By Anthony Tinsman
The Irony is a nice break.
While editing my manuscript about how to build a writing career in prison, letters keep coming from aspiring authors asking for advice. Each one is special. Several have forced me to review my book and broaden topics like Book Design, Promotion, and Freelance opportunities for incarcerated writers.
Today's mail arrived with yet another important voice. Adrian Cook serves time in FPC Beckley. He is a writer with minimal resources. And it's understandable.
Bootstrapping To Publication
Prison is best described like this: we receive daily care packages from a wealthy nation (clothes, electricity, chow, etc.) and the rest is a third world (.17 cents an hour wages, sleeping in a bathroom with another man, and depressing cable, etc.) The life-lines connecting prisoners to their families are sawed by the gremlins CCA, Corrlinks and Telecom charging one-dollar per minute for phone calls, and 5 cents a minute for e-mail.
Price gouging is well documented inside the Prison Industrial Complex. Unfortunately, prisoners’ families are the victims.
"I come from a poverty stricken background." Adrian says, "My mom and dad were both drug addicts. I was given my first package from my parents at the age of 11 and have been engulfed in this whirlwind of drugs and prison ever since!" Sadly reading the blue-ink letter, I was reminded that over 90% of offenders are convicted of drug related crimes.
Two-thirds are non-violent.
Adrian Cook has hope. "Writing has been therapeutic for me but also could be a means to build a foundation." He has written several manuscripts and needs advice about getting them published, publicized and profitable.
A father, and future ex-offender, Cook has to bootstrap, but he barely has a boot lace to work with. With that in mind I folded his letter, flipped through my research and took down some notes. As I have told many students, "Come, sit, we need to talk."
Getting Yourself Ready
Cook hired another prisoner to edit his manuscripts. This is usually a questionable practice, since few prisoners have a creative writing background. Most do not know what they are doing. Review previous work and get samples from "vendors" before hiring them. Shop around.
Publishers and Author Service Companies have editors. If they like your work, or if you hire them, then you'll get good editing assistance.
Seldom do writers consider how they themselves look on paper. Your biography gets an editor’s attention as quickly as well-written submissions. A good bio shows you are a promotable author.
You can kill two birds with one stone by requesting a free copy of PENs Handbook For Writers In Prison. PEN American Center, 588 Broadway, Suite 303, New York, NY 10012. The book contains tips on style, format, and genres. Study it.
PEN has distributed 20,000 copies since 1971 and offers a Contest and Mentor program.
You should list "qualifiers" like mentorship, contest placement, or other accomplishments in your bio. This will become more important after publication. A compelling bio breathes life into sales copy, social media and publishers’ websites.
"Now" is the time to work on it.
The least expensive route is to submit your typed manuscript to a publisher. Tell them, compellingly, that it is a match for their audience and keep submitting to publishers until one says YES.
Cook writes Urban Literature, with crime, mystery, suspense, and romance but also a message. So ask yourself, "What makes my/your book unique?"
Practice cross-referencing the competition, look for duplication or trends in the market. Develop a one-word pitch that describes the effect your book has on readers: "warmth," "truth," "anarchy," etc., and develop a two or three sentence pitch that sells your story.
Of course you could just be egotistical. One author, William Allen sold his book to Triple Crown with this opening line, "When I write, my pen flows gold onto paper. You would be crazy not to publish this book." That kind of arrogance rarely works. But it shows something important: There really isn't a RIGHT way to sell your book.
Just keep pitching it.
Locate publishers in your market. Nikki Turner Presents, PO BOX 28694, Richmond, VA 23228; www.nikkiturner.com, is an Urban Literature publisher. There are many, many others: G Street Chronicles, RJ Publications, Black Pearl (find more addresses inside books and in the magazines where they are advertised.)
Write them and request their Submission Guidelines. These tell you exactly how to submit your book.
These publishers offer an established catalog of books, authors and readers. If you are published through one, your book will be publicized through their order forms, fliers and word of mouth.
It’s still a good idea to come up with some marketing of your own. Tell them about it. It could help sell it.
