Saturday, August 30, 2008

Pursue Those Family Stories!

I've been too busy lately to write much about writing (I guess my other blog gets more of my attention), but here are some excerpts from my next column on eGenerations (it won't appear there for a week or so).

I’ve noticed a reluctance among Baby Boomers to write their life stories. Some are too busy living, adding new chapters to their lives, trying to find ways to remain young forever. All that is fine, but as a person who is facing many of the realities of old age now, I predict that many Boomers will get around to writing their life stories eventually. It’s never too early to begin.

It’s never too late, either. How about Mom, Dad, that favorite aunt or uncle or grandparent? You’ve probably heard their stories of growing up in the “old country,” their immigration tales, their stories of military service, love and loss, hardships and successes. You may have been a reluctant listener in your youth, but do you want those stories to die with their tellers? Why not help your older relatives to write or record their stories? As interest in genealogy increases, the younger generations will treasure those stories more.

Many people in their 70’s, 80’s, 90’s, and beyond are still mentally alert, but the idea of writing may be foreign to them. However, oral storytelling is probably not. Get them talking. All you need are patience and a recording device. Try one of the new, small, inexpensive video cameras, or even an old-fashioned tape recorder. Or just listen and write down the stories yourself. Whether in book form, video, or cassette archives, your loved one’s stories can be preserved for the family.

There was a time when many people left their legacies in letters to family and friends. Those letters were often preserved to become their life stories. Few people write real "snail mail" letters these days, and email messages just cannot fill the same functions. Perhaps blogs may, and the number of Elderbloggers is growing.

But meanwhile, you can help. Think of the joys of watching a video of Grandma playing with her grandchildren, or of Grandpa relating his military exploits to family members, complete with audience reactions. Do you want those stories and experiences to be lost? Write or record them before it's too late.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A Fan Letter!

Today, I received a fan letter (via email). It's not necessarily my first, but it's the first so labeled. Here is a quote from it (the author is someone I do not know and have never heard from before):

"I'm 68 and thinking that creative writing is probably an important part of what I'm supposed to do with the rest of my life. I enjoy your friendly and unpretentious example and encouragement, and your interest in fostering a community of senior writers. "

Take the time to express your appreciation for bloggers and writers. Best-selling authors probably don't need it, but the rest of us need occasional encouragement. And thanks to my new fan!

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Wednesday Lunch at the Signature Room: A Rictameter

Lunch views.
Sunshine, high place,
Eating with a friend to
Catch up on our lives while dining.
Salmon, wine, delicious. Happy time with
Conversation, scenery. Worth
Forty-five dollars? Yes,
To splurge, enjoy
Lunch views.

Copyright 2008 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Encouraging Unknown Authors

Melissa Hart, in the October Writer's Digest, quotes some of Maryland psychologist Dr. Rochna D. Jain's advice to writers: "Make a 'success notebook' of positive things people have said about [your] writing, and read it when [you're] down."

The purpose of Hart's article "Surviving the Spite" is to advise authors about handling negative criticism. Although this has not been a problem for me, the above statement by Dr. Jain got me thinking about "positive things people have said." While I don't have a success notebook, I occasionally mention positive reviews and quote comments made about my various books, stories, blog posts, and columns here and on "Never too Late!" Jain's statement seems to justify and support my request for responses to my writing and that of others.

As I've said before, when you appreciate a book, story, or blog post by a virtually unknown author, please comment. It's a good way to encourage more writing that you'll enjoy.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

A Matter of Choices: In Defense of Self-Publishing, Part II

The term “self-publishing” means different things to different people. Because it’s a negative word in some circles, many try to redefine the term to make it sound more positive. For example, my own POD publisher, Infinity, prefers “Author-initiated Publishing.” Here are a few definitions from Wikipedia (http:/ You’ll note that some of these definitions overlap; it’s a matter of semantics.

