3 Ps of How Not to Write a Book

Julie Campbell and bookOne of the best talks I have heard about writing a book is actually about what not to do.

My friend Julie Campbell, who wrote, “The Horse in Virginia: An Illustrated History,” has given the talk several times and noted, “It’s a bit of a confessional self-help talk.”

Campbell, who was honored with the Library of Virginia People’s Choice Award for nonfiction, highlights three areas that she did wrong when writing her book. Those areas include: payment, procrastination and publicity.


“You’re not going to get rich writing books,” Campbell notes. She was prepared for that. What she wasn’t prepared for was making negative dollars. Once she factored in her time and expenses, she says, she made no money.

Her first lesson she shared is to negotiate to have expenses covered. Her contract did not include expenses, so Campbell paid for gas, hotels, meals and photocopies incurred as she researched the book and later when she went to book signings.

She encourages other writers to get an agent, even if the book is being published by a university press. “You want to have someone looking out for you.”


Procrastination is always a challenge. One way Campbell avoided working on her book was raking all the leaves in her “very large yard.” She also confessed to arranging her work space several times.

She finally developed some rituals to place her in the writing groove. She learned to break her work into small chunks and focus on one chunk at a time.


Campbell says it’s also important to ask how much publicity the publisher will do and how much you as the author will have to do. She had to do most of her own, although she did suggest to her publisher where to send review copies of the book. She scheduled speaking engagements and created her own press kits by taking pocket folders and inserting her business card and several pages from the book to send to bookstores to make them aware of her book.

One area where she succeeded was with people. “I had the support of so many people to help me along the way.”

How Not to Write a Book

If you want to learn how not to write a book simply ask an author who has gone through the process.

Julie Campbell and bookJulie Campbell, who wrote The Horse in Virginia: An Illustrated History, shared what she learned as the result of her research and writing at the 2013 NFPW Conference in Salt Lake City. For her it comes down to three areas of focus – payment, procrastination and publicity.

Payment As a first-time author when Julie was offered a flat fee contract she simply signed the contract. “I realize now that I should have negotiated for more money,” she told an audience at the NFPW 2013 conference in Salt Lake City. “I didn’t make any money.”

Her contract did not include expenses, so Julie paid for gas, hotels, meals and photocopies incurred as she researched the book and later when she went to book signings. “I would negotiate my expenses if I had another project,” she said.

“Next time, I will get an agent,” she said.

Another thing Julie would pay closer attention to is how many advance copies of the book she would receive. Her contract only called for her to receive two copies of the book.

Procrastination Ten years past from the day Julie signed the contract until the book was published. “Life just gets in the way some times,” she noted. For her life included a job change, a move, a broken knee and sometimes feeling overwhelmed by the project.

“It was an enormous project and it really freaked me out,” she admitted. Julie quickly learned to break the research and writing into small segments. “If I just focused on one chapter, I felt fine.”

Until then, she spent time purchasing office supplies and organizing her work space.

Publicity Julie admitted that her image of being an author focused on the “good old days,” including visiting the publisher’s office in New York for lunch. Instead, she discovered “you are on your own to do your book publicity.”

She noted it’s important to ask how much PR the publisher will do and how much you as the author will have to do.  Julie suggested to her publisher where to send review copies.

Julie also credits NFPW seminars she attended with providing her with some good tips to generate her own PR. One suggestion she picked up was to take pocket folders and insert her business card and several pages from the book to send to bookstores to make them aware of her book.

Julie also created a Facebook page for the book.

Despite these frustration, Julie said, “I am thrilled to have the book to my credit.”

Literary Awards Are a Night to Remember

One day my book will be finished and it will be archived at the Library of Virginia. Until that day, I live vicariously through my author friends (author, as in published book; not writer, as in still working on one).

Literary Awards 2011

Adriana Trigiani, Earl Hamner and Richard Thomas celebrate Hamner's Literary LIfetime Achievement Award. (photo by Cynthia Price)

The best way for me to do that is at the annual Library of Virginia Literary Awards. As in years past, Adriana Trigiani hosted the evening. Herself a gifted and prolific writer, she always provides plenty of laughter and nuggets throughout the evening. This year was no exception. She related a story about writers.

“You’re a very dangerous person,” she said of writers. “Nothing is sacred.”

She talked about eavesdropping on some women on her flight to Richmond. All of us writers, scribbled the story down thinking, “This could work in my book.”

What did they say? They were talking about attending a wedding, and one of the women, in her best Southern drawl said, “First we’re going to socialize, then we’re going to scrutinize.”

