Over the past few months I have had the great pleasure to interview a fair number of authors, many of them first timers. What I found interesting was a consistent theme, that of dissatisfaction and frustration with the publishing world. Unfortunately most authors are unwilling to talk publicly about their experiences, no doubt wary that ‘stirring the pot’ will make their future projects even more difficult to bring to fruition.

Fearless Stand-up comedian and writer Ian Coburn agreed to discuss his experiences with the literary world. And a fascinating story it is.

On Getting Started

When Simon Barrett informed me he had been trying to get authors to open up about their publishing experiences without much success, I was more than happy to relate my entire experience to this date.  (It doesn’t surprise me that authors would be reluctant to share their knowledge.  In any art medium, artists often feel there is only so much work or space to go around; if they share their knowledge, they create more competition.  I often came across this mentality as a comedian.  Many comedians did not want more people breaking into a business already oversaturated with acts.  They were afraid someone better would steal their spots at clubs.  So, comedians often recommended mediocre acts to clubs, in order to be certain there would still be work at those rooms for them.  This logic is totally backward.  As a comedian, I can only work one club at a time.  When I’m not at a club, I want the best possible act working there.  I want the crowd to think he’s hilarious.  That way the club will stay open.  Hopefully, more clubs will open.  If people see mediocre acts, they’ll stop going to the clubs.  Clubs will close.  Comedy clubs have been struggling for years and there are far less now than there were in the 90’s, when there were less than in the 80’s.  Comedians themselves are responsible for many of the clubs closings.  Books meet with similar struggles.  The industry is not geared to bring in new, fresh talent; it’s geared to keep it out.  When someone picks up a book that isn’t mine, I want them to love it.  I want that book to make them want to read more books.  Quality books mean more readers which mean more venues for books.  Unfortunately, many of the books being published today are as likely to be written by pop culture stars with poor writing skills as they are by authors.  Along with competition from technology, this is impacting book sales.  In Chicago alone, where I live, Borders is trying to lease four store spaces out and close those stores.  Not very encouraging.)

My goal, whether writing or performing comedy, is to entertain while sharing whatever knowledge I can.  That’s why I wrote God is a Woman: Dating Disasters.  To do that best, I thought I would recount my entire journey with God is a Woman to date.

The Great Vision 

Last year I was frustrated.  I had written two screenplays for hire, had one in development hell, and a bunch of others that were “just not quite right but really, really good.”  At the same time, friends had been bugging me for years to write a dating advice book.  I finally looked into the genre and became frustrated with the literature.  Most of the advice in such books was very poor, advising women to “never return a guy’s call,” “pretend to like sports to catch a man,” and so forth.  The advice in guy’s books wasn’t much better and almost non-existent.  The few books for guys really didn’t offer advice; they recalled tales of debauchery with women, offering little insight into how to meet and date women.

I decided to write a dating advice book.  Unlike my screenplays, I’d get to see the results of my work much more quickly.  (I was spoiled as a comedian; you tell a joke, the crowd laughs, there’s instant gratification.)

Some Lessons from Standup

When I was twenty, I was completely caught off guard by a crowd for the late show at a comedy club.  Typically, the late show, beginning at 11pm or later, is full of drunks and young people.  Imagine my surprise when the entire crowd consisted of a wedding anniversary party . . . celebrating married year number fifty.  Yup, the youngest person in the forty-person crowd was eighty and completely sober.  My job?  To make them laugh for thirty minutes.  It was awful.  I had nothing for them.  They stared at me the entire time, interrupting occasionally to ask me why it was so cold, could I get the heat turned up, and what did I just say, could I speak up, please?  I learned then that your material needed to be easily adaptable for appeal to different types of crowds.

I also learned a lot about people as a standup, as I met no less than hundreds of thousands of them in ten years with a couple thousand of shows under my belt.  I learned what people wanted and hated in books, movies, dating, and government.

Armed with these two key pieces of knowledge, I thought about how to make the book.

