The Success Conundrum

Like many book lovers, you have probably enjoyed certain authors so much that you keep reading their books. At some point, though, you may get tired of them. It may begin to feel like they are writing the same book over and over, especially if they have hit on a successful formula. We can see this with money management books, self-help books, or thrillers like The DaVinci Code.

It’s a conundrum for authors. On the one hand we are told to write what we know, yet we are unlikely to have deep knowledge or experience in several divergent areas. Likewise we may have gained expertise in a certain style of writing that may not transfer to a different genre. Imagine trying to shift from technical writing to popular fiction. It can and has been done, but it takes practice and discipline.

Then there is that old issue of audience. If we have developed a following (which can take a lot work and luck), why walk away from readers who still seem to want more?

One strategy is to take a chapter or subtheme in your first book and expand that, going in depth in a way you couldn’t before. Another option is to take the topic you are known for and apply it to a different audience or context. Instead of getting organized in the home, consider getting organized at work.

Malcolm Gladwell (Outliers, Blink, and David and Goliath) is someone who has found a happy balance of combining the similar and the different. He uses the same excellent journalistic and story-telling style to approach many different topics (success, intuition, underdogs). He models a curious mind, and I, for one, am happy to go wherever his interests take him.

I have also followed authors who have written similar kinds of books. The books in Louise Penny’s mystery series centered on Chief Inspector Armand Gamache are quite alike, usually containing the same (or reoccurring) characters, mostly in the same locale (Quebec), using the same style. Yet she manages freshness in plot and superb characterization that makes us care about the people in her stories, book after book.

Yet sometimes after reading a couple books from the same author, I move on. Part of that may be due to taste. Or perhaps I’ve just gone deeply enough into a topic to suit my needs. But sometimes I just feel like I’ve read it before.

Publishers often see this reality in the declining sales of each new book by a previously successful author. It can be a conundrum for them as well. After working hard to establish a new author, they want to build on that—if they can without prompting tedium.

What if, as a writer, you have only one area of expertise and you’ve pretty much said everything you have to say in one book? To me, that’s ok. And if you desire to write more, there are plenty of other channels for shorter pieces like blogging, articles, contributing a chapter to an edited collection, short stories, poems and more.

And one of these may spark an idea for a book on something brand new.

The Problem of the Anonymous Author

Everyone who has tried to get a book published recently knows the question every publisher will eventually ask: “What’s your platform?” That is, how well known are you? Will you be able to let lots of people know about your book once it’s published? Do you speak to groups regularly, and if so, how many? Do you have a prominent professional position or a large following in social media? If you don’t, publishers aren’t usually interested.

Once upon a time, publishers could successfully sell books of not-so-famous authors through the thousands of bookstores spread around the country. But with the rise of e-sales and the resulting demise of two-thirds of all brick-and-mortar book shops, publishers have had to rely more and more on authors to make a book known.

But what if the content of your book means you need to remain anonymous. Maybe you have a memoir in the works, but you don’t want to directly expose sensitive information about those close to you, information like past addictions or trauma.

Maybe (more intriguingly) you are a whistleblower. If your identity in a particular organization were to become public, then you might expose yourself to retaliation. Nonetheless, publishers want the author out there in person, using your real name to promote the book. Otherwise they won’t touch the project.

What’s the solution?

One option is to find a coauthor with a platform who could be the public face for the book. Ideally your coauthor would have some credentials in the main topic of your book. If addictions or trauma is involved, then teaming with a psychologist might make sense. If corporate misdoings are the focus, then a business writer could work. Having a coauthor with an established platform can even help you get published even if you don’t need or want to be anonymous.

Pairing with someone who will do all the promotion and who will already be well-known could mean your coauthor gets more than half of the royalty—even if you write half or more of the book. But hopefully the book will do at least twice as well as an anonymous solo effort. So you should break even or better.

In fact, having a coauthor could make the difference between being published and not being published at all.

Image by Irina L from Pixabay

The Best in the Business

As an executive at a publishing house for decades I read dozens of business books. Some I read for my own interest. Others were assigned to me by my boss for our team to read.

