Monday, April 14, 2014

Who are you calling old?

A video has been making the rounds recently about two “grannies” taking their first-ever flight, one of whom was 71 years old. Later the same night, a newscaster described a gunman in his early 70s as “elderly.” Soon afterwards I was reading an article about health guidelines for “older people over 60.”

What is wrong with this picture? People are rushing us into old age far too soon. I don’t mean from a standpoint of chronological age. Rather, I mean the indescribable social chasm beyond which we become sexless, out of touch, or looked upon with patronizing cuteness.

The video of this 71 year old particularly struck me, because my still youthful, drop-dead gorgeous spouse turns 66 this year. Does she turn into an old biddy in just five years? The surviving Doobie Brothers are around 70 now, and they are still rocking down the highway – in fact, they had a new album on the charts recently. And when I’m 71 and getting on an airplane, it will hopefully be to keynote a major conference, like I often do now, not to gawk out the window about these amazing flying contraptions.

This isn’t the first generation to put up an arbitrary wall around people who are still rather viable. In 1970 a then-23 year old Elton John spun a grim tale of being “Sixty Years On”: your dog died ten years ago, people sympathetically help you shuffle down to church, and he concludes that he has no wish to still be living then. Never mind that he is now 67 years old and spending the next couple of months touring Europe. I will be “sixty years on” this year, and I can at least tell you what it is like for me: I had a major book release a year ago, am busier than ever, and recently finished graduate school and started a new career. When I look in the mirror, I don’t see an old person looking back.

The reality is that the Baby Boomer generation is much more than an age group – we are a cultural force, and we aren’t giving up our grip on life anytime soon. Try to push us toward the shuffleboard court, and we are likely to push back and write bestsellers. And star in films. And program supercomputers. And in the process, make everyone reconsider what age really means in society. We don’t plan to ever go away quietly.

A couple of years ago, people were wondering why Paul McCartney was in tears at the opening of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London. I think I know why – it is because he realized that his own song “When I’m 64” took place six years earlier. (Sir Paul turns 72 this year.) But seriously, I would like to propose reserving the term “elderly” for people who are at least 80 from now on. And 20 years from now, God willing, I reserve the right to change my mind again. Deal?

Friday, March 28, 2014

Thoughts from a "book millionaire"

One statistic I have always tracked for fun is the gross sales of my books. (I take actual unit sales figures when I have them, add reasonable estimates for things like foreign rights sales, and multiply them by the list price of my books.) Nowadays, my lifetime gross sales are approaching a million dollars.

Now don't break out the champagne quite yet - or ask me for a loan. I've been writing pretty steadily for over 20 years and have published a lot of books. If you take my average book royalty (less than 10% of net price), and divide it over the number of years I've been at this, I am not about to start the Rich Gallagher Foundation.

But still, wouldn't you agree this is a pretty cool number? I don't know many people whose hobbies turn into a million dollar industry. And it is a nice validation of a craft that now feels comfortable and familiar. Put another way, when I wake up and look in the mirror, I generally see (on my better days) a fairly legitimate writer looking back at me.

So now that I've reached a milestone of sorts, what would I tell other writers? Here are a few things:

Writing is a skill, not an art. I am frankly not the world's greatest muse. But I am a quick study. And far and away, the single biggest reason I succeed is studying what sells, deconstructing other good writers, and learning how to smell like a published author. I've written about this extensively in other blogs. Successful writers are, first and foremost, students of other successful writers. 'Nuff said.

Hard work isn't the point. You might expect me to talk about how much work I put in to become a good writer, and eventually a publishable one. And you would be wrong. Yes, I have done a lot of writing and still do. And I will always put a lot of effort into getting even better. But frankly that isn't the point.

Here *is* the point: I love to write. When you love doing something you keep doing it, keep learning, and keep improving. Even when I write about public health tax policy for clients, I am having fun. I love bookstores and get excited about other people's book projects and book launches. And those rare times when I have a moment to spare, the first thing I start thinking about is my next project.

So my advice isn't to work harder at writing. That sounds miserable. It is to do what you love, and let it pull you where it wants you to go. And if you love to write anywhere near as much as I do, don't ever let anything stop you.

