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Aspiring Fiction Writer Turns Into Published Author with Print On Demand Technology

Xerox Digital Print and Lulu.com sponsor "Aspiring Authors" contest
At a September event in Chicago, Xerox Corporation announced Tenure Track to Mommyville, by Barbara Grosh of Pittsford, N.Y., as winner of the 2005 Aspiring Authors Contest. Esteemed book critics Maureen Corrigan of National Public Radio and Emily Chenoweth of Publishers Weekly selected Grosh from more than 250 entries from across the country. Judging based on eight criteria: creativity of plot, character development, innovative use of language, distinctiveness of voice, control of tone, consistency of theme, grammar and acceptability for mainstream audience.

Each in the contest entrant received a bound, paperback version of his or her book, underscoring a key benefit of on-demand book-publishing technology -- the ability to cost-effectively print quantities as few as one. Nearly 100,000 pages of previously unpublished fiction were printed in the course of the contest.

Personal publishing and short-run production of books aimed at specialized target audiences are among the fastest-growing parts of the book publishing market, according to Frank Romano, a printing industry expert and professor emeritus at Rochester Institute of Technology. "Approximately 30 percent of book titles are now printed in quantities less than 100, and that could reach 50 percent by 2010," Romano points out.

Grosh said she hopes her winning book will inspire other authors to fulfill their literary dreams. She will receive 100 published copies of her story and $5,000 in cash to support her literary aspirations. Two runners-up, The Long Black Veil by sisters Jeannine DeLine and Bobbi L'Huillier of Rochester, NY, and CodeName Snake: The Evil We Kill by Morton Rumberg of Gold River, CA, will receive 50 copies of their novels. All three books are available for sale at www.lulu.com/aspiringauthors.

"My first experience with digital book publishing has been extremely gratifying. The submission process was easy, and the end result is thrilling -- Tenure Track to Mommyville is beautifully printed and can sit proudly on any bookstore shelf," said Grosh. "It is amazing to see my manuscript pages become a book, and it's easier to share with family, friends and prospective agents."

We spoke with Ms. Grosh about the contest and her life as an independent author.

IP: How did the contest come to your attention?

BG: A friend sent me the announcement. Actually, two friends did. We writers were circulating it like crazy. I sent it on to my brother-in-law, who teaches creative writing, and to the Mothers & More "Writing Moms" e-mail loop.

IP: How would you describe your writing style?

BG: I write both fiction and essays. They're both good ways to make a point. I've always loved to read fiction for the chance to live in a different world. I write fiction because I love to read fiction.

I try to make people think about social and political issues. My writing style is simple and understated, though I'm not afraid to use a big word here and there. I use humor to lighten up things that might be heavy. I try to let people see the world from another perspective. I'm always setting things up so there will be an "aha!" moment when they can see something they couldn't see before.

For example, my protagonist is an academic who loses her position. She feels cut off and doesn't know what to do with herself. I wanted to show how painful that dislocation is.

She goes to a conference and revels in how much she loves feeling “back in the game.” But she's like Cinderella, she only has childcare for one day. At the conference she sees a former student she's very fond of and learns that she's pregnant. So the next day she stops by the conference to drop off a baby gift. But it's after midnight, metaphorically speaking. She's got her preschooler with her and the flunkies in suits bar her entry. She's become an outcast.

IP: As a busy mom, how and where do you find time to write?

BG: I write anywhere and everywhere. When my daughter was in nursery school, I dropped her off at the JCC and went straight to the gym in the same building. While I was swimming laps I was working out dialogue or plot in my head. Then I sat in the cafe with my laptop, writing till it was time to pick her up. It was a very productive year, though I only had three hours a day. Later, when she went to school, I started each day by walking her to school and then walking on with my dogs for another hour. Again, I was working things out in my head while I exercised and by the time I got home, I could sit down and let 'er rip. Some of my best work had come while walking dogs. I suppose that's why I ended up with so many pets in my book. When I'm further along, not doing a first draft, I print off the scene I'm working on and carry it around with me. When I get a quiet moment, I reread it and mark it all up and then take off from there to write the next scene.

My productivity fluctuates a lot. Sometimes I write every day, but other times I only write when I have a deadline, like a meeting of my writing group. Writing groups have been essential to me.

IP: Why are writing groups essential to you?

