Monthly Archives: October 2012

A Biography and a Memoir That Read Like Fiction

I have preferred fiction over biographical books all my life. I find it very difficult to pick up a biography or autobiography and stay in it, but there are exceptions. Some biographers and autobiographers tell a true story so well that it pulls you along like a great novel.

My favorite biography in recent years is Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, the bestselling author of Seabiscuit. The book description on Amazon describes Unbroken as . . .a testament to the resilience of the human mind, body, and spirit. It is the story of Louis Zamperini, who had been a juvenile delinquent with a defiant nature. He directed that defiance into becoming a world-class runner, competing at the Berlin Olympics and coming close to breaking the four-minute mile.

Zamperini became an airman in World War II. His plane was shot down over the Pacific. Captured by the Japanese, he endured incredible conditions as a POW to survive beyond the war. Hillenbrand’s poignant retelling of his story pulled me along without hesitation. Her skill with this genre of books is extraordinary. It has 4.5 stars average on Amazon with 2,997 reviews. Almost all who read it find it amazing.

Like others who read Kindle books, I cruise the FREE lists each week for great reads and new authors. I use the Amazon review average scores and the written reviews to evaluate a book before downloading it. I noticed that many who buy our book, The Leopard Tree, also buy Jeri Parker’s A Thousand Voices. It has 24 reviews of a 5.0 star average, a testament to its appeal to readers.

This is the compelling story of a teacher who befriends a deaf boy who is both difficult and amazingly bright. The story is more powerful when you realize that it is Ms. Parker’s memoir. She became a second mother to this challenging child, finding that she received as much as she gave in being with him. She writes, . . . when his mother had troubles, I more or less stole him. Or that’s what I always said. He was the son I always wanted, and I did get him for a while.

 

Oddly the book begins with the death of Carlos Louis Salazar, the deaf boy grown up. You meet him through Ms. Parker’s vivid memory and engaging narrative about their entangled lives, dating back to 1964. Her honesty about her feelings and the up and down journey with Carlos is captivating. Jeri Parker demonstrates her commitment to Carlos at every step of the way.

I still like fiction more than non-fiction, but both of these rank among the best books I have ever read. They are available as Kindle books and I think they are worth the investment of your time and money.

–      Tim Merriman

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What a Difference a Book Makes

Human beings must decide now whether or not the mountain gorilla will become one of them, a species discovered and extinct within the same century, The gorillas’ destiny lies in the hands of those who share their communal inheritance, the land of Africa, the home of the mountain gorilla. –Dian Fossey

Dian Fossey’s landmark work with mountain gorillas in Rwanda from 1966 until her death in 1985 has often been credited with saving the species. She wrote of her experiences in “Gorillas in the Mist,” which was later made into a movie. Her stories of these gentle giants gave us a glimpse into the world of one of humankind’s closest relatives, making the decimation of their numbers by poachers all the more wrenching. Fossey was not the only researcher to write about the gorillas – George Schaller’s pioneering studies with them and Bill Webber and Amy Vedder’s work to create an ecotourism program with the intent of saving the species have also been important works. But Fossey’s intensely personal relationship with the mountain gorillas transcended pure science and conservation measures. Her passion stirred millions, giving credence to the neuroscience that tells us that engaging both the mind and the heart is what makes a real difference in persuasive communication.

When I learned some years ago that it was possible to spend time with mountain gorillas in their own habitat, I was ready. I had seen the movie, read the book, and wanted to see what Fossey saw. As the years slipped by, and age crept up on my joints, I had given up hope of ever making the journey up the mountains where the gorillas lived. I had heard it was a physically demanding hike through rough, heavily forested terrain and I was sure that I had missed my window of opportunity.

So when I found myself in Rwanda for a work project recently, and a free day gave us the chance to visit Volcanoes National Park, I paid an outrageous amount for a permit that would allow me to join a guided group of eight people as we caught up to trackers and spent an hour with a mountain gorilla family going about their normal daily routine in the forest. There are now ten habituated family groups that roam the Virunga volcanoes. Each family can be visited by only one group of eight humans each day, and only for an hour. The time I was able to spend with the gorillas was nothing short of magical. It was definitely physically demanding, but we managed to be in a group that visited a family that was close to the park boundary and I was able to keep up with the younger, more fit people in the group, as our guide moved slowly uphill with plenty of rest breaks.

Dian Fossey was opposed to the idea of creating opportunities for tourists to view gorillas. Part of her fear stemmed from the concern that gorillas might not be able to differentiate between harmless tourists and deadly poachers and so would be more vulnerable to poaching. The opposite has occurred. There is now a huge financial incentive for the Rwandan government to protect the mountain gorillas. Trackers stay with the gorillas, so that time spent finding them is minimized. Because there is greater attention paid to them, poaching is becoming more difficult, and their numbers have actually increased in recent years. Last year’s census by the World Wildlife Fund recorded 786 individuals, up 26% in the last decade.