True Self-publishing

“True self-publishing means authors undertake the entire cost of publication themselves and handle all marketing, distribution, storage, etc. All rights remain with the author, the completed books are the writer’s property, and the writer gets all the proceeds of sales. Self-publishing can be more cost-effective than vanity or subsidy publishing and can result in a much higher-quality product because authors can put every aspect of the process out to bid rather than accepting a preset package of services.”

Comment: I suppose this is the way to go for true entrepreneurs, but it’s not for me. It essentially involves forming your own “publishing company” (does that fool many into thinking your book is traditionally published?) and understanding all the procedures involved, including seeking bids. It also generally involves ordering huge numbers of copies to get a good per-unit price, and if the book does not sell, it seems to me that the losses could be huge. And where would one store all those unsold books? I’m sure this works for some, but frankly, I’m too old and comfortable to “go for broke” this way. Besides, I lack business sense.

Vanity Publishers

This is a pejorative term rarely used these days. It used to be the only alternative to traditional publishing, with appeals to the writer’s vanity and desire to become a published author. Vanity publishers make most of their money from fees rather than sales. The author pays all the costs and bears all the risk. This is a method best known for producing basements full of poor-quality unsold books. There may be a touch of vanity in all self-published authors, but this is a term to avoid.

Subsidy Publishers

These publishers claim to be more selective, but they take payment from the author to print and bind a book. They may contribute a portion of the cost, as well as services such as editing, distribution, warehousing, and some limited degree of marketing—or they may not. They generally retain all or most rights to the book, and authors have little control of production aspects such as cover design. If the book sells, the author receives royalties, but if it doesn’t, it soon disappears from the market. It no longer belongs to the author, so he/she can’t try to sell it elsewhere. Vantage Press claims in its recent ads to be the “largest subsidy publisher in the field.”

POD (Print-on-Demand) Publishers

The computer age has created small-batch printing at reasonable cost. No longer does an author need to order and store vast quantities of books, although a few still do. Once “in the system,” one or more copies can be printed and delivered to the buyer very quickly. A majority of such publishers use Lightning Source for printing and Ingram for distribution, but a few, like Infinity, do it all in-house. Infinity generally keeps a stock of about ten copies, and prints and ships more as needed. Such books often used to be low-quality and easily identifiable, but that’s no longer true. Infinity books look beautiful. POD publishing has come a long way.

POD publishers differ in their offerings. Most allow authors to retain the rights to their work; a few don’t. Most offer various packages of services such as cover design, proofreading, content and/or copy-editing, and indexing, but like most traditional publishers these days, they do little marketing or publicity unless you’re a known author. Most offer ISBN numbers and availability at their own web sites and others such as and Barnes and POD books are unlikely to be stocked by book stores, but most can be ordered there. POD publishing costs vary widely according to company and the number of services you order. Books are usually published within a few weeks, not the years required by some traditional publishers.

A subdivision of POD publishing is on-line publishing. Some standard POD publishers allow uploading of books via computer, but companies like and accept uploads and can deliver printed proof copies in a few days. For the ultimate do-it-yourselfer who is really impatient, this may be the way to go. I used Lulu for both my family tribute to my late mother, Remembering Violet (for family only) and for Elder Expectations, which has an ISBN number and is listed with my other books on and elsewhere. For Remembering Violet, I designed the cover myself; for Elder Expectations, I used one of the Lulu stock designs, with a few color changes of my own. Both look beautiful. I was happy with Lulu; there is a good help line that brings live on-line answers if you need them, and everything is spelled out. This seems the least expensive way to go for very small quantities of books needed quickly and not intended for sale, or books with especially low sales potential. In fact, for the computer-literate beginning author on a tight budget, I highly recommend Lulu.

With any of these publishing methods, marketing is up to you. There are many books available on the subject, including John Kremer’s vast 1001 Ways to Market Your Books. Good marketing takes time and effort; I admit I’ve not done much of it, but it can be done.

Don’t let this vast number of publishing choices deter you. If you have something to say, either to the world or just to your family, go for it. For me, at least, most of the satisfaction is in the writing. Strive for success on your own terms, whatever they are.

