Monday, July 21, 2014

Emperors Need Not Apply

by David Murray

At the first World Conference of the Professional Speechwriters Association in May, the notion surfaced of a "speechwriter's code of ethics." The notion struck me as both intellectually intriguing, and a promising concept for an article in The Onion.

I was put in mind of the idea yesterday, when I read writer Amy Westervelt's public vow to stop writing "content" for companies, in part because "I’m tired of making rich, white dudes seem more thoughtful than they are. Yeah, I said it."

Westervelt decries the "usual 'let them eat cake' attitude corporate types have toward creative types in general ('I know! Why don’t we hire a journalist to write this think-piece? They’re all desperate for cash, they’d be happy to take this on for way less than we pay anyone else.')"

She continues:

It’s not that I don’t see the value in executives writing about their perspectives and their work. I’ve worked with plenty of really smart CEOs (that’s why I took these gigs in the first place), and their take on things is interesting and well worth a read, especially in business publications. I’d just prefer to see them writing more of it themselves (okay maybe with some help—let’s face it, not everyone can string sentences together convincingly), and sticking to their own areas of expertise. ... These pieces should flow naturally as an outgrowth of a person’s experience and expertise, they should not be a whole additional job for either the executive or, as is the case now, the person they hire to impersonate them. The trouble really begins when marketing departments and PR firms push CEOS for a blog post a week—that’s something no CEO worth his or her corner office has time for, nor should they—and when they get sucked into thinking they need to philosophize on topics well outside their purview.

In theory, she's right. As a writer and just as a citizen, it's bad to live in a media marketplace where underpaid (and under-experienced) writers are inventing brilliant messages for CEOs in compliance with a command that a speechwriter once called, "Write down my ideas as if I had them."

But the reality is, we don't live in such a world. Yet. (Do we?) In the world I live in, anyway, CEOs are frustratingly reluctant pundits who don't hire starving journalists to write their speeches, op/eds and blog posts, but who use speechwriters to do so. When CEOs give the speechwriters access to their calendars and to their minds, they wind up looking as interesting in public as they are in person, and slightly more polished. When they shut their speechwriter out, they wind up spouting platitudes that no one listens to.

What they definitely don't do is mouth compelling or influential ideas conceived by writers out of whole cloth.

I understand Westervelt's decision to "never again pen a 'thought leadership' piece or a corporate blog post." I appreciate the freedom she feels by declaring that she'll "refuse to have even one more conversation in which I explain to a publicist or CEO why I will not connect them with editors I know, or why it would be impossible for their 'contributed content' to appear in The New Yorker. I can’t take it anymore."

Good for Westervelt.

But just because CEOs are often dopey about media and thoughtless about communication ... well, that doesn't mean they don't deserve communication counsel. It means they deserve better, and more assertive counsel. That will come not from journalists taking a content gig to make a buck, but from people—among them ex-journalists—who have given themselves over much more fully to the task of making good leadership communication.

"Maybe if we all jump off the 'content' bandwagon," Westervelt concludes a bit pollyannaishly, "maybe CEOs and their publicists will stop worrying about establishing themselves as thought leaders in the media, and actually be thought leaders. You know, in their actual industries, writing one or two really thoughtful, great pieces per year."

Well, that would be totally awesome. But it's probably not going to happen. And if it does, it won't be because one or many struggling journalists stopped ghostwriting for CEOs.

No, an improvement in leadership communication will happen when a few serious speechwriters begin having honest conversations with their CEOs, about thought leadership, which—Wetervelt's right—you don't farm out to a freelancer. —DM

(This post originally appeared on Vital Speeches.)

