The Publishing Game

Your book is written. Huzzah! It may even have been edited.

Now what?

You have choices – and nearly all of them require a query. I won’t be covering that here (although it dawns on me it would be worth including in the book that this series will eventually become); fortunately, there are lots of good sites and books on writing a winning query. But who do you send the query to? Or do you bypass the query process altogether?

Today, we’ll look at the different kinds of publishers, what makes them different, and some of the hazards involved.

Now I will admit, I’m quite biased when it comes to this topic, as I am a publisher myself. But I will do my best to present the types of publishes as objectively as possible. So… on we go.

Trade Publishers
Characteristics: Think Random House. Doubleday. Harper Collins. Simon and Schuster. Trade publishers, or traditional publishers, are big houses, with full service attention, soup to nuts. They pay for everything, and you get paid royalties on book sales. Sometimes you can get an advance (but unless you’re Sarah Palin or Bill Clinton, your advance will probably only be a few thousand). It’s a great deal if you can get in – there is nothing so supportive for you and your book than to be in the hands of a major publisher. And they have a marketing machine that will get you and your book out there. If you have a chance with a major, go for it! It’s a dream come true for any author.

Reality Check: Your chances of being picked up by one of the big guys is around 1 in 100,000. Many people spend years (and hundreds of dollars) shopping manuscripts around to literary agents, who are your entrée into trade publishers. And you aren’t necessarily getting rejected because your manuscript is bad – there is just too much competition. Also note: being picked up by a major publisher does not guarantee wealth. A recent study (that I can’t for the life of me find – but as soon as I do I will provide the link) suggests that 85% of all books they publish LOSE money… 13% break even… and just 2% make millions (and pay for the other 98%).

Professional and Scholarly Publishers
Characteristics: Much like trade publishers, they are a soup-to-nuts kind of place, but they focus on their subject matter. Cisco Press is a professional publisher, and they in fact SEEK authors who are subject matter experts to write various books.

Reality Check: Your book must fit their niche, and you must have the credentials (degrees, previous publications, certifications, etc.) to get a gig with them. Also, don’t expect to make a ton of money here either.

Educational Publishers
Characteristics: Writing a textbook? I admit that I don’t know a lot about the market, although I suspect that like professional and scholarly publishers, there are niches and credentialing requirements. Companies like McGraw-Hill and Cengage specialize in textbooks, so if you’re going down that path, you might check them out.

Reality Check: You might have to leave Thomas Jefferson out of your history book if you want it to sell in Texas.

University Presses
Characteristics: Some are very specific to the point of only publishing their faculty’s work; others are so broad they publish books for the general consumer.

Reality Check: They are quite specific, so don’t waste your time on a query until you know precisely what it is they publish and whether you’d be even remotely the kind of author they’re seeking.

Independent Publishers
Characteristics: These houses run on the same model as a trade publisher – soup to nuts, they pay for it all, you get royalties. The benefit of an independent house is that they are quirky, specialized, and probably more down to earth. They also tend to specialize on genres; if you’re writing regional books, you will likely find a local indy regional publisher who is a perfect target for your query.

Reality Check: Just because they’re small doesn’t mean they are more likely to take your book. Many independents only have capacity for a limited number of new releases each year (like 12).

Contract or Partnership Publishers
Characteristics: They offer soup-to-nuts service, but the author pays fees for publication. Most publishers in this group have national distribution like the big boys, and they ensure you’re well edited/produced. You own the rights to your book with most partnership publishers. Some of them specialize, others are more general, but they are trying to meet the sweet spot between self-publishing and the traditional model.

Reality Check: Most contract publishers don’t take every book that crosses their aquisition desk either; they tend to have a rejection rate of about 40%… and they recognize that the author has to be as invested as the publisher is. It does cost money, but you’re much more likely to get your book published than if you try one of the previously mentioned types. Also, some contract publishers have more – or less – marketing support included in their price.

Self Publishing Companies
Characteristics: These companies (CreateSpace, Lulu, BookSense, Outskirts, etc.) provide minimal (or a la carte) editing and design, and you pay to publish. This can be great if you need to get a book out quickly, or want a small quantity, or have had professional editing done elsewhere. Most of them have their own distribution venues. Marketing, however, is a la carte too.

Reality Check: There is very little personal attention; you really are publishing on your own.

Subsidy Press/Vanity Publishers
Characteristics: They will publish for a fee (or sometimes not), but they will also hold the rights to your book. They tend to have no distribution, editorial, or marketing.

Reality Check: MOST bookstores will NOT carry books published by vanity presses. These books are rarely reviewed. Your book will likely be priced so high it won’t sell anyway, because they make their money selling the book to you. And…they can hold the rights to your book for up to seven years, with nearly impossible-to-wiggle-out-of contracts.

What about eBooks?
Ah, yes…eBooks. It’s possible to only publish a book as an eBook, but which kind? Kindle? Nook? Sony Reader? One of the dozen other reader formats? It’s my opinion that the choices will settle out much like the VHS/Betamax choice did…and my hunch is that the Kindle format will win in the end.

Most publishers of all stripes will help you get your book into an eBook format as a complementary version; others will only do physical copies. But I think it’s worth it…. So talk to your publisher about going e.

Okay…so we’re almost done! Next week, we will talk about promotion and marketing.


Legal Eagles

It’s inevitable: if you’re writing non-fiction, at some point you need to consider the law. How much you need to consider it varies widely depending on your genre and the scope of your manuscript – but there are some things to keep in mind.

Caveat: I am NOT an attorney; I’m only trying to point out some possible legal issues surrounding your non-fiction book. In fact, this edition will be a bit shorter, as I’m going to defer to the experts I will be linking to instead. However, I think it’s good to have the links and resources handily available…so consider this a public service! Also note that I’m only dealing with books published in the United States; each country has its own copyright and fair use guidelines.

Before we begin
First, if you have any questions at all about intellectual property issues as it pertains to your book, contact an attorney with expertise in copyrights, intellectual property, or entertainment.

Second, the main law we are speaking about here is Title 17 of the United States Code – the US Copyright Act of 2009 (which is largely an amended version of the Act of 1976, now including laws surrounding internet, software, digital performance, home viewing, satellites, piracy, etc.). You can find the entire law here.

So… what is a copyright?

As defined by the US Copyright Office, “Copyright is a form of protection provided by the laws of the United States (title 17, U. S. Code) to the authors of “original works of authorship,” including literary, dramatic, musical, artistic, and certain other intellectual works.” Only the author of the work can claim copyright; but note this exception: if you are hired to create a work, the EMPLOYER, not the employee, is the holder of the copyright. I saw this in action in the most recent book I published, Pooled Trust Options. The author was hired by the National PLAN Alliance to write the book. While her name is listed as the author, the National PLAN Alliance holds the copyright.

