Deborah Wood: Breaking into the Nonfiction Market and Doing it Well!! 11/6/03

Questions from the Audience are presented in red.
Answers by the Speaker are in black.
The Moderator's comments are in blue.

Mary Rosenblum

Hello, all! Welcome to our Thursday Professional Connection life interview! Glad you all could make it!


Deborah Wood is the author seven books on pets. She has a popular weekly pet column in The Oregonian newspaper and writes frequently for dog magazines. She has earned many awards, including being named "Newspaper Person of the Year" in 2001 and 2002 by the Dog Writers Association of America.


She's here tonight to chat with us about her life as a niche writer and


making a living writing about dogs. There are a lot of niche interests out there and she can offer some tips about how to get started to break in!

Mary Rosenblum

Deborah, welcome!

Mary Rosenblum

We're so glad to have you here tonight!

Deborah Wood

Thanks, glad to be here!

Mary Rosenblum

Deborah was willing to drive all the way across the Portland metro area to use my laptop when her computer couldn't handle the log on! That's real dedication! And she's even putting up with my huge dogs.


So, Deborah, how did you get started as a professional writer?

Deborah Wood

I like your huge dogs, but got started because my dogs are very different.


My oldest dog Goldie was extremely shy


and there were no books or even good articles on the subject.


I wrote an article for an obscure dog obedience magazine about the lessons I learned from Goldie


and the publisher said 'You should write a book."


I said, "I don't know how to write a book," and he said,


Neither do the fools who are writing the other dog books. So I wrote "Help for Your Shy Dog."

Mary Rosenblum

That's cool! So you made a book sale on the strength of a single published article then?

Deborah Wood

Yes -- and on the need for the book.


I was able to show that 15 percent of all dogs are shy, and there was a market for the subject.

Mary Rosenblum

That's great...and a real incentive for all you aspiring writers out there!


Write what you know! That's the old standby, eh? You all know way more than you think you do!


How did you research the percent of shy dogs?

Deborah Wood

I did a lot of research about shyness, in humans and in other creatures. Interestingly, about 15 percent of all higher animals are shy.


Love your local librarians when you need information!

Mary Rosenblum

So you were able to find most of the information in the public library?

Deborah Wood

Absolutely. In that case, I did the research on shyness at the library.


Since I do obedience training, I interviewed many trainers about their experiences with shy dogs,


and included their experiences in the book.

Mary Rosenblum

So really, the key here is to start with something that interests you, and ask yourself what YOU would like to know? That missing information may provide the article that gets you started in that niche, yes?

Deborah Wood

I think that 's true of everything. Did you know the creator of the Barbie doll created it when she realized her daughter didn't have a older doll to play with?


If there's something you want to know about , or need, probably someone else does, too!

Mary Rosenblum

Cool! I didn't know that about Barbie! Hope she still owns stock in the toy! :-) I think the other very positive aspect of your experience


is that you didn't begin with a sale to one of the top magazines in the country but in one that was obscure.

Deborah Wood

I had actually proposed this article to "Dog Fancy," a magazine with wide circulation.


Their rejection was on a tiny piece of paper -- they didn't even waste a whole page on it!


And it was a xerox of a xerox of a xerox.


I wasn’t paid for my article in "Off Lead" (the obscure dog training magazine)


but the guy who ran it at the time cared enough about me to encourage me to try writing the book. I'm so glad I was rejected!

Mary Rosenblum

Wow, I think this is one of the most positive things a guest has had to say here in quite some time...that even a nonpaying tiny market really can matter.

Deborah Wood

Absolutely, and having the credentials from the first book opened all the other doors.


Then how do you go about finding these obscure magazines?

Deborah Wood

That's where knowing about your niche comes in. I love dog training and read those obscure dog magazines.


I assume there are obscure magazines for every interest, right?

Mary Rosenblum

Oh, there are! I had a freelance nonfiction friend who wrote for many of them. Try 'Barb Wire Fence Monthly'! :-)

Deborah Wood

I love that!

Mary Rosenblum

It really WAS a magazine! The trade journal for the barb wire fence manufacturers!


