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Spotlight on Backspace

Learn the best ways to get connected, hone your skills and build your career on the Web in this expanded Q&A with the founders of Backspace.
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Spotlight: Backspace [bksp .org]

Year founded: 2004
Number of members: 1,000
Mission: Writers Helping Writers.
How to join: Backspace charges $40/year for access to the discussion forums, with a five-day free trial period at the outset so prospective members can explore the site and decide if membership is something they think will help advance their career.
About the founders: Co-founder Karen Dionne ( is the author of Freezing Point, a thriller with rave endorsements from David Morrell, John Lescroart and many others. Her next novel, Boiling Point, is forthcoming in October 2010. Christopher Graham is a former independent bookstore owner and co-founder of Backspace and The Backspace Book Promotion Network ( He has written for a variety of newspapers, and his fiction has appeared in BluePrintReview.

You have some amazing stats on the success rate of Backspace members being published. To what do you attribute that success?

Karen Dionne: Backspace began five years ago with a core group of highly motivated and talented writers who were serious about learning all they could about the business and helping one another succeed. Since that time, 45 of the original 110 members have been published—most by major publishers, several more than once, and six are now New York Times bestselling authors.

From the beginning, the high quality of the discussions attracted other like-minded writers, and from there, the ball just kept on rolling.

Describe the writer who can most benefit from involvement with Backspace.

Christopher Graham: I think Backspace benefits writers at all stages. The beginning writer who’s close to finishing a manuscript and preparing to send it out can connect with other writers, even agents. They can learn what pitfalls to avoid, while gaining a unique view into publishing, from landing an agent and what to expect, to working through the publishing process, and all the while gaining insight from people who have actually been there, on both sides of the desk.

I also think the site is invaluable for the newly published and soon-to-be published authors who find themselves perhaps for the first time in a position where they now need to promote and sell their book. Again, they can learn this from people who have actually been there, and who are willing to share what they’ve learned, both good and bad.

What’s unique about Backspace that sets it apart from other online writing communities?

CG: Easy. Our members. The talent level of the writers in our community is nothing short of amazing, as evidenced by the success they’ve had.

KD: Another thing that sets Backspace apart is our agent members. We currently have six literary agents who look in at the forums on a regular basis and answer questions directed to them. Oftentimes, at other sites, members offer advice based on second-hand knowledge or hearsay; at Backspace, authors can get advice straight from the experts.

Most online writing communities seem to take on a distinctive personality of their own. How would you describe yours?

CG: Serious about writing. Serious about publishing. Occasionally, bordering on the funny, but overall it’s a site for writers who are serious about learning how to best position themselves for success, and how to become better writers.

KD: Backspace members are ambitious for their careers, but they’re non-competitive, and check their egos at the door. Members respect one another, and recognize that no matter where an author is in their career, they all have similar desires and goals. An author might not yet be published, but the presumption is that eventually, they will be. There’s a great deal of positive energy on the forums.

What other services/functions do you offer that make your site especially valuable to writers?

KD: Approximately once a month, literary agents, acquisitions editors, publicists, book reviewers and bestselling authors—including Neil Gaiman, Lee Child, Douglas Preston, Robert Crais and David Morrell—conduct online Q&As with Backspace members at the discussion forums. As a result, some members have been offered blurbs, and some have had their manuscripts or proposals requested by agents. And the discussions are always available in the archives, so newer members can get the benefit as well.

Twice a year, we also arrange a query letter workshop in which four or five agents offer comments on 20 members’ query letters. Even for those who don’t actively participate, the workshops are a great education.

Backspace also holds in-house short story contests in which members write to a set of parameters that have been chosen by the previous contest winner. Critiques and comments are offered on the stories, many of which have gone on to be published.

What are the unique ways you’ve seen writers benefit by being active on your site? What can they do to get the most out of it?

CG: Many writers have been able to get blurbs from other authors associated with Backspace, referrals to agents, and unique insight into the process and how best to achieve their goals.

KD: Before my first thriller sold, I asked several bestselling authors—not coincidentally, authors who had been guest speakers at the Backspace discussion forums—if I could send them the first 50 pages of my novel for a possible blurb that my agent could include in the submission package going out to editors. Several did, and I’m convinced having these early endorsements was a factor when my novel sold. I didn’t come up with this idea on my own; I learned it from a Backspace member.

