YOU DON'T HAVE TO BE ON BEAT IF YOU HAVE ENTHUSIASM.
on Oldster and Memoir Monday, Julie Buntin, MFA brain, reviewing, clout, and how we find books.
How do people choose what to read next? This is the million dollar question I am always asking myself. (You could read Elizabeth’s newsletter What to Read If).
My surprise this morning (and it shouldn’t have been surprising because Sari Botton is spectacular) is how high the interaction and engagement rates are on the Oldster newsletter. The letters regularly get 50+ comments, which (to me) means people are reading, not simply scrolling and hearting. In the land of five seconds of focus that we currently live, to get people to engage that way is a feat.
From a publicity angle, this is what my mind does: Sari must be a trusted source—how did she build that (someone study her career, please! Let me know if I should be doing career studies for this newsletter!), she’s publishing “big names” next to debuts or “emerging” names, with Oldster she’s tapped into something people care about and want to discuss, was there a gap in the writing landscape that wasn’t covering an older demographic? (yes), but the folks who are reading aren’t of a certain age, so she’s reached beyond the target audience. And then, how? Always, how?
How anyone builds a successful audience like this is not only their engenuity (though, it has to be at first), but eventually, they have to steal (hot wire it up!) from other people’s audience who can act as brokers and bridges. Essentially, your audience has to share you and your work in a convincing-enough way, hitting a gong until it echoes, so that their audience then infiltrates yours.
In Sari’s case, she’s been writing great work for a long time, and I know her from Longreads when she was an editor there. She was the first person to offer me free pitching advice! She’s also an early part of the Memoir Monday initiative, which is a brainchild of her and Lilly Dancyger I believe, and which shares pieces (in partnership with those publications) from Narratively, The Rumpus, Catapult, Guernica, Oldster, Literary Hub, and Orion, plus emailed submissions. So, this is a convergence of audiences right?
The reason it works so well is that all of the magazines then share Memoir Monday, several writers will share Memoir Monday (pointing folks in the direction of Lilly and Sari), Lilly and Sari will build a connection with new writers and editors for each publication of Memoir Monday (we work in a favor industry, though folks avoid calling it that), and because of that they’ve been able to expand to classes, publishing essays in full as part of first person singular (like this essay I had the pleasure of reading this morning by Jiadai Lin), and build a tiny memoir kingdom which houses a big memoir audience. And thus, Sari could use that audience to move on over to Oldster. (I’m sure it wasn’t that essay, but you can see the dominos as they fall).
When I was in my MFA program (2018, my first semester), Julie Buntin, author of Marlena, came to speak about her role as editor at Catapult. I remember she said that Andy Hunter poached her from her community events coordinator gig at a bookstore. Folks in his circle had mentioned her as someone with enthusiasm. I have no idea at this point if she had any experience editing. But something my husband and I joke about is that he’s never on beat to a song, but he has so much enthusiasm it doesn’t matter. And after my first year teaching, my department head told me, “you didn’t know a thing you were talking about in your interview, but you had so much enthusiasm we had to hire you.” Enthusiasm works.
And it’s one thing to have this online, but how many of us are interacting with our local booksellers this way? Our librarians? Our teachers? Are we treating them like experts, like pillars of the book community—or like spaces to hold events for *our* books and *our* needs, placeholders for access to our deepest desire, to be a published book author. Shouts to my favorite book buyers, Miranda and Terry at Epilogue Books in Chapel Hill.
Here are my notes from Julie Buntin’s talk, in case they’re of interest. LOL at me being so excited that Housekeeping was pulled from a slush pile (how MFA fangirl of me). It looks like she said, “build your own community / create a community space” and “follow your enthusiasms—when you love something, be a big mouth.”
also, HA, at me writing, “how do you become an agent?” And shout out to Megan Fishmann (brilliant Megan Fishmann!) who is Associate Publisher and leads publicity at Catapult, Counterpoint, and Softskull, and who appears here so earnestly written by my 2018 self.
