Category Archives: Publishing

Tricks and treats for writers

6444ecb8-70e8-4198-91f9-607693c6d40bHere’s a quick round-up as we head into the silly season:

For those of you interested in the quickly changing publishing industry, here’s a great documentary with an international perspective that explores how some bookstores and publishers are changing their approach to the publishing game. (Thank you, Elizabeth Lee, for flagging this for other list-serve members.) If you’d like a personal guide to creating your own publishing strategy, I’m starting a three-week Writing Salon workshop in November, entitled Decisions, Decisions, Decisions.

For YA authors, Serendipity Literary Agency are collaborating with Source Books to offer a YA Discovery Contest. Details about the five prizes and Grand Prize are rather vague, but every entry is read by the agency, and the top 20 by some well established editors, and this is the seventh year they’ve been running the contest, and, well, it’s co-sponsored by Source Books, so… Good luck!

While we’re still on MG/YA, I have a class starting in November at the Writing Salon in Berkeley. This is my favorite class to teach, so I hope you’ll consider joining us. If all you want is some MG/YA authors to write with, check out this MeetUp.

For those of you who write general fiction, Serendipity Literary Agency are calling for fiction submissions. So, see? You’re not left out. November is also time to submit to Glimmer Train’s Family Matters contest. And next month is one of only two months when they accept “standard” fiction submissions.

And finally, some congratulations are in order:
To Laurin Mayeno for the launch of her picture book.
To Cathleen Young for landing a six-figure deal on her first MG.
And to Avery Moore for making some promising ripples in Hollywood with his New Adult.

All three are editing clients of mine, so this is dastardly self-promotion. Bwah-ha-ha! And on that Halloween note, if you can tell me what’s in the jars, I’ll send you chocolate.

Trick or treat—and happy writing!


P.S. After this was first posted, Cathleen Young very generously sent through this testimonial:

Here’s what I love about working with Shirin Bridges. First of all, she has a wonderful sense of humor. Second, she is an incredibly talented editor. (And writer!) She has an uncanny ability to see exactly where you are in the process of writing a novel—and shaping her comments to keep you progressing. If you’re just starting out, she focuses on what you’re trying to say. As you get further along, she starts honing in on character and structure. And she asks a lot of questions. Of course, they’re not REALLY questions, because she already has the answer. But she knows how to ask questions that penetrate your brain to get results. I will never forget when she said to me, “Can’t Billie LEARN something?” She was referring to my main character and she made me see where I was falling short. I highly recommend Shirin. And get on her schedule ASAP. Don’t be like me and wait until the last minute….because then you have to twiddle your thumbs while you wait for your turn in the queue! She’s that good. 

How does it feel to become a published author?

This month’s guest blog is by Laurin Mayeno, a student and publishing-consultations client of mine. After a long and determined slog, Laurin is launching her first book, One of a Kind, Like Me/Único Como Yo (Blood Orange Press), on September 21st. Here are a few of her key learnings:









I’m a First-Time Children’s Book Author!
By Laurin Mayeno

I never imagined myself as a children’s book author, until it increasingly seemed like something I needed to do. Now, more than five years later, I can hold my book in my hands and am getting ready for a slew of launch events and celebrations.

One of a Kind, Like Me/Único Como Yo is the story of a little boy named Danny (Danielito en español) who wants to be a princess in the school parade. Danny and his mom set off to find the perfect costume. Will they find it in time? I won’t tell you what happens, but I can say that the story is full of love and affirmation.

As fellow writers, here are some things you might be interested in.

My Inspiration
As a child, my son Danny loved purple, pink, dressing up as a princess, unicorns, mermaids, and little ponies. I didn’t know any other children like him and felt very alone. He didn’t realize how different he was until he started getting teased. I didn’t know how to support him, because I knew next-to- nothing about gender diversity in children. I felt alone, and often felt that we were both being judged.

Things might have been easier if we had opened a picture book and seen a child like Danny inside being loved and supported by his family and community.

I also grew up without seeing myself, a mixed-race child, in books. Our parents read to us constantly, but few of the books had children of color and none had mixed-race children. I was an adult when I discovered a book about mixed-race women. The book affirmed my existence and helped me make sense of my experience. Suddenly, I was no longer invisible.

I will never forget how important it was for me to see myself reflected back in a book. This is a gift I want to give to children like Danny and families like mine.

My Hopes
I want to get this book as far and wide as possible into the world, to reach other children like Danny and give them a reason to smile and hold their heads up high. I want to reach as many children and families as possible, and anyone who has ever felt different. My highest hope is that the book will encourage dialogue and understanding so that we can all embrace gender diversity in all the ways it shows up in our children. To help with this, my website will give parents, caregivers, and educators access to many other resources, including a discussion guide, videos, blogs, workshops, and presentations.

Multicultural children’s books are especially important as only 10% of children’s books published each year have main characters of color, and an even smaller proportion are written and illustrated by storytellers from the communities represented. My book helps inch the percentages a little higher and depicts multiple diversities—gender, single-parenthood, culture, race, and language. The book is bilingual, in English and Spanish. The multicultural team that collaborated on the book includes artist Robert Liu-Trujillo, translator Teresa Mlawer, and publisher Janine Macbeth of BloodOrange Press.

