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Music to Write by

by Steve Laube

Latino student wears earphone using a laptop while sitting on a sofa

Some write in silence. Some write with music in the background. Some write with music playing through their headphones (or earbuds).

I’m curious as to what you, our readers, listen to while writing. Or if you write in silence. In the comments below let us know your favorites. Maybe we can discover some new musical inspiration together.

I read somewhere that Stephenie Meyer, author of the Twilight series, credits the group Muse as her inspirational background music. She even provides a playlist on her web site of the songs she listened to while writing Eclipse. (Here is that playlist.)

Years ago Ted Dekker mentioned that he listened to hard rock while writing his intense thrillers.

When it comes to music I am wildly eclectic. Most of the time my work day is silent. It can be a challenge to find the mute button when the phone rings. But when I feel the need for some background music to cover the hum of the fluorescent lighting I go in multiple directions.

1) A classical Baroque station on Pandora radio. I could listen to Bach and Vivaldi all day.

2) Solo piano music. I have a playlist of 90 albums that would play continuously for 26 hours without repeating a song. Artists like George Winston, Liz Story, Kurt Kaiser, and Jon Schmidt.

3) A contemplative contemporary artist playlist. The playlist is entitled “Thoughtful Music.” It includes artists like Vienna Teng, Melody Gardot, A Fine Frenzy, Charlotte Martin, Natalie Cole, Imogen Heap, Natalie Merchant, and Sara Groves.

4) Other days the mood trends toward acapella music with artists like Glad, Rescue, The Real Group, Take 6, Manhattan Transfer, and The New York Voices.

But if I need to let off some mental steam the playlist gets a little louder. This one includes artists like Flyleaf, Red, Fireflight, Skillet, Hoobastank, Linkin Park, Muse, etc. Or classic rock from Boston, Queen, Three Dog Night, Blood Sweat and Tears, Chicago, etc.

What do you play when the Creative Mood is in full swing?

Fun Fridays – April 11, 2014

English is a crazy language to be sure! It ought to be taught and read with careful enunciation.

I is for ISBN

by Steve Laube





No, these are not the plays being called by a quarterback during a football game. They are the ISBN numbers on the back of three different books by three different clients. Kudos to the first person to identify the three titles in the comments below.

Back in the mid-60s a major British bookstore chain (W.H. Smith) decided to move toward a computerized inventory system and needed a standardized numbering system to identify which books were which because different books might share the same title. Over time they implemented the BSN or Book Standard Number system.
Other retailers in other countries saw the benefit of this and joined together to created an International group that would administrate this effort. Hence the “I” for International Standard Book Number (ISBN).

Originally it was a 10 digit number. But in the early 2000s there was concern that they might eventually run out of numbers with the proliferation of books being published. So in 2005 they changed to a 13 digit number beginning with a 978 prefix. Once that inventory is exhausted we will start seeing ISBNs beginning with 979.

Please remember that the number is not the bar code. The bar code is generated by the number and is embedded in the funny lines. You can have an ISBN without a bar code but not a bar code without some sort of number.

In the mid-2000s I was part of a meeting in New York with the Book Industry Study Group (BISG) that discussed this transition from 10 digits to 13 digits and the retail implications. The challenge was that many bookstore computer systems were programmed with a field only 10 numbers long and could not accommodate the 13 digits. It was a programming problem that took some time to implement across every retailer.

For example, did you ever notice that the old Borders bookstore chain put price stickers on the back of their books that covered the bar code and the ISBN? They used their own in-house proprietary numbering system to avoid all the confusion as the industry was going through multiple changes. Plus they sold more than books which created another problem.

Note that the “B” in ISBN is for Books. Non-book items like music, clothing, etc have a different set of numbers called the UPC (Universal Product Code). And it is a 12 digit number!

Confused yet?
For a long time some non-book retailers would not carry a book unless it had a UPC code on the back or on the inside front cover. This is no longer a problem, but 15 years ago, if a publisher wanted to sell books in Wal-mart they had to print a UPC bar code and a ISBN bar code on a book. Some mass market paperbacks have a bar code on the inside cover for that purpose.