Follow the money. If you want to sell a million dollars’ worth of books – in my case, an average of 3000-5000 copies of most books I’ve written, plus a couple of higher-gross sellers – you need to examine who sells books in these kinds of numbers. My biggest grossing book, for example, is a 1990s computer graphics textbook you’ve probably never heard of – it sells for over $200 a pop, has been in print for 20 years, and had a lot of course adoptions in its day. Conversely, my highest unit sales are for a bargain-book edition of How to Tell Anyone Anything available in every Barnes & Noble in America.

If you haven’t published before, it is a dirty secret that most books sell in frightfully small numbers, once you get past the hottest bestsellers. So while I respect the debate between self-publishing and royalty publishing, if you want to move thousands of books you must either (a) have really good sales channels or (b) become good enough to go the royalty route. I’ve always chosen the latter.

Know who you are. I appreciate the “you can do anything” crowd. But if I listened to them, I’d probably be writing a lot of books that have no chance of ever landing a publishing contract. Your writing style, your platform, and your skills all have their place in the world. Socially, most of us do best in neighborhoods where there are a lot of people like us, and I feel the same is true in publishing.

I have a great literary agent, and one of the best things she does for me is give me feedback about what markets I can’t compete effectively in – because their best selling authors have bigger platforms, the genre is fading, or whatever. And conversely, she lets me know where I *am* competitive, and helps me be successful in those markets. If you can get the same kind of feedback, you are very fortunate.

To sum all this up in one neat package: Love writing, be serious and professional, and become a student of the publishing business, as well as feeding your muse. Do these things, and I feel you have a surprisingly good chance of joining me in the “millionaire’s club.” Good luck!

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Eight lousy sentences: a new way to finish your book

Do you have a great book in you that has been unfinished for ages? Perhaps a novel, or a non-fiction book proposal? You know it's good, but somehow you can never make time for it. Or when you sit down to write, you just can't seem to get the words out.

You may even look at this unfinished book as a moral failing. If only somehow you could discipline yourself to work harder, and write more, then you could be the author you know you really are.

After a few years of dealing with people's fears and phobias as a therapist, I actually see a strong parallel between these issues and wannabe writers. And in the end, it all boils down to this belief that you aren't writing enough.

In fact, your problem has exactly the opposite cause: you are writing too much.

Let me explain. Suppose you are afraid of heights. So one day you suck up your courage and force yourself to go to the 40th floor of a building – because you view your problem as a lack of bravery. In reality, however, you are sensitizing yourself to something I want you to de-sensitize to. This is why over and over, I watch people finally get well once they stop being brave and start taking tiny baby steps. By staying in their comfort zone, and gradually expanding it in a way that lets them be fully present in the situation, they get over their fears.

The same thing is true about your writing. You sit down and think, "Ugh! I should work harder on this. So I am going to force myself to write another thousand words, even if it kills me! And it had better be good!" The end result? You start to associate writing with failure, and eventually your subconscious throws up a big red flag when you even think about doing more writing. It starts telling you, "You're not good enough. You never finish anything. And you're always getting stuck."

If this sounds like you, here is what I want you to do. Sit down tonight and write 200 words – about eight lousy sentences. Even if they are complete tripe. Then stop writing. You are done for the night.

If you can comfortably write eight sentences every night, you will accomplish two important things. First, do this for a year and you will complete a 60,000 word book. Second, and more important, you will be feeding your subconscious lots and lots of success. You are only supposed to write eight sentences, and by golly, you are doing it – so this gets chalked up in your memory banks as a win. Your subconscious loves success, by the way.

Best of all, keep doing it and eventually these eight sentences will seem like nothing, and you will write more. This is exactly the same mechanism by which people get over their fears. Clinically, the act of practicing is much more important than how much you practice, so taking small steps eventually leads to breakthroughs. In time, you start look at writing – or things you used to fear – with the warm glow of success and mastery, one easy step at a time.

Now, some of you are saying to yourselves, "Gosh – I can't even write eight sentences. Now what?" No problem. Just lower the bar to wherever you are comfortable, and start there. The goal is to have success every day, long enough for the thought of being a writer to start ringing your "success" chime. Then, trust me, things will expand from there.