The Concept Of The Book

 What could everyone relate to when it came to dating?  How did I learn to be successful with women?  (I went from being voted sweetest guy in high school—i.e. biggest loser with girls—to very successful player and jerk in my mid-twenties, to the guy I am now, unruled by my own desires, instead seeking only truly satisfying relationships.)  What was the common-denominator?  How could I find a broad audience?  How could I keep it entertaining for as many people who read it as possible?  The answer was clear: failure.  Everybody, whether they just started to date last year or whether they’ve been married for sixty years, has had embarrassing dating and sexual failures.  People could relate to such stories.  Those failures are where I learned how to be successful.  I’ve had more failures than most because I took more risks and led a different lifestyle.  In turn, those failures led to more success than most, in that different lifestyle where wondrous experiences can occur if you know how to play your cards.  I learned how to make those wondrous experiences occur outside that world, too, in the world where most of us live everyday.

Great; the idea of using my failures as the core-concept meant I could easily make the book humorous.  I needed more, though; every good standup routine has a main idea (called a “bit”) at its heart.  What more could people relate to?  Ah, yes, God.  Everybody knows about God.  They may not believe in Him, they may not like Him, they may curse at Him, but they all know about Him.  Not only that, but people are always bugging Him about dating.  “Why’s it so hard to meet someone, God?”  “Why can’t I just have a good date?  Is that too much to ask for, God?”  I needed a twist.  What if God was a woman?  Yeah, now I could have fun with that throughout the book, and it would come in very handy to explain a lot of things, especially in the world of dating and relationships.

I had my bit, I was ready to go.

Finding The Killer Title

Oh wait, I did need a title.  That took a while.  How could I explain what the book was about without using a thousand words?  (I’m not big on the long subtitles most books have, especially in the dating genre, like Better Single Than Sorry: A No-Regrets Guide to Loving Yourself and Never Settling.  The titles are simply too long and unmemorable.)  I tossed ideas around with everyone I knew as I began to write the first chapter and draft query letters to agents and publishers.  Friends asked their friends for ideas.  I needed God in the title but it couldn’t be mistaken for a religious book, so God is a Woman wasn’t enough.  Plus, people had to know it was a humorous book.  It’s funny but with all the dozens of titles I considered, the only one I can remember is God is a Woman and Dating is a Bitch. 

Searching For An Agent

I have a manager for screenwriting.  She does a very good job but has no interest in representing books.  There’s far less money involved, almost nothing if the book doesn’t sell well, which most books don’t.  She doesn’t have contacts in the publishing world.  Why spend time pushing a book for a little money when she could be using that same time to push a screenplay for lots of money?  So, I had to find an agent.  This turned out to be a huge fiasco and the biggest waste of time.

There are tons of agents.  You have to research each one to make sure they are reputable.  The most effective and reputable ones don’t accept queries, they work on referral only.  I don’t know anyone these agents know, so no referrals for me.  The problem with agents became very clear very quickly.  In screenwriting, agents have no time to waste.  In publishing, they apparently have plenty of time to waste.  After carefully reviewing an agent’s website to make sure my manuscript fit his genre, I queried the agent.  Many of them responded favorably, asking to see the now completed first chapter.  I was hitting a lot of agents and felt good about my odds of finding the right one.  Then the replies came back.  “Great concept, liked it a lot.  But I only do cookbooks.”  “I’m retired now.”  “I’m not taking on new clients now.”  “I only rep historical non-fiction.”  And so forth.  More than forty queries came back with such replies.

My big question, as would be any reasonable person’s, was why did these agents request the manuscript?  Why did they have me spend money to mail it to them?  Why didn’t they say the only repped cookbooks on their website?  They wanted to be in the loop.  They wanted to know what the latest works were and therefore accepted my query and manuscript.  Forget that it wasted a lot of my time.  Forget that it cost me hundreds of dollars in postage.  They wanted to be in the loop.

I stopped looking for an agent.  It wasted too much of my time.

Searching For A Publisher

I queried publishers that accepted unagented manuscripts.  Most of them never replied.  Some of the bigger ones were simply annoying and egotistical.  I called to verify the contact person to query.  I then mailed my query to that person.  In the two months that my query sat in his pile of queries, he quit.  The new editor simply sent me my query back, unopened, along with a letter that read “This wasn’t addressed to me, he is no longer here.  Send it back to my attention.”  Two of the biggest publishers I queried did that to me three times before I gave up on them.

I stopped looking for a publisher for the time being.  At this point I was well into the book and decided to just focus on the fun of writing it.

Of course there was always the Self-publishing route.  I looked into it.  Today, it seems to be mainly print on demand, (POD).  My assessment was that it was very taboo and frowned upon by the industry.  I decided that this was not an option.