Securing a copyright does notrequire registering at the copyright office – but there are advantages (such as a record in the Copyright Office). Also – publication itself is not THE key to securing copyright, but it is important. And for goodness’ sake, please do continue to use the © symbol on works you publish online or in print.

There are also guidelines for derivative works – and this can get you in trouble. Remember the fracas around Shepard Fairey’s HOPE poster? This was about his poster being a derivative work; how different is different? If you have ANY sense that your work is derivative, contact a copyright attorney.

For more, please read the US Copyright Basics circular.

Now talk to me about Fair Use
Simply put, fair use allows you to use small portions of copyrighted material without requiring permission. The law (section 107 of the Copyright Act of 1976) is intentionally vague – which means, again, you have to be quite careful not to quote too much but not be overanxious about it either. There are guidelines on ‘balance’ – what percentage of a work is quoted, how much more of the work is yours. It is ultimately, however, a case of “we know an infringement when we see it.” In Recounting Minnesota, WineRev quoted a lot from a lot of sources – but they were rarely more than 5% of the original work, were properly cited, and the bulk of the total work was still WineRev’s. This was, according to our attorney, fair use. (Note: we did check with Kos, since the work was originally published at DailyKos, but his rule is that diarists own their own writing. Yay! We also checked with other sources we quoted heavily from – all agreed with our attorney that it was within fair use.)

What you choose to do is largely a decision you make with your editor, publisher, and associated attorneys. If there is any question about violating fair use, pursue some legal advice. Meanwhile, check out the fine guidelines at the American Library Association and Stanford University.

Why else might I need a lawyer?
Besides getting the content past the legal eagles, you will want an attorney for your publishing contract, to make sure your rights are protected. Depending on the publisher and the model you follow, you will have various levels of rights to your work. A traditional publisher like Doubleday will own the right to publish your work. A self publisher like CreateSpace gives you the rights to your own work. Simply put, if you own the rights, you are licensing a publisher to design/print/promote/distribute your work, only as you desire. If your publisher owns the rights, they are paying you (in royalties) for the ability to do whatever they want with your work. (We’ll talk more about the various publishing models next week.)

You will also want to make sure, when you sign a contract, to know how the financial side works. Lawyers are very good at that…

Ultimately…If you have ANY questions about legalities of anything surrounding your book, consult an attorney.

Next week, a review of various publishing models – the pros and cons.


Editors Are a Writer’s Best Friend

You know the saying “a lawyer who represents himself has a fool for a client”? A similar thing can be said here: a writer who edits himself has a fool for an author. (Or something…needs…editing!)

Anyway – there are many kinds of editors: from the acquisition editor, who signs you… the executive editor, who manages the project; the content editor, who makes the book work; the copy editor, who makes the grammar work; and the proofreader, who catches the mistakes no one else noticed. I would like to focus on the content and copy editors – the people who are perhaps most intimately involved in the manuscript itself – and offer some perspective on what good editors can do.

Before We Begin
There are bad editors in the world. Bad editors don’t respect authors, or don’t have an eye for detail. If you feel like your editor is either picking apart every single sentence without cause, or accepting entire chapters without comment, replace your editor. You want someone who respects you and your work but doesn’t ignore problems either.

Your Editor Is in Your Corner
Whether your editor initially loves your manuscript or were simply handed your manuscript to work on, your editor will be your best advocate to other members of the publishing team. She wants your book to succeed, to read well, to be useful, to be important, to have impact.

Think of your editor like a word therapist – a good editor will challenge you at times. But she isn’t challenging you to be a pain; she wants to bring out the best in your writing. She knows you’re good enough, you’re smart enough, and gosh darn it, readers will like you. Let her help your manuscript be the best it can be.

Your Editor Has Fresh Eyes
No matter how many times you have rewritten and reread and rewritten your book, you have probably missed something or failed to explain something properly, or skipped a step or two. Your editor will notice these misses. First, he’s not the subject matter expert, so he will view the book as a reader would. Second, he’s trained to think through steps, notice terms without definition, and think in terms of the book’s continuity.

Don’t be dismayed if your editor asks for explanation, or asks if the reader will understand a term. Don’t be dismayed if he says you made a jump in logic. Don’t be dismayed if he suggests omitting something that feels to him like a non-sequitur. It’s not because he’s dense, it’s because he noticed a gap and wants to make sure your audience won’t.

Your Editor Will Read Every Word
Every single word in your manuscript matters. Extraneous words matter, so do missing ones. And so, your editor will read every single word of your manuscript – ask you to delete the ones that don’t need to be there, add the ones that are missing.

Now I know that as an author, you are proud of every word you used. You worked hard to make sure you chose your words wisely, that they reflect both the subject and your persona. So when your editor suggests word changes, it may feel like she’s killing your kittens. Relax. She’s not committing grammatical murder – she is just trying to help make the manuscript read as easily as you want it to.

Your Editor Will Challenge Your Assumptions
You have worked hard on your manuscript to be clear about your perspective, to maintain the appropriate level of objectivity (which, as I’ve pointed out in the genre discussions, may vary wildly), and to support your work with solid evidence and outside sources.

And still, your editor may challenge your assumptions. Are you telling the whole story? Is this perspective supportable? What do those who disagree think? Your editor’s going to ask for sources when you make claims, and ask for explanations when it’s a new idea. Again, he’s not being this way to be difficult; his role as devil’s advocate will make your book stronger and less prone to critical dismemberment post-publication.

Your Editor May Have Some Good Ideas
Sometimes, you will get stuck in a particular perspective or method, and no matter how badly it comes out, you can’t see another way to explain/explore/describe. Your editor, with her fresh eyes, may see the way clear. Sometimes it’s turning a description into a series of steps. Sometimes it’s offering some table or graph ideas. Sometimes it’s “let’s put this in the appendix and get it out of our way.” Sometimes it could be a reorganization of the information. In the upcoming book on business etiquette, called Oh Behave!, the original outline meant one chapter was about as long as the rest of the book combined. My idea was to break it up and turn the one chapter into four and add a section label. Now the chapters are all of reasonable length and the book in general has a better flow.

Also – your editor may also know just enough about your topic to offer some concrete ideas for an additional chapter or section. She might have you write more than you anticipated, but again, she’s in your corner, wanting your book to be as strong as useful as it can be.

Your Editor Is Not an Excuse
Just because you have editors, do not think you can write with no regard to grammar, spelling, and punctuation. By all that you hold holy, get your its/it’s right, you’re their/they’re/there right, your contractions and homonyms and possessives right, as much as possible. Please use punctuation (unless you’re e. e. cummings, and if you are, you’re not writing non-fiction anyway). It’s okay if your commas aren’t all right, but please oh please use periods.

In other words, please do your best with both the organization and the actual writing.

