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Do you need a wrangler for your self-published book?

Today I held in my hands an advance copy of a book for which I was executive producer. It was a proud moment: the cover was eye-catching and beautifully designed, on the back cover was a glowing endorsement from a prominent business leader, the pages were typeset in an elegant font, little graphics through the book made it very appealing to look at. I called the author and told her to prepare to be delighted.

Three months ago, I couldn’t have imagined this would be possible. The author (let’s call her Kathy) is founder of an organization specializing in applying brain science to organizational teams, and she had hit the wall with writing her manuscript. It was in pretty good shape, but it needed finessing to bring out the human element of her method. But here’s the kicker: Kathy needed printed books for a conference in May.

At first I told her it wasn’t possible to produce a quality book in that time. Unless I believe I can achieve the same standards as I would for a HarperCollins or a Simon & Schuster title, I won’t take it on.

But Kathy was desperate. She emailed me:

I have never published a book so I am completely in the dark about the process. I don’t want to sacrifice a compelling and quality end product for a deadline, but by the same token there are many things riding on its release. Would love any advice and help you can give.

I really liked the concept of the book and I could see how valuable it was going to be. And I had a good vibe about Kathy: I believed we would work well together. So I told her:

I totally understand that this is your first time creating a book, and I’d really like to handle the production for you if we can make it work. I would act as “executive producer”, setting up schedules and budgets with you then securing all the outside help. I have suppliers for everything from copy editing through to print briefing them, so I would commission them, check their work and generally make sure the wheels run smoothly (and quickly!).

Here’s what I said about that scary time frame:

12 weeks is do-able IF you are super dedicated to turning around approvals and somewhat pragmatic about letting go of any non-deal-breakers. The book has got to deliver great content, but if there is a minor typo on page 85 I don’t consider that a deal-breaker.

Kathy said she could be pragmatic and fast. So off we went.

Here is just a sampling of the questions Kathy and I worked through over the next 12 weeks:

  • I’m going bonkers trying to get these case studies right. Can you look at this approach and tell me if it works?
  • We have always this as our working title, but is it right for the final book?
  • Should the book have a sub-title too?
  • What author names should be on the cover – do I have to include two people who helped with early drafts?
  • How do I go about getting blurbs for the cover?
  • Should I get a big-name author to write a foreword?
  • Where should the acknowledgements go, at the front or the back?
  • Do we need an index?
  • Should I get an ISBN? A barcode? A separate one for print and ebook? How do I do that?
  • How do I figure out how many to print?
  • What about a hardback edition, can we do that too?
  • OMG, no one will be home to receive the printed books on Monday … Can the UPS driver leave the cartons on my doorstep?

Kathy is a smart woman. She could have figured all of that out on her own. But it would have taken a huge amount of time for her to consider all her options, research industry standards, and get second opinions.

Or she could ask me to navigate all of these things, because I’ve done it hundreds of times before.

Your executive producer does the work that, in a publishing house, would be handled by someone called a production editor or a project editor. Self-publishing authors usually don’t have one of those, so a colleague of mine came up with the term “executive producer” to describe this combination of project manager, freelancer wrangler, and general wave-smoother.

How much time does all this take? When I worked as a project editor at HarperCollins I would manage up to 15 titles a year, ranging from simple, text-only paperbacks to lavish coffee table books with photographs on every page. The simple books might take 15 days of my time to project manage, while the complex ones might consume 40 days, spread over many months.

If you are self-publishing your book, consider this. You could project-manage it yourself, the same as you could landscape your own garden or repair your washing machine. But what is your time worth? Do you want a duct-tape solution or a pro job?

An executive producer for your book might be just the thing you need to save your sanity and to ensure that in a few months from now, you too will hold in your hands a book that makes you proud.

The writer’s life can be a little lonely at times.

There’s an up side, though, as my fellow ghostwriter John Kador describes in his latest blog post. John and I are both members of a “community of ghostwriters”, and that cuts through the isolation. Read more about the writing life and community here.

I’d love to hear your stories of community in the midst of isolation – whether you’re a writer or not.