It’s Written, Now What? 

I finished the book.  It took me three months to write it, less time than I spent querying agents and publishers.  What did I do now?  I had no agent, no publisher, and no writing left to do.  I did, however, have hope.  Monica Wang, an editor at Basic Books, replied to my manuscript quite favorably.  She said it was the freshest, funniest thing she had read in ages and that she and her friends enjoyed reading it.  Could I please send her the manuscript before it was published?  She couldn’t wait for it to come out to read the rest.  (Basic Books had switched gears and was no longer publishing anything but serious non-fiction.)  That single flame of hope kept me going.

The Big Break (Maybe!)

I went to a party one night.  I spoke of my dilemma to various people.  As it happened, a guy at the party had just started a publishing company and was looking for his first book.  I spoke to him.  He was quite green but he really just wanted to say that he was involved with a book.  I told him about mine.  I got a copy to him the next day and a week later he told me he wanted to do it.  I was nervous, though.  I was afraid I would lose control to a guy who really didn’t know what he was doing.  On the other hand, I wanted to be published badly.  The book was good and I wanted to get it into readers’ hands.  We all know what that feels like.

I reached an agreement with my publisher, who apparently had a partner.  We added a friend of mine to the mix, simply to make me feel better.  I would do all the marketing for the book, which I was going to have to do any way, and he would front the money for the setup costs of the book.  We would run a printing of a few hundred books every so often, take orders, and do some print on demand, as needed.  Everything would be put in my name, so that I could go with a bigger publisher at anytime.  My thinking was that if the book did well, a bigger publisher might pick it up.  If I was locked in with a small publisher who had no contacts, I was screwed.  The book would eventually fade away, unnoticed and not serving its purpose—to provide good dating advice to those who needed it and entertainment to those who just wanted a good read.

Like I said, the publisher only wanted to say he had gotten a book published.  In fact, I later learned he had to keep his name off everything because of a possible conflict of interest with his job.  So, everything was put in my name.  Before I knew it, I was part owner in a publishing company.  I had the power of self-publishing but not the black-eye.  It was the best of both worlds, including total control.  I hired a topnotch editor and three months later we went to press (the editor tore the manuscript apart, causing me to take more than a month to rewrite it).  Additionally, I added another friend as the website host.

We Need A Website 

On a low budget, you have to improvise.  I know nothing about computers.  I bought FrontPage (frowned upon by web designers), along with a manual, and learned how to create a website.  You can see for yourself at www.godisawoman.net. 

You Can Judge A Book By It’s Cover!

This was the hardest part about the book.  I needed an eye-catching cover that would let people know the book was funny and be attractive to both genders.  Hmm.  If I put a babe in a bikini on the cover, it would scare women away.  If I put a woman on the cover, sitting on a cloud, squeezing a miniature me between her index finger and thumb, I would lose men.  The day before we were scheduled to send material to the printer it finally hit me.  I’d use my fridge.  It worked out perfectly.  People knew instantly that the book was humorous and about dating.  It was enough to get them to pick the book up and read the back cover, where a book is really sold.  We put some snapshots of pretty women friends on the fridge, a grocery list that included “condoms,” and the title of the book, as well as “by Comedian Ian Coburn” instead of just “by Ian Coburn,” to help push the humor notion even further.  I wanted it categorized as humor because guys don’t like to purchase self-help books.  This way a guy could buy the book without the stigma of buying self-help.  Plus, again, people can just read it for the stories and I didn’t want to lose them by putting the book in self-help.

Off To The Printing Press

I didn’t do much with the printing and publishing aspects of the book.  My partners did that and found it to be a bit of a nightmare.  We used a more experienced third-party publisher to deal with the printers and there were layout problems, several delays, and so forth.  Thankfully, the third-party company was very experienced and got everything resolved.  They did a great job.

We Have A Book, Now Where Are We Going To Sell It? 

To get the book into stores, I needed to market.  We released the book in November ’06, to get some response and send it to some national reviewers.  We wanted to sell it while we gathered quotes for a new back cover, as well as get it on Amazon.  We quickly learned that Valentine’s Day was the best day to officially release the book; we could really play up that angle in the media.

