Episode 188 #HowtoJudgeaBook(byits)Cover

  
0:00
-47:02

Turns out you should judge a book by its cover, and readers do. Which means authors need to consider that (and not our own taste) when we think about our own covers. This week, we talk about the two things to consider whether you’re an indie working with cover artists or a trad with a publisher and an art department: reader expectations and those now-you-can’t-stop-seeing-the-flowers trends, and it turns into a bit of lesson in heading to the bookstore and making some cover judgments of your own.

Episode links and a transcript follow—but first, have you heard that we recorded our first #SupporterMinis this month? #SupporterMinis are short bursts of advice or inspiration (or maybe commiseration) to punctuate your writing week, which appear in the podcast feeds of our supporters. Supporters also get weekly #WritersTopFives like Top Five Goodreads Secrets for Authors and Top Five Things You Don’t Need to Be a Real Writer. Support us and we’ll do everything we can to support you!

Upgrade to Supporter

As always, this episode (and every episode) will appear for all subscribers in your usual podcast listening places, totally free as the #AmWriting Podcast has always been. This shownotes email is free, too, so please—forward it to a friend, and if you haven’t already, join our email list and be on top of it with the shownotes and a transcript every time there’s a new episode.

Get New Episode Emails

To support the podcast and help it stay free, subscribe to our weekly #WritersTopFive email.

LINKS FROM THE PODCAST

#AmReading (Watching, Listening)

Jess: Running with Sherman: The Donkey with the Heart of a Hero, Christopher McDougall

KJ: Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts, Kate Racculia

More Reading on Book Covers

The 78 Best Book Covers of 2019 from LitHub

9 beautiful book cover design trends for 2019, 99designs

This episode was sponsored by Author Accelerator, the book coaching program that helps you get your work done. Check out their FREE (and epic) upcoming summit on the Business of Book Coaching if you’re intrigued, or visit https://www.authoraccelerator.com/amwriting for details, special offers and Jennie Nash’s Inside-Outline template.

Find more about Jess here, Sarina here and about KJ here.

If you enjoyed this episode, we suggest you check out Marginally, a podcast about writing, work and friendship.

The image in our podcast illustration was compiled by the people at the magnificent LitHub, which you should bookmark and read constantly, and used in the article that’s linked in our shownotes: The 78 Best Book Covers of 2019. I note that I have not read one single one of these books.

Transcript (We use an AI service for transcription, and while we do clean it up a bit, some errors are the price of admission here. We hope it’s still helpful.)

KJ:                                        00:01                    Hello fellow writers. The end of the year is a great time to look back at what filled you up in the past months and for many of us that's not just our writing, but the time we've spent helping others with their work. For some of us that's come out in small ways, but for others it's a calling and an opportunity to build a career doing work you love. Our sponsor, Author Accelerator provides book coaching to authors (like me) but also needs and trains book coaches. And they'll be hosting a free book coaching summit in January for anyone who wants to learn more. If that's got your ears perked up, head to authoraccelerator.com/summit. Is it recording?

Jess:                                     00:43                    Now it's recording, go ahead.

KJ:                                        00:44                    This is the part where I stare blankly at the microphone like I don't remember what I'm supposed to be doing.

Jess:                                     00:48                    Alright, let's start over.

KJ:                                        00:49                    Awkward pause. I'm going to rustle some papers.

Jess:                                     00:52                    Okay.

KJ:                                        00:52                    Now one, two, three. Hey, this is KJ Dell'Antonia and this is #AmWriting, the weekly podcast about writing all the things, be they fiction, nonfiction, proposals, final drafts, pitches, essays, whatever it is that you are working on. We are the podcast about sitting down and getting the work done.

Jess:                                     01:20                    I'm Jess Lahey, I'm the author of the Gift of Failure and a forthcoming book about preventing substance abuse in kids and I am deep in the land of editing right now and you can also find my work at the Atlantic and the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Sarina:                                 01:33                    And I'm Sarina Bowen, the author of 30-odd romance novels and I am revising a book called Heartland, which will come out in the late winter and my revision is due on Monday.

Jess:                                     01:49                    Ouch, but you're going to make it.

KJ:                                        01:53                    I am KJ Dell'Antonia, the author of a novel coming out next summer, as well as How To Be a Happier Parent coming out in paperback next summer and former editor of the Motherlode blog at the New York Times, where I occasionally still contribute, and right now, not in fact in the land of editing, or revising, or anything along those lines. But I will own that my bold declarations regarding NaNoWriMo and trying to finish my current project, I did not. It is not quite the end of NaNoWriMo as we record, but I can guarantee to you that I did not write 50,000 words of a novel during November, but that's okay. I needed to do a lot of thinking, so I could not write. If I had written 50,000 words, it would not have been a good use of my time. Sometimes, it turns out that way.

Jess:                                     02:45                    Well, I said I pulled the rug out from under my NaNoWriMo, anyway. So I've been doing something that was completely unplanned and has been going pretty well, actually. Oh, this is also fun news. I had a meeting with my editor - the same meeting that I had post sort of her taking a look at the first draft of Gift of Failure. And whereas the Gift of Failure meeting was vomit inducing, it was horrible. Some of you have heard this story, but basically suffice it to say it was a nightmare of a meeting with your editor, the very kind of meeting you hope you don't have. Although she's quite a lovely person. This meeting was its exact opposite. It was lovely, it was a love fest, everybody's happy. It was just really, really nice to have a positive meeting to offset the negative meeting that I had after Gift of Failure was turned in. One and one - is that what you say?

KJ:                                        03:50                    I was going to look at a little more positively and say not many writers can have such a ringing guarantee that they have learned.

Jess:                                     03:58                    Well, that's actually something that has been really interesting. I had a huge checklist of basically the what not to do stuff. And it was really nice cause during the meeting she said, 'I could tell that you were trying really hard to not do the things that you did last time.' And I'm like, 'Oh you have no idea. You have no idea how organized I was in my efforts to not make the same mistakes twice.' So that was a ringing endorsement of at least my anal retentive sort of attempts to to do better this time. To learn from my mistakes.

KJ:                                        04:30                    Massive gold star. For learning all the things and we're going to talk about other things that we've learned today. We do have a topic and I'm really excited about it. Today's topic is cover art.

Jess:                                     04:49                    I can fall so deep into this whole...like this topic, especially now since I'm at the point where I get to start sort of like really thinking about this. This can consume me for days.

KJ:                                        05:01                    So we're going to talk about covers when you need to create your own cover. Covers when you're working with a publisher and they are presenting covers to you. Covers internationally. Covers, you know, what it is when you are working with a publisher, what you ought to be thinking about. So let's just start broadly like, what makes a good cover?

Sarina:                                 05:24                    Well, I was thinking about this yesterday, as we were getting ready for this and I had a really good time thinking about it and making notes. And I thought that at the end of the day there were really two things that every author is supposed to think about. Two broad things - and they are, number one reader expectations, followed by (distantly) trends. So when I say reader expectations I mean that all of us, when we walk into a bookstore and we take that first glance at the table in front and maybe your eye comes to rest on a book, I don't know if until you're in this seat where you have to think about it, that you really realize how much information you're getting from that cover just at the first glance. About is that book fiction or nonfiction, is it literary, is it practical, is it a romance, is it for children? You know, you get a lot of information really quickly and, and when it's time for the gut wrenching question of what cover art is going to be on your book, you have to like back out a little and think with your analytical brain about what information you want readers to have.

Jess:                                     06:44                    This is something that when Gift of Failure was in the process of getting its cover the first round of covers really were a clear statement that my publisher wasn't really sure what this book was. And so when we backed up, my agent and I did a really clear conversation about what exactly do you want this book to say about what's inside. And I knew little things, like I wanted people to be able to know what this book was from far away. Like I wanted someone on the other end of a subway car to say, 'Oh, I recognize that book.' But above and beyond that, if you think about what Gift of Failure is, it's a parenting book, but it's an education book. And so there were all these like how do you convey that through a cover design? And it's really a tricky thing. And looking forward to the next book, I don't even know where to start with that, but I love the fact that you have to somehow get all of these messages across graphically. And that's what's so exciting about a cover.

Sarina:                                 07:49                    It is. And we should also say where Gift of Failure ended up as cover art because it's really telling; and it was such a great cover.

Jess:                                     07:57                    Well, and it was a total redesign. And when my agent and I rejected the first set of covers and asked for a redesign, we found the image of a ladder with a broken rung. And then we're like, 'Oh, but what if the ladder was made out of pencils?' So that was kind of a joint effort between me and my agent. So while my agent said (you know, she neve,r hardly ever recommends that an author sort of say, 'Here, look, here's a cover design.') She was very into the idea of us giving them ideas, especially once it seemed like their artists were stuck.

KJ:                                        08:34                    I want to jump on the word rejected. Cause you didn't, cause you couldn't. I have not read your contract, but I can almost guarantee you that that right is not in there.

Jess:                                     08:48                    How about we gently suggested?

KJ:                                        08:51                    But that is something to be aware of if you are in a situation where you're working with a publisher, you don't have control over the cover art. If the publisher said, 'No, no, what we really like for the book, the Gift of Failure is this shot of a Christmas tree with presents on it and gnomes hanging off of it and that's what we're going with. You really got nothing. So when you're in that situation to take like a sort of more diplomatic approach is very necessary. Because every new design really costs them money too, right?

Sarina:                                 09:32                    Right. And in one case, my first novel was women's fiction for Penguin in 2011, basically. And when I first saw the cover, they hired an outside illustrator to make it and I was told upfront that that was sort of an expensive thing to do. And they said, 'Here is your cover.' And I freaked because the cover was a whole bunch of things that did not make sense for this book. It looked vintage to me and the book was straight up contemporary. It was super busy. And I have to tell you, it had comic sans as the font. In black and the rest of the cover was not dark colors. And I just lost my mind there for a minute. But after I freaked out to my agent (and you're allowed to do that) I...

KJ:                                        10:31                    Yes. That's the person to freak out to.

Jess:                                     10:33                    Yeah, absolutely.

Sarina:                                 10:34                    Then I wrote, very carefully, a note about I didn't actually mention how much I loathed with every fiber of my being the imagery on this cover, but rather I explained why the readers we were looking for would not pick up that cover. That it looked too old, it looked too big. You know, because my opinion is not important to this equation, but reader opinion really is.

Jess:                                     11:01                    That's a fantastic point.

Sarina:                                 11:03                    Yeah. That's where you want to go with your angst. Is here's why this would be an error, you know, in a very analytical way.

Jess:                                     11:12                    I had this really cool situation with my publisher where the CEO, President, whatever, my publisher was teaching a class on publishing at a college. And one of the books that he had offered up to the students to do some sample covers for, just to sort of get an idea of how marketing works, one of them was mine. And the student got in touch with me through my website to talk to me about the fact that she had chosen my book as the book that she was working on in this college class on publishing, which was really cool. So that meant that my publisher was thinking about my book, not only from the perspective of 'I'm the publisher of this book and we want people to buy it, but I'm teaching students about marketing using this book.' So it was a really cool opportunity to have lots of perspectives. But also, unique, not many people get that opportunity.

KJ:                                        12:06                    That is very cool. My nonfiction, the How To Be a Happier Parent came back to us the first time with an image of like cartoon parents on a roller coaster with their children. About which there were many, many problems. Among them was that all the parents and children were white. And also being on a roller coaster does not make you a happier parent. I mean, it had its point. I could kind of see where they were coming from, but we did something similar where we went back to them with just talking about how we didn't think it represented the book and ultimately they asked me, 'Well, what do you like?' And this same process, just to jump ahead, it happened to me with the novel, you know, show us some pictures that you like, show us covers that you like, tell us what it is you like about this. They actually did that in the case of the novel before we even went into it. So, in the case of How To Be a Happier Parent, I actually gave them a magazine that I like, it's called Flow, and if anyone ever found Flow and also found the cover of How To Be a Happier Parent, it ended up kind of looking like an issue of Flow. It has a chalkboard, and a floral, it's very trendy to be honest. And I like the cover very much, but it's definitely of its time. And then for the novel this time around I went to the publisher's website and tried to pull covers from their website that I liked.

