For our 2024 blog series, we’re highlighting industry professionals to find out more about their time in the book world. Follow along for insight on what catches a reviewer’s interest, things to avoid when pitching a media outlet, what librarians are searching for and more. 

Today, we’re chatting with BigAl (who insists he only has one name, like Cher, Sting, and Madonna). He spends his days writing computer programs that are full of typos, homonym errors, and incorrect verb usage. During his evenings, he writes reviews of indie books for his website BigAl’s Books and Pals as well as running The IndieView, a website intended as a resource for indie authors, indie reviewers, and those who read either.

As someone who hears about A LOT of books, what makes one stand out to you?

In some ways I’m lucky in that I don’t have to consider the same things that a book publicist or a publisher or many in the book business do. The IndieView and my review blog, BigAl’s Books and Pals, are both things I do as a hobby to help out my fellow readers as well as authors.

Being in a different position than a publicist, agent, or publisher, all I have to look for in a book is whether it appeals to me personally. I don’t need to take into account whether it is likely to appeal to a broad audience, only whether it has an audience. In the case of choosing a book to read for review, the only audience it has to appeal to is me. I think the evolution of publishing over the last dozen years or so has made it possible for some of those stories with appeal that isn’t broad to get out there and find their audience.

I’m starting the third paragraph and I still haven’t given an answer to the question. Maybe I need a better editor. For me personally, I have always enjoyed thrillers and suspense and mysteries, whether detective mysteries or a normal person trying to figure out what is going on. Throw in a little humor, and you’re even more likely to pull me in. Those who are old enough to have read Donald Westlake’s John Dortmunder series or Lawrence Block’s Bernie Rhodenbarr series in the prior century will know what I was reading many years ago. I also find that I like books, fiction or nonfiction, that help me experience something vicariously, whether a travel book or a book with characters who live a life very much unlike mine. At a high level there are only so many stories and they’ve already been told many times. The specifics are what makes a story unique, so it has to be something in the specifics – whether it is the characters or a unique twist of some kind to make a book stand out. If a book seems to have that, it will draw me in.

What’s the worst thing an author (or publicist!) can do in telling you about a book they’d like you to consider for coverage?

I’ve got a couple things. 

First, familiarize yourself with the venue and possibly tweak your boilerplate email to reflect what you find. The IndieView does two things an author or publicist looking for coverage might benefit from. One of these is providing a list of book review sites that meet certain requirements, and doesn’t require anything other than to check out the list to use it. (Then follow the link to the independent sites in the list that appeal and follow their directions.) The other is interviews (or IndieViews, since that is the name of the site). If you ask for a review, don’t contact the site. You haven’t done your homework and I won’t bother to respond.

The second thing is to follow instructions. At Books and Pals I have a page that explains what to do to be considered for review and instructions to submit a book for consideration. One of those things is to send an ebook in one of a few eBook formats as part of your submission email. It’s amazing how many authors and publicists manage to find the email to send their request, but don’t follow the instructions on the same page and prior to the only place the email is listed. When I receive those I have a “nope, not bothering with this one” file that those emails go to.

Neither of these things are really what I think your question is aimed at, but the reality is that what I get “told” in the email telling me about the book isn’t going to matter if you get excluded before I reach the point of considering the book. 

What makes your job easier?

I could answer that for me this isn’t a job, it’s a hobby. I’d be right, in that if I was doing it for financial reasons I never would have started and certainly would have quit long ago. But it is a job in that it involves work keeping things going. What makes it easier is publicists and authors who do (or don’t do for some of them) the things I talk about in the last question. Plus, reading or helping publicize that good book is a reward in itself that makes it all easier. 

Did you always know you wanted to be involved in the book world?

Yes and no. I’ve always been an avid reader beginning in second grade (many, many decades ago) when I won a class contest for reading the most books that year. I suspect if we’d been keeping track that I’ve beaten all of my classmates by that metric every year since. But in other ways, running these websites, writing a bit myself as a reviewer or for a while writing for yet another website aimed at authors, was something I kind of fell into and found I enjoyed. I’m a bit surprised it happened.

What is your favorite part about working in the book community?

I enjoy helping connect my fellow readers with books and authors they might not find otherwise. I’ve also made a lot of friends among avid readers as well as authors from around the world that I wouldn’t have otherwise.

January industry interview: Teen Librarian Toolbox’s Amanda MacGregor

For our 2024 blog series, we’re highlighting industry professionals to find out more about their time in the book world. Follow along for insight on what catches a reviewer’s interest, things to avoid when pitching a media outlet, what librarians are searching for and more. 

Today, we’re chatting with Amanda MacGregor, who currently works in an elementary library. You can find her blogging at the School Library Journal-networked blog Teen Librarian Toolbox, writing reviews and the occasional feature article for SLJ, and on Twitter @CiteSomething. She lives outside of St. Paul, Minnesota with her husband, their high school senior, and two quirky rescue chiweenies.

As someone who hears about A LOT of books, what makes one stand out to you?

I love when I see a plot or characters unlike others I’ve read. I read more than 250 middle grade and YA books in 2023 and reading at that clip makes many of the stories kind of become a blur, but I just love it when something sticks with me because it was so unusual or powerful.

What makes your job easier?

As far as reviewing books, getting things as far in advance as possible really helps. Some months I get 30-40 books to consider for Teen Librarian Toolbox. I read in order of publication date (it just keeps my life more organized) and often if something shows up well past its publication date, I’ve long moved on to even newer books. The same goes for scheduling guest posts–hit us up EARLY. We love to share authors’ voices and stories on TLT, but already have more than 100 guest posts scheduled for 2024. Life moves quickly! 

What’s the most memorable (or maybe funniest) pitch that’s ever come your way?

Right now I’m paying closest attention to books that address climate change, mental health issues, and diverse, intersectional identities. As I sift through the daily emails, I’m most interested in books that are reflecting teens’ current experiences and concerns. Those stand out to me.

Did you always know you wanted to be involved in the book world?

I was a huge reader from little on up. I was an English and Women’s Studies major in college and always studied in the YA/kids section of the college library. I’d pick those books up for my “fun reading” between assignments. Then, after graduate school in Boston at Simmons University’s Center for the Study of Children’s Literature, it solidified that I’d spend the next 20 years (and counting) working in bookstores and libraries and writing about books.

