Is Your Idea Marketable?

A  good idea isn’t enough, it has to be marketable. Unless you are writing for pleasure, an idea must appeal to people who will pay you. This applies to magazine articles as well as books. Here’s a list of rejected book proposals I’ve made to different publishers in the last three years:

A book on current Nevada agriculture. Although Nevada is best known for mining, agriculture plays a vital role in my state. I think its fascinating how agriculture goes on in the driest state in the nation. But it seems no one else is interested, even the Nevada Farm Bureau, who rejected sponsoring the title. For a university press, I offered to expand the work’s range, to include agriculture across the Great Basin, but even this idea was turned down. I learned a great deal in writing the proposal, however, and I made a website for pitching the project that I still like:

A Nevada almanac. I love almanacs and Nevada has nothing current. I thought this an opportunity, publishers did not. Not enough people in the state to market to and almanacs were expensive to publish. I was also told they have been replaced by the internet, something I disagree with. Alas. I wrote more on this in a previous post (internal link).

A book on monuments across a state, possibly a series of books covering entire regions or perhaps the entire country. Historical monuments and commemorative plaques dot the landscape, noting everything from an Indian war site to a Revolutionary War battlefield to a civil engineering wonder like the Hoover Dam. My book, probably books, would have shown every publicly accessible monument, given its location, and provided a map. A title to have on a road trip or to enjoy just armchair traveling. I approached the largest publisher of regional histories in the country. They were interested at first, requested a sample chapter, then declined to do further business with me.

A Stanton Delaplane reader. (internal link) Another no-go. A beloved and now almost forgotten columnist for the San Francisco Chronicle was Stanton Delaplane. My book would have reprinted the best of his daily columns covering a span of over fifty years. One publisher said the title might have a limited market in the San Francisco Bay area and wished me luck.

Rock, gem, and mineral titles books. I’ve floated numerous ideas. One was rejected by two publishers, both of whom really liked my writing but could not find a way to market what I envisioned. It did not fit in with their existing catalogs. Perhaps the publishing house I am now dealing with will find a way to sell my current proposal and I can be on my way with a book contract.

You’ll note that I didn’t try to keep selling one idea, instead, I kept coming up with different ideas. One approach might be to continue to push ahead with one proposal to many, many different publishers. But you run out of publishers quickly when you are selling a regional interest title like the ones I have been proposing. Perhaps that’s the lesson: propose something with wide area appeal.

What about self-publishing? I’m not enamored with the idea. From what I read, most self-publishers do more marketing and self-promotion than writing. With a publisher you have help in the selling and distributing department. And if a publisher won’t back my work, then I figure I won’t be successful on my own. This again gets back to why you are writing. Self-publish if writing is your art and you can’t find a backer. Find a publisher if you want to be a part of the wide, wide world of book writing and authorship.

I can see an exception and I once did this for the magazine I used to produce, private line. For several issues of private line I produced the magazine myself. I had a copy shop run off its pages and then I collated and stapled the issues together. Later, as the magazine got more successful, I had a printer do the work. The bankruptcy of my chief distributor, robbing me of thousands of dollars, throwing me into debt, was the chief reason my little magazine died. But that’s another story. Back to self-producing.

I wrote for telecom hobbyists and telephone hackers, an obscure niche if there ever was one. Computer hackers also enjoyed my magazine, and I was always treated well by them, even at Def Con II and III in the mid-1990’s. What my readers were interested in was content. If I produced the magazine on toilet paper, well, people would have probably read it. My readers were ardent and tolerant. You may succeed, therefore, if you are in a speciality field that has a devoted base, even if your profits are small. For a magazine, your chief obstacle to financial success will be finding advertisers. And there is a way to self-produce short books.

Write with self-publishing in mind. If you take an 8 1/2″ by 11″ piece of paper and fold it in half, you have the basis for a book. Add a cardstock cover, staple all of your pages in the middle and voila!, you have a book. Any writing software can format a book like this. And any copy shop can print from the resulting .pdf file. This method will work up to twenty sheets of paper, giving you fifty pages or so in total. Use at least 24 pound paper on the inside if not 28.