Too many of these were filled with abstract ideas, gave few examples of how to put the theory into practice, had longs lists of to-do’s, were based too much on one person’s experience, or simply had too few ideas.

The best of them kept their audience firmly in mind. The authors knew their readers were busy people who needed fresh, practical ideas on specific topics. They had to keep the attention of people who were distracted by dozens of problems needing immediate attention, people who wanted help—right now. How did they do that?

1. Stories. Some business books (which shall be nameless to protect the guilty) give theory or outlines without engaging the human element. Stories engage our passions. But they also use stories to make principles concrete. Often we don’t know how to put an idea into practice in our own context until we see an example even if it is in a completely different setting.

One of the most memorable pieces of leadership advice I ever read was in First, Break All the Rules. Counterintuitively the authors said not to spend a lot of time trying to fix weaknesses in employees. Rather concentrate on their strengths and on your best employees. That seemed odd to me until they told a concrete story of Jean P. whose average for data entry was 50% higher than the national average. Her manager helped her set goals to improve and track her progress. In three months she doubled her performance. So she set new goals and in six months she doubled that! (p. 177)

Suddenly the point became clear. Rather than spending a lot of time trying to get five average people on the team to improve by 10%, far more could be achieved by giving focused attention to star performers (in data entry or sales or case loads). When I read that, I got it! And it transformed how I managed.

2. Practical. The best books don’t open with several chapters of theory and then offer concrete advice at the end. Rather they mix theory and practice in every chapter. Unless readers feel they will get something they can use right away, they will give up on the book.

3. Substance. I am often annoyed by business books which “are magazine articles with a very high view of themselves.”* Books that stretch out a single, thin idea are exasperating. They waste my time. While most readers won’t tolerate a thick, academic approach, they do want something that is based on solid research which has been distilled in a way that doesn’t talk down to them. Which brings us to the next point.

4. Simplicity. It’s hard to put something into practice that you can’t remember. It’s also hard to put something into practice that is overly complicated. Don’t get me wrong. I love subtly and nuance and balance and sophistication in everything I read. Sometimes I’m able to gather the main points myself. But it is so much better if authors could do that for us.

One of the best business books I’ve read is, under the surface, a manual on how to write a business book. Made to Stick by Chip and Dan Heath is for those who have an important message to convey—teachers, sales managers, team leaders, coaches, writers, parents, entrepreneurs talking to investors, yes, . . . and those writing business books.

They highlight six points which they summarize in a memorable acronym SUCCES—Simplicity, Unexpectedness, Concreteness, Clarity, Emotion, Stories. And they practice what they preach, using all six of these features in their book to explain each of the six points.

No one formula is right for every book. But if you are able to incorporate even some of the elements the Heath brothers encourage, regardless of the kind of book you are writing, then you’ll definitely be in business.

*As my friend Steve Board once put it.


All of us have our insecurities. Perhaps those of us who are writers are above average in this regard.

We hesitate to write. We then hesitate to show anyone what we have written. Then we are reluctant to submit it for publication. Then we doubt anyone will like it if published. Finally, we are distressed that our publisher seems to have promoted another author’s book more—and more successfully—than ours!

That way madness lies.

Over a hundred and twenty years ago, Edith Wharton, the first woman to win the Pulitzer Prize, also suffered from this common malady. In 1899 she wrote to her publisher,

I do not think I have been fairly treated as regards the advertising of “The Great Inclination.” The book has now been out six weeks, & I do not think I exaggerate in saying that it has met with an unusually favourable reception for a first volume by a writer virtually unknown. . . . I have naturally watched with interest the advertising of the book, & have compared it with the notices given by other prominent publishers of books appearing under the same conditions. [Others] advertise almost continuously. . . . If a book is unnoticed, or unfavourably received, it is natural that the publisher should not take much trouble about advertising it; but to pursue the same course towards a volume that has been generally commended, seems to me essentially unjust. (117-18)

This letter, excerpted in Roger Burlingame’s Of Making Many Books, is but one of many such examples the author found in Scribner’s correspondence files. He discovered several cases in which Author A would write complaining that he got less advertising that author B. Yet Author B made the same complaint regarding Author A!

