August 28, 2012

"Open House" by Elizabeth Berg

Open HouseOpen House by Elizabeth Berg

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read Open House by Elizabeth Berg for the first time four years ago. I discovered her books at the library and read all of Berg’s titles available there, then purchased some additional titles as well. I’ve now read all of her books except, oddly considering my profession, her book on writing, which I haven’t finished yet. A few weeks ago, I decided to purchase paperback editions and re-read a few of Berg’s books. I started with Open House.

I’ve just now gone to Berg’s site to grab a short synopsis, and see that Open House was published by Random House in 2000. This novel was the author’s first (written), but not the first she had published. Here is the synopsis from

A woman whose husband has moved out decides that, rather than selling their house, she will keep it and rent out rooms to boarders. This novel, which was an Oprah pick, is about finding the gifts inside yourself that you've ignored or not been aware of. It emphasizes the fact that sometimes it takes a tragedy to get you to the best place you can be.

Here is mine:

When husband David leaves Samantha after many years of marriage, Sam first reacts by imitating Martha Stewart in an attempt to create the perfect home for her and her 11-year-old son, Travis. When this soon wanes, Sam, determined to keep the family home, opens the doors of her house and the doors of her heart to a few strangers and a man named King, who has a degree in astrophysics and works for a temp agency. Sam starts working there, too, and as the book progresses, Berg weaves the story of how a person’s heart can heal and open to the beauty of the world around them once again, even when they are so profoundly changed by circumstances that they may feel unrecognizable to their former selves. When Sam faces what she thought she once longed for, and makes a surprising decision, some readers may recognize having been faced with a similar dilemma as time marches on and our old dreams boomerang back in our faces, challenging our new desires.

Open House is not simply my favorite Elizabeth Berg book; it is one of my very favorite books ever. This is because it is well-written, well-woven, and I can relate to much of the storyline. My first marriage lasted about the same length as fictional character Samantha’s. My boys were about the same age as Sam’s son, Travis. I, too, had to figure out how to earn money, how to handle a life that had suddenly changed in what felt like every single way, how to parent pre-teen sons and in that process re-invent myself, or find myself, or just grow and change, like many people do. But this commonplace process takes extraordinary strength, I believe (not compared to humanity but compared to what we might have been called upon before to have), and Berg seems to think so also. She blends strength and a fragile sensitivity into the character of Sam (as well as King), and this makes the main character someone you would want as your best friend; someone you want to be happy and to be loved.

As a writer, I find it impressive that in the 241 pages of Open House the author has created endearing characters and a story that touched me so deeply because as I read it I thought, Yes, that! I did that same thing. I felt that same way. This is the magic of Berg’s writing, in this book and in others. If you haven’t yet discovered her books, start with one of her many titles soon.

Note: This is not a paid review, nor a requested review, and I have never worked with Elizabeth Berg, though I have liked her Facebook page.

~Janice Phelps Williams, writer, illustrator, book designer at
Author of Open Your Heart with Pets: Mastering Life through Love of Animals (Transformation Publishing 2012)

View all my reviews

August 21, 2012

For the Path to Publication, the Map Is under Development

An author I have worked with, Jessica Bell, posted a link today to an article from Forbes: Publishing Is Broken, We're Drowning in Indie Books - and That's a Good Thing, by David Vinjamuri. Here is the link.  I wrote a lengthy comment on Facebook about the article, and decided to post it here as well. I'd love to know your thoughts.

I'll be traveling for a few days, so may be delayed in replying to your comments...

My response to Vinjamuri's article:

I can see this issue from several sides: publisher, author, reader. And, Vinjamuri covers the subject well. He doesn't talk much about editing, though, and what I've noticed in 14 years of working with indie authors/self-publishers is that they, some of them, devalue editing. They don't understand the role of an editor, they don't know how to evaluate if an editor is able to do the professional job needed, they confuse proofreading with editing, and they don't know how to access the level of editor they need to ensure their book has its best chance. (The same can often be true of cover design.)

