The Hermit Poet

June 16, 2008

Making the Most of Your First Book: Blurbs

Filed under: First Book Advice,Uncategorized — admin @ 3:40 pm

(Also long overdue — here’s my post on blurbs)

If you’re like me, when you’re working on your manuscript, book blurbs and author statements are usually the furthest things from your mind. Your attention is on the poems and rightly so.

Once the book has been accepted, suddenly there is a mad scramble to line up your blurbs — which can often be something of a crap shoot — you just don’t know how people are going to respond, what they’ll write, and when they’ll turn it in.

Some things you should consider in advance:

  1. Blurbs from people you know - In general, this is the route that is taken. Most blurbs come from former or current professors, close personal writer friends, or long-time professional acquaintances. The good thing about doing this is that generally these people know what you stand for, what your project was about, and are willing to devote time and energy to write something compelling. However, sometimes these blurbs can seem less than genuine or suspect if a potential reader feels that the writer’s connection to these individuals is too close or tainted in some other way. It’s impossible to satisfy everyone, so if you go this route, it’s in your interest to choose people that will appear above the board and whose opinions are widely respected.
  2. Blurbs from people you don’t know or who you respect, but have no personal connection with – This is a tougher way to go, but does mean you can hopefully count on a more unbiased response to your work. If you go this route, choose someone whose work has meant something to you in your development as a writer. This makes it easier to approach them — you can honestly tell them that you have admired their work for some time and that you feel that they might enjoy reading an advance copy of the book. Send a short selection of poems from the manuscript and ask if they would be willing to look at the book and if they enjoy it, possibly write something on its behalf. Do this early in the editing process. Even if you have to send a binder-clipped copy of manuscript, send it early enough that this person has time to reflect on it. After a few weeks, check in with them to see if they have received the manuscript and if they would be willing to write a blurb. The more well-known the author, the busier they are likely to busy — be prepared for them to turn down the invitation and thank them nonetheless. Have some backup plans in place. This is why you started early.
  3. Let your blurbers know their deadlines and follow up. This is key. If they know when you need the blurbs, they can plan for it. If there is no fixed deadline, then they may put it aside and not get to it. Regardless what the actual deadline is with your press / editor, you should build in a buffer and set an earlier date with your blurb writers. This way you can appear generous if they ask for a little more time :)
  4. Create a brief description or synopsis of the book (if possible, several). This can help a blurb writer (especially one unfamiliar with your work) a general sense of what your book is about and why it might interest them. You’ll need to be able to describe your book in a few sentences anyway — it’s part of the short sell that you’ll be giving whenever someone asks, “So what’s your book about anyway?”  Sometimes I tell people:  “My book moves between narrative and lyric in its exploration of loss, exile, and return as it pertains to the loss and recovery of countries, languages, and family.”  I might follow up with something more personal.  In a different audience, I might mention its strong elegiac turns or its preoccupation with travel. Or maybe its concern with memory and forgetting. Or maybe tell the story of how it became an unintended elegy of sorts for my father who was dying even as I was finishing and revising the book — and whose passing ultimately shaped the book into what it became. Or maybe how it’s a love story about loss. Depending on your audience, you should have a variety of ways to talk about your book.
  5. Keep your blurbs to a maximum of 3. Really. Sometimes less is more. Try to keep them at a reasonable size as well — if the blurb is too long, a potential buyer isn’t likely to read all of it. Keep the long version on the website — along with any extra unused blurbs and reviews.
  6. Consider what audiences each of your blurb writers will bring. Your blurb writers should help a reader triangulate where you and your writing fall. You are an unknown, but hopefully your blurb writers are known to your reader (or least their tastes can be surmised). If you write primarily narrative free verse poetry and have blurbs from avant garde language poets or new formalist poets, regardless of how good the blurbs are, you are creating confusion for a potential buyer. There’s a clear disconnect and the wrong audiences are being attracted — simultaneously, your best potential buyers are missing the connection. If there is a range of approaches in your book, then try to have blurbs from poets with a range of styles.

