Friday, June 24, 2011

Talking Up Moi

Writing about oneself is an extremely hard thing to do, yet more and more these days, an author has to self-promote. I suppose there will always be room for quiet, recluse geniuses in the literary world (I hope so), but for the rest of us, it has to be all about moi.

One of the hardest things to do is to write the blurb that appears on the jacket flap or the back of your book. Typically your editor has this onerous task, but I have found that it often helps to prime the editor’s pump by sending in what you think the flap material should say. This makes sense for two reasons: you get to put your slant on the book and you get to make sure that nothing will be said about your book that you don’t want said. Or, if you are self-published, you may be saying, “What editor?”

Writing jacket flap material is not really that hard. I think of it as a mini-review, the kind you see, when you’re daydreaming, on the front page of the New York Times Book Review. In fact, this is a good place to start. Daydream a bit and jot the ideas down that come to you. You might surprise yourself and say, “Damn, author, you’re gooooood!” Okay, we knew that.

Now with all these great points you want to make about you and your book, you need a formula, a format for writing your blurb. I’ve looked at a lot of them and basically, they all seem to have four basic parts:

the lure:  What is a quote from the book or succinctly what is the main, surprising, burning question your book will answer? You know, which sentence in your book is the best and most intriguing. Why did you write the book in the first place? If the idea grabbed you, it has to grab the reader, doesn’t it?

the story: What can the reader expect to find in this book? You need to come up with one nice sentence that tells it all, something quotable in reviews.

the author: What special talent does the author bring to this book? How did the author accomplish this miracle? Come on, remember you were the only one in the world who could have written this book.

the reader: What will the reader feel reading the book and what will the reader take away from this book? Think what Oprah would have said.

Lure, story, author, reader—this is all you need.

Here is an example from my book Rain School. It starts with a quote.

[1] It is the first day of school in Chad, Africa. Children are filling the road.
“Will they give us a notebook?” Thomas asks.
“Will they give us a pencil?”
“Will I learn to read?”

[2] But when he and the other children arrive at the schoolyard, they find no classroom, no desks. Just a teacher. 
“We will build our school,” she says.
“This is our first lesson.”

[3] James Rumford, who lived in Chad as a Peace Corps volunteer, fills these pages with the vibrant colors of Africa and the spare words of a poet [4] to show how important learning is in a country where only a few children are able to go to school.

This next example is from my book Chee-lin. It begins with the main premise of the book.
[1] Eighty years before Columbus, China sent ships to explore the world. The Chinese discovered many marvelous things, but one discovery stood out above the others: the chee-lin.

[2] This chee-lin was just a giraffe, but to the Chinese, it was an omen of good fortune so rare that it had appeared only once before—at the birth of Confucius.

[3] In a storybook of chapters, in which each page evokes the richness of far-away places and long-ago days, James Rumford traces the chee-lin’s journey from Africa to Bengal to China, weaving a tale not just of a giraffe but of the people he meets along the way.

[4] Based on the life of a real giraffe, Chee-lin is a story for all time: of captivity and struggle, friendship and respect.

This final example is from my soon-to-be-published book From the Good Mountain:
[1] What was made of rags and bones, soot and seeds . . . what took a mountain to make?
[2] For the answer, this book will take you back to the fifteenth century—to a time when books were made by hand and when a man named Johannes Gutenberg invented a way to print books with movable type.

[4]Written as a series of riddles and illustrated in the style of medieval manuscripts, From the Good Mountain will intrigue the reader, no matter how old, for on every page there will be something surprising to learn about how the very thing you are holding in your hands came to be.

You have noticed that part 3 is missing. This flap material has not been totally approved yet; so maybe my editor will want to mention me on the front flap. In the meantime, I have put part 3 on the back flap: 

It has taken award-winning author James Rumford over two years to write the text and complete the illustrations for this book, an introduction to how the first printed book in Europe was made. A papermaker, letterpress printer, and binder, he brings to most recent work not only his love of the printed book but also his knowledge of a craft fast disappearing.