How does your annual conference build on the online Backspace experience?

CG: I’ve often likened the online forums to a virtual writers conference that runs year-round. The real-life conferences not only help solidify that feeling, but also enable us to network with literally hundreds of authors, agents, editors, publicity experts and various other industry professionals, who we encourage to take part in the online community in various ways.

KD: Our conferences put a real-world face on an organization that, technically, has no physical location. The result is that agents, editors and authors often write to Backspace asking how they can be a part of what we’re doing. At our conferences, our faculty teaches to a high level, so that even published authors can take something useful away. And because our conferences are held in New York City, we’re able to bring in far more than the usual number of top agents and editors as faculty members. Many of these people subsequently visit the online forums as guest speakers, so everybody benefits.

You have an annual award for outstanding contribution to the Internet writing community. Why do you think it s so important to recognize the writers helping writers spirit?

KD: There are so many incredibly generous successful writers who haven’t forgotten what it was like starting out and who are more than happy to help others get a leg up. We feel they should be recognized. Many share their knowledge and expertise with other writers via the Internet, and it made sense for our main conference award to recognize the writers who are using that means to reach out and help others.

CG: There’s no handbook or class that will teach you how to become a writer, or how to get published. Then, once your work is accepted/contracted by a publisher, there are very few people who can even tell you what to expect, much less give you some insight into what you need to do to have a successful career. The only the way to get that information is from other writers who have been there, or are on their way. That’s what our conference award recognizes.

To be blunt: Why should writers spend time on your site, rather than on another one or, well, writing?

CG: Writing should always come first. Beyond that, we’re a serious community and we’re serious about writing. There are plenty of websites available for people to connect with old friends, watch videos or download articles and manuals or whatever. There are also plenty of online writing communities that are open to the public, and though they do offer a valuable resource, it can grow tiresome combing through pages of off-topic posts to get to the good stuff. Feel free to connect with your friends on Facebook, or comb the Internet for diversions and reasons to procrastinate, but when you’re ready to get serious about writing and publishing, we’ll be here.

KD: Our members do disappear from time to time when they’re busy writing or promoting, as is to be expected. But thanks to Backspace’s large membership, there’s always someone around to pick up the slack. On any given day, around 200 members log in, so it’s a busy, active place.

How have you personally grown as a writer through your involvement with Backspace? What have you learned?

CG: I’ve learned a great deal from a technical standpoint, such as why omniscient narrators are out of vogue and why you shouldn’t head-hop in the same scene, to how best to approach an agent and how to write a book that stands out from the crowd. With that said, networking is the key, and for me that’s been the greatest experience and advantage I’ve discovered.

KD: Watching literally hundreds of authors get published has taught me that there’s no one “right” way; everyone’s publishing experience will be different. I think that’s an important lesson for a writer to learn, because comparing ourselves to other writers inevitably creates expectations that most likely won’t be met. It’s tough enough to get published and then to stay in the game without setting ourselves up to allow bitterness and discouragement to creep in.

Why do you think it’s important for writers to be active in the online writing community at large?

CG: The Internet has become a huge part of our lives, and even more so in the distribution and disbursement of all types of media. In addition to being able to network with and learn from more experienced writers, it’s also important for all writers to gain a certain level of comfort and knowledge of the Internet and how it can ultimately help, from research to publicity, and everything in between.

KD: The more authors understand about the business they’re trying to enter, the more likely they are to succeed. The Internet writing community is the best school there is. It’s that simple.

How do you recommend new members begin to get involved and see if Backspace is a good fit for them?

CG: We offer a five-day free trial, so anyone who’s interested can check out the forums and the online community and see if it’s a good fit for them. Beyond that, $40 year is a steal when you consider all off the information and resources our community offers.

I always tell people who call about our conferences, and I think it applies here as well: You can be a wallflower, and there’s a great deal of knowledge and information you’ll glean simply through osmosis just being in the same room (or virtual room) as all these other experienced and knowledgeable people. But if you really want to maximize the experience and learn from all of these professionals and benefit as much as possible, you have to be active. At some point, you have to get up off that wall, and get out and dance.

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