My Journey
I set off on my book-writing journey more than five years ago knowing nothing, I mean nothing about writing or publishing a book for children.

Here are some things that helped me along the way.

1. Coaching and Advice
I reached out for coaching and advice from people who know and love children’s book writing and publishing.

Beth Wallace walked me through creating my first manuscript and submitting it to a publisher. Shirin Bridges helped me finalize my second manuscript, including ideas for the title. Later, when I decided to go with an independent publisher, she walked me through what to look for in a publishing contract. Maya Christina Gonzalez gave me critical feedback on my manuscript development and helped me stay true to my voice.

2. Feedback
I got tons of feedback from fellow writers, educators, my son Danny, and friends who were willing to read the manuscript to children. This feedback helped me craft a compelling manuscript that would speak to children. I also got feedback from people who were knowledgeable about the best language to use when talking about gender diversity in both Spanish and English.

3. Classes
Shirin Bridges’ Writing Salon class on creating children’s picture books helped me revamp my first manuscript into something much closer to the final product, and included getting invaluable feedback from fellow writers. Her class on publishing at Stanford Continuing Education helped me grasp the pros and cons of different publishing options.

Maya Christina Gonzalez’ class on children’s book making helped me stay heart-centered in the process and opened up channels of creativity.

4. Translation
I made an initial attempt to translate my own manuscript, with the help of people who are more fluent in Spanish than I am. My publisher wisely sought independent review of the translation. Although the translation was technically accurate, it didn’t have artistry or feel of a children’s story. Janine made the decision to seek the support of Teresa Mlawer who delivered a beautiful retelling of the story in Spanish.

5. Platform Building
I spent more than three years building visibility for myself as a resource for families like mine, and as someone with something to say about the topics addressed in my book. This included speaking at numerous conferences, creating a website with the help of YDay Designs, recording videos about my story as a mom, becoming a blogger on Huffington Post, and establishing Facebook and twitter accounts. There is also a Facebook account for the book and I purchased the domain name so that people searching for the book by name will be redirected to the correct page on my Out Proud Families website.

6. Publishing
I submitted the manuscript a few times to a publisher that specializes in multicultural children’s literature. They were supportive of my project, but in the end were not interested. I also explored self-publishing as an option, but decided that the amount of work this would entail was beyond my capacity. I ultimately ended up just where I think I was meant to be, with an independent publisher who is absolutely passionate about multicultural children’s books.

Several people I knew, including Shirin, suggested that I connect with Janine Macbeth, who had just published her first book Oh, Oh, Baby Boy under her own imprint, Blood Orange Press. We connected in 2013 and since then have built a beautiful working relationship.

Janine also knew Robert Liu-Trujillo, the illustrator I was interested in, and didn’t hesitate to sign him on to illustrate my book.

Launching the Book
On September 21st, we will be celebrating the launch of our book with the biggest bang possible (given our limited resources). There are a series of events planned including book readings, celebrations, workshops, and interviews.

Will you help me by spreading the word, buying my book, or coming to a book launch event? I would also welcome any opportunities to speak, do readings, or include this story in books lists, blogs or reviews. Please feel free to email me at

Thank you for letting me share my experiences. I wish you as much luck with your project as I have had in mine.

Laurin Mayeno

Congratulations, Laurin. And for all children’s writers and illustrators out there, the Asian Festival of Children’s Literature, one of the biggest kid lit events on the planet, has issued a Call for Proposals: “The Call is for writers and illustrators who might want an opportunity to present at the Festival. We will not be able to provide an honorarium, but we will be able to provide a complimentary Full Festival pass (worth S$500), which will give them access to attend the Writers & Illustrators Conference, Cross-Platform Summit, Teachers Congress and Parents Forum. Masterclasses are ticketed separately.” If you’re interested, you’ll find more information here. Good luck! And happy writing,



Ingram Spark vs. BookBaby vs. CreateSpace

question-mark-background-vectorI was recently asked for the pros and cons of Ingram Spark vs. BookBaby. The answer, I quickly realized, is a complex one, greatly dependent on the particular publishing goals for the book. I also thought that in any decision tree, Amazon’s CreateSpace would have to rate a mention. So what follows is my attempt to delineate the decision tree I would adopt in choosing between these three services, à la Decisions, Decisions; Self-Publishing a Children’s Book, which many of you appreciated.

1. How important are bookstores to your sales strategy?
If NOT VERY, skip to 4.
If VERY, keep reading.

Let’s start out with a reality check. Self-published authors will find it almost impossible to get wide distribution in bookstores. Period. The reasons are legion but boil down to two words: workload and risk. Most self-published authors aren’t represented by distributors that bookstores are already doing business with, and there’s little incentive to slog through the paperwork to set up a new account or to take your books on consignment and handle you outside the system. Also, as a book buyer, you have thousands of titles per season from the top publishers and distributors to contend with. You don’t have the time to read many samples. Why gamble that this self-published author has taken the pains and expense to ensure a professional-standard book when you can choose from thousands of titles that have been vetted by professional editors, designers, and copyeditors?

