Batt Humphreys’ Getting Ink

[A liveblog of a CCPL writing program, held today at the Main Library.  If it doesn’t make sense in places or leaves a thought out, my apologies.  Wasn’t on my game this morning.  Thanks for that, insomnia.  You owe me one, man.  I’ve tried to clean it up a bit since this morning. Hope you enjoy it! -A]

9:13 – We’re off!  Some of the things you have to do to be a writer are kind of unseemly or uncomfortable, like shameless self-promotion. 😉

9:20 – A FB discussion he saw about “when can you call yourself an author” brought forth many opinions.  In his opinion, we exist as writers in the reflection of those who read what we’re written, so until you have someone come to you having read something you’ve written saying “This touched me.”  Then you are a writer.

But for the big question: try to get an agent first, or a publisher? :)

Seriously: first ask yourself why are you doing this?  What do you perceive to be your audience?  Your goals & the audience you’re trying to reach will determine the path you need to take.

9:25 – Do you want to be a bestseller? Are you writing something more for you?  (Most people want to be bestsellers.)  You should be aware of how what you write fits into a genre.  For example, if you wanted to write a vampire thing, perhaps you’re a bit behind the curve.

He used to think genre was a dirty word, but he met a chick-lit writer at a conference & read her book at home.  He found it well…rather frightening ahead of time.  You know, being a guy makes that genre a little scary.  But now that he’s read her book, he realizes it’s more reflective than he’s assumed & thinks of it differently now.  [Good point! Don’t assume that genre work automatically means poorly written work. -A]

9:30 – While he worked at CBS, he met Nicholas Sparks.  He’s very focused & understands the market he’s selling to.  And he’s done pretty well, yes?

Batt is a historical fiction writer.  He’s shopped a book & found that many agents or editors will say, “This isn’t really what I do” and reject it.  If your MS. is even slightly outside of what they publish, they just won’t accept it regardless of its quality.  Save these rejection letters, by the way.  It’s important.

If you want to be a bestseller, you have to pay attention to your audience & market to them.  He supports content over demographics, but you shouldn’t ignore the marketing aspect of what your write.  If you don’t pay attention to it, you pretty much can forget writing a bestseller.

9:35 – Everyone’s process is different.  He was on a first time authors’ panel with another author who spent 10 years writing her book.  He spent 5 months, because all his research was done already.  Neither is bad!  Both work fine.

Q: [He’s seeking republication of his award winning book.] What is republication? Why are you trying to do it?  His answer: a book fell into his lap.  He met someone who’d done a bunch of research who was stuck on the writing herself.  He looked at it, it was a great (yet grim) story with 4 true elements.  It was a hard sell because it was a bit of a downer.  He suggested she work more on it.  She did, but eventually came back to him & said she couldn’t make it work.  “Why don’t you write it,” she asked.  And – yikes – he did!  She happened to be a publisher.  He wrote the first & last pages of the book & said, If you like these, I’ll write the middle. [Nice! :) -A]  The book has been a critical success, but not a financial one.  The publisher is a good one, but they don’t have the reach to really get the book out there nationally.  So he’s seeking a larger publisher for it as he has the republication rights.  [Just goes to show that no one’s path to publication is something others can 100% predict or replicate. -A]

(Aside: Someone at a signing said since she knew how his book was going to end based on his description of it, she didn’t need to buy it. He said, “Well ma’am, I knew the Titanic sank but I still went to see the movie.  There’s this little thing in the middle called the story…”)

What happens when you’re in your mid-50’s, left a fairly successful career, write a book & find out it sucks? [Answer: Write another one.  Repeat, until you don’t suck! – A]

Becoming a writer is a very vulnerable place.  His Sally Field moment: someone tells you they really like it.  “Really?  Gosh!”

9:45 Q: Did you do writer’s workshops or anything like that?  A. Even tho he had a publisher going into it, if the writing stinks, well, that would be good, would it?  He hadn’t done workshops or anything like that. Just started with the 1st page & wrote forward.

