Jerry Nelson: Book advice

Jerry Nelson
Special to the Farm Forum

An email from an Iowa woman recently popped into my inbox. The lady wrote that her daughter and her daughter’s friend had written a children’s book and were wondering if I could advise them about how to get their book onto the market.

I don’t feel qualified to hand out any such advice. After all, I’ve managed to get exactly one book, Dear County Agent Guy, published. It’s as if I were declared an authority on bowling after randomly trying my hand at tenpins one day and rolling a strike with my first ball. Even so, I’ll try to pass along some insights about the mysteries of the publishing game.

It’s important to have somebody on your side who believes in you and will passionately promote your project (a nascent book is called a “project”) in exchange for a share of the profits. This is an apt description of my wife, but in this case, I’m talking about a literary agent.

In my experience, finding a literary agent is only slightly less difficult than obtaining an autograph from a sasquatch. I would never have met my agent, Danielle Svetcov, without the help of Arielle Eckstut and David Sterry, aka, The Book Doctors.

I had tried to find a literary agent on my own, but had dismal results. My efforts led me to a guy named “Mitt” who claimed to be an agent. I suspect that Mitt, in truth, was a habitual partier who used the agent label as a cover story.

What convinced me of this took place when I flew to New York to meet Mitt and to call on publishers. The nadir of my Big Apple experience came sometime after midnight, when I found myself standing on a grassy median in Tarrytown with a falling-down drunk Mitt lying at my feet. He was so sloshed that he put the lit end of his cigarette into his mouth.

Literary agent or lush? You decide.

Fortunately, I met The Book Doctors some years later. Arielle and David were holding an event called Pitchapalooza during the South Dakota Festival of Books. The idea behind Pitchapalooza is for would-be authors to stand in front of an assembly and explain why their book should be published. And you have 60 seconds starting ... now!

Arielle and David had upbeat advice for everyone. They asked what type of book my project would be.

“I don’t know,” I replied. “The kind that has words, I guess.”

Yes. But who might want to read it?

“I don’t know,” I said. “Anyone who can read, I guess.”

It was difficult to decide what genre would be a fit for Dear County Agent Guy. After listening to David and Arielle advising other hopeful authors, I learned that each category has its own challenges. For example, the approach for marketing a children’s book is going to be vastly different than the one used for selling a multi-book saga about a teenaged mutant vampire wizard.

Another buzzword often heard in the book biz is “platform.” And it has nothing to do with the area where a tractor operator sits.

A book platform consists of the things an author has done to help raise awareness of his or her project. This would obviously include being on Facebook or Instagram. It would also involve engaging the public via other mass media such as print or television or radio.

The biggest planks in my rickety little platform were my weekly newspaper columns and the occasional piece in a national magazine. I also managed to get on TV and radio once in a while. This was a terrifying prospect for an introverted dairyman whose idea of a captive audience was lecturing his Holsteins about their appalling personal hygiene habits.

I gleaned two hard truths from the book biz.

First, you have to write a book before you can sell it. The only people who can sell the mere idea of a book have names like King or Grisham or Former Administration Official.

Second, you should never give up. It took a long time for Dear County Agent Guy to become a reality. But because of Danielle, I met my editor, Bruce Tracy, and became acquainted with the wonderful folks at Workman Publishing.

The whole experience was something that I never could have imagined as a kid growing up on a remote South Dakota dairy farm.

Dr. Seuss was turned down by dozens of publishers before he finally found a fit. And now, large portions of the population can recite from memory large portions of Green Eggs and Ham.

And maybe this will also be true someday for the book I Call You Noodle.

Jerry Nelson