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How to Get a Book Deal

Anne and Marie
Marie Sutton and Anne Riley

Skittles, Red Bull and Kanye West’s College Dropout — those are the things that helped Marie Sutton write a book in seven months.

On Saturday, Feb. 21 See Jane Write hosted the workshop How to Get a Book Deal with local authors Marie Sutton and Anne Riley.

Marie Sutton is the author of The A.G. Gaston Motel in Birmingham: A Civil Rights Landmark, which was published November 2014 by The History Press. Anne Riley is the author of the young adult novel Shadows of the Hidden, published December 2012 by Compass Press.

Marie and Anne helped workshop attendees craft a rough draft of a pitch letter to sell their book idea to literary agents and publishers.

Before putting participants to work, Marie and Anne shared the stories of how they landed their book deals, gave tips on how to bring a book idea to life, and discussed the good, the bad, and the ugly about publishing.

marie teaching

Before committing to writing a book there are some important questions you need to ask yourself, Marie said: Why do you want to write a book? What are you willing to sacrifice? Can you be disciplined enough to complete the task? Do you have a support system? Can you write? 

For folks who want to write a book but aren’t sure what they want to write about, Anne said simply consider what you like to read.

Marie and Anne are both wives and mothers and they work full-time. So finding time and space to write wasn’t easy for either of them, but they did it anyway. Marie would “get in the zone” around 9 p.m. each night. She’d sit at her dining room table and write while listening to Kanye West, snacking on Skittles and sipping on Red Bull. She even had a comfortable outfit she’d wear that she called her writing uniform.

Anne finds it impossible to write at home — distracted by laundry, dishes, etc. — and prefers to work in a coffee shop or library instead.

Anne stressed the importance of perseverance. She revised her last novel two dozen times! It’s OK if your first draft is terrible. It probably will be. “Dare to suck,” Anne said, causing the crowd to burst into laughter. To be a good writer you must also let go of your pride. Get people to critique your work and welcome criticism. It’s the only way you’ll get better.

If you decide you want to go the route of self-publishing, beware that to successfully sale your book you will have to make marketing your full-time job, said Anne, who self-published her first novel before it was later acquired by a small press. Anne had a lot going on when she was trying to promote her book. “I was giving birth and self-publishing at the same time,” she said with a laugh.

Whether you have a book deal or not, you still need to promote yourself. A few simple things you can do to promote your book include: Get a Facebook page for your book and use other social media like Twitter, get business cards, tell EVERYONE about your book, establish new relationships with people who could help promote your book and work the relationships you already have.

The Perfect Pitch

janes at work

When crafting your pitch letter, particularly for a non-fiction book, consider the following:

  1. What is the working title of your book?
  2. Write a one-line description of your book.
  3. Who is the book’s primary reader? Who is this book for?
  4. Why do readers need this book? What void does it fill? For non-fiction writers, consider the mission of your book. For fiction writers, consider how your story is unique. Are there other books on this topic (for non-fiction) or other books that tell a similar story (for fiction)? If so, why is your book different? If not, is there a need or desire for this book?
  5. Why are you the right person to write this book?
  6. Do you have enough to write a whole book? Would this be better as an essay, blog post, or short story?
  7. List the chapters of your book.
  8. What will be your book’s word count?
  9. What sources do you need for this book? Do you have access to information about this topic or to resources you need to flesh out your story?
  10. Do you have access to built-in audiences? If so, who? Be specific.

Anne teaching

For fiction query letters, Anne offered the following tips:

1. Don’t simply send a form letter. Start by explaining specifically why you chose to query this particular agent. Did something you read online attract you to this agent? Do you know someone who works with this agent?

2. Next offer essential information such as your book’s title, genre, and word count.

3. Then offer a summary of your book’s plot. Include setting, conflict and an introduction of your main characters. You want to be very interesting and intriguing here. If the agent isn’t hooked here, your query is toast, Anne said.

4. Include information about yourself. Offer anything interesting and relevant. Anne said you should leave out generic things like “I’ve been writing since I could hold a pencil” or “I’ve always known I wanted to be a writer.” Explain why you stand out from other writers. What makes you special?