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

The Right and Wrong Reasons to Write a Book

by Eric Nelson

As an agent, I receive a couple of unsolicited proposals every day, and some of them come from people I can see looked at my LinkedIn profile. I say no to nearly all of them. The nonfiction pitches I see are almost all the product of smart thinking by an accomplished person. Where they've gone wrong most of the time, however, is that they've chosen to write this book for the wrong reason.
When I meet with potential clients, I like to ask them a few hard questions. I'm going to give you four of these questions. If you're thinking of writing a book, I encourage you to actually write out the answers to these questions. Having the answers handy is going to help you stay focused the rest of the way.
HOW DOES A BOOK FIT INTO YOUR CAREER GOALS? If the answer is "because my current readers are demanding I write one," then your success is almost guaranteed. The agent and editor can help you create the book that will turn your fans into evangelists. If the answer is some form of "to impress the people who already know my work," you're probably still on the right track. If the answer is, "to introduce my work to a wider audience," you're in trouble. A book is a way to capitalize on your fame, not create it. Do I know where my first 3000 readers will come from? If your answer is “the publisher will take care of this,” then you’re living in 1993, and I need you to take a look around for a Young MC album I lost there. The best answer to this is: “from the X0,000 fans I have built up nationally through my Twitter/Facebook/blog/column/speaking/broadcast appearances.” If you’re a non-fiction writer and you can’t answer in that manner, you should probably set aside the proposal and write up a plan for getting more famous first. A good rule of thumb is that a book publisher can probably sell twice what you could sell by self-publishing. Right reason: professional calling card and audience satisfaction. Wrong reason: to get more famous.
WHAT ARE THE LAST TEN BOOKS YOUR IDEAL READER HAS BOUGHT? This is hard for many writers because of the focus on “last.” You want books that have come out in the last three years. Making this list is something I’m happy to help all my authors with, because it’s essentially market research and that’s what editors and agents are for. These books don’t have to be on your exact topic; just aimed at your exact audience. Knowing which if these has been more successful will paint a picture of your market size, and give you some clues on what those readers seem to prefer. (You can get a rough guess at what books have sold by reading this.) Do you write for The Nation? You should probably have some books by other Nation writers on your list. Is your book about social media for business, you had better know what the ten bestselling books about social media for business are. If you make your list and you haven’t read any of these books, set aside your proposal and START READING. Right reason: I know what my readers want from me. Wrong reason: The world needs to correcting, and I'm the person to correct it.
WHAT EIGHT WRITERS DO YOU DREAM OF HAVING AS PEERS? Picture your Amazon page, and that "Customers Also Bought Items By" list. Who's on it? It's okay to be aspirational; these writers can be outside of your field and dead. This list will act as a compass, making sure you never head in the wrong direction. Not having a list like this is the #1 reason writers sign a contract and then don’t write the book. If you find all your favorite books are historical, and you’re writing a book of advice on retirement planning because it seems potentially lucrative, you’re making a mistake. Even if retirement planning is your day job. Your agent or editor should be helping you figure out where the Venn diagram of “what I like,” “what I know,” and “what people buy” lines up. Writing a book is like getting a tattoo. It's painful and it will be with you forever. Don't do it if it's not what you like. If all your favorite books are narratives about one person, middle grade dragon fiction, or oral histories of rock bands, you shouldn’t be writing an investigation of the CIA drone program. Right reason:This will help me be more like my idols. Wrong Reason: This book will make money.
WHAT ARE YOU OBSESSED WITH? What question drives you? If curiosity gets you out of bed in the morning, what are you most curious about? If you're going to write a book, you need a question that you're going to want to keep asking yourself for months and months. It needs to be nearly metaphysical and possibly unanswerable. Even if it doesn't end up in your subtitle or back cover copy, what keeps you going is just as important as what everyone else wants to know. It may seem like a great idea to take only what you already know and dump it all into a book so others can learn your wisdom, but you know all the answers before you write the first word, you're going. Right reason: So someone will pay me to satisfy my curiosity. Wrong reason: So someone will pay me to satisfy their curiosity.
(This post originally appeared on LinkedIn.)

Monday, July 14, 2014

Happy Birthday Shelf Awareness!

In honor of the Shelf Awareness blog turning nine years old last week, we’ve compiled a short list of some key publishing industry newsletters that should be part of every professional ghost's daily information diet. These staple subscriptions about writing, selling, and producing your book are our must-reads for keeping abreast of what's happening in the publishing industry.
Writer’s Digest sends an array of emails discussing tutorials, conferences, and special offers. Some cost a small fee, but their free articles and posts on writing are just as handy.  

Galleycat by Mediabistro hase everything from new book deals, to topics trending on social media, to award winners.  They also dedicate a section to new job openings every day. With “the first word in the book publishing industry” as their tagline,  the Galleycat newsletter is useful to those who are curious about the insides of publishing.

Shelf Awareness offers two types of newsletters, one for readers and one for book trade professionals, delivered daily. This includes book store closings and opening, events nationwide, author news, and 25 books of the week chosen by industry insiders.

Publishers Lunch is shared with more than 40,000 publishing professionals every day. Key stories of the day from the professional trade book community, all neatly presented in one place.

What do you subscribe to? Let us know in the comments below! 

Friday, June 20, 2014

Distract yourself from distractions

Distractions are a writer’s kryptonite. (Well, that and bad writing, but that's another post for another day.) Distractions have been the bane of a writer’s existence since time immemorial. How can you avoid them and keep yourself on track?

Below are a handful of great ways to fix your self-inflicted road blocks:

  1. ​Disable the internet
    The vast majority of today's distractions require a stable wi-fi connection. So turn it off, unhook it, or go to your grandma’s house where wi-fi doesn't exist yet. Do whatever you have to do to turn your laptop into a typewriter.
  2. Eat
    Food does the job of distracting pretty well too, usually taking over once the wi-fi's dead. So embrace it! Feast, and when you can feast no more, write.
  3. ​Go for a walk
    At this point you might want to consider walking off all the food you just ate; plus a change of scenery is sometimes what you always need. Be sure to bring a notebook with you to see if you can solve that lackluster plot point while you're at it, but don't set your hopes too high. The walk wasn't a failure if you didn't manage to make some miraculous writing strides, too.
  4. ​Talk to friends​
    Writer friends, that is. If you don't have any, you should probably make it a priority to get some. Many, many character arcs and plot twists can be fixed with the help of a strong writing community. Normal friends work too, once in a while; most don't want to hear about why you hate your main character, but use the conversation as a chance to get your mind off your story. You might need that more than you think.
  5. Shower
    Some of the best ideas come to you in the shower, it’s a known fact. Also, it never hurts to be clean.
  6. ​Read (your definition of) excellent writing
    Depending on who you are, this can either help or hurt you. It might inspire you to get back on track and write something brilliant, or you might become so depressed you consider deleting your entire manuscript. So proceed with caution on this one.
  7. ​Read (your definition of) horrible writing
    Such a useful exercise! You can learn a lot from bad writing of course, but you will be so inspired after reading a terrible chapter in a should-have-never-been-published book. If that "author" can do it, you certainly can.
  8. ​Reward yourself
    For every page that you write, reward yourself with reading a blog post or a few minutes on a social media site of your choosing. Give yourself something to write towards, aside from a word count. 
  9. Skip the scene you're writing and work on a fun one instead

