Sunday, March 11, 2012

5 Things I Did to Get My First Book Deal

Do you love lists as much as I do? When a lack of motivation washes over me, I make a list of all the things that absolutely must get done. Then I spell check the list. And change the fonts. And move the title from the center to the left and back again. And then I move everything from Word into a spreadsheet where I work on the layout for an hour and a half before realizing it was fine where it started. Then I print it out three times because I noticed little glitches that somehow were missed in the hour of micro-editing. Four hours later, I'm finally ready to tackle the lead-off item on my list...right after lunch.

Assuming you too enjoy lists, I thought I'd look back on what I've been doing the last couple years as a writer and share the process as five easily digestible but critical-to-know components. I landed a deal with a well-known publisher and my first book will be released this summer, and here's a list of how I did it.

#1: Don't get sucked into believing "list" articles before you've even begun writing!
If you're thinking about writing and getting published, then the first priority for many months of your life is WRITING, not thinking about writing. I went to a writer's meeting once where a gentleman showed the same chapter he had brought in three times before and previously paid two editors to review for him. After a year, he had yet to begin writing a second chapter. Instead, he just kept thinking about someday perhaps considering the option of possibly writing more. He was looking for others to tell him exactly how to proceed in very small steps, guaranteeing success because each step had been so meticulously calculated. In reality, he wasn't moving anywhere: forward or backward. So, don't look for the perfect sequence of events laid out in articles like this one. There's no such thing. Just write and then write some more. When the craft starts coalescing and accumulating, then it's time to go out and see what can be done with it.

#2: Pick a great topic that you'll love for the next couple years!
This was easily the most important step for me. I dismissed several book ideas before moving ahead with the winner. The other ideas weren't bad and I will reconsider them later, but I wasn't IN LOVE with them at that time. I didn't want to invest two or more years into a project unless I knew it would excite me the entire way. I wanted a topic that would eventually make all my friends and family avoid me because they knew I only had one subject on my mind and that nothing else interested me. If you can find a topic like that, the act of writing becomes vastly easier and finding extra time to write becomes a daily goal.

#3: Pick a topic that makes publishers say, "I can't believe no one has done that yet."
Loving the topic is important, but you'll need to convince a publisher that lots of others will love it too. Acquisition editors have the difficult job of finding new book ideas that are cutting edge and exciting while still being based on the same old thing. So it's your job to give them just that. Find a topic that is part of a proven market share but with a unique angle that has yet to be over-exploited. In my case, I pitched a biography of a modestly successful jazz singer who made one album that is considered iconic, and then he seemed to drift off the radar. When the editor sent my proposal out to three expert readers, they all wrote back something like, "I was shocked to realize nobody has written his story yet. If you don't publish this, your competitors will." At that point, the editor had just what he needed to recommend my book to the publisher: a proven genre on an acclaimed artist (something old) that somehow slipped through the cracks (something new). This was no accident. I worked hard to come up with a topic that I knew would meet this criteria while still being something I would love to write about.

#4: Find a publisher with a history of releasing topics like yours
I will admit to you a secret I'm almost (but not really) ashamed to admit: I got signed by the first publisher I approached. I know, I'm supposed to tell you I have a drawer full of rejection notices  that tested my convictions and made me try harder, but that's not the way I wanted to do things. Instead, I spent weeks in libraries looking through books in my genre; I visited websites for all those publishers; I carefully reviewed their proposal guidelines and confirmed if they would even accept submissions directly from authors; and then I crafted a proposal as if my life depended on it. I did not just fire off an e-mail query with half an idea hoping that someone would see the big picture and give me a shot. Although I did indeed only present a snapshot of the entire book, I made it clear that I had the entire book organized and written in my head. My proposal delivered an idea that was ready to be written the moment I was given the green light. The publisher I targeted had been releasing scholarly jazz biographies for decades and had very clear submission guidelines so they were the perfect target for my proposal, and it worked. One proposal led to one signed book contract; that's a pretty good return on the investment of my time.