So when you decided to publish the book, how did you get your book in front of editors? As a proposal?

Deborah Wood



I wrote a proposal to Howell Book House, the largest of the dog publishers.


It was really just a query letter, but in it I explained the facts about shy dogs,


listed all the books that have chapters on shy dogs, which didn't scratch the surface of the subject.


And told them that people would buy this book.


I think that the big thing is that the publishers have to believe that you're the person to write the book and


that people will want to buy it.

Mary Rosenblum

And you were able to query that publisher directly? You didn't need an agent?

Deborah Wood

In that case, I just did it directly. I did get an agent later.


I think it's harder now, but this was 1997, so not ancient history.

Mary Rosenblum

That's not ancient at all...and the publishers that cater to niche markets may not be as 'closed off' to unagented ms as the big houses. How did you find this publisher's name?

Deborah Wood

One thing that is important here


is that I wrote the book before submitting the query.


They weren't taking a chance on me writing a future book -- I just had to convince them to look at this book.


I found the publisher by looking at who published books of a similar genre-- and they were all Howell Book House.


It's also a lot easier to get into the door of a doggie publisher that a giant publishing house with a zillion titles.

Mary Rosenblum

So there you go..visit your local bookstore and see who is publishing books like the one you are working on!


So first you did your homework and scoured the available materials, then included that in your query...

Deborah Wood

Yes. They needed to know that there was a market for the book at first glance.


I think of being the publisher, and that's what I would want to know. What makes this book different from all the others, and will people read it?


Remember, there's a human at the end of the line who is reading your query, and who wants to succeed at what he or she does, too.

Mary Rosenblum

I think that is something we tend to forget...especially as new writers. That editor seems more like a minor...or major!…deity than a person making business judgements! Good advice, Deborah!

Deborah Wood

Truly, and it's always good to remember that they're usually interested in your topic, especially at these niche publishers.


So I give all my editors lots of pet advice -- even wrote a letter of recommendation for one to tell a breeder she'd be a good home for a Pug!

Mary Rosenblum

You know, it sounds to me as if the niche publishers are more personal than the big NY houses...more like many of the children's publishers.

Deborah Wood

Possibly, but I think it's important to treat people with warmth and friendliness.


They can live in a pretty sterile world, and the more they bond with you, the more successful you'll all be.


Have you always had a dog?s in you life?

Deborah Wood

From the name Akita, I assume you’re a dog person!


I had dogs when I was a kid, and completed an obedience title I got on the Pug I got for Christmas when I was 11.


During my younger adult years I was in a very demand set of jobs, and only had cats.


Then I got back into dogs, and one of my few regrets in life was not having a dog for that period of time.


Did you include an excerpt from your book?


When you sent the query?

Deborah Wood

I can't remember, but I assume I did. It would be a wise thing to do.


Interestingly, they made the commitment to buy the book before seeing the manuscript, even though it was already written.


They liked what they got.


I seldom have any changes of any substance in any of my writing.

Mary Rosenblum

Wow! I'm impressed! I think that goes to show, right there, that if you can find the gap in the existing information on a topic, you have just about made your sale. And


I'm impressed that you get little editing ...although not surprised! :-) I do read your weekly column!


So did you keep on writing books at that point?

Deborah Wood

Yes. I then got an idea for another book when I was at a Qigong retreat.


Qigong is sort of like Tai Chi, and is based on Taoist philosophical principles. (ed’s note: Qigong is pronounced chi-gong)


At a break, I got the idea to do a book on the Tao of Dog Training.


I went home and wrote most of it in 11 days!


It was one of those experiences like you read about.


I went to a Willamette Writers conference, and an agent there loved the idea.


He sold the book to Dell.


I got the idea in July, and had an agreement by October.

Mary Rosenblum

Eleven days???? GASP! And just how many pages is it?

Deborah Wood

It's pretty small -- about 30,000 words. Small but profound! ;-)


Taoism is supposed to be sparse!

Mary Rosenblum

Okay...I won't slit my wrists quite yet! :-) But that is still VERY impressive!!!


What's Tao?