Sarina:                                 13:45                    Yeah, that was actually really fun to just think about the novel cover with you, KJ.

KJ:                                        13:51                    Yeah, we were all pulling things and it was really great.

Sarina:                                 13:56                    It was super fun. And that's kind of where part two comes into this, which is what trends have to say about what should be on the cover of your book. So one is reader expectations. And with The Chicken Sisters, you know, this is a novel about sisters. It's not a spoiler to say that. So, it's contemporary, it has a family dynamic, there's an element of competition regarding the whole book is about a contest, right? You had all of those things to kind of juggle and play with. And then there's also the trends of what's on the cover of women's fiction right now.

Jess:                                     14:43                    And not just what's on the cover, but what colors. Because it turns out, and I had no idea, obviously there are trends just like in fashion for colors and you can see what colors are trending when you go to your local bookstore.

KJ:                                        14:56                    Oh, you totally can.

Jess:                                     14:58                    It's really interesting. All of a sudden everyone decides teal is the color. Or everyone decides yellow is, it's really fascinating to watch.

KJ:                                        15:06                    Let's hope yellow is the color of 2020 because that's what I ended up with. So The Chicken Sisters went through two cover drafts. So the first cover was very typical of commercial women's fiction. That's commercial, small, the tropes and chicken sisters, just to use the lingo. It's a small town, there's restaurants, there's foodiness, there's women, there's lots of conversation. That's not really a trope. Anyway, the first cover was a picture of two women sitting in a restaurant, talking. And there was nothing wrong with that. Like it was fine, but it didn't really leap.

Sarina:                                 16:01                    It lacked conflict.

KJ:                                        16:02                    It looked like a happy women's, commercial women's fiction book, which it is. But it didn't show that it's a dynamic story. And also, like yours, it looked a little vintage, and it's a very contemporary story. And so we went back and sort of went through it again and talked again about different covers. And the thing that they came back with when they decided to do a complete redesign is such a perfect icon. What they've got is two women's hands pulling at a wishbone, which you guys can see. We will put it up in the show notes, of course. It's all over my Instagram and will continue to be all over my Instagram for the next who knows how long.

Jess:                                     16:55                    Here's a question - did you suggest the wishbone or did they come up with that?

KJ:                                        16:58                    I did not, they came up with it.

Jess:                                     16:59                    It's so good.

KJ:                                        17:02                    It's really perfect.

Jess:                                     17:04                    Because that first one, you're right, it really did look like two friends sitting down and having a cup of tea together. But this is perfect cause there's the conflict, there's the competition, there's the luck. All of that stuff, it's great.

Sarina:                                 17:17                    It's amazing.

KJ:                                        17:18                    And then I suggested (we made it super clear that they are different hands. You can tell by the fact that they've got different nail polish and they look a little different) and then it's got this background of sunflowers, which I love. And apparently floral backgrounds are super trendy, but I love them because the book is set in Kansas and sunflowers are very Kansas. I think what that communicates to readers is just, I don't know what the floral background communicates to readers to be honest. I like it, I pick them up.

Sarina:                                 17:52                    It's just an it item. It's pretty like who doesn't want to look at sunflowers. And we should also say, KJ, that this whole cover art, so gorgeous, is illustrated because that is also a big trend right now. So, in the nineties I read lots of like chicklet novels that had illustrated covers like the Bridget Jones era. And then there was a while there after chicklet kind of had a big moment and then went away that that like illustrated was gone from book cover land because it was like you can't say anything serious underneath an illustrated cover.

KJ:                                        18:34                    The pause here is me trying to remember what commercial women's fiction looked like in the...I guess it would...

Sarina:                                 18:46                    Well, there's photos of like porch swings, and adirondack chairs, and women on beaches with big floppy hats. And all of that is still there. Like Elin Hildebrand has beach covers, but hers are starting to look more illustrated, too.

KJ:                                        19:03                    They're starting to be illustrated pictures of women on beaches in big, floppy hats. And let me just say, I love a good women on a beach and a big floppy hat novel. So, you know, it's a good cover. If there were a beach and hats in my novel, I'd have been all over that.

Jess:                                     19:19                    I have to say all of the books I was going to talk about today. I've done this fun reversal to you know, stuff I don't usually read, the sort of women's romcom stuff and it's all illustrated. You're totally right, I was just looking at the covers.

Sarina:                                 19:33                    Yeah. And that's new. And it's also hitting the romance market pretty hard right now. So like four years ago you couldn't find a single romance novel with illustrations on the cover. It just didn't exist. And you know, everybody knows the history of romance covers with Fabio and like ripped shirts open and people. But a couple obviously screams romance. So people were used to seeing that. And then we hit the 50 Shades era and also self-publishing kind of ripped up all the rules because people didn't have photo shoots at their disposal, so...

KJ:                                        20:11                    They were busily sort of begging their brothers to stand around shirtless and it just wasn't working for whatever reason. Come on, come on, it'd be great for your Instagram.

Sarina:                                 20:23                    It became a stock photo market and there are certain stock photo models that when I see it that I just laugh because they're so overused. Like there's this one model that I call Creepy Eyed Santa Guy. I went for years without a photo of Creepy Eyed Santa Guy because there are a whole bunch of photos of him with a Santa hat on, but lots of photos of him without one. And then my check publisher actually used Creepy Eyed Santa Guy on one of my check editions. So now I do have that guy. But then 50 Shades of Gray came along and this author chose to put like cufflinks and a neck tie on her very stark covers.

KJ:                                        21:09                    And it was self-published. So that was her choice.

Jess:                                     21:11                    I think you mean handcuffs there, Buckaroo.

KJ:                                        21:15                    Oh, that's true.

Sarina:                                 21:17                    No, there were cufflinks.

Jess:                                     21:19                    Oh, were there?

Sarina:                                 21:20                    Yeah.

Jess:                                     21:21                    I only remember the tie and the handcuffs. I don't remember the cufflinks, excellent.

Sarina:                                 21:25                    No, there were like fine menswear stuff on and it. And it was moodily lit so it just looked like, you know, the guy took off his tie cause he had things to do. And that just ushered in what now in romance, people call object covers. And so now, if you see a book cover with a slip on it or just some piece of clothing moodily lit on a dark background, it tells you that that is going to be a very erotic book or have very erotic themes because that one author changed the way that romance novelists looked at cover potentials (in that sub-genre anyway) by her own success made it that way.

KJ:                                        22:09                    Well there were so many things to sort of tease out of that and one of them was your international publisher. But I was thinking about the question of illustratation - You tried an illustrated cover lately? We're talking about reader expectations and I know that recently you had a moment when you felt like the cover that you chose did not meet your readers' expectations.

Sarina:                                 22:38                    Oh yeah.

Jess:                                     22:39                    We want to hear more about that.

Sarina:                                 22:41                    Well, that was just last month and I was spinning off a character. So he was from my Brooklyn series and I had retired him from the hockey team in a book and I was spinning him off into a story about his family's very bizarre security company, like a cybersecurity thing. So I needed readers to know that that beloved character was getting a story and that they were connected. And my wonderful cover artist, she is so talented, made me exactly what I asked her for, which is something a bit trendy, with a bit of a blur to it, really interesting cover for this new series that had an element of suspense. She did exactly what I asked her to. It was gorgeous and the preorders for this book were terrible and I panicked and they just didn't improve and I thought, well, something's just wrong. Like readers really like this guy. They'll like this story, the blurb is good. Like I knew enough to know which things ought to be working and so I woke up six days before the launch - positive that the cover was a problem and I thought, okay, well I'm going to write my poor cover designer an email and say, 'Listen, I've made a big mistake. Do you have any time to help me?' And she said yes. And I bought a photograph from a photographer that day and I sent it over to her and we changed the cover so that you can tell that it's a spinoff from that other series by the typography.

KJ:                                        24:23                    Right. Now it looks like it looks like the other series.

Sarina:                                 24:27                    It does, except the background is dark instead of light and there's no sports imagery on it. But you can tell from the typography and the minute I showed it to people (another author who reads some of my stuff) said, 'Oh, it's a Brooklyn book.' And then I knew exactly at that moment that I was right and that book ended up doing great. It hit USA Today at number 89. It's performed in line, the audio is selling well. Like everything about it did what I had originally expected it to, but I had confused my readers and they did not know what to make of that new cover.

Jess:                                     25:01                    Well and how brave of you. Well, and keep in mind not only how brave of you to make a change at the last second, but making a change at the last second involved a lot of moving parts that a, you couldn't necessarily have anticipated like weird moving parts that that we can go into in just a second. But the other thing is, in terms of expectations, it's okay if your readers expect this to be a Brooklyn Bruiser's novel because they'll pick up that it kinda sorta a little bit is, but it's a new entryway into a whole new series. So, you didn't have to worry too much about people getting confused by it being, but not being, a Brooklyn Bruiser's novel.

Sarina:                                 25:43                    Right. Because that was true. It's just that I had lost them at like maybe it doesn't have anything to do with any of your other books and that was a mistake. Basically I was kind of tired of putting shirtless men on my covers and I wanted something artsy and interesting and it didn't work. Like my readers were not ready. Well, they just weren't there for me to say, 'Hey, my brand today looks different, you have to respect the brand that you've built.' And that's the mistake I made.

KJ:                                        26:18                    Here's a question. Does the illustrated trend extend to Indie and if so, is it a pricey thing to do to have an illustrated cover?

Sarina:                                 26:27                    You know, Indies are a little confused about it, because many of our cover artists are not illustrators. And so I have some friends that have found good illustrators to make this trend work for them. And then there is stock illustration, though. So a good cover artist isn't necessarily going to freehand everything. Like you can find illustration vectors that will contain the imagery that you're looking for and you can move it around however you wish.

KJ:                                        27:04                    Even publishers use that stuff. There is a little bird on the cover of How To Be a Happier Parent that I really loved and wanted to use in other places. And we had a problem because they had licensed it and they had only licensed it for cover use. So we worked it out. But yeah, even publishers use stock illustrations.

Sarina:                                 27:23                    Of course they do.

Jess:                                     27:24                    And publishers will also outsource stuff. There was one of my international editions, the publisher in that country wanted to use the original art from Gift of Failure in the U.S. and apparently my publisher had outsourced that art to someone that didn't necessarily work under that for Harper Collins. And so that art was no longer available because that person, for whatever reason wasn't making it available. So there's all kinds of snags that you can run up against with illustrators and licensing and all that stuff.

Sarina:                                 27:56                    Yeah, I bet that like almost half of U.S. traditionally published books have some element of licensed stock art on them. I see it all over the place.

KJ:                                        28:11                    And now we will all see it all over the place.

Jess:                                     28:15                    Well, I'm in that phase right now where I'm paying a lot of attention to covers because the cover for my next book is going to be really, really tricky. Because for me, I would love it if people would see this next book and identify it somehow with me, or my brand, or my preexisting cover art. How exactly you convey the title (which by the way we think is probably gonna stick) we probably think we're going to stick with the title of The Addiction Inoculation. We had a very specific conversation about this. And there are some worrisome images that you could use.

KJ:                                        28:50                    We've spent some time coming up with the worst possible combination of pencils and The Addiction Inoculation. We've enjoyed it, but you know, it's probably time to give it a rest.

Jess:                                     29:03                    Exactly. So what they end up with, so now I have tastes in covers and they may not necessarily be what's on trend right now. So it's going to be really interesting to see what they come up with. And I'm going to be brainstorming a lot about what possible covers could look like. In fact, I even got an email recently from someone who said, 'You know what, I was in a bookstore recently and I had this idea for you.' And believe me, those things are welcome. I love that.

