Vineyard authors get the odds on bookmaking
Photo by Lynn Christoffers
Tracy Thorpe had every reason to be nervous last Saturday morning.
Ms. Thorpe, an Island watercolorist and aspiring author, was about to pitch her children's book idea to a real, live, honest-to-God literary agent. "I went to Bunch of Grapes because I wanted to see what they had to say, to hear an agent talk, to hear authors tell their stories. One of the women said she got 150 rejections and didn't give up," the Chilmark resident said.
Ms. Thorpe was one of 18 Island authors to sit for 10 or so minutes over the weekend, face-to-face with Christine Witthohn, owner of Book Cents, a Charleston, West Virginia literary agency. Most were hoping their book idea would strike Ms.Witthohn's fancy and perhaps an invitation to join a writer roster that includes Islander Cynthia Riggs, a star in the Book Cents firm. Some, like Ms. Thorpe, were also looking for feedback and a look inside the process of getting to print.
Ms. Riggs, whose 10th sleuth novel "Bee Balm Murders" has been in bookstores since April, also masterminded a remarkable marketing idea that had 60 or so wannabee writers hanging from the rafters at Bunch of Grapes on Friday night, May 27. The village drums say the event will happen again soon.
On Saturday and Sunday, May 28 and 29, Ms. Riggs made the Cleaveland House, her West Tisbury home and B&B, available for the book pitches to agent Witthohn for authors in the audience. The only qualifier was that authors purchase a book from Bunch of Grapes on Friday.
"Cynthia's our bread and butter author. We love Cynthia," said Dawn Braasch, Bunch of Grapes owner, in her welcoming remarks at the Vineyard Haven bookstore.
Ms. Riggs made more fans last weekend. But to her thinking, she was just doing for others what had been done for her — a helping hand extended by a famous author to a neophyte.
"Years ago, I had just published my first book and I was at an author signing, seated with Phil Craig, who had about a dozen books on the table. He was so generous, recommending my book to his fans," she told The Times. Mr. Craig, who died in 2007, penned a very successful series of mystery novels set on the Island.
Ms. Riggs introduced Ms. Witthohn for a how-to discussion on book publishing. A show of hands indicated that 50 or so in the audience had a book — or, sort of a book. Four or five have been published, only two by traditional publishers.
The problem, as Ms. Witthohn described it, is that publishing today is a combination horror story and fairy tale.
The trick is to avoid the Stephen King part, outlined in gory detail by James Hester, a New York Times best-selling co-author who said he and Island co-author Dr. Roni DeLuz received little support and short money from their publisher. The agent-less authors have sold 300,000 copies of "21 Pounds in 21 Days" to date, using endorsements, press, and e-commerce stratagems they mostly undertook themselves.
Ms. Witthohn also brought a handful of author clients — published and on the verge — to share their stories with hopefuls. Two hours of straight talk. The takeaway: It ain't easy but it can be done.
Not surprisingly, Ms. Witthohn advises authors to work with an agent. The traditional publishing industry is tattered by bottom line issues that have left just six major U.S. houses standing, with another entry, Amazon.com, in the wings. "Do they care about books? Amazon cares about sales," she said, noting however that Amazon author terms are more generous than the Big Six.
Ms. Witthohn pointed out that the survivors winnow their titles and spent most of their promotion dollars "On the Grishams, huge authors who don't need promotion. Advances are thin and many authors find they need to spend that money to promote their work," she said.
Some are great at it, Ms. Witthohn said. One author gave a Kindle away every week for months. He sold 60,000 copies of his self-published opus, whereupon one of the Big Six offered to leap on his self-made bandwagon with a six-figure, multi-book deal.
But other publishers have been known to read a book treatment, steal the title and some characters, then pass on publishing the book. All very legal because "You can't copyright an idea. You can copyright a book, but not an idea," Ms. Witthohn said. Hence the need for an agent, for the hand-to-hand combat, she concluded.
Despite ineptitude and greasy behavior in the publishing world, this is also "The best time ever to be an author," Ms. Witthohn said stoutly. The reason? Because we can, thanks to terrific technology, online promotion, and a new crop of small and medium-sized houses that have sprouted in fields left fallow by the old-line New York publishing clubs.
However, "This is a not an undertaking for the faint of heart," the straight-talking West Virginian said. "I'm glad I'm not in New York. Out here [with my writers], I can see what's really going on," she told a rapt audience. She recommended that authors check out prospective agents. "The best way is to talk with authors the agent represents. Writers love to talk, particularly if there's some dirt to dish," she said.
Then came the fairy tale. "Who's heard of Amanda Hocking?" she asked. A half-dozen hands went up. Amanda Hocking e-published her way to millions, has a film deal, and is Amazon.com's poster child for publishing success. Sort of an e-age J.K. Rowling who penned her first "Harry Potter" book while on the dole. "Everyone wants to be the next Amanda Hocking," Ms. Witthohn said, offering some tips for authors:
Be clear and precise. Three sentences that tells why your book is special.
Have a complete manuscript. Treatments only can work but they're iffy (See The Case of the Purloined Title above).
Have the first three chapters ready to go. Chapters one, two, and three. Not your three favorites or the best-written. Publishers and readers make their decisions within three chapters, she said.
Check out pitch-university.com for more free tips on the art of the pitch.
In all, the Friday confab was perfect for folks who love words and have passion and a willingness to persevere against all odds. Hmm...hey, I think there's a book here.
Going for it
Island authors pitch their work
Serendipity is funny. Diane Archambault never expected to be at Bunch of Grapes on Friday night or in front of Ms. Witthohn on Sunday morning. "We got off the boat Thursday and I picked up the MV Times and saw the event. I just decided 'I'm going'," the summer resident said.
Her book idea is essentially her life story as a medical professional (intensive care nurse) and as a patient. "Some of it is on paper and some has just been rattling around in my head for years," the mother of two college-aged daughters said.
"I just want to tell my story and Chris seemed like a person who would listen. She gave great advice, recommended some different directions. I can tell you about the body but [publishing] is all new to me. I'm like a sponge right now. This is my next passion. I don't do nursing anymore but I can help people. I can be an advocate. Without Bunch of Grapes and these women, I never would have done this," she said.
Tracy Thorpe believes in taking action and resolves not to be "One of those people talking about the book they are going to write.
"Christine is the first person I've shown it to — except for my kids.
"The experience makes the book more real," Ms. Thorpe said. "You know, when you are working alone, you really do ask yourself, 'Is this any good? Am I crazy or can I pull this off?' To have someone like your work, to have this validated is fantastic."