What is your most recommended book and why?

That’s a big question. If I go back to my childhood, I’d say anything Ramona Quimby-related is still a favorite and I’m delighted whenever any modern children pick them up at school. As a pretty quiet kid afraid of making mistakes or getting in trouble, I admired Ramona’s intensity and her ability to get through mishaps. 

I’m always telling people to read Patrick Ness’s 2015 book The Rest of Us Just Live Here, which has a great premise and excellent messages about mental health. A 2023 standout is The Labors of Hercules Beal by Gary D. Schmidt. Intense emotions, amazing characters, and a great hook (a grieving kid has to recreate the labors of Hercules as part of a school project).

What is a book that surprised you recently?

I absolutely loved Byron Graves’s Rez Ball. Set on the Red Lake Nation Reservation, in Minnesota, it follows a teenage boy and his basketball team as they work toward state tournament dreams. The characters were phenomenal, the setting is not one we see enough of in YA, and as a person with absolutely zero interest in sports, I found myself wishing I could watch the games he describes. The fact that it made me want to watch basketball (and made me a little nostalgic for high school–a nearly impossible task!) was definitely a surprise! 

What is your favorite part about working in the book community?

I am so grateful for all I get to learn from those around me and from all the books I read. And I’m happy to get to go work in a library every day and share my love of reading with kids. 


Authors Forward: W. B. Murph/Joni McCoy interview

Welcome to our Authors Forward series, where our innovative and talented Books Forward authors interview other great, forward-thinking voices in the industry.

W.B. Murph is a 5-year-old Beagle living his best life in Colorado. He whispers story ideas to his ever-faithful, former veterinary nurse human, who writes them down. Murph interviewed author and bookstore owner Joni McCoy. Her bookstore in Colorado Springs, Young Bookworms, exclusively sells children’s books from self-published authors, and is full of rainbow decor and colorful books.

Tell me about how you started in the book world?

As a caregiver for my mom, who had Alzheimer’s, I would read children’s picture books to her. She was unable to speak, but would giggle at the stories. I wanted to write a story she could enjoy. In my first year, I wrote 24 books and hired 6 illustrators to bring the words to life. 

In the second year, I took those books to any booth space I could find in my local area and sold 2500 books and a lot of associated plush toys that went along with the books. By November of that second year, I knew I needed a store. I had a following of about 2500 self-published authors so when I opened the store it was it easy to fill it. 

As a writer, what is most difficult for you? 

It’s not illustrating or marketing or anything you would think it’s actually finding time when I am running the bookstore. There’s just no time for anything else. I have 6 books written and fully illustrated and 21 books I want to have translated into Spanish but there is just no time.  Before I opened the store there really were no problems; it took a long time to figure out the process of writing. 

It’s overwhelming to take it on, as a whole, because there is so much to it but I just took my time and learned it. The biggest thing for me in that process was learning how to format the books.  That took a really long time. I take it all the way from the concept in my head to the finished books.

Why open a retail store, especially one that sells books? 

A lot of people do read, you know, the digital books, but there are still a LOT of people who want the feel of that book in their hands; they want their kids to have that experience. That’s the biggest thing. They can go to the library and they can feel the books and check them out but to come in here and watch them pick out a book and actually READ a real book. 

When I was young, everyone had a library card now there are so many kids with private libraries in their rooms. I’m shocked at the numbers. There is no other kid’s bookstore in town, and that surprised me, but I do think there is a big need for it. 

The other thing is with all the homeschooling; we do a BIG business with homeschooling. There are a lot of people that have not gone back to the schools after Covid. So you have the additional market there. Teachers love it for filling up their classrooms. They have to buy the books themselves, otherwise they stay with the classroom. So they, again, have their own private libraries. 

I think there is still a big need. You know, a lot of people order off Amazon, that’s our biggest competition, but with kids they enjoy having the opportunity to see, touch and pick out the physical books. 

Where do you find new authors when you need fresh ideas in your store?

Most of the authors come to me. In my group I may see a book coming out that piques my interest but I would say maybe only 10% comes to me that way. A lot of self-published authors  have great difficulty getting their books into bookstores so they have a chance here.  If the books don’t perform in the year after I put them in the store, then they get returned and we put something else out there. 

In our second year, we are bringing in traditionally published books. We are actually in the middle right now of shipping low-performing books back.

Describe the “no spine” store concept and how you balance revenue and shelf space?

You know that was one of the things – it was my only choice – I did NOT want to have spines. I had never heard of it before so I call it a “no spine store”. Every book, the cover of the book is going to show,  with the exception of our gently used section which will be spines because there just isn’t enough room. 

When you see the front cover, it makes it easier for both children and parents to pick out books. The kids are more involved when they can see the picture. We rotate our books every month so one time you will be at adult height and another time you will be at children’s height. My idea is that when you walk in that door, every book has the same chance of selling.

Tell me about the kinds of classes you offer self-publishers?

We have adult classes that go deeper; those are one-on-one with me because everybody is at a different level.  We are able to touch on all aspects of the book publication – writing, editing, illustrating, and publishing. Then I go on to offer in-depth coaching for people who want more.

The kids’ classes, the first class is the writing and we go over a lot of the requirements, then dive into actually writing their book. 

The next class is the illustrating and we do a front and back cover because I figure if we can capture what the book is about in the cover then they can continue that on the inside. 

The last class is one on one with me and their parents, because there are legal issues, in self-publishing the book. Once they publish, they sign books at one (or more) of our parties and they go on the shelf. Every child’s book has the opportunity to be in a bookstore so they feel that sense of accomplishment. The proceeds from selling used books assist us in funding some of the kids classes – paying for ISBNs, editing, that kind of stuff.

These classes, for the children, are really confidence builders; the kids realize that they really can publish a book. They see their book on the shelf and know that they did it. 

What are the benefits of self-publishing versus traditional publishing?

A lot of new authors particularly, don’t realize that when you publish traditionally you lose control of your book. You sell a concept and the publisher buys it and does what he wants with it. When you publish it yourself, you control everything. That is the biggest thing. We assist people to self-publish under the “Young Bookworms” umbrella but their name is always out front. 

We do it differently than other  self-publishing assistance companies. Our name is there as a publisher because you have to have one, but their name is the focus. They can order their own books from the printer, we don’t take a cut of that; plus they aren’t paying thousands of dollars to us for the assistance.