5. Close your letter with any information the agent needs to know (such as if other agents are reading your manuscript) and a quick thank you.

Remember, Anne said, agents will judge your writing ability by the strength of your letter. After all, if you can’t write a good letter, why would anyone think you could write a book.

How to Fail at Self-Publishing (and How to Succeed)

Carrie Rollwagen

One day I’m going to write a book and when I do I hope I can somehow channel the wit and wisdom of Carrie Rollwagen. Carrie is the author of The Localist, a book about why small shops matter and her quest to only shop from local stores for one year. But you probably already knew that because since Carrie’s book was released in November she has been everywhere! Not only has she had book signings at places like Naked Art Gallery and Little Professor Book Store, but she’s been on radio stations like 100.1 FM and television shows like Talk of Alabama to discuss her book. She did a live chat on and even hosted a gift tag and calligraphy bar party around the holidays! But I shouldn’t be surprised that she’s so good at promoting her book. She was just as great at promoting her Kickstarter campaign through which she raised much of the funds needed to self-publish The Localist.

And to think this all started with a blog! Yes, that’s right; Carrie first chronicled her shop small experiment through blogging. Now she’s transformed her blog idea into a book idea and is showing us all how to self-publish and self-promote the right way.

Photo by Jamie Golden

On Tuesday, Jan. 20 at The Nest, Carrie led a talk on self-publishing for about two dozen women as part of the See Jane Write event From Blog to Book with Carrie Rollwagen. During her talk I kept thinking about how, unfortunately, so many self-published authors do the complete opposite of what Carrie was saying, which might explain why so many self-published authors fail at selling their books and building a fan base.

So here’s what NOT to do:

1. Simply copy and paste your blog into a Word file and call it a manuscript. While Carrie’s book was inspired by her blog, she didn’t simply compile her posts and ship them to her printer. “Your blog can act as a focus group,” she said. It will help you determine the topics your fans care about most.

Carrie says she read through her blog and made a list of all the themes of her posts and arranged them into categories and those categories became chapters.

Even though her book is non-fiction, she still wrote her chapters in the form of a narrative. “Story is powerful,” she said.

Carrie Talk
Leading a workshop for a group like See Jane Write is a great way to promote your book!

2. Don’t bother rewriting your work or hiring an editor. Carrie wrote the first draft of her book in only a month. But she spent about a year rewriting it. “Writing is rewriting,” she said. “You need a good editor.” As for choosing the right editor, be sure you pick someone who actually has the time to edit your book and someone with an editing style that works for you. For example, if you want someone who’s not going to simply line edit your work but will ask questions about concepts and composition, find someone who will do just that.

3. Be really, really boring. When marketing your book you must be creative. This means just say no to boring book signings. “Create events that are interesting and newsworthy,” Carrie said. “If you’re doing events there needs to be something more than you just sitting at a table of books.” That’s why Carrie hosted events like a gift tag and calligraphy bar party and a local business holiday fair. Carrie also used her Kickstarter campaign to generate excitement for her book.

4. Be pushy with booksellers. As a self-published author it will be tough to get your book in stores, but it’s not impossible — unless you’re a jerk. Be mindful of the financial risk it takes for an independent bookstore to carry your work and be as easy to work with as possible. One tip Carrie offered was giving a bookseller a free copy of your book to put on shelves. If the book sells most likely the owner of the store will want to sell more and thus work out a distribution deal. Side note: if you don’t want to end up with thousands of copies of your book sitting in your basement, work with a printer who offers a print-on-demand option.

Carrie on TOA
Carrie on Talk of Alabama

5. Be elusive and mysterious with the press and ignore social media. If you want your book featured in local media make it easy for reporters to cover your events! Send out well-written, informative press releases.  On your blog include your author bio, a list of important facts about you and your book, and hi-res images that the media can use.

Also, Carrie said, “Feed the social media beast.” Create a hashtag for your book and use it! Instagram is a good way to get people excited about your brand (yes, as an author you are a brand) and Twitter is great for reaching industry influencers.

Have you self-published a book? What did you learn from your experience? 

The Birmingham Jane: Carrie Rollwagen


bham jane nail art
Carrie Rollwagen is representing for the Birmingham Janes! Contribute to her Kickstarter campaign and she’ll represent for your blog or business too. She’s also offering a nail art workshop as a reward.

