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Jim Cox Report: February 2007

Dear Publisher Folk, Friends & Family:

I've got both a personal and a professional interest in the "how to" books that are being published specifically for people who want to improve their writing skills, become professional authors, and those who seek to be profitable publishers. So it's one of the perks of my job as the editor-in-chief of the Midwest Book Review to see what our volunteer and freelance reviewers think of these titles. Here's a case in point:

Don't Murder Your Mystery
Chris Roerden
Bella Rosa Books
PO Box 4251 CRS, Rock Hill, SC 29732
1933523131 $17.95

From the beginning of this immensely insightful writing manual, Chris Roerden focuses on what it takes to write novels that will survive both an agent's and a publisher's screening process. I spent a couple of years in the early 1990s reading the slush pile at two nearby publishing houses, and I can affirm Roerden's statement that the vast majority of manuscripts submitted to agents and presses are rejected because the writers fail to submit a solid, well-written, and entertaining product.

In the dog-eat-dog world of publishing, Roerden tells us publishers pick very few new writers and only those who look like winners and they "ignore the rest whose work reveals evidence of average writing, aka 'amateur.'" She goes on to tell us: "The publishing industry cannot afford to gamble on writers who are still developing their potential, who show little evidence of having studied the craft of the profession they aspire to, or who fail to reflect the preferences that publishers and agents state in their submission guidelines" (p. 12).

The book setup is clever. In ten parts, she delineates 24 specific fiction-writing areas to focus upon in revisions. To start out, in Part I: DEAD ON ARRIVAL, she lays out all the reasons why writers simply must write, revise, edit, and format their novels or else they won't be published. In that section, Roerden tells us about THE JUDGES: Screener-outers - and what they look for; THE PLAINTIFFS: Writers - and what you hope for; THE DEFENDANTS: Agents and publishers - and why they do what they do; and CORRECTIONS FACILITIES: Self-editors - and how to do what you need to.

Each of the subsequent nine parts features one of the 24 fiction-writing techniques, which Roerden, tongue in cheek, labels CLUES. For instance, in Part III: FIRST OFFENDERS, she's got:

CLUE #1: HOBBLED HOOKS - Replace with high-tensile lines that stretch your holding power;
CLUE #2: PERILOUS PROLOGUES - Beware: May lead to low-tension, post-prologue, backstory ache;
CLUE #3: BLOODY BACKSTORY - To remove the evidence, slice, dice, and splice.

The advice to "slice, dice, and splice" is quite simply wonderful, and with her terrific explanations, it's easy to remember what she means and apply it to work on a manuscript. In concise language steeped in good humor and fabulous examples, Roerden reveals each of the 24 CLUES (including FATAL FLASHBACKS, TOXIC TRANSCRIPTS, DECEPTIVE DREAMS, DASTARDLY DESCRIPTION, DYING DIALOGUE, KILLED BY CLICHE, GESTURED TO DEATH, and many more). She systematically provides tips and techniques for avoiding these pitfalls. The 24 "Clues," when properly understood and applied, will make any author's well-told tale a winner.

She rounds out this well-written guide with an index and four "Exhibits," including: instructions for standard manuscript formatting; a bibliography of the multitude of books she cited throughout the text; a list of popular Internet crime writing sites; and recommended nonfiction in the areas of general writing, mystery, editing, character building, marketing, etc.

All too often How-To guides warn you about basic no-no's, but I've never before seen a guide that does such a great job detailing HOW TO AVOID those no-no's. Using clear-headed explanations, Roerden creates outstanding examples of poor form and uses shining examples of good form from 150 published novels, all of which provides through and easy-to-understand instruction.