Seriously, I couldn’t write it better than that.

While I try to be professional – after all, it is a black tie evening – I couldn’t help but introduce myself to Jan Karon, whose books I devoured during a few weeks after discovering them. Her Mitford Series, Adriana said, changed lives. And as Jan told me, “I try to give you a bit of peace from today’s crazy world.”

I can’t wait to read In the Company of Others, which won the People Choice Award for Fiction this year. She said of her win,” I am shaken, thrilled and delighted.” And she shared what almost everyone in the audience thinks about libraries, “It makes my heart beat faster to be in a library.”

And the evening is about being seen. Even Adriana admits to falling prey to it, describing David Baldacci, who presented the Emyl Jenkins Sexton Fiction Award, as “eye candy.” In talking with him about it later, he just laughed and rolled his eyes. I’ve always enjoyed his books, but as an aspiring author, I appreciate the time he has always given to writers.

The award he presented is always bittersweet as I remember my dear friend Emyl Jenkins. She continues to sprinkle fairy dust on me from afar, and for that I always will be grateful.

The highlight this year for me was watching my friend Julie Campbell win the People’s Choice Award for Nonfiction for her book The Horse in Virginia.

For many in the audience, the highlight was watching Earl Hamner receive the Literary Lifetime Achievement Award, which was presented by John-Boy Walton himself, Richard Thomas. As Hamner spoke, I was taken back to my childhood days, watching The Waltons with my family. At the beginning and ending of each episode, we heard Hamner speak and wrap up the episode, usually with a philosophical thought.

Thomas described each episode as “an American short story” and said of Hamner, “He wrote these wonderful words for us to say.”

Hamner told the audience, “Virginia has given me fine gifts,” including “the wellspring of everything I have written.”

Until next year’s Library of Virginia event, good night John-Boy.

PR for Books Is a New Horse Race

When it comes to publishing a book, it’s a new horse race.

That according to Leeanne Ladin, who recently co-authored “Secretariat’s Meadow: The Land, The Family, The Legend,” which she wrote with Kate Chenery Tweedy, whose mother owned champion racehorse Secretariat.

“Publishers want a marketing plan before they want a manuscript,” she said during a recent talk.

Many authors aren’t sure where to get started.

The key is to think about every platform and find a way to make your book visible. Her list includes:

  • Website
  • Blog
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Online profiles on Amazon
  • Book talks

 For example, VPW author Julie Campbell often changes her Facebook profile to that of her book, “The Horse in Virginia.” One of the last conversations I had with Emyl Jenkins was about how much time she was investing in publicizing her books, including developing a blog. She lamented to me, “When does an author have time to actually write?”

Another author friend isn’t current with all of the social media platforms and has asked for guidance.

I’m happy to help, but I can only do so much because of how much time is required. For independent publicists, it’s an ideal niche, says Patsy Arnett, who is president of Richmond-based Arnett & Associates, an international speakers bureau.

She noted that authors are writers. “They aren’t thinking about being marketers. It really is a burden on the authors.”

What are you doing to get your book publicity?

Libraries Open Doors

Attending the 13th Annual Library of Virginia Literary Awards last evening, I was struck by how each other talked about how libraries had influence them.

Whether it was opening new worlds of exploration or setting the stage for future writing careers, libraries were the cornerstone of everyone’s story.

Attending the awards feels good. I love books. I always have and hope I always will. So to be able to meet the authors whose works have swept me away is always a thrill. Last night I met Barbara Kingsolver. A great friend turned me onto her works many years ago. Her early works had a profound impact on my outlook.

“The Bean Trees,” which is described as “a story about love and friendship, abandonment and belonging, and the discovery of surprising resources in apparently empty places,” was an early favorite. More recently, I was riveted by “Animal, Vegetable, Miracle,” and this summer I embarked on my own journey to eat off the land. So I started my own garden.

Kingsolver was honored last night  for her newest book, “Lacuna.” And I was delighted to spend a few minutes chatting with her about my garden and its success. And I was overjoyed when she signed my book.

I also attend for inspiration. Adriana Trigiani hosted the evening. She continues to remind me to “just write.” She continues to encourage all of us writers to finish our projects. I attended with a friend who did finish her project. Julie Campbell’s “The Horse in Virginia: An Illustrated History,” is now on book shelves.

As a child, libraries opened the doors to whole new worlds. As an adult, I continue to find inspiration and friendship in my library.

Thank you Library of Virginia for an incredible evening.