#5: Agree to what you can realistically do, and then DO IT!
I'll leave the in-depth nuances of contract negotiations for another day. For now, let me just address one component that will come up in the contract: when are you expected to deliver the manuscript. This could be anywhere from six months to two years, but whatever you agree to, make sure you deliver on schedule. Publishers are balancing dozens or hundreds of book projects simultaneously so even if you only need a few extra weeks to finish your manuscript, you may get bounced into another release cycle that is months later. Translation: YOU'LL GET PAID MONTHS LATER! Publishers rarely give advances anymore, especially to unproven authors, so the first compensation you'll get for your months of artistic struggle will be in the form of a far-off royalty check. And if your publisher only pays out royalties once a year, you'll  wait even longer to reach the payment month. So, pick a duration that you know is realistic, and then let nothing stop you from achieving that completion date. When you turn the manuscript in on time, you'll get paid on time, and then you get to take yourself out for that awesome first-royalty-check dinner you've looked forward to.

With the writing of the book behind me, I'm currently going through the typesetting process while gearing up all the PR. That's all the more reason to make sure you love the topic because you'll still be confronted by it on a daily basis long after you've submitted the final manuscript. Check out the Facebook page for my book at and let me know what you think.
A snapshot of me in the rapture of making a list on my laptop.

Saturday, March 3, 2012

George Benson Must Think I'm an Idiot

Over the years, I've gathered a few fancy pieces of paper that hang on my wall and purport knowledge gained. I don't dispute that I learned a few things in the hallowed halls of academia, but I had another school just as important. For a while in the early 1990s, I got to study at the feet of a guitarist named Billy Thompson and class met anywhere and anytime he let me hang out with him.

Billy (BT in my mind) was the leader of the Mighty Penguins that were regarded as the top-flight blues act in San Diego, but they hadn't been working much at the time due to some internal differences. For reasons I've never understood but always appreciated, BT took to me and let me play in his pick-up bands for several months while he was trying out some new ideas and deciding what direction to take his material. Getting to jam with him night after night and hearing his blistering explorations and rhythmic ferociousness was sometimes overwhelming. He would wrap up another of his seemingly effortless, bad-ass solos and give me the nod to go next and I'd think, "You've got to be kidding me!" But I hung in there, studied the homework he implied, and kept coming back to the classes he held for me in the various bars and juke-joints we performed in.

Guitarist Billy Thompson

One of the most important things BT ever taught me was to not get caught up trying to be the baddest cat in town. He said, "Man, I don't give a rip if somebody says I'm the guitarist to beat around here. I only compare myself to my heroes, not some fool in a local beach bar." That one has stayed with me everyday of my life for over twenty years now. Any time I get complacent, start to get soft, or stop pushing myself to improve as a man or musician, I take heed of BT's lesson. As soon as I feel like I'm becoming the big fish, it's time to move my tail to a bigger pond.

My esteem for BT as a mentor is all the more poignant when I recall the unfortunate afternoon when it was me who became the fool at a local bar. Elario's Bistro Sky-Lounge was an elegant dinner-showroom on the top floor of a hotel overlooking the beach in La Jolla, California, and BT had a steady gig there, not as a guitarist, but as production manager and soundman. Besides booking some of the better local talent, Elario's also attracted rising national artists and a few big names. As another component of BT's tuteledge, he called me one day and said, "Hey Bud, I need to get the piano dialed in for an act tonight. Come on down to the club and bang on the keys while I move the microphones around." Always eager to help the man, I obliged and soon found myself entering the main dining room to be awestruck by the gorgeous view that day: crystal blue waters under a tangerine sky.

Elario's Bistro Sky-Lounge was on the top floor of the Hotel La Jolla

I proceeded past the bar and noticed a well-groomed man seated by himself sipping a cocktail. The bar didn't officially open until closer to dinner so I noted that he must be a high-rolling businessman for the management to accommodate an afternoon drinker. I moved on towards the stage and took a seat at the baby grand. "Ready when you are BT," I announced. "Sweet," he responded. "Just play anything for awhile and I'll try some different settings."