Despite the title of this book, this How-To manual is not only for mystery writers. I would recommend it for anyone who is attempting to create a finished draft for publication. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Lori L. Lake

I think the above is a particularly well-reasoned and practical review. But I'm not surprised. Lori is one of our most dependable and accomplished reviewers. Now here's the new writing/publishing titles we've reviewed 'in-house' as part of our monthly column for February 2007 and called:

The Writing/Publishing Shelf

A Writer's Coach
Jack Hart
c/o Random House
1745 Broadway, 17th floor, New York, NY 10019
0375423273 $24.95 1-800-726-0600

Jack Hart is the managing editor at 'The Oregonian' and a frequent lecturer at Harvard University's prestigious 'Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism'. In "A Writer's Coach: An Editor's Guide To Words That Work", Jack Hart draws upon his more than 30 years of experience and expertise to demystify the writing process and methodically present every step (and misstep) in the processes involved with putting down thoughts and information into print. Hart's emphasis is that good writing demonstrates energy, conciseness, personality, rhythm, clarity, as well as being 'mechanically correct'. "A Writer's Coach" is very highly recommended reading for all aspiring authors seeking to make writing stronger and more effective be they novice beginners or seasoned experts.

The Dog Walked Down The Street
Sal Glynn
Cypress House
155 Cypress Street, Fort Bragg, CA 95437
1879384663 $13.95 1-800-773-7782

"The Dog Walked Down The Street: An Outspoken Guide For Writers Who Want To Publish" by Sal Glynn is 96-pages of solid, practical, experienced, 'user friendly' instructional advice for authors in answering a series of fundamental questions about their work such as: When you finish the first draft how do you decide whether its really good or simply too flawed to submit for publication? How do you go about finding a good agent? Sal Glynn draws upon his years of personal and professional experience working as a managing editor for book publishers to demystify the common problems encountered by novice authors and experience writers alike; presents a clear, accessible approach to writing for publication; offers practical 'first aid' for writers, details just how to stay sane and healthy while writing, and provides aspiring writers yearning to break into print with a strong and effective foundation for their present and future work. "The Dog Walked Down The Street" is a welcome, thoroughly useful, and critically essential addition to any dedicated author's reference shelf.

Starting & Running a Successful Newsletter or Magazine
Cheryl Woodard
Nolo Press
950 Parker Street, Berkeley, CA 94710
1413305237 $29.99

If you're ready to become a publisher, it would be wise to head the experience of the co-founder of three very successful magazines in Starting & Running a Successful Newsletter or Magazine: it tells everything from how to find readers and stay ahead of the competition for their interest to understanding different circulation options, from newsstands to vendors, and learning how the entire distribution process works. This 5th updated edition explores web publishing and blogging, showing how to integrate this into an overall marketing and publishing strategy. An excellent pick for both general-interest and college-level libraries.

Now for some Q&A from my email box:

In a message dated 1/25/2007 4:20:13 P.M. Central Standard Time, writes:

I have written a post Civil War novel, and at this time, I'm trying to decide how to best get it published. I was thinking of sending my manuscript to Vantage Press before I stumbled upon your website. Now I am undecided. What's wrong with Vantage Press? And what exactly does MBR do? I assume POD is an acronym for "publishing on demand", but what the heck is dreck? Thank you,

Buck Rogers
Kingwood, Texas

Dear Buck:

Authors going the route of Vantage Press, and other POD companies, find that they will have a very difficult time marketing their book because of the prejudice against these kinds of companies by bookstore retailers, librarians, distributors, book reviewers, etc. The prejudice is founded on the fact that POD companies have no editorial screening or standards. If you've got the money to pay their fees, they'll publish your manuscript regardless of typos, syntax errors, clumsy word-smithing, or any other problems.

These publishers aren't called 'Vanity Presses' for nothing.

And I speak as one of the very few established book reviews that give priority consideration to reviewing self-published, POD-published, and small press published authors whenever possible. In fact, reviews of Vantage Press titles pop up in our monthly book review publications quite regularly. As do those from iUniverse, Author House, Trafford, Infinity, BookSurge, PublishAmerica, and literally dozens and dozens of others. There's even a section devoted to POD companies in the "Publisher Resources" section of our Midwest Book Review website.

As for the definition of 'dreck' -- it's basically anything subjectively considered so awful (by the person making the judgement) that it were a pity that trees had to die for that book to be published.

I'm going to run our little Q&A in my monthly book review commentary called the 'Jim Cox Report" because it is a topic that arises time and time again among those newly aspiring to become published authors.