I can't tell you how many times a book has come to me for design already having been "edited" and it is in no way ready for publication. But the author doesn't see it. I've often been hired to re-edit work that was previously edited at great cost and, to be completely honest, there have been times others have been brought in to do a second round of editing on work that I've been involved in (because it takes years to learn how to be a great editor). Publishing houses have multiple people who are professionals and read the manuscript and offer structural suggestions and marketing suggestions and proofreading suggestions. A self-publisher, even if he or she hires the best designer and freelance editor available, would find it difficult to replicate the team effort publishers put into books (at least some books, certainly not all, and certainly not as they did as assuredly decades ago).

It all comes down to money. It takes money to make money. It takes years to learn how to write. It takes years to learn how to edit. I bet if there was a survey, 80% of the people in the US would say they "want to write a book" or "could write a book." In actual fact, it is not such an easy thing to write a successful book. It's a profession, but how does one get paid while they develop the experience and time in the chair at the keyboard that is necessary? And then, when they are finally *there*, a young acquiring editor feels they are too old at 40 or 50 to have much to say.

I have been astounded by the poor quality of ebooks being promoted by self-publishing authors who are hurting their careers by their rush to publish. At the same time, as a writer I understand this and have perhaps fallen victim to the seducing voice of publication as well. I am writing a book. What will happen to it? Who will read it? Is there hope of finding a publisher for it? Should I spend all that time on it then?

Many small publishers will find it difficult to be profitable selling ebooks. The profit margin is so slim. And, in selling printed books, there are so many difficulties on the distribution end. The distributor who gave me my start has gone bankrupt. Borders, the most open store to small publishers, has gone bankrupt. Sometimes I feel like starting a little printed catalog and mailing it out to people to look at while they read their coffee and maybe they will order a book. In fact, there are a few publishers who send me this sort of thing and I love them. The brochures are quirky and the publishers have a definite brand.

I have thought about going the other direction from print on demand, in the direction of collectors' editions of handcrafted books, and then an ebook for those who can't afford the handcrafted book. I'm going to look at this option for "Finding Pletonia."

As a former publisher, I can tell you that ending my 11 years as a publisher (due to the climate of publishing, the numbers, the lack of capital, the competition, the returns, the time in my life that all these things took place, the other choices that I had that were more profitable and fulfilling) has been sobering and of course caused me to think about what works and what doesn't; for me, for authors, and for publishers. And also for readers! I keep settling into bed with books that just don't work well or were not marketed/titled/designed/categorized/proofread correctly.

What I would say to any writer starting out who wants to be published is to write because you must; because there is nothing else on earth you want to do more than writing; because you are willing to work at it; because you want to do it whether you succeed or not. Figure out a way to support yourself, educate yourself about the craft of writing; save up for the services of the best editor you can find, and keep at it.

A final word: Be sure to visit the link to the Forbes article that prompted my post, and also read the many great comments writers have left. It is very insightful and, I think, inspiring to see their comments. I think it is a wonderful time to be a writer, but it is a confusing time as well. The nature of publishing is in transition and it will be exciting to see what the landscape looks like in 3, or 5, or 10 years!

 Forbes: Publishing Is Broken, We're Drowning in Indie Books - and That's a Good Thing, by David Vinjamuri. Here is the link.

~Janice Phelps Williams, (I am an editor, illustrator, and book designer and have brought more than 250 books "to life" since 1997. I am also the author of the "traditionally" published book: Open Your Heart with Pets: Mastering Life through Love of Animals)

August 17, 2012

The Steps to Create Illustrations for a Children's Book

Today,  I am the guest of Karen S. Elliott, The Word Shark, at her blog for writers and readers. I discuss my path to becoming a book designer and illustrator and list out the steps involved in creating illustrations for an author and/or publisher.

Here is the link:

Have a great weekend,