I met an impressive man the other day.

My wife and I were buying a used motorized wheelchair for my grand-father-in-law. We found it on Craigslist and negotiated the fee and everything ahead of time by phone and drove to meet the seller, Justin.

It turns out that Justin has a business maintaining and reconditioning motorized wheelchairs. He serves about 3000 active clients. That’s an amazing number in itself.

I know nothing about wheelchairs, but Justin took about 40 minutes explaining every small detail of the chair and its features, and answered every question we didn’t even know we had.

Of course, while I listened to his presentation my thought was “he should write a book!” He was passionate about his expertise, and wanted to share as much as he could. At first, I thought he was in the business of reconditioning and selling these devices, but by the end I understood that he was in the business of helping people remain mobile and active and independent. I can think of few things more important to his clients.

Justin is a mobility expert, and his mission is about more than batteries and speed controllers. In retrospect I’m not sure there’s enough of a market for him to place a book, but his sort of expertise and passion are the same things I look for, and admire, in my clients.

As readers we often take expertise for granted and don’t always recognize what’s right in front of us. Or we may not recognize the preparation that has gone into the work before us.

On first hearing the title, you might think it’s another gimmick, but as I read the galleys of Roger Ma’s Zombie Combat Manual, I’m reminded that Roger is an expert martial artist who can write with wonderfully restrained wit about how to kill zombies using battle-axes, staffs, or various knives. There’s plenty of zombie gore, but Roger is also a credible witness and expert about mixed martial arts. Thankfully, he’s compelled to share his knowledge to help us protect ourselves against zombie outbreaks!

Likewise, every time I see an outline from Dan Gookin, I am reminded that Dan is a true expert at conceiving and organizing a book. There’s a reason that Dan’s book, DOS for Dummies, spawned such a huge and long-lasting series, and it’s obvious to me every time I read one of his outlines. Dan is an expert at speaking directly to the reader, eliminating the extraneous, and focusing on what’s really important. Ultimately, his organizational gift and unique wit have helped millions of readers learn to accomplish something that may have at first intimidated them.

What’s new these days is the ability authors have to share their expertise even before they pitch a book. Tamar Weinberg had written extensively about Social Media Marketing for several years before she pitched a book. Harold Davis shared his photos and techniques widely (and freely) on flickr and on his photoblog before he turned to books.

I can list a comparable expertise and innate helpfulness in every client I represent.

It’s really something to be an expert, and even more so to be able to share your expertise with others. If I was going to ask only one question of prospective clients I would ask “What do you have to share?”

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Writer Beware has a great post, Should Writers Worry About Blacklisting, a practice I’ve never really heard of beyond the over-the-top and infamous Joe Eszterhaus/CAA imbroglio where Michael Ovitz was quoted as telling Eszterhaus “You’re not going anywhere. You’re not leaving this agency. If you do, my foot soldiers who go up and down Wilshire Boulevard each day will blow your brains out.” I guess that’s a little more hardcore than blacklisting when your agent actually hunts you down and blows your brains out, and so it remains Michael Ovitz’s most memorable quote!

In the real world, there’s no blacklist kept by publishers or agents, though I would caution writers that editors have long memories and they migrate everywhere, meaning the editor you cursed at five years ago may suddenly appear at the house you’re pitching today. My advice: be smart, be kind and be thoughtful above all, but don’t allow yourself to be bullied. Of course at Writer Beware, the context is always in the realm of “legitimate agents don’t blacklist you.” That’s right, legitimate agents most often say no, sometimes may beg, but they probably won’t threaten you 🙂

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Wiley editor Chris Webb has launched a new blog. One of his first posts is Crowdhacking: 10 Simple Ways Authors Can Help Increase Sales. Check it out. This should be required reading for anyone who’s about to publish a book, whether they self-publish or go with a big publisher.

In a word, to succeed at Amazon you need to help people find your book. So it’s good to create lists and “so you’d like to” guides, and it’s also a good idea to actively solicit reviewers. Your first reviewers needn’t be limited to your mom and cousin, most of Amazon’s top reviewers do this as an active hobby. Track someone down who reviews similar books and send them a copy.

Also, although he’s buried down in the comments, if you’d like to find a great primer on how to promote your book online, using not only Amazon but also through your own blog and on social networks like MySpace and YouTube, check out Steve Weber’s book, Plug Your Book: Online Book Marketing for Authors, Book Publicity through Social Networking. You can get a great sense of what’s in Steve’s book from his Amazon page.

There’s a lot that you can do to help your book even if you feel like your book is treated like only one of hundreds from your publisher (it is) and often overlooked by your PR department (unless you’re Michael Crichton it probably is).

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I just sent out a rejection regarding a really neat idea that wasn’t right for me. And I received a nice form letter in response, to whit:

I apologize for this automatic reply to your email.

To control spam, I now allow incoming messages only from senders I have approved beforehand.

If you would like to be added to my list of approved senders, please fill out the short request form (see link below). Once I approve you, I will receive your original message in my inbox. You do not need to resend your message. I apologize for this one-time inconvenience.

No, that’s okay, really, but thanks for the query!

Seriously, do you really want potential agents and publishers to jump through hoops to contact you?

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Cory Doctorow suggests that authors use blogging tools as their most basic web page management tools, in Blogging Without the Blog, in Locus Magazine.

He writes —

The secret is to have the site redesigned around a blogging tool, like Movable Type or WordPress. These run on your ISP’s server — most ISPs offer one or both. When set up correctly, they can do more than just serve as a publishing platform for your online journal or blog: they can serve as a powerful content management system comparable to the ones used by newspapers, universities, and online stores like Amazon..

Well worth reading and worth trying for any tech phobic authors.