Comparisonitis has plagued humanity not just for a century but for millennia. None of us is immune. Sadly we have no magic cure.

One discipline may ameliorate the condition, however. I mention it in Write Better. Gratitude. Remembering to give thanks for all we have been given can redirect our focus from what others have that we do not. We can tamp down our lesser angels by regularly, daily, asking what good things are in my life or what was a highlight of the day.

Certainly we are better off giving energy to our writing than to our insecurities.

Image by MorningbirdPhoto from Pixabay

Smaller Is Bigger

In Write Better I emphasize the importance of staying focused on a narrow audience—even writing with just one person in mind. That can provide excellent guidance in knowing at what level to write, what to put in and what to leave out, what kinds of stories to tell, and how to organize your piece.

Don’t write for all parents, but for parents of teens.

Don’t write for all parents of teens but for parents of gifted teens.

Don’t write for all parents of gifted teens but for single-parents of gifted teens.

Counterintuitively, limiting your audience can increase your readership. How? By making sure you go deeply into that narrow group. Writing successfully for all parents is hard because there are so many other resources and bestselling books already available. You might therefore get fewer readers for the broad audience than for the narrow one where there is less competition.

I tried to follow my own advice in Write Better. Instead of addressing all writers, I focused on nonfiction writers for general audiences. Admittedly that’s still broad, but it meant I could leave out character and plot development as well as technical and academic writing.

Nonetheless, books often have some in secondary audiences read over the shoulders of the main audience, finding much of value. That’s what happened to me as well.

Unexpectedly, I’ve had people tell me Write Better is valuable for speakers. While I don’t address topics like gestures, intonation, or preparation, we have a lot of overlap between writing out a talk and preparing a magazine article. Knowing your audience, constructing a persuasive argument, developing tone, becoming more creative, handling criticism—all these and more are of value both to those who speak and those who write.

Less is more, you see. And a smaller audience can get you a more readers.

photo: matunin Pixabay

Writer at Work

Robert Caro’s book on Robert Moses and four books on Lyndon Johnson are legendary for their length (a total of almost 5,000 pages) and the length between volumes (about a decade). In Working, a collection of interviews and articles, we learn something of the method in his madness.

His passion is not just to inform readers but to help them see the force of these men and feel their impact. To do so he goes to tremendous, time-consuming lengths to track down and interview incredibly hard to find people and page through tens of thousands of pages of documents.

Caro was, for example, intent on finding out how Johnson’s ambition showed itself even in college. Everyone told him, however, that one key fellow student, Vernon Whiteside, was dead. Then one person said Vernon was alive and planning to live in a mobile home north of Miami in a town with “Beach” in the name. Caro and his wife tracked down every mobile home court in those towns (using phone books!) and finally found him–but didn’t call. He flew there to talk in person.

Multiply that by hundreds and we get some idea of why his books are so long and took so long.

Caro’s other passion is explaining how political power works because it has a tremendous effect on our lives. Robert Moses was determined to reshape New York City with bridges, highways, parks, and other public works. To do so, during his forty years in power, Moses displaced a half million of New York’s fourteen million people—forcing them out of their homes, destroying communities. In a democracy, Caro wants us to know how that kind of power (of an unelected official) works.

His powerful interviewing techniques range from the common (use silence to get people to fill in the quiet) to the persistent (asking over and over, “What did you see?”) to the obsessive (moving to the Hill Country of Texas for three years) to knowing the importance of place (taking Johnson’s brother to the Johnson Boyhood Home after visiting hours to trigger hidden memories of difficult dinner conversations between his brother and their father).

The book is disjointed and a bit repetitive because of its nature as a collection. But the dozens of fascinating anecdotes and tidbits give us a window into the work a writer with keen instincts and tenacity.

image: flyleaf of Working by Robert Caro (edited manuscript page by the author)

Tuesday Round Up

Charitable Writing

Just released is a terrific resource by Richard Gibson and James Beitler entitled Charitable Writing. I was glad to offer this endorsement:
“Who we are is absolutely foundational for anything we write. Gibson and Beitler take us to the heart of this largely unexamined principle. Without being grounded as people, our writing will run into a ditch, or we will, or both. As just one instance of this, the authors unmask the menacing metaphor of argument as a form of war, generously offering alternatives to reshape us. Throughout they gently yet firmly guide us to embrace loving others not only in what we write but in how we write.”

