Writing the Hook

I recently took an online class on how to write a hook. In the publishing industry, a hook is a pitch, elevator speech or description of your book. The class was offered by Wordsmith Academy and taught by Mark Gottlieb, an agent with Trident Media Group.

One takeaway from the class: Be concise and interesting.

According to Gottlieb, “that is really the kind of person who an agent or editor wants to be in business with.” Which makes sense. Who doesn’t like concise, interesting people? Our worst nightmare is that friend who tells long, boring stories that come to no end. Don’t be that person. Be a person Mark likes. You’ll write better hooks and be a better friend.

Self-publishing: First things first

Jean Harkin

Jean Harkin

(A guest post by Jean Harkin, JPHARKIN@aol.com)

Oops! I may have put the cart before the horse. In August 2016 I published my short story collection, Night in Alcatraz: and Other Uncanny Tales. Not until April 2017 did I begin research for my blog series on self-publishing. Maybe I should have asked the questions before I published. I learned much about self-publishing by writing my blog series. Fortunately I did a few things right, but I also made some goofs in publishing my book.

For instance:

1) Just before I self-published my book, successful authors were advising other writers to establish a social networking presence. Dragging my feet, I joined Facebook. I also started an author page on Goodreads (www.goodreads.com/jeanatwritersmill), where I post my blog and feature my books. Acquiring a blog site on Goodreads was easier for me than signing up on Blogger, WordPress, Weebly, GoDaddy or other popular web hosting sites.

2) I began organizing and revising my stories in March 2016. I did something right: I made sure all the stories were edited. But I did something wrong: I didn’t state on the opening page (with copyright info, etc.) that the stories were edited and by whom, although I did note where many of the stories were previously published.

3) To print and publish my book, I used Createspace. That was a good decision in some ways, bad in others.

Good: Createspace offers user-friendly uploading and production; free ISBN number for print copy; e-book made available on Kindle; automatic exposure on Amazon and Amazon international; print copy available on demand to buyers through other online sellers; and the author can purchase their own copies direct from Createspace at a reduced price. An especially nice perk is the fast, friendly and professional help service Createspace provides by phone or online.

Bad: I recently discovered that independent booksellers will not stock books printed by Createspace or affiliated in any way with Amazon. Those booksellers see Amazon as a market bully. The indie sellers can’t sell my print books as cheaply as Amazon can and still make a worthwhile profit. Either I or the store would be shorted. I haven’t been able to determine, however, why the walk-in Amazon store at Washington Square in Portland, Oregon, won’t stock my book and won’t respond to my queries.

4) About marketing: While royalties on my book sales slowly accumulate, I haven’t received one payment. Apparently I must wait until $100 is reached; meanwhile Amazon makes money on each sale. (There may be a way to collect payments through direct bank deposit, but I haven’t checked that out.)

What I did right (but not perfectly): I offered my book for sale at local venues, including the Oregon Historical Society’s annual Christmas Cheer book festival. I’ve gotten the word out about my book—most recently to my high school alumni magazine and on the website of Northwest Independent Writers Association (NIWA). I recently joined that group—another smart move. Of course my book, Night in Alcatraz; and Other Uncanny Tales is featured on my Goodreads author page.

So far, so good as far as reviews on Night in Alcatraz: and Other Uncanny Tales. I’m grateful to readers for 5 stars on Amazon and 4.5 on Goodreads.

Marketing: 9 approaches and 2 warnings

First of all, no one has to submit their writing in order to call themselves a writer. A writer is someone who writes, although in our culture if you tell someone you’re a writer, their first response may be “Have you been published?”

But the fact is submitting your writing is an option. An add-on. A choice.

9 Approaches

If you do decide to submit your writing, there are several approaches you can take, including these:

  1. Top-down: Start with the most prestigious, well-known and highest-paying markets, such as the New Yorker, the New York Times, the Sun, Creative Nonfiction, Rationale: If you’re going to spend all that time and energy making a submission, you might as well aim for the top.
  2. Bottom-up: Start with small-readership, relatively unknown, low- and non-paying publications, such as your local newspaper, chamber-of-commerce magazine or community college journal. Rationale: Earn your chops, garner some clips and work your way up.
  3. Mix it up. Simultaneously work the Top-down and Bottom-up approaches. Every other submission goes to the top; the rest go to the bottom. Rationale: If one approach doesn’t work, maybe the other will.
  4. Overproduce and undersell. I first heard about this approach from a celebrity chef being interviewed on TV. Until then, I didn’t know it existed but when I heard the chef explain how he focused on making the best possible food and spent minimal time on marketing, I realized that’s what I do. When it comes to my writing, I focus on producing the highest-quality product I can and then send it out. I also call this the Gentle Approach. Rationale: If it’s good, it will sell. Sometimes the soft sell works.
  5. The numbers game. Make as many submissions as possible. Focus on quantity. Send anything anywhere. Rationale: The more submissions you make, the greater the likelihood of having something accepted.
  6. Thin thread. Sometimes, when researching markets you’ll come across a publication or contest that exhibits only a thin connection with your writing, whether it has to do with tone, topic or genre. Make the submission anyway. Rationale: Even with exhaustive market research, there’s always a certain amount of randomness and unpredictability to the submission process. In fact, when it comes to getting published, “there is no system,” a published author once told me. Maybe randomness will work in your favor.
  7. Entertainment purposes only. Do it for fun. Make submissions to see how many rejections you can collect. Boast about every rejection to your family. Paper your office with rejection slips. Compete with your writer friends to see who can earn ten rejections first. Rationale: In the grand scheme of things, whether or not your writing gets published doesn’t matter. What matters is you’re having fun.
  8. The grand experiment. Think of the submission process as a scientific experiment for which you don’t know the outcome. Tell yourself the only reason you’re making submissions is to find out what happens. Be curious and open-minded. Have no ulterior motives. Keep accurate records. Rationale: Learn something.
  9. The soft-boiled egg. Save your vulnerable side (the soft-boiled egg) for when you’re writing. Don your suit of armor (the egg shell) before making submissions. Rationale: To write you have to be open; to market you have to be tough.