What would you do if you weren’t afraid?

I have a long list of answers to this question: do a one-year blogging challenge, write and publish a book, strive to run a profitable small business, launch a Kickstarter campaign. But my list could be summed up with one statement: Be Carrie Rollwagen.

Rollwagen is a small business owner, a prolific blogger, a social media guru and much more. She also has the cutest nails in town. And now she’s about to add something else to her resume — published author.

Rollwagen, co-owner of Church Street Coffee and Books and the writer behind the Shop Small blog, is now about to publish The Localist, a book that’s all about shopping locally. Rollwagen decided to self-publish the book and recently launched a Kickstarter campaign to help fund her project. She reached her fundraising goal in less than a month!

I had a chat with Rollwagen recently — at a locally owned coffee shop, of course — about her book project and her secrets to success.

Becoming a Localist

Carrie Rollwagen

Rollwagen’s interest in local shopping began when she managed a small book store in Mountain Brook. She believed that the camaraderie she experienced at that store was unique to locally-owned shops. But then she worked at Starbucks and found the same sense of community there as well. Rollwagen, a former full-time journalist, wanted to investigate.

“I’m a frustrated journalist,” she says.

And so in 2011 she challenged herself to only buy from locally-owned stores for one year. She launched the blog Shop Small to chronicle her adventure.

Rollwagen admits that she thought her “Shop Small” challenge would be extremely difficult and extremely expensive.

She was wrong.

“I spent far less money that year than I usually do,” Rollwagen says.

She explained that when you shop small there’s less of a chance for impulse buying. There are very few, if any, displays set up in locally owned shops to entice you to purchase things that aren’t on your shopping list. Furthermore, because local shops weren’t as easy to get to as big box stores, Rollwagen would often talk herself out of buying things. And she wasn’t eating any fast food.

Finding stores at which to shop was easier than she expected. She often found what she needed simply by asking friends or doing a quick Google search. Rollwagen was even able to go to the movies thanks to the Birmingham-based theater The Edge opening that year.

What was Rollwagen’s conclusion after this year of shopping small?

“Local is almost always better,” she says.

Rollwagen is a localist, but she’s also a realist and she makes no claims that small business owners are somehow better people than the owners of big box stores.

“It is in the financial interest of a small business owner to be a nice person,” she says. “Small shop owners have a better incentive to treat people well and build community.”

If you have a bad experience at Target most likely you’re going to go back to Target nonetheless and even if you don’t chances are the Target employee you had a bad interaction with doesn’t care. Small shop owners know that it’s good customer service and a sense of community and camaraderie that will bring you back.

While Rollwagen doesn’t recommend that other people take on her extreme shop small challenge, she does stress that we should all buy local as often as we can as this is a great way to improve your community.

As Rollwagen explains in her Kickstarter campaign video, for every $10 spent at locally owned stores four to seven dollars goes back into your community. When you shop corporately only three dollars, at the most, goes back into your city.

Think of the local place first, she says. Amazon doesn’t pay taxes in your state.

Deciding to Self-Publish

DIY Publishing

Rollwagen admits that she hasn’t been a fan of self-publishing in the past — and for good reason. As many avid readers know, a book needs good editing, good design and a good marketing campaign to be successful. Most self-published authors don’t have all these skills or the resources to hire someone who does.

But Rollwagen’s book is centered on Birmingham and she thought a book a that was this, well, “localist” wouldn’t appeal to traditional publishers.

“Just because it doesn’t have a national market doesn’t mean it shouldn’t exist,” she says.

Rollwagen’s Shop Small blog was quite successful thanks to her fresh, informative content and effective social media marketing. But she knew she had more to say.

“I wanted to tell this story in a new way,” she says.

So she decided to write a book and self-publish it.

The book is part memoir, focusing on her life as a localist and even offering a few tips on how people can shift their own shopping habits to support small businesses more often.

The book is also a study of buying patterns — why you like big box stores, why they’re not all bad, and the effects of our shopping on us as individuals and on our communities.

The book also offers a behind-the-scenes look into Church Street Coffee and Books.