But with this caveat front and center, bookstores might be a valid cornerstone of some self-publishers’ sales strategies. A good example would be if you have a book with a very specific market that can be reached through very specific bookstores. Take Katy Pye‘s Tracking the Flash: My Lighthouse Travel Log. Where would you sell that? Gift shops attached to lighthouses, or bookstores in the neighboring towns. If you’re a buyer in one of those stores, are you so swamped with lighthouse books that you don’t have the time to look at a self-published title? Probably not. You’d probably at least take a peek at something so specifically lighthouse-y.

You may also decide for emotional reasons that getting into bookstores is important to you. It’s perfectly valid to feel that if you’re going to go to all this trouble to write, fund, and publish a book, you’re going to enjoy a book launch party and the pride of having your book on shelf in your local bookstore(s). Depending on your relationship(s) with your local bookstore(s), this might be a real possibility and may even lead to a reasonable number of sales. Amanda Conran, for example, was guaranteed a launch party at Book Passage in Corte Madera, for the excellent reason that she works there. She sold around 120 copies of The Lost Celt on her big day. That’s about half the total sales of most self-published titles, if you believe what you can google, which is that the average self-published book sells fewer than 250 copies in a lifetime. This number shows up everywhere, most respectably in Forbes, but the original source is never given, so imbibe this factoid at your own risk.

In any case, if for either of the reasons above you decide that bookstore sales are important to you, then I would drop CreateSpace right off the bat. Most independent bookstores will not knowingly take a CreateSpace book. They hate Amazon that much, and Amazon doesn’t help out by playing ball either: CreateSpace offers roughly half the discount (read profit margin) that bookstores are used to getting from other distributors and publishers.

Ingram, on the other hand, already has a relationship with just about every bookstore in the USA and an established (and accepted) discount schedule. Within the industry, Lightning Source, Ingram’s original print-on-demand offering, was thought to provide much better production quality than CreateSpace—better color handling, more trim sizes, fewer typographic anomalies, etc. Spark has probably inherited some of this perception as a halo effect, even though its production process is different. (Lightning Source accepts printer-ready PDFs, forcing someone to pay attention to typography—or so one would hope; Spark, like CreateSpace, uses a “meat grinder”—an automatic formatting system that, in CreateSpace’s past, at least, was prone to errors.)

The Amazon stigma, if you’re targeting bookstores, is a compelling argument for favoring Ingram Spark. But how do you choose between Spark and BookBaby?

2. Do you want someone to produce your book for you?
If you want help, keep reading.
If you think you can do it yourself, skip to 3.

As Ingram wholesales for other book producers, you can benefit from Ingram’s bookstore relationships without producing your book with Ingram. BookBaby is a popular option.

When authors gush about their experiences with BookBaby, and quite a few of them do, it’s usually because BookBaby makes everything so easy. You pay them; they take care of it. Then, once your books are produced and in all the promised sales channels, they are out of the picture. No ongoing royalties, etc. It’s a straight “for fee” service.

They are credited with an excellent support staff who actually answer the phone. They provide easy, one-shop access to professional book designers and editors. (BARNT BARNT, that’s my alarm system blaring: for a professional-quality book, you need both of these services!) If I wasn’t a publisher myself and didn’t have easy access to designers and editors, etc., I’d probably consider using BookBaby.

3. Do you think you can produce a book yourself?
On the other hand, some self-publishers don’t need BookBaby’s menu of services. Some are already working with editors. I’ve been retained by a few of them, and these clients are a determined bunch who want to be more than authors—they want control of the entire publication process. (I actually brought one an invitation to submit from a traditional publisher, and he turned it down because he wanted to retain all creative control.) They want to pick their own illustrators and/or designers and have control of the cover art. They relish the challenge of marketing. They are digitally adept enough to deal with the meat grinders without suffering dangerous spikes in blood pressure. If you have your stable of professionals in hand and don’t need much additional production help, Ingram Spark is the most direct route into the Ingram database. As Ingram is America’s largest book wholesaler, that’s the catalog most independent bookstores will use when placing an order.

Be very clear that Ingram Spark, BookBaby, and nearly all similar services offer production, fulfillment, and easy ordering of your books, but although they use the word “distribution,” they are not full-service distributors. Industry distributors like Perseus and Independent Publishers Group have sales forces. In theory at least, their sales reps will go out there and plug your book. (In reality, their sales forces have thousands of books they can plug; they will plug what they think they can sell.)

Ingram and BookBaby, et al., do not offer sales services. They do not sell to the trade. YOU have to do the work to get a bookstore to place an order. Although you will be in the Ingram database, that database during any given season includes thousands upon thousands of titles, so unless the bookstore is actively looking for it, your book will not be found.

4. Are you primarily interested in online sales?
Unless you have a very specific target or excellent bookstore relationships (count celebrity or royalty as instant excellent bookstore relationships), most self-publishers will rely primarily on online sales. This is not disabling: independent bookstores now account for less than 10% of all book sales, according to a 2014 article in Forbes. If your intent is to go online-only, the choice comes down to Amazon vs. someone like BookBaby.