It's not unusual for musicians to fall into rituals when preparing to perform. After putting on new strings, many guitarists will go straight to an open D chord to check the tuning. Singers might repeat a favorite catch phrase or melodic fragment when checking microphones. And drummers often have an elaborate series of warm-ups they play while tuning their drums to the room. Somewhere along my musical journey I acquired the habit of getting familiar with a new room or piano by playing the opening two chords that were popular in the smooth-jazz hit, "This Masquerade." Musicians know these chords as F minor 9th followed by B-flat 13th. And so I sat there and began my ritual like I had so many times before without any hesitation. I noticed BT immediately gave me a questioning raised eyebrow, but I figured he was just dismayed by the frequencies coming through the sound system and I continued to plod ahead with my warm-up chords for the next several minutes.

Finally, BT got the microphones set in a position he found pleasing and said, "Okay, that's enough. Come on down from the stage." I approached him thinking I might hear some words of appreciation, but instead BT asked, "So, you think you're gonna get a gig or something doing that?" "What you talkin' about Billy? I was just jamming so you could get a sound check." "Dude," he exclaimed, "That's George Benson sitting at the bar: the guy who made 'This Masquerade' famous, and you just spent the last five minutes stickin' it in his face!"

The words were like a punch to the gut. I was horrified at the thought that I had just spent all that time inadvertently saying to the great guitarist-vocalist, "Look at me, look at me," like some annoying local hack. Now, if this were a 1940's Hollywood movie, Benson would have come over to me and said, "Kid, you've got moxie and I like your style. It just so happens I need a new pianist so give me a call." Well, he did eventually saunter over, but only to talk with BT. Earlier in his career, Benson played Elario's and remembered the incredible view, so while he had some time to kill before his show that night at a larger venue, he came by for a drink. He and BT were soon chatting it up like old friends and doing what guitarists always inevitably do: talk about gear. Meanwhile, I disappeared into the corner and kept my mouth shut.

George Benson

Later, when BT and I were alone, I asked, "Benson didn't say anything about my silliness on the piano did he?" "Nope," he answered. "Never came up." I was immensely relieved and yet slightly disappointed at the same time. Pride and vanity have often battled for dominance in my musician brain.

In the months and years to come, BT and I slowly drifted apart, though there was no malice or disagreement. He had other opportunities and I moved away from blues towards genres that tended to pay better. These days he's tearing it up along the east coast still making great music. George Benson has continued on to be a legendary figure in jazz and popular music. And me, well, I make my way engaging various endeavors in the music world, but come check out one of my gigs sometime to see if I don't still warm up with those same two chords and chuckle at myself while I'm doin' it.


[Check out my man BT at]

[The pre-release buzz about my Johnny Hartman book is really picking up and has resulted in me just being offered my own ongoing column in a very prominent jazz website. I'll announce more as soon as the details get worked out. Thanks for your support everybody.]

Thursday, March 1, 2012

A Gig Most Embarrassing

Once in a while the question gets raised at a house party or barroom gathering:
"So what's the most embarrassing thing that ever happened to you on the job?"
The answer is always horribly vivid in my mind. I envision a day when I won't cringe at the very memory, but I doubt it will ever come until I am finally released.

I was a young man of 18 and had spent a few days in Walnut Creek, California visiting with the most darling of young ladies and her family. The drive was shared with her grandparents who lived near me in southern California. I recall some excellent times visiting with all concerned on the drive up and the days spent at the destination, but the return down Interstate 5 began to reveal a dark cloud.

The grandparents and I headed off early in the day to begin what was likely a 10-hour drive. It was only a few hours later during a late-morning stop at a rest area when events soured. Grandpa (as he kindly asked me to call him) became violently ill in the parking lot. As he told me days later, "Son, I think I threw up food I ate in second grade!"