To ensure that her self-published book would be of high quality, Rollwagen launched her Kickstarter campaign to raise funds to hire an editor and designer.

How to Rock Your Kickstarter Campaign

Rollwagen reached her fundraising goal of $5,000 in less than a month. Now she’s working on her stretch goal. She’s hoping to raise an additional $3,000 so she can go on a book tour to spread the localist gospel to other towns.

Rollwagen offered these tips on how to run a successful Kickstarter campaign:

  • Apply the tips that Kickstarter gives you and look at projects similar to yours for promotion ideas.
  • Produce a great video and in it be sure to convince people that your project is something that you can actually do. Also, explain exactly how you plan to use the money.
  • Have enticing and creative rewards and be sure to include their cost in your project budget. One of Rollwagen’s rewards was nail art! For a donation of $10 or more, Rollwagen would decorate her nails with the name of your company. Nail art was a perfect way for Rollwagen to help promote her project because whenever someone would say “Oh, I like your nails!” she could strike up a conversation about her Kickstarter campaign.
  • But these conversations could only happen if she was out and about. So Rollwagen’s other piece of advice is to be sure to network during your campaign. And carry business cards that include a URL for your campaign.


The Birmingham Jane is a See Jane Write series of profiles on women in Birmingham who are making a difference in our city. If you know of a woman who is making a difference in Birmingham please send your nominations to And don’t be ashamed to nominate yourself!

Liza Elliott of Red Camel Press

Sponsor Spotlight: Red Camel Press

Liza Elliott 1
Liza Elliott of Red Camel Press
You could say that author Liza Elliott thinks like a rock star.
“Just like a musician can set up their own production company to write, produce, and sell their music, I thought, why not authors,” Elliott says. And two years ago she started Red Camel Press, a small publishing house based in Birmingham, Ala.
“Movie stars set up their own production companies to write, direct, and star in, too,” Elliot says. “Since the technology has developed where writers can use print-on-demand printing and/or  electronic book formats, it seemed worth a try.”
Elliott says she had already had a positive experience being published by an independent press, HOPE Publishing House, and this further encouraged her to start Red Camel Press.
“Working with a small press means there are less layers of bureaucracy,” Elliott says.  “The writer works with one or two persons at most and all contracts and details are done via email and is very straightforward.”
The first book published by Red Camel Press was Elliott’s mystery novel, 30-A Supper Club.  “This was the book Red Camel Press used to learn the trade,” she says.
The second was a coffee table book by John Lonergan, an artist from Pell City, Ala.  John Lonergan Painter is biographical and features images of Lonergan’s paintings. This fall Red Camel Press will publish a cookbook that coincides with 30-A Supper Club.
Red Camel Press has plans to publish a number of other titles in the future including works of fiction, non-fiction, and more picture books.
Red Camel Press is not a vanity press.  Authors must send queries and Elliott makes it clear that only works with excellent writing, good character development, and interesting plots are considered.
“Because it is so small, very few books are selected because there has to be a ready market for the story,” Elliott explains.  “For a writer whose work is chosen, in addition to publication, they will get a press packet in electronic format they can use for marketing and an initial press release to relevant media.”
Writers working with Red Camel Press will be responsible for doing the bulk of their own marketing, but Elliott says that’s the case with nearly any publishing company.
“Large publishing companies do very little marketing of books of new authors. They concentrate on their big, best selling authors, or celebrity authors,” she says.  “Small presses simply don’t have the budget to do marketing. So authors must engage in this. The only way to sell books is to do marketing.”

Visit to learn more.

Liza Elliott to host mixer for local bloggers, authors, and poets

Birmingham-based author Liza Elliott

If you’re a blogger, author, or poet you need to be at Little Professor Book Center on Sunday at 1:45 p.m. Birmingham-based author Liza Elliott is hosting a B.A.P. (Bloggers Authors and Poets) Mixer for local writers. This event is a great chance to meet other Birmingham-area literary artists. 

Elliott is the author of 30-A Supper Club (Red Camel Press), which follows sociologist Harley McBride on her quest to identify a gold coin she finds on a Florida beach near County Road 30-A. McBride’s search leads her into a murky world where her longtime friends and members of the 30-A Supper Club protect deep family secrets dating back to the Civil War. A complicated pursuit of the true meaning of the coin begins drawing Harley into secrets about illicit affairs, murders, and more.