BookBaby’s advantages were covered in 2 and they apply whether or not you’re interested in bookstores. Your title will sit in Ingram’s catalog, just in case pigs fly and a bookstore wants to order your book without any prompting; but for the rest, BookBaby will take care of production of the print-on-demand (POD) book and conversion of the e-book, and usher both into the appropriate retail channels, dominated by Amazon for POD, and Kindle for e-books. They’ll charge you a fee for their services, and then you will take all profits minus the cut to your retailers.

Amazon is a little trickier in that not only do you have to handle print book production yourself, you have to handle ebook production also. Even if you are not intimidated by this, there will still be two separate Amazon companies with their own procedures that you’ll have to deal with: CreateSpace for the POD book; and Kindle for the e-book. If you would like your e-book available for every device, you will also have to convert your book into multiple e-book formats and distribute them separately to non-Kindle platforms like iBooks and Kobo.

One plus of persevering and tackling CreateSpace and Kindle yourself is that you can take advantage of Kindle’s Select program. This gives you higher royalties and various marketing perks in exchange for a period of exclusivity—at a minimum, 90 days. Another advantage is that your POD books are directly in the Amazon system. You don’t have to ship books to them; they print them right off their own printers. But one of the most compelling reasons to consider the CreateSpace + Kindle bundle is profit. By not paying the likes of BookBaby, you can invest less in the production of your book. (Although, repeat repeat: I would really urge you to pay for a book designer for the cover, a professional editor, and ideally a separate copyeditor—so any apparent savings may be a false economy.) CreateSpace is also  thought to generally offer lower per-book prices than Ingram Spark, although costs vary with page count and format. When you get into the publishing business, you will be bowled over by how thin the margins are, so any penny saved is a penny earned.

OK, at this point I’m not sure if I’ve bored or depressed you into a stupor or confused you with all the branches of my decision tree, so I’m going to close with one last question:

5. Do you really have to choose between them?
Going back to the original question of whom I would choose, BookBaby or Ingram Spark, and having introduced Amazon as a third candidate myself, here is what I would try if I were a self-publisher with a commercial fiction novel. If, say, I had a romance, or a piece of sci-fi, or a mystery—all genres that do well digitally—and I were a first-time publisher with few professional contacts, I would:

  1. Go to BookBaby and have them help me with design and editing, because, as I hope I’ve made abundantly clear, both are necessary to give your work its best shot, and unless you are yourself from an affiliated field, you might not know what good design and editing is. BookBaby not only gives you access to those services, but their suppliers have been vetted, and from what I can see, BookBaby knows a thing or two about professionalism and design, so “better than nought” as they say in northern England (pronouncing the “nought” as “nowt”).
  2. Have them distribute my POD book, including to Amazon and Ingram. I’ll get the world’s largest online retailer, and the world’s largest bricks-and-mortar wholesaler as sales channels—recognizing that the responsibility for sales (pushing consumers to those channels) falls 100% on me.
  3. Order 100 (more if you’re really brave) print copies and sell them hard to friends and family. Take sample copies into all the independent bookstores within a 50-mile radius (my personal definition of “local”) and try to negotiate consignment deals. Do the math carefully here because you should expect to give away a commission of at least 40%. That may leave you with little profit.
  4. At the very least, negotiate a book launch party with the best independent bookstore within that radius. Work very, very hard at bringing my own crowd, knowing that I will get exactly three members of the public who happened to wander in.
  5. Have lots of photos taken signing books. This is your author’s moment, and most self-published authors will look back and realize they spent a few thousand dollars on it, so suck as much joy out of this marrow as you can.
  6. Have BookBaby hold off on distributing my e-book, but have them hand me a Kindle-ready mobi file.
  7. Go to Kindle Direct Publishing and sign a 90-day exclusivity deal for my e-book to access the Kindle Select program benefits. Make the most of those benefits while I can.
  8. Cancel my Select privileges and revert to a standard Kindle Direct Publishing account once the first 90 days are up.
  9. Go back to BookBaby and ask them to now take the hold off and distribute my e-book to all their e-book channels, other than Amazon.

If you follow this strategy and all goes well, you will have Ingram and Amazon as sales channels, a reasonably professional product with the minimum of head- and heartache, a book launch party so you’ll at least have proud moments and happy memories, direct and consignment sales, the advantages of Kindle Select for your critical three months at launch, and distribution into most other e-book channels after the exclusivity period. I know that BookBaby will hold off on e-book distribution for three months; their reputation for answering their phone and being accommodating held up on personal inspection. And also, I want you to notice one thing: this strategy, if successful, might maximize your chances and even deliver personal satisfaction (a good launch party, as Amanda Conran enthused, is “everything I dreamed of, and more”) but it may not deliver you sales.

Sales is the unicorn. I’ve only ever heard one person in publishing say they know how to ensure it. Not any publisher, nor any editor either. Only one person: James Patterson. For what he has to say, go here. You will have to pay, but that should not surprise you.

Hope this helps!