I practice what I preach here. I've cranked out a published book, for myself or for ghostwriting clients, every year for close to 15 years now. And as much as I hate to admit this, I don't just write with passion, style, or heart. I write with a calculator. I set a wordcount goal for myself, on comes the word processor, and out come the words.

The same approach can completely change your success as a writer. This is why I am prescribing eight sentences, or the equivalent of talking to someone for a minute or so, every night. Stop straining, start winning, and watch what happens to your writing!

Monday, February 17, 2014

The secret to getting published: study the genre

A couple of years ago I installed a new bookshelf along the wall of our family room - a beautiful, glass-enclosed space that overlooks the hills of upstate New York - and for the first time ever, devoted an entire shelf to copies of each book I've ever written, ghostwritten, or contributed to. And it is quite a big shelf! Including things like foreign editions, second printings, and the like, there are over 40 books there. (The blanked-out ones are ghostwriting projects I cannot disclose under pain of death.) On average, I have cranked out one nationally published book every year or so since the mid-1990s.

So how do you get to be a "repeat offender" like me? Hard work? I wouldn't call it that - I really enjoy writing and it has never felt like work. Born with a silver-tounged pen? Nope, I was a C student in writing at Cornell decades ago. The right connections? Sorry, I live in the middle of nowhere, and was a humble lay middle manager with no agent when I first hit the bookshelves.

But there is one thing I do differently than almost any wannabe writer I know, and it is the single biggest reason I am successful: I study the genre I am writing in.

Go to a bookstore sometime, and you will see most people browsing through books. Watch me and you'll see me pulling one book after another off the shelf, running my finger along the pages, muttering to myself, and occasionally even pulling out a calculator. (Did I tell you I have an engineering degree?) While others read books, I deconstruct them. And when I finally sit down to write, it is a thoughtfully composed performance informed by the style of what sells.

Studying the genre is NOT the same as copying another person's style. I have my own style, thank you. In fact, I have lots of them, having published in genres that include popular business books, social science, and even fictional stories. Rather, I have a good, general sense of the audience I am writing for. Here are some examples of what I look for:

Titles: Your title is at least twice as important as your content. Really. Think about it - what made you pull a book off the shelf or on Amazon? More important, if you had a choice between titling the same book Finding Good Business Partners and Suppliers or The Four-Hour Work Week, which one would sell better? Tim Ferriss certainly figured that one out! Sweat the title first, and make it "smell" like other successful books in your genre.

Opening hook: Open any unsuccessful self-published book at random, and I'll bet it just starts right in talking about the topic of the book. By comparison, the book Just Listen by psychiatrist and hostage negotiation trainer Mark Goulston starts off walking you step-by-step through what he says to the suicidal guy with the gun at his head in the parking lot. Pow! No wonder his book is a bestseller.

There are a small number of very specific types of opening hooks for popular non-fiction business books, for example. There are personal narratives, credentialing examples, and emotional connections. Study them all and then think of them as clubs in your golf bag, ready to thoughtfully choose to fit your project.

Word count: Take business fables, one of my most successful genres. These projects never top 25,000 words, use short paragraphs, and are built around simple ideas. If I write a thick book with lots of jargon, no matter how funny or well-written I make it, I can't play in this market. Similarly, my business self-help books generally tip the scales at 60-70,000 words, have clear reader benefits in each chapter, are written in third person, and use lots of "eye candy" such as sidebars and examples to break up a wall of prose.

Paragraph length and style: Lots of choices here. Do you want to write a weighty tome like James Surowiecki's The Wisdom of Crowds, a thought leadership book like Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, or a quick read like Seth Godin's Tribes? Surowiecki runs out his anecdotes over several pages, Gladwell hooks your attention with "aha" moments at the beginning of each chapter, and Godin uses tons of micro-examples written in second person ("You need to be using Twitter. Now."). Each of them "smell" the way they do because of reproducible points of style.

So go out there and break down your favorite books. Study their opening hooks, their paragraph lengths, their chapter structures, and the way they keep your interest flowing. Think of how these things might affect your own unique writing voice, and how you want your own books to be seen. Then get writing. Have fun!

Monday, February 10, 2014

Success, Failure, Society ... and Moose

This is a challenging subject to write about, and one that can stir up a lot of emotion in people. But it is important enough in my view that I'm going to plow ahead anyway - here goes.