It became clear that he could not continue all the way to the Inland Empire where I had a gig that night playing with a top-40 band in Cathedral City. What happened next still impresses me to this day. They handed me the keys to their Cadillac, wrote down the entrance code to the home-security system, gave me some money for gas, and said, "You get on down the road. We'll rent a car tomorrow and be just fine." After some hemming and hawing on my part, I accepted their gracious offer and continued on my way.

Considerable time had been lost during the delay, but finding inspiration in a classic song by Sammy Hagar, I dropped that Caddy's hammer and pulled into Palm Springs to pick up my car, get my gear, and rush to the gig. I was just late enough that the band had to start the first song without me, but I rushed to set up my keyboard rig in record time. The guitarist thought he was going to have to play the keyboard solo in Scandal's "Goodbye to You," but no need: I came in on the second beat of the measure, right on time. Paul, the bass player, just looked at me with a big ol' smile and rolled his eyes.

Me and Paul at the Saddle Bar.

The band was called "MYX." Admittedly, not a very unique name, and every big city I've ever been in has a cover band whose members could do no better, right down to the spelling. But the name was easy to remember and served its purpose. We were a pretty good bar band; all five of us could sing which allowed for variety, and having a girl singer up front meant we could do material that all-male bands couldn't. Besides Scandal, there was Missing Persons, Berlin, Pat Benatar, Katrina and the Waves (quick, name their hit!), the Motels, and my personal favorite trivia answer: Quarterflash.

The gig that night was in what by all definitions must be called a dive bar. Not a dump, mind you--just a highway roadhouse that served two kinds of beer: Miller or Miller Lite. The seats at the bar were shaped like saddles in reference to the name of this fine establishment: The Saddle Bar. The regular patrons were raucous but a generally friendly bunch and that night they did me the greatest of favors by collectively ignoring what was soon to happen right there in front of them.

"MYX" as a 5-piece in 1985

As the set proceeded, I felt myself perspiring much more than I normally do, even onstage. The room felt unbearably warm and I tugged at the grey parachute pants clinging to my moist body. I called out over the music to Paul, "ARE YOU HOT?" To which he incoherently responded, "ABOUT SEVEN." He was no help. Then things got really weird. The lights hurt my eyes. The sounds of the band crashed through my ears. My mind swirled within my tottering body. It dawned on me that I must have gotten the same bug as dear old Grandpa. And then it happened...up came everything! Second grade; first grade; heck, I'm sure there was some cheese and crackers from nursery school in there. And I was right on stage with nowhere to hide.

The only saving grace to that instant of time was that an empty beer pitcher had been left right near me on the stage and I had just enough time to stick my face in it. So there I was filling up some of the Saddle Bar's finest plasticware while the dancers got their groove on to the band's attempt (being one man down) at ZZ-Top's "Sharp Dressed Man." And people wonder why I love show business.

I staggered through the crowd and headed for the bathroom with my near-capacity receptical and made it just in time to continue purging in relative solitude. Now, like I said, I consider this event to be the most embarrassing moment I ever experienced on the job, but I gotta tell you, it could have been so much worse. I could have been the brunt of jokes and ridicule that night and every gig I ever played in town for years to come. But, instead, not one person ever said a word about it. Not ONE, except, "How you doin' there? Feeling any better?" Talk about giving a guy a break when he was down.

So that's my humbling story. I bet you've got one like it. What do you say you share right here, right now?

While you collect your thoughts I'll just harden my heart because I'm a real tough cookie with long history after all this walkin' on sunshine even though nobody walks in L.A. and then suddenly last summer find that I am the warrior.


[Thanks to everybody who visited the Facebook page for my upcoming book ( and gave it a "like." I'm hoping to maintain a little pre-release buzz and you've all been so helpful--THANK YOU!]

P.S. I learned recently that the three founding members of MYX are still making great music in the Palm Spring area. Check them out at and tell 'em Gregg sent you.