KJ:                                        29:30                    So Sarina, walk us through creating a cover. As an Indie published author. Like where do you start? Where are you getting this art? Where do you find that person?

Sarina:                                 29:42                    You know, there are 10 or 15 cover artists that my friends and I all use and you can look at somebody's copyright page and see who did their design. So that's one place to start. Or you can even search book cover art.

KJ:                                        30:03                    Yeah. If you search this people definitely pop up. But I personally wouldn't have any way of evaluating them. I guess I could look at their covers because we can judge them by their book covers.

Sarina:                                 30:15                    And I honestly look at designer's websites all the time and I rarely find what I'm looking for cause I'm just super picky now. But the important thing is to find someone who understands the genre because without that key component, it doesn't matter how talented they are. In romance, if somebody showed me a cover without humans on it in some way, I would not be able to take that. And of course these things are really dependent upon the location as well. So all of my German books have flowers on them or other vegetation and they are so pretty. There are just gorgeous. But the first time I saw that flower cover, or actually it was a tree for a different book, I was a little panicked. Like people won't know this is a romance if there's no people on it, it's a tree. How is anyone gonna understand? But that was me just trapped inside my own stereotypical understanding of what I see at the bookstore when I look at a cover and Germans just don't need that, I guess.

Jess:                                     31:30                    The cultural divide can also be really interesting. One of my prettiest covers, I have no idea how it would get any Gift of Failure kind of idea across, it's Korean and it's got this beautiful deer on it. But someone told me that it actually appeals quite well in Korea. So who knows what I know. And by the way, your German covers I think are some of the most beautiful covers out there. I love them so much.

Sarina:                                 31:53                    Well, they were just geniuses with this because the first flower one came out I believe in March or April. And I began seeing it all over Instagram next to pictures of real flowers and it just photographed really well. And the season hit it just right. And yeah, it's pretty great.

Jess:                                     32:41                    The interesting thing is there are some people who also try to hook their website art into their cover art and some people's website art ended up, I'm thinking about Gretchen Rubin's specifically, she worked with a designer who sort of helped to do branding for her all over the place. And that art from the branding company ended up also being her cover art. And so, you know, there's all kinds of convoluted ways this can happen. But some of the most recognizable art out there, I think Gretchen's art is incredibly recognizable from her happiness project. And that was the result of a partnership with a branding company. So anyway, there are lots of ways to to tackle this beast, I suppose.

KJ:                                        33:28                    Yeah. And then when you get your cover art, I would guess as an Indie, you probably want to make sure that you have it licensed so that you can use it in every possible scenario. And if you're working with a publisher, you can ask can I have the elements of the... So for example, I asked for the sunflower background so that I could use it as a background for social media and for for some paper stuff that I wanted. So it doesn't have the cover image, it only has the sunflowers on it. You can take your own cover art, whether it is Indie or publisher driven, and you can you can take a screenshot of a tiny chunk of the color and then just Google, what color is this? And pop the screenshot in there and it'll give you the number. So you'll get this crazy six digit/letter number that signifies that color digitally. And you can go to Canva and make your brand palette with your colors and you should. And then you can use that for everything. You can ask your publisher what your font is and then you'll have to look, maybe Canva and other places have that font. I actually had to buy the font that they used on my title for like $7.99 or whatever. But I bought it and I bought the license so that I can use it on cards and things like that. A publisher might pay for that for you, but in this case the amount that it cost to buy the font was not worth it. And then once you've bought the font, you can upload it to Canva. There's a lot you can do with this stuff once you've got it in hand.

Jess:                                     35:27                    I have these lovely book plates with pencils on them and and that's been a wonderful thing to have and it matches the book. I love it. We are running up against the end of our time, but I wanna make sure we have time to talk about what we've been reading, cause I've been reading a lot.

KJ:                                        35:43                    Are we done with talking about covers?

Jess:                                     35:45                    I don't know. I'm happy to go over and I assume our listeners are happy to go over, but, but there's definitely a lot to talk about and definitely a lot to talk about when it comes to cultural stuff.

KJ:                                        36:00                    Yeah, we didn't talk about like trends in nonfiction and the sort of the big book cover, which is basically nothing but letters on either a background or a background image. Or I was reading some interesting stuff about how there's a new trend for like having the illustration kind of overlap the letters. So that's a neat thing. I don't know. It's just fun to see what's coming and then watch for it. It makes you look at covers differently, even while all the while you're using them in your mind to judge whether or not you would want to read the book. Because the truth is that we do judge a book by its cover.

Jess:                                     36:39                    Well, and you know, it was funny when I was looking at covers for Gift of Failure, I kept sending pictures to my agent of covers that I love. And she'd emailed back and she'd say, 'Yeah, Jess, that book sold like 40 copies.' And I was like, 'I can't help it that my my taste in book covers is a little esoteric, but whatever.' Books, let's do it people, What have you been reading, KJ?

KJ:                                        37:07                    I've actually been reading a lot. It's been a good season for reading for me. So I've been all over Instagram with doing a new thing. I'm doing book chats, which Sarina also does, where I do a little video about the book that I've been reading. It's been a really good reading season, but I'm gonna pull one out. Partly because I like the cover. I just finished Tuesday Mooney Talks to Ghosts. I loved it. And it's got a gorgeous blue cover with this sort of Zodiac looking thing around the type. It's a big book cover in that the type takes up most of the cover, but there is a person on it. Do we think having the person on it sort of signifies fiction? I think it might.

Jess:                                     37:57                    Really? Well, what are you talking about in terms of a person?

KJ:                                        38:01                    This is an illustrated cover but it does have like a silhouette of a person. And now that I'm sort of coming to think of it, it's kind of rare to see silhouettes of people, or any form of people, or body part on nonfiction other than memoir. And I'm sure there are exceptions to this, but I'm just thinking about like what are the subliminal cues here?

Jess:                                     38:25                    That's true, I hadn't thought about that.

KJ:                                        38:26                    Anyway, Tuesday Mooney - it's a little bit ready player one-esque - there's a millionaire with a big game. There is a ghosty element, but it's not very strong. I don't know, it's not like magical realism world. It's very much the real world with a flare of ghostliness, which I like very much. The characters are all incredibly fun. No matter how small the character is in the book, you would totally have a beer with that person. And it really, as a writer, reminded me of what I think of as fun in a book and that I need to focus on those things. Anyway, recommend.

Sarina:                                 39:11                    I can't wait to read it.

Jess:                                     39:13                    Is that it or do you have anymore?

KJ:                                        39:14                    That's it, I'm going to leave the others for other episodes.

Jess:                                     39:18                    Okay. So I have a couple. Sarina, do you mind if I go next?

Sarina:                                 39:23                    You should go next because I don't have a meaningful contribution.

Jess:                                     39:26                    Okay. Well I have a fair number because I've been traveling a fair amount to speak and so that means audio books, obviously, and lots of time on planes. And I was in New York walking all over New York. I got so much great walking done and listening to books. Speaking of great covers. I just finished a book by Christopher McDougall who wrote Born to Run and a couple of other books. You know the one about the, the Mara tribe running this ultra marathon. His new book is Running with Sherman, and Sherman is a donkey. So, of course there is a fantastic picture of a donkey on the cover of this book. And so obviously nonfiction, tells you exactly what the book is going to be about, it's about running with a donkey, and it's great. I loved the book. Christopher McDougall is so good at doing going off on really appropriate tangents, whether that's relationships with animals, mental health. There's a whole side story because of one person in the book about a mental health issue and how animals can affect your mental health. And anyway, so the story of Sherman, this donkey that he rescued from near death and then ended up running a long distance sort of burrow. It's a thing apparently, running with burrows. And it's very, very funny. So that book had a great cover. And then two of the books I listened to, both of which were kind of romcom were illustrated. One was Frankly in Love by David Yoon, and that was a YA. Although, that line between upper YA and adult YA it's such a fine and silly line. But this book was fantastic.

KJ:                                        41:15                    Tuesday Mooney sits on that line, too.

Jess:                                     41:18                    Really?

KJ:                                        41:18                    Totally. It's totally got YA characters, some of them, but it's also got adult characters. Well, you know what Ready Player One sits on that line. I read it, my kids read it.

Jess:                                     41:29                    And this is definitely a first love story and it's a kid finishing high school and going into college kind of thing. But I also learned a ton about Korean culture. The characters are Korean and it was a wonderful love story. And then the other illustrated cover romcom book I read (that I just started today and I'm already completely in love with) is Twice in a Blue Moon by Christina Lauren. And I did not know until Sarina told me that these are two separate authors. I did not realize that they're a team.

Sarina:                                 42:02                    Yeah, Christina and Lauren.

Jess:                                     42:04                    And it sounds like they have what, like 30 books under their belt and they're great. Well, this one so far is fantastic. It's there is an echo of The Accidentals there, Sarina, that's really interesting. And it's just a really fun story to listen to while I'm baking and things like that. And there were also two books that I'm not gonna mention that I wanted to throw across the room in frustration because they didn't stick the landing. And that was incredibly frustrating for me, especially since one of them is in all the airport bookstores because it's a current bestseller at Hudson Books. And I just get so angry. Like this has happened to us many times where I say, 'There's this book, I'm so excited, it's on the best seller list and it's another suspense kind of story. And I get so excited and I get into the characters and then, man, it just falls flat at the end and I get so angry.

KJ:                                        43:04                    Endings are hard. I mean I read something recently, which I will at some point talk about on an episode cause I did end up liking it, but I'm not going to name it right now because this is mildly critical, you know at the end you could see the wheels, you know the machine was cranking. It's hard, I mean I think you could say that about almost any book if you lose your suspension of disbelief for any reason and yet you still keep reading. And sometimes as writers, I think we might lose our suspension of disbelief in ways that we wouldn't as readers. Like something pulls you out and makes you go, 'Oh, I remember them putting this in in chapter four.' And then all of a sudden you're watching the writing and now it's hard not to see the machine moving because you know that there's a machine.

Jess:                                     43:56                    One of the two books that I wanted to throw across the room though, had a clanking machine so loud that I nearly said out loud on the streets of New York, 'That makes no sense and could never happen.' I was so irritated. It was just really, really irritating to me. But I guess I'll leave it at that. You know, I have some other critical things to say, but it's been a really fun reading period because I've realized I've got some dark stuff going on that I'm dealing with personally. And so I'm in that happy place with romcoms and that's really, really fun. Alright, I think we're good people. I think I missed you guys cause cause you did one without me and so I'm so happy to be back.

KJ:                                        45:07                    Before we sign off, let me just remind everybody that if you would like the show notes for this episode, you can always find them at amwritingpodcast.com. If you are interested in getting our top fives for writers, which come out weekly, the most recent one was top five BookBub with secrets for authors. You can also go to amwritingpodcast.com and sign up to be a supporter of the podcast. Do that and the weekly top fives will drop into your mailbox as well as our new mini supporter episodes of which we have so far recorded one. And we're loving building this writerly community, which I might add, you can also check out on Facebook by looking for the AmWriting group.

Jess:                                     46:02                    Okay, until next week everyone, keep your butts in the chair and your head in the game. This episode of #AmWriting with Jess and KJ was produced by Andrew Parilla. Our music, aptly titled unemployed Monday was written and performed by Max Cohen. Andrew and Max were paid for their services because everyone, even creatives should be paid.

Episode 187 #TheThankYouProjectProject

  
0:00
-46:32

The infamous how-to meets self-help meets memoir-with-a-dash-of-stunt genre. It may be awkwardly named, but we love it.

This week’s guest didn’t realize she was laying the groundwork for her first book when she decided to write 50 thank you notes to the people, things and places that shaped her in honor of her 50th birthday—but of course she was When you can define a thing and the time frame and the reasons for doing it so clearly, what else can you do but inspire other people to do the same? But the road from I’m doing this thing to I’m publishing this book isn’t clear (although in this case it was lightning fast). This week, Nancy Davis Kho talks to us about what it took to make her book saleable, then write the damn thing and make it really really good.

