Sep 2011

Picking a subtitle, planning a campaign

An interesting issue arose recently as the publisher and I pondered subtitles, promotional ideas and catalog descriptions for Write Hard, Die Free: did we want to emphasize what I think are the most significant aspects of the book, or the things that make it most appealing and entertaining to read?

As you’d expect, I think it offers both, but “Good and good for you” isn’t much of a book marketing slogan.

The title, cover and description obviously offer the most important elements. Luckily for me there are also a number of other venues for letting people know more about the book as well.

I settled pretty firmly on the main title some time ago.
Write Hard, Die Free was for a long time the motto of our feisty newsroom, genuinely descriptive of the approach we took to journalism and also of our aspirations. As a friend pointed out much later, the two elements of the slogan work in tension to form a relationship: passionate struggle leading to liberation.

Deep, I know. But true.

We’ve opted for one of the most customer-friendly choices amongst subtitles:
Dispatches from the battlefields & barrooms of the Great Alaska Newspaper War. Given the combination of “newspaper” and “war” in the book, “dispatches” has always seemed like a good word. I initially wanted something more substantive in the subtitle; my longtime favorite was Battling corruption, Big Oil and bad journalism to win the Alaska Newspaper War (and two Pulitzers). That described the part of the story I am most proud of—beating the odds in a quest for truth-telling—but doesn’t offer much to potential readers who might simply like the colorful and unusual tales I tell.

One of the book’s subsidiary themes is missing from all the subtitles we considered: how the lessons we learned during the war provide a kind of blueprint that remains valuable to those involved in journalism’s transformation.

I hope to engage both those missing themes (battling big foes, learning big lessons) elsewhere: on the back cover of the printed book, in social media promotions, by targeting tailored messages to different potential audiences. If we can do this right, you can expect to see a different pitch if you’re a journalism school dean than if you’re a longtime Alaska political activist.

Write Hard, Die Free will be released simultaneously as an eBook, which offers additional and different marketing opportunities. I expect one of the predictable audiences—journalists scattered around the country—may be more likely to purchase an inexpensive eBook than to order or look for a printed copy. If that’s true it will make sense to emphasize the “lessons learned” and reflections on journalism transformation in the electronic edition.

More on that as we get close to launch in early spring 2012.

What should the book jacket say?

My publisher has asked for a description of Write Hard, Die Free that can be used in marketing, book catalogs and (in some form) on the back jacket.

I’ve taken a couple of runs at this and thought I’d see what you thought. You’ll see two rather different approaches. For lack of better characterization, I’d call the first one more a serious description and the second more focused on selling potential readers on the book.

I, of course, would love to convince a lot of readers that
Write Hard, Die Free is an entertaining book they’re likely to enjoy. But I also think there’s reason to think the first approach might intrigue a different kind of potential reader, perhaps especially those whose interest isn’t primarily Alaska.

What do you think:

My first version:

The history a newspaper and a blueprint
for tomorrow’s journalism

Write Hard, Die Free
is the memoir of an era—a time when Alaska struggled to define its modern personality and two fiercely competitive newspapers fought for the right to tell that story. Though populated with a dozen characters worthy of Jack London or Robert Service, the real hero of this story is the quest for honest journalism in the face of opposition from politicians, advertisers and the oil industry.

Anchorage Daily News should not have been able defeat the Anchorage Times, its older, richer, more successful rival. In telling how it did, longtime editor Howard Weaver also describes a distinctive style and philosophy that anticipated much about today’s journalism. The book offers a blueprint for producing tomorrow’s news discovered on the battlefields of a legendary newspaper war.

The paper’s distinctive playbook recognized that readers were the only lasting friends of it’s ferocious truth-telling style: advertisers, politicians and even publishers would sometimes flinch, but a loyal growing readership supported the newsroom and sustained the business.

This proved true even when a coalition of major oil companies launched a covert effort to boost their reliable allies at the
Times, leading to one of the most unpredictable David and Goliath endings in newspaper history.

My second version:

The ultimate insider tells all about
the Great Alaska Newspaper War

Across two crucial decades of the battle for Alaska’s future, Howard Weaver “climbed from foot solider to field marshal, from insurgent to incumbent, from underdog to victor” but never left the fight. Along the way he partied with small time hoodlums and big time politicians, crossed swords with Big Oil and Big Labor and piloted the Anchorage Daily News to the most unlikely David and Goliath upset in American journalism history.

The future of the young state of Alaska was still a closely fought contest in the 1970s and 1980s when Weaver and a cadre of talented young journalists began uncovering the union wrongdoing, oil company duplicity and political corruption that had long been left to fester out of sight. Along the way they would twice win journalism’s biggest prize—the Pulitzer Gold Medal for Public Service—and one of America’s last classic newspaper wars.

Alaska-born, Weaver cared passionately and fought fiercely in every political struggle of the era, from oil development to Native sovereignty, from park land designations to environmental activism. He also found time to explore the night clubs and after hours card rooms of Anchorage’s demimonde, where people like Freddy the Fix and Put Your Hat On Brown were earning spots in the knaves gallery of the last frontier.
Anchorage Daily News pulled no punches in telling Alaska’s story, and Weaver has pulled none in telling his own here.


Well, this is embarrassing

I sent an email about my book to a number of folks today with the following subject line:

Subject: I'm asking for your help me with my book

Damn. I proofed the email pretty carefully. Too bad I didn’t also pay attention to that.

Name this book: your chance to help pick our subtitle

It’s all but certain my book title will be Write Hard, Die Free. (Titles, you may not know, generally are a negotiation between author and publisher. Fortunately, my publisher is a former newspaperman.)

It needs a subtitle, too. I’ve thought of many and boiled them down to this list. I’d like to know which you like best, and whether maybe you have a better idea of your own.

To vote on these, pick your top three favorites and send them to me ranked First, Second, Third. (If you have three ideas that all better than mine, great. Send ‘em all.) You can send them in with
the feedback form here, or email me by clicking the Contact Me link below.

Write Hard, Die Free

1. How we won the Alaska Newspaper War
— and had some fun along the way

2. Dispatches from the front lines of
one of America’s last newspaper wars

3. Dispatches from the Alaska Newspaper War

4. Dispatches from the front lines
of Alaska’s great newspaper War

5. Battling corruption, Big Oil and bad journalism
to win the Great Alaska Newspaper War

6. Battling corruption, Big Oil & bad journalism
to win the Alaska Newspaper War

7. Battling corruption and Big Oil
to win the Alaska Newspaper War

8. [Insert your better idea here]


Some kind of milestone

I passed some kind of milestone on my journey from idea to published book today. At least, I’m going to declare it a milestone and celebrate.

The story thus far ...

Why I decided to write a book about the Alaska newspaper war, and how I’ve proceeded in doing so. Read More...