Fossey’s book and the movie it inspired brought attention to the mountain gorilla in a way that little else could. I am grateful for the work that she did, especially after meeting the gorillas face to face on their turf. They are incredible creatures, with old souls reflected in their depths of their eyes. I want to know more about them, see more of them, and do more for them. Fossey piqued my interest, but being there solidified my commitment. What a difference a book can make, opening a door to new worlds and new ways of thinking about things you thought you already knew. Keep reading, but remember, the last page is just the start . . .

– Lisa Brochu

Author with Tim Merriman of The Leopard Tree

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October 22, 2012 · 11:25 am

Self-published – Vanity or Artistry?

Fifty Shades of Grey is a runaway hit book by E.L. James in the familiar genre of romance, with the edginess of dominance and submission as a major theme. It has outsold Harry Potter books with a record 40 million copies purchased in its first year. Moreover, it was originally self-published, though print publishers have now snapped it up. Its viral success has been the talk of the publishing world. How could a self-published book with very little marketing and promotion beyond book blogs run away with the biggest new seller title? And can a self-published novel be good, maybe even great?

If you saw a customized car that you just loved, would you ask the owner/customizer if he did the work himself or hired all of the painting, upholstery and design work done by professional car people? If you saw a painting that you loved immediately, would you ask the artist if a REAL artist helped her or him plan and execute the work? If you looked at a home to buy and you loved the craftsmanship of it, would it worry you to know it was designed and built by the owner/architect and not a big firm that churns out homes by the thousands?

We value originality in most forms of artistry. We know that big companies produce consistent but somewhat bland products through mass production of many items and services. How do we feel about self-published and self-produced books and music? Vanity presses and music studios have existed for decades.  Their published works have often been considered inferior for being self-published, self-produced. The personal creator producing his or her own book or record was looked down on as someone who was unable to attract the attention of one of the larger publishing houses or recording studios.

All that is changing for the better. There are some very well known stories about authors of great books being rejected a hundred or more times before landing with someone who helped them publish a book – Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and Chicken Soup for the Soul are notable examples. We don’t know how many great writers and musicians have simply given up for lack of self-promotion skills, despite their other talents.

When you see a traditionally published book selling for $20, the author gets only a small fraction of that – 7 to 15% in most cases. The publisher and agent get their shares also with the largest share landing in the publisher’s or distributor’s accounts. Writing is not all that different from farming. The farmer who produces the crop, the author who writes the great book and the musician with incredible skills receive only a small fraction of the total sales amount. Usually, the middle-men make more than the creative artist who writes, sings or plays music.

Self-publishing through Amazon, Apple, Smashwords and other companies is fairly easy for digital books. Amazon is the easiest of the group and most sales return 70% to the author in most price ranges. Artistry is definitely evident in many books and missing in others. Vanity is always there. We write because we feel we have something to say, to share. But any artist, composer, car customizer, custom homebuilder or creative craftsman shares both vanity and art.

An author can now publish his or her own book and promote it to success simply because others choose to read it. Readers now control the marketplace, not publishers looking only at their bottom line. I read Fifty Shades of Grey and found the story compelling and very readable. I did not care for either character, a self-absorbed wealthy entrepreneur exploiting a naïve young woman or the young woman lacking the self-respect to say no to gifts and exploitive advances. Whether the book is great literature or not misses the point. It has a vast market and has proven to be enjoyed by most readers. I read the book knowing it was not my preferred genre, so I will not review it formally.

If you’re a reader, keep sharing your thoughts through reviews on Amazon and goodreads.com. If you write, you have wonderful places to publish at little expense. See if there’s a market for your creative work. It’s a new day in publishing and exciting to get involved in as a reader or writer. Vanity alone will not sell your book but great writing and careful promotion will. There are lots of people in this new world of publishing willing to help and great new writers to be discovered.

– Tim Merriman

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The Problem with Publishers

 

Many years ago, I wrote a short children’s book and submitted it to a publisher. I was surprised and pleased when I received a letter of acceptance and a contract almost right away. The book was about what it’s like to be the child of a museum curator in a natural history museum, something that my own children know way too much about. I titled the book “My Mom Dusts Dinosaurs” which coincidentally, was the first line of the book. It went on to describe other activities common to curators and was intended to interest children in a potential career path, a sort of behind the scenes look at the people who work in museums as curators or interpreters. I thought I would create an entire series of these sorts of books for the offbeat careers that most kids don’t think about, but would love to do (park rangers, naturalists, living history characters, etc.).

