Books & business + reality: no magic bullet

With gratitude to Zetta Brown and Penny Leisch, this blog also appears July 3 on the Southern Writers on She Writes Blog Tour, http://pennyleisch.com/wordpress/2012/07/02/books-business-reality-no-magic-bullet/


Book writing as a business never occurred to me. But the process toward my becoming a book-based businesswoman started in 2005, innocently and naively. A friend in public relations introduced me to Gerald S. Berenson, MD, during a kickoff for Tulane University’s comprehensive fundraising campaign, “Promise and Distinction.” She was innocent; I was naïve.

Innocently, she nudged the internationally acclaimed cardiologist/research scientist and suggested, “You ought to get NancyKay to write your book.”

Naively, I jumped at the suggestion, not even knowing what he wanted or expected but imploring him to allow me the opportunity. I myself broke the first rule for PR and marketing: know your audience.
Tall, suave, obviously bright, Berenson bought my concept and became my business. The business of books offers greater challenges and more opportunities than ever – everybody can write, and anybody can publish. But the reality remains that getting the gig and publishing the product requires more old-fashioned skill, attention to detail, and sticktoitiveness than most people care to or can invest. My reality is that into the seventh year of this project I’m still investing and learning.

Early into my effort to write a book for parents based on lessons learned in the Bogalusa Heart Study (http://tulane.edu/som/cardiovascular/index.cfm), I learned that as founder and senior scientist, Berenson had already written more than 800 journal articles and four academic books. He had screened the heart health of some 16,000 Bogalusa, Louisiana, residents and followed them from childhood into middle age, adding their children and the children’s children to the observational study. Already 33 years into the only long-term, cardiovascular, community research program in the world in which both African-American and Caucasian individuals have consistently participated from early childhood through adulthood and middle life, he wanted the book completed in three months.

What a challenge – for both of us. Although I had been a published writer since before Berenson began the Bogalusa Heart Study in 1972, I had never written a manuscript for a book. And even though he had written and published profusely, he admitted to not having entered a commercial bookstore since he was in high school. With my desire to become an author and his to tell parents and educators how they could help children avoid adult heart disease, we began the collaboration. The really rough draft a now-deceased New York writer had started 16 years earlier provided our starting point. Not much of that material remains in the text that finally pleases us both.

The business of writing the book now lies behind, but the business of the book itself remains in infant stage. Realizing total failure in finding a literary agent willing to join our business, we finally agreed to self-publish, an option both available and acceptable to help achieve our distinct desires. As co-authors, we share the responsibility for summarizing four decades of data into a product that will attract the attention and grab the interest of people who care about families, health, and disease prevention. The writing’s done; now comes the test to title and market the book.

Through its gestation, the manuscript bore various potential titles, but finally a string of words that convey the essence of its content frame the name: You Can Fix The Fat From Childhood ― & Other Heart Disease Risks, Too. Will that stand out in a world of 211,000 self-published books in the past year? Is that really the title?

Lessons learned from the Bogalusa Heart Study cover certain aspects of asthma, diabetes, hypertension, nutrition, obesity, physical activity, risk factors, and tobacco. In the Study’s first two decades, researchers documented 11 percent of children in the study as overweight; now that number’s 40 percent. That meteoric gain, the World Health Organization’s declaration that overweight and obesity are the fifth leading risk for global deaths, and the nation’s focus on fatness suggested to me that a book boldly emblazoned with the word “fat” likely would attract attention and earn sales, particularly if the title seemed to offer a solution.

First-time novelist Stephanie McAfee (http://stephanie-mcafee.com) took it to the bank. Also a Southern writer, she self-published her e-book Diary Of A Mad Fat Girl on Christmas Day 2010. Seventeen days later, she reported on Facebook, “Finally made the Amazon Bestseller Rank in the good ol’ US of A! I’m #97 in Kindle eBooks/Humor. ‘Well that’s a long way down,’ you may be thinking, and while that is very true, it’s also a long way up from #24,000 where I started.” Less than two weeks later, she was Number 21. Then came the NYT Bestseller List and a three-book deal with a traditional publisher.

When I met her early this year (at Pulpwood Queen Kathy Patrick’s Girlfriend Weekend, http://www.pulpwoodqueen.com/; it’s a Southern thing!) and learned about her extraordinary success for attracting book buyers, “I am unabashedly copycatting you,” I told her. “Over the past seven years, I’ve been working on a how to raise heart-healthy kids book . . . We’ve had about nine different titles, and none worked. After your visit to Jackson, I re-titled it ‘you can fix the FAT ― and other heart disease risk factors, too.’”

She responded: “I LOVE that title! It’s very catchy and it gets right to the point. Let me know when you get it listed, cause I’ll be number one in line. Why? Because I’m a chubby girl married to a chubby guy and we have a 2-year old little boy in perfect health and we want to keep him that way. I think your book will have mass appeal, but especially to people who have it to deal with, you know? So yes, I’ll buy it, read it, and then promote it all I can.”
So much for market research and think-tank strategic development.

I know from personal experience and observation that most people who are overweight or obese forever seek the sure-fire formula, the magic bullet to lose excess weight and fit the Western world’s ideal body image: slim, trim, toned, healthy. To entice some of those other fat people as buyers and readers of our book could be huge!

Berenson’s 40 years of research show that individuals can learn about and practice behaviors that result in appropriate body weight for good health. Learning to adopt healthy lifestyles – that’s prevention! His hope is that prevention beginning in childhood will become an acceptable and common practice. Through that, individuals and families can address quality of life from its origin and, maybe, extend quality to the end of life.

His intent to push primordial prevention ― prevention before bad risk factors begin and result in heart disease and related diseases, like diabetes ― and mine to both contribute to public health and realize financial gain, well. We are here.

And this is our reality – for books, business, people who want to “fix the fat.” Writing and publishing a book, deviling with all the creative and business aspects of the publishing details, and trying to prevent weight gain or to lose excess weight – almost every act of value requires real work, really. The magic bullet just does not exist. That said, awareness plus action equals success. Reading this book can give individuals and families the know-how to achieve healthier lifestyles, lose weight if needed, and prevent the risk of heart disease and diabetes – from childhood.