Jim Straight is the smartest metal detectorist alive. He’s prospected all his life and his writing shows it. For decades he’s produced his own books, often mailed out of his home, sometimes one at a time, and all done on in that 8 1/2″ by 11″ format. He’s sold thousands and thousands of copies this way, in multiple printings. Photographs and layout are somewhat basic but he effectively conveys his ideas. He’s an expert, people will seek him out on his terms. A printer produces his copies but, again, you can make up your own work at a copy shop if you are simply testing the waters.

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An Excellent Guide to Writing Cover Letters and to Making Pitches

Format Magazine is out with a great page on pitching editors:
(external link)

They advise most of what I’ve recommended over the years but I’d add a few things.

Consider making two or three pitches in an e-mail. An editor knows in a sentence or two if your project is intriguing, why spend four or five paragraphs developing your thoughts when one or two will do? Since you have the editor reading, pitch another topic.

Fewer than one in ten cover letters leads to acceptance, get efficient at writing them and realize they are as hard to craft as the article you are proposing. Learn to accept rejection, and what is even more frustrating, get used to absolutely no acknowledgment at all.

Consider carefully what you might get paid. If the magazine pays only $100 or so, is it worth your time? If the article will require travel, your own photographs, and 2,500 words, it may make more sense to pitch another publication that will let you at least break even.

The time you spend writing for very little could be better spent making pitches to a magazine that will reward your effort. Unless you are resume building or just enjoy writing on a particular subject, always angle for better paying work.

Regarding book proposals, I’d say to query with a one page letter before writing a full proposal. A complete proposal will take you at least a month to write. See that a publisher is interested first rather than commit to what might be a doomed project.

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Describing The Elephant: Part 2

<——- continued from here

John Gray was a busy company. In the late 80’s, we did a million dollars of business each year, operating within a sixty-mile radius of Davis. We had four telephone lines into our undersized office and they were always ringing. On the afternoon of the 28th, I was relaxing in the office. It was a brilliant October day with colored leaves and a little warmth in the air. I was petting Penny, John Gray’s yellow Labrador. I was fond of Penny and took her on rides in my company truck whenever I could. John once said she was the only female he knew that always wanted to go somewhere.

I was seated across from Rebecca’s desk. She was still working as J.E.G.’s irreplaceable office administrator. She finished a call and put the phone down. A strange thought entered my brain. One good call, one bad call. Now why did I think that? Before I could answer myself, the phone rang again. Only this time it had a different ring. Very different. There was an odd tone to it, flat and mechanical. The bell tone was gone. Rebecca didn’t seem to hear any change. But it was obvious and frightening to me. It could not be sounding different, but it was. Here was an appliance as common as a coffee maker, now acting in a completely different manner. I’ve tried hard to explain how strange and menacing it sounded. It would be as if your father turned to you one day and then spoke in your mother’s voice.

At the same time, an enormous surge of power washed through me, like standing three feet from a passing freight train. An unstoppable force, completely awesome in its power. What was happening? As Rebecca reached for the handset, I found myself coming out of the chair, almost shouting at her. “Don’t pick up the phone! Don’t pick up the phone.”

She looked at me like I was crazy. Standing, I looked on in fright as she answered the call. Her expression was quizzical; she clearly could not understand what the caller was saying. And it wasn’t clear whether she recognized the caller. She put down the phone and said, “Now, what was that all about?” I said I didn’t know, but I knew it was bad, very bad. A little dazed, I went home. I didn’t know what had happened, but it was a mystery I could not solve.

The next day I got into work early, as I usually did. No one else was around but John. When he said he had the worst news possible, I thought I had lost my job. And then he said that Jim had killed himself. I broke down and blurted out how sorry I felt for John. It was a terrible morning. Everyone was shocked. No one had thought Jim suicidal. I met Rebecca later. She was at the top of the office stairs. I said, “It was that phone call, wasn’t it?” She nodded. It turned out that phone call was the first message from Jim’s house about his death. Jim had taken one of his shotguns and blown out his heart. Jim’s teenage son discovered his dad’s dead body in a bedroom and was calling for help, desperately trying to reach Jim’s best friend, John Gray.

