Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Gayle Roper Teaches Writers How to Improve Their Own Novels

by Donna Brennan

Not only is Gayle Roper an award winning novelist and a much sought after conference presenter, she's an encourager to other writes as well.  Several people I either spoke to personally or whose blogs I have read stated that Gayle was one of their first mentors.

I met Gayle several years ago at a one day conference in Lancaster, PA. She taught a session on layering your novel that has stuck with me to this day. I was especially taken with how she answered the questions from us novice writers. I could tell she had a heart to encourage, and she truly wanted us all to succeed. That's why I wasn't surprised when I later learned she has won special recognition from several writers conferences for her work in training writers.

I wanted to take another course with Gayle, and often went to her web site or searched the web for any local workshops or sessions she might be teaching. But everything was so far away.

So when I became the Write Stuff conference chair, Gayle was one of the first people I contacted to ask to speak to us. I asked if she could grow her layering talk into a three hour workshop, and she graciously agreed. She came up with "Ten Crucial Questions to Ask Yourself About Your Novel."

I've had a sneak preview of the the questions, and I can see how taking these into consideration can help writers make their novels more focused, more real, and definitely much more interesting. But just knowing the bare questions is not enough. I want to know the layers behind each of the questions, the thinking and rational that goes into them--the kind of thing only an experienced and successful writer like Gayle can impart to us.

I asked Gayle to share a little glimpse of what her workshop will be about.

Q: Every time we write a novel there are certain questions we have to ask ourselves as we create our masterpieces. Where do we start?

A: Writing a novel is a bit like building a house. You need a good foundation for the house to stand up to time and the elements. Our novels need a strong foundation too.

Q: And that foundation is?

A: The most basic question we have to ask, the one whose answer sets the first blocks of our foundation, is why are we writing this story? Why not another? Why this genre, this style, this perspective? Where does the passion for it come from? Is it a sustainable passion? Will I care in a year or two as I work through the writing, the editing, the promotion? If we can’t answer these basic questions, we’re the foolish man building on the sand.

Q: Okay, what next?

A: Next comes that analysis of our main characters’ personalities. What is she like? What makes him come alive? What keeps her from being stereotypical? What about him makes my readers care about him? What personality traits put them in conflict with each other? With the antagonist? What makes the bad guy bad and what makes him understandable to your readers, most of whom are nice people who don’t try and ruin others’ lives?

Q: Haven’t we hit ten questions yet?

A: Oh, no, only two with lots of sub-questions. Next might be the crucial how can I make things worse for everyone? Or what motivates the action and moves the plot? Or what’s eating your characters inside? What secrets are they keeping? And the list goes on. I look forward to talking with the class while each thinks in terms of his or her work in progress.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Interview With Publisher and Editor Lawrence Knorr

by Jerry Waxler

At the Write Stuff conference, we are pleased to host Lawrence Knorr, founder, and editor of Sunbury Press in Camp Hill, Pennsylvania, a newcomer in the rapidly changing landscape of publishing. GLVWG’s Jerry Waxler asked Knorr to help us understand more about his company, and his observations of his relationships with authors.

Jerry: Welcome to the Write Stuff blog, Lawrence. We’re looking forward to meeting you in person. To help our members get to know you, please tell us why and how you started Sunbury Press.

Lawrence: I started the business in 2004 because I wanted to self-publish some family history books. At that time - not that long ago - print on demand and eBooks were in their infancy (I wasn't aware of them). Rather than pay a vanity press to handle my book, I decided to start my own publishing business. I have a business education and have started successful businesses in the past (I graduated summa cum laude with honors in business/economics as an undergrad and with honors as a graduate student (MBA) - and have taught business courses at the college level). So, I dove in and began learning a lot of tough lessons! Sales were meager, but I made a profit every year. A couple years later, I brought in a partner, Chris Fenwick, who had a fiction book entitled "the 100th Human." While I handled the business operation and investments, Chris developed and promoted her book with great success. For a time, this book hit #1 in Amazon's metaphysical fiction category. We were very pleased. Then came my divorce. Sunbury's operation was essentially suspended for two years while this was settled.

