Thursday, November 16, 2006

Targeting Latina Readers-Publishers Don't have a Clue

Targeting Latina Readers- The Gringos Don’t Have a Clue

After reading some Literary agent blogs, they now want publishers to target Latina readers with novels by Latina writers. While I’m all for diversity on the bookshelf I cringed when I heard some of the premises the agents proposed Latina authors write.

From some to the ideas proposed by the white female literary agents, I’m seeing a stereotypical and exploitative view of Hispanic culture. One wants to represent a Latina Waiting to Exhale, Another proposed an idea for a romance novel where gang members girlfriends withhold sex in an attempt to make their gang member boyfriends give up their violent lifestyles. Why should this make Latina readers angry? In addition to being stereotypical, it’s just insulting that literary agents think this is how to target a market of women who come from numerous cultures and experiences.

Growing up in the South Bronx among a diverse audience of Latinos, (Puerto Rican, Dominican, Ecuadorian, Mexican, Columbian, Honduran, Peruvian) I’ll explain why these two premises don’t work.:

First off, Waiting to Exhale was written fourteen years ago. Publishers should be looking for Latina writers who submit stories reflective of the issues Latinos face today. Hispanic readers have no interest in some re-hash of an early 1990’s story detailing issues in a culture different from their own.

Second, Waiting to Exhale dealt with the issues Black women had in their relationships with Black men at the time. Latina women in the 21st Century aren’t face different issues and their relationships with men. In the Latino community there is no “shortage” of available men, and the values regarding family and marriage are totally different in the Latino community than those in the Black community. The plot and themes Terry McMillan used to appeal to Blacks readers don’t relate to Latina readers. They’re two different audiences with two different experiences in American society.

As for the insensitive “gangsta” romance novel it’s just offensive. To target only Latina readers with this type of book shows how little those in the publishing industry regard their audience. First off, gang life encompasses more than just race or class. Gang members are not just Latinos, but Blacks, Asians, and yes Whites.

Second, to think that women withholding sex will make men give up gang life shows a total ignorance of gang culture plain and simple. Anyone who knows gang culture knows it’s harder to get out of a gang than to get into it. That’s why it’s easier to go to jail than or die than get out of a gang.

If this is how the American publishing industry views one of the fastest growing populations in the country we’re in trouble. There’s more to Latin American culture than the few stereotypical images of gangs and large families seen on the news every day. How about a story reflective of the life of a real middle class single Latina? Or the story of a Latino family just moving into the suburbs trying to maintain their Hispanic roots while living in a conservative White neighborhood? Or how about a novel about the struggles of a young independent Latina working towards earning her college degree? Each of those three story ideas is far more interesting to read than the two stereotypes proposed by the agents on their websites. They explore race, class and culture; something Latina readers in America and abroad will identify with. (Great for those sales of Foreign rights!)

There are so many great stories about the Latin American experience out there. It just upsets me that American Literary agents want to pigeonhole several different groups of readers into one or two best-selling publishing categories that the audience doesn’t fit. Perhaps these agents need to go to Mexico, Spain, and South America where Latina writers have been writing novels about the Hispanic experience for years. Once they read a few, they should try to import some of those great titles stateside for the American reading audience. When they finally get an expanded understanding of the many Latin cultures, maybe then they can find well-written novels reflective of the whole Latin experience in America. I mean, if there’s an Black Fiction section in the bookstore, with a diverse array of titles reflective of the Black experience, why can’t there be a Latin American Fiction category with a diverse array of quality stories reflective of the Hispanic experience in America?

Thursday, November 02, 2006

Shawn's Writing Wish List

Shawn’s Writing Wish List

As stated earlier in this blog, I’m a poor black guy who writes for fun. On my limited income, I write my stories without many of the amenities many other middle-classed writers take for granted. Even though God has blessed me with talent, I often wonder how much the quality of my stories would improve if I just had one of the items most other middle-classed writers take for granted like:

1. A copy of the Chicago Manual of Style. Boy it would be great to have this in my reference library. While I have Elements of Style, (paperback) I need this to help me catch all those small style mistakes in my book drafts. But at close to $40.00 for the hardcover I just can’t afford it. Worse, since Manual is a reference book, the New York Public Library isn’t allowing me to take it out the building. Publishers really need to print a $5.99 pocket-sized paperback version of the Chicago Manual of Style so struggling writers like me can afford to buy it.

2. A new dictionary and Thesaurus. My Webster’s dictionary is a shredded paperback from 1982 missing the front matter and the first two or three pages. My thesaurus is a Random House version from 1989. I’d love to have a copy of the recent Webster’s dictionary and the thesaurus. There have been so many new words added to the English language in the past seventeen years. I’d like to know that I’m spelling them and using them correctly.

3. A couple of friends proficient in English to be pre-readers for me. Another disadvantage of being a struggling writer in the Bronx is: There are no writing workshops in the South Bronx. There are no writing clubs in the South Bronx. There are no bookstores in the South Bronx. There are very no magazine stores in the South Bronx. There aren’t even a handful of newsstands in the South Bronx. There are very few people reading in the South Bronx anymore. Plain and simple, the South Bronx has one of the lowest literacy rates in the United States. So I’m on my own when it comes to getting help with things like grammar, sentence structure, word definitions and spelling, or even an opinion on my writing.

4. A new computer. Right now I do my work on a five-year-old Pentium III (remember when that was the latest?) from 2001 with a Windows ME operating system, Microsoft Works, and a 10-gigabyte hard drive. Before I bought this computer five years ago I did my work on a pea soup green screened Brother word processor that only allowed the user 256Kilobytes per disk and 25Kilobytes per file. (Each chapter of the book was in a separate file) Currently a ten gig hard drive isn’t enough space for a good MP3 collection today let alone manuscripts, PDF finals, and screenplay drafts. I’d love to have a new laptop computer with an AMD Athlon 64 processor, 200 gig hard drive 2gigs of ram wireless Internet, DVD-RW, TV tuner and a 17” monitor. I’d also like to have Windows XP Pro, Microsoft Office, Adobe Acrobat, PageMaker, Photoshop and Final Draft bundled as software. I think that package would last me a good five computer years.

5. A high speed-internet connection/Cable TV. This would allow me to do my research for stories a lot faster. It’s frustrating using Dial-up and having to deal with all the disconnects. Once AOL dropped my connection five times in a half-hour period! At present I only have rabbit ears TV, so with all those wonderful cable channels I can have access to documentaries and other shows that would be helpful in doing research.

6. Ink cartridges and extra paper. Most authors take for granted how many reams of paper they go through editing the drafts of their stories or how many ink cartridges they use to print them out because they’re only focused on the quality of the writing. On my limited income, I just can’t afford to print out paper copies of my stories to edit them during the drafting stage because paper and ink cartridges cost so much money. So I do all my editing based on what I see on my computer screen. I alternate between reviewing the blown up PDF files made on Cute PDF writer and Microsoft Word files to check for typos, misspelled words and style errors.

7. A laser Printer. Right now I’m borrowing an inkjet printer. I’d love to have a laser printer to print my manuscripts out with. Laser printers make documents look their best and I want to leave a good first impression with readers.

8. My own web site. While the blog is great, I’d love to have an official website like other authors have to promote their books and themselves. My site would be a marketing venue where I could have sections to post up book synopses, sample chapters (first three), and link up to or Barnes and noble. There I could cross-promote merchandise to readers like T-shirts, mugs in addition to autographed copies and offer sneak previews of new books to readers.

9. A good job. Writer has been the “unofficial” job I gave myself ever since I graduated college in 1994. I’d love to have a regular nine-to five job like everyone else so I could have a steady income. Being a writer is fun, but it doesn’t pay any bills. I’m tired of being a starving artist. If you are reading this blog and you like what you’ve read please buy a copy of Isis. PLEASE BUY A COPY OF ISIS! I could use the royalty money.

10. Extra Money. It would be great to make enough money from writing for all those writing necessities that I don’t have to borrow it from other people. It would be wonderful to be able to buy things like postage for submissions, paper for manuscripts, printer ink, boxes and envelopes without worrying about whether or not I’ll have enough for stuff like soap, toilet paper, or tomorrow’s dinner.
These ten things most middle-classed American writers take for granted. But I’ve worked without these tools for over a decade without a complaint. I continue to persevere without these amenities because I love writing stories. Oh well, a brother can only dream of the day when he can afford these things….