By the way, there is a wonderful interview with Mary Norris, a copyeditor at The New Yorker, by Andy Ross; Ross concludes his interview with a note that typifies the author/copyeditor experience:

After completing this interview, I sent the text to Mary. She sent it back, hurling me into copy edit hell. I spent 3 hours correcting her edits that included caps to lower case, lower case to caps, spaces between periods and colons, assorted italics and the list goes on. This exercise was a powerful lesson, in itself, in the work of a copy editor. I’m exhausted from the experience.

Read the whole interview here.

Your Editor Likes Acknowledgement
Maybe it’s because I have been forgotten in the process – but most editors I know like to be noticed for his/her contributions. A note in your acknowledgements is grand – so are roses… wine… chocolates… Hawaiian vacations… cars… er, what I mean is that no one publishes a book alone, and a bit of an acknowledgement of the editors who made your book as good as you want it to be is a good thing. They’ll be more likely to sign on to work on your next book if you treat them well both during and after the process.

Next week, we’ll review some legal issues around publishing – copyrights, fair use, etc. Meanwhile, good writing and see you next week!


Back Matters

Just as what you put in the front of your non-fiction book matters, so does what you put at the back of the book. Whereas the front matter introduces your reader and gives them a reason to go on to Chapter One, the back matter lends support and credibility.

Credibility? I thought I already established my credibility, I hear you moan. I know, I know – you’ve worked hard to create an authoritative persona, you’ve done research, you’ve got the expertise in your subject matter and have worked hard to prove it. However, when that credibility is backed up by lists of references, bibliographies, and further evidence of support from other sources, your reader begins to believe it too. Yes, those things support your work but they support your authority as well.

So let’s look at different flavors of back matter:

This is especially important for informative works – unless it’s of the “I was there and here is what I saw” variety, you will be drawing a lot of information from other sources. Cite them. Remember the endless bibliographies we wrote for term papers? This is why you did it. Whether you follow the MLA (Modern Library Association) or APA (American Psychological Assocation) guidelines, make sure every item is properly cited and listed.

This is a good time to take a detour into footnotes and endnotes: it is vital to cite sources and references throughout the writing of the book. There are several ways to do this – you can put it in the body of the text, a la MLA…

The circle of trust is different in that “is not about solving a visible problem: it is about honoring an invisible thing called the soul” (Palmer 66).

…or the APA…

“But when we learn to trust the invisible powers within us, we will watch ourselves, other people, our institutions, and our society grow in integrity” (Palmer, 2004).

…which then refers to a book in your bibliography:

Palmer, Parker. A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward An Undivided Life (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 2004), pp. 66

Or, you can just use a footnote and list the reference there.

Now: do you use real footnotes? Or end-of-chapter notes? Or collect them all into one big pile of endnotes at the back of the book? I would say it depends on whether your footnotes are almost entirely citations, or if you’re offering clarifications, definitions, additional stories, perhaps even alternative views that you aren’t in a position to discuss in the main text in those footnotes. If all you have are citations, endnotes make more sense.

References are different from bibliographies in that you may not actually be quoting from the references but still want your reader to know about them. They are often resources that you talk about in general in the text (like lists of marketing professionals or spiritual directors). Be certain to list as accurate and current information as you can, knowing that websites die and companies go out of business. Your references lend these organizations credibility, so be sure you stand behind their work.

Many, but not all, non-fiction books carry an index. In some cases, an index is not feasible or helpful; in others, it means the difference between the book being usable or not. But whether you choose to use one or not, make sure it is (a) accurate and (b) as detailed as you need it to be. I do think you can get too detailed on an index, but that’s me. Now I do appreciate detailed indexes in cookbooks – but I always wish cookbooks were better indexed by ingredients. Not just the main ones (beef, potatoes, etc.) but some of the minor but significant ones (almonds, tomatoes).

I also recognize that there are times I wished for an index – and now that I’ve published some non-fiction without one, I see why it may not exist: they are difficult to create and take a great deal of time. In Recounting Minnesota, I wish we had an index. However, due to the time constraints, we decided to forgo one in favor of a timeline. If we do a second edition, I’ll insist we add one, but we won’t be under the gun either.

Speaking of timelines, I really appreciate this feature in books that explore a chronology of any sort, whether it be a history, biography, or the development of an idea. (For example, it would be great to see a timeline of significant discoveries on the search for a unified theory.) If your book lends itself to a timeline, consider adding it. At least one reader (me!) will be thankful.

An appendix offers additional material, often written after the book is complete. It could be a more thorough explanation of some key concepts (perhaps the actual proofs or theorems in mathematical or scientific tomes), the profess steps for a concept you describe, charts of detail that don’t fit into the body of the text, or stories/bios that don’t otherwise have a home.

Deciding what to add here is between you and your editor; sometimes it provides a way to focus the main text and still get in what you want. In Generations of Faith, Carl Eeman’s original manuscript included references to a Trinitarian view of generational dynamics that the editor found too limiting; The Alban Institute prides itself on serving people of all faiths. Carl took out those references in the body of the text and turned those Trinitarian ideas into an appendix; thus, he was able to share these ideas and maintain the non-denominational character of the main text.

While it is possible (and advised) to define terms in the body of your text, you may also want to offer definitions in a separate glossary. Here, you can give perhaps a more thorough definition that you don’t have room for in the manuscript. You can also define some terms you figure almost everyone will know and won’t define in the manuscript but want to ensure are clear.

As with your front matter, your final choices on back matter will depend on your book’s needs and what your publisher requires.

Next week, we will talk about editors – the different kinds of editors, what they do, ways to work with them, and why you should laud them with praise (and roses and chocolates and champagne and money). See you next week!


Front Matters

Unlike a novel, where you can just get on with it already, non-fiction books require some introductory matter, in varying degrees and lengths. Today, we’ll take a look at common pieces of ‘front matter’ and some tips for making sure they work.

At their best, front matter elements help your reader. They provide roadmaps, previews, and in some cases, credibility assurances. At their worst, they’re random pages to flip through before getting to the meat. You should always consider, as you are adding front matter elements, what the reader – not you – will get out of it. Not all of these elements are necessary in every book; but they should all be focused.

(Note: we will not be covering title, copyright, and figure listings pages here – those are fairly standard and are defined in large part by the publisher.)

The Table of Contents
At minimum, the table of contents (TOC) points you to the starting place for each chapter. At its most expansive, it provides section headings and short abstracts.

How do you choose how far to go? I believe it depends on two things: indexing and genre.

1. If you have an extensive, well-detailed index, you probably don’t need an extensive, well-detailed TOC. If you have any index at all, you probably don’t need an extensive, well-detailed TOC. However, if an index isn’t being used (for various reasons that we’ll address next week), you may wish to add more detail up front.