I just read another of many articles whose narrative goes something like this: "I used to do pretty well. I had an education and a career. But because of the 2008 crash/these evil, greedy corporations/age discrimination/etcetera, I am now poor and stuck. And it's all society's fault."

First of all, I empathize. I've been there. I would agree that Corporate America is not a kind place to be as we age - perhaps as much because of globalization and competition as greed or evil. And bad things certainly do happen to good people. Add to this the emotional devastation of losing a career, struggling financially, and getting older, and I totally understand the worldview of these articles.

So now I would like you to hold that viewpoint out in one hand, while I gently place another view in your other hand.

There is a dynamic that I have consistently seen over and over, for many years, in any community of people who are trying to change their lives - job seekers, entrepreneurs, freelancers, small businesses, or whatever. Let's say, to use an analogy from 80s televangelist Robert Schuller, that they are all hunting a moose.

Some people will learn from other successful moose hunters. With practice, they will eventually go where moose go, show up when moose tend to show up, and learn to sound like a moose. Others will say - correctly - that moose hunting is really hard, that lots of people fail at it, and that it is unfair that society has reduced them to needing to hunt moose in the first place. They are both right.

In my own experience, the first group generally succeeds. Whatever they do. Because of who they fundamentally are, not just circumstances. With a consistency over the years that has come to amaze me. And the second group never succeeds.

I have always chosen to be in the first group. Which means that people from the second group often ask me for advice, which I gladly give. It is rarely acted upon. And if I were to be totally honest with them, their anger, bitterness, and self-imposed constraints often set up a framework where they are probably doomed to setting their sights too low and continuing to fail.

Of course, they don't see it that way. "But I've sent out hundreds of resumes, and no one gets back to me!" "There is too much competition!" "No one pays good rates anymore!" And listen carefully - they are absolutely right. I would also fail if I had their worldview and limited my options to theirs. But understand that in the same moment, the things that do work for me - like exploring nontraditional high-value markets for my skills, having successful people as models, doing lots of homework, networking, and above all blowing people away with great service - often get dismissed as lame or unrealistic in the actual one-on-one conversations I have with people who feel stuck. So we are both right, but I would much rather be me than them.

So in closing, I respect the people who write these articles. There but for the grace of God, I could be one health crisis or economic collapse away from joining them. But once bad things happen, I have learned that people always, always, always divide themselves neatly into one of two groups. I always want you to choose the first group. I want you to succeed.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

My new year's resolution: Listen to the mirror

(Note: I first published this as a "note" on my Facebook page in late 2011. Somehow, it never made it to my blog - and two years later it still rings as true as ever. Enjoy!)

This is the time when people start thinking about their resolutions for the coming year. They decide to do things like lose weight (always a good one in my case), save more money, or be nicer to people.

Here's mine: I am going to spend more time in front of the mirror.

No, this isn't about my looks (especially at my age :). Standing in front of the mirror actually has a much more personal and spiritual meaning for me. Allow me to explain:

Many years ago, when I was 28 years old, I stood in front of my mirror one day and said to myself, "OK, Rich. Right now you're an overworked software engineer in suburban Los Angeles. But what do you really, really want to be in another 28 years?" I was surprised at the answer that popped out, almost without thinking. "I want to write, teach, and work with people."

This answer bothered me. I had spent all this time earning an engineering degree, like everyone else in my family, and my career was humming along nicely. And, I quickly reminded myself, how many people get to program supercomputers, create computer graphics, and have lunch in Newport Beach whenever they want? So I pushed this thought back into the "pipe dream" corner of my mind and went back to shaving.

A few years later, now living in New England, I was still restless, changing jobs, and not what I would call particularly happy. So I asked myself the same question. This time the answer was a little more detailed, but it didn't bother me any less. "I would really like to be one of those author-speaker-psychotherapist types that I see on television. Not that I want to be famous. I don't, really. But I bet I would have a lot of fun, and help others in the process."

Once again, I quickly summoned the forces of reality: Don't be ridiculous. You have a wife, a car payment, and a mortgage. You have reached the leadership level of your profession. You serve on government advisory committees, and chair conference sessions. Everyone will think you are nuts if you ditch all of this and "follow your bliss." So forget about it already.