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Via Publishers Lunch, check out this article from Writer Beware, Martha Ivery Sentenced.

I had heard about Martha before but I wasn’t aware of how much money she scammed. It turns out it was a lot, more than $700k from over 300 victims. For that she was sentenced to 65 months in Federal Prison, plus restitution.

Your best bet for avoiding scam agents? Legitimate agents don’t typically advertise and they don’t charge you reading fees.

If you do some research you’ll learn to recognize scam agents when you see them: they often have the most generic names, no recent book sales listed, or no sales at all, and a long disclaimer about fees somewhere on their site (thou doth protest too much). They may advertise via Google Ads or in the back of Writer’s mags. (Here’s a hack which, unfortunately, is probably click fraud: if you want to fight scam agents, click on their ads, they have to pay for each click!)

You can research agents at Preditors and Editors or Writer Beware. Just be sure to check your references because an internet posting from one unhappy client does not necessarily mean an agent is a scam artist.

If you’re not sure about an agency, read their website, google their authors, make sure they have a track record of sales to royalty paying publishers. For instance, I’ve started posting a few of my sales at Publishers Marketplace, but not all of them, but you can always find out more about my books at my website and you can even find links to my authors’ websites and contact them yourself if you’re so inclined.

I’m okay with companies that purport to do “research” on agents for a fee (except when they call during lunch) but much of this info is free or available at your local library. Plus it turns out that their research actually comes from the sites or books linked below.

Your best bet for finding a suitable agent is scouring sales data at Publishers Weekly, Publishers Marketplace, AgentQuery, or several of the great reference books available, such as Jeff Herman’s Guide To Book Publishers, Editors and Literary Agents, which I’m no longer in since I’ve been on my own!

Perhaps your best strategy? Make friends with other writers. Although I read plenty of over-the-transom submissions, most of my clients come from referrals.

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On the face of it this is kind of an interesting idea, for an $85 entry fee you can apply for the Sobol Award, a $100,000 cash prize for a novel basically selected from the slush pile and then “represented” by the prize giving agency.

Neat idea, huh?

The Sobol Agency is committed to helping “top-ranking” writers find publishers. I didn’t know writers were ranked, but if they were, don’t you think they’d be published? The creators of the prize don’t acknowledge that the entire publishing world is always on the hunt for that unique, brilliant, unpublished novelist.

I’m sure there are books that sneak through the cracks, but there is not a clique of editors and agents who are trying to keep you from publishing your novel because they’re conspiring against you. They just don’t think what you’ve written is marketable.

I tend to agree with the critics cited in this article, which likens this contest to a lottery.

Maybe I’m wrong and they find the next Confederacy of Dunces, but I’m not optimistic. In the meantime, if I were an aspiring novelist I would be writing, reading the best, and working on my craft. And when I was ready I would query reputable, established agencies far and wide for the price of one postage stamp per query.

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Re my last entry, Beat Deadline, Faster Publication? Chris Webb asked “I’d be interested to hear your advice on the more common occurrence – when an author misses the deadline. As you know, this can really complicate matters with our bookstore partners – monthly open to buy dollars, promotions, etc.”

The answer is worth its own entry. I blogged about some of this last year, You’ve Signed a book contract, now what?.

Let me say up front that this is a more critical issue with tech books because we’re dealing with tighter schedules all around (in both writing and production), and often dealing with software that’s in a state of flux itself, not to mention a crowded market of competitors.

With most non-tech titles the writing cycle is usually longer, the pub date is further removed from the manuscript deadline, and there’s generally more room for correction throughout the process, which either gives an author enough room to deal with problems or enough rope to hang himself.

Tech publishers and writers are underappreciated for being the sprinters they are.

If a client is struggling with deadlines, my advice is to take the bull by the horns. Tell your publisher and agent what’s up. Be honest and proactive, and ask for help if you need it. Suggest an alternate, more realistic schedule, and if it doesn’t work for your publisher, by all means find help — otherwise that’s likely to be your last book with that publisher.

If you can be proactive and find a solution, you’re ahead of the game. And if you can find good help, and you’re a capable collaborator (i.e. play well with others, some don’t) it’s better for your cause if you can manage the co-authorship yourself (or with your agent) than to rely on the publisher. You may earn a rep as a great administrator, which in itself can earn you some future books (or series).

The only way some authors can pick up as many books as they do is because they think are able to delegate quickly and efficiently when it’s needed.

Underpromise and overdeliver. If you feel an advance is too small to carry you through a project and that the deadline is unrealistic, say so at the start, not two months in. Saying no is often healthier than saying yes. And it’s much easier to push back at a deadline before you have a signed contract.

At bottom, if you’re late and you lose your promised ship date you always lose orders, you waste co-op money, you waste everything that your sales and marketing folks may have made possible for you. Now, if your publisher hasn’t promised books to the stores, you may have a publisher who’s content to wait for your book, but once you’re in the catalog there’s a certain amount of pressure.

And with a book that’s time-sensitive, any sales you lose on the first edition are sales you will lose on all subsequent editions because the bookseller buy-in will be smaller as a simple matter of course (we sold “x” last time, we’ll order “x” this time)

I represent a number of writers who are great at helping others in this predicament. So, for them it’s an opportunity and they always have work if they want it.

Late deliveries are certainly a bigger problem with new authors, one reason it’s often easier to work with professionals.

Publishers can also help this in some instances by being more realistic about the dates themselves, by paying proven high quality authors high quality advances, or by signing books further ahead of time, and not over-committing to customers based on bad data (see any recent blog entry on Vista or MS Office). In most cases I think quality trumps timeliness, but that only helps you when you haven’t already promised books to the retailer based on a flawed or missed schedule.