Thursday, April 03, 2008

When You Screw the Pooch

Today, I'm giving confession (even though I'm Jewish). This week, I royally screwed up an article. I didn't realize, of course, that I'd screwed it up so badly - in fact, I thought it was perfectly fine, if not better than fine, or else I wouldn't have handed it in - but when my editor pointed out where and why it wasn't fine, I realized just how in the wrong I had been.

And when I realized my error, I also wondered if it were possible to die from mortification, because I nearly felt like I might.

I've written, I dunno, hundreds of articles in the past few years. I can't remember a time, barring the second article I'd ever written for a national magazine, when I hadn't produced what I was capable of...or at least made the editor happy enough so that he or she thought it was what I was capable of. And this time, well, in retrospect, I didn't. In retrospect, I see why I didn't: I did an interview in which I was totally charmed by my interviewee, and we were having such a good chat - in the way that you do with a confidante - that I failed in my mission to conduct a really probing Q/A.

So what was I to do? I did the only thing I knew how to: I tried to rectify the situation as fast as humanly possible all the while owning up to what I did. I sent off a contrite note to my editor saying, in essence, "Look, I take responsibility for this mistake, it was my fault, and I'm busting my ass to fix it." And in the subsequent nights, I lost sleep (literally) until I found a way to resolve it.

But resolve it I did. That's all I could do. One of my biggest pet peeves in work (and in life - just ask my husband) is when you don't take ownership for your mistakes. No one is interested in excuses, even if you somehow think they cast you in a better light. Most often, they don't. So just get on with it, apply the band-aid and find a way to heal the wound.

I'm hopeful that I did. And you can be damn sure that this is a lesson well-learned. Just because you're a pro doesn't mean that you're infallible. I won't forget that again.

So tell me, anyone want to share their own screw-up story, just to make me feel a little better? :) Or if not, share what you do when you realize that you've made a professional screw-up.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

When the Payout Doesn't Pay

I'm guessing that a lot of you already saw this piece from the weekend's NY Times on how bloggers are still being offered huge book deals. Basically, for those of you who haven't yet read it, the article highlights a recent (rumored) $300,000 deal for a blogger who runs a blog called, Stuff White People Like. There are then various quotes as to why this is a ridiculously high number, how bloggers are still sought after but most of the hot ones are already taken by agents, and how a good many of these books, including Gawker's, fail.

Interesting. To be honest, I didn't realize that this was still such a trend: I thought that publishers had maxed out on bloggers and weren't really pursuing their deals with the same frenzy.

Evidently, I don't know what I'm talking about.

This article - and the $300,000 figure - were being discussed on several boards I frequent, and the general consensus was some sort of weird ire at the blogger. Or maybe I mistook that and people just thought the publishing house was insipid to throw this sort of money at an unproven author. But in my mind, certainly, the author shouldn't be blamed. In fact, I say, good for him! If he can milk that money out of a publishing house who foolishly threw it at him, who am I to hold it against him? It's the publisher, the one who got caught up in the bidding frenzy, who should be held responsible - as noted in the NY Times piece, it's highly unlikely that said publisher will earn back that money, but then again, ya never know, and I guess they wanted to take their chances.

But herein is the big problem with our industry: no one knows which books will sell. Maybe it will be this $300,000 purchase, maybe not. There is little to no market research, little actual marketing beyond the first few weeks of a book's release, and while many people involved love books, they don't have a real understanding of the financial decisions behind the business, and thus, many books "fail," despite these huge advances and/or buzz.

My husband, who is in finance, always shakes his head and says things like, "It's like no one wants to make any money in publishing." And while, obviously, this isn't true, the net effect of it is the same: few books do make money, and no one is really fixing the problem. In my opinion, the problem is this: too many books are published and then left to languish with no marketing or publicity behind them. Too many other books are given huge pushes, and it turns out that they're not so good. When a book does succeed, sometimes it's serendipity, sometimes it's a really good book, and sometimes, it's just luck. So what's the solution? Gasp...I think the industry should publish fewer books and rather than try to meet some sort of quota with how many they have to churn out, focus instead on finding gems that will resonate (or even be heard of!) with their respective markets.

I've rambled. I meant to stay on topic about bloggers and book deals because certainly, some can do well, like the success stories of Jen Lancaster and Stephanie Klein. But the larger point, I guess, of this post, is that when a publishing house throws $300,000 at an author, and no one buys the book...who is to blame? To me, it's the publishing house, even though the author will be the one to take the fall.