2. If your book is a history or biography or chronology, you probably don’t need much detail in a TOC. However, if your book is a process piece, a more detailed TOC is probably handy. Now I’ve seen this vary with cookbooks – do you list all the recipes up front, or just the main areas (Appetizers, Soups and Salads), or maybe breakdown a little further (Meats, with subheadings Pork, Beef, Veal)? I suspect it’s up to you and your editor.

The Foreword
Forewords are written by someone other than the author; sometimes it’s someone else in the field, other times, it’s a mentor or interested observer. Recounting Minnesota‘s foreword was written by Kos; this provided not only credibility for the work but also a bit of name recognition.

Forewords are never very long – 500-1000 words should do it. They are intended to entice your reader, to assure them that at least one other person, someone with some authority and knowledge, thinks this is good and believes it is important. See, for example, Markos’s last paragraph:

That’s why this book – yet another community-built and fueled project – is so important. Rather than let his work swirl down that memory hole, the fi nest has been captured in a medium that can best preserve it. And yes, even in these digital times, it’s the analog book. Within these pages, you’ll come to understand how a community, with WineRev leading the way, educated itself on the complex saga of the fiercely fought Minnesota Senate seat while, at the same time, clearly having a blast.

Ask your desired foreword writer early in the process – you don’t want to be scrambling the week of production to find someone to scribble down some words. Then, as soon as you are able, provide them with some sample chapters, the outline, or maybe even the unedited manuscript. It helps them to know what it is you’re writing about, after all.

The Preface – aka The Acknowledgements
This is all you – how the book came into being (“I never meant to write this book, just post a few stories of local color about a quick recount here inMinnesota… but things got a little out of hand”) and your thanks to the people who made it possible. It’s a good thing to talk about what inspired you (watching Ken Burns’ The Civil War) and how long it took (in three short months). It is also okay to thank not only your editors and designers but also family and close associates. Resist the urge to thank every single teacher or lover or coworker; only thank those who truly added significant inspiration, information, and support. Also, it’s okay to omit someone who might have contributed but not so that you’re truly thankful to them. One of my favorite non-omission omissions comes from Rita Mae Brown, who said something to the effect of “the researcher will not be thanked; she got paid and that’s thanks enough”. (Does anyone have this source? I can’t seem to find the right book in my collection at the moment, but I’m thinking it’s in Dolley.)

The Introduction
This section generally introduces the topic and ‘what you’ll find inside’. It may also provide some perspective; where you’re coming from, your biases, and what you know is not in the book (I will not review common clocking functions).

This is often the section I will read while standing at the shelf of the bookstore; I will get an understanding of what the author is going to do and how in-depth (or mercifully introductory) the material will get. I will also know by reading the introduction whether this author’s perspective is one I’m looking for (I am likely to turn off from a book on women’s spirituality if the author tells me he’s going to dismantle any belief in the femininity of god).

So the tip here is to make your introduction a solid view into the world of the book, with helpful section-by-section or chapter-by-chapter abstracts.

The Prologue
The only time I’ve seen a prologue in non-fiction is in histories. Because the prologue is by definition, the words before the story, most non-fiction does not need any sort of preparation like that. Just get on with it, I say.

However, with histories, especially of a particular event/war/epoch, you may want a prologue to set the stage of what had happened right before (Ho Chi Minh being denied access at Yalta as possible spark for further events in Southeast Asia) or what conditions were like right before (the all-male atmosphere of West Point). It’s very much up to you – but use it with care.

Other Front Matter
In some cases, it’s important to explain material is cited, how to use the book, other quirks (like internetspeak), or definitions of common terms or acronyms. You may also have notes about translations, annotations, abridgements, or second editions. Sometimes you want this up front to explain why the book might be unusual. Whether it’s a note from the publisher or from you, discuss any other front matter with your editor.

Next week, we’ll look at the stuff in the back of the book. Meanwhile, enjoy your Labor Day evening and see you next week!


Illustrate This

A picture is worth a thousand words. A bad picture takes a thousand words to explain. Images in non-fiction are a tricky business, and there are a handful of tips to making sure your images work.

But first, apologies! I had this edition of T4 ready to go before I left for vacation but found out that my vacation spot had no internet access! It was great from a relaxation point of view, but it was frustrating nonetheless.

And now, back to our diary, already in progress…

Illustrations, graphs, charts, photos – all can add to a non-fiction book’s usefulness. And depending on what kind of book you are writing, illustrations may be more or less useful. Consider these points – I know some of them are no-brainers, but it’s always worth listing them anyway:

Process Pictures
If your book teaches readers how to bake a cake, install a home theater, or sew a quilt, of course you want pictures. You want your readers to see the finished product, and have illustrations showing intermediate steps as well. It helps to see the color of the batter, or the hookup panel, or the pre-stitched layout.

However, don’t have pictures just to have them. If you’re explaining a computer process, you don’t have to show every single screenshot of every single step; give us the ones where we have to make choices or may not necessarily see the options. Don’t give us the OK screens or the “do you really want to save” screens.

If you’re talking at ALL geographically (even if that geography is the interior of a server), maps help. Histories and biographies benefit from a map showing the environs; it’s especially helpful when you’re talking about battles or migrations.

However, if you are showing a route or pointing out landmarks, don’t overclutter. There’s a map in a Civil War book my father owned (long gone now except in my memory) that had so many of the troop movements illustrated you could barely tell which battalion was which and for whom they fought. I always puzzled over that map, wishing I could figure it out. The author would have been much better served to divide the map into several less complicated maps – either highlighting each general’s movements, or showing movements for a given time period.

Accuracy counts too. Just sayin’…

Charts and Graphs
A well-designed chart or graph can help explain concepts, make numbers more striking, or show relationships. Flow charts are incredibly handy when trying to explain processes. Mind maps are great for showing connections (just don’t make them Glenn-Beck’s-Blackboard laughable). Venn diagrams, bar charts, line charts, and pie charts all have their place too, and can really make a concept come alive.

However, make sure they aren’t so complicated that you need more than a page to explain them. If your editor looks at it and says “huh?” your chart may not be appropriate.

Also, if the chart doesn’t have some drama, you may want to skip it. Let’s say you’re showing poll results and want to prove that most Americans think the Tea Party is full of crackpots, your chart will be effective if the number of sane people looks large. Consider these two graphs, based on a recent poll that was featured on the front page. (Click the link to see the chart.)

Now the pie chart was illustrative, and it had quite a bit of impact. I wonder, however, what the impact would be if it had been a bar chart:

To me, there’s a little more drama, when you see how tall the No column is compared to the others. Not that the slice of the pie doesn’t have drama – but it is a consideration when you’re thinking about how to best represent information. And If you’re trying to show how LITTLE movement there is in something, a graph that show nearly imperceptible movement may be dramatic as well.