Deborah Wood

Taoism is a Chinese philosophy that basically believes that the closer we are to nature, the happier and healthier we are.


It's a gentle, nonviolent way of being at one with the Universe.


In "The Tao of Bow Wow" (as it was called), I used that gentle philosophy for a principle of relating with and training your dog.

Mary Rosenblum

And this is another technique that is worth noting, I think. Instead of writing just another 'how to teach your dog to sit' book, you approached dog training from a new perspective.

Deborah Wood

Yes. But I didn't set out to do another dog training book.


The idea came to me as something worth sharing with other people, so I wrote it.

Mary Rosenblum

So the idea came first and then you realized that this was a different way of looking at dog training?

Deborah Wood



A bow-wow-whisperer!

Deborah Wood

Yeah, but I would have ended up a lot richer if I'd been the Horse Whisperer!


How can you use your knowledge of dog training for fiction?

Deborah Wood

I've thought a lot about that!


I wrote a mystery that was seriously considered by a couple of houses, but didn't get published.


I'm thinking seriously about another one.

Mary Rosenblum

Do it!

Deborah Wood

Okay! You, too!

Mary Rosenblum

Well, there's room for two good dog mystery take the little dogs, I'll take the big ones!

Deborah Wood

What a good plan!

Mary Rosenblum



When writing for a niche market how do you keep from repeating yourself? From saying the same thing over and over?

Deborah Wood

I find everything endlessly fascinating. Write about the next thing that really interests you.


I bet there are a lot of things that you're curious to know more about.

Mary Rosenblum

And it sounds as if it is worth thinking 'laterally'. You were interested in Tao...not a 'how to sit' topic...but it related to dogs. From handspinning, think...sheep? Spinners? Wildcrafters who collect dye materials?

Deborah Wood

Exactly. One of the things that I thought a lot about is that I'm a good writer, but there are a lot of other good writers.


And I know quite a bit about animals, but a lot of other people know as much as I do.


However, a finite number of people know as much as I do about my area of interest AND write as well as I do.


So, I think there's a real opportunity to think about what tickles your interest, and write well about it.


The other people who share the interest -- cars, boats, horses, Barbed Wire(!) -- will want to read what you find interesting enough to write about.

Mary Rosenblum

I think you've hit the nail on the head here! Soundly!


I've heard that a filing system can make or break a nonfiction writer. Your comments please?

Deborah Wood

Then I'm broken.

Mary Rosenblum

Sounds like mine...piles?

Deborah Wood

Horrible, horrible piles. I keep hoping some cable TV show will find out about my office and come renovate my world.


But people should do what works for them.


If you think in an organized fashion and need a good filing system, that's great.


If you're a slob like me, that can also work.


Just don't be afraid to start writing!


(giggling from behind her own pile) How do you find your research notes?

Deborah Wood

Mostly by scent (dog joke!)


I do keep certain things in order, but seem to need clerical help!

Deborah Wood

I also do a lot of notes by computer, when I do interviews. Of course, I have over 1,000 files in the computer, so that needs clerical help, too!

Mary Rosenblum

digital piles!


Do you use "show," as well as, "tell," or are you more of a ,"how to because I say so" writer?

Deborah Wood

I consciously write to a friend.


So, I think about the subject, and the genre (newspaper column, book, magazine article) and think, "How do I tell my friend the information in this space?


So, sometimes, it's amusing stories. Sometimes, it's bulleted facts. Sometimes, it's quoting experts.


But it's always me, writing the way I talk, chatting with a friend.


I even think of specific friends when I write.


So, if I'm writing an article about a veterinary issue, I think about my friend whose dog or cat might be facing the problem, and talk with her about what I learned.


If I'm giving opening lines on using your dog as date bait, I'm suggesting it to my nephew.


Always my voice, using the medium to tell a friend.


Do you use first person with your personal stories?

Deborah Wood



I do a lot of writing! (Three books this year, plus a weekly column, plus about 18 magazine articles!)


So, I do what works for that piece.


I recently wrote a column about being kind to your pets, even when you're having a bad day


and used my personal experience of getting my wallet stolen.