    Of course, if you do this too often, you'll be stuck with all the boring ones at the end—but you can deal with that then. Just remember that the book doesn't necessarily have to be written to follow the table of contents. Write something crazy: Send your characters to the zoo, then have a lion eat the one you love most. You can always delete the scene later—but maybe it will be just the stroke of brilliance you were looking for. And it will get you out of your rut.
  10. Close your document and tell yourself you're done for the day
    Sometimes you just can't force it—and that's okay. You'll be a writer again tomorrow, and hopefully things will work out better then.

Monday, June 16, 2014

Around the Word

Last week, Suzi LeVine became the first US Ambassador to be sworn in using a kindle. An eBook edition of the US constitution was used.

Neil Gaiman is next to lead the WSJ book club with 13 Clocks, "a 1950 fairy tale by the late humor writer James Thurber." You can purchase it here, or, better yet, follow Gaiman's own advice: "I don't think that anything matches the experience of going into a good independent bookshop."

After 32 years of working with Penguin, Norman Lidofsky will be retiring at the end of 2014 as the Penguin Random House President, Director of paperback sales. More information here.

The Fault in Our Stars movie took in $48.2 million its opening weekend. One reason this is so impressive is that only $30 million was spent on marketing—half of what studios generally spend. Instead, they've put their efforts into social media, engaging with the fans directly. Looking for more novels in the same light? Vulture rounds up 7 books reminiscent of John Green’s bestseller.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Around the Word

Alternative design for Penguin Random House
Penguin Random House finally releases their official logo this week, and reactions have definitely varied. In the aftermath, Publishers Weekly published an alternative design that readers voted on after holding a contest when the merger was first announced.

The Hachette/Amazon dispute  continues as authors such as John Green, J.K Rowling, James Patterson, Malcom Gladwell, and even Stephen Colbert  speak out against Amazon. Missed out on all the news regarding the disagreement? LA Times breaks it down in 13 easy steps.

Amy Einhorn leaves the imprint she founded at Penguin Random House and joins Macmillion’s Flatiron Books imprint as senior VP and publisher. Originally a non-fiction imprint, Einhorn will be bringing her literary and commercial fiction background along with a staff of fiction editors to Flatiron Books.

Maya Angelou’s Memorial service will be broadcast live from Wake Forest University where she has taught since 1982. Tune in June 7, 2014 at 10 a.m. to watch.

Friday, May 2, 2014

What's My Job?: Mike Long on "Good Day New York"

Question: What does Mike Long do?

Good Day New York has a recurring segment where a special guest is brought out and the hosts try to guess his or her profession. Last week, someone with a job close to our hearts was tapped to try to stump them—and he did a great job!

When asked if he's a ventriloquist, Mike answered, “No, I’m not, I’m not… Well, I guess metaphorically I am.”

When asked for a clue, he replied coyly, “No one ever says to me, ‘Don’t put words in my mouth!’”

Have you already figured out his job? It took the hosts nearly seven minutes to guess!

Check out the full video below, and then keep reading for a Q&A with Mike.

GG: Was it fun to be on the show? How did it feel to not be “behind the scenes” for a change?
ML: It was exciting and so much fun! I do television once in a while, usually commenting on speeches. It's fun but often sterile, staring alone into a studio camera with the interviewer thousands of miles away. This time it was all about me. Speechwriters don’t get that a lot! The day before the segment, the producer and I planned the bit, so I wrote some potential back-and-forth, we talked about the most well-known events I’d written for so they could pull photos, and I prepared a long list of clues. If you look closely, you can see my notes on the table in front of me.

What kind of feedback or attention have you got since being on the show? 
It’s exploded in my own little circle of social media, which has been great. Plus, within one hour, it generated an intriguing new assignment for me. It also drove up subscriptions to my newsletter (sign up here!), and it put in jeopardy Colbert’s chances of actually getting to his new gig, as I am now on the hunt. (This is extreme sarcasm.)

Are you planning more TV appearances in the future? 
Well, planning them is one thing; getting them is another. But yeah, I'd love to do more, and the odds seem to be on my side. Long ago I did standup, I’m comfortable on camera, and producers seem to find me quick with a funny remark. I’m already working on another gig that I hope will come together before summer. Cross your fingers for me!

Spoiler alert: Mike Long is a speechwriter, author, educator, and award-winning screenwriter and playwright. Find him online here.