What I Learned on My Very Long SEINFELDIA Book Tour

 

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Mini-pies and black and white cookies in Louisville.

I’m sort-of done with my book tour for Seinfeldia‘s hardcover edition—which I certainly should be, given that it came out nearly nine months ago. I have a few book festivals and paid speaking engagements left, but as far as my straight-ahead, girl-and-a-book road show is concerned, I’m wrapped until paperback (which is a mere three months away in June). In any case, it’s a good time to reflect on some things I’ve learned on this tour, which was by far the most intense book promotion I’ve ever done. Not only was this book a bestseller about a topic people loooove, which meant more invitations than I’d ever gotten before; I also did the Jewish Book Council, which books authors who are Jewish or who have Jewish books at synagogues and JCCs across the country, paying for all travel expenses. (Publishers very rarely pay for tours these days, so usually authors themselves are paying their travel if not for an organization like the JBC.)

 

I did enough appearances that I lost count long ago, but I would say dozens. I know how lucky I am to have a book people want to hear about; though it is an arduous process, I remain a big believer in the value of meeting people in person and making connections throughout the country. I have stayed in fancy hotels and in people’s homes; I have been feted with fancy nighttime soirees and I have been asked, upon requesting the luxury of water during my speech, “Is warm water okay?” I have been stuck in the special hell known as a missed connecting flight several times. I have sold anywhere from 1 to 60 books in a night, with crowds ranging from a handful to 200 or so.

If you’re touring with a book yourself anytime soon, please learn from my experiences:

  • Get TSA Precheck, then make sure anyone booking your flights has your Known Traveler Number, then make sure it shows up on every ticket you get. I had Precheck, and it saved me untold agony; but there were also a few glitches when it didn’t show up, and one time this was compounded by a nightmare scenario that had me going back and forth between terminals three times at one airport. Every time, I had to go through standard security with my carry-on.
  • San Francisco International Airport has a yoga room in Terminal 2. It is tiny and no-frills but an extremely pleasant way to spend time between flights.
  • Make your job easier: Have something going on besides just reading or talking. I’m lucky in that I can show scenes from one of the funniest sitcoms of all time. I put together some edited clips, which I showed at the vast majority of my events. It’s a pain beforehand, because you need to make sure your venue has an audio-visual set-up that works. But it’s much more fun for everyone, including you. Alternatives to this include having an interview/discussion with another author (my friend, rockstar author Jami Attenberg, has been doing this on her tour right now to great effect) or putting together a little panel—I usually do this in Los Angeles, where, for instance, several former Seinfeld writers are based. In Louisville, with The J, I did a joint event with Seinfeld composer Jonathan Wolff that was a highlight of my tour.
  • If you do have an A/V presentation, put together a little kit of all the adapters you might need. I have a Mac laptop, so I don’t go anywhere without an HDMI adapter and a VGA adapter. I often bring my own HDMI cable, too, just in case. Jonathan speaks often on the road, and he showed me his even fancier kit, which includes his own lavaliere mic pack.
  • If you need to put together film clips, I recommend ScreenFlow, though certainly there are other programs as well.
  • Don’t travel on a day when there is a deeply emotional, historic election for President of the United States happening. You will be extra distressed when you then get stuck overnight in Charlotte, North Carolina, and your airline does not provide accommodations and you seem eternally doomed to a hell full of CNN TVs blasting terrible news at you. Just a general tip.
  • If you’re planning your own events, partner with a venue that has its own outreach—mailing lists, social media, etc. This goes double/triple/quadruple for cities where you don’t personally have a huge network. My best events were at places like Book Soup in Los Angeles, the Museum of Broadcast Communications in Chicago, Word bookstore in Brooklyn, and the 92nd Street Y in New York City.
  • Small towns often have big turnouts. When I got invitations through the Jewish Book Council, it was tempting to just jump at places like Portland, Oregon, and ignore places like Dayton, Ohio, or Newport News, Virginia. No offense to those places, but some cities are just more travel-glamorous than others. Portland was great—it’s one of my favorite cities, and I got to stay in a sweet hotel—but Dayton and Newport News, among other smaller cities, drew some of my biggest crowds. In a place like Portland, there are about three bazillion impossibly cool cultural activities to compete with on any given night; the JCCs I visited in Dayton and Virginia were the hot spots for the night.
  • The bigger deal an event seems, the better it will be. Sounds kind-of duh, but let me explain: If you’re just another author they’re parading through on a daily or weekly basis, neither you nor your guests—if they even show up—will get much out of it. My most memorable events were the ones where we had themed food like Junior Mints and black-and-white cookies, trivia contests, and even—thanks, Louisville!—special themed cocktails and goodie bags. Do what you can, along with your hosts, to make an event An Event.
  • The Savannah Book Festival rules. A total highlight. They made me feel like a celebrity.
  • Applebee’s is not bad in a pinch. The salmon is great and a mere 540 calories.
  • Do not underestimate free breakfast at the hotel.
  • Make a standard list for packing that includes whatever you need for your presentation, what you want to wear for your presentation, and whatever else keeps you sane (I always bring workout clothes). Next time I want to get better at this and come up with a basic set of healthy, air travel-friendly snacks to pack. The eating situation has been a nightmare.
  • Shop for a few go-to outfits beforehand that span whatever seasons might be necessary. I have a lighter linen blazer and a wool blazer, plus a few cotton dresses that aren’t easily marred by travel. All of these outfits can be worn with the same black boots.
  • Don’t assume that because you’ve been asked to speak somewhere, your books will be for sale. Ask ahead of time so you can decide whether it’s worth showing up.
  • Especially for events where your book isn’t for sale, have something easy to hand out to remind people of your book; I got bookmarks made.
  • Don’t put too much pressure on yourself. If there’s a small turnout, that’s only the tiniest bit to do with you and everything to do with the weather, the venue, local and national events, and all kinds of other things. One event planner at a Barnes & Noble told me that even INSERT NAME OF SUPER-FAMOUS MULTI-BESTSELLING AUTHOR OF AIRPORT-SOLD MYSTERIES HERE showed up once to an audience of zero.
  • Have fun and make friends with organizers and booksellers. They’ll be your allies next time around.

