Marketing Yourself or Your Entreprenuer Book?

I went to BookExpo America in May of 2008 at the Los Angeles Convention Center.  It was huge.  Book publishers, magazine publishers, book sellers, self-publishing companies and more filled the few thousand booths in the convention hall.  Several hundred authors came out to sign copies of their books.  It was amazing!  There was one common goal:  SELL.

All trade shows and expos are about marketing and selling, so this didn’t strike me as odd.  What did strike me was the great lengths some of the companies went to in an effort to push their product.  My daughter and I giggled many times at the antics.  We saw several people dressed in outrageous costumes; most should have stayed in the closet.  One man was dressed as a butler, white gloves and all, holding a shiny silver tray and handing out free books.  He even had a british accent!  Others gave away fresh cookies.

One company in particular had a magician giving away free money.  He showed us five $1 bills and then flipped them over and they became $100 bills!  He said he was going to give them all away.  So we waited.  And waited.  He performed magic, threw the $1 bills into the crowd, all the while tempting us with the hundreds.  We waited some more while he played poker with a man in the crowd (four of us).  I kept wondering what this had to do with the actual product he was pushing:  a children’s book.

I have very little patience with being sold; I couldn’t take it anymore so I told my daughter we had to go.  I’m not sure if he ever did give away the $500.  Once home, shoes off, and tired feet propped up, I read the free book the magician gave us during his show.  He had said that it was endorced by Matt Lauer of the Today Show on NBC so my curiosity was high.  And that’s when I asked myself if they were selling a book or themselves as great marketers.

The story is about a bear and he overcomes three obstacles to accomplish his goal.  The moral of the story is clear:  never give up, keep trying, you can do it.  But that’s about it.  It occurred to me that this self-publishing company was making the moral, the lesson to be learned, the main character of the book instead of the bear being the main character and showing through his actions the moral of the story.  Writing a book with a strong moral is commendable; however, I’m not so sure that children will be as drawn to it, especially for the long haul.

The way the story is written, the bear was not given any character traits.  He had nothing endearing or recognizable to associate with.  I could not see myself or my kids in him.  In the artwork, the bear(s) all wore pretty much the same expression throughout.  Even their arms and legs stayed the same.  There was nothing unique or different; no change had taken place once the goal was accomplished.  He was the same bear with the same expression.

Which brings me back to the marketing.  The magician at the expo exclaimed several times that if we had not heard of this bear yet, we would in the very near future, yet he said very little about the bear.  He had a stuffed animal sitting beside him and he picked it up as an afterthought.  His whole presentation dealt with giving away money.  They are marketing heavily.  But what are they selling?  Themselves as great marketers or the bear as their main character?  There was not one mention of what the company was trying to accomplish in teaching kids to have winning attitudes through their series of fourteen books.  Not one mention of the personality of the bear and what he was trying to accomplish in his bear life.

The web site is even more problematic.  It shows older age kids reading and liking the book.  Older kids are not their target market!  The reading level of this book is three to six years of age.  My eleven year old thought it was cheezy.

Eventually, the book will need to stand on its own legs without all the heavy marketing.  One aspect is clear:  if you have a great book, it will sell itself (practically).  Of course you need to get the word out, but once you do the book will take off like a rocket because it is so good.  Readers, especially moms with little ones, get excited and cannot contain themselves when a really great book hits the market.  But it is really disappointing when a company goes to such great lengths to sell a book and the book turns out to be less-than-stellar.

The lesson is clear:  pay attention to the rules of the genre, clearly define your audience (moms or kids?), and don’t make the lesson or moral the main character of your book.  The best marketing strategies in the world will eventually fail if you have not employed proper writing technique.  The aim is longevity; your book should outlast you.  It won’t if sales solely depend on your marketing efforts and giving away free money.

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Autobiography: Writing Your Story

What does your character want?  This question must be asked even when you are the main character in the story.  The reader needs to know why he should keep reading, why he should keep turning the pages.