All About Agents: What You Need to Know as an Indie Author

There’s a wonderful history of indie authors creating a great platform, getting noticed by traditional publishers and landing a publishing deal. 

The best tactic is to query an agent on the strength of your work and current accolades. It’s very rare to go directly to a publisher these days as they mostly work with agents. After you query an agent and secure their services, they will approach prospective publishers for you.

Finding an agent can be a long and tedious process, as they each have their own submission requirements and it can be months before you hear back from each with answers. 

With this in mind, here are some of our favorite resources for finding an agent:

  • Poets & Writers has a great amount of information on agents. They have a Literary Agents Database and a helpful Agent Advice column.
  • Publishers Lunch: We recommend looking over what deals have been made for mid-list authors each day. You don’t want a blockbuster agent because they’re already set financially. Info includes: genre, author, synopsis, agent and which publisher the work sold to. You can sign up for the free daily newsletter that will give you most of this info, or you sign up for a $25/month newsletter which has all of the details.
  • QueryTracker: This free database hosts plenty of agent data. Because the info can be outdated, it’s best to use this tool to create a list of agents who represent your genre, then crosscheck with each agent’s website to confirm who they represent and which publishers they work with.
  • Guide to Literary Agents An old standby, written by Robert Lee Brewer.
  • AAR – Association of Author’s Representatives: Here’s a list of member agents, with varying amounts of information about them.
  • Children’s authors can view the Rights Reports on PW. These reports cite which agents facilitated the deal for upcoming kids books.
  • Women Writers, Women’s Books also has an Agents Corner column where authors can share their agent success stories and offer advice.
  • Writer’s Digest Guide to Literary Agents Blog: They post notices about agents and agencies. There’s not a tremendous amount of information here, but it’s worth keeping an eye out for news.
  • We also recommend finding books that are comparable to yours in genre and audience, and seeing who the author’s agent is. These agents may be a good fit for you, so we recommend keeping a list and checking their websites, querying where it makes sense to do so.
  • Manuscript Wishlist is a helpful tool designed to help agents share information about the types of books they are looking for. Scan through to see if your manuscript is on anyone’s wishlist!

I know it feels like the possibilities are endless, and it’s not unusual for an author to query upwards of 100 agents. Casting a wide net will help make sure you’re paired with the right agent for your book.

Want to get the inside scoop on what an agent really thinks? Check out our interview with Natalie Lakosil here:

August Authors Forward Interview with Lynn Slaughter and Lori Robbins

Welcome to our Authors Forward series, where our innovative and talented Books Forward authors interview other great, forward-thinking voices in the industry.

August Authors Forward Interview with Lynn Slaughter and Lori Robbins

Lori Robbins is the award-winning author of the On Pointe and Master Class mystery series. A former dancer, Lori performed with a number of modern dance and classical ballet companies. After ten very lean years onstage she became an English teacher and now writes full time.

  • Tell us about the On Pointe Mysteries and the character of ballerina/amateur sleuth Leah Siderova. Is her personality similar to your own?

Leah and I share a similar sense of humor. We both love cities, and we’re equally devoted to the art of dance. Other than that, we’re quite different. Leah’s upbringing, personal relationships, and aversion toward calories, carbohydrates, and commitment are uniquely hers. I fear I’m more like Leah’s mother, Barbara. Or, even worse, her aunt Rachel.

  • Does Leah have special skills which help her solve crimes?

Leah comments, only half-jokingly, that after she takes her last bow she’ll end up on the unemployment line, with nothing more than a high school diploma and a borderline eating disorder on her resume. In spite of this disclaimer, her lifelong devotion to ballet has rendered her far more determined and resourceful than most. Because ballet prioritizes daily discipline over fleeting desires, Leah’s ability to control herself and her environment becomes her superpower. She pairs that self-restraint with an extraordinary ability to inhabit fictional roles. For example, she’s afraid of heights, so when she has to climb down a fire escape she imagines herself as the Firebird. When the threat is personal, she imagines herself as Myrtha, who condemns mortal men to death by forcing them to dance until they die.

  • What might surprise readers about a mystery set in a professional ballet company?

Like many dancers, Leah obsessively calculates every calorie she ingests. What might surprise some readers is that dance companies often include what’s colloquially known as a “fat clause.” Staying thin is literally part of her job. The precarious nature of life as a ballerina is also something not many people understand. Every dancer, no matter how successful, is one injury—or one birthday—away from irrelevance. Willpower plus uncertainty make dancers creative and innovative problem solvers. Those very high stakes are a great backdrop for a murder mystery.

  • Were any of your books inspired by real life events?

Yes! Theaters are full of drama, both onstage and off, and I’m often inspired by true stories. When the Metropolitan Opera did a new staging of one of Wagner’s operas, the elaborate set design was infamously loud, creaky, and unreliable. I transferred that idea to Murder in Third Position, in which Leah has to dance upon a platform that hovers over the stage. It ended up a metaphor for Leah’s life. She’s on top of the world, but she’s never been more vulnerable.

  • There is a lot of delightful humor in your books. Has humor always been important to you in navigating life?

When faced with adversity, dancers might say something like: “What are you going to do? Slit your ankles and cha-cha to death?” It’s ironic, silly, resigned, and sarcastic. That pretty much sums up my attitude. Humor in all its forms gets me through.

  • We are both former professional dancers, and I haven’t met a lot of us who’ve made the transition to fiction writing. Can you tell us about that journey for you?

The same skill set that fueled my career as a dancer helped me as a writer. Both professions require tremendous self-discipline, as well as the ability (and humility) to take corrections and make them work for you. It also helps if you enjoy working for very little money. When I think of it that way, the gulf between those two pursuits doesn’t seem quite so wide.

  • What’s next for you writing-wise?

My academic mystery, Lesson Plan for Murder, will be released this summer. It features an English teacher who solves crimes using clues from her favorite books. The protagonist refuses to believe her colleague’s death was a suicide, because no self-respecting English teacher would kill herself without leaving a perfectly penned note, complete with obscure literary references and suggestions for further reading.


Ask an Expert: What is “Ghostwriting”?