And finally, if the chart doesn’t tell you anything that your words don’t tell you, skip it…or edit your words to let the chart do the talking. In other words, avoid a sentence like “The graph above shows that 54% of Americans do not support the Tea Party movement, while 29% do, with 17% who don’t know.” A better lead is “Here’s what the tea party majority looks like:” (Way to go, Jed!)

If you’re writing a travelogue of Cape Cod, you will want pictures of landmarks, people, events, etc. But if you’re writing a treatise on postmodern language, pictures will be distracting. Just make sure, again, that the photos have a reason for being there.

Also make sure they are clear and printable. I admit a little regret that our published photo of Senator Al Franken being sworn in is a blurry video screen shot; the other photos in Recounting Minnesota were much clearer and translated well to black and white printing.

Drawn Illustrations
All of the above rules apply, of course – make sure they have a reason for being there and that they show some information you can’t get just from the words. I would add this note about illustrations: make sure the illustrations are consistent; whether you work with one illustrator or a group of them, the images should all be ‘of a piece’ – meaning they should look the same.

Of course, if you’re showing off a history of 20th century illustration, then of COURSE the illustrations will be different. But otherwise, they should look like they belong together. A great sample of this is the Moosewood Cookbook; not only do the illustrations match, the look is distinctive, and if you know the book, you can spot a page from it a mile away. (And if you don’t know this cookbook, go right now and buy it. I’ll wait. It set the standard for delicious vegetarian cooking.)

Last Piece
If you’re using other people’s photos, charts, and illustrations, get the requisite permissions. And give credit where credit is due!

Next week, we’ll talk about front matter – contents, introductions, forewords, prefaces, preludes, prologues, dedications, and whatever else you want people to flip past so they can get to the start of the book already. See you next Monday!


The Stylistics

While substance is vital in non-fiction writing, style is important too. How you write is as important as what you write. The style of your piece can mean the difference between being taken seriously and considered a joke, being dismissed as academic claptrap, and most of all, being understood.

Let’s look at some key style points to help you focus your writing:

Know your Audience
If you know your audience, the rest of the points almost resolve themselves. If you are writing for experienced cooks, you can use cooking terms that may require little or no explanation. If you are writing for inexperienced cooks, however, you will have to explain the terms and show them the methods that more experienced cooks take for granted.

That’s a simple example; more difficult is the unintended audience. Let’s say you’ve written a book on using the netroots for promoting progressive politics. Your intended audience is other progressives, who understand your perspective. Your unintended audience may include right-wing activists who are hoping to break your secret code. The truth is, you can’t write for them too. Write for your intended audience – the people you want to engage in this conversation.

Create your Persona
You want people to take you seriously, right? You want people to see you as an authority on the subject, right? Then you will need to write as though you know what you’re talking about. Get your mindset focused on yourself as authority. How you think of yourself is how you will write. If you think of yourself as someone who knows, then that will come out in your writing.

And– unless you are writing a technical manual – you should not divorce personality from your writing. Your voice will emerge whether you plan for it to emerge or not, so plan to let it emerge. Consider whether you will be writing in a personal voice, where you refer to yourself as I and your readers as you, or whether you will be writing in an impersonal voice, where you use one and we. I’d stay away from third-person tone (he, she, they), as it gets hard to manage the gender-neutral language.

Speaking of gender-neutral, a lot has been said and written about keeping gender out of the writing. Sometimes to ill-advised ends; I have a friend who, when I quote something written in a previous century, before “mankind” was considered gender-specific, always corrects it. That drives me nuts – Ralph Waldo Emerson MEANT all humanity when he wrote “mankind”, and I am not going to edit his writing to serve gender neutrality. But that being said, if you write in third person, write in third person PLURAL: they, them, their. If you need the singular, use different genders in different examples.

Tone is also an important part of your persona. We are all familiar with how tone translates – or doesn’t – online. How many emails have you seen start flame wars when the author really only meant to give a little information and did so quickly? Get yourself in the right mode, whether it’s playful, pleading, argumentative, serious, or snarky.

Don’t forget to be authentic. “What the hell?” you are thinking. “How do I craft a persona and be authentic at the same time?” No, I am not suggesting the impossible. What I am suggesting, really, is that you claim what is already true – you are the subject matter expert, and you have a perspective on this thing you’re writing about. You are not Al Franken writing as Stuart Smalley – most assuredly a created, inauthentic persona (in other words, a character) – you are still you writing as you. So, be yourself. But be your most authoritative, confident, personal/impersonal, playful/pleading/argumentative/snarky self. (And know that you are good enough, smart enough, and doggone it, people like you.)

It is possible to have different personas for diffferent books, too. (Just keep one persona per book, thanks.) Consider these two examples:

A Fourth Turning markes a social watershead of epic proportions. Scarcely 20 years passed between IBM’s introduction of the desktop computer and the end of the 20th entury. Yet for most adults, 1980 seems like only yesterday. Twenty years also separates 1929 and 1949, but Americans who remember both dates will tell how much life changed in these two decades. Looking at the head of this chapter (“Hope in the Dark”), readers might soberly consider the regularity of these Turnings and what the next several years might bring.


Bloggers were impressed at how gently and carefully Friedberg handled [Rachel Smith] on the stand, as though she might, you know, grab him in a jiu-jitsu wristlock and throw him to the floor just for something to do. But the real news of the day came that 6 ballots had lately been uncovered in Anoka County. All 6 were Coleman votes and if allowed will take Franken’s lead to +219. But there hangs the tale: have their duplicates already been counted? Maybe. (If so, “Petard, meet hoist… over there at the Coleman table.”) Are they admissible since the Coleman universe by ECC order Monday is limited to the 4797 ballots already specified and these 6 are NOT ON THE LIST? More to come from Rachel Smith Friday.

Both are written by Carl “Winerev” Eeman – the first from his book Generations of Faith, the second from Recounting Minnesota. Both are non-fiction, both are informative, most definitely in his voice and his style. But you can see the persona is different (and rightly so – could you see the snarky Winerev persona succeeding in his informative volume for congregations?).

Whatever the persona you choose, wear it like a sweater. Wrap yourself in that persona. And then write like it.

If you are writing a book on Network Security Auditing, your audience is information technology professionals who are either working as auditors or will have to prepare for auditors. Your audience knows what HTML is. They know what a hacker is, what MD-5 hashing is, what routers and servers are. And yet… there is still room for making sure what might be common terms are clear. I cannot count the number of times, while editing a Cisco Press book, I have asked the author “will your reader understand this term?” Sometimes the answer is yes. But often, the answer is “maybe, but I’ll define it.”