Jim Cox
Midwest Book Review

Here's another Q&A on the same theme:

In a message dated 7/23/2006 12:52:58 P.M. Central Standard Time, writes:

I am a first time author and I am considering using Vantage Press as my publisher. By book is a fantasy/adventure genre and it is still in the process of being completed. I was going to send a partial manuscript to Vantage Press to hear what their thoughts were about it. To my understanding they allow the author to keep 40% of retail sales, I haven't found that anywhere else so far. I wanted to do some research on Vantage Press just to see what I could see and I found your site where you say that you are one the few that are willing to review a book sent from Vantage Press becuase they'll publish just about anything that comes their way. With that knowledge, I would be most interested in what you would have to say about my book, if you would be willing to look at it. I only have about 170 pages sized at 8 by 10. I could size it to 8.5 by 11 if you like, I thought 8 by 10 would be an approximate hardcover book size to use. I do not have an agent but I'm willing to listen to anyone offering advice. I look forward to hearing from you.

Brian Lauer

Dear Brian:

You need to do more homework before committing yourself to any pay-for-play publisher.

- Go to the Midwest Book Review website at
- Read all the articles you will find archived in the "Advice for Publishers" section.
- Go to the "Publisher Resources" section, click down to the "POD Publishers subsection".
- Using the links provided, visit their various websites and compare their services & prices.
- Then ask Vantage Press for their services & prices.
- Compare Vantage Press with the POD (publish on demand) companies and go with the one that seems best suited to your aspirations and your pocketbook.

Jim Cox
Midwest Book Review

Then there is this:

In a message dated 8/13/2006 10:09:53 P.M. Central Standard Time, writes:

I read your article. My question is can a writer do well, become known without the help of an agent and a major publishing house? I've been told no. Thank you. Nancy

Dear Nancy:

They can -- but only if the following applies:

1. They've written a really terrific book that generates "word of mouth" publicity and promotion

2. The author works tirelessly in the field to promote themselves and their book

3. Anyone hearing about the book has very easy access to buying the book -- especially for impulse purchases -- such as having the book on Amazon, having an 800 number, having a thoroughly "user friendly" website, etc.

Jim Cox
Midwest Book Review

In a message dated 7/20/2006 4:41:32 P.M. Central Standard Time, writes (regarding a book he had submitted for review and which didn't make the final cut for a review assignment):

Okay, it didn't make its way to a reviewer. But it would have been nice from whoever dumped it there to send me a one-liner e-mail:

"Your book got here, and hit the dumpster. Over quota: too many blue covers this week. Sorry!"

As you talk so much on your site, my suggestion is "walk the talk!". You'll certainly go far.

Jose Henrique Lamensdorf
Writer of "Engineers of Fate"
ISBN 1-4196-1265-4 Sao Paulo, SP - Brazil

Dear Jose:

Your suggestion is one that comes up from time to time. The problem in sending a simple email notification to authors and/or publishers whose titles did not make the final cut and get reviewed is that the email notification never remains simple. The one time I tried it (now several years ago) the result was almost every one of those authors and/or publishers emailed back and wanted to talk me into changing my mind. Sometimes those responses would be quite antagonistic and argumentative.

The time involved just kept eating into the time I had for all the other duties involved with operating a book review and making all of our publication deadlines.

So after just a couple of months of trying I gave up and now the only notifications that go out are to those whose books did make that final cut and get reviewed in the pages of our various book review newsletters and magazines.

Occasionally someone will send me an email follow-up as to the final disposition of their book and I try to respond. Any additional attempts beyond that first dispositional inquiry (especially those that try to argue for a change of mind on the decision not to review) I do not respond to because there are only so many hours in the day and my attention and time are constantly under demand.

I hope this helps clarify why you were not sent a notification when your book did not make it through the review selection process.

Because this is a common inquiry, I'm going to include it in one of my monthly "Jim Cox Report" columns that I write for benefit of the small press community.

Jim Cox
Midwest Book Review

In cleaning out my old email message box I came across this one from last July. But the subject matter is so very and constantly relevant to authors and publishers trying to make a living by what they write and publish. I made a brief response to each of the 'myths' that Al listed in one of his Saturday Rants about publishing:

In a message dated 7/15/2006 11:44:53 A.M. Central Standard Time, writes:

A Saturday Rant 7-15-06

Big Myths that Unsuccessful (i.e. Stupid) Publishers Believe

Al Canton is a true and seasoned expert when it comes to delineating the problems and processes of small press publishing. What I'd like to do (and which I think might prove helpful to aspiring independent publishers) is to comment a bit further on Al's variously identified "Myths of Publishing" from the perspective of a professional book reviewer with 30 years of experience come this September:

1. Covers and Design Don't Count

The single biggest reason for a book submitted to us for review to not to make it through the initial screening process when submitted to the Midwest Book Review is a substandard, inferior, non-commercially viable cover.