Monday, March 31, 2008

Jen Singer is a Good Mom...And Her Books Aren't So Bad Either

So today, I'm thrilled to host a Q/A with my friend, Jen Singer, who founded the very prosperous network and is the author of two books, including the newly-released You're a Good Mom (and Your Kids Aren't So Bad Either). Jen is admirable for a lot of reasons - for one, as you'll read below, she turned the other ear when rejection knocked on her door; for two, she then went ahead an established an unbelievable platform; and for three (among other things), she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma smack in the middle of writing You're a Good Mom, but she absolutely refused to put her life on hold because of cancer. Read on to see why I (and a lot of others) think that Jen is pretty kick-ass. And don't forget to pick up a copy of her book!

1) You have a great story about how tough the road can be to publication and how if you dig into the trenches, you can come out on top. Can you share with us that success story?

When I tried to publish my first book, 14 Hours 'Til Bedtime, all I knew about platform was the About the Author paragraph in the back of books. I figured that if I'd been published in major magazines like I had been, that would be enough to get a book deal. Silly me. The subsequent rejections from publishers all pretty much said the same thing: "Talented writer, but she has no platform." One editor even lamented, "Too bad she's not famous!" If only I could prove I was Elvis' love child.

My book was published by a very small publisher and sold well despite being available pretty much only on Amazon and the trunk of my mother's car. But I wanted more for my future books, so I set out to build my platform up from the ground by growing my web site,, from a cute little site that only my mom and a neighbor read to a formidable presence among the mommy blogging community. I hired a personal publicist, who still works with me today, and together we blasted the media until my platform got big enough to get the attention of publishers, especially the ones who had wished I was famous.

2) We've been chatting a bit about platform building recently on the blog, and you are one of the best examples I know of as someone who created an amazing platform for herself. How did you go about doing this?

The short answer is dogged determination and the desire to keep on writing funny little things. But it's more complicated (and exhausting) than that. Launched in 2003 when my kids weren't in school at the same time, MommaSaid is now the base of my platform. It allows me to keep in touch with moms around the world, which makes me attractive to journalists and producers who want to know what makes moms tick. I answer Profnet leads relentlessly, and I set up a page on MommaSaid called the Magazine Rack, where journalists and producers can troll for sources. It keeps MommaSaid in front of the media while providing them a free service. Meanwhile, my readers get to see their names in print.

Over the years, I've acted as a spokesperson for Huggies Pull-Ups, Similac and Listerine, and as a consultant for Disney's Their PR firms contacted me through MommaSaid. I've also forged relationships with the publicity departments at various publishing houses by giving away free books as Housewife Awards. So, when my books are being shopped around, the PR folks already know me. And I blog and blog often. That keeps the readers coming back for more. Plus, relentless blogging helped me land a parenting tweens blog at Good Housekeeping. I could prove to my editor that I could keep up a quality blog for the long-term because I'd already been doing it. Now that I've blogged for them for a year, the deal has gotten even sweeter: Yahoo will syndicate it starting this week. That's about six million readers, and I don't have to do anything more than I've already been doing.

Finally, I've built up a fan base by being true to the moms who visit MommaSaid, which is about to have a makeover. I keep up the site -- posting just about every day. (I taught myself HTML, but my husband is an IT guy who can help me with the technical stuff. I married smart.) I've even created a social network based on my newest book, "You're a Good Mom (and Your Kids Aren't So Bad Either)" out this week from Sourcebooks.

3) How critical do you think having a platform is these days and do you have any beginner's advice for readers who are looking to establish a name for themselves?

Platform is king. The writing has to be good, too, but we all know that celebrities get book deals and sell books because of their names. You can build platform, too, but you have to shift your mindset. For example, at last year's ASJA meeting, fellow author Paula Spencer was telling another writer about my online success. She had just published a book, and was trying to build an accompanying blog after years of success in traditional media, most notably as a Woman's Day columnist. The other writer, a curmudgeonly old-school journalist was unimpressed. "Why would I give away my writing?" he barked. "I'm not writing unless I’m getting paid." If you want to be a working journalist, that's a fine approach. But if you want to build platform, you need to "give away" some of your writing in order to create a fan base. ("The Long Tail" author Chris Anderson wrote a great article about this concept in Wired: A book is due out next year.)

I won't kid you; it's a lot of work. But it affords me the opportunity to do the kind of writing I love. There aren't enough essay markets to make a living, and, even though I've managed to garner a lot of back page spots in Parenting magazine, that's only part of the multi-faceted platform behemoth that MommaSaid is becoming.

4) How much easier was it to sell/publish your second book than your first?