You may vaguely remember noticing the clerk opening the cover of the book and scanning the inside bar code at the register and not the code on the back of the book. Now you know why.

Anatomy of an ISBN
What do the numbers mean? Or are they random numbers sequentially generated?

Look at this ISBN … 978-1-61626-639-4
There are five parts to the number (note the dashes in the above number?)

The first three numbers mean “This is a book.” In the international rules the prefix is supposed to identify the country of origin. But since all books are supposed start with 978, and eventually 979, the committee named this country “Bookland.” Believe it or not.

The next digit refers to the country, geographical area, or language area of the book. Usually either a 0 or a 1.

The next five numbers refer to the publisher or imprint. When I was the national buyer for a bookstore chain I got so used to dealing with ISBN numbers that I could identify a publisher by its ISBN without seeing the book. 031032 was Zondervan. 080285 was Eerdmans. 155661 was Bethany House. (But those never appeared on a Trivial Pursuit card, so the information was useless outside of work. Unfortunately I still remember them.)

The next three numbers identify which title this is.

The last number is a check digit. Why? My guess is to avoid issuing sequential numbers which would create numerous data entry errors. If you are a math whiz go to this link for the check digit calculation formula. Beware. Looking at the formula too long may be hazardous to your health.

Do You Need an ISBN if Self-Publishing?
To further confuse the issue, if you self publish and plan to only use Amazon’s Kindle format, you don’t need an ISBN because Amazon will issue you an ASIN (Amazon Standard Identification Number) for your product. But realize it keeps you inside the Amazon economic system. The number cannot be used anywhere else.

If you want to sell your book elsewhere, like a bookstore or to a library, you must have an ISBN. Plus you will need one for your paperback edition and a different one for your ebook edition. (The jury is still out if you need separate ISBNs for your Kindle-mobi edition and your ePub edition. Many are choosing to only have one for all ebook formats.)

ISBNs can be obtained from Bowker in the US and from CCIS in Canada.

Be the Life of Your Next Party
The next time you are at a party and want to amaze your friends, take a book from the shelf, turn it over, and take your audience on a thrill ride through that little 13 digit number. You’ll be glad you did.

Publishing A-Z series:
A is for Agent
A is for Advance
B is for Buy Back
C is for non-Compete
D is for Dispute Resolution
E is for Editor
F is for Foreign Rights
G is for Great
H is for Hybrid
I is for Indemnification
I is for ISBN
J is for Just-in-Time
L is for Libel

Fun Fridays – April 4, 2014

I think we have found the way to save the Book Publishing Industry! Watch carefully.

4 Tips for Surviving a Writers Conference

by Steve Laube


With author Lael Arrington at The C.S. Lewis Conference.

I’ve had the fun of teaching at nearly 150 writers conferences over the years. In that time I’ve noticed a number of common things that all writers face. Let’s explore a few tips that may help you survive at the next one you attend.

The most common mistake is viewing the conference as a make-it-or-break-it evetn. The stress folks place on themselves is palatable. I’ve had people so nervous to meet with me that they burst into tears before they can even begin to talk. (I don’t think I’m THAT hideous to look at!)

Better to plan on going multiple times, like you would to an extended college course. The first time get the lay of the land and the language spoken there.

It is a Safe Place to Fail
Where else can you practice your pitch with a professional? Where else can you get a first impression reaction from a professional? Fumbling your words, pitching in the wrong genre, or to the wrong editor are not fatal mistakes. We have a number of clients who we represent who failed over and over again…until finally figuring it out.

Use the opportunity to sit with an agent, an editor, or a freelancer and see how they react to your idea.  Watch the body language. Listen to the voice for that crackle of excitement. Learn from the experience.

Beware of the False Positive
It is not fun to tell a writer that their idea won’t work and watch the light go out in their eyes. A terrible thing. Thus many editors or agents will give a word of encouragement hopefully wrapped in an honest evaluation of the work at hand. Unfortunately all the writer hears are the words “this is pretty good,” and they ignore everything after the word “but.”