Monday, October 02, 2006

Writing Query Letters the Shawn James Way -Advice for Aspiring Writers

If you're writing a book or thinking about writing one, you'll probably want to publish it. If you decide to publish it with one of the New York publishing houses, you have to know how to contact people in the industry editors and literary agents to sell them on your project. How do you let them know about your project? NOT with a phone call. Publishers HATE that. They prefer you end them a query letter and a self-addressed stamped envelope.

What is a query letter? A query letter is a short one-page single-spaced letter introducing your book project to editors and literary agents. In short it’s your calling card, a sample of what you write and how well you write it.

A query letter gives these professionals an idea of what your writing is like. Spelling, punctuation and grammar must be perfect. It’s best to have someone proofread the letter before submitting it to publishers and literary agents.

So what does a query letter consist of? Every good query letter consists of eight basic elements:

1. Heading

2. Hook

3. Title

4. Premise

5. Audience

6. Biography

7. Closing

8. Self addressed stamped envelope (SASE)

I’ll break these parts down into seven sections so everyone can understand them.

1. Heading

The heading is a very basic part of the query letter, however most authors make most of their mistakes in this section. The query letter is the first impression professionals have of you and your writing. If it’s sloppy and poorly written, editors and agents will think your manuscript is sloppy and poorly written.

The heading section of a query letter must follow business letter formatting. It always must consist the following parts:

Your Name
Your Address
Your City, State and Zip Code
Your Phone Number
Your E-mail Address
(Drop down about two spaces)
Today’s date

(Drop down two more spaces)
The Editor or agent’s name
The name of the literary agency/publishing house
The address of the literary agency publishing house
The agency’s city, state and zip code

(Drop Down about two spaces)
Dear Mr./Ms Agent/Editor’s name:

In the heading section it’s very important to address your query letter to a specific person! Agents and Editors receive hundreds of these letters a week. The query letters addressed to “The Editors”, “Dear Agent”, “Dear Sir/madam” or “Gentlemen” go into the “slush pile”. Letters in the “slush pile” are unread and simply sent back with a form letter rejecting the material. This isn’t what you want. You’re spending time and money on this; the least you want out of it is your letter read and evaluated by a professional.

In addition, throughout the letter make good use of “white space “ on the page by using Times Roman or Courier fonts on a 12-point setting. The employees reading these are reading dozens of letters at a time. If they have to strain their eyes to read your letter on an 8 or 9-point font, they’ll reject it without even reading it.

2. The hook

The second part of the query letter is the “hook”. What’s a hook? A short series of 2-3 sentences that capture’s the reader’s attention and gets them interested in reading about the premise of your story.

Usually a hook is very short, about two or three sentences that describe the plot of the story just enough to get the viewer’s attention. A good example of a hook is what you see on a movie poster or on the back of a DVD or Videotape case. If you go to the video store and read the back of the package you’ll notice they use a few short lines on the top of the front or back of the case in bright bold letters just to catch your attention. Why? Research shows that if a product can capture someone’s attention to the point where they’ll pick it up of a shelf or take a second look ninety percent of the time they’ll buy it.

Using what I learned studying movie posters and DVD cases, I created this passage to hook readers in the query letter for my last manuscript, The Cassandra Cookbook:

A pinch of Hard Work.
A dash of Determination.
A recipe for Success.

If you notice, the primary focus of the hook are the verbs! You want to be very selective about the words you use in this paragraph because it’s the one that’s going to get the attention of the editor/agent. Notice the words I used are positive and how they all focus on a series of actions and they tell a story quickly in dramatic fashion:

A pinch of Hard Work.
A dash of Determination.
A recipe for Success.

What does the reader see in the hook? Hard work+ Determination=Success.

3. Title
From the hook, most readers see something can relate to and identify with in their own lives. Most people work hard at their jobs and they’re determined to succeed at them. From the hook, the reader has a sense of what the story is about and is intrigued to learn more. This is where you reveal the title of your book:


From seeing the title, the reader is asking questions. If you can get the reader to ask questions, chances are they’ll be looking for answers. From this hook and title the reader is asking themselves questions like:

A cookbook that reveals a recipe for success?
What type of success is it?
How can I achieve that success by reading this book?
How does the reader learn more about the story? By reading the premise.

4. Premise
The premise is where the writer explains the story of their book in one or two short paragraphs. The first paragraph details the conflict, while the second explains the resolution. The key to a good query letter is not how much you write, but how well you write. Like screenwriting, the author has to tell the story using the fewest amounts of words in this section.

Most people study the backs of other books as a model for this section, but I advise against it. Instead, I use the back of a DVD case or videotape case to model my writing after. The storytelling used in the copy of these video synopses is more attention grabbing than their literary counterparts. Why? Book jackets tell a story. DVD cases sell a story.

What’s the difference between telling a story and selling a story? Why? Because when you tell a story you’re explaining all the key details in the plot summary. The reader reacts by coming up with answers to the premise as they read it. When you sell the story you give the reader just enough details about the plot to whet their appetite. They react by asking themselves more questions. When people are asking questions about your story, they’ll want answers. That gets them compelled to read more about the premise of your story and learn what it’s about.

A. The conflict
The first part of the premise establishes the plot and the conflicts. This part of the premise partially answers five basic questions for the reader:
Who is the main character?
What do they want?
Why do they want it?
What are the obstacles in the way of them achieving this goal?
Where is the story set?
When is the story taking place?

I’ll give you an example with the premise of The Cassandra Cookbook below:

Cassandra Lee’s lifelong dream is to take over the Downtown Brooklyn bakery with her name on it when her parents retired. Her dream turns into a nightmare near the eve of her wedding when she learns that corporate giant ITC Foods has other plans for the store and her low down down low fiancĂ© Gerald is caught in the arms of another man.

In the first part of this synopsis we get a sense of the main character, Cassandra Lee and her conflict. In that synopsis, the reader has the following questions answered:

Who is the main character? Cassandra Lee
What do they want? To take over the bakery with her name on it.
Why do they want it? Because her parents are retiring.
What are the obstacles in the way of them achieving this goal? ITC Foods other plans for the store.
Where is the story set? Downtown Brooklyn New York.
When is the story taking place? Today.
B. Resolution

The second part of the premise details how the conflict will be resolved. Here three key questions will be answered:

How does the main character plan to overcome the obstacle?
Who will help the main character over come the obstacle?
What will be the final resolution of the story?

Here’s the second paragraph detailing the resolution of The Cassandra Cookbook:

Cassandra perseveres, acting as her parents’ agent working with ITC rep Simon James to complete the deal. As their professional relationship gets personal, Simon reveals a secret about the deal that devastates Cassandra. Sending Cassandra over the edge, Simon must come up with a plan to heal her broken heart and make her dreams come true.

From this paragraph we have several questions answered:

How does the main character plan to overcome the obstacle? By persevering and acting as her parents’ agent.
Who will help the main character over come the obstacle? ITC Rep Simon James.
What will be the final resolution of the story? Cassandra’s dream coming true.

In the second paragraph of the premise, don’t answer all the questions completely. Keep the reader aksing more questions! Make them want to read more of your story! You want the editor agent reading your letter to request a synopsis, some sample chapters or even the whole manuscript.

5. Audience

This section of the letter is the dealmaker. Publishers and agents are primarily in the book business to make money. They want to know how they can sell your manuscript to the public. If you have a specific audience you want to sell to, detail who your readers are and explain why they’ll want to read your story over one written by another author. Discuss what readers will learn reading your story and how what they read in your book will benefit them.

It’s best to keep the marketing section sweet and short. State who your audience is and what they’ll get out of reading your book.

Here’s an example of the Marketing section I used for the Cassandra Cookbook:

The Cassandra Cookbook will appeal to a large audience of women readers who will identify with the main character. Cassandra Lee's humorous story of perseverance professionally and personally would be inspiring to many women with careers or who are about to start one.

6. Biography

In the biography section, state who you are. Discuss your education and what professional publishing credits you have. Magazines, newspapers, newsletters, zines, and blogs; they all count as credits if people have read them. Detail any awards you’ve won in writing contests. If you don’t have any publishing credits, discuss your personal experiences and how they inspired you to write this book. Just keep it short.