Incidentally, the same is true for books submitted by the big New York houses when their art department has suddenly and inexplicably gone off the deep end when designing a dust jacket for a hardcover title or the front cover for a paperback.

If I don't think your book has a reasonable chance of being picked over its competition sitting on a bookstore shelf or a library shelf because of a poorly executive cover -- I won't pass it on for a review assignment.

So many otherwise promising self-published or small press titles look like their covers were designed by some unskilled amateur art student. So if you cannot afford a quality art cover, then do something else -- like a photograph -- to make your book look on the outside as good as a reviewer (or a customer) would hope to find it on the inside.

2. I Love the Subject

I see so many self-help books about dealing overcoming personal illness, family trauma, a loved one's tragedy, dealing with depression, becoming financially successful, overcoming life's obstacles, or "in memoriam" tributes to a loved one; I see so many personal biographies of ordinary lives lived out in ordinary times; I see so many titles devoted to dieting, exercise, relationships; I see so many debut novels and first time poetry collections -- These are subjects and genres that the competition for which a reviewer's limited resources is going to be truly substantial. You are going to need every competitive edge you can get -- beginning with how visually attractive your book is when sitting alongside all the others in that same genre.

3. The Media Can't Wait for My Story

The problem with books focused on topical topics is that their "topicalness" is going to be limited to such a tiny window of opportunity. The media -- much like the general public they serve -- has the attention span of a mayfly -- and my apologies to the mayfly.

4. My Press Release is Terrific

Again, speaking from the perspective of a book reviewer, a lot of publishers don't understand the distinction between a cover letter and a publicity release:

A publicity release (often called a press release or a news release) tells me about the book and contains the following:

Title, Author, Publisher, Publisher address & phone numbers & email/website & ISBN & price & page count & publication date & a one-paragraph summary description & a one paragraph author biography.

A cover letter tells me why you as a publisher are sending _me_ the book. For example: you know that the Midwest Book Review gives priority consideration to small publishers; you know that we run a regular month review column on cookbooks and that you are submitting one; we talked on the phone and I authorized your submission ahead of time; I responded to an email inquiry from you and invited the submission, we are both members of the same online publisher discussion group; you just visited our website and were blown away by how helpful it was to you; you read about me in one of the "how to" books on publishing, you heard about me from a friend or at your local publisher group's monthly meeting, etc., etc., etc.

5. My Distributor Is Really Going to Work For Me

Some distributors are much better than others in the services they provide.

The best of them (in my opinion) will send me as a reviewer copies of their the books they distribute in behalf of their small press clients (and overseas publisher clients). In turn, when a book they've submitted gets reviewed by the Midwest Book Review we not only send the publisher a tear sheet and notification letter, but also send copies to the distributor as well -- who then (especially with the overseas publishers) notify their publisher clients -- and by doing so enhance the value of their services to the folks for whom they distribute.

And some distributors are a direct cause for small press publishers going bankrupt.

When it comes to distributors and wholesalers -- "Caveat Emptor" (Let the buyer -- or in this case, the publisher -- beware).

6. Sales and Volume Myth

Inexperienced publishers will send out copies of their books to unvetted reviewers willy nilly and then wonder why those review copies are showing up on Amazon without reviews of those titles first showing up on the publisher's desk.

7. It's On My Desk Somewhere

Running a professional book review operation with the combined efforts a small (3 person) paid staff and 76 volunteers, applying for annual grants, meeting publication production deadlines, paying the bills, and just answering the phone whenever it rings -- this all takes organization, methodology, record keeping, and attention to detail. If I ran my shop they way a lot of small press publishers run theirs -- I wouldn't still be in business some thirty years later.

8. I Can Do It On One Book

You could also be hit by a meteor. The odds are about the same.