What is ghostwriting, how does one become a ghostwriter, and is ghostwriting “cheating?” Today, on the blog we’re sitting down with Mallory Burgey, a professional fiction ghostwriter who is giving us a peak behind the curtain at this mysterious and often misunderstood job.

What exactly does it mean to be a freelance fiction ghostwriter? What does your job entail?

I’m sure this answer is different for everyone who answers it, but for me, I work with small, independent publishing companies. I am hired to turn a provided 10,000-word outline into a full-length book. In my case, I ghostwrite under a pen name. There is no “real author” publishing the books, but rather a team of people who create the outlines, edit, and do the marketing to publish and promote the books. I am just another member of that team!

I receive an outline and have the opportunity to read through it and provide notes and feedback. I’m lucky that I have a lot of creative freedom to change things to better suit the story. Then I write! I work in chronological order, starting with chapter one and writing ~5,000 words per day until the book is complete. Occasionally I will do edits when I’ve written something that isn’t quite how the client imagined, but that is rare.

How many books have you ghostwritten?

I don’t have an exact number to offer, but it is definitely over 100 books at this point. It could be as high as 150, but it would take me a long time to go back and count! In the five years I’ve been a ghostwriter, I’ve written everything from short stories to 18,000-word novellas to 125,000-word novels. Early on, I was working on three projects per month to make a decent wage. At this point, I work on one project at a time and exclusively write novels.

How does someone get “into” ghostwriting?

Again, I’m sure this answer is different for everyone. For me, I went the freelance route. There was a window of time after college (I received my BA in English and Creative Writing) where my husband and I moved to a new state and had no clue how long we would be there. The thought of hunting for a job to potentially leave it in six months felt ridiculous, so I made some accounts on freelance sites and job hunted. I was privileged enough to be in a position where we didn’t *need* for me to make money to survive, so I was able to freelance for pennies for a couple months to build up my resume. With more experience, I could ask for a better rate. From there, I built up a loyal, stable base of clients and have had constant work ever since.

Do you write under your own name as well?

I have yet to publish anything under my own name, but that is definitely the plan! Working full time with two small children keeps me busy, but my long-term goal has always been to write under my own name, as well. Hopefully sooner rather than later! Even then, it is very likely I’ll continue ghostwriting. Momma’s still gotta eat!

What are some common misconceptions about ghostwriting?

The misconceptions about ghostwriting are innumerable and run the gamut. I’ve heard it all! People think I’m being cheated by my clients when my name isn’t on the cover of the books I ghostwrite. Or they think I’m not a “real writer” because the ideas are generated by the person who writes the outline. There are other people who seem to think I’m some kind of rare, superhuman writer because I can pump out 5,000 words per day.

When stuff like this comes up, I make it clear that I signed a contract. I’ve agreed to write a certain number of words per day or per week, the same way other people agree to work a certain number of hours. I am not being cheated when I get paid for the work I agreed to do, and I am not sad when my name is not on the cover of a book I wrote. That’s the deal! Yes, I put real thought and creative energy into writing the books I work on, but the idea belongs to someone else (in this case, to the independent publishing company I work for). There isn’t the same emotional attachment there that exists with my own personal writing projects. And while I can admit writing 5,000 words per day is impressive, money is a great motivator. Knowing I get paid per word is the kick in the pants I need to sit down and get the job done every day. At the beginning of my career, I could pump out 10,000 words per day, which is unfathomable to me now! I attribute it to my twenty-something, pre-kid brain power. Thirty-year-old me does not have that same energy!

What would you say to those who think that it’s “dishonest” for someone to put their name on someone else’s writing?

This is definitely one of the big misconceptions about ghostwriting. I can understand how some readers feel cheated by the idea of a ghostwriter. A lot of authors can attest to the fact that readers often equate them with their art. They believe an author writing about a character who has a certain background or feelings about a situation must have that same background or feel that same way. For the reader, authors can be intimately tangled with their understanding and experience of a book. In some cases, this is true! Especially when looking at memoirs or fiction books about incredibly heavy or socially relevant subject matter. But in most cases, it isn’t that deep. Usually, the books that people know are ghostwritten include celebrity memoirs. Do we really expect people who are top of their field in acting, singing, athletics, etc. to also be good writers? No. That would be unfair to us mere mortals. Plus, when it comes to celebrities, we are paying for a story full of hot gossip, not their writing ability. Other ghostwritten works are decades-long series like Goosebumps or Nancy Drew where it would be difficult for any one person to keep up with the quick publishing timeline. Then there are a slew of genre books like the ones I work on. I love genre books (give me all the romance, thrillers/mysteries, and fantasy), but they are primarily books meant for entertainment. If the ghostwriter gets paid and the reader is entertained, I don’t see any problem with it. Now if people still feel cheated, it’s pretty easy to suss out which books might be ghostwritten, so do your research and avoid those.

Optional bonus question: What do you think it means to be a “successful” writer?

A successful writer is a person who has written something and is proud of it. That is the cheesy, cliché answer, but in this case, I stand behind the cheesiness one-hundred percent! At one point in my life, I thought I would only be successful if I published a book that topped bestseller lists. Now, I’m really content knowing I write books that bring people a few hours of entertainment. They don’t know I wrote the book, and I don’t care. My goal was to be paid to write for a living, and I’ve made it! If I one day top bestseller lists, that would be amazing, don’t get me wrong. But I feel like a success right now. I hope the same feeling for any writer, whether they get paid for it or not.

July Authors Forward Interview with L.S. Case and Jeannie Moon

Welcome to our Authors Forward series, where our innovative and talented Books Forward authors interview other great, forward-thinking voices in the industry.

July Authors Forward interview with L.S. Case and Jeannie Moon

Jeannie Moon is a USA Today bestselling romance author known for her Compass Cove and Forever Love Stories series. Married to her high school sweetheart, Jeannie has three kids, three lovable dogs, and resides on Long Island, NY.

1. Your Forever Love Stories and Compass Cove series have engaged readers in beautiful romances. How do you make your novels stand out from others in the genre?  

One of the most important things I’ve done is to create compelling characters that readers can connect with and root for. Whether a billionaire or a librarian, my goal is always to create characters who are relatable, flawed and easy to connect with. My other strength is creating a strong setting that keeps readers engaged in the story. Even in the Forever Love Stories when the super-rich take center stage, there’s a grounded feeling to the places they live and work. (Okay, maybe the mega-yacht in the first Forever Love Story was over the top, but it was fun.)