No one talked immediately about Jim’s death. The coroner refused to rule Jim’s death a suicide. No note. A rumor floated later that Jim might have been having an affair. Did a jealous husband murder Jim? Impossible. What else might be responsible? Some people said he suffered from cluster headaches. Being Jim, he may have ended things when his condition got too bad. Jim always followed through on his decisions. Months later, I heard a note was found in a waterbed repair kit at his home. A pained rambling about his family life. His family never spoke to me about what happened to Jim.

continues ——>

Second company brochure. An installation at Mace Ranch, Davis, California

Link to the e-version where you can read the entire story. Requires Flash: (external link — enable Flash)

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A writer is always waiting on someone or something. Right now I am waiting on an article to be published, an article to be accepted, and a book proposal to be approved. As well as waiting on books to arrive, e-mails to be answered, and a check to appear. Although Milton and Montaigne probably had great thoughts on waiting, I always liked the opening of Apocalypse Now . . . .


The CAMERA MOVES slowly across the room…and we SEE
WILLARD, a young army captain. He looks out the window to
the busy Saigon street.

Saigon…shit. I’m only in Saigon.
Every time, I think I’m gonna wake
up back in the jungle.

He moves back to the bed, lies down. He’s unshaven,
exhausted, probably drunk. We SEE alcohol bottles, photos,
documents scattered on the table.

When I was home after my first
tour, it was worse. I’d wake up
and there’d be nothing. I hardly
said a word to my wife until I
said yes to a divorce. When I was
here, I wanted to be there. When
I was there…all I could think of
was getting back into the jungle.
I’m here a week now. Waiting for
a mission. Getting softer. Every
minute I stay in this room, I get
weaker. And every minute Charlie
squats in the bush…he gets
stronger. Each time I looked
around…the walls moved in a little

He’s up now, naked, going into a frenzy, drinking, doing
some sort of martial arts, eventually collapsing onto the




Two extremely sharp army men walk up the stairs to Willard’s
room, a SERGEANT and a PRIVATE.

Everyone gets everything he wants.
I wanted a mission. And for my
sins, they gave me one. Brought
it up to me like room service. . . . .


an original screenplay by
John Milius and Francis Ford Coppola

Narration written by Michael Herr


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Describing The Elephant: Part 1

In 2017 the Temenos Journal published my first creative nonfiction essay. I’m reproducing it here. It’s called “Describing The Elephant.” It’s a long read and often painful, but there is hope at the end, just like all good stories. I penned this introduction:

Asked if the Jedi were real, Han Solo haltingly confesses that he once doubted it. “I used to wonder about that myself. Thought it was a bunch of mumbo-jumbo. A magical power holding together good and evil, the dark side and the light. Crazy thing is — it’s true. The Force. The Jedi. All of it. It’s all true.”

“Describing the Elephant” challenges the reader to accept that the supernatural is real and all that assertion implies. Denying the paranormal is easy for anyone who hasn’t experienced it. For those of us that have, we struggle to relate what we’ve seen, heard, or felt.

I was not looking for another world, nor did I think one could exist. Without asking, I was granted a fleeting glimpse of something I cannot fully describe. I am a blind man holding the tail of an elephant, powerless to know the animal’s true, full form. But I know the beast exists. It’s real. It’s true. All of it is true.

Describing The Elephant

by Thomas Farley

In 1985 I went to work for a company called John Gray. After five short years, I left the company with enough life lessons learned to last all my days. And despite a terrible tragedy, I learned the greatest truth anyone could know: that a world exists outside of what we see and feel, that a great power beyond our senses is alive and breathing.

I moved to Davis, California in 1985. I came to live with a girl I was very much taken with. Naturally, I needed work. My school and work background were in plants and I applied to two nurseries before winding up at a landscape contractor called J.E.G. A nice woman named Rebecca interviewed me, and I think she was overwhelmed by my intensity. I had just completed a semester long course at U.C. Davis called Arboriculture, and I would talk to anyone at any time about plants. Rebecca said they’d call if something opened up. The next day they phoned and brought me in. They put me behind a mower.

I thought my plant knowledge made me more valuable than a day laborer, but I happily took the job. I liked these people and this was a large company. Possibilities existed. Owned by John Gray and Jim Stromme, J.E.G. Enterprises was a landscape contractor with a small maintenance arm. On my own time, I started coming in weekends to help out. Two years later I was their commercial maintenance superintendent, a fancy term for a commercial gardener. I ran two crews and we did a lot of work.