9. This Is An Easy Business

No business, if it is to run properly and in the long term, can be "easy". It can be fun, it can be challenging, it can be fulfilling, it can be any number of things -- but "easy" isn't one of them -- especially if that business is the making and selling (and reviewing) of books.

One last word for any newbies -- Al has been a cyberspace "pen pal" of mine for a lot of years now. Our personalities are polar opposites, our approaches to discussion and controversy are wildly different, but when it comes to publishing expertise, I wouldn't trade Al's perceptive commentary for a BEA convention filled wall-to-wall with vendors, publishers, and authors yearning to earn immortality and a paycheck in this horrifically competitive business we are all a part of.

So when Al Canton says something I want you to do two things:

1. Pay close attention to his advice.
2. Take everything he offers with the proverbial grain of salt.

Jim Cox
Midwest Book Review

My little response to Al's 'myth list for publishers' received some rather favorable responses. That's why I think Al Canton as a trigger for starting discussion and dialogue is such a valuable source and resource for sound, practical advice -- especially for newbies in the business of publishing. Here's one response that I want to share because it ties in with something else I want authors and publishers to know:

In a message dated 7/15/2006 3:47:52 P.M. Central Standard Time, writes:

This is a wonderful primer for writers too. Can I pass it along to the National Writers Union book list? With, or without attribution, as you prefer.--Judith

Dear Judith:

You have my complete permission. I'm rather flattered! Thank you for your kindness. You've made my day clear into the middle of next week.

Jim Cox
Midwest Book Review

Now the above isn't just an exercise in stroking my own ego (although it really did make me feel good). Every author and all publishers should know that one of the mission goals of the Midwest Book Review is to promote small press publishing. Toward that end, everything I write on the subject of writing and publishing is available for you to pass along, archive on your website, publish in your next book, or turn into wall paper for your office.

Just give the usual citation credit when doing so.

I'm now going to conclude with "The Midwest Book Review Postage Stamp Hall Of Fame & Appreciation" roster of some very nice people. The these wonderful folk decided to say thank you and 'support the cause' that is the Midwest Book Review -- an organization of mostly volunteers whose basic mission is providing forums and formats for showcasing the best that small press publishers and self-published authors have done.

The folks making this gesture by donating postage stamps this past month include:

Lena Phoenix - "The Heart of a Cult"
Charles Portolano - "The Soul Decision"
Patrick Mackeown - "The Expendability Doctrine"
Amatore Mille - "Eleven Days in August"
Allan Meyer - "Right and Wrong - A Useful Fiction"
Nancy Maes Burt - "Cooking By Design" & "Everything But The Kitchen Sink"
Joan Klatil Creamer - "The Magic Scepter: The Legend of the Blue Santa Claus"
The Estimating Room, Inc.
Debra Murphy - Idylls Press
Sarah Bolme - Crest Publications
Jim Michael Hansen - Dark Sky Publishing Inc.
Walt Shiel - Slipdown Mountain Publications LLC
Lis & Karl Yelland - Cold Sky Publishing
Gail Howick - Wind River Publishing
Jim Laabs - First American Publishing
Jim Salisbury - Tabby House
JP Somersaulter - Three Arts Press
Bob Knopes - Archenell Publishing
Alice McHard - Iconic Press
Kim DeCelles - Northern Star Press
Angie Atkinson - Burton Ernest Publishing
Donald L. Arends - Mission Manuscripts Inc.
Sonya Haramis - Peace of the Dreamer
Joanne S. Silver - Beach Lloyd Publishers LLC
Andrew L. Barnes - Legacy Audio Books
Nigel J. Yorwerth - Yorwerth Associates

If you'd like to receive the "Jim Cox Report" directly (and for free), just send me an email asking to be signed up.

If you have postage to donate, just send it directly to my attention.

If you have a book you'd like considered for review, then send a published copy (no galleys or uncorrected proofs), accompanied by a cover letter and some form of publicity release to my attention at the address below.

So until next time, as I say to my radio audiences around the world: Goodbye, Good Luck, and Good Reading!

Jim Cox
Midwest Book Review
278 Orchard Drive, Oregon, WI, 53575

James A. Cox
Midwest Book Review
278 Orchard Drive
Oregon, WI 53575-1129
phone: 1-608-835-7937

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