I’ve come across several autobiographies recently that did not address this question. In one particular story, the result was complete boredom.  I had to force myself to keep reading.  It wasn’t that the main character, the autobiographer, didn’t have some very interesting stories to tell about his life as an ethnic individual growing up in San Salvador and then moving to the United States.  I found many of his life’s lessons and journeys quite intriguing.  But the question I kept asking myself is why?  Why am I being told this story?  What does he want?  What am I supposed to be rooting for?  His survival in San Salvador?  Breaking free from his abusive father?  Living in the U.S.?

Consider the Lance Armstrong book, It’s Not About the Bike.  The reader knows right up front the challenge Armstrong is facing:  cancer.  The reader immediately knows her role:  root for him.  Armstrong wants to survive the cancer and get back on his bike, pure and simple.  Would he overcome?  Dealing with this question causes the reader to keep turning the pages to find out, even if we already know the outcome.  Not only did he survive the cancer but he won seven consecutive Tour de France races.  I hope this point is not getting lost as you think about your own story: even though we know the outcome, even though the media has already spoiled the ending for us, we still read the book because it is a page turner.  Armstrong doesn’t just give us his life story, he gives us a reason to root for him and keep reading.  He answered the question by saying ‘I beat the cancer, I became the record holder for the Tour de France, and this is how it happened.’ He then tells us all the ups and downs on the way to winning.  It’s a great read.

Why are you telling your story?  What do you want?  In order to answer this you have to go back in time.  You may be eight years past your struggle, you’re over it now.  But, your reader doesn’t even know the problem, let alone the struggle and resolution, so you have to go back and take them on that journey.  You could phrase the question differently, “What did I want?”  The reader is coming to your story fresh; most likely they have no knowledge of you until they buy your book so you need to put them in your life at the time when you had no clue if you were going to make it.  Introduce the problem then solve it.  You might say, I wanted to be free from the eating disorder, or, I wanted to be out of my father’s house, or, I wanted to beat the cancer and get back on my bike.

Readers do not have a lot of patience.  They need a reason to spend four or five hours of their day with you.  I wanted to root for the San Salvadorian man but I wasn’t sure what to root for.  His story was chronological, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but to the point that I had no idea what his thesis was.  I wasn’t clear about the point of the story or why he’s telling it.  I stopped reading.  Don’t let this happen to you.  Be respectful of your reader; show her that your story is worth her time by clearly defining the role she must play. 

The popular Twilight series of books is a good example.  Bella wants to become a vampire.  Will she do it?  Will she abandon her human experience forever to be with her true love?  This question will be answered once-and-for-all when book four is released in about three days, thirteen hours, forty-five minutes and thirty-three seconds as of this posting. Not that I’m counting or anything. Clearly define your struggle, tell the reader the outcome you’re hoping for, and then take him on the journey.  If you do this, he’ll love you for it; in sales.

The Unreliable Narrator

When you write your story, there are a few questions you should ask yourself.  One of them being, why?  Why do I want to tell my story?  Another question to ask of yourself is, can I be honest?  Or, better yet, am I trying to re-write history?  The best memoirs, biographies, and autobiographies are the ones where the storyteller can list his or her mistakes; tell the truth about what really happened and then reflect on the good and bad decisions.  The worst stories are when the author whitewashes or changes the bad decisions.  Sugarcoating is immediately apparent to the reader and in one sentence the author has gone from credible storyteller to unreliable narrator.

Let me give you a few examples.  For comparison, Forrest Gump is an unreliable narrator but this character was crafted on purpose.  The audience sees and understands things that Forrest does not, which is vital to the story.  This is not what I am referring to.  I am referring to authors who create themselves as an unreliable narrator by accident.  The reader can spot immediately where the author is trying to rationalize or cover up or change events in order to make himself or herself look better.  The author doesn’t see it, but the reader does, which makes the author unreliable.