Episode links and a transcript follow—but first, did you catch the #WritersTopFive that popped into your inbox Monday? (And if it didn’t, HELLO, you need to subscribe to our free weekly #AmWriting emails!)

Get New Episode Emails

That was just a little taste. We do those every week. I just scheduled Top Five Reference Books for All Novelists, and Three More for Special Occasions, and you don’t want to miss it. (You won’t believe the kinds of things that can be turned into an encyclopedias or dictionary.) We also recorded the first of many #MiniSupporter episodes that will slip right into the podcast feeds of #AmWriting supporters everywhere. Support the podcast you love AND get weekly #WriterTopFives with actionable advice you can use for just $7 a month.

Upgrade to Supporter

As always, this episode (and every episode) will appear for all subscribers in your usual podcast listening places, totally free as the #AmWriting Podcast has always been. This shownotes email is free, too, so please—forward it to a friend, and if you haven’t already, join our email list and be on top of it with the shownotes and a transcript every time there’s a new episode.

LINKS FROM THE PODCAST

Aya deLeon, author of the Justice Hustlers series.

#AmReading (Watching, Listening)

Nancy: The Good Lord Bird, James McBride

Jess: Sense and Sensibility, narrated by Kate Winslet

KJ: What Should I Read Next—the podcast from Anne Bogel, aka the Modern Mrs Darcy. (I’m obsessed with it. I’ve found so many great new reads!)

#FaveIndieBookstore

A Great Good Place for Books, Oakland

Our guest for this episode is Nancy Davis Kho, author of The Thank You Project and host of the Midlife Mixtape podcast. Find the book, the podcast and all things Nancy HERE.

This episode was sponsored by Author Accelerator, the book coaching program that helps you get your work done. Check out their FREE (and epic) upcoming summit on the Business of Book Coaching if you’re intrigued, or visit https://www.authoraccelerator.com/amwriting for details, special offers and Jennie Nash’s Inside-Outline template.

Find more about Jess here, Sarina here and about KJ here.

If you enjoyed this episode, we suggest you check out Marginally, a podcast about writing, work and friendship.

Transcript (We use an AI service for transcription, and while we do clean it up a bit, some errors are the price of admission here. We hope it’s still helpful.)

KJ:                                        00:02                    Hey there listeners, it's KJ. What with Jess starting in on a new project lately, we've been talking a lot about nonfiction and research. If that's your kind of work, our sponsor, Author Accelerator can help and you don't have to go all in with full on book coaching if you're not ready. Check out their new four week long nonfiction framework program that will help you nail down your structure before you start to write, or after your writing and realizing, dang, this thing needs a backbone. Authors of self-help, how-to, and academic texts will find the shape of their books, create a working one page summary that helps reveal that shape at a glance, and develop a flexible table of contents to guide you through the drafting and revision process. You can find a lot more, including previews of much of the material, by going to authoraccelerator.com/nonfictionframework. Is it recording?

Jess:                                     00:02                    Now it's recording.

KJ:                                        00:02                    Yay.

Jess:                                     00:02                    Go ahead.

KJ:                                        01:00                    This is the part where I stare blankly at the microphone like I don't remember what I was supposed to be doing.

Jess:                                     01:01                    Alright. Let's start over.

KJ:                                        01:06                    Awkward pause, I'm going to rustle some papers. Now one, two, three. Hey, I am KJ Dell'Antonia and this is #AmWriting the podcast about all things writing - nonfiction, fiction, book proposals, essays, not poetry. I made that joke a few weeks ago, but I just can't stop because I feel like it's not all the things. I am KJ Dell'Antonia, your rambling host, and this is the podcast about getting your work done.

Jess:                                     01:45                    And I'm Jess Lahey. I'm the author of the Gift of Failure and a forthcoming book. It won't be till spring of 2021, a book on preventing substance abuse in kids and you can find me at the New York Times, and at the Atlantic, and at the Washington Post. And we have such a guest today. We have such a guest.

KJ:                                        02:05                    I didn't really introduce myself.

Jess:                                     02:06                    Go ahead, please go.

KJ:                                        02:08                    I just introduced myself as your rambling host and I am so much more than that.

Jess:                                     02:13                    You go, and then we'll let that weird person who no one even knows, we'll let her talk after. But KJ, you go first.

KJ:                                        02:24                    I am KJ Dell'Antonia. I am the author of the novel The Chicken Sisters, which you can't buy yet, but you'll be able to next summer and believe me, you'll hear all about it. Also of How To Be a Happier Parent. I'm the former editor of the Motherlode blog at the New York Times, where I sometimes still contribute and I am working on novel number, whatever it is if you count the ones in the drawer and we don't know if it will be published, that's what I'm doing. So that's who I am and why you should (or should not) listen to me.

Jess:                                     02:57                    We have a guest today who you should definitely listen to. Because she's hysterical, and wonderful, and funny, and has a book coming out that is fantastic and very near and dear to my heart. We are talking today to Nancy Davis Kho. She is a writer. She's written for Washington Post, San Francisco Chronicle, Adirondack Life, The Rumpus, all these various places. She's in an anthology called Listen To Your Mother: What She Said Then, What We're Saying Now. And Listen To Your Mother, by the way, is hysterical if you've never come across it before. Nancy has a fantastic book coming out this month that is, as I said, so near and dear to my heart because it's about thanking people. And so, thank you Nancy, for being on the podcast today.

Nancy:                                03:41                    I pretty much wrote a book in order to be on your podcast, just so you know.

Jess:                                     03:46                    Nancy has her own podcast, one of my very favorites. It's the Midlife Mixtape podcast and if you are not already listening, you should. Because it's wonderful, and fantastic, and it makes me very happy every single time I listen to it.

Nancy:                                04:03                    You guys are so nice. Can I call you every morning, Jess, and just have you say, 'You matter.'

Jess:                                     04:09                    I love this book, not only because thank you notes are really important part of not only my personal life but my professional life, but because I feel like KJ and I have had a personal stake in the project because we've gotten to hear about the process of you writing this book, and pitching this book, and how it all came about. So we usually like to start by talking sort of about how you got started writing, KJ often likes to ask what the first thing you got paid to write was, and we'll go from there.

Nancy:                                04:44                    Oh wow, I'll have to think about the answer to that question. Thank you so much for having me on the show. And also you guys have been such tremendous cheerleaders and sources of real pragmatic information. I have listened to so many of your episodes and just scribble down as I'm going because this podcast is so invaluable in helping people as they're going into various, you know, the first time you're doing this, the first time you're doing that, you guys have had guests on who've talked about that. So it's such a great resource and I really am honored to be on the show.

Jess:                                     05:20                    And you're going to have to listen to some of the publicity episodes - like the marketing and publicity episodes.

Nancy:                                05:26                    Jess, am I brand new? I've already listened. I started listening to them a second time, please. The one where you guys were talking about your book launch plans. I listen to podcasts oftentimes when I'm hiking and I can picture the stretch of the Oakland Hills where I was, where KJ was talking about how many rows were in the spreadsheet and I was like, 'I can't do all of this. God.' But it was good.

KJ:                                        05:53                    You're just lucky Jess didn't talk about how many rows in her spreadsheet.

Jess:                                     05:58                    Tell us about how you got started.

Nancy:                                06:02                    My background is in international business. I studied that in college. I got a couple of degrees in that, I picked up a husband in an international business program. So it all worked out. And I spent about 17 years doing that and I loved it. But whenever anybody would ask me, 'If you could do anything, what would you want to do?' I would say, 'Oh, I'd like to be a writer.' Here's my reason: it seems portable, I think I could do that from anywhere. That was my basic feeling about it. But I did always love writing. And you know, I've been an avid reader. All of us, right? Anybody listening to this show, we've all been reading since we were in short pants. And nothing like a 40th birthday to give you a bit of an identity crisis. And I thought, 'My God, I'm going to turn 40. And I tell people I want to be a writer. I've never tried. Maybe I should try writing. That would be a thing I could do.' So I took a class the summer before I turned 40 and by the time I finished (it was a class in creative memoir or I think it was just personal essays) and by the time I finished the class, I'd had two things published. And I was like, 'You know what? I love this.' I loved getting the byline and I just loved the process of writing. So that is now 13 years ago in the rear view mirror. And I thought at the time, as you do when you're a beginner at anything, I was like, 'Hmm, what's the hardest thing that I'm not qualified to do? I know I will write a novel of historical fiction that deals with race issues from the standpoint of a white woman. That's what the world needs now.' So I commenced to spending six years researching and writing a novel that is composting very nicely in a drawer. I can see which drawer in my office it is sitting in right now. And that was hard work. I told my husband, 'I'm a writer now, I'm going to quit my corporate job. Neglecting to factor in that I had two small kids who needed (we live in the Bay area, everybody needs to work) So it was a bumpy time - the writing I loved, the researching I loved, like the whole writing part of it was great. It was trying to figure out how to balance the lifestyle with that that was challenging. And also just realizing how much I had to learn as a writer. And I think one of the messages I try to put on the podcast all the time, so the Midlife Mixtape Podcast is about the years between being hip and breaking one. And I started it because I wanted there to be a counter narrative to midlife being a crisis because what I found was that it wasn't an identity crisis to become a writer. It was like I was adding something to myself. I was doing something that made me happy. And now it didn't work right out of the gate. I didn't publish a novel when I was 41, but I was challenging myself, and learning new stuff, and eventually I ended up going back to corporate work and doing that part time. And that's kind of been my gig ever since. I have a day job, I work in digital content licensing. I really like it, I have mastery at it, I've been doing it for years and years. And then I have this creative side where I can do the writing. So I think as a writer, I just feel like I've been pragmatic in terms of forgiving myself for not being successful right away. And so, I spent six years getting better and better and still not having a novel that needed to see the light of day. And then when I finished with that, I got frustrated and I had started the blog, Midlife Mixtape, and I realized that what felt very comfortable to me was humor writing. It came to me naturally. I'm the youngest of three in a family of very funny people and you really have to bring your A game all the time in my family. So, for me that was a much easier voice to write in. I always say my goal is to sound like Erma Bombeck meets David Sedaris, you know, not mean spirited but funny, and kind of poignant. And so after a little while writing in that voice on Midlife Mixtape, I thought, 'I know I'll write a book about my midlife music crisis.' And I wasn't really having a midlife music crisis, to be honest. What had happened is, I went to a concert and a bouncer said to me, 'Are you just here to drop off your kids?' I mean, I've been an avid concert goer since I was 14 and that shook me. So I was like, 'Oh, maybe I am too old to go to a Vampire Weekend concert. Maybe I should try to find more midlife appropriate music.' But the truth was, I still kept going to shows like that. I started going to the symphony, I started going to heavy metal shows, I was trying all different kinds of stuff. But I felt like I was manufacturing the arc of my story a little bit. And I think that always kind of stuck with me that I was telling a funny story people could relate to, this memoir that I spent only three years writing that one. So I doubled my speed from which I had written the historical fiction novel. But there was something about that story that never connected, even for me, because I just felt like, okay. As this one writing mentor of mine said, 'What, you wanted to go to a concert, you kept going to concerts. There's not a lot of character change here, you know. Any good memoir needs that needs that arc.' And so I got to see a lot of fun shows and I wrote about those on the blog. But that book also came closer to what I wanted to write, but it still wasn't quite the right thing. So that one went into a drawer and that was now I guess about three years ago, four years ago.