Read on to get to know Elliott and be sure to come out to Little Professor on Sunday. 

30-A Supper Club seems very different from books you’ve written in the past. What was the inspiration for this novel?

The beach.  On my first trip to Cape Cod when I was a child, I fell in love with the sand and water, the thrill of digging out a partially hidden shell, and the ever-changing sound of the sea, from big waves to gentle slaps on the shore. 

A few years ago, I was strolling along the beach in Seagrove Beach, Fl, and thought, “What if I discovered a gold coin in the sand?  How did it get there?  What if it was old?” Then, I began to imagine the theme of the book. What if identifying the coin led to lost Confederate gold? By the end of my walk, I had the plot.

Tell me about your writing process. Do you write daily? Do you write in a certain place or at a certain time of the day? What do you use to keep yourself inspired?

I write everyday in my home office and prefer the early morning.  In the afternoon, I critique my draft, make notes, and problem solve story dilemmas.  

All my characters have bios, which I hand-write on an index card.  These have details such as hair and eye color, where they went to school or college, their occupations, their hometowns and favorite music, sports teams or movies — in short, a brief back story. I tack them on a bulletin board, which hangs over my desk.

As for what inspires me, it is people, their stories and the contexts of their lives.  How persons individually, in a community, or in a society, interact alone and together under a variety of circumstances presents endless story possibilities.  The true ones are often more fantastic than any made up story. So I listen to or read about people with stories of good times, bad times, heroism, or foolishness.  Mix it all up and voilá — a story.

Why did you decide to publish 30-A Supper Club with a small press?

Small presses take risks.  That is their strength.  They give new writers a chance to showcase works that might be a potential mass audience blockbuster, but more often are smaller niche market books.  In addition to working with the writer to produce the best manuscript possible, a small press will handle the details of the cover, the ISBN, and so forth.
What are your thoughts on self-publishing? 
Self-publishing, to me, is no different than a musician setting up his or her own label and producing their own albums, CDs, and singles.  Many A-list actors set up their own production companies to write, star, and direct.  Each succeeds on the basis of the quality of the work and their efforts.  Technology and the Internet has made this possible for writers.  Writers should explore all options and decide what is best for them. 

The B.A.P. Mixer is a great networking opportunity. Why do you think it’s so important for writers to meet and build relationships with other writers?
It is always good to see what is going on in one’s field.  The energy from discussions of all sorts of topics can inspire and motivate those who participate.  Writers can exchange thoughts on new styles of writing, the future of ebooks, and so forth.  Being part of a community of writers reduces the sense of isolation writers sometimes feel.  Writing is solitary work.  Knowing you can call another writer for input, problem solving, or just to vent about something is valuable.
Liza Elliott will host a mixer for bloggers, authors, and poets
Sunday at Little Professor Book Centers in Homewood.
Do you think Birmingham is a good city for writers? 

A writer can be anywhere and write about anyone or anything. That said, Birmingham is a good city for writers.  It has a complicated rich history that can be mined for great stories.  

Birmingham still has bookstores, from the big chains to important independent bookstores with loyal customers and supporters. Professional recognition and support between local writers and local bookstores can be a match made in heaven.

Birmingham also has a terrific literary magazine, the Birmingham Arts Journal, edited by author Jim Reed.  He is the godfather of writers around here and is a longtime leader in the Alabama Writers Conclave. 

The Birmingham branch of the National League of American Pen Women, of which I am a member, is a longstanding organization of women writers, artists and musicians where collaboration, exchange and support has existed for many years.  Its national scope and activities helps local writers reach a national audience.

With coffee shops to suit your every mood, universities, sports fields, museums, concert halls, small club venues for music, theatres for plays and dance, there is no shortage of settings, people, and activities, here, that can inspire a writer from non-fiction to fantasy, and everything in between.

Join Liza Elliott for The B.A.P. Mixer Sunday, May 19 from 1:45 to 3 p.m.  at Little Professor Book Center, 2717 18th St. South in Homewood. A light brunch will be served. 