For more on the publishing game, join me at the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference for a one-day Publishing Bootcamp. Or pick my brain while on retreat—I have one space left for my Oct 6-9 Port Orchard writers’ retreat, co-hosted by author and writing coach, Sheila Bender, and five spots open for Oct 9-12. Email me at if you’re interested.

In the meantime, enjoy the first days of summer and happy writing!





Opportunity knocks?

As I prepare for two upcoming workshops, I’m impressed again by how much the publishing industry has morphed in just the past few months. Publishing has never been so challenging, nor the myriad of options available so overwhelming, and yet the industry has also never been so exciting for brave and innovative authors. The game has changed. The odds are much worse, but the returns are potentially much higher.

Think back for a moment and consider just how much change there’s been. Not all that long ago, if you wanted to read a book you had relatively few options. You could borrow one from a library or from a friend, or you could buy one from a book store. That book store would likely have been an independently owned affair, or at most part of a regional chain. And the books would have been, well, booksPrinted, bound, releasing the tantalizing whiff of new-book smell when you first cracked the spine.

Nowadays, you are probably not buying your books from your local bookstore or borrowing them from your local library. In March 2013, Digital Book World reported that e-retailers had overtaken physical retail stores in sales volume.1 And libraries now have to compete with an explosion of different subscription services accessed at a very low cost through your phone or e-reader. 

In addition, the very definition of “book” has changed. E-books accounted for 20% of all book sales in the first six months of
2 This isn’t yet the wholesale takeover many people anticipated: in some past projections, e-books were supposed to be outselling print books by now. But 20% is fully one fifth of a multi-billion-dollar market; impressive when you think that ten years ago, no one had even heard of a Kindle or an iPad.

Plus, the days when e-books were the default alternative to the print book are over. Audiobooks are growing strong.3 There is always a delay in publishing stats, so 2014 figures were only released and reported by Publishers Weekly in August 2015, but in that most-recent report on the audiobook industry, the Audiobook Publishers Association reported a jump of 13.5% in U.S. sales dollars, year on year, and a 19.5% increase in U.S. sales units, with total U.S. retail sales of more than $1.47 billion.

And now, coming to a store near you, are print books that do not exist until you order one up. Print-on-demand has already enabled self- and independent-publishers to advertise their titles in online stores and incur production costs only once the book is ordered. Deep in the bowels of Amazon or Ingram, a machine prints and binds that ordered copy and spits it into the mail. Now, closing the circle, print-on-demand is coming “offline.” Espresso Book Machines are coming to the drug store, supermarket, or big box store near you—and, surprisingly, to your local book store also.4 While they are still in the pilot phase, switching partners like square dancers, I am excited by the idea of print-on-demand machines wherever people buy paperbacks. Instead of a rack of maybe twenty titles, you will be able to choose from a list of more than two hundred thousand. Who knows how long the coming of this reality will take, but from title selection to your new book dropping out of the slot would be around five minutes.

But how, you ask, does all of this affect the author? Well, it fundamentally changes the business you are in or trying to get into. Where before there was a publishing path—manuscript,agent, publisher (or if you were a picture book author: manuscript, publisher)—now there is a publishing labyrinth. Should you self-publish, and if so by which of many options? If you choose “traditional” publishing, what kind of publisher? Five years ago, there were:
1. The Big Six as they were called then;
2. Everybody else that 
was big;
3. Small presses;
4. Vanity presses.
Now you need to add to that list reading platforms, digital-first publishers, audiobook publishers, partner or cooperative publishing, and crowd-funded publishing.

All these new options mean a lower barrier to entry. Anybody, and I do mean anybody, can now publish a book with the investment of only a few hours and at most a few dollars. In 2012, according to the latest confirmed figures available from the industry watchdog, Bowker, traditional publishers released around 300,000 titles in the U.S. while non- traditional publishers released more than two million.5 And this does not count the millions of public-domain e-books available. Your book now has to compete against many, many more titles.

Excitingly, a handful of self-publishers have proven that it can be done. Fifty Shades of Grey, first self-published as fan fiction and then as an e-book and via print on demand, famously changed the paradigms of publishing when Random House bought the rightsand sold 70 million copies of the trilogy in nine months.6

The Martian started off equally humbly, being serialized for free on author Andy Weir’s personal website before progressing to a self-published e-book, then to an audiobook that rocketed to the number one spot on Audible—and then, of course, to a print deal with Crown/Random House and a movie with Matt Damon playing the lead.7

This new playing field affects even the largest publishers. It’s been called Blockbuster Syndrome. Publishers now look for every chance to “guarantee” sales: self-published books that are already white hot; big name authors; movie, TV, or video game tie-ins; established series; celebrities who can bring their own audience. How well the book is written is often not the critical factor, and that shows in the advances. Donna Tartt, who went on to win a Pulitzer for The Goldfinch, received a $450,000 advance for her first novel A Secret History, placing her well into the major league for literary debuts;8 but Bill Clinton received $15,000,000 (fifteen million just in case your eyes cannot quite absorb all the zeros) as an advance for My Life.9

Who can blame them? Publishing companies are businesses run for profit and have to be responsible to their shareholders and responsive to the market—us. We are the people who gave James Patterson sales of 300 million copies worldwide,10 while Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall, after it had won the Man Booker Prize (which I agree is the mark of “fiction at its finest”), was considered a literary blockbuster at only 225,000 copies in hardback.11

Wouldn’t it be a wonderful world if good books would find good sales; if good books would rise to the surface despite publishing’s increasingly labyrinthian challenges; and if good books would find their audiences not by marketing muscle but by merit. This raises the question, who is to judge a book’s merit? Well, this is my blog, so let me rephrase: I wish that all books that I would think were good would find good sales.