However, when an editor or agent says, “I’d like to see it, please send it to me.” Believe them. BUT do not take that as an “I’m only one step away from a book contract!” I’ve see this reaction far too often. Put the positive response in the right perspective and you will save yourself a lot of grief.

The editor or agent genuinely wants to look at your material but can’t really evaluate fully during a 15 minute conversation or in a hurried glance in a hallway between sessions. Back in the office it will be judged against everything else already on their desk, as it should be. A fantastic proposal will survive every gauntlet, including this one.

I once had a person literally kneel by my chair at a conference banquet pulling at my sleeve and desperately cry, “You absolutely must become my agent because that editor over there said they liked my story idea!” This person was over-reacting to a cordial request and turning it into a false positive.

Follow Through
Don’t get me wrong. Your book has a much greater chance of being accepted if you do indeed send it to the requesting editor or agent than if you don’t. Surprised at this advice? You would be astounded how many people never send us what we ask for.

And one little hint? If you do follow through, include your picture in the proposal in the bio section. It helps us remember which person we met and where. Earlier this year I received a query letter from an author who opened with, “We met in 2007 where I pitched an earlier version of the attached story.” But there was no photo, and no indication of where we met. I have to admit, I don’t remember that meeting.

Ultimately, try to enjoy yourself. As you can see from the below photo Randy Alcorn thinks he is hilarious. And Malcolm Guite wants to talk about his book! I am an innocent bystander.


Photos taken by Lancia Smith

Fun Fridays – March 28, 2014

A delightful performance by a surprise contestant on the Italian version of “The Voice.”

To really appreciate what the judges are saying make sure to click the “cc” button (close captioned) for an English translation. (The “cc” button appears after you click play.)

The emotional reaction of the first judge and the expression of the singer of why she sings (at the six minute mark) are a joy to watch.

When You are on the Bench

by Steve Laube


The NCAA Basketball Tournament is upon us with lots of drama accompanying March Madness.

As you watch a game, of any team sport, the focus is on the players in the contest. The camera follows the stars and their every move. What you rarely do is watch the bench or the players on the sidelines.

I find this to be a fascinating metaphor for the writing and publishing “game.” There are mega-stars with household names. There are the “up and comers” carving out their place. And with each publishing release a new name steps forward displaying their talent.

But what about those who are left on the bench? What do you do when someone else takes what you think is your place in the spotlight? Or what if you used to be on the starting team but can no longer get a new contract or the attention your books deserve?

I observe at least three types of writers who sit on the bench:

The Intentional Critic

I have often observed the sneer of disdain when a famous author is being discussed. “Oh their books aren’t that good. I couldn’t finish even one.” “I can write so much better than so-and-so.” You understand what I’m saying? And I have likely willfully participated in the criticism.

There is a legitimate place for critique and published reviews (both online and print). They provide a valuable service in helping us discover whether a book is worth the time to read. And yet I once looked up every review written by an individual on Amazon out of curiosity (it is easy to look those up). This particular reviewer did not like a single book they had reviewed. Not one. It made me wonder if they were being intentional about their criticism in order to bring other writers down.

If you are on the bench be careful not to let the jealously bug bite and infect you with bitterness. Caustic words tend to burn the giver as well as the receiver.

The Student

Teams practice nearly every day. It creates a “muscle memory” for certain plays and for the interaction with other team members. They learn from each other and from their coaches.

It is the same in the writing world. This season may be one where you are on the bench. Use that time to improve your craft. Watch how other authors market their new books and keep a notebook of ideas. Make note of promotional things that don’t work as well as those that do. Read widely in your genre and outside. Your non-fiction may improve after reading a great storyteller. Or your fiction may have a new layer of fascination because of some non-fiction piece you read.

I have met a number of very famous authors in our industry who have attended a writers conference as a student. They were not there to teach or speak. They were not there to mentor. They were not there to critique. They were there, paying their own way, to sit quietly in the back and learn how to improve their craft.

So even if you are on the bench you can still learn something. And be prepared for the day when your name is called.

The Cheerleader

The video at the end of this piece is absolutely delightful. See how the bench celebrates the success of the other players. It is inspiring. Why?