A Recap of Our Latest Event, I Wrote a Book…Now What?

Our Amazing Panelists:
Irene Latham, Kathryn C. Lang and TK Thorne

Another See Jane Write event is in the books! Last night’s panel discussion I Wrote a Book…Now What? was a huge success with more than 50 people in attendance. Irene Latham, Kathryn C. Lang, and Teresa (T.K.) Thorne were amazing panelists and I can’t thank Stephanie Naman enough for being such a great moderator.

Thanks to Christina J. Wade for tweeting this picture.
She was ready to take notes!


Things went so smoothly. The hardest part of the night was trying to tweet out and take note of  all the words of wisdom our panelists and moderator were sharing about the publishing industry. I learned so much.

The question that seemed to be on the minds of many attendees was if they should self-publish or go the traditional publishing route. Lang stressed that this was a question you’d really have to answer for yourself based on what you really want out of your writing career.

One of the advantages of going the traditional publishing route is greater distribution and more opportunities to get your book reviewed. Also, with a traditional publishing house you will receive help with marketing. Even if you have a book deal with a major publisher, however, Latham advises doing your own marketing in addition to what your publisher provides for you. For example, when she published her children’s book Leaving Gee’s Bend with Putnam/Penguin in 2010, she took it upon herself to arrange school visits to help market her book.

“I wanted to give my book the best shot it could get,” Latham said.


Being the English teacher that I am, as I listened to last night’s panel discussion I found myself searching for a theme and I didn’t have to search for long. The thing that kept coming up was the importance of building relationships.

If you are publishing the traditional way, one important relationship will be that with your literary agent.

To find a good agent the panelists suggested attending genre specific conferences. You should also check websites like for reviews on agents. Lang says if a literary agent asks you for payment upfront, run! Typically, the arrangement is the agent receives 15 percent of they sell for you. 

Additionally, if you read a book that’s similar to yours check the acknowledgements as writers often thank their agents. Find the agent and send him or her a query letter.

Speaking of which, Thorne stressed the importance of mastering the query (and gave me an idea for a future See Jane Write workshop) and the importance of having a tough skin in this business. You’re going to get rejected (by agents, publishers, etc.). Accept it. 
Your relationship with your literary agent is a serious one. “It’s like a marriage,” Latham said. An agent, for example, can serve as a mediator between you and your editor.
“And my agent can talk me off the ledge when I’m freaking out,” Latham said.
Nonetheless, it is still a business. Remember you hired your agent.
Moderator Stephanie Naman had plenty of wisdom to share too!

By a show of hands, most of the people in the audience last night were interested in self-publishing. There was a time when self-publishing was looked down upon in the writing world, but Naman said that’s changing. For example, self-publishing is now a huge topic at writing conferences, she added.

Nonetheless, quality is still important. Even if you’re not seeking a traditional publishing deal you still need to present your best work. Attend writing conferences and join a critique group, Thorne recommended. Get an editor and a professional graphic designer to help with your cover, Naman added.

Having a good marketing plan is essential for writers who want to self-publish. And the key to successful marketing is, you guessed it, building relationships. 

Thorne, who has found much success with email distribution lists, said having an online presence is important but reminded us not to be a pest. She said she understands how excited you’ll feel after your book is in print. “I had to resist stopping strangers on the street when Noah’s Wife was published,” she said.  
Of course, you also need a website or blog and using social media is a great idea too but don’t post about your book every three minutes on Facebook, Lang said. 
Naman recommended that authors use methods that work best for them; stick to things you’re good at. For example, Naman is not a fan of book signings. Instead she loves blogging and networking on Twitter and thus has used those platforms instead to promote her book Murder on the First Day of Christmas
When marketing remember to focus on how you can help people. This will help you build relationships and make people really care about the success of your projects. So instead of your emails and blog posts simply being about you and your work, use these tools to share valuable information (such as writing, publishing, or networking tips) with your followers. 
Marketing will be a lot of work, but don’t stop writing to focus solely on marketing. The more you write the more connections you’ll make. And the money you make from your first book can help you produce and promote your next one. 
“The key to a successful writing career,” Lang said, “is to keep writing.” 

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