Sometimes the words that come out of my mouth don’t exactly match the meaning I had in mind. Pretty often, if I’m honest.
When you see a literal, accurate transcription of what someone said, it can be surprising how little sense it makes. Even when it is said by an extraordinarily wise person with a gift for articulating ideas.
In his blog The Actual Pastor, Steve Wiens includes a direct quote from Irish poet John O’Donohue taken from an interview shortly before his death in 2008:

And I love what my old friend Meister Eckhart, 14th-century German mystic wrote. One day I read in him and he said, “There is a place in the soul — there is a place in the soul that neither time, nor space, nor no created thing can touch.” And I really thought that was amazing, and if you cash it out, what it means is, that in — that your identity is not equivalent to your biography. And that there is a place in you where you have never been wounded, where there’s still a sureness in you, where there’s a seamlessness in you, and where there is a confidence and tranquility in you. And I think the intention of prayer and spirituality and love is now and again to visit that inner kind of sanctuary.

All those spare “and”s, the backtracking and reframing – it’s typical of how we all speak. On the page, it’s not pretty. That’s why the sensitive editing of spoken words when they are to be used in written form is so important.
Many journalists would be horrified by the idea of tampering with a direct quote. As a book editor, I’ve had numerous battles about that. My view is that when you write a book (as opposed to an ephemeral news report), there is an expectation from your interview subject and your reader that the words will be polished to render them both clear and pleasant to read, without altering substance or style.
What’s your take on it?

Some days I need a pedantic friend with a touch of obsessive behavior to read through my work.

Most times I don’t have one to hand, though, and that’s where a program like Grammarly can come in handy. This week I took it for a spin to see whether it would be a useful tool for me to use – either as a final check on the manuscripts I edit, or as a second pair of eyes to help polish my writing before I hand it off to a publisher.

Grammarly is like Microsoft Office’s spelling and grammar check on steroids: it will be very strict with you, sometimes too much so, but you might be surprised how many flaws it finds. If you’re at all wobbly on aspects of grammar, word choice or punctuation, Grammarly might be the pedantic friend you need.

I tried out Grammarly on extracts from manuscripts in various stages of polishing. The first obstacle I encountered was that when you use Grammarly online you can only check 20 pages at a time, though if you use the Microsoft Office plug-in there is no limitation.  So I broke my manuscript into chunks and fed it through bit by bit.

Grammarly offers different modes: general, business, academic, technical creative, casual, depending on the style of writing you are aiming for. It is important to master these modes, though you will need to do that by trial and error as Grammarly refuses to explain what the types mean.  In their FAQ section, they say, “Each review style is based on a specific set of checks. (We can’t disclose what those are because it’s intellectual property.)” That seems a mite neurotic and not terribly helpful.

The first extract I fed into Grammarly was full of direct quotes that could not be changed, so many of its suggestions were less than useful. Once I shifted from general mode to casual mode, though, we got along better. There were some good pick-ups on run-on sentences and comma use. Overall, only about 10 or 20 percent of the queries and suggestions were useful: most were overly pedantic or not appropriate in the context. It’s easy to ignore the suggestions you don’t want to apply, though.

Casual mode was so super-casual it didn’t query a two-word non-sentence like “Every time.” It also turned a blind eye to the use of double hyphens for dashes (“just like all her recipes–wet ingredients and dry ingredients”). I was surprised that those two things didn’t ring alarm bells.

The robotic nature of a program like Grammarly comes through when it tries to correct use of a singular verb with any noun ending with “s”, such as “Childs was a leading investor…” It also dislikes the use of “could” without a verb following it. Grammarly is not a fan of foreign phrases, either: über and maître d’ were both stumbling blocks.

Some of the suggestions to replace often-misused words seemed off-key. “Seated” was offered as a replacement for “sweated”, “while” instead of “whale”, and “to late” for “too late”.

You can select to check through only one category of queries at a time: subject and verb agreement, for instance, or capitalization. That could be handy if you have a particular area that you need help with. For me, the most useful checks were split infinitives (I don’t mind the occasional one, but Grammarly caught some nasties), redundancies (“exact same”) and passive voice.

Would I keep using Grammarly on a regular basis? Yes, I probably would. I ran the program on this blog post, and found two out of its nine suggestions useful (remembering that this article does include words such as über that I know will ring Grammarly’s alarm bells). It took just a minute or two, so I’d count that as a worthwhile check.

Can Grammarly take the place of an intelligent copy editor or proofreading? Not on your life. Think of it as the literary equivalent of feeding some coins into a massage chair versus booking a session with a good massage therapist. The chair’s going to pummel out some knots, but the therapist will deliver that deep healing experience.