Books of the Year

Last month I reviewed Reading While Black. What I  called “a necessary book for all of us” has just been named the Christianity Today Beautiful Orthodoxy Book of the Year. Congratulations, Esau McCaully!

In addition, the Culture and Arts Book of the Year went to The Sound of Life’s Unspeakable Beauty which earlier I called “beautiful and profound . . . With stories and a fascinating window into violinmaking which provides a rich metaphor tying it all together, we have a deep look at our life in God, and the art of God in us.” A tour de force by Martin Schleske.

Common Writing Slip-ups

Here are some great little reminders. I suspect I’ve messed up “sleight of hand” and “bated breath” more than once.

Advice That’s Out of This World

Ray Bradbury, whose 100th birthday we celebrate this year, offered some dandy writing advice during his long career. Here are some salient snippets from interviews, talks, and essays. Of course his emphasis is fiction, but so much of what he says applies to any kind of writing.

Dear Mr. Editor Person

Do I get letters? Yes. I get letters.

Dear Mr. Editor Person:

Often I read words or phrases that make my grammatical hair stand on end, my syntactical stomach churn, and my semantical head bow in grief. Someone uses “impact” as if it were a verb or “ask” as if it were a noun, and I become anxious, disoriented, and grumpy with my dog. Do I need medication? Can you help me?

Unsettled in Seattle

Dear Unsettled,

Editors and writers worth their salt have pet peeves. Being a salty person myself, I have many.

I sympathize with your problem. Why do people insist on forcing the word ask to do what it was never meant to do? They don’t even say, “Please,” to such a request. All along we have had a perfectly good noun to use in such situations. Oh, and there it was—request! So, no, I will not make a big ask here. I will make a polite, though perhaps large, request.

No doubt the ship has sailed when it comes to impact. Making it a verb is sadly now just part of standard usage. But I die a little every time I hear or read someone say, “How did that impact you?” or, “We were impacted by the recession.” Couldn’t they say, “The recession had a negative impact on us”? Or what’s wrong with affected or influenced when a verb is needed?

And what is the difference between giftables and gifts? Two extraneous syllables and four unnecessary letters! What could possibly justify creating a gratuitous adjective just to make it into a noun? And don’t get me started on using too many exclamation points!

If, however, I hear one more customer service rep tell me on the phone that they are going to “reach out” to a colleagues instead of “contact” them, I swear I will reach right through the ether and request that someone give that rep the gift of laryngitis. That would have a most salutary impact.

Then there is this. Since when did the undeveloped syntax of the playground retort, “You’re not the boss of me,” become standard adult usage? I have no problem if someone wants to tell me, “You’re not my boss.” That’s something I can engage with respectfully. But the former creates a massive facial tic that interrupts my ability to think rationally.

I’m sure my readers have other similar pet peeves, and I’d be glad to hear them. But what then is the solution for sensitive souls like you, Unsettled, and me?

We must remember that part of the genius of English is its flexibility. New forms and new words pop up all the time—some bad but many good. Time will sort out which is which. Certainly we should oppose confusion, ambiguity, and error. But we can’t eliminate all change if we also want to have the benefits of a versatile language.

Therefore, it is best to remember that for those of us who love language, it is our lot in life to suffer.

Blog Through Your Book?

Should authors blog through the books they are writing? This does not have a one-size-fits-all answer.

I wish I could have said a bit more about it in Write Better where careful readers may have thought they spotted a contradiction. In the preface I say, “Some of what is found in this book was originally posted [at Andy Unedited], though now in a much revised and expanded form.” Much later in appendix A I say, “Don’t give too much of your book away in a blog or web page.”

Did I break my own guideline? You decide. But first let me back up.

Blogging can be good for many reasons. It can help gain an audience for your writing. Blogging regularly can get you in the habit of writing and thus minimize writer’s block. It can also help you practice and improve your craft.