Early in 2010, my (new) wife Tammi and I decided to restart Sunbury Press with a new business model. We both have had long careers in information technology --- she "retired" after 20 years and I am still going strong at 29 years. Both of us have been computer programmers and consultants. We both see publishing as digital content management - evolving from a paper-based manufacturing business model to digital content creation and distribution. Each eBook is a computer program - each eReader is really a computer. In a sense, our backgrounds in information technology have prepared us well for this business at this time.

Jerry/GLVWG: I understand that Sunbury Press is built on a different model than traditional publishers. It’s hard enough for authors to completely understand the publishing industry in the first place. Now with the entire business model changing so rapidly, we need to keep up with new variations that are beginning to appear. Could you help us form a clearer picture of how you are the same as or different from other publishers?

Lawrence: Sure. Let me list a few key points.

1) We avoid dealing with struggling or failing enterprises - so we do not deal with Barnes & Noble retail or Books-A-Million. We feel both of these entities are not long for the world - at least in their current format. Instead, we embrace independents - we love to deal with other small businesses and have met a variety of bookstore owners across the country.

2) We sell "wanted" books - we do not embrace the old "push" model of print / promote / pray. We love to work with motivated authors who believe in their work and like to talk about it with others. Authors who are able to play the role of agent and publicist do well with Sunbury.

We embrace social media. It is absolutely essential to build these networks of connections and provide content to them on a regular basis. While they may not lead to a lot of direct sales, they build brand recognition and give you a "pulse."

We put no value in paid reviews or the formal review process. Many reviewers request galley copies up to 6 months ahead of release. Honestly, this is just too slow for us! Additionally, we have found paid reviews to be totally worthless.

We believe in "Free." Nothing sells better than a free book that is high quality! We have found "Free" campaigns to be very effective. Print advertising is dead. Paid advertising is too risky - it makes no sense to pay a pile of money and hope to sell enough books to cover your cost. By simply giving away the books, the consumer has no reason not to try. Customer reviews are king. This is a key objective of our free campaigns.

3) We believe the publisher role is still absolutely necessary - while some authors (myself as an example) are able to handle the business and creative sides well, most cannot or have no interest in doing so. The vast majority of authors want to research and write - and not worry about eBook formatting or foreign rights contracts or finding the lowest cost POD printer.

We believe the publisher needs to become the retailer and distributor - most books are now sold vie eCommerce - whether print or eBook.

We do not embrace the old production schedule --- that could last up to 18 months. Instead, our average new title, from time of contract signing, is on the market within 90 days. We believe in the "long tail" approach to product life cycle --- produce a quality product / introduce it to the market / promote over the long haul. The old model put all of the promotion just before release and relied on a burst of sales in the beginning.

4) We do not charge our authors for anything --- and only select about 10% of the work that is presented to us.

5) We love what we do and have fun doing it.

Jerry/GLVWG: That helps a lot. Thank you. Let me ask a couple of follow up questions about your business model. For example, traditional publishers had to print thousands of copies, warehouse them and distribute them. With new printing methods, the economics have changed drastically. Ebooks cost zero to manufacture. But Print on Demand is a different story. Even though you don’t need to load palettes of a book into a warehouse, it still costs money to print and mail. Do you expect publishers and authors will make any money at all from POD books, or is all the money in eBooks?

Lawrence Knorr: First, let's be clear about the cost of eBooks. There is a fixed cost associated with the editing, design and formatting activities plus the cost of promotion. While there is no cost to duplicate and only small fees to distribute, the lower prices associated with eBooks means (usually) a lower profit margin per unit sold - meaning a longer path to break-even. With POD books, we are able to charge more for them (than eBooks) and can cover the printing and shipping costs. We actually make more per unit sold of trade paperbacks - especially when we are the retailer.

Jerry/GLVWG: One reason that authors need publishers is because of the company’s reputation for editing excellent books. However, in recent years, traditional publishers have been cutting editing budgets, so authors can’t always rely on this service. What is Sunbury’s position on the place of editing in the publishing process? How much time and expertise do you devote to each work in order to bring it up to a polished, professional, public-worthy level?

Lawrence Knorr: We take the quality of our products very seriously. Selecting high quality manuscripts and then editing them properly achieves this - and enhances our brand name. So, to answer your question, editing is absolutely essential. Our editors are employees of our company - so while the big firms are laying them off, we are hiring. A typical 250 page novel can take 20 to 40 hours of their time to edit. Thus, we make a substantial investment out of the gate in our author's works.