2 Warnings

 In the interest of full disclosure: Bad things can happen to those who submit. For instance:

1. The dreaded mailing list

When you make a submission to a publication, whether or not your submission is accepted, you may be put on that publication’s mailing list.

That means that not only was your essay or short story rejected but you may receive weekly, even daily, reminders of it in the form of emailed requests to purchase the rejecting publication’s online class, take part in its pay-to-enter contest or buy its anthology. Talk about salt in the literary wound. And to make things even less pleasant, those ads often are sent in the middle of the night, the better to greet you from your crammed inbox when you start work for the day.

That rejecting market may event enlist “partners” who also send you ads. When will the horror stop? When you opt out of the mailings, of course, but sometimes that’s complicated and, well, you get my point.

2. Never hearing back

And then there’s the rejection itself.

Just what is a rejection? You could say it’s a non-acceptance, an absence of a good thing. When your poem is rejected with a “sorry but not a good fit” email, no one comes to your door and beats you up about it. No one yells at you over the phone or mocks you online, although years ago I was severely chastised via email by a contest judge who made an inaccurate assumption about me and my writing. But for the most part, a rejection comes in the form of a belated email, if you receive one at all.

In the olden days, like five years ago, publications actually notified everyone who made submissions, but nowadays it’s more common for the journal or contest organizer to say something like “if you haven’t heard from us in three months, it means we won’t be able to use your submission.”

Wow. Kind of like asking someone to marry you only to have them respond with “If you haven’t heard from me in a week, it’s a no.” Talk about tone deaf. Talk about rude.

In my opinion, a publication, contest organizer or literary agent—anyone inviting submissions from writers—shouldn’t do so unless they can guarantee a prompt response. But, hey, I’ve been criticized for caring too much about writers.

Meanwhile, take a deep breath, remember the chance of getting published may be low and find other ways to maintain your confidence.

Marketing your writing: It’s all about the stars

It's All About the Stars 1-8-16

“It’s all about the stars,” I told one of my students, in an attempt to simplify the marketing process. By “stars” I meant the stars each student in her class earned by making a submission.

The class had decided to hold a friendly marketing competition. The students had three goals: To motivate themselves to send their writing out, to learn about the submission process and to have some fun.

The rules of the game were simple: For each submission they made, they would earn one star, which was then drawn on a dry-erase board. At the end of the 10-week class, the student who earned the most stars would be declared the winner and taken out to dinner.

Notice that each star was won not by having a poem or article accepted for publication, although that would be great, but by making a submission.


Because making a submission is something a writer has control over.

As writers, we may not have control over how talented we are, although we can always work on our craft. We may not get to decide what kinds of books are selling or which magazines have gone under. But we do have control over whether we submit our short stories, poems and essays.

Making submissions is like selling shoes. Say you own a brick-and-mortar shoe store. You’re not going to sell any high heels, slippers or athletic shoes if you keep your inventory hidden in the back storeroom. You need to display the kid’s shoes and hiking boots on the store shelves and in the front window, so your customers can see them, touch them and possibly try them on.

Even if you do display your shoes, you’re not going to sell every pair. Some of your customers are going to walk out without buying anything. But you still need to set your merchandise out.

For writers, displaying their work means sending it out. Not that submitting writing is easy. In fact, over the years, several of my students have told me they find the whole submission process overwhelming. And in some ways they’re right.

To submit just one story, a writer has to:

  • Come up with a story idea
  • Draft, revise and finalize that story
  • Research markets
  • Decide what market to submit to
  • Submit the story

Just the number of markets can be overwhelming. Factor in the fact that each publication has its own set of writer’s guidelines and you see how complex the system can be.

Which is why it’s important to focus on the stars. Earn one star and then another star and then another star. Until you have a constellation.