The back flap is as important as the front flap. This is where you get to write even more about yourself: where you live, why you are so talented and, most important of all, why you feel you are the one to write this book. Maybe you are an expert about Lindbergh, if it’s a biography about the aviator. Maybe you are a librarian or a teacher or a grandmother or a dad or mom. Put it down and tell the prospective buyer or reader why they should spend time with your book.

Front flap, back flap. This might not be an option. If you plan to do print-on-demand or some Kindle-like thing, you probably won’t have a dust jacket.  All the information has to be together, either outside on the back cover or in a couple of paragraphs on or

If you still can’t seem to get into self-praise, trick yourself. You didn’t write your own book, your best friend did and you can’t say enough good about it.

Thursday, June 23, 2011


Well, it came yesterday.

A print-on-demand [POD] book that I had been working on with my old Afghanistan Peace Corps friend Doug Hergert. He wrote the novel. I did the cover art and designed the pages.

The POD looks like a real book: glossy cover, cream-colored paper, pages and pages of type all neat ‘n pretty. Yet it is only one of two copies, printed just last week in South Carolina by Create Space and shipped to me here in Honolulu.

The cost? About ten dollars for this proof. The cost for copies printed after the proof is approved: substantially lower.

The catch? None, really. CreateSpace is affiliated with They’ll take 60% of the list price, when and if you sell. In return, they’ll list the book world-wide in all of the countries where they do business. Sixty per cent seems like a lot, but typical. A publisher, especially a small one, has to give up 60% of the list price to wholesalers. Otherwise, the wholesaler won’t list the book so that it can be resold to bookstores, who also have to make a profit.

The good thing in all of this is that, if only wants 60%, you get what’s left over. And this part of the pie is much larger than it would ever be with a traditional publisher.

Did I forget something? Ah, yes. You have to generate publicity. You have to create a buzz. You have to sell your baby. As I mentioned in my last blog, self-promotion is also part of what publishers expect you to do anyway. The good thing is: now there is the internet and blogs and facebook and a zillion “hey, look at me” ways of getting e-attention. 

CreateSpace is not the only game in town. There is also Lightning Source, which is connected with Ingram’s, a huge book wholesaler with tentacles all over the world. It costs about $75 to make a proof with them, and they are also stricter in terms of what they want the digital files you send to them to look like. They make up for this “exorbitant” fee by being able to get your book out to bookstores, libraries, and schools world-wide, something, it seems, that CreateSpace is only just now getting in on. 

What Doug and I have found is that the world of print-on-demand is changing so quickly that what was true yesterday is not today. Quality improves daily. So does distribution for both CreateSpace and Ingram’s. And yesterday’s limitations in terms of digital requirements, recommended sizes, kinds of papers available are changing as well. In short, the POD book is evolving, as I write.

So, what am I, a children’s picture book author and illustrator, going to do about all of this? Simple. I am going to put out a few books. At $10 or so a proof, what do I have to lose?

As I mentioned in my last blog, I can do this so cheaply because I can illustrate and design the book myself. I am in a unique position to take advantage of POD books. But here is what I think is going to happen. Authors, illustrators, and book designers are going to form partnerships to produce books themselves. Why not? Author A and Illustrator B like each other’s work. They work on a project and contact Book Designer C, who also wants in on the deal. As simple as ABC, you have a mini-publishing business, which, if it works, will not only make money but provide a means of getting the artistic material out there.

My agent has started his own publishing business called Book Partners. It is only for the clients he represents. He has begun pooling together the talent he has and bringing on board an editor or two. What’s unique about this is that those who are part of the “pool” want a cut of the profits. There’s just that much to go around.

While producing a POD book might seem daunting to some, to others it is an answer to their prayers. Now they can get published.
Ah, but what kind of “published”?  SCBWI (The Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators) has decided that you, as a self-published author, can only be a “pal” in their organization. You are deemed different from those who are “legitmately” published. How “yesterday” can they get!? SCBWI reminds me of how the copyists’ guilds must have reacted when Gutenberg-printed books (g-books) began showing up. The men running those guilds raised their noses so high that they weren’t able to notice when their halls grew empty and irrelevant.