2. How has your approach to book promotion evolved since your debut novel? What’s your advice for young writers trying to build an author platform? 

In the beginning, I tried to do it all. Facebook, Instagram, Twitter… Don’t do that. It’s exhausting and a time suck. Find where your readers are, and use social media to connect with them on a personal level. Look for small reader events to attend, connect through local libraries. Last, I wish I’d paid more attention to my newsletter in the beginning. The popularity of social media platforms ebb and flow, but if you build your mailing list and send a message once a month, not just when you’re selling something, you’ll grow your fan base. 

3. What is the best investment you ever made in your writing? 

The best investment is the time I’ve spent with other writers as part of a local writing group or at small conferences and workshops. I learn from every class I take, but the time with other writers is priceless. Writing can be very isolating and building a community is the best thing I did for myself. 

4. What are common traps for aspiring writers?

Too much information can be a problem. Everyone has a theory about how you should write, about how to be more productive, about how to sell books, and I’m not saying advice is a bad thing, but too much can weigh you down. Find a process that works for you and let it evolve naturally. If you have reams of information, pick and choose what makes sense to you. If you attend a workshop and you come away with two or three tips that help your process, that’s fantastic. No “system” works for everyone. Trust yourself and your process. 

5. Have you ever resuscitated a shelved project? What made it more successful the second time around?

My very first book was 120,000 words long and was like a soap opera. At its core was a lovely romance, but it was buried in superfluous details and melodrama. It was rewritten several times, words were culled, and it did have interest, but it didn’t sell. In 2014, I went back to it, stripped it down, and re-envisioned the story. The Playing Field went from 120K to 45K words and became the novella, This Christmas. The reimagined version was character driven and emotional, and that’s why readers loved it. It was a reunion story, and focusing on the couple and their love story–not extra characters, jobs, or extraneous drama–made the book special. 

6. How can readers contact you and learn more about your upcoming projects?

The best place to find me is on my website, Readers can sign up for my newsletter, find my social media accounts, and see where they can meet me. It’s where I’ll announce new projects and book news.

June Authors Forward Interview with Sid Balman Jr. and James Wade

Welcome to our Authors Forward series, where our innovative and talented Books Forward authors interview other great, forward-thinking voices in the industry.

June Authors Forward Interview with Sid Balman Jr. and James Wade

James Wade lives and writes in the Texas Hill Country with his wife and daughter. He is the author of River, Sing Out, and Beasts of the Earth (winner of the 2023 Spur Award for Best Contemporary Novel) as well as the critically-acclaimed debut novel All Things Left Wild (winner of the MPIBA Reading the West Award for Debut Fiction, and the Spur Award for Best Historical Novel). James’s work has appeared in numerous literary magazines, and his novels have been featured by publications such as PopSugar, BookBub, Deep South Magazine, and the New York Journal of Books. 

Your novels – All Things Left Wild, River, Sing Out, and Beasts of the Earth – seem to share a common theme: the loss of innocence in characters swimming amid a pool of evil. In your view, is that the inevitable dilemma of the human condition? 

I think so. Mostly. Maybe. It’s certainly the dilemma of those humans who have been cursed with awareness and ambiguity both. I think the central characters (Caleb, Jonah and River, and most recently, Harlen) in each book are those types of people. They’re weighed down with guilt, but they’re also weighed down with this longing for inner peace. Their primary struggle is whether or not they can be okay with things not being okay. Ignorance is bliss, and none of these characters are ignorant, so they have a tough time finding solace– not just from the world, but from their own thoughts about it. It’s a great way for readers to connect with the characters and something you do a wonderful job of with the Laws and Zarkans in Seventh Flag, showing readers the tension and anxieties that exist within these families and the world they inhabit. 

Your central character(s) survive this crucible, a happy ending if you will. How do you square this in the nihilistic worlds you create in your novels?

Not to spoil things, but they don’t all survive. Some of the central characters make it. Some don’t. To your point, it speaks to what some folks would consider nihilism or randomness. I think it’s just realism. There’s a desire to create realistic outcomes, which means the main character can’t always survive dangerous situations. However, there’s also the goal of the novels, which in large part is to show how a character is changed by the circumstances they come up against. That’s tougher to do when you kill them off. But even for the ones who do make it through, there’s not always a happy ending waiting on the other side. 

God, or a divine force, is the one character that seems missing from your novels. Of course, writing a novel is an act of pure faith and folly, prima facie evidence that all novelists must have some form of faith. How does your faith, or lack thereof, impact your stories?

I’d argue that there is a God in my novels. Maybe a different God for each one, or maybe not the God most folks are used to seeing, but it’s there. The desert, the river, the Watchmaker. Wise old men and women. Innocent children. Love and grace and the hurt it takes to be human– to be alive.

The truth is I struggle with this world– with all of it, not just its religions and politics. And faith, or lack thereof, is certainly a part of that struggle.  Because I often write about the things I struggle with, it makes sense that faith and religion would make their way into my novels pretty frequently. I’m also a regional author, with all of my novels being set in Texas, and it’s only natural that the dialogue and worldview of many of my rural-Texan characters is centered around God.

I worry that I write too much about that stuff, or maybe use too much biblical allegory. That’s just part of who I am as a writer and as a person. I was raised Southern Baptist. I’ve read the Bible in its entirety several times and still reference it regularly. But because I approach it now in a literary context rather than as holy scripture, I’m able to access the storytelling techniques and beautiful prose without being beholden to a certain viewpoint. And ultimately writing a novel takes faith in yourself more than anything else. If outsourcing that faith to a deity makes you a better writer, then I’m all for it. But in the end, divine intervention or not, you still have to put your ass in the chair and get it done.

Only a ‘real’ Texan like you, as opposed to a Houston transplant from New York or LA gallivanting around Marfa in a shiny new pair of cowboy boots and a crisp Low Crown, could write about their state with such authenticity and gravitas. What is the ‘it’ about Texas that infuses your life and writing?