For example, I recently read a story written by a female who did not have a handle on the events in her life.  In other words, she was and older woman, my guess is she is in her late 50’s, and she has had a  very colorful and checkered life.  She wrote her life story.  But, in her personal life she had not yet gone through the process of determining what all the events mean as a whole.  She had not yet asked herself, why did I do this or why did I make that decision or why did I get involved with that person, etc.  Therefore, when she penned her story, the result was unreliable.  She couldn’t see why she kept repeating the same mistakes over and over.  It was incredibly obvious to the reader, but not to her.

Specifically, at one point in her story she relayed an event that had happened while living in the south.  I’ll summarize her words by saying that it was a hot night, her living room window was open, there was a gas station next door, a man saw her sitting on the couch in her underwear, she saw him look at her, he comes over and climbs through the window, and she just sits there and watches him come in.  Long story short, he does not rape her but instead spends the night in the guest room and they have breakfast in the morning and he turns out to be a nice guy.  Huh?!  She thought that he was going to rape her but she made no move to close the window or run to a safer part of the apartment.  No offense guys, but any guy from a gas station  who sees a half-naked woman on her couch with an open window in front of her and proceeds to climb through the window isn’t just coming for polite conversation.

To fix this conundrum, she needed to add some information to make the scene more believable.  If he really did not rape her, and they really did not have sex, then she needs to include the conversation they had about why he was there and why he went to all that trouble and then didn’t want the sex.  Did she turn out to be too easy?  Or, she could have inserted a line about herself by saying, ‘Secretly, I wanted him to want me.  I was lonely.  I knew people could see me in my underwear through the window.  I sat there because I wanted attention.  I wanted him to come to me.’  That would have been believable but it takes a strong person to be able to point out her flaws.

If you are not strong enough to do this, think carefully before you write your story about why it is that you are writing.  Even the most inexperienced readers will see that you are not being honest.  This will give your entire work an air of unreliability.  You will look worse than when you started.  Be honest.  Reflect on your life in a real, organic, and authentic way.  Fluff doesn’t make for a good story.  Humility does.

Welcome!

It’s all about the page.  There’s nothing worse than when a writer and the pages he or she has composed are stuck together so tightly it’s hard to tell when one begins and the other ends.  When a lucky editor gets a call from the all-in-one package, it would be best to run the other way.  Hang up the Closed sign and turn out the lights.  Why is this?  Because editing is all about the page, not the writer.

"But the writer created the pages," you might say.  This is true.  But in order for the book or article to be edited sucessfully, the writer must un-glue himself from the story.  Whatever the genre, whatever the length, the story must be able to carry its own weight and stand up on its own legs.  The writer can’t be following it all over the country explaining underdeveloped thoughts or misconstrued ideas.  It has to be able to speak for itself. 

It’s hard for a writer to let go of her ‘baby.’  After all, many tears, sleepless nights, and anxiety ridden days are all for the cause of authordome.  We sweat it out because we want to be published.  But we must remember that part of being published is learning to let go.  The book is written and now is the time to pack its bags and send it on its way; first to the publishing house and then to market.

When a writer and editor begin the partnership of the book editing phase, the writer and the pages need to be two separate entities.  If not, the writer will not hear the editing comments correctly.  He might hear that since the pages need some work, he needs some work.  It takes a writer that is secure in his skin, and full of knowledge about the editing process, to be able to handle his book being edited. It is hard work.  It is gut wrenching.  But it is oh-so-necessary. 

If your book isn’t edited properly, it won’t know on what shelf to sit on its first day in the bookstore.  It won’t know how to talk to the other books.  It won’t know what to say when someone asks it, "What are you doing here?"  If is isn’t structured properly, it will sag and lean to the side.  No one wants to read a book that can’t stand up straight.

It’s all about the page.  This blog will teach you about the elements of non-fiction in relation to your story.  Whether you are an entreprenuer writing a book as a big business card, a speaker on the circuit wanting a book to support your talk, or simply wanting to leave a legacy for your family, this blog is for you.  Check back often to learn how to write your story.