I’ll give you an example of a professional biography by detailing my own below:

Shawn James is the author of the novel ISIS. He has also written articles for The Visionary: News of Morrisania, and the STRIVE Network News newsletter. A graduate of Monroe College he’s been writing for over ten years.

7. Closing

In the closing of your letter tell the reader your manuscript is complete. Tell them how long it is (word count) and let them know that if they want to request extra materials like sample chapters, a synopsis or a complete manuscript they can contact you by using the enclosed Self-addressed stamped envelope inside your package or by writing you via the e-mail address. I like to type the e-mail address again in addition to that spot so people can contact me that way. The last sentence of the closing paragraph should thank the reader for taking the time to read your letter.
My typical closing:

The completed 87,000-word manuscript is available upon request by using the enclosed SASE or by emailing me at I look forward to your speedy response. Thank you for your time and consideration.

(Down two spaces)
(Down Three spaces

Shawn James

8. THE SASE (self addressed stamped envelope)

Before sealing up your query letter in the envelope, always include a self-addressed stamped envelope in the package. Always make sure it has enough postage to get all your materials back! In the publishing industry NO SASE=NO RESPONSE!

Now that we’ve dissected a query letter let’s look at the seven components together. Below is the query letter for the Cassandra Cookbook in its entirety:

Shawn James
Shawn James’ address
Shawn’s zip code
Shawn’s Phone number
Shawn’s E-mail

Today's date

Agent’s name
Agency ‘s title
Agency address
Agency Zip Code

Dear Ms. Agent:

A pinch of hard work.
A dash of determination.
A recipe for success.


Cassandra Lee’s lifelong dream is to take over the Downtown Brooklyn bakery with her name on it when her parents retired. Her dream turns into a nightmare near the eve of her wedding when she learns that corporate giant ITC Foods has other plans for the store and her low down down low fiancĂ© Gerald is caught in the arms of another man.

Cassandra perseveres, acting as her parents’ agent working with ITC rep Simon James to complete the deal. As their professional relationship gets personal, Simon reveals a secret about the deal that devastates Cassandra. Sending Cassandra over the edge, Simon must come up with a plan to heal her broken heart and make her dreams come true.

The Cassandra Cookbook will appeal to a large audience of women readers who will identify with the main character. Cassandra Lee's humorous story of perseverance professionally and personally would be inspiring to many women with careers or who are about to start one.

Shawn James is the author of the novel ISIS. He has also written articles for The Visionary: News of Morrisania, and the STRIVE Network News newsletter. A graduate of Monroe College he’s been writing for over ten years.

The completed 87,000-word manuscript is available upon request by emailing me at I look forward to your speedy response. Thank you for your time and consideration.


Shawn James

Note: Each story requires a different approach to hooks and premises to sell it. This is just the way I like to write my queries and I wanted to give readers who want to be writers an example of how they could go about it.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

How Comic books are sold and distributed- It doesn't make dollars and sense

I'm a big time comic book fan. But there's something is wrong with the way the comic book industry sells its product. I mean, the books just aren’t selling like they used to. Way back in the 50’s and 60’s comics were selling one million to three million copies a month. Nowadays they barely sell between twenty to fifty thousand copies a month. After doing some research on the comic book industry's approcahes to business, I realize the entire business model for distribution of these 32 page magazines is just Bizarro.

A long time ago the Comic Book distribution system was similar to the one magazine publishers like Cosmopolitan and Vogue use today. Even book publishers like Random House and Viking still use this business model for the distribution for their hardcover and softcover books. The model was: Publishers provided retailers with the magazines at a low wholesale price, (usually 55-60? % off the cover price) retailers sold what they could, then returned the leftovers (remainders) for credit on next month’s issues or towards another magazine/book on the list. Thanks to this de facto distribution agreement comic books found themselves in supermarkets, drugstores, newsstands and big chain stores like Woolworth, Wal-Mart and K-Mart. The heavy discounts publishers gave allowed them access to shelf space in these big shopping venues and this access led to more readers finding the product. This led to big sales for everyone for many years, both making profits on the volume of books sold.

Somehow in the 90’s the distribution model for comic books changed. Comics Distributors like Diamond decided that their merchandise was so valuable they could create a new better distribution system for it. Under this new business model for distribution of comic books retailers are required to order their comics at a higher wholesale price (now 30-35 percent off the cover price). This means retailers pay close to full cover price for any books they order. Worse, they get no return credit on unsold copies towards other books on the list or next month’s products. That means if the comics don’t sell the retailer is stuck with them.

Thanks to this new distribution model, many of the smaller retailers like grocery stores; drugstores and newsstands that sold most of the comic books in the United States started dropping them from their inventories. Without the wholesale discount or the return credit for new merchandise, there’s no incentive for any retailer in the country to stock comic Books period. Due to the razor thin profit margin in retail, most retailers simply cannot afford the risk of stocking comic books.

So why did the comic book industry change its distribution model from one every publishing company in the world has used for decades? I’m still scratching my head about this one. Do comic book distributors know anything about retail outside of a comic shop? I don’t think they do. Holding onto old unsold comics may be part of the culture in the collectibles market, but in an retail establishment no businessperson wants to maintain inventories of old merchandise for years speculating whether or not it will go up in value.

In the retail business it’s all about moving merchandise and moving it quickly. The longer merchandise sits on the sales floor in a store the more money a retailer loses. To a retailer, a comic book is a product just like candy, cookies or a dress. The faster product moves, the faster profits can be made. Under the current distribution model it’s just not profitable for a retailer to stock comics. Having to pay near full price for comics at wholesale, they have to sweat for 30 days hoping to sell all of them and hope none of the merchandise gets damaged during that period. (merchandise will get damaged it always does). After 30 days they can’t give customers markdowns on leftover copies no matter how damaged they become because they’ll take a loss on that merchandise. Add to this the inability to get a return credit on unsold merchandise and it’s easy to understand why retailers don’t stock comic books anymore.

For small retailers like newsstands, drugstore and grocery stores who make their living on this razor-thin profit margin there are many more profitable products to stock than comic books. Stuff like candy, toys necklaces, balls and other novelty items that will move quickly and appeal to children. These items cost anywhere from 50 cents to a dollar; these cheap novelties move quickly and can be reordered and returned without a hassle.

Contrast this to the price of a comic book. Comic books costs anywhere from two fifty to four dollars and don’t move as quickly as those cheap sundry items; having little appeal to small children and less appeal to teenagers. Add to that the high wholesale price the inability to return unsold issues and it’s easy to understand why most retailers have decided to use the space on their sales floor for other merchandise.

Plain and simple the publishers in the comic book industry need to get real about the flawed distribution system they’ve adopted for the sale of comic books. The business model the industry has adopted for the sale and distribution of comic books in the United States is crippling the industry and preventing it from competing with the rest of the publishing world.

Looking closely at the distribution model for comic books business model it’s almost similar to the one subsidy publishers use to rip off their authors. In the subsidy publishing “industry” authors are often charged high setup fees ($10,000 to 30,000), demand authors buy thousands of books, offer low discounts, (20%to 30%), charge high list prices for merchandise ($20 for a paperback book, $35 for a hardcover) and make merchandise non-returnable. In the end the author gets box upon box of poor quality books unfit for sale and the subsidy publisher makes off with all the money.
Compare the subsidy publishing business model to one comic book distributors currently use. At the end of the day, Comic book publishers are actually paying distributors not to sell their merchandise on the mass-market. Thanks to the high setup fees compounded with the high production costs on a comic book, comic publishers, especially independents and small publishers who have tight budgets are operating at a loss every month. Due to the high cover prices, poor discounts and no returnability; major retailers outside of comic shops won’t stock comic books. That means Customers have no access to merchandise outside of a comic shop which means no profitability for everyone except the distributor. Bizarro.