Texas is the perfect character. It has a little bit of everything, from a terrain or cultural or culinary standpoint. I grew up in East Texas where we’re more culturally aligned with the southeast than we are with the southwest. To think El Paso and Beaumont are in the same state seems ridiculous. Or Marfa and Gun Barrel City. Or Dallas and Fort Davis. So many places in Texas are unlike anywhere else, including the other places in Texas. I’ve worked at newspapers in rural Texas, worked at the State Capitol during the legislative session. I’ve driven across the state to cover high school football, to lobby for water conservation, and even to deliver beauty supply products to rural salons while I was in college (there’s a book in there somewhere). We’re as diverse a state as exists in this union, and no matter how much Texas is talked about, there’s still always more to say. I’ve been asked if I’ll ever write anything set outside of Texas and the answer is always, “why would I?”

Tell us a little about the book you’re incubating, and why your editor wanted a rewrite. An inevitable part of our process, but how does that make you feel. Do you push back, or simply go back to the drawing board? 

I’m working on a prohibition/great depression era novel set in a fictional East Texas town. The basic theme explores what folks will do to survive when put in precarious situations, and how our psyches are shaped by tragedy.

My biggest weakness as a writer is plotting. I like characters and landscape and conversation. If I could sell a novel where two characters sit in the woods and talk to each other about pain and anger and beauty and loss for three hundred pages, I’d do it. But my publisher, rightfully, wants action, pacing, plot, etc. so I tried to give that to them with the first draft. Get all the elements out there and let them decide which ones to develop more and which ones to cut or revise. That’s basically where we’re at now.

As for how edits and revisions make me feel, it’s twofold. First, I have incredibly thick skin. I’m lucky and grateful to be a writer, and I accept criticism as a reality of my very fortunate position. Second, I have to look at it as a business decision. My publisher is paying me. They have to sell the books in order to make any money back. I have to put them in the best position I can for them to succeed, and they let me know when I haven’t done that. That’s the business.

If I feel incredibly strongly about something, I’ll definitely push back, and they’re great about being receptive. But I have such severe imposter syndrome, that I usually don’t feel that strong about my work to begin with. That’s a confidence that I believe will come with time and experience. In my opinion, I’m still learning how to write. There’s no critique I can’t benefit from. Even if I don’t agree with something, it helps to see it through another person’s eyes. 

Ego can be a difficult thing to manage. You have to have a certain amount of ego to write anything in the first place, but then you have to immediately discard it when it comes to feedback and reception. 


May Authors Forward interview with Charles Salzberg and writers group

Welcome to our Authors Forward series, where our innovative and talented Books Forward authors interview other great, forward-thinking voices in the industry.

May Authors Forward interview with Charles Salzberg: The Birth and Extra-Long Life of the Monday Night Zoom Boys

Allow me to begin by outing myself: I actually enjoyed parts of the pandemic lockdown. Not all of it, of course, but enough to make me a little nostalgic for those halcyon days of never leaving my apartment for days at a time. As a freelance writer most of my adult life, I’d been rehearsing for this catastrophe for most but a gift for me. 

For a while, at least, it was “welcome to my world,” for all those non-essential workers who had to stay home. But it didn’t take long for me to change my tune to “Get the hell out of my world,” because suddenly, with everyone else in New York working from home, it wasn’t so special anymore.

But for me the one long-lasting, positive effect of the pandemic lockdown was stumbling into a regular Monday Night Zoom with four other writers: Reed Farrel Coleman (Long Island), Michael Wiley (Jacksonville, Florida), Matt Goldman (Minneapolis, Minnesota and Tom Straw (Connecticut). All are very successful crime writers, but Matt and Tom have also carved out a very impressive career writing for TV, mostly sitcoms like Seinfeld, Night Court, Nurse Jackie, and The New Adventures of Old Christine.

The pandemic is pretty much over now (not that anyone’s giving it the last rites, since I’m sure we’ll be living with it in one form or another for the rest of our lives), but the Monday Night Zoom Boys is still thriving. The only difference is now instead of every Monday night, it’s every other Monday night.

The Zoom has certainly changed my life for the better, but what about the other participants? And what’s behind this staying power? 

To get the Zoom in perspective, I quizzed my fellow Monday Nighters, in an attempt to answer these and other questions. 

How about we begin with general feelings about the Zoom from Reed Farrel Coleman and Matt Goldman, and I think what they have to say pretty much sums up the experience for all of us.

Reed Farrel Coleman: Our Monday night Zoom calls during the pandemic, bring two things immediately to mind: team sports, and family. If you ever listen to retired athletes talk about what they miss most, it’s usually the camaraderie, the sense that no one will ever understand you the way your teammates did because you shared a set of goals and values. Daniel Woodrell is a favorite author of mine and one of his driving themes is the creation of family out of circumstance. Those kinds of families have little to do with blood, but a sense of shared purpose and need. Enter Covid-19. While I was happy to be with my wife and son for the duration, I was deprived of my contact with my peers. Writing is a life full of aloneness if not loneliness. And while my family understands me, they can’t understand the life the way other writers do. Suddenly, no Bouchercon, no LCC, no Thriller Fest, no Sleuthfest … There was no hope for the occasional dinner or drinks with colleagues. Our calls gave me an anchor, something to look forward to besides a weekly masked and gloved trip to Costco. Though I doubt Charles, Mike, Matt, Tom, and I gave it much thought at the time, we were creating a team and a family. It was both a refuge and a forum, a place to understand and to be understood. If and when the calls do end, I will be like one of those retired athletes who understands the experience can never be replicated.  

Matt Goldman: I’ve been a professional writer since I was 24 years old. I wrote television for over thirty years. I made some great friends in that world. Life-long friends. But there is no television writing community on a large scale. I was blown away to discover the mystery writing community. It’s friendly and supportive from top to bottom.  When I attended my first Bouchercon (at age 54) I thought, “I’ve finally found my people.” But I only got to see them once or twice a year. And then after a few conferences, I found my diamond core of friends within the community. Mike, Charles, and Reed. (And soon Tom.) This happened just before the pandemic. Zoom turned that once or twice a year into once a week, and for that I’m so grateful. I think everyone should have a group of friends that is independent of their regular day-to-day life, whether it’s through a writing group or religious organization or sport or hobby or whatever. It adds a beautiful facet to life.

How did the Zoom start and how did you get involved?

Reed: You know, I’m not quite sure how it started, but Mike is the man who facilitated and for that we owe him.

