Interview Transcripts

Professional Connection:

Carolyn  Howard-Johnson

August, 2008

Carolyn Howard-Johnson, the award-winning author of the HowToDoItFrugally Series of Books for writers, including USA Book News' award winners The Frugal Editor and The Frugal Book Promoter. Check out her website.  How To Do It Frugally.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson:  Thank you for having me, Mary. I'll check in tomorrow (Wednesday), after noon. I'm on Pacific time. I'm looking forward to chatting with your authors. Any quetion or comment is welcome. If I can't answer it, I'll say so. LOL.   

Rosebud : Hi Carolyn,

I seem to be having difficulty doing justice to my synopsis. My Chapters read much better than the synopsis. I've always been pretty dreadful at self promoting, but I'd like to know if there is a standard way to summarize your work to achieve that great first impression.  


Carolyn Howard-Johnson:  You probably know this but the standard way is to use present tense."When Melinda joins the Peace Corps she....."  That kind of thing. Try to keep verbs very strong, too.  At the same time, don't be afraid of recreating your voice. It's one of the major things that makes your work unique so you don't want to bury that in rules. And you do know to go from chapter to chapter, right? You didn't tell me if your book is fiction or nonfiction but the above guidelines are true for both.   

However, if your book is nonfiction you may mean "proposal" rather than "synopsis."  (I don't know your level of experience."  I thought maybe you meant  "proposal" because you mentioned self-promotion and, generally, proposals are more about promoting than synopses are.  If you do want more information on proposals (they contain synopses and a whole lot more!), you can get everything you need to know about them for 49 cents on Amazon. Just put my name in Amazon's search engine. The Great First Impression Book Proposal is an Amazon short. It would come to you immediately as an e-book. (-:  And I wrote it so that people won't have to spend three days reading a book to learn the ropes. Really! It's not that hard.  

Let me know if this does for you what you needed.  


Rosebud:   It is a fiction and I'm a novice. However, I took a class on the subject at the Erma Bombeck Writer's workshop and this is what I did:  

In a file folder, in the left pocket I put a cover letter and bio. The business card went in the slot. In the right pocket, I put the synopsis, character profiles, and sample Chapters only if a requirement of the agency.  

My problem is, I wrote the synopsis as a summary of the book and it reads weak when compared with the individual Chapters. When I look up agencies submission requirements, I secretly hope they ask for three sample Chapters because the synopsis won't cut it alone.   


Carolyn Howard-Johnson:  Rosebud, it may be that you took the class from me at the Erma Bombeck Conference. I think I was the only one who talked about media kits and query letters. Small world, huh. You are on the right track. If your synopsis sounds weak, punch it up with stronger verbs. Maybe you need to get inside the heads o f your characters more, too.  Or maybe you're not giving quite enough information regarding conflict in your novel.  Try that.   

Carolyn Howard-Johnson:  Here is a section from The Frugal Book Promoter on what you can do to make book signings better.  Let's talk about ideas for workshops for your particular book!   

Chapter 28: Book Signings or Readings: That is the Question
To read, or not to read: That is the question.  
Whether 'tis nobler in the mind to suffer  
The slings and arrows of outrageous critics,  
Or to take arms against a sea of potential readers/book-buyers.  
And thus opposing, charm them into buying my book.  
JayCe Crawford, author, paraphrases you-know-who 

Cold book signings can be really chilly. Our job as promoting authors is to warm them up but if you are not already famous or a dramatist at heart, you may choose to avoid locations that aren’t on your own stomping ground.   

I witnessed a book signing for Anne Rice at Vroman's Books in Pasadena, CA. People were lined up around the block—and doubled back. Her fans had been there for hours with Rice’s big, fat books in hand—newly purchased—waiting for her to arrive. I was on the way to a movie. When I came out, the line was just as long—but the faces were all new. Heaven (and Vroman’s accountants) might be the only entities with a firm take on how many books she signed in 1 ½ hours or how many more she would sign before her writing hand became too sore to function.   

I mention this because signings have their place. That place is just about anywhere if the author is already famous. If she is not, that place is in the middle of her own little pond. An emerging author may have more than one pond—a small lake where she works, a small puddle of a community where she sleeps, another where she was raised—but, unless the author, a publicist, or a publisher has stirred up huge waves in that larger ocean —the national book-buying community—she will find that signing outside of any area where she is known may be discouraging.   

Someday, after decades of growth, you may have a book signing like Ann Rice’s. Until then, my own book signing story may be closer to what you might expect. My launch and the signings I did in locales where I had contacts were successful (by much more humble standards than Rice's!) but still tons of work and not much fun.   

Before my novel was published, I spent almost three decades as a founder and owner of gift stores. I also had experience as a publicist. After that many years in the business of selling and PR, I know how to do both. Some people are good at these related fields, some aren’t. Some like promotion and sales, others don’t. Even with a strong background in both, I gleaned little joy from book signings excepting for meeting those who knew my work and came to wish me well.   