Monday, September 11, 2006

The three roads a writer can take towards publication

Getting a book published has been a lifelong dream for me. Ever since I was ten years old I’ve always wanted to get one of my stories published and in print on a bookstore shelf. From my experiences on this journey I’ve learned there are three roads a writer can go on in their quest for publication:

Print on Demand/self publishing. This is where the author spends their own money to publish their work. It works best for poetry, family memoirs and niche stories with small markets like my first book Isis. The goal is to get the author’s work on the market and introduces their writing to the audience. With decent promotion can come enough sales to cover the costs publishing POD novel if a writer spends a couple of hundred dollars on the project. Master salespeople like Michael Baisden, Mary B. Morrison and Teri Woods can sell thousands of books. I’m working on becoming like them.

Shawn’s advice on Print on Demand Publishing: This can be a profitable venture if a writer understands what they are getting into. The writer must understand THEY will be responsible for the editing, cover design, and the overall finished product. There will be no support from bookstores and no distribution outside of online retailers. The writer will have to spend money to find customers and target their audience. The writer will have to get the word out for their book. On the journey down this road prepare to lose a lot of sleep. This is a second job.

Sending Query letters and submitting manuscripts to the New York and California Literary agents. This is the process of trying to get representation by one of the well-connected agents who network with the big publishers. Querying is where a writer submits a one-page letter and detailing their book’s premise, audience and a short biography to an agent in the hopes they’ll read part of the book it or the whole manuscript. For a response, the author must include a self-addressed stamped envelope with enough postage to cover the return of materials.

Let me state this clearly: having representation by an agent doesn’t guarantee publication. Having a good agent only increases a writer’s odds of getting their work read by an editor at a publishing house. Going down this path is a crapshoot with 90% of the odds against the author.

On this road authors must look out for pitfalls like scam agents. These predators promise easy access and charge fees. More often, they participate in kickback schemes with “editorial services”, “book doctors” and “subsidy publishers” that swindle writers out of thousands of dollars. To paraphrase the late Johnnie Cochran: If an agent charges any fee the author has to flee!

Shawn’s advice for authors traveling down the road to getting an agent: DON’T quit your day job. DON’T expect anything to happen quickly. Lotto tickets will probably pay off before most writers get an agent. Most agents get more work than they can handle, so just submit that query letter and SASE and forget about it.
Query and submission to the New York and California Publishers. There are a ton of small publishers out there looking for stories. Writers can submit their partials (first three chapters and synopsis) to small publishers like Genesis Press, Harlequin Books and Dorchester Publishing and have them reviewed by editors. Fantasy writers can submit manuscripts electronically to Baen Books and Tor/Forge books.
Shawn’s advice for authors traveling down this road: DO NOT QUIT YOUR DAY JOB! Lotto tickets will probably pay off before these publishers contact you. It usually takes 8-12 months for them to respond to a submission of any kind.
Each of these roads sounds bleak doesn’t it? Not really. A lot of writers beat the odds. But it’s mostly due to an individual author’s hard work and determination to succeed. They have realistic expectations and understand they get what they put into the experience. Writing the story is one thing, selling it is another. So a writer must not only be adept at their storytelling craft, but a savvy businessperson as well.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Writing: Part time hobby, Full time Job

I now spend over 50-60 hours weekly writing content on four different writing projects I’m currently working on. I look at all the work I do on these unpaid personal projects and all the hours I’m putting in developing them and it’s like I’m running my own business. For a part time hobby my writing is slowly turning into a full time job.

Currently I’m in the final stages of preparing my second novel to be self-published, The Cassandra Cookbook. The book is almost ready for Print on demand Publication. The final draft of the manuscript is polished, the cover art is complete, I’ve drafted up the marketing plan and estimated the cost of a start-up budget. Now I have to work out the financing.

I’ve completed work on my fourth novel The Temptation of John Haynes. My original goal was to finish writing the manuscript in January 2006, but a bad case of writer’s block and an erratic work schedule kept me from completing that novel until this summer. At 121,000 words it’s the longest book I’ve ever written. With the manuscript complete I can get to work on the hardest part of writing that book: Editing and Revisions.

Also on Temptation, I’ve drafted up a query letter and synopsis. I’m submitting it to publishers and literary agents, but I don’t expect any responses except form rejections. The publishing industry is tough to break into; and with me writing this book in a unique genre like Black Fantasy Fiction my odds of getting published are lower than 0.5%. My first instinct with this book is to go Print on Demand with it, but I want to try all avenues before heading down the costly POD path.

In addition to the books, I post movie reviews on My rank is in the 5,000’s and my goal is to get it in the hundreds. So far I’m maintaining my position. Since I love movies, I definitely will be posting there more regularly with more movie reviews and book reviews.

I’d like to do some more screenwriting. It’s a different style of writing that I’d like to master. The ability to tell a story with the least amount of words is a great challenge and I’m starting to get the hang of it. But I’ve put that off my plate for the past year. I might pick it up again, but I don’t know when.

I’d also like to get back to drawing. It’s been ages since I’ve sketched up something. I’d love to break out my colored pencils and pen and whip up some drawings. Soon. Very Soon.
Then there’s this blog. It’s the most neglected of my writing projects. I’ve been meaning to come back here every Monday and Thursday with a new essay about an issue in the Black community from a Black man’s point of view, but all the editing work on the other books keeps me from getting back here with new content. But with the books out of the way, the blog will be getting more attention.

Thursday, August 17, 2006

Writing Black Fantasy and Science Fiction Stories -Exploring Uncharted territory

For the past ten years I’ve been writing stories in two fiction categories: Contemporary Black Fiction and Black Fantasy Fiction. The first category I write for because it’s popular with readers, the second is a market is one I just have fun writing in. Currently Fantasy and Science fiction are an unexplored territory in the Black Book Market authors and publishers have focused on. (Walter Mosely’s Blue Light is still the only fantasy story I know of with Black characters in it.) I’ve written two manuscripts in both the black contemporary category and the fantasy category and I’m pleased with all four of them. However I’m more satisfied with my writing in the fantasy category. As a former comic fan I just love creating unique characters and unique worlds. From the business side it’s a blast developing books for a market most people in the publishing industry aren’t even thinking about. I feel like I’m getting in on the ground floor of a new trend.

In my eyes I see myself as a pioneer writing in the fantasy genre. It was disappointing for
me to learn For every Rod Serling, Peter David, Marion Zimmer Bradley, J.K. Rowling, Gene Roddenberry or Joss Whedon, there are no talented brothers and sisters telling stories in this genre from a Black point of view. Black authors are missing a great opportunity; Science Fiction and Fantasy stories have always made powerful commentary about society. It would be fascinating for Black writers to show readers different civilizations and cultures of peoples from our unique perspective while making a statement about the world we currently live in.

While the big publishers and even most authors don’t see a market for Fantasy or Science Fiction novel series featuring a predominantly black cast yet, personally I believe there’s a big audience for these books. In my opinion, I think it’s going to be the next big market for the Black book market. I know Black reading audiences looking for something new and different. I’ve read a couple of message boards (Black Voices, where posters have been begging for a fantasy or sci-fi series with a predominantly black cast of characters. In those posts were requests for a Black Buffy the Vampire Slayer, A Black Xena, a Black Harry Potter or a Black Matrix. I think once Black customers find out how great stories in this category are, I think it’ll be hard to keep readers from putting them down.

I believe so strongly that there’s a market for this emerging category of fiction It’s why I invested some of my own money publishing a POD book in it. One of the reasons I wrote Isis was to provide readers with a unique perspective on both Egyptian Mythology and make comments about the Black experience throughout history. If I can get one black person reading about Egyptian Mythology or black history I think I’ve done my job. It would make me proud if I could get some black person thinking about writing in this genre.

Thursday, August 03, 2006

Reflections on My Experience Publishing A POD Novel

Reflections on My Experience Publishing A POD novel

In 2002 when I self published my first book, Isis I was an impatient twenty-nine year old unemployed Black man looking to get a book in print. Because of my eagerness to see my words in print I made a lot of mistakes. Most of weren’t due to the content of the novel; they were due to my inexperience in preparing a manuscript for publication. Others from working alone on a budget of less than two hundred fifty dollars. Everything I’ve learned over the past four years from analyzing all those mistakes has made me a better writer and has helped me in my quest to make my second POD novel better than my first.