Every industry has jargon; the key is to use it appropriately. There’s a wonderful example of what NOT to do by Susan Ross, excerpted in Lynn Bloom’s
Fact and Artifact:

A Bureaucrat’s Guide to Chocolate Chip Cookies
Total lead time: 35 minutes
1 cup packed brown sugar
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/2 cup shortening

After procurement actions, decontainerize inputs. Perform measurement tasks on a case-by-case basis. In a mixing type bowl, impact heavily on brown sugar, granulated sugar, softened butter and shortening. Coordinate the interface of eggs and vanilla, avoiding an overrun scenario to the best of your skills and abilities.
At this point in time, leverage flour, baking soda, and salt into a bowl and aggregate. Equalize with prior mixture.

Output: Six dozen official chocolate chip cookie units.

What does RFP mean to you? Request for Proposal? Ready for Production? Required Form Process? What about FBI? CIA? Might they have other meanings other than the federal bureaus we think of? Make sure you define every acronym you use.

Now I know you’re thinking, “oh good grief – if I’m writing a book about how the FBI behaved during the Oklahoma City bombing, do I really have to define “FBI”? Probably not explicitly… but it wouldn’t be a bad thing to spell it out in an introduction: “And in the aftermath, no one ever called out the Federal Bureau of Investigation.” That way, you’ve said it, you’ve made damn sure that everyone who is reading your book knows you’re talking about that FBI.

Descriptive language
Your use of descriptive language will vary wildly depending on the type of book you’re writing. If your book describes how windmills work, then you will have long descriptions. However, they probably will not be flowery, with passages exploring “the graceful, almost sanguine turn of the windmill’s blade.”

In other words descriptive language needs to be appropriate. Diane Ackerman, writing love letters to the senses in A Natural History of the Senses, has more latitude than William Yost in his text The Fundamentals of Hearing.

If you’re writing history or biography, you have even more latitude. Consider this passage from Shelby Foote’s Civil War: A Narrative, Volume 2: Fredericksburg to Meridian. (The setup: In late 1862, 22 months after being named President, Jefferson Davis has traveled from the Confederate capital at Richmond, VA to his home state of Mississippi and addressed the state legislature in a special session called to hear him the day after Christmas.)

(Davis speaking) ‘The period which has elapsed since I left you is short; for the time which may appear long in the life of a man is short in the history of a nation. And in that short period remarkable changes have been wrought in all the circumstances by which we are surrounded.’

(Foote) Remarkable changes had indeed been wrought, and of these the most immediately striking to those present, seated row on row beneath him or standing close-packed along the outer aisles, was in the aspect of the man who stood before them, tall and slender, careworn and oracular, in a mote-shot nimbus of hazy noonday sunlight pouring down from the high windows of the hall…

Beautiful, descriptive, and appropriate for a history.

Finally, style comes through in how formal or informal your language is. Formal language is impersonal, or even stuffy in some cases. Informally, you might say “Eighty-seven years ago” but formally might choose “Four score and seven years ago” (Thanks, President Lincoln.) Formal language is great for academic tomes, orations, or other writing where you wish to impress with import. Your vocabulary will tend toward standard and perhaps even archaic words, the tome is highly controlled or directed, and the voice is most definitely impersonal.

Informal language, on the other hand, is most assuredly personal, with a wider range of tones, and more conversational words. Sentence complexity is minimized in informal language. Formal writing tends toward complex constructions; I suspect that the more semicolons you see, the more formal the writing is.

Most non-fiction writing fits somewhere in the middle; there’s a little less casualness than you might see in a blog post or a novel, but it isn’t quite so elevated, appearing to waft fully formed and fully unintelligible from the Ivory Tower. In the middle, there’s an authority but an accessibility. I generally recommend striving for that middle ground; you won’t lose your reader, nor will you leave them wanting.

Ultimately, style is personal; you and your editor will determine what works best for your book. If I were to add any final thought, it would be this: be consistent. If you are formal in the first few chapters, be formal in the last few. Maintain that playful persona throughout. Keep your level of description consistent.

Next week, we’ll start adding pictures to your words with some tips on good illustrations. See you then.


From Powerpoint To Page

If you are a teacher or trainer, then you have a lot of material. You have hours of lectures and piles of handouts. You know your stuff inside and out. Even better, you have learned a lot about presentations. You know the “Tell, tell, tell” rule. Your PowerPoint slides are supportive without being too text-filled or too distracting. You have mastered the transition so that your students/audience know what you’re talking about and can draw the connections by listening to you.

Very little of this helps when writing your book.

Yes, it helps that you know your subject matter, know how one topic builds on the next, and you do have those charts and graphs and images that support your work. But the rest? Well… let’s look at what you do in presentations and translate them to your book.

(For the purposes of this discussion, we’ll call any presentations, lectures, classes, seminars, and workshops “presentations” and your audience, clients, attendees, and students “audience”.)

Tell, Tell, Tell
We follow this formula – tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em, tell ‘em, and tell ‘em what you told ‘em – because your audience don’t have a book in front of them – and often don’t have notes either. There is a lot of psychology and educational pedagogy surrounding the effectiveness of this formula – if you’re dying to know, use your Google-Fu.

However, “tell, tell, tell” doesn’t work in a book. In fact, it will bore and annoy your reader. As an example, here’s the start of a chapter as the author sent it to me:

Configuring router switches for communication

In the previous section, I described the basic types of router switches. In the next section, we will define the uses of these switches in various communications configurations.

There are four scenarios that require router switches in enterprise-wide communication configurations. These four scenarios include the following:

See what I mean? We just want to get on with it already. We applied the following techniques to these (and other) passages:

Introducing topics
The first thing to remember is that you tell ‘em what you’re gonna tell ‘em in your introduction – and then, pretty much, you don’t have to do much more. Your chapter introductions should not, as a rule, include phrases like “in this chapter, we will discuss…” Instead, give us a real introduction to the topic itself. Instead of “in this chapter, we will learn about jam,” you can start us with “Jam is a fruit spread with some seeds, pulp, or skins left in.”

Making transitions
Guess what. You don’t have to say “in the previous section, we discussed jams. In this chapter, we’ll discuss jellies.” Your reader will know you’ve moved on. How? By reading the section header. “JELLIES” is a pretty good clue. Now you can do some transitional stuff like “unlike jams, jellies contain no seeds, pulp, or skins.” That’s a nice launch and a vague reminder of what the reader just read. And if they have forgotten, they can flip back a page. Books are handy that way.

Telling ‘em What You Told ‘em
Conclusions will vary. Sometimes, you have a genre that requires a summary (especially if you expect your book to be used as a study guide or textbook). But mostly, you can just end the chapter with the last bit of information. Or if you really want a transition, you can end a chapter with “in the next chapter, we’ll explore preserves” (much like I’ve been doing in this series).

The resulting introduction to the chapter was much smoother – and infinitely shorter:

Configuring router switches for communication

Router switches are required in the following four enterprise-wide communication configurations:

The reader had just read about the switches. He’s on the same page. Literally.

