The Stanford University campus is beautiful any time of year—Mission-style buildings, sculptures, fountains—but the winter day I attended the “How to Get Published” workshop it was especially attractive. The weather was a balmy 70 degrees after weeks of rain, people played soccer and rugby on the sports fields, friends shared lunch at the café outside the Meyer Library. The room where the workshop was held, however, felt like the inside of an empty refrigerator, cold fear frosting the class. More than 150 writers listened to husband/wife team Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry talk about how to sell a book into today’s perplexing publishing environment and everyone hoping their book project would be an exception to rejection, that they would find that one tip or pointer that would lead to a sale.
The East Coast duo did their best, upbeat and funny. They have more than a dozen published books between them, including “The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published” and they seemed happy to spill the beans to writers who don’t even have a decent cliche. They said the four basics to getting a book sold are: Research (know what’s on the bookshelf at your local book store, what’s hot, what’s not), Network, Write (oh, that?) and Persevere. Their word of warning on perseverance: “It doesn’t mean mindlessly sending out the same stuff over and over or stalking agents into a public restroom. The best kind of perseverance, they say, involves continuously evolving and reinventing yourself and your material.”
The workshop was geared more to those writing non-fiction books—how to put a book proposal together, how to showcase your “cred,” how to impress agents, how to build a platform. For the literary sorts, the advice is publish in small journals, build up publication credits, approach agents who represent similar kinds of fiction and build a platform. If you don’t have time to send to a gazillion small journals, get help from businesses like Writer’s Relief, an author’s service that does some of the “back shop” work that busy writers don’t have time to for. Sterry said he published six poems in three months using an author’s service.
One of the things that interested me was Sterry’s observation that the most important truth about social media is that it runs on generosity. It’s about doing something nice for someone else, like offering a link on your own web/blog site, making a kind comment online, buying someone else’s book, going to a reading that was posted on someone else’s site. It’s about giving without the expectation of immediate return. He suggested social media is about civility, community building and kindness. Do one thing to promote yourself, 20 things to promote others.
He suggested writers identify blogs in their area of interest and become a “loving presence.” One recommended site for getting writers to think like marketers is charming guru Seth Godin’s site. Other advice: Make a facebook page, make 10 friend requests a day, find opportunities to read aloud, get a professional photo taken, create a blog/website, perfect your sales pitch.
This last one is my personal stumbling block. Someone says: “What’s your book about?” I start rambling and three hours later, after they’ve passed out, I apply the electro paddles to their chest. If I’m lucky they start breathing again. I don’t seem to be able to summarize a 300 page novel that has taken me five years to write into 200 cunning words that will knock the socks off a cat. The woman sitting next to me in the workshop, began her pitch like this: “Pulitzer Prize nominee and acclaimed international news correspondent, blah, blah, blah.” I didn’t get up the nerve to read my pitch aloud after the Pulitzer preson sat down, but here’s my stab at an “elevator pitch,” offered quick and dirty to avoid pulling out my hair and snapping a cable.
Lost and unhinged, Lizette Carlson has nowhere to go, and Seattle in 1973 is a turbulent place. She hooks up with the Dogs, a softball team living in the city’s underworld. She fixes her love on Rocket, a scruffy tugboat hand and head of the Dog House. Murder, rape and a stint in a mental hospital propel Lizette out to the natural world of Puget Sound and Orcas Island.
When Lizette wanders back, she is discovered as a painter of astonishing promise. She takes out some of the mangiest Dogs, steals a baby, comes to terms with Rocket and sees a dead orca wash up on the beach at her artist’s retreat. All of this happens during a world in upheaval: Viet Nam, Nixon’s debacle, Roe vs. Wade, Wounded Knee, and economic recession. The Dogs just want to get high. Lizette wants a sense of self, someone to love, and a place to call home. My novel “Adrift in the Sound” tells her story.
Question: Would you want to buy this book based on this pitch? If your answer is no, it’s time to hit Eckstut and Sterry’s Book Doctor service, as soon as I get the bucks for their help. It’s like a tooth ache and putting off going to the dentist. You just know they’re gonna yank it out so you keep your mouth shut and hope! In the meantime, I’ll keep talking to myself in the elevator, wait for you to drop me a line. Show us your pitches. Tell us what you’re doing to hook an agent into representing you book and move readers buy it?