In the past four years I’ve learned :

  • What a book’s front matter is. These are the first nine pages in a book. Title, Title and author page, Dedication page, acknowledgments page and so forth. I made the mistake of designing my book with little front matter. The worse part is the novel’s first page starts on the right. The first page of a novel always starts on the left hand side.
  • What a passive sentence is. Sometimes when I’m writing I’m going with what I feel. I don’t know if the sentence is active or passive, I’m just trying to express a character’s thoughts.
  • How to spell out numbers and dates. Some of these things appear correct to the naked eye, but they can be major grammatical gaffes. Six a.m. appears correct but it’s actually supposed to be written Six AM. 164 Street may appear correct as well but it’s One hundred sixty-fourth Street.
  • To check the definition of certain words with a dictionary and a thesaurus to make sure I’m not only spelling them correctly, but using them in the proper context.
  • Not to rely on spell check. It misses small grammatical and spelling errors.
  • In laying out a novel it’s best to have “white space.” on the pages These are blank spaces between the lines which make reading the book easier. I always design my pages with lots of “white” spaces and it makes a world of difference to readers. While Tiny print (10 point fonts or smaller) crammed together on a page with no paragraph breaks may be economical on a limited POD budget, it costs in the long run. First off, small print leaves a negative first impression with customers. A POD book has a lot of obstacles to overcome, and giving a reader eyestrain is just another reason for them to hate the book. Small print gets hard to read over a long period of time. Second, small print kills any chance of getting word of mouth. Even if the book is well-written, the few readers who did buy the book would be so frustrated about having to deal with tiny print they wouldn’t recommend it to other readers.
  • In addition to white space always use large print. Large print (11-12 point fonts) and “White Space” makes books easier to read and allows the reader to relax their eyes. When a reader can relax with a book, their positive experience leads to more word of mouth and more sales long-term.
  • A cover has to tell a story. Many POD books like my first one miss this crucial element. The cover is the first thing the reader sees, and if it doesn’t make a good first impression on them, then the sale is lost. If the artwork on the cover does not tell a compelling story, the reader has no incentive to pick up the book and read the synopsis on the back cover. A book cover must have a single dynamic image that tells the books story and catches the reader’s attention.
  • Word of mouth is what gets books sold, not advertising. When readers tell other readers that a book is good and recommend it to their friends, relatives and so forth. If a book is good books it’ll get “buzz” among readers which will generate more sales than any print ad ever could.
  • There are other venues outside of bookstores an author can use to sell books. Just because a book is POD doesn’t mean I’m limited to the Internet. There are thousands of book clubs out there looking for something new to read. Small local Papers, blogs and zines are always looking for content. I’ve learned a good review from one of these can get more word of mouth sales than just having a traditional book signing or street sales.
  • POD isn’t a ticket to getting rich. I knew this going in; the average POD book sells less than a 100 copies, mine less than that. I didn’t expect big sales and I still don’t. I just want to get my stories in print. I’m happy with whatever sales I do get. Anyone reading my story is better than no one reading it. Ten years ago my books would be sitting at the bottom of a closet forgotten.
  • Patience. No matter the budget it’s going to take time to turn a rough, raw manuscript into a polished novel. Technology may produce copies of a book on demand. However it takes a year or two years of pre-production work like line editing and copyediting to make the contents of a manuscript into a quality book.

I’m still working on a shoestring budget (actually trying to put together a shoestring budget right now, Donations accepted in Postal Money orders please), but what I’ve learned from that first self-publishing experience has allowed me to grow as a writer. With self-publishing via Print-On-Demand I’ve learned it’s not about sales. It’s about learning more about the craft of writing. The more I learn about the overall publishing process, the better quality books I’ll produce in the future.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

POD Vs Publishing Houses- A Case of the Haves vs. the Have Nots

Editors and Literary agents in the book publishing industry often have harsh words for Print On Demand authors and their books. From their vantage point they can easily see the flaws within the writing of a POD book. However, they don’t seem to understand the perspective the POD author is coming from resource wise. Publishing professionals seem to forget that they have a large support network of experienced professionals to help them develop the manuscripts they buy into books. Take away the network of copyeditors, administrative assistants, interns, fact checkers, lawyers, proofreaders and graphic artists at a publishing house and most of the manuscripts produced there would look just like the manuscripts used in POD books: rough, raw and not “publishable”.

While most publishing pros think 95 percent of manuscripts submitted to them aren’t “publishable”, they should note that most manuscripts within that 5 percent they find potential in aren’t “publishable” in their raw forms. It actually takes about two or three dozen people to polish that one author’s raw manuscript into a well-written book a publisher can sell. From literary agents and their assistants, to editors and their assistants, copyeditors, and proofreaders, an author’s manuscript is seen by a lot of eyes before customers ever sees it on a bookstore shelf.

Contrast this large network of support staff working behind the scenes at a publishing house to the small group of unpaid individuals a Print-On-Demand author has assisting them in preparing their books for publication. Usually a POD author has their manuscript read by friends and family; in most cases these people aren’t professional editors or MFAs in Creative Writing. So they won’t be able to find grammatical errors and style details like these experienced publishing professionals can. It’s a safe bet that the people working with a POD author probably won’t know what a participle is, how to figure out the difference between a passive/active sentence, or if punctuation is being used properly. To them it’s well written if it they’re entertained by the words on the page.

In addition, contrast the production budgets of POD book and a book at a publishing house. Publishing Houses spend on average of $20,000 to $50,000 just producing one title. A good chunk of this money is budgeted towards hiring that support staff needed to polish up that rough raw manuscript with potential into that great book. After editing and revisions, publishers also pay for a copyeditor who line edits each sentence word-for-word so paragraphs flow smoothly into each other. After copyediting, the publisher then pays for a proofreader to check all that grammar so the spelling and punctuation are perfect.
The average budget for a publishing a Print on Demand book is a couple of hundred to about two thousand dollars. And this lump sum is for everything including production, distribution, and promotion of the book. In addition, POD authors usually have to pay the POD publisher extra for editing their manuscript. However editing done by a POD publisher’s staff of free-lancers isn’t the thorough job a copyeditor would do line editing each sentence word-for-word or a proofreader would do scrutinizing punctuation and spelling.
When it comes to layout, the staff at the publishing house has a network contacts to help them find a graphic artist to design the interior and exterior of the book. The fact that they can afford to a graphic artist to design the layout for the interior pages of the book is a great advantage over the POD author. These artists create unique fonts and logos to make the book look distinct from others. Most POD authors format the interior page layout and logos themselves from fonts on word processing software or a POD house template.

After designing the interior layout, the publishing house also pays for printing unbound and bound galleys an author can read through to further line edit for errors. In most cases the POD author has to struggle with reading the PDF proof on a computer screen late at night after work. Yeah, most POD authors like me have these things called day jobs we have to do in addition to working on their books.

When it comes to cover design, the support staffs at the publishing houses have huge advantages over the limited resources of the POD author. First they can hire another graphic artist to create a single dynamic image that tells the story of the book. Second, they have a legal staff to negotiate a contract with said artist regarding terms of usage on the cover art and interior/logo fonts. Usually the terms of these contract state the art on the cover and those fonts in the logo are “work for hire” and the publisher retains “all ownership rights of use.” Most POD authors might be able to draw a picture or take a decent photograph however, most don’t know how to create a single dynamic image that tells the story of their book.(Trust me this takes skill.) Worse, on their limited budgets they can’t afford the rates ($250-$500 is what a cheap professional graphic artist charges for designing cover art and interior design.) And if they can afford a graphic artist to design for them, most POD authors don’t even know how to negotiate the permissions on rights use of art used on their cover. The terms in an art commission contract “artist retains all rights and exclusive usage of work” have bitten many a POD author on the butt. Many inexperienced POD authors are shocked to see the image used for their book cover on some other product like oh, another POD book cover!

The publishing house support staff also has tremendous pull in getting books exposure on the market. After the author reviews and approves the galleys, the publisher pays more money to a copywriter write up a press release and more to a publicist to have it distributed to all the major media outlets. The POD author most times doesn’t even plan for this stage because they don’t have the money for it. For reviews, the publishing house just sends out bound printed galleys to Kirkus, Publishers Weekly, the New York Times and magazines with the press release. These outlets will review most books offered to them from publishers free of charge. The POD author usually doesn’t have access to these review outlets. While Kirkus does review POD and self-published books, the authors have to pay $350 for this service. That’s expensive for an author working on a shoestring budget of a couple of hundred to two thousand dollars.