Here are some of the more popular POD publishers, most found in ads in the latest issue of Writer’s Digest: Most offer free publishing guides.

Trafford (
Author House (
Bookstand Publishing (
Outskirts Press (
iUniverse (
Infinity (

Here is my basic advice: ask yourself the following questions, and then check out the various publishing companies.

1. Who is your intended audience? Family and friends? The general public? A certain group?
2. What services will you need? Copy editing? Content editing? Cover design? Formatting aid? Word processing assistance? Others?
3. How many copies do you want or need?
4. Do you want an ISBN number for online searchability and listing on and other web sites?
5. Are you in a hurry for your book?
6. How much time and money are you willing and able to spend?

Ask other self-published authors about their experiences. Check ads and web sites. And most important of all, always read the fine print!

Please feel free to share your own self-publishing experiences, good or bad. Email me (my email address appears in my complete profile here) to be a guest blogger.

Copyright 2008 by Marlys Marshall Styne
Photo: Remembering Violet with self-designed cover, published by Not for general public sale, but contact me if interested.

Friday, August 15, 2008

Amazon Rankings: What Do They Mean?

If you have books or anything else listed on, and have a profile page on their site, it's easy to discover at a glance how your products are selling--or it it? Sales rankings appear on individual product pages for books, too. However, the short answer to my title question is, "I don't know."

I'm quite aware that my writings are not best sellers, nor did I ever expect them to be. I also know that some book marketing gurus advise a technique that involves sending emails to hundreds or even thousands of people, offering them some premium if they will all order your book from Amazon on the same day. That's the secret of a top ranking--at least for one day. I've never tried that, nor am I likely to do so, but I sometimes check my rankings just for fun.

I'm used to finding rankings in the million-plus category (that means that millions of books are selling better than mine), and that's not a surprise. Occasionally, though, I find a surprising result. My book Seniorwriting occasionally hits a rank of around fifty among continuing education books, but I don't know the total number in that Amazon category. Anyway, it usually sinks to below 100 soon enough.

The most surprising ranking so far has been for my Amazon Short, "Marie's Story." Amazon Shorts are those short works, fiction and non-fiction, that can be downloaded for $0.49. The program has not been accepting new works for months now, but when they were, toward the end of 2007, I decided to submit two stories, "Marie's Story" and "Volunteer," just to see if they would be accepted. I'm not really a short story (fiction) writer, but I try it occasionally. To my surprise, both were accepted, and they appeared on the site early this year.

Now to the recent surprise: last night, I discovered that "Marie's Story" ranked 7 out of 155 in the Literature and Fiction/ Women's Fiction category, and 28 out of 1,952 in the Literature and Fiction category as a whole. I'm sure it won't remain there long, but the ranking leaves me with questions. Does this mean that suddenly one person downloaded the story, or that it was suddenly recognized by many? Since I make only a nickel or a dime on each download, I won't get rich either way. But my question still remains: what do these rankings really mean, and do they matter?

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

More Kind Words about "Reinventing Myself"

Another blogging friend, Barbara J. Kirby Davis of The Serenity Room, has reviewed my first book, Reinventing Myself: Memoirs of a Retired Professor. Here's an excerpt:

"I've just finished reading Reinventing Myself, Memoirs of a Retired Professor by Marlys Marshall Styne and LOVED IT!!! Her book was a pleasant surprise--filled with honest accounts of a life well-lived.

"This strong, talented lady writes about her struggles and joys, her trips all over the world and life as a resident of Chicago. What an exciting life she has lived! I am usually reading four or five books (all in various stages of completion), but when I began reading this one, I couldn't put it down until it was finished."

It's wonderful to learn that someone has read my book and loved it! Now if only the rest of the world would discover it. Thanks, Barbara.