That does not mean I have discarded book signings from my repertoire of promotions. I have, instead, set up rules that fit both my emotional needs and my goals for promotion. Aside from urging you to keep your signings within familiar territory, here are some of the other guidelines I have made for myself for you to consider:   

I'll sign, but to do so I must be a speaker, reader or participant in some kind of event. It is the only way to—using JayCe’s word—“charm” readers into buying a book. The signing, then, becomes more of a party where contact and relationships are as important as selling books. To walk into a bookstore (or book fair, for that matter) without what is known in the entertainment trade as a warm up, does not work well.

I will not think of book sales as the prime purpose for doing book signings—they are occasions for exposure in person and in the press, for branding and for fun.

I will focus on one large launch per book, perhaps for charity, invite tons of people and have a party.

I will only sign in a locale where I know people or have contacts that allow me to either get air or ink space from the event or that enables me to send out invitations in sufficient numbers to ensure attendance.

I will only sign for stores that will do their full share of advance publicity. This includes:

Exposure in their newsletter, in print or on the Web.

Posting signs or distributing fliers or bookmarks in the store before the book signing.

Because signings are often the first promotion that new authors consider, I do not recommend traditional book signings in the course I teach for UCLA’s Writers’ Program excepting, perhaps, to say, "Maybe you shouldn't!" Not until you have a Rice kind of fan club, anyway.” I want inexperienced authors to put on the brakes and use their energy where it will do the most good.   

Caveat: You may choose to do a full-blown book tour because it would fulfill a life’s dream or because you believe your situation gives you a better chance at success than the average. If so, go at it full force and swinging. Take a card from the deck of T.C. Boyle, literary author cum promoter extraordinaire: In POETS & WRITERS, Joanna Smith Rakoff says he is “not content with nice reviews and decent book sales…he wants to be a phenomenon.” That’s how you should approach book signings if you should choose to take on that assignment.   

Here are some ideas, in the form of a tip sheet (remember those from earlier in this book?) that you can use:   

A Dozen Ideas to Make Your Book Signing, Like, Worth Being There

1.   Coordinate your plans with whoever is in charge of your bookstore’s events. Let her know what you will need—both the set-up and the promotion.  
2.   Ask the store manager to occasionally use the store’s PA system to introduce you to customers, especially if you are not reading.  
3.   Arrive an hour early to set up properly. Many stores will not have prepared for your visit, even after you discussed your needs with them.  
4.   Ask the sales associate at the cash register if you can stack some of your books on the counter. This area is called “point of purchase” by the retail trade—for obvious reasons.  
5.   Although some bookstores stock their own “autographed copy” stickers, have some made just in case. Use them on the signed copies you leave for the bookstore to sell after the event. Don’t worry, you will use them all at your launch and other places you appear. I used one of the address label services I found in my Sunday newspaper throwaway.
6.   Offer to send autographed bookplates to the bookstore manager when she reorders. Bookplates, an old-fashioned idea of personalizing the books in one’s library with contact information so that they can be returned, can be purchased at bookstores in the new-fangled sticker variety. You can also use mailing labels. Authors simply sign them and the bookstore manager can apply them to the title page or inside cover of that author’s book.
7.   Design knock ‘em dead signs. Verbiage should have the same level of pizzazz as loglines used for screenplays. Color is important. So is quality.
8.   Put your signs everywhere. Post one on the top of a stack of your books at the point-of-purchase, a tent card on the shelf where your books are normally displayed, one on your signing table, one in the window, and more. Send one to the store to use at least one week before the event. Design these signs so they can be recycled for other events.
9.   Take along plastic or wire display stands—they’re like plate stands. Use them to display your book upright where there is little space available. To purchase them go to<a href=””target=_blank>, or your favorite collectible or hardware store.
10.   Ask the bookstore manager, sales associate or both to train their salespeople to refer customers who go through checkout to you. They could say something like, “By the way, have you stopped to say hello to our award-winning author who’s signing books today?” as she points to the pile of books on the counter or to wherever you are set up.
11.   Talk to the sales associates. They are the ones who spread the word about books. Offer a signed book to a salesperson who is especially interested and ask her if she would recommend it when she is done.
12.   Bring something to give away to those who buy your book, certainly, but also to those who pause to talk. All, excepting the candy, should include information for ordering your book on them. Possibilities are:
•   A bookmark.
•   Your promotion (business) card.
•   A token souvenir (see chapter 14).
•   A recipe. Even if your book isn’t a cookbook, a recipe from a kitchen or cooking scene will be well received; it might include an excerpt or quote from that chapter.
•   Give away a list: An example is, “The Year’s 10 Best Reads.” Include your book and contact information.
•    If your publisher provides you with extra book covers, sign and give one to each person who purchases your book.
•   Offer wrapped candy at your signing table.