John Gray, himself, was a dynamic and garrulous individual. He was over six feet and carried his weight well. His build reminded me of a major league ballplayer just past retirement. He had a temper that ignited and faded quickly. Some thought him a frat boy who never grew up. I always had a new joke for him and he appreciated that. He treated his wife poorly and I resented him for it. He allowed mistakes if you were trying to do the right thing. And he was very loyal.

John’s partner, Jim Stromme, was the epitome of a hard-working contractor. Tall, deeply tanned and muscular, Jim was an authority on everything about landscape construction. You learned when he talked. A very supportive boss, he was always telling us to make a decision and then move forward. I never socialized with Jim, but we went to many trade shows and drank heavily. He’d give you time off if you had a personal problem. And he wouldn’t ask why.

The last time I saw Jim was on a late October morning in 1988. I think it was Tuesday, the 25th. Jim was getting into his work truck, one as big and sensible as himself. (We loved our trucks at John Gray.) He was in a bad mood that morning and sounded a little depressed. Not unusual for Jim. He said something bitter, but I can’t recall what it was. I do remember what I told him though, something uncharacteristic for men in a construction company. “You know, Jim, you and John are the best bosses I’ve ever had.” He did a double take, his head turning around as he got into the truck. I can still see that last look on his face, one of puzzlement or being confounded. How hard it is to read people. He drove out of the yard and I thought nothing of the matter until the next day.

Continues ——>

John Gray and Jim Stromme

Link to the e-version where you can read the entire story. Requires Flash: (external link — enable Flash)

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Maynard Dixon

Any photo collection of the Western United States can show you the territory, but if you want to know the soul of the land, you should look to Maynard Dixon. (external link) His portraits of the desert are particularly evocative and he captured the spirit of native people with equal ease. Among Western artists, Frederic Remington understood horses, Dixon once said, but no other artist quite captured the land like Dixon himself.

Ansel Adams wrote of his friend Dixon, “For him, the West was uncrowded, unlittered, unorganized, and above all, vital and free. The horizons were sufficiently distant to inspire dreams and desires, and provided more than enough space to promise fulfillment.”

I’ll never be able to afford a Dixon original, but I have two books about him. One is Maynard Dixon, Images of the Native American, published in 1981 by the California Academy of Sciences. The other is The Drawings of Maynard Dixon by the Achenbach Foundation for Graphic Arts, published in 1985. The former focuses on paintings, the latter on sketches. Many more titles exist.

Road to Nowhere, from Steven Stern Fine Arts

Desert Horizon, from Steven Stern Fine Arts

Nevada Hills, from Wikipedia

Collage of images from a Google Image search

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Eliminating Parentheses. Or, Maybe Not.

I think parentheses look strange and make a sentence choppy. Also, once a writer starts using parentheses, they tend to use them more and more, for reasons I can’t explain. Like semi-colons, once used, they proliferate.

The original paragraph reads well, save for the second sentence. But, in my aversion to parentheses, I’ve rewritten it. And although I have broken up a forty-seven word sentence, I have added to the overall sentence count. That bothers me.

The first bio reads like a list, the second is more story like.

What’s desired? 77 or 89 words? To confuse the matter, this bio must match or be similar to two other bios for this firm. Rewrite one, rewrite them all.

Is there really a best in editing? Or just different choices?


Attorney John Smith has been with Robert Brown Law since 2004. In the 14 years and running that he has worked in the firm, he has handled a wide range of legal issues. These include criminal law (municipal, state, and federal charges), commercial litigation, elder law, family law (divorce, child custody, child support, adoption), employees’ rights and workers’ compensation, nursing home abuse, personal injury, products liability, real estate, Social Security Disability, estate planning, and general civil litigation.


Attorney John Smith has been with Robert Brown Law since 2004. In those 14 years he has dealt with a wide range of legal issues and cases. These include criminal law, handling municipal, state, and federal charges, and family law, managing divorce, child custody, child support, and adoption matters. He’s also handled commercial litigation, products liability, real estate, employees’ rights, and workers’ compensation cases.  In addition, elder law, nursing home abuse, personal injury, Social Security Disability, estate planning, and general civil litigation mark the breadth of this well-rounded practitioner.


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