February 23, 2008

Making the Most of Your First Book: Bios

Filed under: First Book Advice — admin @ 9:57 pm

Bio

So what’s the big deal about writing a bio for your book? Shouldn’t it just be the same or similar to what you’ve used over the years as part of your regular submission cover letter? What’s different?

Well, there’s actually some fairly significant differences. When you send out your work to journals, the bio is often one of the last things that is read. The work takes precedence. While it is true that at some journals, an initial reader might check to see if the submitter has been personally recommended to submit to the journal by one of the editors or if this is a submission which seems to come from a well-published poet who might have a better than average chance of turning in something publishable — but for the most part, bios are read after the fact — usually after decisions have already made. When people read a journal, they often only turn to the contributor notes after they’ve read the work — it normally has little to no effect on their decision to read the journal.

The bio at the back of your book on the other hand is doing something completely different. When we pick up a new book of poetry, one of the first things we as readers do is turn it over and read the back. Why? To see what people have said (blurbs) and to figure out who this new writer is (bio). This usually happens before the book is even opened and the first poem is read.

Moreover, when writers give readings at bookstores and elsewhere, often the person hosting the event will rely on the information in the bio to introduce them. Which perhaps is the best way of thinking of what the real purpose of an author bio on a book — it’s there to introduce the writer and suggest a number of ways in which they might be an interesting person for the reader to become familiar with.

A good bio suggests something of who a writer is, where he/she comes from, where he/she is going.

I’ve put together a list, by no means complete — nor even wholly recommended. Just a snapshot of what’s out there in approaches. I’d say pick and choose in such a way that you can build a good enough picture for your reader of who you are to pique their interest, but not feel like you’ve clobbered them over the head or that you’ve completely unmasked yourself. Be professional, but show something of your personality (no one wants to read just a big long list of places where you’ve published– that tells the reader nothing, other than you’ve published a lot)

  1. Who are you?
    • current occupation / job title
    • former career (if pertinent or intriguing)
    • identities and affiliations (ethnicity/nationality/gender/etc)
  2. Where do you come from?
    • geographically — where were you born and raised?
    • educationally — where and what did you study (or not study)?
    • conceptually — how did you find poetry? (some people use this approach)
    • family history — interesting family background which might have relevance
  3. Where are you going?
    • what’s your next project?
    • are you in the middle of graduate studies / travel / project?
    • what else are you doing?  (editing journal? playing in a band? etc)

Depending on your press, you may have more or less space to work with.  Try to examine the most recent books out from your press to see how previous bios have looked and see if there are any aspects of them that you want to keep or need to avoid.   Bios on the back cover need to be shorter.  Bios inside the book can be a little longer (2 paragraphs).

A bio is short effective advertising.  It should be informative, convincing, and engaging.  Aim for brevity while keeping it true to your own voice in tone.  Read a lot of bios and try to figure out why some work and others fail to come off.  In the end, it’s up to you as to how you present yourself — but don’t brush it off.

February 13, 2008

Making the Most of Your First Book: More Prelim Work

Filed under: First Book Advice — admin @ 4:46 pm

I received an email from my book designer early this week who provided a more complete list of things needed before we can go to press. Many of these can and probably should be prepared well in advance.

So, in addition to the points made in the previous post – here are some more things that you can do even before the book gets picked up:

  1. Keep an electronic version of your manuscript. A MS Word file is probably best. Most presses use computer-aided printing, so a digital file will cut down on typos and other errors. More importantly, keep track of which version you sent to which press (I number the revisions of my manuscript and keep track of the dates I send things out as well as the version of the manuscript — this helps ensure that the right version of the manuscript gets to the press).
  2. Author bio. Note that this is not necessarily the same as the bio you send out with your regular poetry submissions. I’ll post more about bios, blurbs, and reviews later. For now just know that a good author bio should provide a glimpse into the person behind the book while maintaining a professional tone.
  3. Dedication. Do you want one? If so, who and how personal? I argue for keeping it short and simple. Parent(s). Lover/mate/spouse. Avoid cute.
  4. Acknowledgments. You probably have already assembled a basic acknowledgments page listing where poems in the manuscript first appeared — to this you should add any notes and thank yous for grant support, writing retreats, close readers, mentors, and other supporters. Don’t get too long-winded — it’s impossible to list everyone, so in most cases you will have to be general. For example, while I can’t list the entire MFA class at UC Riverside, I can note the program and my mentors. I definitely recommend listing anyone who served as a close reader of the manuscript. I’ve noticed that some acknowledgment pages list only given names, an approach which I am somewhat in favor of — sometimes name-dropping in acknowledgment pages feels pretty heavy-handed or awkward (edit:  on the other hand, a first book really does need to say Thank You to certain people for its existence — I’m switching back to a reasonably pared down list of full names)
  5. Artist’s Statement for Publicity Packet. To be honest, I’m not really certain what this is yet. I need to ask my press for some examples. I think this might be just a general statement of the scope and interests of the book, as well as something of an ars poetica. If someone has a better idea, please let me know. If you’ve done a press kit before, then your extended bio there is probably a good place to start from.
  6. Contact List of Local Newspapers. Email and physical mailing addresses. Again, this is something worth developing early on. The objective here is to have a list of newspapers which might run a “local poet does good” type story. “Local” doesn’t need to mean just the communities that are geographically near — consider other “neighborhoods” or “communities” that you are a part of. For example, being part Asian, I might also add some publications to my list that are directed more toward the Asian American community. Being Canadian with ties to both Vancouver, British Columbia and Regina, Saskatchewan, I could also add newspapers from both those communities to the list. Being alumni of BYU and UC Riverside, I should also have the alumni and general university publications on the list as well. Sometimes having an unusual previous career can work to your advantage. In my case, as a former computer games programmer, I have contacts with a number of computer industry magazines — those people as well would certainly be good to add to my list.
  7. Contact List of Potential Reviewers. It’s a good idea to build this list early as well. While it’s nice to have a few guaranteed good reviews by asking people who know your work already, these reviews often fail to come off as unbiased (frankly, I see a number of these come in at Boxcar and it’s usually clear who is a close personal friend of the poet doing this as a favor, and who is genuinely interested in the work). Build a list of journals which accept review copies as well as poets and critics who might be interested in reviewing the book. In terms of potential reviewers, try to pick people whose work you respect and find an affinity with — hopefully they will sense a common ground in your work as well. With respect to journals, it’s helpful to send out review copies to a variety of places: east and west coast, big-name and smaller-name, places you’ve published and places you haven’t, etc. You will probably find that the journals where you’ve previously published will be the most interested in running a review of your book — it’s good PR for them as well (again with the “community” angle). We’ll talk a little more about reviews in another post.
  8. Contact List for Readings. Essentially, are there places which might be interested in having you come and read if they had a chance to read your book? Such venues might include universities, bookstores, reading series, book festivals, etc. You probably don’t need to send a review copy to the local coffee house reading, but you might send copies to places you’re interested in stopping at as part of a book tour.
  9. Book announcement postcard mailing list. As you do readings, get feedback from people via email, and otherwise make friends in the poetry world and beyond, be certain to ask if they would be interested in being contacted when your book comes out. Other people you might consider adding to your list: editors of publications you respect, writers you respect, in short anyone who you feel might have an interest in the book, but aren’t already planning to send review copies to. When your book comes out, your press most likely will print out a good number of postcards and send them to you to mail out to your list. You should also keep some as promotional material at readings for those people who might not be able to buy the book right away (people like free things — but books are not free).

Next up: Bios, Blurbs, and Reviews

February 6, 2008

Making the Most of Your First Book: Setting the Stage

Filed under: First Book Advice — admin @ 2:29 pm

As promised, here is the first installment of a series of posts which will examine what a poet can do to make the most of his/her first book. Most of these posts will revolve around the critical period between a manuscript’s acceptance and the first year anniversary of a book’s publication. This particular post however will also look at some things we can do even while we are still sending it out. For the most part, I am simply chronicling my own process, noting where I’ve missed out opportunities, posing the occasional question to more experienced/published writers, and detailing what has worked and not worked for me.