Jess:                                     11:55                    Well, and I have to say you're definitely learning your lessons. Because all of the things you're criticizing about the early work that stayed in the drawer is like the antithesis of what I found when I opened The Thank You Project. So keep going with your story, but I just want to say that like all of these realizations, you're having, you know, the sort of there being no trajectory, there being no personal connection. Like that's what The Thank You Project is about from the very first page, a very personal project that came out of a very important moment in your life. I think even if I didn't know you personally, I would be very connected with you as a writer from the first page of this book. So, those lessons were really important for you to learn. I think that's how we get there, as KJ and I both know, you got to write a lot of bad stuff.

KJ:                                        12:48                    We never talk about this, but you and I both, Jess, have memoirs in drawers.

Jess:                                     12:53                    Yup. Yeah we do.

KJ:                                        12:54                    I mean that just, it just doesn't come up. Like we talk a lot about my novel in a drawer. But it rarely comes up that I have, I can't remember if I wrote the whole thing, but I definitely have a memoir proposal in the drawer. And you have a memoir proposal and I think pretty much the memoir.

Jess:                                     13:10                    Oh no, I have the whole thing. I sold chunks of it as essays and and that was sort of the thing I got out of it.

Nancy:                                13:22                    Well, and I think this is really my message to anybody who's listening, and feeling frustrated, and wondering why the project isn't working. Fast forward to spring of 2018, which is when the idea for this book, The Thank You Project, came along and I know we're going to talk about it, but my message is every misstep I took was actually getting me closer to this book that I feel so strongly about, I feel so proud of, I feel like I'm the right person to tell this story that's in this book. And all that other stuff, all those years I wasn't getting published. What was I doing? I was meeting great writers. I was reading books by great writers. I was very happily sharing the work of other writer friends and promoting them and I was getting better at my craft. I was building my network of support. And so now I'm hugely gratified, but you know, there's so many people trying to help me with this book and that's because I put in 12 years of work that didn't feel at the time like it was amounting to anything. But now it's all paying off. So anybody who's listening and feeling frustrated, I would just say, please don't give up. Because there's a reason, there's a path.

Jess:                                     15:03                    Well what's funny is before I wrote the proposal, as KJ well knows, for the book I just finished, I actually went through the trouble of writing proposals for a bunch of books that weren't quite right and what they were was sort of circling around the topic, but also really important work for me to do to figure out, Oh okay, so this aspect of this topic fits in somewhere, but I'm not quite sure how. So that finally when that idea comes, you have some familiarity with the things that aren't particularly interesting, or working, or whatever. So when you have that moment, it's super exciting when you have that idea for, Oh this is the thing. In fact, I pulled off the road and I texted Sarina and KJ right away and said, 'This is it. This is the thing, I know this is the right thing.'

Nancy:                                16:26                    Well, and that's how it felt. So the book is called The Thank You Project: Cultivating Happiness One Letter of Gratitude at a Time. And what happened was I found an agent for that music memoir, it did not sell. And I really had a time where I thought maybe I'm not a writer, I know I'm good at writing these little blog posts and I get essays published, but maybe I don't have it in me to do a full length work. So I'm going to take this creative energy and I started the podcast and turns out I love podcasting; I'm a tech nerd at heart. A lot of the work I did the first 17 years of my career was in the software industry. So I love working, learning new technology, and everything. I was really struggling a little bit with this idea that maybe I'm not an author, I'm a writer, but not an author. I guess that's probably not an uncommon thing. And it occurred to me one day (and I was 49) it occurred to me that the reason my book didn't sell was because my character, myself in the memoir, wasn't unhappy. There wasn't a transition because she started off happy and she ended up happy. And I'm like, that's not a problem, that's something to be really grateful for. And this was at the end of 2015, and in 2016 I was going to turn 50. And I'm like, 'You know what, the thing I should do to honor and commemorate my 50th birthday is to thank the people that have made it possible for me to be where I am.' You know, my parents were alive, my husband's great, been married to him since forever, we've got two girls, you know, everything's fine. So I thought the way I want to celebrate my 50th year is I will write a letter every week, a thank you letter once a week, to somebody who has helped, or shaped, or inspired me up to this point in my life. And of course when you tell the universe that you're doing this because everything's going great, everything goes to shit pretty darn quickly. So I started writing my letters and it was really great. I'd sit down every week and you know, write a letter to my nephew Tristan, or to my friend Kitty who lives in Australia. And it just was wonderful every week to sit down and think about this person who had been meaningful in my life and what lessons that I learned from them and how they'd help me.

KJ:                                        18:44                    I'm going to interrupt, cause I know where you're going. At this point, this isn't a book?

Nancy:                                18:49                    No, no. These are just letters.

KJ:                                        18:51                    This is just something you're doing. So this is not like stunt journalism, in which you're, 'I don't know what I'll do. I'll write...' This is a genuine thing, right?

Nancy:                                18:59                    I wasn't even an author at that point, anymore. I'd kind of tried it and not gotten through anything. So I was just writing thank you letters because that seemed like a good way to mark a period of my life. So halfway through the year, my dad gets diagnosed with cancer and he is gone in six weeks. We had no idea he was sick. My older daughter left for college a couple of weeks after the funeral and that was certainly not a sad thing, but it was a big adjustment to have your older kid to go off to school and she goes to school on the East coast. So she's far. And then it was the 2016 presidential election, so everybody's anxiety level was through the roof. And I realized the worse things got, the more I needed the thank you letters. Because it was just this moment every week where I could crowd out all this sadness, and this tension, and the worry, and I'd be like, 'Hmm, I'm gonna write a letter to the city of Oakland. Because you know what? It's not even just people who have shaped me, it's places I've lived. And then I had a period of writing letters to cities and then I started writing letters to dead authors. Like I love Jane Austen. I'm going to write her a letter, but I'm going to have to explain some things to her. And it got to be really fun. And anyway, I got to the end of the 50 letters, (took me longer than a year) printed them all out, bound them in a book, and flip through that book all the time. You know, you rifle through it and you go, 'Oh yeah, my Aunt Nooney is so nice to me.' You're having a bad day, read about what your Aunt Nooney did for you. You know, it'll cheer you up, it'll remind you that when you're in hardship, you've almost never been alone. That there's always people around you. So, just in and of its own self as a writing exercise, writing the thank you letters was really important. So now it's spring of 2018 and one of the people who got the letters, Ann Imig who is the editor of the Listen To Your Mother Anthology and the founder of that empire said, 'Nancy, that's your book. You need to tell people how to do this.' And I'm like, 'What? It's so straightforward. You write a thank you letter.' But then another friend of ours who knew that I had done it, sat me down and she's like, 'Okay, who did you write to? How long was the letter? What did you put in the letter? How did you organize it?' And I answered questions for her for like an hour. And I thought, 'Okay, maybe it's not as straightforward as I thought it was.' So I thought, you know, at this point, the podcast was cooking along, my day job's cooking along. My kids are, you know, I've got one in college, one in high school, nobody needs me around anymore. I got some free time. So I thought I'll just start writing a few chapters of this, just think about how I would write a book that explains to people how to do their own thank you project. And it poured out of me, I wrote that proposal so quickly. Why? Because I had two other book proposals that I'd already done. Yes, I wrote a book proposal for a fiction novel. Don't ask me, I know it's wrong. And now I know that. At the time when I was writing my historical fiction I didn't know. So, there's the reason I wrote two proposals because when I really needed one, I literally just could do a find replace, for the most part. So it was just kind of a proof of concept to myself that this could be something. And I wasn't going to get an agent, because agents hadn't sold my book before, so why would I bother? And then people like KJ, and Jess, and a couple other people said, 'You should talk to an agent.' So I started in April 2018, at the end of May 2018 I reached out to a few agents who I'd met in person and online, and three or four of them came back and said, 'I would love to see this proposal.' And I was like, 'Oh, that's weird.' And I got it out the door. And then the timeframe was I signed with our wonderful agent (we all have the same one, Laurie Abkemeier) who's been wonderful, signed with her in June, we worked on the proposal together in July, and I signed a deal with Running Press in the end of August. This is all last year. So I signed the deal with Running Press in August. My deadline was November 15th for the finished book.

Jess:                                     23:16                    You had written parts of it -Yes? No?

Nancy:                                23:19                    Well, I'd written the first three chapters that belonged in the proposal...

Jess:                                     23:25                    So what had you been smoking to make you think that you could set a deadline that quickly? What was the thinking behind that?

Nancy:                                23:33                    I knew how to write this book, I knew how to tell this story. I'd written the letters. I knew how impactful they could be. I really wanted other people to know. I am spiritual, I'm a church lady, I go to this Episcopal church. And I do think this is one of those cases where I was given a message to share because that's something I can do. I can tell like a funny, uplifting story. It's taken me 13 years, but I know how to do that. In the places where the other two books had been a struggle - I don't want to say I couldn't have told those stories, but this one just was easy for me. I just knew what I wanted to say, and I and I knew how to say it. And let's face it, I do use snippets of the letters and there were days that I needed the #AmWriting podcast, I'm like, 'Ooh, I need a burn chart. I need to know what my daily word count is. And there were days where I'm like, 'Well I'm talking about a letter to write to a doctor, maybe I'll include a snippet of the letter I wrote to my OB.' I just covered my word chart, like put in two paragraphs, and I'd be done, go get my coffee. So there was a little bit of source material in that I do include snippets of my letters to kind of get people started. But I didn't want it to just be my letters. I ended up interviewing a few people who had done something similar, so I've got some other people's examples. And then the thing that I loved about writing the book was that it gave me a chance to delve into the science of happiness and gratitude. Cause I didn't want it to just be, 'This is what I did, so you should try it.' I wanted to steep it in some quantitative research that talks about why gratitude letters are so magic. And you know, low and behold, during those 13 years when I was freelance writing, I interviewed a bunch of happiness researchers for various publications. So I had the Rolodex - does anybody listening know what a Rolodex is? I had the phone numbers, okay? So I called the researchers and I got to interview them and you know, again, that was not wasted time. All of that stuff is why I could do it in two and a half months.

Jess:                                     25:50                    And it's why KJ, over and over again, insists that I'm not allowed to say, 'You know, boy, I got really lucky with Gift of Failure, right place, right time.' Well, no, it was a lot of work and it's that work that other people don't see.

KJ:                                        26:04                    Preparation meeting opportunity.

Jess:                                     26:06                    Yeah, exactly. There you go. There you go. The thing that I was really interested in - let's say you've got all of these letters, and you've got this idea about how you want to do this. In terms of organization, I really liked the way you organize the book and it was a little unexpected. I thought it was going to be like sequential, but you did a really interesting thing with the organization. I'm kinda wondering how you arrived at that particular sequence.