Bullet Points
In a typical presentation, you will list the bullet points of a topic, then go into detail on them (which gives your audience a preview of what you’re going to talk about). The slides will look like this:

The men in Margaret Houlihan’s Life:
• Frank Burns
• Donald Penobscot
• Hawkeye Pierce
• Jack Scully

Then you’ll do a series of slides with more information:

Frank Burns:
• Married to Louise; number and gender of children unclear
• Nicknames: Ferret Face, Chinless Wonder
• Would not leave Louise for Margaret
• Stood as best man at Margaret’s wedding
• Last hurrah: diving into a Japanese bath with a naked General & Mrs. Kessler


Now in a book, you don’t need to do all of that prep. You can simply say

There were four significant men in Margaret’s tenure at M*A*S*H 4077th.

Major Frank Burns

Frank was a married man who carried on a four-season affair with Margaret. His wife, Louise, may have suspected, as evidenced by the “Dear John” letter Frank receives in the “Mail Call, Again” episode. However…


It’s economy of space and motion. Now I have worked on some technical manuals that will still list the items and then go into detail, but I find that distracting and wasteful. It’s good for a textbook, crap for just about everything else.

Checking In
When you are presenting, you get feedback. It might be vocalized responses, nods, confused looks, or the clunk of a head on the desk, but it is feedback. And you know how to handle it. The blank stare probably means you should stop and review, perhaps asking “does this make sense” or “are there any questions before I go on”… nods let you know they understand. The clunk, well, that might have more to do with the all-nighters they pulled than your delivery, but if you keep putting them to sleep…well…

Anyway, in a book, you don’t get feedback. You have no idea whether your readers understand your point or not. You have to take it on faith that they do, and that you’ve given suitable examples. I suspect this is why you run into some books with three or four examples of a concept when one would do – it’s overcompensation for not getting feedback. To remedy this, offer one example, and trust your editors to let you know if the point isn’t clear.

I will talk more about editors in week 14, but if you are planning to publish without an editor, you’re a fool (the same kind of fool who represents himself in court or tries to treat himself medically). If your publisher doesn’t have editors, hire them. If they do, listen to them. They very likely know very little about your topic, and their fresh eyes will provide the feedback you need.

Next time, we’ll talk about style – voice, tone, audience, jargon, and your persona. See you next week!


(Image from

Genre: The Misfits

Ah, the misfits. (No, not these Misfits. Or these misfits. Or even these.) There are a lot of non-fiction books that aren’t informational, critical, procedural, or bloggial (hey! I coined a word! Me, Shakespeare and Sarah Palin…sigh). Let’s look at some of these other types of non-fiction books.

As always, be certain to look at other books in your genre; the ones that are selling are doing it right. However, there are a few pointers I can offer that will get you on your way.

The Point Where the Misfits Meet: Creative Non-Fiction
The name covers a wide range of writing – essays, memoirs, biographies, and even informational writing. In some ways, I suppose, you could say all good non-fiction writing (outside of technical and procedural) is creative non-fiction; writing about your topic with a good narrative (see Shelby Foote) makes it come alive. But when we think about creative non-fiction, we’re talking about something that’s a little more subjective, a little more narrative, a little more colorful. A great example is the writing of Oliver Sacks, whose personal experience with intriguing stories of neuroscience; contrast his work with the equally fascinating but much less creative writing of Louis Cozolino. Both talk about the same general topics, but where Cozolino is engagingly informational, Sacks weaves stories. Is one better or worse? Not to my mind – they serve different purposes.

There are dozens of books written about creative non-fiction, and if you’re interested in developing your writing in this genre, I recommend you at least peruse five or six of them. In these books, you will read things about deeper truths, subjectivity while maintaining objectivity, narrative, and focus. I can boil all of this down into one sentence: Creative non-fiction relays the facts AND tells truth; how you make that happen is up to you.

This subgenre of creative non-fiction is is about your life. There seemed to be a flood of memoirs after Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes came out – everyone wanted to write a memoir. We saw some great ones (Augusten Borroughs’ Running with Scissors) and some terrible ones (James Frey’s Million Little Pieces, which was so bad it was parodied). (A side note – I was working part time at our local library when that book came out; we never changed the label once the truth was revealed, but we did start shelving it in Fiction.)

There seem to be two keys to memoir:

  1. Just because everyone has a story doesn’t mean everyone should write a book. Consider long and hard if you have a compelling story that hasn’t been told but which might resonate with readers. For example, we have seen a million overcoming sexual abuse stories; however, one written by a minister about how the abuse led her TO ministry may be compelling.
  2.  Keep it factual – as factual as you can to your recollection. We all have our perspectives on events – the story you tell about driving through Baltimore between the snowstorms last February has differences from the story your traveling companion tells. If you tell the story as though you drove when she actually did, it’s bad. If you tell the story and how you found it a lot funnier than she did, it’s okay. Also know that sometimes, we remember the sequence or the perception of events differently. Just don’t make stuff up. Trust me – it will come back to haunt you.

Essay/Column Collections
I talked a bit about this last week’s T4 – collections are exactly that. What’s key is to know what the tie that binds might be; it might be personality (Molly Ivins), it might be topic (soldiers’ stories from the Civil War), it might be chronology (year of keeping kosher). There is the whole timeliness/timelessness issue – will these essays survive time? Do they have something to say beyond the particular current event they comment on? Or can you frame them to be a snapshot in time? Again, some of my thoughts from last week come into play here – it’s a delicate dance we do with time.

Spiritual/Religious Writing
There is a lot of spiritual writing that is not informational or analytical; in those types of spiritual writing, you are explaining or analyzing (or criticizing) a particular point of theology/dogma/practice. The kind of spiritual writing I’m talking about here may also be called ‘inspirational’ – it’s writing from your particular perspective, sharing your truths about life, love, the nature of God – answering the big and small questions from your point of view. This is the difference between the informational Chosen Faith: An Introduction to Unitarian Universalism by John Buehrens and the much more creative Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott.

The real key here is to be clear about what it is you’re writing and why you’re writing it. Readers who think you’re going to be exploring the origins of goddess spirituality will be disappointed (and perhaps a bit put off) if you instead start offering pages of devotional texts and rituals. The title, your cover blurbs, and introduction should make your purposes clear. (That isn’t to say you can’t explore the origins in a book filled with devotional texts and rituals – but make it clear this is meant to be inspirational.)

Remember too that what makes inspirational writing work is that the author has trusted both their faith and their voice, and they have allowed their words to give voice to their spirit. Pardon me for waxing spiritual here for a moment – the topic allows, I suppose – but where it is important to trust your knowledge and perspective in other forms of non-fiction, it is important to trust your intuition. Your writing will be more truthful to the inspiration you wish to convey.