Michael Wiley: Early in the pandemic Reed, Matt and I were Zooming and you (Charles) and Tom were Zooming separately. Reed suggested experimenting with a full-group Zoom, and we never turned back. Now, I like to think of us as a blended family.

Tom Straw: This iteration came as a sort of hand-off. You, Reed, and I had started a twice-monthly Zoom shortly after the pandemic lockdown. Prior to that, we gathered around Mystery Writers of America events, which led to Reed-led French Connection tours of Brooklyn that evolved into Brooklyn pizza tours then occasional steakhouse dinners. Zooming was a way to keep in touch and not go stir crazy. Reed was also cheating on us with another regular video chat with Matt Goldman and Michael Wiley. He suggested we cross streams, and we consolidated into our current party of five.

Did you take part in any other Zoom meet-ups?

Reed: I did for exactly two weeks, but I gave up after that. One of the participants was someone I didn’t much care for, and that person tended to dominate the conversation. It was also highly politicized and focused on the pandemic. The last two things I wanted to hear more about during those early days were politics and the pandemic. It’s testimony to our Zoom Boy meetings that we touched on those things, but never perseverated on them. What was great was that we never seemed to have an agenda.

Mike: Through much of the pandemic, I lived on Zoom. I Zoomed with family and friends. I did book events on Zoom. I taught Zoom workshops and classes. Zoom kept my world turning. But our Zoom group was the best of Zooms.  

Matt: The only other Zoom I participated in was for virtual book events.

Tom: I did Zooms for TV project development with my old colleague Craig Ferguson. Those were between my place in New England and his home in Scotland, so la-dee-dah, an international aspect. Even though the stated purpose of those was work, with Craig, there’s no shortage of laughter and horsing around. Let’s call those productive and fun. I also started semi-regular Zoom across another border with Canadian mystery author Linwood Barclay who was locked down at his home in Toronto. We’re no longer in isolation (at least not by decree) yet continue the rite roughly every two or three weeks because we enjoy our Zooms. As with Michael Wiley and Matt Goldman, Linwood and I have never met in person, so it’s a unique thing to spend regular time together—virtually— feeling as if we have actually met. 

Charles: I’ve been Zooming my writing classes pretty much from the start of the pandemic through the present. I also Zoomed the occasional meeting usually having to do with PrisonWrites, the New York Writers Workshop and MWA-NY (I’m on the board of the first two, and was on the local MWA board. I’ve also done a weekly lunch with my good friend Ross Klavan. For about a month or two there, in the beginning of the pandemic, we Zoomed our lunches. But as soon as the weather allowed for outside dining, we brought back in-person lunches.

Why do you think this particular Zoom worked out so well?

Mike: We freed each other from the nasty uncertainties and ugly politics of the early pandemic, and I like to think we still give each other a place away from the rest of our worlds. We don’t so much avoid the hard stuff – we’ve spent plenty of time on it – but we mostly tell stories, laugh, and talk about what we do more hours out of the day than anything else: writing. In The Decameron, a group flees from the plague to a deserted villa where they tell each other tales. Our Monday night Zooms have sort of been that villa.  

Tom: The beauty of what I’ve nicknamed the Magical Mystery Zoom with You, Reed, Matt, and Mike is how it’s like a gathering of old friends around the dinner table where nobody has to pick up the check. They’re relaxed, unpressured, and freewheeling. Which is remarkable since I never met Mike and Matt. Wait. I’m a big fat liar. On our first Zoom I learned that Matt and I both worked at Castle Rock, back in 1988-1990, as comedy writers under contract to develop TV pilots. However, we don’t remember meeting then. Frankly, I think Matt is bullshitting to keep me in my place, so I won’t consider myself “memorable.” Whatev. 

Matt: I think it works because we all value the same components of the conversation. What are we reading? What are we watching? How is our work going? And for me, who is the least experienced novelist in the group, I’m able to ask career guidance questions. But most of all I think we like each other. We do in real life and that carries over to Zoom. One Zoom topic is when will we see each other in the real world again.

Reed: For one, as I stated above, none of us seemed to come to the meetings with an agenda. We just went with it and were genuinely happy to see one another. In the beginning, it was also an escape from the reality of being trapped in our houses with our families or by ourselves. It satisfied the need for social interaction with friends. And since we all share a profession, it gave us a platform to discuss our works and to share stories only other writers could fully appreciate. And having been on many panels, we all understood when to talk and when to listen. There’s a lot to be said for that.

How did the pandemic affect your writing or reading?

Reed: I made a concerted effort not to include anything about the pandemic in my work. What it did, though, was supply me with additional writing time. I wrote three books in a period when I would have normally done two at most.  One of the great things about our Zoom is our occasional discussions of the process. I’ve picked up some tips from all of you gentlemen and getting a chance to be an early reader on occasion has been a real perk. 

Mike: The pandemic mostly reinforced habits I already had. Before the pandemic, I spent most of my days alone at the computer. During the pandemic, I spent most of my days alone at the computer. But I wrote more and read more. I did re-read plague books early on – The Decameron, Thomas Mann’s Death in Venice, etc. But we were spending our waking and sleeping hours living out that theme, and it got old, so I went back to the reading whatever books interested me – often ones someone mentioned in our Zoom meetings. Not Zoom itself, but definitely the conversations we’ve had about writing on Zoom.

Tom: My joke when we started Zooming was how the pandemic is making us all sit alone in a room, reading and writing. Exactly like before the pandemic.

Matt: The pandemic didn’t affect my writing much. It provided more writing time. It also could be discouraging—a book launch pushed a year, events were canceled, the publishing business was affected. But my day to day didn’t change too much. 

Charles: I wish I could say the pandemic and being home all the time resulted in writing more, or at least spending more time in front of the computer. But that would be a lie. I don’t measure these things, but if I had to guess I’d say I spent exactly the same amount of time writing (or maybe even less). I’ve always been a streaky writer, in the sense that I don’t have a particular schedule and somehow all that “extra” at home time was mostly filled up with things like reading, listening to true crime podcasts, and streaming all kinds of things. And this is where the Zoom Boys came in handy in the sense of all kinds of recommendations for movies, books, and streaming TV.

What made this Zoom important for you?