Who is your specific audience? Skim magazines that your readers are likely to buy. Essence has 1 million readers. XXL has 100,000.
Don't let these numbers make your head spin. The standard marketing formula for potential buyers is 1%, those are your prospects. You have to reach them with book reviews, new releases, advertisements, and direct mail to convert them into buyers. Selling it to publishers is just the first step.
If you want to be successful in a writing career start getting business-minded. Quick.
Urban Literature publishers will require you to sign a license for ALL RIGHTS to your book. This is oaky for first-time writers, since you will not likely be printing a back-list anytime soon. Since incarceration limits your ability to promote, the typical issues of free copies and author discount purchases aren't really a concern.
Don't TRANSFER the RIGHTS to the publisher. This gives them complete ownership. Remember: licenses only.
In return you don't pay anything. You are partners with the publisher. You receive royalties on sales (10% to 15%) and enjoy the time to write another book. However, there are viable alternatives with just a little investment.
Many authors have had success switching from Urban Literature publishers to self -publishing. They gain exposure through the publishers’ ads and fliers and books and then self-publish their next book, taking their readers with them. Kevin Bullock and Cordell Sims are among the most successful.
Other writers simply want to own 100% of their books, earn 100% of the profit (after the cost of sale, including production, delivery, online book retailers commission – usually 30%) and take on all the risk. They are entrepreneurs. Andre Dupree, Mike Enemigo, and Rhonda Turpin are all successful self-publishers.
From a cell.
Contact prisoner-friendly vendors and request information: Midnight Express Books, PO BOX 69, Berryville, AR, 72616, MEBooks1@yahoo.com; and Freebird Publishers Attn: Book Project Dept., North Dighton, MA, 027764, Diane@freebirdpublishers.com.
There are many, many more.
Expect to pay a thousand dollars and up to get the full package: Book design consultation, ISBN & Barcode, Cover design, editing, Print On Demand & e-book formatting.
Other services are available, but you will need an outside point of contact with Power Of Attorney (POA).
Marketing and Promotion
Publicity and visibility sell books. You will need to make a plan for both whether you are traditionally published or independently published.
Ads, endorsements, reviews, news-releases, direct mail and social media are subjects you need to study as a freelance writer. Start by reviewing ads and articles about competitive books. How & where did you read them? What angle did they use? Why would readers respond to it? Who are the editors, companies and advertising directors that helped them?
Your responsibility is to conduct a cost-benefit analysis. Weigh the cost of promotion options against realistic prospective buyers’ conversion. Are there enough sales to make a profit?
One option is to start reliably updating a blog or social media profile with articles, stories, pictures, poetry, WHATEVER. It has attracted readers for Zachary A. Smith, Razor D. Babb, and a dozens of authors. It takes time, but is an affordable starting position.
Companies like Freebird Publishers offer publicity assistance. They reach about 20,000 prisoners through their publications Inmate Shopper and Corcoran Sun, websites, social media, and quarterly mailings. Authors can choose from the Bronze: $75, Silver: $150 and Gold: $250 packages for one year of co-op promotion.
Adrian Cook shares more in common with other business-minded prisoners than just trying to create value with his time. At thirty-five and a father of five, he has taken a new direction. "It's made a difference," he says.
Hopefully this information stretches that shoe string. As for everyone else, I'll be waiting at mail-call.
Send letters to: Mr O (Att: Tinny) 649 N. Rupple Rd., Fayetteville, AR 72704.
Author: Anthony Tinsman is a PEN award-winning author and the designer of Take a Load Off, an evidence based prisoner re-entry program taught in federal prison. He is an advisory Board Member to the ICBRP (International Board of Recovery Professionals).
He is serving a mandatory minimum 35-year sentence for Armed Bank Robbery. He is a first time offender.
Tinsman's published work includes Hungry Robot, a children's bed-time story. His next book – Book Of Prosper – is a collaboration with Michael Collins and will be available later this year.
Contact Tinny at: 04276-063, FCC PO BOX 3000, Forrest City, AR, 72336.