Because it is a lesson to the rest of us. No pasted smiles on our faces when our friend gets a contract and we don’t. You’ve seen the smile that doesn’t travel up to the eyes. No empty words like “I’m so happy for you” said with gritted teeth.

Instead bring unbridled enthusiasm to the game. This is about changing the world. The non-fiction piece inspires and instructs thousands of people in far flung places. That novel warms a heart or challenges a reader through a character who has come alive on the page. This miracle of the written word is something to celebrate, truly celebrate.

Of course not every book is made equal. That is why there are so many and why our tastes are so varied. But if you find yourself on the bench for whatever reason. Take the chance to send a note of encouragement to that author. Not just gushy fan letters, but a note that only another writer would understand. Use your blog or Facebook page to celebrate those new releases. Let your network know there is an alternative to the drivel found on most TV stations and in movie theaters.

Meanwhile, enjoy the rest of March Madness and this video. Next time a new book hits a home run or scores a touchdown or sinks a buzzer beater or gets past the goalie, celebrate like these guys:

Fun Fridays – March 21, 2014

Enjoy this song once again, but this time with an amazing mimic singing with multiple voices.
Put a smile on your face today!

Hug a Librarian

by Steve Laube

Close up of a young male student holding book in front of his face amid bookshelves in the college library

It all began in elementary school. I discovered our city’s public library with the help of my mom. I soon began walking there regularly after school. While there, in what seemed to be a massive building, I would explore the rows and rows of books. Plucking one off the shelf here and there and skimming pages. And one day discovered a complete section of books on medieval knights and their armor. I spent hours pouring over those illustrations and reading all about medieval warfare.

Later, in high school, I spent one semester as the librarian’s aide. She and I would race to see who could file things in the card catalog faster. (Yes, back then we had a card catalog.)

In college I spent my junior year, one full Summer, and the first semester senior year working in the college library. I even explored the possibility of getting a Masters degree in Library Science. There was a certain satisfaction in helping other students find the right material for their research or showing them how to use various pieces of equipment. I even spent time in the back room repairing broken bindings and cataloging the rare book collection.

This past weekend there was the Public Library Association Conference in Indianapolis and had me thinking about the impact of the Library on my life and today in my profession as a literary agent. One fascinating Pew Research study found:

Nearly “90% of Americans ages 16 and older said that the closing of their local public library would have an impact on their community, with 63% saying it would have a ‘major’ impact. Asked about the personal impact of a public library closing, two-thirds (67%) of Americans said it would affect them and their families, including 29% who said it would have a major impact.”

It is a sad thing when municipal budgets cut library hours, services, and resource budgets. It is as if many don’t realize how vital a strong library system is to our society. Instead they see the library as a luxury. A non-essential.

I’ve said it this way, “The public library system is the largest bookstore chain in the country and few realize it. If a book is sold to only a tiny percent of the branches your book could sell thousands of copies!” Even with digital initiatives changing the nature of libraries, they still buy books. Lots of books. (Publishers are finding ways of selling ebooks to libraries so they can be checked out by the public. The link is to a Forbes article on the topic.)

One estimate claims there are 120,000 libraries in the U.S. Of those 9,000 are public libraries (which also have an additional 7,000 branches = 16,000 buildings). There are another 98,000 school libraries, both public and private.

As I was thinking about this post and the job our librarians do I stumbled across this great interview with a librarian published only a few days ago. Read it here.

For authors there is a great service called Library Insider (click here to visit the site) Developed by Books and Such Literary Agency and Judy Gann, herself a librarian, it helps writers market their books to libraries across the country.

Back to the title of this post. When was the last time you went to your local library? Have you shown appreciation for the work they do? Consider joining a local group that supports your library system. Give them a proverbial hug.

As Neil Gaiman said, in his brilliant lecture “Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming“:

“Libraries are about freedom. Freedom to read, freedom of ideas, freedom of communication. They are about education (which is not a process that finishes the day we leave school or university), about entertainment, about making safe spaces, and about access to information.”

Fun Fridays – March 14, 2014

Two of my favorite musical things: Acapella vocals and solo Cello.
Pentatonix is an incredible group.

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