 

There is no better time to be writing and publishing books than now. We’ve had the funeral when everyone thought books were dead, and now we’re in publishing paradise, where there are innumerable ways to write a book and to get it into the hands (five-fingered or digital) of your readers.

So what has changed?

Read the whole article on the Advance website here.

 

Towards the end of this year’s San Francisco Writers Conference, a first-time author cornered me over coffee. “So what exactly makes a book a bestseller?”

He was asking the million-dollar question. It comes up somewhere along the line at most writers’ events, and I wish I could give a straightforward answer. Then again, if I could, I probably wouldn’t be sharing the key to that particular goldmine.

I can say there’s an ‘X factor’ that makes people respond to a particular idea at a particular time. That quality is easiest to define by what it’s not: it’s not jumping on the bandwagon of recent bestselling books, it’s not a ‘formula book’ created to meet the market. So if you’re asking the ‘bestseller’ question, most likely you’re looking in the wrong place.

I work in non-fiction, particularly life stories and ‘ideas books’ with a strong storyline. In that area, here is as close as I can get to the five ingredients that make – if not a bestseller, certainly a great book.

  1. Passion – the difference between the casual idea ‘that would make a great book’ and ‘this is the thing that makes the blood flow through my body’.
  2. Clarity – a vision for what this book is, what it does for the reader.
  3. Story – even if you’re writing a business book or the history of your company, think of it as telling a story – where are the turning points, the defining moments, the highs and lows? Where are you taking the reader?
  4. Commitment – once the book is written, your job is done, right? Wrong. You need to ‘own’ that book long term, being ready to talk about it, write about it, at the drop of a hat.
  5. Voice – the ability to capture a breathtaking ‘voice’ on the page. Cormac McCarthy has it, Geraldine Brooks has it. It takes work and some writers never get it.

When all five of those factors come together, it’s a beautiful thing. On top of that you need the complete package of a well-produced book (be it print or digital) with a standout cover and knockout marketing.

One thing that jumps out from this bunch of five is that a great book has as much to do with the author and their temperament, determination and motivation as with what they write.

The kind of work I do these days is about injecting ingredients 2, 3 and 5. If someone is struggling to pinpoint their vision for the book, or figure out where their story is going, or lacks the literary chops to come up with the goods, that’s where someone like me can add value. Sometimes – most times, really – a bestseller is a team effort rather than a solo achievement.

One of the questions I get asked most is, “how can I find the best ghostwriter for me?” An excellent question, and one that I addressed in a previous post here.

But what about you – are you ready to launch into the writing process? Have you got all your ducks in a row? Are you ready to be the perfect client for your ideal ghostwriter?

Over at the Jenkins Group’s book ghostwriting blog, you can read an excellent post that sums up what makes the perfect client. It lists six qualities of the ideal client:

  1. A clear vision
  2. Organization
  3. A realistic schedule
  4. Availability
  5. Good feedback
  6. Compatibility

As part of your vision for your book, you could put together a sample chapter, as this post suggests. Or you could assemble a mood board. Include books, writers, articles, magazines, and films that capture an element of the voice you want to convey, or an attitude or style that you feel aligned with. Mood boards are traditionally visual, but you could write your ideas in a brainstorm-style list.

In your schedule for the book-writing process, build in time up front for the writer to digest your ideas and materials, and time at the end for the manuscript to “percolate”. Don’t expect a first chapter to hit your in-tray days after you start working together. I always recommend that writers put their manuscript in a drawer for a month before reviewing it one last time and submitting it to a publisher. I try to abide by that principle myself: sometimes my month shrinks to a week, but even that much “percolating time” makes a huge difference to the maturity of the final work.

When you give feedback to your writer, avoid the temptation to be ironic or sarcastic. Questions and suggestions work well: “I think this paragraph would read better if it started with xxx, what do you think?” is constructive and collaborative. “This section is boring” doesn’t give your writer much to go on.

When you consider your working style, think about your weaknesses. In choosing your ghostwriter, you have an opportunity to balance those flaws. Are you unable to let go of a project? Find someone who is clear and decisive. Do you have a tendency to rush things? Look for a writer who is meticulous and careful. Polar opposites can be uncomfortable, so make sure there is enough common ground between you to make the partnership work.