for that matter) is package myself differently. For example, I don’t treat being an accounting software writer (one of my recurring writing themes) as an indivisible unit; instead, I sell myself as a writer who has a specialty in accounting. The difference is that I break my skills up into pieces, so instead of a writer who only writes about accounting, I show them that I:

  • write procedures
  • write about software
  • write about finance
  • write about the underlying programming
  • write about hardware
  • write about installation requirements
  • write about APIs
  • write spec sheets
  • write and test online help
  • design documents
  • do documentation project management
  • do Word, Excel, and FrameMaker macro programming
  • train writers in writing and tools
  • hire and manage writers

… and on and on. When you start breaking your experience into separate skills, it can become quite an impressive list, even if you’ve only been writing professionally for a few years.

I tend to think of this as covering up a big circle. (There’s no deep significance to this image; I just do.) If I think of the circle as being something I can only cover with exactly the shape they’re looking for, I’m out of luck. But if I think of being able to cover portions of it with chunks of my experience and skills, I’m looking to make the area that’s not covered as small as possible, with as many fuzzy edges to it as I can get. I can then sell myself by saying “Okay, I may not know a lot about [whatever the new topic is] yet, but I have every other skill you’ll need and then some.” And where possible, I show that there is already some overlap from a personal interest or skill that can help fill in the experiential or knowledge gaps between what I’ve done and what they’re looking for.

Creating a book cover

If you’re publishing a book with a publisher, you’ll only rarely have input on the cover. They’ll ask you for your bio information, some back cover copy about the book, and perhaps a headshot, but beyond that, the publisher’s designers will have the cover design in mind. But if you’re self-publishing, the book cover is just one of a couple dozen things you need to do that the publisher normally takes care of for you.

For the Independence series, the first series of books from Double Tall Press, I needed a strong picture that supported the company’s brand.

I started my search by looking at Getty Images, Corbis, and Shutterstock. All of these online libraries have lovely photos, but they’re very, very, VERY expensive. I found one image that looked like a possibility… until I checked the price and discovered that I’d pay thousands for licensing the image for the entire series of books. That seemed a trifle expensive, so I looked elsewhere.

Fortunately, there are a lot of photo libraries that are very inexpensive. I ended up paying about $15 for licensing of the cover photo that I’m using. If I go over 500,000 impressions, I’ll have to cough up another $20 or so. I’d bear up at that point, I’m sure of it. (If you’re interested in something even cheaper, there are dozens of websites that give you artwork for free. Check out this blog post for a list of great photo resources.)

After some exploration, I knew generally what I wanted for a them, but I didn’t know what would work. The cover needed to have the following general characteristics:

  • clear images
  • good color
  • large areas that text could be superimposed on
  • wide enough to stretch across front and back
  • not too busy or distracting

I selected a dozen possible images that I thought might work. I bounced them off of Phyllis Beaty, my brilliant page designer and desktop publisher, and we whittled the list down to about 7 possibilities. Phyllis then mocked up a cover out of the candidates. Much to my surprise, a lot of the ones that had looked like contenders didn’t pan out. Adding the text showed that some of them were too busy, too monochromatic, even too hard to read. Quelle surprise!

After experimentation, it finally boiled down to the cover picture currently appearing on the Author-it book:

Author-it cover thumbnail

(You can see a larger version here.)

I think I got lucky with this, honestly: not only is it a very attractive picture, but it’s got the company colors (blue and gold). My plan is to use this as the baseline cover art for the books in the Independence series, with changes to the title and back cover copy.

If you’re planning on going the full route of picking a cover picture, budget 12-20 hours over the course of a week or two the first time you do it. You should allow yourself the chance to sleep on your first impressions and revisit your likes and dislikes the following day. It’s also important to have a clear idea of how you want the book cover to fit into the book’s and the publisher’s brand so the cover supports these ideas appropriately.

BREAKING NEWS: Evidence of “floor” in author’s office!

Researchers recently doing an archeological survey of the clutter in John Hedtke’s office have discovered evidence of a primitive wooden “floor” beneath all the clutter.

“It took months of painstaking excavation, but there are signs that the piles are all supported by a continuous, level surface. Lab results are pending, but the floor is believed to consist of oak, though the weight of all that paper has compressed it nearly out of recognition.

“Darn, I thought it was turtles all the way down,” the author said, when reached for comment. “I wonder if they’ve found my desk yet.”

(with thanks to Amy Thomson for permission to reprint)