For strategies and musings on how this might be achieved, I hope you’ll join me for a Publishing Bootcamp at the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference on August 7th. Or come discuss it over dinner at one of our fabulous retreats: Port Orchard 6-9 or Port Orchard 10-12; or for those who’d like a longer break, October 6-12. Email me at for details.

Until then, happy writing!


1.  Digital Book World, March 18, 2013.
2.  Fortune, September 24, 2015.
3.  Publishers Weekly, August 7, 2015.
4.  The Digital Reader, September 2, 2014.
5.  Bowker ISBN Output Report for 2002-2013.
6. Christian Science Monitor, March 2013.
7.  Publishers Weekly, September 11, 2015.
8. The New Criterion, October, 1992.
9. New York Times, April 5, 2008.
10. Business Insider, April 15, 2014.
11., The Man booker Effect, November 13, 2012.

A real-life glimpse at the power of conferences

As many of you know, I’m enthusiastic about conferences when I teach, calling them the only publishing short cut there is (if you’re not Hollywood celebrity or British royalty). I’m about to pick up this refrain again in  An Author’s Guide to Publishing at Stanford, and Publishing Bootcamp at the Mendocino Coast Writers Conference. And I got to thinking, how can I prove what I claim?

I decided to diagram some of the relationships I’ve developed because of retreats and conferences—either by meeting somebody directly at a conference, or because somebody who was met by someone else at a conference was eventually introduced to me.  I think you’ll find it heartening to see how many previously unpublished authors got incorporated into this publishing web, and how many times cash and services changed hands.

Now, bear in mind that this is only a small subset of all the wonderful connections I’ve made through conferences and retreats, both in the U.S. and abroad.  I really do believe that retreats and conferences can enrich and propel your writing career as it has mine.

So saying, check out these upcoming West Coast offerings. But be brisk—some of these registrations are closing soon!

Association of Writers and Writing Programs, March 30-April 2

Santa Barbara Writers Conference, June 5-10

Squaw Valley Writers Conference, June 18-25

Napa Valley Writers Conference, July 24-29

Mendocino Coast Writers Conference, August 4-7

Willamette Writers Conference, August 12-14

Write On The Sound, September 30-October 2

Happy writing, retreating, and conferencing!


The benefits of writing in community

I teach, I speak at writers’ conferences, and I lead writers’ retreats. I’m often asked what the comparative benefits are of each. Well, I’ve just returned from a writers’ retreat in Port Orchard, Washington. A craft or publishing course will give you more instruction. A writers’ conference will give you exposure to more of your peers and a broader range of faculty. But a writers’ retreat—writing in community—has certain advantages that are hard to beat.

1. It gives you a concentrated time to write, in an environment hand-picked to be conducive to writing.


aPDAgiRmFeyTzrbEi7Dw7sG3xkBKXVmWZ1cGIXd08NIWe were lucky to have plenty of space to work privately or side-by-side, to commune by the fire or collaborate over a table. As one participant said, “the accommodations went a LONG way towards putting me in the right frame of mind to sit down and get some work done.”

2. Being surrounded by other hard-working writers and hearing only the tap-tap-tap of keystrokes does amazing things for productivity. Unlike most of us when we’re out in the real world, being on retreat with writers makes you feel like a writer. For those three or four days, it becomes your principal calling. I heard time and time again that participants got more writing done on this retreat than they had in the preceding year.IMG_9083



3.  It gives you real relationships with other writers—people writing at your level and struggling with the same challenges; people who may be more established and from whose experience you can learn; people who may be professional editors, writing coaches, and publishers—all contacts that any aspiring writer should want to make, all gathered around a table or a fire once a day, commenting and collaborating on work.

It is a great benefit of writers’ conferences that they also expose you people, but on retreat, you are a small and tight-knit family for three days. The nature of the bond is qualitatively different. You can’t have the dinners we had together and not feel permanently connected.


In the end, the proof is in the pudding. We had one participant tell us that she was on the point of quitting for good, but with the help of all the collegial interactions, she’d landed on a new arc and was now re-motivated and back on track. We had another thank us for getting her out of the doldrums. And another excited by new project ideas that had come to her. Where writers gather with warmth and wine, the muses come visiting.

So, still basking in the rosy glow of a great retreat…wait, cue the sunset shot…


…I’d like to thank my fellow house-elves for making this possible. Wendy for the superb catering, and Robyn for keeping us all sorted and sane.


If you’re interested in joining our next retreat, we will be back in Port Orchard, March 24-27. Email me or for details.

And in the mean time, happy writing!