Except this time, I didn't forget about it. I started brainstorming about what life could look like, even if I still wasn't quite sure how to make it happen. I thought of all things that excited me when I was younger: writing and acting in my fourth-grade play; wanting to become a Catholic priest and help people when I grew up; my inexplicable dual major of psychology in engineering school. And it struck me that somewhere along the way I had traded all of it for someone else's idea of success.

Soon, after another job change and a move to Pittsburgh, I started consciously shifting gears away from my technological world. I read about Carl Rogers and spirituality. I started writing seriously, sketching out book projects, and even getting published. And then when rumors started to swirl about layoffs at my large company, I did the unthinkable – I went to my management and said, "Me, me, please pick me!" and left with a modest consulting retainer.

So here I was at age 40, moving back to my native Ithaca and starting my life completely over as a freelance technical writer. And you know what? It felt surprisingly good. Instead of fear, there was a delicious sense that life went on, there were always doors to knock on and temp agencies to work for, and that I was still waking up with a beautiful woman every morning. And ironically, as I slowly started building a platform as a writer, a speaker, and later a therapist, the biggest surprise of all started to dawn on me – I was much more successful than I ever was as an engineer.

Recently it struck me: nowadays, in my 60th year, I am finally living the life I described in the mirror to myself at age 28, more than half my life ago. And if I had simply done a better job of listening to myself back then – or for that matter, in fourth grade – I probably would have been living this life a very long time ago. But better late than never. I frankly felt old back then, and feel much younger now. And I still have a lot more to learn.

God speaks to people in many ways, and in my case He sometimes uses a mirror. So what is your mirror telling you?

Friday, December 20, 2013

An open letter to a frustrated wannabe author

I just got an e-mail today from a self-published author, announcing that he is quitting his newsletter, and railing about how real people have almost no chance of getting published. He points to everything from the growth of electronic self-publishing, to the number of "charlatans" out there who sell services to wannabe writers, to people not showing up at his book events. His conclusion seems to be that most people have no chance of ever succeeding as writers, and that they may as well give up.

I hear things like this all the time, and it saddens me because most of it simply isn't true. I am not going to respond personally, because I don't want to call him out - or get involved in a back-and-forth exchange I really don't have time for. But if I were to respond, I might say something like this:

"Dear Wannabe Author,

I hear your frustration with the publishing industry. And I wanted to share my thoughts with you, as someone who does write a fair number of royalty-published books.

Personally I have seen a lot of fiction and non-fiction writers get published over the years - usually mere mortals like me. I have also seen a lot of people struggle to become authors and eventually self-publish or give up. I do NOT believe that the deck is stacked against them. But I do, however, see a huge difference between the two groups.

The first group almost always works backwards from the market. They study what sells, first. Then they adapt their style around what sells. They write tight queries, good "hooks," and intelligent competitive analyses. And they keep at it until they smell like published authors. I was always the guy standing in the bookstore deconstructing top-selling business books to see how they tick. I don't copy other people, but my writing has always been informed by what people are buying right now.

By comparison, the second group is usually focused on themselves. They don't vet either their ideas or their writing against what sells. They aren't necessarily bad writers, but their end product is almost always out of step with what people are currently buying. Inevitably they rail about what a poor chance anyone has of ever getting published. Except it isn't true.

A good litmus test is to read other self-published books in your genre, then pick up some popular royalty-published books. For those who see a difference, there is hope. For those who don't, less so.

I had an interesting discussion about this with my literary agent a couple of years ago. You are probably aware a typical query has about a 5% chance of getting accepted by a given agent. What you don't know is that more than half the queries these poor agents receive are *horrible* - completely out of step with the market and/or any sense of good, readable writing. Get rid of those queries, multiply these odds by the number of agents open to submission out there, and my experience is that a serious, professional writer who studies the marketplace is looking at a much more realistic 50/50 chance.

Trust me, I've had more than my share of no-show book signings, and even though I coach non-fiction writers myself, I share your disdain of most paid services. But when I hear people say that normal people can't get published, I have to politely disagree. I know way too many who do. But they do act differently.

I completely respect whatever you decide to do with your own writing. But if you try again, I hope you decide to think like an agent or an editor, and become a student of the marketplace. Good luck!

Your friend, Rich Gallagher"