Poem and photos to appear in Cirque

Good news! My poem, “The Open Road,” and three photos of birch trees (how I love Alaskan birch trees) have been accepted for publication by Cirque.

Photo: Here is the preview of our next issue.  Thank you, Mark Muro, for the cover shot.  Advance purchases can be made only via PayPal to cirquejournal@gmail.com $25 will cover the issue plus postage.  Contributors can order 5 copies for $60 including postage.  You can also order via US mail.  Inquire via the same email for details.  Advance orders may be delivered before Christmas; this editor will try.  Don't order yet from the Cirque web page as it's set up for prior issues, still.

Cirque editors Mike Burwell and Sandra Kleven have been great supporters of my writing. I feel honored to have my writing and photos appear in this stunning publication, which features work by writers living in the North Pacific Rim — Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, Montana, Hawaii, Yukon Territory, Alberta, British Columbia, and Chukotka.

Self-Publishing Perspectives

Self-Publishing Perspectives: A Successful Author, Agent, and Publisher Discuss the Revolution in Progress

by Kevin Larimer, Published in Poets & Writers

Special Section [1]

November/December 2013 [2]


Page 1 [3] | Page 2 [4] | Page 3 [5] | Page 4 [6] | Page 5

What’s the biggest misconception about self-publishing?

Ciotta: The stigma. Slowly, the industry is breaking away from the stigma that if a book is self-published, it’s not worthy of a publishing house, or it’s not worthy to read at all. Now that many self-published authors are businesspeople, too, their books are well written and professional and they can certainly uphold or go above and beyond readers’ standards. That being said, both traditionally published and self-published books can be amazing, good, or just plain bad. So it’s an author’s job to do his best to be in the “amazing” category and blow readers away.

What’s the future of self-publishing look like? Where are we headed with this?

Ciotta: Since self-publishing is making a ton of money, it’s only going to get hotter and hotter. We’ll see more self-published titles than ever. I believe self-published authors will bust through some major industry barriers. Perhaps the New York Times will start reviewing a self-published book once in a while, in the future. Or we’ll start seeing a few more self-published authors being interviewed on NPR or on Jon Stewart.

But most of all, self-pubbing in the future will give the power back to the readers. What the readers demand, the readers will get. And that’s the beauty of self-publishing.

Nelson: Back in 2007, my fellow agents assumed that print-on-demand was only for those who couldn’t find an agent or a “real” publisher. I never thought that. And you know why? Because over the course of my career, I haven’t been able to sell any number of projects for a variety of reasons. But I thought those novels were always worthy and ready for publication, otherwise I wouldn’t have offered representation! Now if a client wants to pursue a regular publishing deal, we go for it. But if it doesn’t happen, we aren’t necessarily despondent. We have a host of other options available to help this author find his or her audience. Traditional publishing is simply one avenue. That’s why I launched NLA Digital in 2011. It’s a platform that not only supports the reissuing of client backlist titles but also supports clients launching new frontlist titles. And, according to Bowker stats from the 2013 Digital Book World Conference, on average the hybrid author—an author who is both traditionally and self-published—will make anywhere from 10 to 20 percent more in income than authors who are just in one camp or the other. My job is to not only guide an author’s career but to also help my client make more money. Through my agent filter, hybrid looks like the future to me.

When a traditional publisher gets 100 percent behind a title and the launch is a major event, the results are unparalleled. Hands down. It’s magic, and a completely unknown author becomes a household name in less than a year. The problem is that this treatment only happens for a handful of titles in any given year. Self-publishing is the empowerment of the midlist author who would have been dropped by a publisher for sales underperformance. Now that author can find the right price point for the audience, have ultimate control, and make a decent living.

And for me, here is the last word—for now: I have yet to see a self-published title become a worldwide, juggernaut best-seller without the backing of a major publisher. Now this isn’t to say it will never happen, but as the publishing world stands right now it would be hard to achieve. Until the first one…

Nash: The future of self-publishing is the same as the future of publishing. The two are inseparable; they aren’t, in fact, even two. They are these terms of convenience becoming increasingly inconvenient, at least in terms of describing reality. Walt Whitman, Sander Hicks, Hugh Howey, E. L. James, Chicken Soup for the Soul, and Guy Kawasaki have nothing in common, except that they’re all, technically, self-published. But the reasons, the tools, the goals are all radically different. You could create an equally absurd cross section of so-called traditional publishing. Some self-publishers have agents, some don’t; some are in print, some aren’t; some do “distribution” deals (as opposed to “publishing” deals), some don’t. I know, in order to have this conversation, we have to agree for the moment to talk about self-publishing as if it existed in contradistinction to selfless-publishing, but I do hope we abandon the term quickly, so we can proceed on to helping individual writers realize their goals, matching their skills with peers and intermediaries without regard for how closely they mimic what was once called traditional publishing. We’re all publishers now. That’s both a desire and a prediction.

Kevin Larimer is the editor in chief of Poets & Writers, Inc.