Answers to three questions raised in this summer’s workshops


It’s that time of year again. Labor Day looms, signaling the end of summer. Most of another year has slipped away. And all that summer reading and writing? Still undone.

I learned a few things this summer, though. Mostly from finding answers to difficult questions that were raised in class. If you’ve attended one of my publishing workshops, you’ll know that the first exercise I assign is an introspective one: why do you want to be published? This summer, for the second time since I started asking that question, an answer came back, “I see it as a first step to a movie.”

I can answer a lot of “how to” questions about publishing, but “how to get my book made into a movie” wasn’t one of them. I knew differing cocktails of agents were involved—authors’ agents; subrights agents working for publishers; media talent and IP agents like Creative Artists or Gotham—but the exact process has never been anything I’ve had the good luck to need to know.

But here is a step-by-step from someone who does: How a Book Becomes a Movie. It’s a fascinating read even if you don’t have such hopes for your book, because it shows how both the book and film industries have been so radically changed by Harry Potter, Twilight, et al.

Enlightenment #2 is a sequel to last month’s blog about Outlining (this corner fought by James Patterson) vs. Not Outlining (in this corner, Zadie Smith). I get asked whether or not to outline all the time, and I personally find it freeing to have convincing advocates of such diametrically opposed views. It allows you to do pretty much anything in between—and in between is exactly where my personal process is. But Patterson’s proposed advantages of outlining did not extend to character and voice. So I was intrigued to come across this discussion of How Outlining Can Bring Out Voice. I’m still not sure outlining is mandatory, but the argument for its utility grows and grows.

The last enlightenment is a caution. I give consults to writers; frequently to self-publishers. There is one question I often get asked that I regret having to answer: “I have self-published my book using print-on-demand (POD). How can I generate more sales?” If your book is already published, the invaluable information I have is too late to save you, though I can perhaps help you make the best of a bad situation. I use “save” advisedly because it is with this mode of self-publishing more than any other that authors get burned and disappointed. Please, if you’re thinking of self-publishing, speak to me before you commit to POD. You can attend one of my publishing workshops, or email me to arrange a consult. I charge $100 for an hour, and I guarantee, I can save you from a much more expensive misstep.

So, those were my three big take-outs from this summer. But here is an ongoing opportunity to learn more about publishing and its ancillary skills, for free. Skillfeed is offering 30 days’ free access to its 93,858 video courses.

The neighbor’s BBQ smoke wafts in through my windows. Maybe it’s because I’m writing a novel populated by Native Americans, but I feel as if I’ve gathered a few fat writing berries from this social summer to carry with me into the insular winter, when surely…finally…I will snuggle down and write?

Happy learning and writing!



Many months ago, I gave a picture book writing workshop to a small group of beginners. It wasn’t a long course — maybe four weeks. And it was at a community college, which usually draws a less committed student. I enjoyed the class, and then thought no more about it. A year later, I received the letter below:

Hi All,

It’s been exactly one year ago since our class together in the Children’s Book Writing Workshop at SMCCD! I just wanted to connect with you again to share an update.

For the time being, I’ve transitioned out of my career in business consulting and am focusing on growth in writing and illustrating. The workshop and my first manuscript there helped spur me on to go and do something about my love for children’s books. For your instruction and inspiration, Shirin, and also to each of you – Thank you!

I just recently launched my publishing name, Wildberry Ink, creating children’s books that integrate diversity and heart values for meaningful learning. My manuscript evolved and became my first book Commander Charlee: In Search of a Space Crew, written for young readers ages 4-7 years old.

Charlee and her family will move away from their city and home. However, Charlee has other plans and searches for a space crew to move to outer space with her. While she copes the move in her own way, she embraces her community. 

As I had initially shared in class, I imagined and created the book from the wonderful privilege and experience in serving alongside community members the past couple of years in the Tenderloin District of San Francisco. It represents what I’ve learned and hope to pass on to others as well. 
Here’s a short video that launched my book. Feel free to share!



So that’s what I’m doing: freely sharing. Not only Naomi’s achievement but her thrilling self-empowerment. If she can do it, so can you.

Chasing your dream is like jumping off a 6,000-ft cliff. You’ll never feel larger and more alive.

So congratulations to Naomi…and I hope we’ve both got good parachutes!

Happy writing,


Burrs, Obi Wan, and my new fiction press

In June, I began thinking about publishing fiction. I read fiction. I write fiction. I edit fiction. Why wouldn’t I publish it too?

Marketing Me was wary. The problem with publishing fiction is that it is so hard to position yourself against the market. “Publishers of quality fiction.” That tagline could belong to anyone. Whereas it’s been relatively easy to create an identity for Goosebottom Books that gives you a pretty clear idea of what we’re all about.

Still, the idea hung in there. Like a burr. You know the ones. If you’re reading this blog you’re probably a creative person yourself. Those ideas that won’t shake loose, they will change your life if you let them.

That month, I helped one of my students edit a manuscript as an application for a scholarship. The work was so good I felt agitated — as if I’d taken a swig of my sister’s triple-shot coffee. (My sister can metabolize caffeine but not alcohol; I’m the other way around.)
I wanted to publish that book; never mind that only the first few chapters had been written. Those chapters not only delighted me and touched me, they made me think. They brought my mind to something that I’d never thought of much before, and they made me compassionate in my contemplation.