The next week the column was on picky eaters. One of my dogs is a picky eater, but someone else's picky eater story was better, so we didn't mention my dog in the piece.


I use what seems right for the subject matter.


How do you know if the info you researched is accurate? That's something that's always intimidated me about writing nonfiction.

Deborah Wood

That's a good question.


I do a lot of research, especially on things I don't know a lot about.


And if I'm worried something isn't right, I ask more than one person who’s in the know.


For example, when I wrote about Christmas hazards with pets, someone told me poinsettias aren't very toxic (*just a tummy upset)


I'd always heard it was highly toxic, and checked with 2 vets -- and found that it isn't as toxic as what I'd read.


I also read information back to people, especially on very sensitive or technical subjects.


When I write about veterinary issues, for example, I always read the article back to at least one of the vets I interview, becdause I know I was just a political science major!


How do you accomplish so much in your writing?

Deborah Wood

I write every day.


Will you write a breeders book about your favorite dog?

Deborah Wood

Actually, I have a book coming out this month "A New Owner's Guide to Papillons" (which I was asked by the publisher to write).


Is a Goldie your favorite dog?

Deborah Wood

I love all my dogs -- and each is different.


Goldie is a fairy princess who came to earth in the cutest available costume -- she's not a dog.


Radar is the perfect dog, smart, takes care of the house, takes care of the other dogs.


Pogo is a therapy dog who is a scamp at home and loves the world.


How could I not love them all -- and Mews, my cat?


Do you rely on the web for any of your research information?

Deborah Wood

Yes, somewhat.

Deborah Wood

I also rely on people I've come to know and trust, veterinarians, behaviorists, etc.

Mary Rosenblum

One of the things that impress me is that you have a weekly page in the Oregonian, which is a large newspaper! How did you get that very nice gig?

Deborah Wood

I think brashness is a good quality in a writer!

Mary Rosenblum

No kidding.

Deborah Wood

I had the contracts for "Help for Your Shy Dog" and "The Tao of Bow Wow"


so I wrote a proposal to The Oregonian, telling them they needed a pet column


and since I was Oregon's most prominent pet writer (which was true marginally) I was the one for the job.


But, I put in a lot of work into the proposal.


I read every single column that ran in The Oregonian for two months: gardening, wine, sports, cars, everything.


I looked for the length of column that they run, and the writing style.


I looked to see if they used contractions, and what kind of knowledge they assumed the reader had.


I also went every week to the Multnomah County library (bless them!) and read every single pet column in every newspaper,


deciding what I liked and didn't like in each one.


The, I wrote 4 sample columns.


I had a query letter that explained why The Oregonian needed a pet column, including how many pets there are in the readership


and how much they spend on their pets


and how many advertisers they could draw.


I then listed 25 topics (in addition to the 4 sample columns) that I could write about, so they knew I had more than 4 weeks in me.


They'd been thinking about doing a pet column, but didn't know who should write it. They called me a week after the submission and said, "Let's meet. Two weeks or three later, my first column ran.

Mary Rosenblum

Again, this is a very valuable piece of advice, Debbie. If you want to break into a magazine, read it! Not just one issue, but several. What is missing that fits the magazine, what does the editor present to readers, what kind of voice does she prefer? If your proposal fits, style and content-wise, it's much more likely to tempt the editor. I think I'm going to refer all my Long Ridge nonfiction students to this transcript, Debbie, thank you! And if you notice, folks, Debbie didn't leave it up to the editor to do all that market research and rely on the fact that it was a good idea...she gave him sound reasons why it was a good idea. He didn't have to spend any time doing it.

Deborah Wood

That's right. Plus, they have to know that you "get it." A mainstream newspaper wants a certain kind of column, and a specialty publication wants something a little different.


You need to show that you understand your audience.


And remember, it's a business. They need subscribers and advertiser. Books need readers. If you show that you understand that, they know they can trust you.

Mary Rosenblum

What are the best and worst parts of writing a newspaper column?

Deborah Wood

I love writing my column!


When I met with my editor that very first day, she said, "People either do a column for years, or they learn they hate it!