Nancy:                                26:37                    Welcome to my brain, cause I do think it's sequential. I knew that I wanted the introduction because (I'm not gonna give away the whole introduction) but basically when my dad got his letter (I wrote to him and my mom first) and my dad was very cute and called me and he's like, 'Aww, Nance, I loved it. I put it in a frame and it's over my desk.' So I knew I wanted to start with the fact that my dad had this letter framed and sitting over his desk. And then I figured I would need to go through exactly all the questions that Melissa asked me on the porch that day. Like, 'Who did you write to? How did you...' So there's a first chapter that's all about how you can organize this. And I want to say at the outset, throughout this book, I say, 'But that's what I did, do what you want.' Like nobody is in charge of your pace, what you write, who you write to. And the amazing thing about gratitude letters (as I found out from the researchers) is that even just thinking about what you would put in a letter creates happiness benefits for you. So it's all about firing the neurons and getting the positive outlook kind of codified within your brain pan. That's how I would explain it. So writing it down is great, but even if you read this book, and just think about the things that I'm talking about, people will get benefits. But then, after that section, the whole rest of the book is, here's the kinds of people who you might want to think about writing. And I think some of the categories are obvious - from friends and family. Although less obvious, because do you ever write a thank you letter to your spouse, or to your kid, or to your parent? Probably not. You know, there's a whole category of people that we take for granted and so that's kind of where I start. And part of the reason is because it gets the juices flowing for when you're writing the thank you letters, you know, you have a lot of source material for those people. But as I went through my own process and I just kept coming back to this idea of, okay, who helped me, shaped me, inspired me. Well, one of the people who helped me was my German ex-boyfriend when I lived in Germany and didn't know how to file taxes. It didn't work out with him. But man, he made sure my taxes were done every year on time and properly, and I wouldn't have been able to stay in Germany if I'd screwed up, their bureaucracy is on it. Like I'm sure they would've found me and sent me back to America. So I wrote a letter to him and this is when I figured out that I could write letters and not send them. Nobody needed to know that I was doing this. So I could write a thank you letter to anybody. I could write it to my childhood bully; I was so sensitized to bullying because I had been a victim of it, that my kids from the minute they started school, we talked about bullying. What do you do if you see it? What do you do? How do you help somebody going through it? How do you make sure you're never the perpetrator? You know, I'm not sure I would have been so tuned into that if I hadn't known this person. Now, that was a letter I actually chose not to write. That was one where I was like, 'You know what, I don't want to spend any more time on her.' But you could. And so, it was fun to kind of expand and so I did that in writing my own letters. But in writing the book, what I loved was thinking about, 'Well, who's going to read this? Could be anybody.' So what other things, like what's outside of my world, that I should think about and prompt people to write about. Like, I've never been in the army, but I made sure to say like, 'You might want to write a letter to your drill instructor.' You know, there's so many kinds of people, and I just tried really hard in writing it to have as an inclusive tone as I could. And I had a few people read it who had very different experiences from me, and that's what I asked them to read for. I wanted to make sure that someone who wasn't heterosexual would also feel like this book spoke to them and somebody who wasn't white would also feel...So I was at a conference that I had the chance to hear Aya de Leon, do you guys know her? She's a Bay area writer and professor. She writes these really great crime capers with African-American heroines. And a lot of times her heroines are sex workers and she's really about like, they're very feminist, but they kind of they have a message that's a little bit hidden.

Jess:                                     31:18                    I'm looking at the covers right now, they're so good. They're these women, sort of face forward at the camera, The Boss, and then another one called Side Chick Nation, and another one called Uptown Thief. They're fantastic covers, I love them. And really strong women with their shoulders back and sort of facing you like, yeah, bring it. I like it.

Nancy:                                31:40                    Right. And she's really smart. And at this conference I went to, she was just saying, 'If you want to write diverse character well, have diverse friends.' I just thought that's so obvious. But as writers, if you want to reach out to a diverse audience, make sure you've got those people in your real life so that you can go to them. And that was, again, my 13 years of preparation. I knew who I could ask to read for different things. And so that was a part of the review process.

Jess:                                     32:14                    One of the things that you said, you asked a lot of people who had experience outside of yours to help you, but the thing that you did really well in the book is to create these ideas about how you should think about the thank you notes. And one of the things you said was, 'Who or what has shaped me?' And that is such a personal question, but a question that is universal. Because as you said, it could be the ex-boyfriend that things didn't work out with. But everyone's got those people that you realize, Oh wow, I didn't actually thank that person. And it may not have been a particularly positive experience at the time, but that question alone right there, I think, makes the book nice and generalizes it for everyone. I love that question.

Nancy:                                32:56                    Well, and I hope that given that it's coming out before we start another presidential election year, people are so isolated and people are so quick to judge now, and maybe we always were, but it just feels different. And part of what I think these letters can do is remind us the small ways that people in our lives have helped us. Even if we were on opposite sides of a divide now, they've made a difference for us. And just sending those letters (or even if you write and it's not possible for you to send it) even writing it to remind yourself of the humanity of the people on the receiving end, I think is really powerful. So I'm glad it's coming out when it does, I hope it is helpful for people next year. I'm just really excited for it to come out. Can I say one thing? Because of this audience, I think I can share this. The one thing that I wanted to mention is that the same week that I got the book deal, my mom was diagnosed with lymphoma. And my mom's 86, and she's in an assisted living place, and she's got dementia. And they initially gave my mom a two and a half month...I was going to say sentence. That's what it felt like, they said that's how much time she has left. And it was awful, because on the same week I got this amazing news, I got horrible news. And I'm not going to leave you in suspense, Mom's doing fine, we took her to a specialist a few weeks later who kind of said, 'It's not nearly as dire as the first guy said and here's a bunch of treatment options.' And so mom is hanging in, she still loves John Denver, we talk a lot about John Denver. No, but it was a real exercise in compartmentalization. That's why I bring it up, because I knew I had to get this book done, and my siblings are amazing. I would have probably said like, 'I can just not do the book.' and they would have never forgiven me. So they're like, 'Figure out what your schedule is, come home if you can, and you'll get it done.' So the shitty first draft was done in six weeks, and I flew to Rochester to visit with my mom, and spent a week with her, came back, and then I finished the book after that. And the whole time I just had to keep these two things separate, because I could not have finished the book otherwise. And when it was over, I completely fell apart for a little while. And the irony was, writing the thank you notes again, writing about thank you notes, I got to kind of use them a second time in just the same way that I had the first time I wrote the letters. You know, to kind of say, 'My mom's got an X-Ray today, and we don't know what it's going to find, but Hey, I'm writing about how funny it was that time I wrote a letter to so-and-so.' If you think of writers sitting in a cabin somewhere, and having all their diversions taken away, and there's nothing but good whiskey and the sound of this pounding surf, I think that's bullshit. You know, you just have to write through what you have to write through. And I felt lucky to have the opportunity. Who's the biggest reader I know? My mom, you know, back when she could read, I was not going to let her down.

Jess:                                     36:39                    Is she pretty stoked for you?

Nancy:                                36:42                    She's pretty hilarious, my mother. She is stoked; she remembers that I have a book, that's landed somewhere, I don't think she knows what it's about. She's astonished that I told her I will bring her a book in person and hand deliver it to her. Well, she literally was the one who put the love of reading in me, so there you go.

KJ:                                        37:06                    I mean we'd all like that cabin, but you know, both Jess and I had big deadlines this year, and we both also had big personal stuff that our families overall prefer that we left as as family. But yeah, it's part of being a pro, and it's also just part of like embracing that part of who we are. It's like, you know, I'm a writer, I'm a writer with the sick parent. I'm a writer with whatever other problem that you have. But I'm a writer and this is what I'm doing now, and then in three hours I'll be doing something else. And I think you're so right to shout that out, because I know frequently I will sit there with my personal problems and with my deadline and go, 'Other people don't have to deal with this.' But honestly, yes they do.

Jess:                                     38:07                    Yeah. There were plenty of times going towards this deadline where I would hang up the phone having dealt with some of the personal stuff that was going on, and just take a couple of really deep breaths, maybe have a good cry, and then turn on my monitor, and get back to work.

Nancy:                                38:21                    Did you both feel like the writing part was like safe haven? Because that's how I felt. And then I was writing from like five to seven in the morning, cause I still had the day job. But I was like jumping out of bed cause I knew the next two hours I'll be happy.

KJ:                                        38:39                    Having the abiity to focus on it - like having spent, (you've been talking about putting in the work) having spent the past decade or more, turning stuff off, and turning to the keyboard or the paper or whatever, and saying, 'You know I got to get this.' So having that practice, the ability to just shut everything else down and focus on it, I've been so grateful - past-me for teaching present-me to do that. So thank you letter to her, I guess.

Jess:                                     39:13                    It was also really nice for me occasionally to not feel guilty. You know, I feel like when other people need me or I'm supposed to be feeling a certain way about something, it's nice to have a pass to say, 'Nope, I can't do that. I can't spend emotional attention on that right now because this has to happen.' I have this deadline, so I get to turn that off for a minute and not feel guilty about feeling bad for someone else while I can focus on the words. And so for me, it was an incredible safe haven. It was license for me to focus on something else that really was about what I love doing. And if I hadn't had that, I think it would have been an even more challenging summer than it was. But this really gave me a way out of that.

Nancy:                                40:02                    So the message is for writers, if you're having a terrible time, try writing, maybe that will cheer you up.

Jess:                                     40:08                    Well, but we do have to move on to what we've been reading because we're running over, so let's talk about what we've been reading. Nancy, would you like to tell us?

Nancy:                                40:33                    Yes. So I was visiting my mom two weeks ago, and even if she can't read anymore, she still demands that we do. And in the assisted living place, there's a giant bookcase outside her apartment, and she always makes me take a book when we go by, just take one. They don't care, just take one. So I grabbed one off the top. It was The Good Lord Bird by James McBride, which was a 2013 national book winner that I finally got to in 2019, it's been out for a while. Oh my gosh, I loved it so much. I actually just finished it last night. Ironically, one of the small characters in the book is the main character in my historical fiction novel in a drawer. So I think maybe that's why I avoided it. I didn't want to see him be alive in somebody else's book. But oh, it was fantastic. It was like Mark Twain on steroids. I loved it. It's all about John Brown and Harper's Ferry. I love abolitionist. You know, abolition is lit. And it's really, really well done. It's a fun story.

Jess:                                     41:34                    Yeah, that shelf in the bookstore, it's the popular one, The Abolition Is Lit shelf. I have a whole shelf on fishing in New England in the 1850s or so. That's a whole section in my library cause I'm obsessed with the whole Gloucester, fishermen thing. That's a thing for me. I'm still reading away on some of the stuff that's on my Audible. But I will say, that I just found out and I had mentioned this before, that when I am writing stuff, I like to reread things that are comforting, and I had been relistening to a whole bunch of Jane Austen and I just found out that there is a recording of Sense and Sensibility with Kate Winslet. And so that is going to be a evening listen for me.

KJ:                                        42:33                    We have recorded multiple episodes this week and I am out, but I have already shouted out the What Should I Read Next? Podcast, but I have to shout it out again. So it's What Should I Read Next? With Anne Bogle, who some might know as the Modern Mrs. Darcy, she's had a blog for a long time. So I listened to an episode of this podcast earlier this week and I ended up downloading samples of four different books and they only talked about like eight. Somebody goes on and says, 'These are the books I like and this is what I'd like to read next.' And it's just such an incredible joy. So, try the podcast and I guarantee that you will come away with something to read, even if I can't suggest anything at the moment. Yeah, it's a really good one.

Jess:                                     43:34                    Alright, Nancy, do you have a bookstore you love?

Nancy:                                43:38                    I very much have a bookstore I love, it's called A Great Good Place for Books, here in Oakland up in the Montclair neighborhood. And Kathleen Caldwel,l who owns it, is the neighborhood treasurer. Everybody's kid has worked at that bookstore at some point. And she pays them in books and it's just fantastic. In fact, Great Good Place is doing my launch party, which is on December 3rd, and she's just one of those people you walk in the door and she says, 'Oh, Nancy, I knew you were coming in this week, so I've put aside three books for you.' And my favorite story about her was the time I ordered Skippy Dies, it's very dark Irish boarding school, it's like a comedy tragedy. It's an amazing book. And she sold my husband a gift card for me for Christmas, cause that's what I get every Christmas. Andrew, if you're listening, I need a gift card. And I took it in and I said, 'Okay, I want to get Skippy Dies.' And she said, 'Well, I'm going to order you the three part version of the book.' And I said, 'I think it's just a novel. I've been reading reviews, it's one book.' And she goes, 'Oh, it's so much cooler when it comes in the case. So I'm going to get you this. And I know how much is on your gift card, you can afford it.' So I love Kathleen, she is always hustling for those authors. She brings in great, great authors for readings and yeah, so if you're in Oakland check out Great Good Place For Books.

Jess:                                     45:08                    Alright, everyone needs to run right out and get The Thank You Project: Cultivating Happiness One Letter of Gratitude at a Time by Nancy Davis Kho. It is going to make such a good gift, that's my plan (sorry, spoiler alert to everyone who's getting presents for me this year) that's what you're getting. So get excited to read this book, it's fantastic. So congratulations on your long path to publication and thank you so much for being on the podcast today.