In the same month, I bumped into not one but two ex-students at two separate conferences. Both of them were working on wonderful, altruistic projects. Both projects didn’t scream “money.” But they rumbled, “the Force is strong.”

Then at another conference, I started talking to an author about a project languishing in her drawer. Something in her description caught my attention. “Use the Force” echoed just beyond the range of human hearing.

At this point, part of me cringed. I have a Business Jedi brother, and I could already see the disbelieving shake of his head, the single word laughed, not spoken — “Wh-ut??”

“I want to start an imprint publishing worthy fiction. Fiction with a cause — only it’s fiction that doesn’t read like fiction with a cause. It just reads like great fiction, but it has a cause.”

Follow the “whut” with some expletives.

From where I sit, the big question in independent publishing is how do you do what you love, what is worthy, what you think will be on the side of good, and not go bankrupt?

How, indeed.

Actually, at this point that’s exactly what my two ex-students asked me. And I realized, there may be a way, if we did this together: if we shared the risks that I could no longer afford to assume single-handedly; if I provided the design and marketing skills and the industry knowledge that they were lacking — and access to my rolodex and to national distribution; and if seed funding were provided by other people who also believed that the projects were worthy…

And just as this thought took shape, just as the burr untwined its spines and grew, I came across this story of a publisher combining publishing services with crowd funding. They’ve published 6,000 books this way in the last five years. Maybe I can publish six?

Anyway, now we’re four months along. I’m starting this new month by announcing my new imprint: Gosling Press, four years to the day after we announced Goosebottom Books. It’s called Gosling not because we’re publishing for younger kids (although we still are focused on kids); but because I’m taking these authors under my wing. Gosling Press is a partner publisher — we will share the investment, and share the rewards.

That’s the positioning: A curated list of partner-published, fiction-with-a-cause.

It’s riddled with hyphens, but I’m very excited.
May the Force be with us.



One small step for Apple, one giant step for self-publishing-kind

Last week, Apple unveiled its new iPhone 6 without saying one word about its function as an e-reader. E-books? A market that Amazon has drawn blood for, and for which Barnes & Noble might have lost their business? Pah, small potatoes?

The omission struck Jeremy Greenfield in Forbes, who wondered if Apple was squandering an opportunity to make waves in the e-book business. To us book peeps (read take-it-to-Amazon-pow peeps), the omission was especially galling as the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus are now the best Apple e-readers on the market, with larger screen sizes and improved screen resolution.  What were they thinking?

This week, Apple made another little announcement. As of yesterday, Apple has begun updating all its device users to iOS8.
So? So, for the first time, iBooks comes standard. That little orange open-book icon is going to be popping onto lots of little screens.

How many screens are we talking about? Eight hundred million. 800,000,000! I feel like putting my pinkie to the corner of my mouth and going “bwah-ha-ha” in a Dr. Evil/Mike Myers impersonation.

The latest figures released by Apple showed 150 million iBook installations as of June 2013.  So, simple math would tell the iBook self-publisher that with one fell stroke, Apple has added an extra 650,000,000 to your potential market. (This does not count any new users brought into the Apple fold by the iPhone 6.)

Of course, we should be cautious and give due respect to the word “potential.” All those people have to a) upgrade their operating system — which is something that I, myself, am notoriously slow at; b) double click on that little icon; c) find your book; d) like your book; e) buy your book. But, potentially, a market of 800,000,000. You have every right to celebrate that! (If you’d like another cut at the numbers, here’s a great article in DBW.)

And, to my mind, iBooks also extends another huge advantage to indy/self publishers: iBooks Author. This is such a powerful and elegant piece of software — something Adobe would  charge thousands for, but being Apple, easier to use and stocked with templates that are oh-so-beautifully designed.

It’s free. Yes, FREE — insert pinkie and Dr. Evil bwah-ha-ha again.
And it can bring a level of interactivity to your e-Books that is worth exploring. Its built-in bells and whistles may not be necessary for a straight novel, but are rife with potential for nearly everything else. Even for novels, the interactivity brings new opportunities. It would be very easy to put together one of those “choose your own ending” stories, for example…hmmmmm…

On that note, I have to end. I have a new idea that needs writing.

Needless to say, an extra 650,000,000 potential readers is of no use to you if you can’t get their attention. So, to help with that, here are a few promotional opportunties:

The deadline for entering the Third Annual Shelf Unbound Writing Competition for Best Independently Published Book, sponsored by Bowker and Blurb, is October 1.

Foreword Reviews’ IndieFab Awards program is now open to indie books published in 2014.

And Publishers Weekly has just announced a new blog for independent authors.

Happy writing and publishing!
If you’re in the SF Bay Area, join my latest publishing course at Stanford on September 27th if you’d like a few more tips.

And, I’ll be with two other geese at Book Passage in Corte Madera on October 4th and then back again on October 6th to speak to the Left Coast Writers. Come say hello.