On distribution the author at a publishing house has the support of the publisher’s sales force. These people go out and sell to the big chains like Barnes & Noble, Borders, Target and Wal-Mart. Most bookstores like Barnes and Noble and Borders will stock copies of a house book due to the guarantee of returnability on unsold copies. POD publishers usually have to rely on online retailers outside of their website for sales and distribution because their books aren’t returnable. The few that are lucky can get a street vendor or a small bookstore to stock their books.

In spite of the best efforts of most authors, most new published books produced at publishing houses go out of print in six months to a year due to poor sales on the initial print run of 5000 copies. Most first-time POD books sell less than 100 copies in two years.

What’s funny is Authors who sold their book to the publishing house blame the publisher accusing them of making an “unpublishable” book. Ironically, they harshly criticize the editorial staff and their literary agent for doing a “bad” job of developing their manuscript for publication. In their eyes It’s the publisher’s fault for making a book that wasn’t good enough to sell: The cover picture is wrong, the fonts on the cover too small, the press release was sent out too late, the reviewers didn’t “get” the book, there weren’t enough book signings scheduled, there weren’t enough books at the book signings. It’s everyone else’s fault. They want to fire their agent, string up the editors and sue the publisher. That’s some gratitude for all those people who spent thousands of dollars and countless hours towards polishing that rough raw manuscript someone believed in into a well-written published book.

The POD author’s reaction to this failure: They have only themselves to blame. Because They had to do most of the work, most learn from their mistakes and work towards making that second book better than the first. That’s what I’m doing now. My first book wasn’t that great, but I’m taking what I learned there towards making my second book better.

So all those publishing pros taking shots at us POD authors: Leave us alone. A lot of authors including myself just want to see our books in print before we die. We have no other publishing venues to go to, and this publishing outlet allows us an opportunity to present our books to the public. We do the best we can to put our books together with the limited incomes and resources we have. I’m sure if we had access to thousands of dollars and a support staff of experienced pros to help us, our books would be just as polished as the ones published at the big houses. What’s a “publishable” manuscript is subjective and each person in the industry has their own tastes. For every bad POD author a publisher or agent can cite, I can name a popular author or two. Lauren Weisberger, Trisha R. Thomas, Candace Bushnell, Kavvya Vishwhanthan, James Frey or Rosalyn McMillan anyone?

Thursday, July 06, 2006

pitching stories to writers always strikes out

As a struggling Black writer, I always run into Brothers and Sisters who want to pitch story ideas to me. Some of these people get upset when their ideas strike out with me, but the truth is most story ideas pitched to me are usually:

A) already written by someone else,
B) Already written better by someone else,
C) Already poorly written by someone else,
D) Not viable at all as a story,
E) I’m not qualified to write that type of book,
F) No chance in hell of me selling it even as a POD book,
G)Some of the above or,
H) All of the above.

I don’t get why people think because I write fiction that I’ll be able to just crank out a full-length story from my imagination based on whatever plot they think is in their heads. The creative process doesn’t work that way. One person’s vision of a story might be the polar opposite of mine.

For example, they may pitch a story about working class blacks. That premise itself is very broad and very vague. As a writer I have to sketch in the details of this story; this is where problems will arise. The individual pitching the idea may see three sassy black sistas in a Brooklyn brownstone. I may see three black men in a Harlem apartment building. They may see working class jobs as Teacher, Postal Worker, and hairdresser, I may see working class as a Subway Motorman, Office manager, amd Barber. They may want riotous belly laughs, I may want more irony and satire in my comedy. Tomato, Tamato. What I may imagine may be totally different from the ideas imagined by the person who pitches to me.

On top of it, these same people who pitch their ideas to me think I’ll also be able to write their story ideas into a full-length novel oh, within two months or so. Life doesn’t work that way. Writing doesn’t work that way. No human being can produce an 80,000-100,000 word novel in that time and it be a quality piece of reading. I have a life outside of my computer I’d like to get to.

The creative process is different for each individual. Each writer is an artist who approaches storytelling with their own unique steps towards crafting their ideas into a complete novel. My creative process is weird and it’s really slow. The first stage of it takes a lot of time. I call this the plotting stage. This takes six months to a year. I’m coming up with my plot, premise and theme for the book. Most times while people are pitching ideas for plots to me during this stage I’m pitching premises to myself. I have a million story ideas in my head already and I’m debating whether do I really want to take the time and effort to put these ideas to paper. I don’t need any outside ideas pitched to me from Joe and Sally Q. Public. It’s a lot of extra pressure on me in addition to the pressure I’m putting on myself.

The second stage of this pre-writing process for me after writing up a premise is character creation. Most of my stories are character driven ones written in the first person, and I usually take several months to a year just to create characters and develop their unique personalities. I want them to have a strong enough personality so you hear their “voice” when they tell their portion of the story. To develop that picture of a “voice” I usually:
· Sketch up pictures. This is so descriptions look and feel real when characters describe each other in a paragraph. Sometimes a sketches I do a first time doesn’t capture a character’s “sprit”, so I have to keep trying until I get that picture from my mind on paper. Sometimes I have to sketch up scenes too so I can describe them too. Although most times with scenes I research locales on the Internet, through magazine pictures, or I just go there.
· Run “voices” through my head. Sometimes I want a character to “sound” a certain way. I have to study how people talk to make that “voice” real in the imagination of a reader. Sometimes I watch people on the street or study performances in movies. Watching actors in movies often helps me come up with speech patterns so the dialogue and the narrative sound realistic.
· Working out personality quirks. I have to make sure that the characters work well together and have chemistry with each other.

And this is just the pre-writing work. The hardest part of writing a novel after the pre-writing work is actually starting the writing. Those first ten or twelve pages of a story are usually the deal breaker or the deal maker for me. This is where I debate I want to sacrifice time I could better spend dating, shopping, watching DVDs or just plain doing other stuff for writing. I’d actually love to just spend time enjoying a holiday like Thanksgiving or the 4th of July for once instead of sitting in front of a computer.

Once I dedicate the time to writing the book to the end, I’m not done. There’s the year or so of revisions, drafting up the query letter and more time and money used to submit to agents and publishers. A lot of labor considering I have no income coming in at the time from writing or anything else.

Ideas are great, however, It’s taking the time and effort to put them on paper is the hard part. Before you pitch your million dollar book idea to me or some other writer, try writing it yourself. See how many weekends you lose, how many dates you miss and how many holidays pass by in front of a computer screen. It’ll make you think twice before pitching a premise from the back of your head to me or some a writer or an artist who already has a lot on their plate in addition to trying to find decent paying work so they can eat, and pay bills.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Final entry on the job search series

Final entry in Job seeker series-Making first contact.

When you get a job lead, follow your contact’s instructions if they give any. It’s best if they make a call or send an e-mail first on your behalf. This instant reference will let the employer to expect your e-mail or phone call.

If they don’t do this for you, you’ll have to make first contact yourself. If you get a phone number make a call to the contact person’s business. Introduce yourself and give the name of the person who referred you. Tell them you’re interested in working in their industry and would like to get some information about the business.

Most times the receptionist will send you to voicemail. If this happens just leave a polite message introducing yourself and your phone number. Someone should get back to you in a week. If not, make another call and leave another message.

Hopefully, these tips will lead up to an interview.

Thursday, April 20, 2006

How to Look For Job Leads


In the earlier post, I advised against unemployed Black men using traditional employment search methods such as want ads, employment agencies and pounding the pavement submitting random job applications to strangers. So how are my brothers going to look for job leads? Networking.

What is networking? Simply talking to anyone and everyone about your skills and interests and what you want to do in life. Most Black men apply these social skills in other social situations but never think to apply them in a job search. For example, when they see an attractive woman, they smile, make eye contact, and introduce themselves. Then they make small talk and discuss their skills, interests and goals in life. The goal is to make the woman feel comfortable enough so she will give her phone number out to them. The same type of approach applies in a networking situation. Smile, make eye contact and introduce yourself to people. Then make small talk and discuss your skills, interests and goals in life. The objective is to make people feel comfortable enough that they will give you the names and phone numbers of people who can help you find employment.

There is no specific place or time to network. Any social interaction with another person is an opportunity to learn about information that can be beneficial towards your job search.