Jerry/GLVWG: As the self-publishing wave explodes, the barrier to publishing has diminished. Authors now can publish books themselves. That’s fabulous news for aspiring authors who want to see their work in print, but not such great news for readers who don’t know which books are excellent, versus books that are distributed prematurely. How do you intend to convince readers that the books you publish are worth reading?

Lawrence Knorr: First and foremost, we are building our brand name and reputation. This separates us from the vanity presses and unknown self-publishers in the marketplace. You can usually tell by the cover design - the blurbs - the reviews - the first few pages - a book which has had the proper amount of attention prior to being released to the market.

Jerry/GLVWG: Many publishing companies try to establish a niche market, like children, health, religion, or self-help, or whatever. This could help build a catalog along specific topic lines. Do you see Sunbury leaning toward any niche?

Lawrence Knorr: We are trying to be a general publisher and avoid being pigeon-holed into a category or two. We have had success in a number of diverse categories. It makes the work much more interesting!

Jerry/GLVWG: What books have you published that are especially representative or successful elements of your line?

Lawrence Knorr: "The Cursed Man" by Keith Rommel is a great example of our horror/psycho-thriller line. Tom Malafarina's works also do well for us in this category. The two "Beagle Tales" books by Bob Ford are indicative of our homespun non-fiction targeted at more rural communities/readers. "The Hidden Legacy of World War II" by Dr. Carol Schultz Vento is an excellent history representative of our histories / memoirs. "Keystone Tombstones" is a good example of our Pennsylvania histories. "Fireproof Moth" is an example of our international reach.

Jerry/GLVWG: What can you share about your submission guidelines? (book proposal, query letter, first chapter, etc)

Lawrence Knorr: Please see our website for all of these details. There is a proposal form available at: http://sunburypress.com/call.html

Jerry/GLVWG: Do the new economics translate into any additional financial incentive for your authors?

Lawrence Knorr: Some costs are reduced, but others are increased. For instance, there is a lot of effort to setting up a good eBook work process that considers multiple formats as outputs. There is also a need to invest in tools for formatting eBooks - and for people skilled with these tools. The legacy publishing industry based its revenue and profit model -- and author compensation -- on a foundation of hard cover sales first - then paperback. Hardcovers were very profitable for publishers and allowing them to compensate authors well. My fear is there is a smaller pie with eBooks - but hopefully fewer players going for the pie. For instance, rather than having author-agent-publisher-wholesaler-retailer, we can reduce the chain to author-publisher-retailer. We are trying to also become an online retailer, shortening the chain even further. Highly skilled authors - near perfect writers with technical knowledge and business skills - could possibly go completely solo --- or deal with retailers themselves, skipping the publisher.

Jerry/GLVWG: What more would you like to say to a prospective conference attendee about the types of things you are looking for and the relationships you would like to establish?

Lawrence Knorr: "It has never been easier to publish a book - and it has never been harder to sell one."

The publishing industry is changing dynamically. What took centuries to evolve is unraveling in months -- even weeks. Sunbury Press is at the leading edge of this adventure into 21st Century publishing.

Many authors come to us who have tried publishing on their own - tried the vanity press route - tried handling it all themselves. They've realized how tough it is to sell books to more than friends and family. When you're ready, give us a try... 

Interviewer, Jerry Waxler, M.S., blogs and conducts interviews with memoir authors at http://www.memorywritersnetwork.com/blog

Saturday, March 3, 2012

CARRIE PESTRITTO: An Eye for the Fantastic Non-Fiction

by Bernadette Sukley

Carrie is a history buff, but doesn't mind the occasional departure into a different world. She assures us that agents are really nice people with absolutely no control over what people are reading, just an ability to spot trends. Carrie loves the unique (ask her about P.T. Barnum) and wants to be drawn into a fantastic story, but not fantasy. She's willing to give all she's got for a really great manuscript--for better or for worse.

Bernadette Sukley: You are a history and mythology buff & intrigued by books that introduce you to another culture or time period, but NOT interested in science fiction/fantasy—how do you differentiate?

Carrie Pestritto: You're right, with science fiction/fantasy you are introduced to new worlds and cultures as you are with historical fiction and non-fiction.  The difference for me pretty much just has to do with personal taste.  While I do love certain science fiction/fantasy novels, like Dianna Wynne Jones' HOWL'S MOVING CASTLE or Ann McCaffrey's DRAGONRIDER series, as a whole, the genre is not one I am particularly interested in.