I guess the questions are: what atmosphere do you create around your work, around the work of others? What knowledge are you holding secret that you could share and make someone’s writing life a little bit easier? See Kat Lewis’ new newsletter that I’m really loving on writing craft as an example. Jami Attenberg, 1000 words of summer is about to be a whole book. Small seed, big outcomes. I’m an introvert so I intimately know how how hard, like steel, the word “publicity” is to so many writers. You don’t have to be the light of every room, think in nuggets, think in small relationships, think in one-on-one connection points.
Something that always jars me a little is when someone knows me who I deeply respect and have never spoken with. Last week, an agent who I think is one of the best in the game told one of my clients that I had brilliant taste. I was SHOCKED that she knew I existed. But my (unstated) goal for every single publicity campaign that I work on is that folks start reaching out directly to my clients. Folks are seeing their names and their books floating in the ether and suddenly they’re offering new interviews, new campus visits, new workshops and craft talks. I don’t want to finish with a book campaign and be done, I want—long after my work, for them to be on people’s radar. (And of course, I want that for me too).
A quick note on a favor economy, which publishing has always been—when I first started publicity, one of my early bosses told me to never thank a reviewer. This sounds weird, right? It was this idea that there wasn’t an exchange happening. As in, reviewers were reviewing because they want to, not because we were doing some sort of trade. But uh, that’s the whole thing?
I know it’s an ask every time I send a book out. I know it’s an ask to spend time with said book, and then spend time writing thoughts in a coherent way that stem from feelings about a book, I know it takes effort to place that book in conversation with all this, then pitching those thoughts to an editor, waiting on the rejection or acceptance, and then ahhhh, finally publication. And then the share, share, share buttons!
Also favors: recommendations, blurbs, doing an event with other writers, including a book in an email campaign, linking to a friends preorder page—it’s all favors.
And because writers often don’t use their reviews as evidence of their writing prowess (WHY, WRITERS! WHY!—an agent isn’t going to search out every writing mention in your query so you can absolutely say Ploughshares for a review and we will be impressed)—reviews are ABSOLUTELY, for me, evidence of powerful and critical thought, processes, analysis, and hello, a Writer, capital W—why they’re not held in the highest regard as a genre outside of people labeled “critic” at national newspapers, I will never know.
Maybe it’s the infiltration of blogging culture. Maybe it’s the snide, “everyone has an opinion.” Maybe its that writers feel so vulnerable on publication of their work that they only give flowers to the reviews that feel big enough, hierarchical enough, important enough. We’re part of the problem.
I say this out of love, but if a list has more than ten books on it, I’m overwhelmed. I don’t buy books based on anticipated lists. I read them (sometimes), I like when my clients are featured on them, I steal contacts from them (yes, I do, all the time), but especially lists with zero reasoning as to why the book was chosen—those don’t move the needle for me. Those are algorithm lists. Those are content lists. Those are “we make a portion of sales from affiliate listings” lists.
But why, friends, should we let them have all the fun? Letting a few city folks tell us what to read all the time? I think not. A review is an act of generosity. A review deserves a thank you. Please list your reviews as writing accolades on your website and in your query letters, please shout out every review and reviewer whether a hometown blogger or an internationally renowned critic.
(Maybe this is where I’m circling this idea of actually good).
Though you might not have the mass audience of Ron Charles at Washington Post, reviews, interviews, hosting a reading series, collaborations, and connections are places where you can build the three things everyone is always asking me about: brand, community, audience. Participating in the ecosystem, even just posting a photo of a book you’re reading online and sharing a quote (Matt Bell does it, Dr. Maya C. Popa does it, Ilya Kaminsky does it) builds these three things.