Any authors have any other book tour tips? I’d love to hear them!

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Upcoming SEINFELDIA Events

In the next several weeks, I’ll be in Georgia, Philadelphia, Connecticut, Oregon, and Staten Island talking Seinfeldia. Join me if you’re in the area!

Feb. 16-19, Savannah Book Festival, GA: Appearance.

7 p.m., Feb. 22, Museum of Jewish History, Philadelphia: SEINFELDIA presentation and signing.

11 a.m., March 8, JCC Greenwich, CT: SEINFELDIA presentation and signing.

7 p.m., March 14, Mittleman Jewish Community Center, Portland, OR: SEINFELDIA talk and signing.

7 p.m., March 16, Staten Island HillelSEINFELDIA talk and signing.

How to Fight Evil with ‘Pens, Books, and Advanced Acrobatics’

I just learned about Pakistan’s cartoon Burka Avenger, thanks to a piece I’m writing for BBC Culture about superheroines. Of course I loved her from the minute I heard her name, but what’s particularly striking about her is her emphasis on literacy: The intro tells us (according to the English subtitles) that her weapons are “pens, books, and advanced acrobatics.” In the first episode, she saves a girls’ school from closing down:

She reminds me of the women I’m lucky enough to mentor through the Afghan Women’s Writing Project. These women often risk their safety just for the chance to write their own stories. We help them to share them with the world in English. Please check out some of their work on the site. They are truly fighting evil with pens and books. I can’t speak for the advanced acrobatics, but I hope they don’t need them.

I Love People Who Do Shit

tumblr_nq4g0ghgDu1tgjrx8o1_1280I recently finished reading Brenna Ehrlich’s addictive teen novel Placid Girl. I want to tell you about it because she’s a friend, but even moreso because it’s good and even moreso because she made this happen.

I met with Brenna years ago to give her whatever advice I could muster about finding and dealing with agents. I talk to lots of people about this, because the word “agent” sounds kinda glamorous and people like hearing about how to get one, like hearing where you got your SodaStream or microsuede sofa. But she was one of the serious ones, which I knew even then, but have proof now: She didn’t just write a kick-ass book. She decided to start her own publishing company to put it out, All Ages Press.

I love people who just fucking do shit. They want something. They figure out how to do it. Then they do it.

This is rarer than one might think.

As hinted, I talk to a lot of people who claim to want to be writers or whatever. But they often don’t seem to like the work and rejection and etc. that come with that. I love seeing things come together for the rare others, the Brennas who put in the work to write the book and to get it out there.

Of course, this would be less exciting if it wasn’t a good book. But the Emo Teen inside of me just loved this one. It’s a moody mystery about Hallie, shy girl who’s a drummer in a band and obsessed with a mysterious, mask-wearing musician named Haze. Basically all hell breaks loose when she starts getting direct messages via an Instagram-like app from a guy who claims to be the reclusive Haze, and it becomes part road-trip adventure, part romance, and part gothic mystery.

You should check it out, and support people who do shit.

SEINFELDIA: The Official Cover

SEINFELDIAThe official cover for Seinfeldia is here, and I love it! Something about book covers makes the author feel like she made it, because what’s inside the book inspired the cover, even though obviously I had nothing to do with it. I guess it also makes it feel like a real book. It will actually be a real book in summer of 2016. For now enjoy the wonderful graphic design from Rinee Shah, then visit her site for even more delicious Seinfeld-related illustrations: Her Seinfood series, all based on food plotlines from the show, will make you want to decorate your entire house in Seinfeld references.