BG: Sometimes you get stuck. You can't write, and when you do, you know what you're writing isn't very good. Many times my writing group has given me insight into what the problem is. You often don't have the distance to be analytical about your own writing, and others can help. I can't count the number of times I've come home from a writing group fired up and knowing exactly what I need to do next.

Writing groups have also been a great place to learn about the craft of writing. I never studied writing in college and I've learned a lot about point of view; how to write tight prose; what it takes to make a story; as well as techniques to increase tension and speed things up or slow them down. I've learned about how to reveal a lot with a few details. Really, we're all learning and we share what we learn. Not to mention the great camaraderie in them.

Finally, writing groups have been important to keeping me writing because there's an audience every week that wants to know what you've written since last week. It's easy to let life get in the way of writing, but you have an audience who thinks your writing is important and you rise to the occasion and find the time to write something, something you're proud enough to share with people whose opinion you value.

IP: Describe the process of getting your manuscript turned into a bound book, and what that felt like. Were there any surprises?

BG: I had produced a previous draft of my book, which I shared with my book club and a few friends who had asked to read it. It's always exciting to see your manuscript looking like a book, and it lets you share it with people who aren't used to handling manuscripts but may be big readers and give very insightful feedback. I found it fairly tedious to format the manuscript into book form, but doable.

The process is very fast. It's easy. The books are good quality; they seem equivalent to books I buy at the bookstore. You retain control of the cover, the blurb, the whole works. The more you go through the experience the better it gets. I guess it's a learning process, like anything.

IP: A contest like this is great for the credibility of P.O.D. books, but in general, editors and reviewers don't take P.O.D. books seriously. How can this situation be improved?

BG: I wish I had a magic answer. I understand why editors and reviewers are skeptical, because so many P.O.D. books are not very professional. At this stage, it's up to a writer to get the attention of the readers she/he is looking to reach. I think my book will be popular with women's book clubs, so I'm sharing it with women I know who are in book clubs. Word of mouth works well, as Anita Diamont proved with The Red Tent. So maybe if you can reach your niche, your book can take off. I would guess there are all kinds of niche markets that authors can reach as well as a publisher could, through organizations and networks they belong to. If the book is of professional quality, it will catch on. I expect to see freelance marketing people spring up to help authors of P.O.D. books.

IP: Do you consider yourself a self-publisher, with a marketing plan and sales goals, or do you consider this a "stepping stone" in the process of finding a mainstream publisher?

BG: I'm hoping it's a stepping stone on the road to reaching a wider audience. I've always planned to try hard to find a mainstream publisher. It's really only because of the contest that I'm suddenly doing P.O.D. But now that I'm here, I'm thinking of marketing ideas.

IP: What advice would you give an aspiring author considering publishing his or her book with a P.O.D. company like Lulu.com?

BG: If you really want to market your book and make money, you need to produce a professional quality book. It has to be well-written. Get your friends and family to edit it. Do a lot of drafts to get it polished. Plan on doing one or two drafts after you see the initial print version, to make sure it's right. Find someone with some artistic skill to help with the cover. Work really hard at writing a good blurb. Look at books from traditional publishers and see how they are put together. Aim high. If you don't do these things, it'll be hard for your book to attract much interest. Generating interest requires you to be outgoing. Bring it to the attention of people you think would be interested. Give away some copies to those whose opinions you value. Tap them for blurbs you can use to promote the book. Persistence is important. Don't give up. And good luck.

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1. Write whenever you can. Even while working out or walking the dog, you can work things out and write them down later. You may need to turn off your cell phone or TV. Let the thoughts roll around in your head.

2. Get editing help. Join and utilize a writers group, get feedback from friends and relatives, and hire a professional editor if possible.

3. Do numerous drafts. Even your completed manuscript will need some changes.

4. Use a professional artist and/or cover designer. People really do judge a book by its cover.

5. Work really hard at writing a good cover blurb. People really do read cover blurbs while they're judging your cover!

6. Aim high. Look at books from traditional publishers and see how they are put together, and imitate them.

7. Sell yourself and your book. Generating interest requires you to be outgoing, and constantly promoting.

8. Bring your book to the attention of people you think would be interested. You never know where a big break might come from. The funny looking guy next to you on the plane might have an uncle in the publishing business.

9. Give copies to those whose opinions you value. Tap them for blurbs you can use to promote the book.

10. Most importantly, don't give up. Persistence is required, but it pays off. Remember, a page a day is a book a year. You can find time to write if you have a story to tell and the support you need.