ReeceThat was fantastic advice Carolyn! I really appreciate it. I will be printing it up for future reference.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson:  Reece, newbie.  I'd like to keep in touch with you. You might be interested in my newsletter (newsletters are great ways to learn but also to network!). So, stick my e-mail in your file, too.


Ruthie: Thanks for the advice.  I am so not at that stage, yet. I'm just about ready to send in assignment #2.  I will keep it for when I get there.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson:  'm not quite sure what you mean by not being there yet but you are on the right track, learning all that you can and keeping files so that when the time comes you'll be ready.  I have a saying though. It isn't my own but it applies to so much in writing. "It's never too early... or too late!)
 Thanks for participating, both of you!


MaryR:  So how do you suggest that a new writer get started?  Most novices have no contacts and marketing their book can seem like a daunting task. But alas, few if any book publishers help you much any more! 

andipandi: As a new writer, I am anticipating seeing what suggestions you can provide us .

Carolyn Howard-Johnson:  Andrea:
Surprisingly enough, contacts aren't that useful for selling a book if you aren't using an agent. Contact do help when you're trying to find an agent though. So what's the secret. Actually, in either case it's real simple. You network and your read. Of vice versa.
Network at writers conferences online but, even better, the ones sponsored by universities throughout the nation.  You'll find a list of these by going to my website, and clicking on the Resources for Writers button at the top of the page. Just below the title of the page you'll find several "Click Here" links, one of them to graduate writing programs (which might have workshops and conferences) and one to conferences themselves, many of which I have spoken at and they come highly recommended. 

The other is read. Then network with the author and with leads in the books. Here are some people you can Google to find books, websites, newsletters, etc. All of these people are experts and generous with their time. John Kremer, Shel Horowitz, Terry Whalin, Yvonne Perry. Tell them I sent you. 

The key word here is Networking. Which translates to being friendly. Offering help where needed. Asking for what you need. 

You'll also find that knowing your stuff where query letters are concerned will help you. Queries are, after all, your first impression with agents, publishers, etc.  The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Foward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success will help you with that. It lists ideas to improve your query letters from about 20 top agents and, in the index, I give you their names and web addresses. You'll find more in that book on how to approach them, too.

Notice above that I mentioned newsletters.  I take dozens. I scan them all (that means I do more than just look at the subject lines in the e-mails). I'm always amazed at how much more there is to learn, no matter how long I've been around.  BTW, you'll also find a list of newsletters on that resource page.

MaryR: Networking, ah! What about writers conferences, Carolyn?  They can be expensive if a novice writer has to pay airfare and then hotel bills on top of a membership fee. Or they can be local and cost the membership fee only. Do you think they're worth it in both cases?  Either? 


Pam Out West: I read a book on writing proposals and became discouraged when it strongly suggested that the writer have a platform to  promote themselves, and to mention previous publications. This is the difficult part of 'Breaking into Print,' if the writer does not have either.

Also, I have written a nonfiction novel with broad interest spectrum, and a narrow POV. The narrow POV is from the lens of a faith that is often a target of ridicule in our nation. I am aware this may limit potential readers, but the novel loses its essence without that POV. I just keep reworking drafts, hoping the next step will become more apparent. Any advice is appreciated. Thanks.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson:  One of the things that I find in my classes at UCLA is that people HAVE platforms of one kind of another, they just don't know how to examine their pasts to find them. You probably wouldn't have written this book without an interest/experience/etc in the subject. So what is THAT platform.  Also, writing platforms don't just consist of how well-published you are (though that helps). Have you taken a class from a respected writers' Program (I recommend UCLA online program as well as their on-campus program because their instructors are well-vetted)?  Have you been to a writers' conference? Are you just reading books like mad.  Many times agents and publishers just want to know that you are serious and that you're willing to work hard on promotion.

That your novel is narrowly focused does not doom it. You have what is called Long Tail--which translated means that you have a narrow niche.  Niches are easy to promote to.  You may not find that a major publisher (like Harper's) is interested in niche. I haven't read your novel so I don't know. But your niche will be interested in your niche!!  So go for it. That's one of the beauties of th Web. It's easy to read your specific market, regardless of how narrow.  I think you'd benefit from reading The Frugal Book Promoter. It helps with this kind of promotion. 

And it sounds as if your book is about tolerance. As it happens, I have a page of resources on tolerance on my website. Go to and click on the Tolerance and Utah button at the top of the page.  And, when your book is published, get in touch. I'll put it as a resource on that page.

Carolyn Howard-Johnson:  Actually, you're marketing yourself and your book when you decide what to wear in the morning. 