The publisher sent out a press release in mid-January, which yet another person, a public relations consultant I met at another party, wrote.  That’s where Simon heard of me and requested a copy of the book for review.  Living in Chicago, I have some large resources available.  I hit all the local newspapers and television media.  Two news stations put me on air in early February, some suburban newspapers covered me, and one of the anchors from a news show I did used the book in his weekly newspaper column, which appears in a popular Chicago paper.  The attention brought in orders from Barnes and Noble, who ordered a few hundred books to stock in stores.  Airport bookstores and specialty shops, like Spencer Gifts, ordered copies through the standard wholesalers Ingram and Baker & Taylor.  The publishing company and the book were on their way.

Soon I started to get radio, where I had more time to discuss the book than on TV.  I was brought in by a smaller monthly Chicago news magazine, WASSUP!, to write a dating advice column I named “Lunch is Not a Date,” to which I hold all rights.  I’ve now written three very well-received columns for them.  The paper has a circulation of 95,000 monthly throughout Northern Illinois and Chicago.  “Real Chicago,” with a monthly circulation of 15,000 in Chicago, brought me in to write “Lunch is Not a Date – The Q&A.”  My first column with them debuted last month.  Several smaller Chicago papers have interviewed me.  With the book and columns as credentials, I am now a listed expert with a major newswire.  I receive lots of queries and have been interviewed on dating and sex subjects—including even my thoughts on lingerie—in various smaller magazines and on websites.  I have a quote appearing in the June issue of Glamour magazine and am the main source for an article appearing on Match.com in May.  I find time to write articles whenever I can and a lot of stuff about the book and me is circulating around the Internet, much of it due to Simon’s original review.  Thanks Simon!

I continuously hit every major newspaper, radio program, and TV show I can, whenever I can squeeze in the time.  I’m also currently under consideration for a sex/dating advice columnist position with a major Chicago newspaper (knock on wood).  I seek the national attention many books get just for being with a big publisher.  This book is earning its marks and I hope as I continue to knock on doors, the larger media will see that and discuss the book and/or review it.

Word Of Mouth And Amazon 

The handful of people that read the book back in February spread word of it throughout Amazon at the beginning of March.  Some still are and hopefully that pattern will continue.  I am careful to emphasize that word-of-mouth is big to the success of this book, because we don’t have the resources and contacts of a large publishing house.  Because the book has a broad appeal, readers have recommended it on Amazon book pages in book reviews for chick lit., pickup artist guides, humor books, and a genre called fratire, among others.  It was completely unexpected and it has done wonders for the book.  Along with the other coverage on the Internet, I have been outselling most other books in these genres throughout March on Amazon.  Books like I Killed: Standup Stories…, which was plugged on Letterman by Seinfeld, Better Single Than Sorry… which has lots of national media attention, A Practical Guide for the Boyfriend… which also has lots of national media attention, and others have all been selling less copies on Amazon than God is a Woman: Dating Disasters throughout March and currently in April.  (See what I mean about long subtitles?)

As new books emerge, fans of God continue to mention it in their reviews of those new books.  It’s very flattering and key to the success of the book, so hopefully it will continue . . . and grow, if I’m really lucky.  Amazon, I’ve learned, is a fascinating place for books.  Huge debates and discussions go on, as readers attack and defend their reviews and favorite books.  Even authors can become involved.  Fortunately for me, my name and the book have found their way into some of these discussions, garnering more interest.  Along with the high review marks for the book (22 total to date—3 four-stars, 19 five-stars), a steady stream of books are sold daily on Amazon.  I can only hope it will all continue.  (I will get a bad review at some point; it’s inevitable.  I cringe at the thought . . . a friend told me his wife hated it because she thought it was too graphic and sexist, but that she couldn’t put it down.  She read it in two days.  That would make a great first bad review—“I hated this book but I must admit I could not put it down.”  You know your work is engaging when you get a response like that.)

Myspace has been helping the book, too.  I’ve jumped from seventy friends to well over a hundred after people started to read the book.  A line from the book, “Tomorrow is not another day.  Tomorrow is today’s backup plan,” is being used by a few people on the site as their catchphrase.  Many are naming the book in their “Books” column.  The book has also shown up on magazine message boards, like Cosmopolitan.  Finally, readers have begun emailing me their dating questions.