(He’d done a good amount of writing while with CBS.  The first time he thought writing involved creative talent: He covered John Glenn going back into space.  He was in FL with Dan Rather.  He’d written a tailpiece for the story.  Dan read it & teared up at the end.  Batt thought, “Yes!”  Later, in the canteen, he was on the receiving end of The Rather Look which meant either “I’m dead” or “I’ve done well.”  Dan said, “Humphreys: you know you’re a pretty damn fine writer.”  He went outside sat on the curb & cried like a child because no matter what, that meant his career was good.)

Q: Why did the publisher ask you & not someone who had previously published [Charleston related] work, like Harlan Greene for example?  A: [and I like this! -A} I think fate has more of a hand in things than reason.  He writes very witty email, so maybe that helped. 😉

Publishing process: yes, have a lawyer vet your contracts.  Have a contract up front.  Yes, write that one down!  It’s too difficult to negotiate on the back end.

9:50 – Options: A major publisher – regional publisher – self-publishing.  Good reason to do self-publishing: example: friend Clay Rice is a 3rd generation silhouette artist.  He goes to book stores & has lines of kids brought by Mom to have a silhouette cut.  He published a book, but the publisher in his case has no more ability to get him into a store since he ALREADY is in 100’s of stores doing the art.  So…he self-published & it works for him because he understood what he needed to do & could get it done.

Also self publishing is good if you just want something for a few dozen family & friends or a few hundred copies.  Basically, you’re printing your own galley for a few dollars a book.  The downside: the chances of being picked up are almost zero.  It’s already played out, from a publisher’s perspective, since you did get a few sales already.

Q: E-publishing?
A: Happening more & more.  As the industry evolves, your ability to self-market on the Internet will dictate your success – and you can have some success there.  What do you want it to be?  If you’re working in a genre with a small circle of people, sure, this will work for you.

10:00 – Q: The perennial copyright question.
A: Get an IP lawyer.   If you’re writing something with a pseudonym, you still should talk to one as he doesn’t know what your rights are there.

Q: Literary agents question: Dos’ & don’ts for the query letter. How to find good ones? Someone else saw several agencies that shut down the query letter process b/c they did thousands & got nothing.  They get all their books from cons or referrals.

Let’s talk about agents: They are as hard to get as a publisher.  The questioner about the no-query letter is right.  If you’re spending your time on how to write the best query letter: stop.  You’re running head first into the wall, into the cannon.  Find another way to do it.

Best lesson he’s learned: what you need to seek is connections, supporters, and a champion.  The best way to do this is to be there in person at the book festivals and writer’s conferences.  Do it!  Go to the cons that match your publishing interest.

10:10 – You need a little non-stalkerish time with a writer to get feedback from them.  Try the hotel bar at 10, 11 PM at a con.  Find someone who’ll read 2-3 pages you’ve written.  Find a distillation of your work, come up with a pitch.  Sell the story in about 1 sentence [the ghost of the business librarian in my head says: Writers! Craft your elevator speech! -A]  If you can’t come up with that 1 sentence pitch & you want a big time break, reconsider what you’re writing about.  If you can get that pitch right, maybe you can find someone interested enough to keep talking to you who could be that supporter for you.

Q: What about finding a known-name to write an intro or a blurb for it?
A: Yes.  Its critical.  He went looking for blurbs among his personal connections.  He asked his friend Bryant Gumbel to do it.  Bryant said, “You obviously don’t recall the Ten Rules of Gumbel.  I don’t do it because I’d have to do all if I did one.  But I’ll ask a friend who might.  The friend was a guy by the name of Harlan Coben, who did do it. [ :-) -A]

Q: Are book fesitvals better than writers’ cons?
A: Fests are better for finding out who are the publishers & what are they publishing.  Cons are better to hear & learn from the authors’ experiences.

A questioner: went to the MYB Oct con [the SCWW Annual Writer’s Conference] where you can pay a publishing professional to critique 30 pgs of your MS. The questioner went to it, paid, got 3 queries from the readers.

Batt got an agent because another writer recommended him to her agent [I believe this is what he said…lost the track a bit here. If you remember it better, let me know! -A]

What do you do if you get an agent, anyway?  They’ll shop your work aggressively at first to everyone they know, then after time, they’ll work your stuff less.  Sometimes they can’t find you anything & will drop you.