MaryR:  I hope nobody can see what I"m wearing in the morning (she says, looking down at her jeans and sweat shirt).  But that query letter...oh boy!  What do you recommend to the new writer who has that manuscript in one hand and the market list in the other?  How do they know what makes a good query letter?

Carolyn Howard-Johnson:  People spend so much time perfecting their craft and then let the craft of queries (so to speak) go wanting.  First of all, this is a query letter. You're asking for something. So you gotta ASK it.  Politely but not shyly.  Many editors and agents, too, wear more than one hat. They have to know what you want. 

Another big mistake authors make is they write one-will-do-it-for-everything query.  Agents and publishers are really human beings. They want to think you have some idea who they are--beyond spelling their name right. Mention a book you've read they've represented or published. Mention someone who recommended them to you. Pick up something from their website that makes you think they'd be a fit, and then work that into your query.  It's really not so hard in these days of copy and paste.

You'll find dozens of other ways, two or three whole chapters, on making your query work for you in The Frugal Editor.  BTW, good editing is good marketing. Yep, Mary. That's the other thing authors tend to neglect is the marketing aspect of publishing. I can't tell you how many people I know (yes, people published by big publishers) who have been sorely disappointed in what their publishers did for them but when asked what they did to promote their own book, I get sort of a blank stare. 

Really!  You are in charge of your own writing career, your own book's success. You don't have to wholly depend on others.


MaryR:  Boy, no kidding, book publishers promote any more, not even New York. Well, they do promote their 'top marketing prospect' for the season, send that person on a book tour and all that.  But that's one or two authors and a big NY publisher might have 100 - 200 new titles in a year.   So what else can an author do?  What do you think about book marks, post cards and all that? Imprinted pens?  Free penguins if you buy the book?

Carolyn Howard-Johnson:  I'm all for promotion but I'm not much for spending a lot of money to do it.  That's why the word FRUGAL is in my series of books for writers. Of course, nothing is free. But I like to see authors use real discretion in how they spend both their time and money and I don't think that souveniers are the best way to spend money.  Think about how many pens people have, and magnets. And how they all end up in junk drawers or on refrigerators that they never paule to look at.  I do believe in nice thank you gifts for people (editors, radio hosts, etc) who have helped you promote. They won't soon forget you when your next book comes out.

Business cards are another thing, though. I'll post something in a minute on cards and bookmarks (which are also useful) in just a second so keep tuned.

This is from this coming issue of my Sharing with Writers newsletter. Timely, huh. It relates to your question about bookmarks, Mary:

Dear Subscribers and Authors' Coalition Members:

It's interesting how things cycle. Back in the early 1970s when my husband and I opened our first retail store, we eschewed business cards. Even though I had a background in publicity, business cards were just so, well . . . formal. So ostentatious. So . . . statusy!

When we finally realized that business cards were essential to promoting our business (and a service to our customers!), we ameliorated the Ugh! factor by listing ourselves not at CEOs or Presidents but as "Owners and Chief Toilet Swabbers." This was the 70s, after all, and humor--even four decades later--is still an effective means of toning down anything too high falutin'.

Now Time magazine reports that social norms are changing and calling cards, precursors to business cards, are back. Calling cards were used by the socially elite in Victorian times but lost favor as people visited one another more by phone (and now by e-mail and by texting). Also anything that smacked of snobbery was not a pretty thing during the flower child era.

Now Crane and Company has launched a marketing campaign that has successfully brought calling cards back. They're used like business cards for people who aren't in business or those who are who want to be less status conscious. Talk about a reversal!

Calling cards make it easier for mothers at the park playground to exchange information, as an example. Or for retired people on a cruise to exchange names. They're good at high school or college reunions if you don't want to flaunt that you are now a partner with your law firm.

And some businesses are using them, too. Their intent is similar to the reasons my husband and I resorted to humor on ours. They are less stodgy (many are larger or smaller than traditional cards, more colorfully designed, etc). In a word, more casual.

And that brings us to your business cards. I have long used business cards that are more like mini ads for my books. They are not designed with gorgeous, swooshy logos and lots of open space (however much I like open space!). Instead they include my book covers and little blurbs about each book. I even go so far as to mention their awards. And I use both sides (one for my literary work and one for my how-to books for writers).

I do keep them the traditional size, however. They would be prettier and easier to read if they were larger, but not so easily stowed in the recipient's wallet. And that, after all, is the point. Whether we call them business cards or calling cards or mini book ads, they are all about giving, getting and keeping information. And that's why--if one must make a choice based on budget--I prefer them over bookmarks.

Happy promoting! And yes, writing and editing, too!
Carolyn Howard-Johnson

PS: Writer’s Digest 101 Best Websites is now accepting nominations for next year’s list. If you've found Sharing with Writers newsletter or blog or the resources at helpful in the past year, please send your nomination to Put "101 Websites" in the subject line. Please do it now. Jan 1, 2009, is the deadline and you know how the holidays get!



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