PHASE 1: Setting the Stage

  1. Author pic. It never hurts to have a good picture of yourself that can be run in a press release. Avoid having to take a digital photo of yourself (or recycling a very old or embarrassing photo) in order to get something to your press in time for the announcement. Having a couple good hi-res digital images of yourself isn’t narcissistic, it’s good planning. Make certain you have something that will grey-scale well (ie. they will probably need to photocopy the release, so your picture should look good in b&w too). A good author pic also helps when you are building a press kit.
  2. Website. Once you have a manuscript and are shopping it around, you should also invest time/money/both and get yourself a nice looking website. There are a lot of places that offer very good economically priced packages — you will likely want both a domain name (eg. www.yourname.com) and web hosting (the online location where your website will be stored). I personally like www.1and1.com — prices are very reasonable and there hasn’t been any problems with downtime or access. Expect $5.99/year for domain name alone (useful if you already have hosting elsewhere) and $60-$100/year for a package with both (you may find cheaper deals if you look or are just lucky). I’ll go into website details in another post — but essentially your website is your virtual business card — it represents you in the world and should look professional and be well-organized.
  3. Be an active part of your local poetry community. Go to open mic readings and read your work. Not only are you building an audience of potential customers when the book comes out, you are also gaining valuable experience in doing public readings. Being comfortable in front of a large (or small) group of strangers is going to be very important to you as a published author in the future. You need to be able to gauge your audience so as to create a reading/listening experience that engages a wide variety of people. If you have opportunities to be a featured poet, work hard to craft 20-30 minute sets (depending on the reading) which provide emotional, topical, and tonal range — no one likes to hear the same note over and over. Ask for feedback from friends in the audience. Some poets even have themselves taped or videoed and study their performances afterward to look for places to improve. The key is to become comfortable with your work and your own voice. Again, I’ll go into more detail in a later post.
  4. Business cards. Give out business cards with your name, email address, and website address. Only give out your phone number to people you trust (obviously). The business card becomes a way to establish yourself as a professional writer and is a physical reminder to the people you contact that you are available for readings and features. I give out poet business cards to other poets, but also to hosts of readings and random people I meet who express genuine interest in the fact that I write poetry and am working on a book. I order my cards from www.overnightprints.com — for a very inexpensive charge, they let you custom design your own card with templates and even give you the option to upload your own graphics. They are very fast as well.
  5. Attend other poets’ readings and features– really this is just a part of 3, but a reminder that things go in two directions. Watching other writers can help you see how a good reading might be or what pitfalls you may want to avoid. More importantly, supporting others can help you find writers who share common interests — this may lead to writing groups, joint readings, invitations to participate in other events, or introductions to publication opportunities. At the very least, listening to other writers will broaden your perspective on what a reading may be and how a poet might interact with his/her community.
  6. Chapbooks. Producing your own or getting one published through a chapbook contest or press — having a chapbook to sell/trade is another way to begin the process of creating an audience for the book. If you are doing your own, try to stick to poems you’ve already published — this avoids taking unpublished poems out of the submission pool through a chapbook publication.

Ok, that’s a start. What other things have people done to begin building an audience for a book, or to make the transition to published author a little easier?

ADDENDUM (Updated 11:21pm Feb 6, 2008)

Additional suggestions and thoughts:

  1. Create a personal Google or Yahoo group. As Oscar notes below, this is a excellent way to alert friends and poetry fans of upcoming events (book launch, readings, and other literary news) in a professional manner. (I’m going to do this over the weekend)
  2. Decide on your cover image early. I really wish I had thought more about this in advance. Knowing which image you want to appear on the book’s cover and obtaining whatever permissions might be necessary to use it can help make your book designer’s life a lot easier. It also takes stress out of your life. In my case I had an image, but didn’t have a good scan of it (too low res). Now I have to dig through my boxes, locate the original photo (taken pre-digital camera), and get a high res scan done (I no longer own a scanner, so I’ll have to go someplace that has a good one).