The Economics of Book Deals

moneyWhen I wrote about my own experience going freelance in my Ultimate Guide to Starting a Freelance Writing Business, I mentioned the specific development that allowed me to quit my day job: a six-figure book advance. I didn’t want to get bogged down in the mechanics of book advances/the state of the publishing industry in that post, which was long and involved enough. That said, a freelancer friend wisely pointed out that I might want to explain that further, in case anyone’s reading that and thinking, “Oh, okay! I’ll just get a six-figure book advance then.” There are a number of reasons that I could think this was a reasonable expectation for me at that time (and these reasons, not coincidentally, double as a list of ways I was lucky):

1. We are talking about the lowest end of “six figures.” (I feel like I’m supposed to be coy about this, but you get my drift.)

2. I had made this much for my first book, Why? Because We Still Like You. This was pure luck. I got this book as an “assignment”; Grand Central Publishing was looking for someone to write a book about the original Mickey Mouse Club. I had written a lot about current Disney Channel stars while working at Entertainment Weekly. An agent I was working with then heard they needed someone and put me forward for it. I got the gig. Their budget was pre-set at something like $80K and my agent talked them up a bit.

3. The book that allowed me to quit my job was Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted. It was sold on auction, which means that publishers were competing for it, which drives the price up. Many, though not all, of the other offers were very low. I would not have been able to quit my job on those offers. I actually didn’t know what I was going to do if that was as high as we went, because I really did not want to write this book while holding a full-time job. Working at EW was incredibly demanding at this point because we’d laid lots of people off and were trying to feed the web beast. And I wanted to do a great job on the book. So this was a total gamble. We ended up with a few big publishers wanting it in hardcover in the end, though, which is crucial for an advance this large. Luckily, I really liked the two highest bidders, and the absolute highest was Jon Karp, the publisher at Simon & Schuster, who turns out to be a huge Mary Tyler Moore Show fan. This was a no-brainer. (In further lucky news, he ended up editing my book himself, which was an invaluable experience for me.)

4. In conclusion, this was a Cinderella story and not a sure thing.

I think there are a few specific lessons that you, as a person who is not me, and who is possibly considering a similar career path, can take from my experience:

1. Non-fiction tends to sell better than fiction. There’s more of it, and more demand for it, no matter what your pre-conceived picture of an “author” is. It’s also less dependent on you as a name and more dependent on subject matter. Which brings us to …

2. My solo books have all been about TV shows. This makes them more dependent on the show as a brand name and less dependent on me.

3. That said, I have a pretty strong “platform” for writing about this stuff, thanks to having spent ten years at a national magazine covering television. Not only do they trust that I can pull it off, but they also know I have connections who can help spread the word about the book in the right places.

4. In contrast to all of the above, for instance, the book I co-authored with Heather Wood Rudúlph, Sexy Feminism, sold for much, much less. It was meant for a young, female audience, so it made sense to go paperback-only. Furthermore, it had no built-in hook like a very popular television show. I loved doing this book, but it was not the reason I could quit my job. I’m told this is a much more normal experience; I’ve often heard $10K-$20K for a book is the best most people can expect, especially for a first book.

I hope this helps anyone pondering books as a “money-making” option. Also keep in mind that for non-fiction, advances are doled out in halves, thirds, or fourths, usually over a couple of years between signing the deal and publishing the book. So even what sounds like a lot at first isn’t that much. Keep all of this in mind as you ponder quitting your day job.

If anyone has questions (that I can answer) about any of this, let me know!

My Favorite Books About Writing Nonfiction

41lhhayQO9L._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_I always love reading about writing. I caution students about spending so much time reading about it that they never actually do it, but these books in particular have been invaluable in shaping my own approaches to writing. Some of them focus on nonfiction specifically, while many are great for any kind of writing:

The Artful Edit, by Susan Bell: I use this every time I do a self-edit on a manuscript. It’s also a fun book to read straight through. She uses the editing process for The Great Gatsby — detailed in letters between Fitzgerald and his editor — to show how editing makes everything better.

The New New Journalism, by Robert Boynton: Interviews with all the rock stars of current creative nonfiction — Ted Conover, Erik Larson, Susan Orlean. This is like a fan magazine for nerds like me.

The Artist’s Way, by Julia Cameron: For anyone doing any kind of writing, or any kind of art, this is a go-to for kick-starting your creativity. It’s a practical, step-by-step process full of nutty self-helpy stuff that I just tune out. I resist what Tom Bissell once brilliantly called “tea and angels writing” — you know, workshops about finding yourself through writing and that sort of thing — and this book has a lot of that silly ’90s self-help language in spades. But underneath is an effective plan for getting your creative juices flowing. I’ve done it at least five times throughout my adulthood.