 

Unfortunately, my second book in the series was not accepted, but I began to believe that was okay after I saw the first book in print. The publisher had changed the title to “Who Cleans the Museum?” Curators are not janitors. The publisher’s change of title completely changed the complexion of the book, even though they didn’t change the content of the book. The book is still in print and I’m still proud of it, but this change of title still bothers me. The publisher decided it would make more sense and be more “marketable.” While I can appreciate that thought, the new title completely misrepresents my intent in writing the book.

 

Water under the bridge, but it does make me think that the problem with traditional publishing methods, aside from the soul-crushing rejection letters from publishers who fail to see an author’s potential, is that the author loses control of his or her intent when the manuscript gets turned over to the publisher. Self-publishing certainly has its drawbacks, but at least the author retains control over the end product. If it fails, it is truly the author’s failure, not the publisher’s. There is no getting around that – self-publishing forces you to take sole responsibility for your work, from the initial idea to putting the final product in readers’ hands, but I think I’d rather have that problem than having a publisher alter the work for the sake of selling and losing its integrity along the way.

 

In all fairness, I’m grateful for the publishers I work with who have done good things for my writing career. For the most part, they are respectful, helpful, encouraging, and usually right on target when it comes to marketing and promotions. Now if they just wouldn’t change the title . . .

 

Lisa Brochu

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Stalking 5.0 Star Reviews (Honestly)

We wrote The Leopard Tree in 2007 and won two awards with it in 2008, but it languished with poor sales for the next five years. We both had demanding jobs with little spare time for promotion, so we took the “message in a bottle” approach to promotion. Throw it out there for sale on Amazon and wait for the flood of buyers. Unfortunately, that approach simply does not work. Whether your book represents the Great American Novel or just a weekend project, you still have to promote it to get it into the hands of readers. Getting great reviews early on in the process will help. Here are a few tips:

  1. Get draft reviews before you self-publish your book. Share it with friends who will give you an honest opinion – then LISTEN. When they tell you it didn’t hold their attention or had vague characters, figure out how to make it better and go back to work. Only put out your very best work.
  2. Hire a professional book doctor or editor who will be brutally honest in telling you what’s right and wrong with your book. LISTEN. Make changes and pass the book around again until both friends and professional editors tell you it is good. Not everyone will agree on every detail, but listening to comments and acting on those that make sense will only make you a better writer.
  3. Enter contests – We won $1000 for The Leopard Tree when it won Best Young Adult Novel in 2008 in the Writer’s Digest Self-published contest. Some contests include a professional review as part of the award. Ours earned a Midwest Book Review. Also, you can pull excerpts out of the judge’s comments, which will be very useful in promotions.
  4. Give a free copy of your book to friends and acquaintances who express a bit of interest and ask them to read it and review it. Do not tell them to “review it if you like it.” Ask for honest feedback. If you don’t have the confidence to do this, your book may not be ready for publication and it likely will not sell.
  5. Remind people who tell you they have read your book to post a review on Amazon. Some will immediately agree and some will not be comfortable doing that. If they say they will, REMIND. People get busy, and may forget to get this done without the gentle reminders.
  6. Ask other authors who write in your genre to review your book and offer to review their book in return. Local publishing associations are a great place to find people who are willing to participate in a reciprocal reading/review strategy. You each have an opportunity to learn more about each other, writing and reviewing.
  7. Read every review that goes up, and don’t forget to thank reviewers publicly in your Blog and on your book’s Facebook page.
  8. Encourage people to post a recommendation for the book or a few words from their review on their own Facebook and Twitter pages.

The Leopard Tree only had half a dozen reviews after five years on Amazon until we got serious about promoting it. It went from 10 5.0 Star reviews in May of this year to 38  5.0 Star Reviews this past week. Twenty-five thousand readers who downloaded it for FREE are now leaving unsolicited comments on Amazon and Facebook. Thankfully, their comments have been very supportive and positive and sales are growing..

We had 11 – 5.0 Star Reviews on our non-fiction book, Put the HEART Back In Your Community, in less than a year and went from one review to eleven in less than two months. We could have done better but simply did not work at it. Now we know we have to work at it and are learning how to do that more effectively. It is a niche market book about community planning so we were not disappointed with 1,400 downloads during three free days.

As an author, if you are involved in the Kindle Direct Publishing Select program with Amazon, you get five days every 90 days to promote your book by allowing a free download. By getting it in more readers’ hands, even though they haven’t paid for the pleasure, you are creating opportunities to get more reviews.

Reviews certainly help you sell your book, but they also energize you as a writer. When you begin getting reviews from people you don’t know and may never meet, and they clearly understand what you attempted to get across, there is no better reward. At their worst, reviews provide needed feedback. But at their best, they are rocket fuel.

– Tim Merriman and Lisa Brochu

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