The secret about social media that I’m always telling my clients, tag everyone. Shout out everyone. Pretend you are an Octopus with eight arms and put feelers out to everyone in your circles. You got a blurb? You better be sharing it on socials, tagging the writer who blurbed your book, thanking them, writing about what their book(s) meant to you in a thread or video, how they inspired your work, what they do with a sentence or a craft element, etc, etc, etc. Do the same with your epigraphs. Do the same with the team who brought the book into the world. The more you can bring people into your creation, the more the work spreads outward.
And the truth is, we don’t have to only read the books the New York Times or Tiktok recommends. We don’t have to read bestsellers or THE BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR. I always secretly wonder about the sales of those books because Goodreads is such a wonky calculator. Big four send so many advanced reader copies that a book’s Goodreads count is never indicative of actual sales. There are so many books for us to read, but how do we find them?
I tend to read books recommended to me by people I trust—Emma Bolden told me about Tomorrow and Tomorrow and Tomorrow, Chrissy Hennessey told me about The Art of Gathering (which I think may be a forthcoming newsletter), my co-pilot Zoe keeps talking about how good Amina Cain’s A Horse at Night: On Writing, and so I’ll be reading that. I tend to read interviews at Creative Independent, Hazlitt, and Bomb. I tend to like reviews at Full Stop and Ploughshares blog. I read who David Naimon interviews. I’m going to read Landings: A Crooked Creek Farm Year because it’s Hub City and I like the trim size, and my mom says I can’t have a garden, a baby, and go to library school this spring.
I scroll all of the hot internet recommendations, but often avoid huge hits until years later, if at all. To be totally transparent, I buy books that I think intersect with my own writerly obsessions and thematics, and then I either don’t read them or don’t finish them. In bookstores, I read the first page and make a judgment call. (This is a good exercise to do at home—read the first page of the books on your shelf and raise your hand when you would stop reading if it was a short piece on the internet, and then determine why. Then, take that to your own page). I spend a lot of time here. I used to read for pretty sentences, for poetics, but MFA school made me tired, and right now, I simply want to love a character, or read an essay and not a book-length work of lyrical nonfiction. I put books on my library list that have something startling in their descriptions, books with copy that doesn’t feel rote or familiar. I want to be startled.
QUESTION: How do you find your books?
Some Pine State news:
TONIGHT Erin Langner will be at Town Hall Seattle with Jen Graves for “Las Vegas in Lyric Essays” in celebration of Souvenirs from Paradise.
Alice Kaltman and Word West Press will be celebrating the release of Almost Deadly, Almost Good at P&T Knitwear on Friday, December 9th—join them! You can read a review of the story collection by Patrick Thomas Henry in CHIRB here.
Anne K. Yoder is finally coming to New York and will be in conversation with Joni Murphy on Tuesday, December 13th. Get tickets here.
Sara Moore Wagner did an incredible interview with fellow poet, Christen Noel Kauffman for The Rumpus, read it here.
Donna Spruijt-Metz is recommended by Camille Dungy in Orion Magazine
Brian O’Neill reviewed Curing Season by Kristine Langley Mahler in Full Stop.
I came here for the mention of Julie Buntin who I LOVE. Didn’t expect such a kind shout out! Thank you for sharing all of your brilliance with us 💖
I mostly buy used and like to support a local bookstore that dedicates the space and time. That’s where I broke down and bought my own copy of Housekeeping (so cheap; why not?). It’s also a good place to perform speculative postmortems on books. Lots of copies of a book often means the book was very popular or was part of a school curriculum, but finding a recently published book (say, of poetry) probably means someone was gifted a dud and quickly ditched it.
So lots of Robinson Crusoe, in various editions. A downside might be very few books by authors that readers hold on to, say Philip K. Dick.
Waiting a year or two on a new book is a good way to let fizz dissipate.
Used book bonuses include the stuff left behind: inscriptions, highlighting, bookmarks, dog-ears, shopping lists, marginalia, review copy inserts.
I usually pick a book by leafing through lots of other books. Randomness and serendipity.