Most bloggers will naturally find themselves gravitating to certain topics over and over. This might trigger a thought that one or more of the topics could become one or more books.

If you start seriously working on such a book, I do not recommend you serialize your book in your blog. That does give away too much content. Now some might get the book anyway because they are your mother. But serializing for free can diminish the value a book that you expect people to pay for.

At the same time, you do want readers to associate you with certain topics. You want to build a reputation as someone who has valuable things to say in specific areas. It is fine then to put preliminary thoughts and ideas related to your book topic in your blog. Here’s a chance to be experimental, to see what works for you and for your audience. Some of these posts may make it into the book in another form. Most should not.

If it turns out that a lot of your book ends up to be taken directly from your blog posts, you might want to consider removing many (not all) of those posts from your blog site shortly before the book is published.

Another guideline is this: the less popular your blog, the more freedom you have to put whatever you want on your blog. If you are already a well-known author, the less you should blog material that might end up in your book. You can and should still do some to pique interest and build anticipation. But not a lot.

And me? I gladly do not consider myself famous. My blog has a modest following. In any case, I worked hard to create a lot of new content just for Write Better. But because I am not competing with Justin Bieber for social media hits, I felt more free to have some overlap between my blog and my book. For whatever reasons, my books have done better than my blog. And I’m not unhappy it has turned out that way.

photo credit: pixelcreatures, Pixabay

The Dilemma of the Author Website

Building an author platform continues to be a key challenge for people who want to get their work out to a wider audience. One piece in the ongoing task of becoming better known is an author website.

Ken wrote this to me in response to a recent post on Andy Unedited:

One thing that is clear is that I need to make an author website and build a following. One puzzle here is what to put on a home page when you don’t have a relevant book cover to put on the home page. While I find it puzzling, I’ve been told that readers, even those reading non-fiction books, want to be entertained more than they want information. That suggests a home page graphic that is entertaining, even if it has nothing to do with the subject of my writing or my site. Is that an accurate characterization of nonfiction Christian readers?

We have all become very attuned to how things look. Our design sensitivities have been heightened in recent decades. Apple has probably had as much to do with this as anything with the beautiful minimalism that distinguishes its products. So, yes, a blog or website has to have a certain level of sophistication and eye appeal. But it doesn’t have to be expensive or over the top.

Bad or clunky design can distract from your content. Simple and clean is the name of the design game today. Complication is not necessary. That can make it look like you are trying too hard. Design can be beautiful in and of itself, but design should also smooth the way to your content rather than detract from it.

Content is still king, however. People won’t come back to your blog or website if they don’t find what they need or what they enjoy. To entertain doesn’t mean you have to be sitcom humorous or Masterpiece Theater dramatic. Rather be true to yourself while giving readers helpful and interesting content that is appropriately entertaining for your audience and for what you have to say.

One of the best ways we can be sure our audience sticks with us is by working hard at our craft of writing. Watch out for clichés. Use interesting images and metaphors. Have a mix of short and long sentences. Be clear and be thought provoking.

What elements can an author website include? Kimberley Grabas offers some helpful ideas. Here are a few:

An “About Me” section. Something that tells us not only your biography. But give more than just a resume. Make it human—where you grew up, your interests, and more.

A blog. A web page can’t be static. New content needs to be included on a regular basis.

What you’ve written. Generally I don’t think it is necessary to have a website devoted to one book. Include information on all your writings, whether in books, blogs, magazines or elsewhere. Provide links where that is possible to purchase or read them.

Resources. Include links to the content areas you are most interested in that could be of value to your readers.

Travel, speaking, news. Show upcoming dates and places you will be presenting or teaching, whether in person or virtually. You can also post upcoming or recent interviews, publications, awards, and the like.

Sign up. Give people an opportunity to sign up for email notices, newsletters, etc.

Social media page. Note the links where people can find you on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or the like.

Testimonials. Include comments from people who endorse what you’ve had to say and the value you have provided.

Remember: Readers don’t want to be pandered to or patronized. Respect your audience. But also realize they are distracted by hundreds of demands on their attention. Get to the point in an attracting way.

photo credit: Pixabay Free-Photos (macbook)