It’s all been amazing, unexpected, and I hope it continues for a long time, snowballing more and more into a giant avalanche.  The goal is to entertain and offer the advice I can; to do that, I need to reach people.

My target crowd is college students.  They stand to enjoy the stories the most and gain the most knowledge from them, at a time when they have the opportunity to meet many people from the opposite sex and explore their likes and dislikes; a time when they can learn the most about themselves and those around them.  I definitely wish someone had given me this book back in college.  To that end, I worked and continue to work to get the book into key college resources.  Fellow authors Streeter Seidell and Sarah Schneider of the immensely popular CollegeHumor.com read the book and gave me a great quote for the back cover in the next print run.  Author Harlan Cohen, of the popular Helpmeharlan.com, recently read it as well and I will be getting a quote for the back from him, too.

A Bigger Publisher And More Marketing 

Wider distribution is a factor now.  What about getting the book to other countries?  Translated into other languages?  While many stores stock the book, Borders does not; Firefly Glow Publishing is simply too small for them to warrant giving the book their own special number, which they need to do in order to stock the book.  We’ve had numerous Borders contact us for copies of the book, as well as order information.  We hope they will assign it a number soon but don’t know when that will occur.  The irony is that with the success on Amazon, we have money to put up posters in major bookstores.  Barnes & Noble won’t put up posters that aren’t made in-house.  Borders will but, of course, not for books they have not assigned a number.  Gotta love that irony, eh?  The plan is to put up posters in Borders referring people to B&N . . .

I have been in touch with all my advertising information with the national headquarters for B&N and the District contact for Borders.  Both have been very helpful and instrumental in getting the book placed in stores and moved closer and closer to getting a number at Borders.  Once that happens, we’ll be hitting them hard with posters.  Keep in mind that I did not get a response from either company until I had plenty of successful advertising scheduled to show them.

I continuously hound big publishers with Amazon stats, comparing my book ranks to theirs.  I remind them that I am a comedian.  I can hit the road and plug the book onstage.  I interview and banter well.  I can make the audience and interviewers laugh and joke around with them all.  With my drive and talent, and their resources . . . well, who knows how far this book could go?  I did get Simon & Schuster to read it.  They had some great comments and gave me the thumbs up to send them future ideas.  They suggested some changes which would enable them to consider the book for re-publication under their own imprint.  The guy I’ve been talking to there is very professional and helpful.  I’m hesitant to make the changes for now because it would make the book mostly appealing only to guys and one of the most repetitious compliments its received has been “it works on all levels.”  Such a change would remove some of these levels.  For now, I’ll keep pounding some of the other big publishers, in case one of them would like to carry it as is.  Again, keep in mind that I did not approach these large publishers until I had solid figures to show them.  They do not accept queries.

A Word On Shelving 

If you’re like me, you think that all new books get displayed in the “new books”-section of bookstores.  Not the case.  Bigger publishers get those spots, which makes sense, since they are primarily responsible for creating the most books and thus keeping bookstores in business.  Small published books like mine get buried in their category section, in my case “humor.”  Thought you’d like to know.

Where Is The Book Now?

You’re pretty much up to speed.  I know this was long and some times tedious, but I wanted to share it all.  It’s no good if you don’t share it all.

The message I hope you get here is that with careful planning, hard work, continuous tenacity, professionalism, a good product, targeting the proper crowd, patience, more tenacity, more hard work, and people willing to take time and effort to review your work and interview you—people like Simon—and finally, with the luck of reaching vocal readers, you can get published.  You can have your voice heard.  For what it’s worth, another idea I have for a book, completely different than this one, is currently under consideration with a large publisher.  Once doors start to open, stay on it, more will come and each one will open a little wider each time.

Stay with it and remember the phrase “Tomorrow is another day” is B.S.  Tomorrow is not another day; tomorrow is today’s backup plan.

You can learn more about God is a Woman: Dating Disasters at www.godisawoman.net and about Ian Coburn at www.iancoburn.com. 

In many ways Ian Coburn has beat the system, he is one of the lucky ones. A couple of weeks ago I checked Amazon and his book was listed at bestseller number 650. That may not sound much of an acheivement, but it is. There are over 200,000 books a year published in the US alone. The Amazon catalog has over 3 million entries in it. Making it into the top 1000 is really something!

Simon Barrett

http://zzsimonb.blogspot.com  

 

                                

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