Check out Barbara's blog at

Prejudices, Choices, and Opportunities: In Defense of Self-publishing, Part I

I am quite aware that my use of self- and print-on-demand publishing for all of my books makes them suspect. In my former academic mileau, authors got no respect unless their books were published and promoted by big-name publishing companies. There seemed to be a belief that published authors received huge cash advances and made tons of money. I suspect that those attitudes are still fairly common.

For some famous authors and celebrities (think Stephen King, J.K. Rowling, Barbara Walters, etc.) all that is true. But for the lesser-known, the picture is quite different. I've heard and read sad tales of multi-year, sometimes multi-decade struggles to find agents and/or publishers. I applaud eventual success, but it doesn't seem to happen very often. More often, the struggling author just relegates his or her manuscript(s) to a file cabinet or trash bin and gives up.

You may say that failure to find an agent or publisher means that the writer and/or the book is no good. That's certainly true of some, but I've read and reviewed enough virtually unknown books to realize that some self-published books are wonderful. It's mostly about money. Agents and publishers may love a book, but if it lacks commercial potential, they won't touch it.

As a true believer in the non-monetary rewards of writing (not that I'd mind selling a few more books), I welcome the opportunities brought by computers and the expanding self-publishing industry. Today, anyone with computer skills or the means to hire someone who has them can produce and publish a book quickly and inexpensively. The choices are many, and the costs vary widely.

I'll present more details later, but in the meantime, try to rethink your prejudices about self-publishing. For the record, I never tried to find an agent or a publisher for my books. I am a practical and realistic person. To quote fellow Chicago-area author Helen Gallagher in her book Release Your Writing, “Attract a publisher if you can, but if not, don’t wait your life away . . . Self-publishing is not settling for second best. It’s the right choice if your book won’t likely capture the attention of a large publisher and you don’t want to spend years waiting to see your book in print.”

Copyright 2008 by Marlys Marshall Styne
Photo: Cover design and publishing by Infinity

Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Cubs Win: A Rictameter

Cubs Win

Ball game:
Cubs and Astros,
Lovely day at Wrigley.
At home, I watch TV at ease,
See, hear the young enjoying life. Alas,
No ballpark days for me this year,
Yet I can still enjoy
While Cubs win the
Ball game!

Copyright 2008 by Marlys Marshall Styne

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Gracious Words of Praise for One of My Books!

I received a day-brightening email from my blogging friend Lydia, of Writerquake (, today. I was elated that she had read Reinventing Myself and taken the time to write me about it. There's a message here: When you are impressed by a book, especially one by an unknown writer, contact the writer and let him or her know! Everyone appreciates recognition.

I assure you that Lydia is not a relative, nor have I ever met her in person, so I believe in her sincerity. Here is what she wrote:

"Dear Marlys,

"I finished Reinventing Myself in the early morning hours last Thursday. What an enjoyable book! It makes me sad that you say it hasn’t been widely read because people are missing out on reading an exciting travel adventure, a real love story, a condensed but highly interesting autobiography, the wisdom of a professor, a frank discussion of aging – especially concerning a woman alone – and a frank but vulnerable glance from a breast cancer survivor. They are missing out on picturesque descriptions of condos and classrooms, a neighborhood bar and long thoughtful walks, quirky cats and the value of poetry and writing, tours on every continent, and the expectations for a final residence, where, any careful reader would assume, a framed needlepoint picture of Anne Hathaway’s Cottage will make it home.

"Can you tell that I was touched by your dear book? I hope so. I’ve written about it to my blogging friend, Francessa, who is a teacher in Vienna and with whom I regularly email. She is intrigued and mentioned that she thinks she will buy Reinventing Myself. (She’s in my blogroll under Francessa’s Thinking) She now refers to “when you visit me…” in her messages, and, honestly, I would have in the past completely pooh-poohed the idea. However, where I’ve only visited Mexico and Canada outside of the U.S., and travel simply is not in the budget right now, I read her words with a different feeling after having read your book! I think to myself: it is possible, not impossible. Who knows? I must thank you for my newfound optimism in this regard.

"I’m so glad you decided to write your memoirs.

"Kind wishes.