I like the adrenaline of the weekly deadline, and the interaction I have with the community.


However, the hard part is that it's always with me. 24/7. Yikes! What will I write the week of Christmas?


How do I handle sensitive subjects -- I'm really pondering how to write about irritable bowel syndrome in cats, without losing readers!

Mary Rosenblum

Or your readers losing their lunch!

Deborah Wood



But, the coolest thing is that anything that interests me is fair game for the column. And I call up the experts and ask about it


and they tell me everything! It's so cool!


Have you ever run into a glitch with people not wanting to


be quoted?

Deborah Wood

Sometimes. But I tell them I will not use the material without their names.


Sometimes, I will offer to read back to them what I've written, especially if it's something sensitive.


Suggestion for the week of Christmas: Doggie Biscuit recipe


as the usual 'human treats' are not good for pets

Deborah Wood

I'll put it on my list!


Deborah, could you give me your e mail?

Deborah Wood

Sure. My email is


If you want to see some recent columns (and Goldie's picture!) you can go to

Mary Rosenblum

That's where you weekly columns appear, yes?

Deborah Wood

Yes, my Oregonian columns.


I know this will be archived, how do I access it later?

Mary Rosenblum

Let's get back to that dreaded D word for a moment. Deadlines!


You have a column due every single week, 52 times a year. What do you do when the screen is just....blank!

Deborah Wood

The great thing about the column is how much I've learned about writing.


I've done it since 1998, and never missed a deadline.


It's taught me creativity on demand.


There is a place I can go to, like walking to a river, and I know it's there.


It helps that the column is "news you can use" so it isn't like writing poetry on demand!


But, I take pride in being entertaining (and even a bit literate sometimes).


Deadlines, I think, are what separate doing it for (yikes!) a living, rather than doing writing for a hobby.

Mary Rosenblum

Yes, I think that is the real dividing line, whether you're doing a column or a novel..


It is due on a particular desk on a particular date and 'blank screen' is not an excuse. And by the way, I read Debbie's column every week and have yet to feel 'I've read this before'.

Deborah Wood

Thanks! I really, really work at that!


I think that writing for money is when it's about other people, not just the writer.


I really think about the people who look forward to my column every week.


And I respect the position of the editor, who has a job to do.


It's less lonely than just sitting and writing -- but they do expect something in return for their efforts!


Have you done something with the dog's POV?

Deborah Wood

Not as the dog writing it.


But I do think that one of the things that's made me a popular pet writer is that I consider animals to be our friends and family.


So, they aren't objects. They are to be respected, too.

Mary Rosenblum

And even though you're writing in a niche are targeting the broadest possible audience...people who love their dogs rather than obedience trainers, say, or breed ring show people.

Deborah Wood

Absolutely. I have heard from many readers who have said they don't even have pets but they read my column.


It's important that writing is ENTERTAINING as well as informative.


I also write still for some niche magazines, and do that a bit differently.


So, when I write for The Canine Chronicle every month, a dog show magazine, I assume they know things that my Oregonian readers don't, and want details the general public doesn't.

Deborah Wood

I love a quote a heard from Ted Koppel of Nightline once. He said not to overestimate your audience's specific knowledge or underestimate their intelligence.

I liked that a lot, and live by it.

Mary Rosenblum

That's a good quote!


Are your columns limited to certain animals?


Or do you write about unusual pets as well most common?

Deborah Wood

Yes. Pets -- we excluded horses and other outdoor animals.


I try to balance between dogs and cats, and other pets.


I balance between vets, training issues, more bonding pieces.


Sometimes a little quirky, sometimes serious. I really try to balance it.

Mary Rosenblum

What about other niche writers? Do you network with them? And how?

Deborah Wood

I've become good friends with other pet writers.


I think networking and supporting each other is important.


I go every year to the Dog Writers Association of America meeting the night before the Westminster dog show in New York.


I also write a lot of reviews for the paper, and try to support people who are doing good work.


I don't see the other writers as my competitors -- they are the people who share my world.

Deborah Wood

And get the same jokes!

Mary Rosenblum

What about your books, Debbie? Did you promote them yourself or let the publisher do it?