10:20 Q: Some agents seem a little arrogant.  Do you find that editors are similar personality types as agents?  Questioner belives personality types working well together makes a difference.
A: Say it ain’t so!  (laughter)  No…It’s more helpful for you & your editor to have a better fit than you & your agent, really.  No matter what, you’re probably going to kind of hate you agent.  If you’re hot, you’re worth their time and it pays them to be on top of your case.  If you’re not hot, you’re kind of not worth that effort.

Q: Do you have any comments about nonfiction as opposed to fiction?
A:  I think it’s pretty much all the same.  Difference?  Nonfic = better & easier to find a hook that will get your book promoted & get media exposure.  Networks don’t do a whole lot of fiction interviews anymore.  If your work is both nonfiction & topical, you can get booked.

Q: At a bookfest, someone said some were having success with unconventional approaches, like hiring a book publicist before trying to sell the book to the publisher.
A: You’ll prolly have to hire a book publicist someday, but you need a champion first.  Someone who can voice support in your talent.  Then you need to write the book.  Then you need to get it published.  And then you hire the publicist.  “Here’s an idea: what’s your background?  What is it about YOU that makes YOU marketable.”  (Our questioner’s background is in Russian.)  “Ever work for the CIA?”  (kind of a long pause here) “Ummmmm….nooo.” “Ah!  You hesitate!” (big laugh, but yes, he knows people who have worked for the NSA & CIA were around.)   In other words, is there a hook about you that might make your book interesting?

10:25 – In his book, he added in a pardon at the end.  “Hum.  This is kind of a downer.  What if there was a pardon 100 years later after an execution?  That could help.”  He addeed to the book.  It improved the story and the hook, too.

Q: Questioner’s example: I’ve written an autobiography.
A: The question people will ask you: “what’s so special about you?”  Can you answer this??  [This goes back to your elevator pitch. – A]  The questioner gave her pitch.  He notes that she’s written an autobiography about herself that reads like a self-help book about adoption.  The advice: she needs to find what is different about her work from similar books & play on that difference.

10:35 – Story about a Wall Street friend originally from Australia who was laid off after 9/11 then went back to Oz and wandered around the bush, then wrote a book about that.  Batt read it & said, “I love you like a brother, but this sucks!  What about the funny stuff I know you did?  Where’s the funny part?  You’re playing this like a straight spiritual journey.”  [Sometimes changing the perspective will improve books.  This makes a lot of sense. – A]

The things that carry you thru a book are the characters.  If they’re not real and compelling, it’s not going to work. [Yes! I’ve been thinking that lately, too. – A]

Spielberg’s early work was brilliant. Primal fear + characters you loved = success.

Q: [Well, a comment, really. -A]  If you write online & get a following, if you do stuff out of character, your fans will let you know about it!  Great place to learn, in questioner’s view.  He had 30,000+ read his novel.  [Yes!  This is awesome!  These are the people who are your fanbase & you can use this to make your work more appealing, imho. -A]

Q: [Another comment from an audience member]  To Author with that many readers: write an article on how you’ve done this & how it helps you with character.  Publish that.  To Autobiography writer: write an article on that & sell that.  Build your cred.  Get your name out there.  Use that as leverage.  [Makes you trustworthy to publishers. Scalzi basically said the same in his You’re Not Fooling Anyone book.]

10:45 – Book promotion: Humility is a good thing.  Laugh about yourself & don’t take yourself too seriously.  Don’t sweat it.  It’s a damn exciting thing to have your name on the cover of a book.

Q: How important is the internet? FB?
A: It’s everything.  I have a blog: www.batthumphreys.com.  It’s part of putting yourself out there. Book clubs are huge, too.  Start working book clubs.  They’ll become a fan base if they like your work. They can teach you stuff you need to know about how to write something that satisfies your readers.

Q: Has he ever done one of those interview days, with multiple interviews lines up one after the other?
A: That only happens if you’re NYT bestseller.

Q: MFAs?
A: He hasn’t done this himself, but knows people who have.  He feels it’s kind of a waste of time, unless you are evolving your writing style or need to work on basic things.  He feels that it’s possible to become trapped in an academic thing.  More valuable to just shut up & write.

Q: What’s your next book about?  What do you read?
A: Something set just before WWII involving polo & if you want to know how those intersect, you’ll just have to buy it!  :-)  He’s reread The Great Gatsby lately.  Can make you kind of wonder why bother? :-)

And we’re done!

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