Actually, I didn't sell my second book. Two years after my first book was published, my (now former) agent tried to shop around a book called, How Come I Only Get to Sit Down in My Mini-Van? But I was up against an onslaught of mommy bloggers, and, apparently, my platform was still too small. I was deflated. A year later, I switched agents. My new (and current) agent shopped around You're a Good Mom (and Your Kids Aren't So Bad Either). Sourcebooks bought it in January of 2007. At the same time, I got a call from an editor at Healthcare Communications, the publisher of the Chicken Soup series. They wanted to create a series of books based on the MommaSaid brand. Four years after launching MommaSaid, my platform had arrived -- and I didn't even have to write a book proposal. I've finished writing the first of those books, a guide book to raising toddlers, and now I'm working on the preschooler version between publicity gigs for Good Mom. Those two will be published before Mother's Day of 2009. A baby book is slated for the following fall.

5) I LOVE the cover and title of this book. How did you come up with the concept and what made you want to write it?

I had been writing a blog called MommaHeard designed to bring the news that's important to moms who don’t have time to read more than the headlines. (I still write it. I am a news junkie.) I also did a weekly radio spot based on the blog until the show's host left radio. What I found is that mothers were trying too hard to try to keep up with Super Moms, thereby giving up and becoming Slacker Moms. One was bad for mom and the other bad for the kids. But I knew that there was a sweet spot between the two where you can raise perfectly good kids without losing yourself or your sanity. My editor at Sourcebooks, Shana Drehs, pushed for a better title, and I'm glad she did. It was originally "Don’t Answer the Phone When the Class Mom Calls," after one of the chapter titles, but that didn't tell the whole story of the book, so she asked for more. Then, just like "14 Hours 'Til Bedtime," I woke up with the Good Mom title one morning.

I pushed for the cover, because I didn't like the image Sourcebooks had chosen. It was stock drawing of a retro housewife, and I felt it didn't fit the book. (Turns out, it's on another book's cover anyhow.) They used Goldfish crackers first, and I loved it, but when Tom Perrotta's publisher had used them on "Little Children," Pepperidge Farm sued them. So we ditched that idea. On the way to the pediatrician's office one night in December, my kids and I brainstormed and came up with the rubber ducks. I love that Sourcebooks made one of the ducks going the other way. We all have a kid like that. So far, it's gotten a lot of attention from radio shows and magazines. We'll be pitching TV soon.

6) You've also had an incredible year personally: in addition to publishing your second book, you kicked cancer's ass after you were diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and managed to keep an incredible sense of humor about the whole thing as you did. And I know that your snarky good humor is also in full form in the book. I'm always talking about positive thinking on my blog - both as a mother and as a writer - so how do you maintain your healthy attitude, even when things, whether it's your aspirations for your book or your health, veer wildly off-track? I think there are some wise lessons to be learned from you!

I had four chapters of You're a Good Mom left to write when I found out I had cancer, fittingly on D-Day, June 6th. I know I could have abandoned the book and nobody would have flinched. But when you're faced with death, you find out what's truly important to you. Turns out, writing -- or at least the kind of writing I do -- is important to me. Sourcebooks gave me a six-week extension, and my brother gave me his laptop. I wrote parts of the book on the oncology floor at New York Hospital and parts at outpatient chemo. (When else do I get to sit for four whole hours and write?) Lucky for me, humor is my defense mechanism. I turned in the manuscript a week early, and I'll bet no one can tell which chapters (written out of order) were penned pre-diagnosis and which were fueled by Percocet and fear. Meanwhile, Good Housekeeping let me blog about parenting with cancer once a week on my blog. My editor and I call it "Cancer Thursdays!" like it's a special at Applebee's or something.

Even though I'm in remission now, I still write about cancer, because it's cheaper than therapy. Besides, I still have something to say. The three-book deal has also helped pull me through this crisis. I had just met my HCI editor at BEA five days earlier when I found out I had cancer. At that point, we didn't have anything in writing, and I feared they'd dump me. When my agent e-mailed me in the hospital to tell me HCI was 100% behind me, I cried with relief. My nurse went out and bought me Haagen-Dazs pops to celebrate, and I've been hooked on them ever since. I attribute the hard work of "my people" for helping save my career. My agent, my publicist, my manager/lawyer and my assistant all kept the MommaSaid machine running, even though I was laid up. I didn't start out with all of this help five years ago, but as MommaSaid grew, I needed them to get my platform to the next level, because unless you're Dave Barry or Madonna, there's always a next level. Frankly, I'm just glad I have hair now. You know, in case The Today Show calls.