Nancy:                                45:35                    Thank you guys so much for having me. And everybody out there - keep writing, you're on the path, you're doing it.

Jess:                                     45:39                    And in order to do that, everyone has to keep their butt in the chair and their head in the game. This episode of #AmWriting with Jess and KJ was produced by Andrew Parilla. Our music, aptly titled unemployed Monday was written and performed by Max Cohen. Andrew and Max were paid for their services because everyone, even creatives should be paid.

Top Five BookBub Secrets for Authors

Haven’t heard of Bookbub yet? Well hustle over there, because it may just be the fastest growing publisher partner authors have these days. 

On the face of it, Bookbub is an email newsletter for bargain-priced ebooks. But don’t be fooled. Bookbub is also a big book recommendation engine with millions of subscribers. 

1. Your first step at Bookbub should be signing up for daily or weekly bargain emails in the genre of your choice. Take some time to add books to your library, and getting a feel for how the site works. Some of the recommendation and review functions feel like a cleaner, lighter Goodreads. If your book is published (or on pre-order), head over to partners.bookbub.com and set up your author profile. You can add a photo and a bio, and even list the genre(s) in which you write.

2. This is big: if your author profile gains followers, Bookbub will send an email to them on your book’s launch date. For free. So it’s worth your time to ask readers to follow you on the Bookbub platform. 

3. Furthermore, you can submit new books for a Featured New Release. This is a paid feature, accessible through the partners dashboard. Trying to build an audience? This is one way to get the word out about your new book. Each week the Featured New Release email goes out to millions of subscribers. If your book is picked, you can reach unfamiliar readers on the day when it counts most.

4. You can also try pay-per-click ads on Bookbub. Depending on the genres and authors you target, your ad can reach thousands of people for just a few dollars. These ads appear at the bottom of Bookbub’s regularly scheduled promo emails. Unlike an ad on social media, these ads appear in front of guaranteed readers who are already looking for (and potentially purchasing) ebooks.

5. After your book has been out a while, consider the grand poobah of Bookbub promo power: the Featured Deal. These email promotions (costing at least a few hundred dollars each) are only for books on sale. You have to apply for the limited spots, which are curated by Bookbub’s editorial staff. 

These ads always result in sales. Always. If you aren’t given a slot,  you can try again in thirty days. And ask your publisher! Quite a few of the Big 5 publishers will pay for them, especially during the weeks just before your next book comes out.

The #AmWriting Podcast sends a #WritersTopFive to supporters every Monday, and occasionally, we share one—like this one— with all of our email subscribers. Feel free to forward it to a friend who might enjoy it.

And if you’d like to get next Monday’s #WritersTopFive: Top Five Reference Books for All Novelists, and Three More for Special Occasions, become a #AmWriting Podcast supporter! Supporters get:

Our weekly #WritersTopFive email, featuring fast, fun, actionable advice from KJ, Jess, Sarina and our guests on writing topics including:

Top 5 Questions to ask Your Main Character

Top 5 Newsletter Subject Lines (coming soon!)

Top 5 Ways to Start an Agent Query (coming soon!)

Top 5 References for Dictating Your Work

and subscriber-only bonus PODCAST SHORTS. A little weekly inspiration from one of us every Monday, straight into your podcast feed, but only for supporters. Want in? Click the button.

Support #AmWriting

186 #TheJoyofHolidayRomCom

  
0:00
-49:53

We wanted to talk holiday writing—as in, writing ABOUT holidays, not writing during the holidays. So we went strolling through the holly-bedecked halls of the Internet—because, #dominantculture, holiday books as they appear without a more specific web search means Christmas books and specifically, the 250 page equivalent of a bonbon of a Lifetime Christmas movie. We found Natalie Cox, author of the debut romcom Mutts and Mistletoe. And then we found that Natalie Cox is also Betsy Tobin, author of five other novels, co-owner of a bookshop in North London and just generally appearing to live an authorial dream life.

So of course we invited her on to talk about not just holiday writing, but switching genres, the real meaning of “debut” and whether or not owning a bookstore in London is as much fun as it sounds like it would be. Links from the episode (which was itself as much fun as it sounds like it would be) follow.

As for writing DURING the holidays, if you’re a supporter, you can check out the Top 5 Hacks for Holiday Writing—and if you’re not, why not? Give yourself a little holiday giftie and us a little holiday boost clicking the button below to support the podcast you love, get weekly #WriterTopFives with actionable advice and occasional bonus #MiniSupporter podcasts for just $7 a month.

Upgrade to Supporter

As always, this episode (and every episode) will appear for all subscribers in your usual podcast listening places, totally free as the #AmWriting Podcast has always been. This shownotes email is free, too, so please—forward it to a friend, and if you haven’t already, join our email list and be on top of it with the shownotes and a transcript every time there’s a new episode.

Get New Episode Emails

To support the podcast and help it stay free, subscribe to our weekly #WritersTopFive email.

LINKS FROM THE PODCAST

#AmReading (Watching, Listening)

Betsy:

Three Women, Lisa Taddeo

KJ:

Beside Herself, Elizabeth LaBan

Sarina:

Reindeer Falls, Book 1: The Boss Who Stole Christmas, Jana Aston

Reindeer Falls, Book 2: If You Give a Jerk a Gingerbread, Jana Aston

Reindeer Falls, Book 3: The One Night Stand Before Christmas, Jana Aston

#FaveIndieBookstore

INK@84

Our guest for this episode is Betsy Tobin, aka Natalie Cox. Find more about her at BetsyTobin.co.uk.

This episode was sponsored by Author Accelerator, the book coaching program that helps you get your work DONE. Visit https://www.authoraccelerator.com/amwritingfor details, special offers and Jennie Nash’s Inside-Outline template.

Find more about Jess here, Sarina here and about KJ here.

If you enjoyed this episode, we suggest you check out Marginally, a podcast about writing, work and friendship.

Transcript (We use an AI service for transcription, and while we do clean it up a bit, some errors are the price of admission here. We hope it’s still helpful.)

KJ:                                        00:02                    Hey there listeners, it's KJ. What with Jess starting in on a new project lately, we've been talking a lot about nonfiction and research. If that's your kind of work, our sponsor, Author Accelerator can help and you don't have to go all in with full on book coaching if you're not ready. Check out their new four week long nonfiction framework program that will help you nail down your structure before you start to write, or after your writing and realizing, dang, this thing needs a backbone. Authors of self-help, how-to, and academic texts will find the shape of their books, create a working one page summary that helps reveal that shape at a glance, and develop a flexible table of contents to guide you through the drafting and revision process. You can find a lot more, including previews of much of the material, by going to authoraccelerator.com/nonfictionframework. Is it recording?

Jess:                                     01:00                    Now it's recording.

KJ:                                        01:01                    Yay.

Jess:                                     01:02                    Go ahead.

KJ:                                        01:03                    This is the part where I stare blankly at the microphone and try to remember what I'm supposed to be doing.

Jess:                                     01:07                    Alright, let's start over.

KJ:                                        01:08                    Awkward pause and I'm going to rustle some papers.

Jess:                                     01:11                    Okay.

KJ:                                        01:11                    Now, one, two, three. Hey, I'm KJ Dell'Antonia and this is #AmWriting. #AmWriting is our weekly podcast about writing all the things - fiction, nonfiction, book proposals, essays, pitches, and as we say every week, this is the podcast about getting the work done.

Sarina:                                 01:40                    And I'm Sarina Bowen, the author of 30 plus romance novels. And you can find more of me at sarinabowen.com. I am KJ Dell'Antonia, author of a novel coming out next summer. Also of How To Be a Happier Parent, former lead editor of the Motherlode blog at the New York Times and all of the other things that I say every week. And our usual cohost, Jess Lahey, is missing this week. Sarina and I are soloing, but we have a guest. In fact, you could argue that we have three guests. We are going to talk today with Betsy Tobin, who is the author of five books of literary fiction/mystery/I'm not even quite sure how to describe it. Natalie Cox, the author of a new romcom, which is called Mutts and Mistletoe, it's a holiday theme and it is incredibly fun. And the co-owner of the Ink@84 bookstore bar cafe in North London. Conveniently, however, all of these guests are wrapped up into the same person. It's just going to make it much easier to ask questions.

Sarina:                                 02:52                    Of course. So welcome, Betsy.

Betsy:                                  02:54                    Gosh, with an intro like that it's going to be hard not to disappoint. I'll do my best. I'll do my best to be three people in one. Thank you very much. And also 30 books, my goodness. Respect, Sarina. That's amazing, respect.

KJ:                                        03:08                    So I'm going to just own it all for our listeners (as we do every week) which is that originally we thought, you know what would be really fun? It'd be fun to talk to somebody who wrote a book with a holiday theme. Because have you ever written a book with a holiday theme?

Sarina:                                 03:27                    Undeveloped, but barely.

KJ:                                        03:29                    Right, but barely. I've written many an essay with the holiday theme, and many a gift guide with a holiday theme, many a freelance thing, but I've not done a book. So that was our original thought. So we, we sort of went looking around to see who would be interesting and came across Natalie Cox's debut romcom author of Mutts and Mistletoe. And reached out to her only to discover that she is scarcely a debut author at all. So while I hope to get to the use of the holiday and the trope and the fun that is all involved in that, we really want to start with, Betsy, get us to this point. Walk us through if you don't mind.

Betsy:                                  04:17                    How did I start writing?

KJ:                                        04:19                    Yeah, how did you start writing? Let's start there.

Betsy:                                  04:23                    My very first foray into writing was that I took an evening class in journalism and the teacher told me that my style was too literary. And he really sort of slightly took the wind out of my sails. I was in my mid-twenties and I thought this might be a great career. So I went and did an autobiographical essay writing course and the very first exercise that that teacher set was to write a brief story about your life that incorporated a lie and try to make the juncture between the lie and the truth totally seamless. And I thought that was a really fantastic exercise.

KJ:                                        05:19                    That is an interesting exercise. And one I've never heard.

Betsy:                                  05:23                    Yeah. I mean, one that it would never have occurred to me to write fiction. And I didn't really grow up in a family where there were any kind of artists or people working in creative industries. We were kind of quite rational type people. And I thought I was going to have a career in a rational kind of occupation. And I don't think I would've had the courage to write fiction until he set this exercise. And immediately I just found it incredibly liberating, because you could make it all up. And to be honest, that was it, I mean I just never looked back from there. I started writing short fiction. I went and did an MFA. I did work briefly when I first moved to London as a reporter. Eventually I was really rubbish at it. I wasn't thick-skinned enough.

Betsy:                                  06:13                    And I knew it was just a matter of time before I kind of was able to get myself in a position to write fiction. So that's kind of how it happened. I thought initially I would write plays and scripts. But I struggled early on with the pacing of longer format prose fiction. I wrote a lot of short stories and it was a mystery to me how you pace a novel and then suddenly I kind of cracked it in one go where I wrote something and I looked at it and I thought, 'Oh my goodness, this is not a short story. This is a novel.' And I remember, cause I left the first, like eight or nine pages lying on my desk and my husband kind of wandered by and read it and he sort of came to me and he said, 'You know, what is this?' And I said, 'I'm not sure, but I think it's a novel.' And he said, 'I think it's a novel, too.' And that was my first book, Bone House, which did very well. It sold in the U.S., and the UK, and abroad, and was optioned for film.

KJ:                                        07:13                    And that was what, about 2008?

Betsy:                                  07:16                    Gosh, no, it was published in more like 2000.

KJ:                                        07:23                    I was on Amazon and saw probably what is the latest edition.

Betsy:                                  07:27                    That could be, yeah. And I kind of never looked back from there. It did well. I mean it wasn't a bestseller. I've never had what I would say was a huge rating success. I've had critical successes. That book was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Prize, unfortunately up against Zadie Smith, who has since gone on to glittering careers.