Publishers and organizations like SCBWI 
are a little bit like dinosaurs 
oblivious to the changes 
that are about to 
take place.

Here are links to CreateSpace, Lightning Source, and to a children’s book produced by Book Partners. It is a beautiful book written and illustrated by Native American Virginia A. Stroud. If you want to spend a few dollars, you can not only get a nice book but check out the quality of a book that was printed on your demand.

Monday, June 6, 2011

The Cyber Swirl & G-Books

Okay, wish me luck. I’m about to take the plunge into cyberspace. My webpages were my first step. Now the ultimate: I am going to publish digital books and books printed on demand. 

Ah, is your comment.  A downward tone of disppointment? Or an upward one of interest?  I hope interest.

G-books (what I like to call paper and ink books after Gutenberg) are on the way out. E-books are going to take their place. And for those who still want the feel of paper, that marvelous creak when a book is first cracked open, there will be books printed on demand. 

Print-on-demand has been around for centuries. The Chinese invented the idea. Many western historians say that, although the Chinese invented movable type several centuries before Gutenberg, they never acted upon their invention, believing that it was the Chinese writing system of thousands of characters that held them back. Not so, methinks. The Chinese figured, why print up thousands of copies that have to be stored in a warehouse? Why tie up capital in paper? Instead, they had each page carved on blocks. All they had to do was store the blocks. When a customer came to buy the book, they printed it upon his request.

Now the computer and incredible printing machines have made print-on-demand a reality in the modern world. Whether even these print-on-demand books can compete with e-books is anyone’s guess. As contraptions like Kindle and Nook become sleeker and more versatile, as children take these things to bed as night-night comforts, g-books will gradually disappear until they are the thing of collectors, of artists, of those in love with the past.

I am not going to say that I like what’s happening. I am only going to say this: it is the new future.  Then I am going to ask: what will I like about this?

I guess the first thing I like is that I feel liberated. For one thing, I don’t need a publisher. For another, I can publish manuscripts that I don’t think will be big sellers but need to be printed anyway. Moreover, I can, with a little effort publish worldwide: that is, my books could simultaneously appear in French, Chinese, German, Spanish, you name it. Finally, I get to keep up to seventy per cent of the profits, maybe more. Surely beats the ten per cent I get from my publishers now.

So what’s on the negative side of this idea? Some big ones: I won’t have a big publisher behind me and I won’t be getting a hefty advance. I will have to do all the promotion, but then, what’s so different about that? For years, the publishers have been putting as little money as they can into my books. But the biggest negative is that I will have to totally believe in my manuscript before I commit my own money to turning it into a print-on-demand book or an e-book. Before, when I or my agent sold a contract, I felt like the manuscript was really worth it. After all, wasn’t a big publisher going to put money behind it? Now that added boost to my ego, that large pat on the back will be gone. 

So here’s my plan: 

1: I am going to do an e-book that has a print-on-demand component. 
2: I am going to come out with digital versions of some of my old books. Some of these digital versions will be translations.
3: I am going to try out some of my manuscripts as digital versions first. The cost is minimal. If they sell, I’ll consider having a print-on-demand component.

So what is the cost? This I have yet to determine. The cost of a digital version is practically free. That of a print-on-demand is perhaps as low at $200 or as much as $1000. I don’t know for certain, but I will keep you posted.

Of course, part of the reason that the costs are so low for me is that I can illustrate my own books and I can design them. I have learned these skills over the last fifteen years. For others, they will have to hire illustrators and designers.

I am surprised at the subject of today’s blog. It doesn’t seem to fit what I had intended to say, but then, today’s blog is part of the journey I mentioned. Just because I brought up digital books, doesn’t mean that the notions of what makes a good story and what makes a good illustration have gone away. On the contrary, these things become more vital than ever as cyberspace, like the middle of the Pacific Ocean, becomes a swirling mass of refuse.  Aloha.