The ultimate goal of networking is actually not to find a job. It is to let others know about your skills, interests, and abilities. The more people who know what you can do and what you want to do, the more people there are available to help you find opportunities for employment in careers you really want to work in. The more people you talk to the more possibilities for job leads open up.

What a job lead looks like
If you network, you’re guaranteed to get some job leads. However you have to know what information to use in order to get a job.

The information you choose to act on can be the difference between going to work and going nowhere. “Pookie down the block says they’re hiring at the PathMark Supermarket” is not a job lead. Why? There isn’t enough information provided for someone to act quickly on the lead.

Based on the information given we know the supermarket PathMark is hiring. However, There are several hundred PathMark stores in New York City with hundreds of different jobs at each location. Unless you’re planning on applying at all of them, you’ll never know which one is offering the job by following this lead.

A true job lead provides clear details about the specific job you want to apply for. It allows the applicant to answer key questions like:

Who is hiring?
What positions are they hiring for?
When will they be taking applications?
Where is the location of the business that is doing the hiring?
Why is the company they hiring new employees?
How do I go about applying for this job?

You want to answer these questions before going out to apply for the job. Knowing this specific information beforehand will help you apply for the specific job you want. When you know who to talk to about what job you’re applying for you’ll have the information needed to know where to go in order make a contact with the right people.

A good job lead provides specific information about a specific job. An example of a good job lead is:

“Mark Jones, the Assistant Manager of Jay’s Auto parts on Fifth Street in Brooklyn is expanding his auto repair business and he’s looking for an auto mechanic. He’s looking for someone with with ASE certification and a year of experience. You can send him a resume through his e-mail when the store opens at nine in the morning at

Let’s break this lead down:

Who is hiring? Mark Jones.
Why is he hiring new employees? Because he’s expanding his auto repair business.
What type of employee is he looking for? An ASE Certified auto mechanic with one year of experience.
Where is the job located? Jay’s Auto Parts on Fifth Street in Brooklyn.
When can you contact him? Nine in the morning.
How do you go about applying for the job? Sending him a resume by e-mail when the store opens.

Notice how this job lead is full of clear details you the applicant can use to act on. By having the answers to these questions ahead of time you can prepare a resume and cover letter specifically addressed to the person doing the hiring or make a phone call to speak directly to them. Having a specific person to contact before applying for a job greatly increases your chances of getting an interview.

Who a contact is
It’s not what you know to fit the qualifications, but who you know to talk to about the job that gets you hired. When you know the name of the person doing the hiring, you know whom to contact to get further details about the job.

A contact is simply the name of a person with hiring authority or decision making abilities in a business. Anyone can be a contact person as we do business with lots of people every day. If those people work in a business or own a business, those people are always looking for new customers to work for. In order to serve those customers they need more employees. One of those employees could be you.

Word of mouth through networking about your skills is the best way to get work because your other network contacts can provide an instant reference. When people hear good things about you from other people in your network, they will want to hire you so they can have the same positive experience at their company.

Why contacts hire each other before a stranger
Most people hire service employees like hairdressers, gardeners, auto mechanics and plumbers to work for them because of referrals from other people like friends and relatives. They also hire people to work in their businesses based on referrals from those same friends and relatives. Why? Because they trust the person giving them referral. Because they trust the person giving them the referral, they believe the experience they’re going to have with a company will be a positive one.

What a Contact consists of:
· A name. The most important part of networking is getting the names of people who are hiring. By knowing who is hiring you can know who to ask for or who to write to. Also, having the name of the person on your cover letter guarantees that your letter will wind up on a manager’s desk and not tossed in a paper shredder by an administrative assistant.
· The title of the person (Manager, Director of Personnel, Executive Director) You want to make sure your contact is someone with hiring authority or is has the ear of someone with hiring authority.
· An Address. This is important if you have to send a resume or cover letter. Always make sure you get a full address with a state and zip code.
· A Phone number. This is important for making first contact with someone.
· An E-mail address. Also important for first contact with an employer. More and more employers today read their e-mail before answering a phone. Make sure you type the name of the position in the subject line to so your e-mail doesn’t wind up in a Spam mailbox.
· The name of the person who referred you. When making your first contact people will want to know who and where you got their name from.
Monday- Making first contact.

Monday, April 17, 2006

Crisis in New York- 60% of Black Men Unemployed

If you know any unemployed Black men, Please print out this blog and share it with them. It may just help them find a job. I’ll be updating this series every Monday and Thursday for the next couple of weeks.

Sixty percent of African-American men are unemployed in New York City. That’s a staggering statistic in a growing U.S. economy where the state unemployment rate is 4.6%, the national unemployment rate is at 4.5%, and the nation’s economy has enough jobs to outsource them to foreign countries. In a time when the overall American economy is booming, the economy in New York’s African-American community is collapsing. In that pool of unemployed men are people with decades of experience, college educations with multiple degrees, and skilled workers with detailed resumes proficient with every piece of computer software out there. So why can’t Black men in New York City find work?

Black leaders who try to address this issue are often are eager to answer the question citing the usual excuses: lack of education, poor schools, discrimination, and a changing job market due to the tragedy of 9/11. Some have even speculated that the growing Hispanic population in the city is costing African-American community jobs. However, race and formal education have nothing to do with this unemployment crisis. Black men in New York City and the country have never learned effective job searching skills that allowed them to stay competitive in the job market.

Culturally in America, job searching has always been a social skill children learned through interaction with parents and friends, not something taught in schools. Six in ten African-American men are still using outdated job seeking methods like want ads, filling out applications, and employment agencies to look for work because their parents used them in the past. What 100% of unemployed African-American men don’t know is that these job seeking methods were only successful 6.5 percent of the time ten years ago. In today’s highly competitive job market, they’re even less effective. Out of those six unemployed Black men using these methods, only one of them will probably find a job within two years if they try their hardest.

What can Black men do to improve their odds of finding work? They have to learn the skills and approaches that will help them find employment. They have to learn how to acquire information that can become a solid job lead. They have to learn how to take action on a job leads they get in a timely fashion. But before they learn these new skills they must learn why what they’re doing currently isn’t working.

Most black men I know swear up and down by the Sunday Times and the News, and plunk down $4.50 to buy a copy of both papers just for its help Wanted sections. What they don’t know is they’re wasting their money. Due to the way most newspapers are published, most want ads are already a week old the day they are printed. The ads listed in the Help wanted section in the Sunday newspaper are actually submitted by employers Tuesday, printed that Wednesday and delivered to retailers on Thursday. The Sunday main sections are usually delivered on Sunday morning and assembled together by retailers. By the time the customer buys the newspaper, the jobs listed in them are probably already filled. This is why only 0.5% (less than one half of one percent) of all job seekers find jobs through a newspaper.

Another traditional place African-Americans go looking for work are the employment agencies, Private and Public. State unemployment agencies are ineffective for a job search because they don’t update their databases regularly. Some of the job listings in those databases are up to a year or two years old! The information is just too old to act on.

Due to 9/11 most temporary agencies have shuttered their doors leaving black men without a place to look for work. The ones still in business have always been more interested in sales of services to large corporations, not developing a work record for their temps that helps them on a career track. The agent’s primary concern is making contract sales to the employer, not helping the temp find a full-time job with mobility. When an employee is hired, the agent actually loses money. This is why only 6% of all job seekers find employment find jobs through an agent.

Black men also often go door-to-door in their job searches looking for work, filling out random applications and submitting resumes to just about anyone. This approach may look productive, but in today’s changing job market it’s becoming a major time waster. In a city of over eight million people local businesses often get 100 to 200 applications a day. Most of these forms are simply are filed away, then tossed in the trash after 60 or 90 days; the usual timeframe for keeping an application on file. Some larger retailers like PathMark, Kmart, Whole Foods, and Best Buy are now using computerized systems for their application process. These databases are designed to automatically delete applications within 60 or 90 days automatically if no positions are open. Without a referral from an employee on the inside, getting a job this way is a crapshoot where the odds are against the job seeker.


African-Americans must change the way they approach searching for a job. Instead of seeing job searches as work, they must start seeing it as a life skill they will need to function as an independent adult. People will change jobs and companies on average 11 times in their lifetime. Transitioning from one job to another so many times will require all people to start approaching the job market from a different perspective.