Deborah Wood

I wish I was better than I am about promoting my books.


My most fun experience was with "Top Dogs: Making it To Westminster" about the Westminster dog show.


The interviews were arranged by the publisher.


The great break was the New York Post did a full page on it, and then everyone wanted to interview me.


(I learned that people quote the Times and read the Post!)


I was on Joan Rivers radio show (it was a blast!), interviewed on NPR "All Things Considered" and even was on "Inside Edition."


It was very, very fun. I do like to talk!


I have tried to cultivate relationships with pet media people -- and that I do on my own.


I also have good relationships with the local media, the morning talk show, and some radio personalities.

Mary Rosenblum

Wow. I am impressed! REALLY impressed. You have gone from one unpaid article in a tiny magazine to becoming probably THE top dog writer in the US. Not a bad track record!


And by the way, for all you aspiring folk, that very first unpaid article happened SIX years ago. That's all. It doesn't take a lifetime to get this far!


So tell us about your book! What's coming out next?

Deborah Wood

The book that's just come out it "The Dog Lover's Guide to Dating: Using Cold Noses to Find Warm Hearts."


That was my hardest project to date.


(No pun intended!)


I saw it as a funny book, sort of like Dave Barry does doggie dating


and my editor had no sense of humor -- so she wanted real dating advice.


Given my personal life, we were quickly getting out of the realm of non-fiction! ;-o


But the final product was a good meld.


It has the funny parts (including pointing out that I'm the relationship guru of the new millenium)


and mostly helpful advice about training your dog to attract people you'd like to date.

Mary Rosenblum

And she even had a tip for those of us with big scary Rotties...teach them to bring people a rose... :-)


There might be hope for my romantic life yet!

Deborah Wood

And have them wear bow ties...who could resist a buff guy in formal wear with a rose?

Mary Rosenblum

There you go! :-)


Have you ever done a column on


the benefits of canine / feline massage?

Deborah Wood

That's a good one! I've done columns on acupuncture, chiropractic and Tellington Touch (sort of like massage but different) -- but that's a great idea!

Mary Rosenblum

Great suggestion, diannalmt!

Mary Rosenblum

Debbie you have shared some very valuable and important tips tonight, and I REALLY thank you for coming here tonight!

Mary Rosenblum

I really will refer my nonfiction students to the transcript of this interview, because your techniques and suggestions for breaking into the markets are very sound! Thank you! Any last advice for our audience?

Deborah Wood

I do want to leave people with the thought that they can do what I've done!


Mary knows me, and knows exactly how ordinary I am.


I never was paid a cent for writing until I got my first book contract.


If you look at your library and bookstores, it's just us normal people who are writing 95 percent of the books.


We all have something to share and contribute.


So, go ahead and believe you can do it!


Thank you for the help


and the helpful information!


From one dog lover to another, thanks for your time and encouragement. You have a great sense of humor--I can't wait to read your column online.


Mary...this was an excellent interview with Debbie tonight..I was spellbound every minute....I thoroughly enjoyed it...Thanks to both of you.....take care...


Thank you, Mary and thank you Debbie for your extra effort to speak to us. Metro Portland probably ain't the greatest trip you can think of

Mary Rosenblum

Not to mention that a TREE fell across the road to my house!!! Real dedication here....

Deborah Wood

It's been a ton of fun! And a few trees don't slow down a native Oregonian!

Mary Rosenblum

Thank you all for coming tonight! I'll post the transcript on the website in Surviving and Thriving: Transcripts.


I highly recommend that you make a copy for yourself. This is an excellent roadmap to success. Debbie you have done a great job!

Mary Rosenblum

We'll let you's a long drive back home. And thank you so much for coming!

Deborah Wood

I've had a fabulous time! Thanks to all the participants for the great questions, and the nice words. And the column suggestions!!

Mary Rosenblum

I hope you'll come back again!

Deborah Wood

Any time!

Mary Rosenblum

Great! Well, goodnight, Debbie, and thanks so much for taking the time here!

Mary Rosenblum

Bye all! G'night!

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