Storycraft, by Jack Hart: Helps with the hardest parts of nonfiction — making real life into great stories, while still telling the absolute truth.

Telling True Stories, by Mark Kramer: Covers journalism as well as book-length nonfiction, through written pieces by and interviews with writers and editors.

Bird by Bird, by Anne Lamott: A classic. Great inspiration to just keep going with your work — even, especially, when you’re feeling despondent or overwhelmed.

Why We Should All Give Subscriptions and Books as Gifts

magazines-0607-lgI love the idea set forth in this Huffington Post blog post by Josh Stephens: He promises to give subscriptions as gifts this year as a way of supporting the journalism profession. Everyone’s always decrying the state of journalism — note the irony that this idea is proposed on HuffPo, the biggest offender in the “let’s pay writers in exposure, not money” business. So why not do at least a little toward helping to keep journalism alive and paid? I’d add books to the mix, too. Instead of, or at least in addition to, bitching about the state of publishing, let’s support it as much as possible. I think both businesses will find new ways to survive, but there’s no reason we can’t help a little, while giving great gifts along the way.

In Praise of Friends Who’ll Read Your Manuscripts

girl with bookWhen students ask me what my “one piece of advice” is for aspiring writers, it’s usually: Read. But my second piece of advice — something people rarely ask for — is almost as important. That piece of advice: Cultivate a group of friends willing to read your stuff before it’s published.

I recently taught a workshop about writing book proposals, and a professional copyeditor was among my students. This was his advice, too: Don’t turn anything in ever without having at least one other person read it first. Other people can see holes in your work that you can’t. They can point out places where your knowledge and research is overwhelming your ability to see that others won’t understand something. They can tell you, whether you like it or not, when you’re not making a lot of sense to anyone who does not have your brain. (One of the other students asked, “What if I’m not ready to show my friends?” I will tell you the same thing I told him: If you’re not ready to show your friends, you’re definitely not ready to send it to a potential agent or publisher. I understand the sentiment — it sometimes feels easier to send something off to a faceless stranger, as if you’re sending something into an abyss. But it will be an abyss if you don’t edit your manuscript carefully and work out all its kinks before it ends up in front of someone who matters. You’ll never get anywhere that way.)

I’m going through this process with my Seinfeld manuscript now, having three friends of varying knowledge about the show read my manuscript draft. It’s my favorite part of writing a book, actually. First of all, this means I’m in the home stretch. Second, finally someone else is reading all of this stuff I’ve been researching for the past year and a half, and it’s fun to be able to talk about it to others at last. Third, it’s like a writing video game. Every day I open the shared Google Doc and see what little “bugs” in the manuscript I can eliminate. It’s so satisfying, like shooting Space Invaders.

It’s good to start cultivating this group of people as early as possible in your career. You can, of course, hire outside help — this is a service I offer! — but you can also have a little team you go to again and again. Given that “again and again” part, and presuming you will not be paying all of these people, here are a few specific recommendations for finding them:

1. Make friends in writing classes you take. Stay in touch so you can read each other’s work as your careers progress. What’s good about these people is they often automatically comply with my second tip …

2. Pick people at a relatively similar phase in their career to your own. Mentors and teachers can be great — and often are the types you might want to pay for their extra level of expertise. But if you have friends with whom you can regularly exchange work, you’ll be able to pay your readers back in future reading chores for them. Most of my go-to people are like this. It’s a huge favor to ask, specifically when it’s a book-length work, and you want to be able to reciprocate as much as possible. (Interesting alternative: The woman who has served as my research assistant on the Seinfeld book offered to do so in exchange for me reading her book proposal. Bartering can work!)

3. Screen potential mates for editing skills. Okay, maybe this is going too far. But my best editor is my domestic partner, Jesse. He’s a computer programmer by profession, but it turns out he’s a grammar and style stickler. He’s more honest in his comments to me than anyone else is. (Others: “You might want to consider …” Jesse: “NO. Never write this phrase again.” Others: “Maybe a little unclear?” Jesse: “Huh? I have no idea what you’re saying.”) He’s often editing while I’m sitting in the same room, and I’m often addressing his notes while he’s in the same room. A quick chat resolves a lot. And luckily I don’t have to worry about the reciprocation; I figure he financially benefits from my book being great, so he’s more invested than most. (Also, he loves me, so there’s that.)

4. Tell your “editors” what you want from them. Is this a final, final draft, about which you must know every tiny flaw? Or are you concerned about specific structural issues they can look for? Or is this early in the process, when you need encouragement more than anything else?