As I stated earlier looking for work is a skill that has to be learned. If you know how to look for work, you’ll know where to get the leads to find a job. I believe once Black men are taught job seeking skills, the overall unemployment rate among African-Americans will decline permanently.

The Job Seeker with life skills is :

proactive, not passive.
The most important skill Black men must learn is how to be proactive during a job search. When you’re on a job or attending school is the best time to look for work. These two environments are full of support networks of individuals who can help find and share leads, like teachers, co-workers, and managers. Being around positive people and in positive environments create positive results. Each day you are around people who are working it will motivate you work harder towards achieving your goal of finding a job. Waiting until after graduation or after a job loss cuts you off from your support network and makes it even harder to find another job.

Knows time is of the essence.
The main reason Black men have such a hard time finding employment is because the methods they used do not allow them to act on information they get in a timely manner. Before Black men can go looking for work, they must understand that they don’t have a moment to lose when they get a job lead. As more time passes, more people in the community will learn about the same job. The more applicants there are competing for a job the less your chances of getting hired. The fewer applicants you have to compete with for a job the better your chances of getting hired.

The second thing Black men have to learn how to do is network. The more people who know you're looking for work, the more help you can get. 93.5% of people get jobs by a referral from a relative, friend, co-worker hairdresser, doctor, or boss. And networking isn’t some formal skill used at only at job fairs or seminars; it’s something done even in the most informal of situations. If you’re talking to people in school or at church or even at a party you’re networking. Let people know what you can do or what you want to do are and that you are looking for work in that field. You’ll be surprised how many job leads you pick up.

Learning who has hiring authority and getting to know them increases your chances of getting hired. By going out and finding their information on your own shows employers you’re taking the initiative and you’re really passionate about the field you want to work in. You’ll also have something to talk about when you write the cover letter and get the interview.

Thursday- how to look for job leads.

Monday, April 10, 2006

Isis Promo and My Biographies

I thought the book was out of print, but there are still copies available for purchase at and Barnes & Noble. Here's the synopsis for ISIS straight from the back cover:

A lost goddess
A heritage found
A greater destiny to be achieved

In the aftermath of a horrible tragedy, Isis the long-lost daughter of Osiris has committed a heinous crime. Because she didn’t receive guidance from her father, the elder gods show mercy on the young goddess by stripping her of her powers and imprisoning her on an uncharted island in the South Pacific.

Osiris and Isis reunite with his long-lost child to begin the difficult process of establishing a familial relationship. Hoping to guide Isis towards the greater destiny she’s supposed to fulfill, her parents begin teaching her the ways of the gods. However, Seth’s herald E’steem lurks in the shadows offering Isis freedom for a price. Caught in the middle of a never-ending war between the gods, Isis must choose to either return to the troubled world she knows all too well, or take a journey down an unknown path where faith is her only guide.

My Biography (as of 2004)

Shawn James is the author of the novel Isis and the 2000 and 2001 STRIVE Community Resource Directories. He has also written articles for The Visionary: News of Morrisania, and the STRIVE Network News newsletter. A graduate of Monroe College he’s been writing for over ten years.

My Life story

Professionally I’ve been writing since 1994. But I’ve actually been writing fiction stories since I was nine or ten years old.

My journey to becoming a writer started with my older brother Steve’s comic book collection. I liked his comics so much I started trying to make my own.

When I was a kid, I couldn’t draw so well. So I thought to myself I’ll make my pictures with words and the reader can imagine the pictures in their mind from the words I write. I’d write a story on loose-leaf paper, glue it together and draw up a cover for it. It looks horrible now but when I was younger, it was the greatest thing I could ever make. The fun part about my comics was I could hide them in my binder! (If I glued them together right)

I started out with a character named Mayor Fox. Mayor Fox was a plastic figurine from a Richard Scarry Puzzletown toy set I used to own when I was five or six. I loved the character so much I started writing my own adventures with him. From there I co-opted characters from various TV shows I watched innocently unaware of the numerous copyright and trademark laws I was breaking adding them to my homemade fiction. I wrote these home made comic/novellas until I was about thirteen going on fourteen in 1987. For about two and a half years I stopped writing to do teenage things (collect real comics, chase girls, watch movies and gorge on junk food). I had my mind made up to be a baker until I had to change schools in 1990 due to some problems with bullies.

Looking to deal with my troubles from the previous year, I returned to writing in June of 1990 at the age of sixteen. This morphed into a mission for me. I wanted to create positive images of African-Americans to counter the negative ones I saw on TV every night and experienced every day on the street and at school. A big fan of comics and science fiction since I was little I aspired to be a comic book writer.

I finally learned how to draw portraits (the picture above is a self portrait) and I started writing a character named John Haynes, loosely based on myself at the time. I was probably a little too inspired by Schwarzenegger action movies and most of my stories were ridiculous shoot em-ups full of explosions, car chases and hot chicks. My premises were so ridiculous; one story was about a cosmetics company trying to take over New York City with a nuclear bomb planted in a slot machine, another was about cyborg gang member with razor sharp steel talon fingers and I even wrote a story about black Nazis. (My face was red when I opened a history book) Well, I was sixteen and that’s how a sixteen-year-old boy thinks.

I wrote these awful stories until about 1993. I took some time off to finish college and complete my degree in Business Administration. While I was looking for work 1995, I revamped John Haynes. I learned to keep my story simple. I started out with a short story titled Dinner For Two about a date gone wrong. It was a powerful emotional story for me; it still makes me feel heavy in the heart when I read it today. The short story grew into my first novel The Changing Soul. The story was about a man trying to break free from a vicious cycle of self-destructive behavior.

Somewhere in between 1995 and 1997 the comic book industry collapsed. My dreams of becoming a comic book writer were dashed with the declining values of my large collection. However, I started reading African-American fiction from writers like Terry McMillan, Connie Briscoe Ralph Ellison and Claude Brown. The books had just as much impact on me as the comics I read; inspiring me to be a better writer. Doing some research I realized there was a larger African-American audience in the fiction book market than the White male dominated comic book industry. So in 1998 I started shopping The Changing Soul around to publishers and agents. The book still sits in a box in my closet next to about sixty rejection letters.

I tinkered with The Changing Soul until about 2001 trying to get it right. While I edited that novel, I wrote a story loosely based on the Egyptian gods titled Isis in1999. Isis was an easy story to put together; I loved the characters and loved Egyptian mythology. I had a blast writing Isis. It was fun for this black man to create a story that focused on mythology from a woman’s perspective and dealt with the issues of the modern African-American family.

I solicited Isis a couple of publishers with no takers. During my query process I was disappointed to learn there’s no market for African-American fantasy, like there is for White fantasy books such as Harry Potter, Lord of The Rings and The Mists of Avalon. However, I truly believed in the story so I self published the book in 2002. Self-publishing Isis was a great learning experience. I learned a lot about publishing, writing and the business of selling books that I was able to apply to future novels.

Around 2003, a little older and a little wiser, I started working on anew project. I wanted to create a positive story about the African-American workplace infused with dark comedy. Inspired by the films The Apartment, Clockwatchers and Strictly Business I completed a draft my first commercial novel, The Cassandra Cookbook in the hopes of attracting African-American female readers to my writing. I really enjoyed writing this story. In developing this novel I saw how much I grew as a writer. The plot is tighter, the paragraphs more detailed and descriptive. My sentence structure is a lot better and my grammar has improved. My style is clear; you can tell it’s a “Shawn James” novel from the first sentence to the last.

I’m still writing; right now I’m working on a new novel, working on some screenplay adaptations and a second edition of Isis. I’m planning a new cover and layout and a brand new opening for the second edition.

Inaugural Blog

Hello, everyone, My name is Shawn James and I'm a 32 year old unemployed struggling African American fiction writer and artist. I decided to start this blog so I could have a place to post up stuff about the stories and books I write, and to have a place to post some of my art. I'll also post:

  • Tips for writers on Query letters, story ideas and the like.
  • Write about my struggles as an African-American male in New York working on my dream to be a writer while searching for a decent paying job.
  • Promote my self-published novel Isis
  • Discuss issues in the African-American Community.
  • Discuss books I'm writing and submitting to publishers and agents.

Next up will be an overview of my novel Isis.