Okay, enough of that spiritual stuff. Time for the jokes!

You may be wondering why I include humor in a discussion of non-fiction; our first instinct is to think about humor as made up – jokes, puns, sketches, and the like. However, there is plenty of humor in real life (see Reader’s Digest’s persistent Humor in Uniform and All in a Day’s Work columns). Humor can provide a different view of a topic, can call attention to the unusual, can even take the sting out or provide much needed comic relief. And cutting satire can get right to the heart of an issue/subject and (much like Stewart and Colbert), expose hypocricy and falsehoods.

A few things to remember:

  1. No matter what, remember to stick to the facts.
  2. You should feel strongly about your topic – it’s hard to find the funny when you feel neutral about a subject.
  3. Make sure you know your subject well.
  4. Know your audience.
  5. Know the comic form you’re using and maintain it – whether it be parody, satire, narrative, etc. (It’s much like maintaining voice – something we’ll talk about in the T4 diary on Stylistics.)
  6. Know when to stop. You want to know what happens when you don’t? Watch SNL from the late 90s.

These books are one part procedural, one part informational, one part memoir. The best combine ‘how to get there’, ‘what’s there’ and ‘my experience there’ – with plenty of information for others who will follow your footsteps and an invitation to have their own similar experiences.

The biggest key? FACT CHECKING. If you’re going to write about travel, do it. Drive the roads. Visit the cafes. Talk to the people. Don’t fake it. It would be like the food writer who never tasted the food (or me, if I’d not stayed for all of Mrs Klein).

Also, don’t whitewash. If a place has a downside, mention it. You don’t want your readers to be disappointed and miss the beauty of what you saw. If there is a gorgeous view of Lake Ontario but you have to drive past strip mall heaven to get to it, mention that, or your readers may turn around in the McDonald’s driveway and never see what you saw.

What did I miss?
I’m certain there are some non-fiction genres I have missed; please mention them in the comments. But I think most non-fiction writing fits into the genres I’ve described over the last few week – and whatever form your book takes, it’s good to know you have choices when presenting your information.

Now that our survey of genres is complete, we’ll move into a couple of general writing chapters – next week will be focused on turning classes, workshops, training, and seminars into books… then we’ll head into style and supporting materials. See you next week!


From Blog to Book

This is a new genre and a growing one. More and more excellent writing is being done in blogs, and there are many reasons to capture this writing in, as Markos of the Daily Kos says, “analog form.”

Now we’ve talked before about your blog being the raw material for your procedural, analytical, or informational book. Decide early if you want to maintain the “blogginess” or just use your information; how you organize and write the book will be quite different.

Blog-to-book compendiums seem to fall into one of three categories: “I can haz a book”, essay collections, and topic series.

I can haz a book?

There are many funny blogs that have brought their humor to book form, including the I Can Haz Cheeseburger sites and my favorite, Cake Wrecks. These are essentially compendiums of their funniest pictures/jokes/posts. Great stuff – and pretty self-explanatory. If you’re running a funny blog and want to turn it into a book, the only advice I can offer is this: make sure the material is timeless, and make sure you have enough to fill a book.

Essay Collections

Many bloggers have, in essence, written essays that are timeless enough to be read again. In the pre-blog days, you’d see these sorts of books written by columnists like Molly Ivins (may she rest in peace), Dave Barry, and Lewis Grizzard. They key in compiling these sorts of books, again, is to make sure the material is timeless, and you have enough to fill a book.

NOTE: I talk a lot about timelessness, and you may be wondering why it’s important. Wouldn’t a book of essays taken from your blog be a nice snapshot in time? Sure, if you frame it that way and set the environment or atmosphere. Take, for example, Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72. (While he was too early for a blog, I suspect if the form had been available, Hunter S. would have been all over it.) The book is an incredible snapshot in time, framed exactly as a snapshot of a particular experience, with all the references, namedropping, social and cultural references firmly ensconced in Thompson’s distinctive style. And yet it is timeless, because he frames it exactly AS a snapshot in time. All the President’s Men is similarly a snapshot that remains timeless. On the other side is a collection of New Yorker humor articles and essays. Some are indeed timeless (see Thurber), but some of them from the 1930s just ‘whoosh’ over our 21st century heads. The jokes don’t land, the cultural references are lost, the atmosphere isn’t set well enough to give us a sufficient snapshot.

And now, back to your regular diary, already in progress…

Topic Series

Occasionally, a writer will create a series of blog entries about a particular topic (like this series) that has either a planned end, or an inevitable end. The prime example, of course, is Recounting Minnesota: Blogging the Al Franken Election Saga by Carl “WineRev” Eeman. In this case, what started as a few ‘what is the media saying’ diaries turned into a daily account of the recount process as well as astute media criticism (see Carl’s screed against the Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s Pat Doyle). There was, potentially, an end to the series – although none of us expected it to be as late as it was. But we knew in March that it should become a book, and thus took on this monumental task.

Perhaps the most important part of turning a topic series into a book is making sure you pull out repetitions; often, there will be reviews and a rehashing of information that is not necessary in a book. In Recounting Minnesota, for example, we edited out the repetition of the Nauen 61 explanation – once was enough.

Translating Netspeak to English

There is a balance to be struck between the casualness and immediateness of blogging and the rules and regulations of proper English. One on hand, you wouldn’t expect to see emoticons and internet acronyms in print, and yet they may be vital to the flow of the piece. There is also a lax in grammatical rules (such as using nine or ten periods rather than the three required for a proper ellipsis – WineRev, I’m talkin’ to you) that may not translate well. You and your editors can devise a style sheet that will define which conventions will stay and what must go.


One of the most difficult tasks is deciding what to do with comments. In some cases, the comments are minor and have no real bearing on the writing itself. In other cases, it directly feeds and supports the writing. Just make sure, if you decide to include comments, you are selective. If we’d included all the comments from the WineRev series, we’d have had another thousand pages. We in fact had seriously considered not including any comments except those he had specifically woven into subsequent diaries, but eventually, another 40 or so were added in.

Personal and Meta Information

Again, this is a balance. On one hand, having some sense of the personal (“early day at the wine shop”) grounds the book in the immediate (more of that atmosphere stuff I mentioned earlier). On the other hand, there is some personal information that just doesn’t serve the flow of the piece at all.

And meta content should be especially important for it to stay. Often, we edited out comments about other diaries, questions to specific commenters, and rec list notices. We did keep the meta line about one of Carl’s diaries being put on the front page – that was quite an honor. But we used it sparsely. I advise the same for your meta content.

There is a lot more we have to learn about the blog-to-book genre, and as new media evolves, so will this genre. But it’s an exciting time to be writing this kind of book!

Next up – the misfits: types of non-fiction that don’t really fit into one of the other categories. (It’s always the way, isn’t it?) See you next week!