CONFERENCE ATTENDEE ALERT: I am actively looking for non-fiction, particularly narrative non-fiction, YA non-fiction, mainstream prescriptive non-fiction, and some biography and memoir.

B: You are looking for literary fiction, historical fiction, and mature YA--why these genres? Can you give examples of successful mature YA?

C: These are my main areas of interest, along with the non-fiction categories I mentioned before.  Growing up, they were the kinds of books I devoured. I used to get so excited for the Scholastic book ordering catalogs we received in grade school and remember combing all the Barnes & Noble's in my area when I was in fifth grade, looking for the exact edition of LITTLE WOMEN that I had read in the library.

But besides feeling an affinity for genres, I do think that literary fiction, historical fiction, and mature YA books do well, and as far as successful mature YA is concerned, there are a slew of bestselling titles: GOSSIP GIRL by Cecily von Ziegesar, ACROSS THE UNIVERSE by Beth Revis, THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins, WILL GRAYSON, WILL GRAYSON by John Green and David Levithan...I could go on and on!

Interestingly, I also think there is amazing opportunity in the non-fiction YA realm. Really great non-fiction is often just as exciting and fantastic as fiction (and sometimes can pack more of a punch because of the fact that everything in it is true!) and I have read several non-fiction YA books that I have absolutely loved.  For instance, THE GREAT AND ONLY BARNUM: THE TREMENDOUS, STUPENDOUS LIFE OF SHOWMAN P.T. BARNUM by Candace Fleming and SUGAR CHANGED THE WORLD: A STORY OF MAGIC, SPICE, SLAVERY, FREEDOM, AND SCIENCE by Marc Aronson and Marina Budhos are both captivating reads that I would recommend.

B: Biggest mistake writers make when submitting a manuscript to you?

C: Prospect Agency has a submission form that we require all authors to fill
out when querying us. The biggest mistake I think that people make is not
filling out everything, especially the "log line" and "favorite manuscript
sentence" sections.  The answers people provide are the first thing I see
when looking at the entire query, so this is the perfect place to hook me
and make me eager to read more.  When it's left blank, you miss an
opportunity to draw me in.

B: How do writers determine what’s selling—when it’s really the agents that have the edge on what’s being developed or dropped.

C: I think that you have to be a vociferous reader and have a good handle on
the genre you are writing in.  The other thing is to be confident in the
strength of your manuscript--in its writing, storyline, et cetera--because
more than riding the current trend, what you want to do is be is AHEAD of
the curve.

As an agent, you don't really control what people are buying.  You are
aware of what is popular in the market and know what appeals to you as a
reader, but you can't predetermine what editors are going to be interested
in.  However, I truly believe that if the writing is outstanding, the book
will sell no matter what the topic.  For instance, what with the TWILIGHT
craze, most people think that vampire books are "done," but if someone were
to send me exceptionally written prose about vampires, I wouldn't be able
to resist taking it on and I don't think an editor would be able to either.

B:  How do you plan your year? What goals do you as an agent set?

C: I don't necessarily have goals in mind as far as how many books I want to
sell or how many new clients I want to acquire.  My goals, as far as
selling books, grow out of the projects I work on with my clients and how
they develop during the course of the year.  My main ambition is to do the
best I can for my clients and to help as many of their wonderful books get
published as possible!  The most rewarding part of my job is feeling as
though I have contributed, in part, to bringing a book to life and letting
a new voice be heard.

B: Ever fall in love with a manuscript and then want to divorce it?

C: It can take a lot of time to get a manuscript "just right."  I am definitely a perfectionist, so I believe in making sure that the most minute details of a plotline or characterization are polished and correct. I never want to divorce a manuscript, but after multiple readings it can be difficult to remain objective, so at that point, I usually either take a mini-break or ask my colleagues to give the manuscript a read through and offer their opinions.

B: What about the dreaded “resubmission” can writers polish a manuscript and send it again? Has it ever happened to you?

C: I never mind looking at resubmissions, especially if I email the author with revision suggestions after reading the first query. There are plenty of times when I get excited about the potential of a manuscript, but want to see it developed a little bit further before I am willing to take it on.

B: What are you reading now?