Tom: Camaraderie, of course. Remember, these started in lockdown, so at first, they were kinda like prison visits, seeing friends through glass (one or two of us may have even re-enacted a memorable scene from Midnight Express). But the way we roll, there’s always great conversation to go with the good company. We talk about our weeks, we talk about the news, we talk about what we’re watching and reading, there are plenty of anecdotes about life experiences both hilarious and shocking, and just enough about our writing. That’s a key thing for me. It’s not only that I like the dudes in the other four squares, I have deep respect for their writing and sensibilities. Therefore, I learn a lot. Either about craft or the bullshit-and-victories mix we all go through. We’re not a support group, not at all. But that happens on its own, I guess.

Mike: Before we started, I was already close friends with Reed and, increasingly, Matt. I knew you from conventions, and, though I knew of Tom, I hadn’t met him. I count our whole group now as great friends – a huge and unexpected gift from the pandemic. Our Zoom talks have kept me “in touch” with much of what matters to me.  

Matt: I get friendship and colleagues. When we go to a mystery writing convention, there seem to be thousands of mystery writers. And there probably are. But I live in Minneapolis, and although some wonderful authors are here, I don’t see them regularly. And because we’ve become such good friends, I feel like I can discuss anything in our group, whether it’s a book deal, a story problem, or a personal relationship.

Why do you think this particular Zoom works so well?

Tom: A likable, affable lot, these gents. Everyone brings varied experiences and perspectives, but shared values and interests. There’s always something to talk about. And most importantly, mutual respect (unless they’re hiding something from me!). 

Reed: For one, as I stated above, none of us seemed to come to the meetings with an agenda. We just went with it and were genuinely happy to see one another. In the beginning, it was also an escape from the reality of being trapped in our houses with our families or by ourselves. It satisfied the need for social interaction with friends. And since we all share a profession, it gave us a platform to discuss our works and to share stories only other writers could fully appreciate. And having been on many panels, we all understood when to talk and when to listen. There’s a lot to be said for that.

Why are we continuing the Zoom, even though the pandemic is supposedly over?

Mike: We’ve cut back, meeting every couple of weeks instead of every week. But the short answer, for me, is that I really enjoy spending time with you guys. Before we Zoomed, most of us might see each other once or twice a year – far too seldom. Now I get to hang out regularly with people I love to spend time with.

Reed: While there are a hundred reasons, the main ones are that we all really like and respect each other.

Matt: Silver linings came out of the pandemic. One is the normalization of video conferencing. Even the three who live in the New York area live far apart from one another.  Because Zoom now feels normal, it’s as if we’re in the same neighborhood and it’s easy to get together on a regular basis. The pandemic, through zoom, has damned geography. Which is wonderful. It applies to book events, too. When appearing at a bookstore, we can now reach hundreds or even thousands of people instead of tens.

Charles: The Zoom adds a little much needed structure to my life. I’ve been a freelance writer most of my adult life and the upside of that for me was always the flexibility of my schedule. But it also meant that most of my days are spent alone, in my apartment. Teaching always offered an opportunity to actually be among people, interesting people. But that changed with the onset of the pandemic. Not only was there the battle against isolation, but every day was the same day, in the sense that I’d have to remind myself every morning when I woke up, what day it was. That weekly Zoom indicated it was a Monday, and there was no better way to start off the week.


Guest post: A self-published author’s brush with Hollywood

As a self-published author, convincing people to buy your book is no easy feat. It’s hard to get noticed by anyone, let alone by an agent or a producer in Hollywood. But with a stroke of random luck, that’s exactly what happened to me.

I published Jay the Great (my modern retelling of The Great Gatsby) in January of 2021, to coincide with the original novel’s release into the public domain. Several other writers had the same idea as me, and it seemed my book was destined to be quickly forgotten. Over the next three months, I sold less than 10 copies and lost the will to do any sort of marketing.

Then one day, I woke up to an email from a New York agency asking me if the film and television rights for my book were still available. I thought I was being catfished or scammed at first, but the sender’s email address looked legitimate. I figured it couldn’t hurt to send a reply back, so I wrote and said that yes, for the moment, the screen rights were still available (as if there might be a bidding war soon).

After a few more emails back and forth, the agency said they were eager to pursue an on-screen adaptation on my behalf. I was flattered, though still confused about how they had even stumbled upon Jay the Great. It started to make more sense a month later, when I was told that a Warner Brothers production company had made an offer to buy the rights to my book. Evidently they had been scouring the internet for Gatsby source material and fell in love with my retelling of the classic novel.

Soon I received a check for selling them the exclusive option rights. It wasn’t a life-changing amount of money by any stretch, but still a lot more than I had ever made selling my own books on Amazon. I got to meet with the producers over Zoom (if you are a fan of the show Supernatural, you’d be jealous) and talk to them about how the book came to be. They were upfront about wanting to hire professional screenwriters to work on the project, and honestly I was relieved to hear that, since I had never tried to write a TV pilot myself. All I asked was to be kept in the loop about how the project was progressing, and the producers were kind enough to do so.

For a full year, I couldn’t tell anyone about this exciting news. Warner Brothers seemed eager to get started on the project, but I learned quickly that things move slowly in Hollywood. The producers introduced me to the pair of writers they found to work on the pilot and I had the chance to review their outline for the first season of a Gatsby TV show. I gave them some notes and then went back to the waiting game.

By the summer of 2022, I was told that the writers were ready to make their pitch to some of the top streaming services in Hollywood — a list which included Netflix, Amazon, and HBO. I started checking my inbox compulsively, eager to hear how the meetings had gone. Then finally I got an update, but not the one I was hoping for.

The head of the production company wrote and said that the pitches went well, the studios loved the premise of my book, and yet none of them had made an offer to buy the show. Just like that, my option deal expired and the project was officially dead. Everyone involved was moving on.

Looking back on the whole experience, I obviously would have wished for a different outcome. Maybe it was just bad timing. Or maybe my streak of good luck was bound to run out. Either way, it was still encouraging to know that my writing had potential. Because as a self-published author, it’s rare to feel validation from something you wrote. And you never know when that feeling will come or go.

Benjamin Frost was born and raised in New England and graduated from Boston University with a degree in communications. Since then, he’s lived all across the globe, including a stint in Melbourne, Australia. He is the co-creator of, a book review website, and has self-published several novels including JAY THE GREAT, a modern retelling of The Great Gatsby. His new book is NUMBER ONE IS GONE, a mystery set in the tennis world.