Betsy:                                  07:50                    But yeah, it kind of put me on the map as a writer. It got me an agent. I wrote another historical novel after that. Then I wrote a third book was mythic/historical. I kind of turned to myth and I looked at the Norse body of literature.

KJ:                                        08:11                    How much time is it taking?

Betsy:                                  08:12                    So for literary fiction, I would say three years for me. That's definitely what it takes for me to write a novel. And you need about a year where the idea is bubbling along and gestating. And also those novels were very heavily researched, all of them actually. So it took quite a long time to be able to start writing. Although research is something that I use all the way through the writing process. I'm a great fan of using it as a kickstarter for creativity. Anytime somebody comes to me saying they've got writer's block that's probably my single biggest tip is just, you know, plunge yourself into some research on the background of what you're writing. And it's those tiny details that you uncover that will kickstart your creativity and get you going again. So yeah, I eventually wrote five novels.

KJ:                                        09:08                    And the fifth one was a bit of a departure too...

Betsy:                                  09:11                    That was a comic novel. It was the first thing I'd written based on my own kind of personal history a little bit...

KJ:                                        09:22                    So that one is called Things We Couldn't Explain.

Betsy:                                  09:26                    That one's called Things We Couldn't Explain. When I first started writing in the UK, I'd only lived over here for about five years and I didn't feel comfortable writing about contemporary Britain. And equally, I was starting to feel a little bit out of touch with the U.S. So I ended up setting my first novel in the distant past. And I felt like that was a middle ground where my readership and I would be on the same sort of footing. We'd all be kind of equally unfamiliar with the terrain.

KJ:                                        10:00                    I had never thought of that. Although, you know, Sarina sets her books kind of around here and somewhere else that she's lived. And the novel that I've got coming out is set where I grew up and I'm just now doing one for living around here. And I've lived here for about 10 years and I had the same thought. Can I really? You know, I ended up writing about a newcomer to the area because that felt better. People don't really talk about that, how hard it is.

Betsy:                                  10:27                    You have to feel comfortable in the skin of your novel. And then the setting is the skin. And if you're not comfortable sitting in the skin of it, you just won't approach it with confidence. I wrote a lot about identity and displacement in my literary fiction for years. That was kind of a theme that just cropped up over, and over, and over. My fourth novel, Crimson China, was about illegal Chinese migrants living in the UK and I think it is because I was a displaced person. And so I was struggling with that sense of identity and belonging and what happens to your sense of identity when you're taken out of the place of your birth and taken away from your family, and your friends, and the culture that you know. So that was a really big theme for me. And the novel that is set in Ohio was the only thing I'd ever written that was really tapped into my own background. So it was quite close to my heart, actually. So this segues deeply into the holiday issue, because that fifth novel came out in November. And the publisher I was with at the time was very, very big on digital publishing. It was sort of the heyday of digital and digital has come off the boil a bit since then in more recent years. But at the time, she was convinced that there was a lot of money to be made with eBooks. She did a lot of other much, much more commercial fiction and I watched her commercial fiction authors soar right past me in the digital charts that November, December, particularly with the holiday books. While my book kind of languished somewhere in the high tens of thousands in the rankings.

KJ:                                        12:23                    Tell me when this was.

Betsy:                                  12:25                    This would have been probably about five, six years ago.

KJ:                                        12:32                    Right. I think Things We Couldn't Explain was 2014. So you already have sort of a fun commercial read, but it's just not doing what you hoped it would do.

Betsy:                                  12:47                    No, and what I would say is My first impulse for writing a holiday book was envy. I absolutely, you know, had envy of watching all of these holiday books, many of which frankly, I read some, I wasn't very impressed. My daughter and I were big fans of romcom. She's in her kind of mid twenties. We looked at each other and we said, 'We could do this, we could do so much better.' And of course it's not, it's deceptively difficult to get it right. And we were far too overconfident, but that said, we did sit down and we came up with a concept which was the doggy, the canine rom-com concept. And we set out to do it and I wrote it. She helped me with some of the plotting. She's a great sort of reality check for me as a writer. She sees through the holes in everything, really - plot, character, theme. So I use her as a sounding board a lot for my writing.

KJ:                                        13:52                    How old is your daughter?

Betsy:                                  13:52                    She's in her mid twenties now

KJ:                                        13:57                    As is the main character in Mutts and Mistletoe.

Betsy:                                  14:00                    Yes, exactly. So yeah, so we sat down to that and then I wrote about 50 pages of it. And then I got very interested in the idea of opening the bookshop and I shelved that book and really for the next three years did nothing but find and open the shop, which really sucked up kinda 200% of my energy. And when the shop was up and running for I would say two and a half years probably, I was ready to go back to writing. And I went back to this 50 pages that I had written, which really I had just done on a lark. It was nothing more than a lark. And I honestly thought I would probably self-publish it myself, digitally only. And I mentioned it to my agent. I have a wonderful UK agent who I'm very loyal to, I've been with from the beginning. And she said, 'Show it to me.' And I knew she didn't really handle that sort of material normally, but I sent it to her and the agency read it, they all loved it. They were like, 'You must write this.' So I did. I wrote that over the next say year, it probably didn't take me more than about another six to nine months to finish. And that was how Mutts was born. It's done really well, it won romantic comedy of the year here in the UK, and it's sold all over really, all over Europe, Scandinavia, Eastern Europe, Russia. I never dreamed that it would be as successful as it's been.

Betsy:                                  15:57                    You know, literary fiction is incredibly laborious. You agonize over every word, every sentence, every phrasing. You know, Mutts and Mistletoe, you're basically trying to get all the elements that you normally tackle as a writer - story, character, setting. But you're basically also just trying to make it really funny. And so it's just such a laugh, you know, I just giggle all the way through writing this stuff. And you look at every page and you think, how can I make this more funny and what would be funnier, and that's really the challenge is kind of just keeping the jokes coming. I don't think you have a joke in every paragraph, but you just have to put your funny hat on and just wear it while you're writing. And it's a joy to be honest, compared to the other form.

KJ:                                        16:56                    But you also have a really strong structure.

Betsy:                                  17:02                    I think you have to absolutely. You have to adhere, with all writing. You have to play by the rules. I mean, there's meta fiction and some writers can bend the rules, but for most readers we need to have the elements. You have to have your ducks in line, you have to have a strong story, you have to have a strong starting proposition with a protagonist that has a problem or a need, and they're gonna they have to have an arc. All the rules adhere, there's no bending of the rules for any of this stuff. You can't take shortcuts. And I know this because I've tried to do things in a more freestyle manner and where it all just didn't work because you didn't follow the rules. And I think even a seasoned writer can fall at that hurdle if you don't pay attention. I think character is totally the single biggest driver of making compelling read. I think characters drive all good stories. And yeah, you have to have a kind of structure, ideally a kind of three act structure, and you have to have a character who learns or grows or changes. I'm a great believer in happy endings. You know, I think audiences want those.

KJ:                                        18:43                    Well, you have those things very cleanly. Many writers have those things but have a lot of noise around them. And in your case, I think you found them very cleanly and it made me wonder if you had a structure that you sort of wrote around or if that just came naturally to you.

Betsy:                                  19:05                    I'm not a great one for planning out all the story in advance, I guess the phrase a pants writer.

Sarina:                                 19:17                    Oh yes, we use that phrase.

Betsy:                                  19:19                    I think I probably am a pants writer. It's not necessarily something I recommend. What I would say is that as much as I'm somebody who doesn't plan everything in advance, I'm utterly meticulous about writing and rewriting. And to be honest, most of my published work, most pages have been edited a hundred times.

KJ:                                        19:51                    Wow.

Sarina:                                 19:51                    Wow.

Betsy:                                  19:52                    Yeah. And I know that sounds obsessive, but that's the sort of writer I am.

KJ:                                        19:57                    No, it sounds great. I'm a noisy writer to use the metaphor or whatever that I was just using, which is there tends to be a lot of stuff around my bones and I need to have less stuff around my bones. And it's kinda reassuring to hear that you're peeling stuff away as opposed to never putting it down, which certainly sounds like a simpler way to do it to me. But unfortunately I can't get there.

Betsy:                                  20:19                    I mean, I think it means that you won't produce work as fast if you're that fastidious. And I think in commercial fiction the industry demands a certain pace of writers. And I think I'm not able to meet that pace. I'm sure my publishers would say that. But that's just me. I'm afraid I just can't not do it the way I want to do it. And I'm not prepared to put a sentence out until it's perfect.

Sarina:                                 20:47                    One thing you said about characters really stuck with me. Because a few minutes ago you were saying you have to really turn on the funny and you know, be funny on every page if you're writing a comedy. But that's so much harder if you don't have a character who can give that to you through all of her flaws and misperceptions of the world, then you just have to spontaneously be funny. Whereas if you have a character who is really set in her ways, then the comedy is easier to find because it's...

Betsy:                                  21:20                    Absolutely, it has to be character driven. All the comedy has to be character driven and situation driven. It's not like you're making jokes leap off the page in and of themselves. You're pulling the comic material out of your characters and what's happening to them. It's like you're birthing it.

Sarina:                                 21:38                    I had a couple of questions for you about this book specifically. So one is, did you ever just get sick of Christmas, you know, when you were editing the hundredth time in August or whatever where you're just like, 'Ugh'?

Betsy:                                  21:54                    I dunno, I mean, I think one of the things - my character is this kind of Scrooge-like character and part of her journey is that she has to learn to love Christmas. So I was able to kind of feed both sides of that debate. It's a book that serves both Christmas lovers and Christmas haters, I think. For that reason. So it was quite amusing to kind of look at the dark side of the holidays. It amused me anyway. To be honest, Christmas became a setting, right? So, yes, it has fantastic comic potential. It has all these iconic tropes and symbols. But really what it was, was a setting and that's how you have to approach it was that you're going to set your novel in a biscuit factory. There's going to be all kinds of comedy that flows from the shop floor. In that way, Christmas was the biscuit factory setting for this. There are writers who make their career out of holiday books. Gosh, more power to them. They're the ones that you should probably be putting that question to are the ones that are writing them year, after year, after year. I'm not writing a holiday book at the moment. I wouldn't rule one out again though, cause I didn't even plumb all the depths of the comic possibilities for Christmas with that first one. I think it's rich terrain for comedy, so I could see me going back to it.

Sarina:                                 23:34                    So then my other question involves just a really practical thing about about writing a holiday book. So my first published book, practically another lifetime ago, is a winter-themed cookbook and it is very winter-themed. The sales for that book (it's 10 years old now) they look like a sign wave on the author portal. They peak right at Christmas and then they bucket in July. And I'm just curious if fiction is expected to do the same thing or not.

Betsy:                                  24:12                    It absolutely does the same thing. But that's the other beauty of writing seasonal stuff is that there's a readily identifiable market for it, which is why publishers love it. And you know, your cookbook might have died a very quick death decades ago or years ago, had you not had that seasonal hook that brings it back and makes it relevant again in the marketplace each year. I'm a great believer in, you know, I don't believe the world owes us a living as writers. And I think we have to write stuff that people want to read. So I'm sort of quite business minded as a writer. And and I think you need to do the publisher's job for them a little bit when you want to sell a prospective title because you have to be able to identify what the market's going to be. So yeah, I think whereas novels, (and I know this because I'm a book seller) the shelf life of a hardback is something like six weeks to three months. And after that they get sent back. And the shelf life of a paperback is 18 months. And after that, you know, unless you're a bestseller, or a prize winner, or an evergreen your book will be gone. And you know, that's just the reality. Whereas seasonal titles, actually, I think there is an upswing year after year for the best ones.

KJ:                                        25:49                    So, wait. Do you put them in a box in the shop and put them aside or do you send them back and then get some new ones?

Betsy:                                  25:56                    We send them back when we get new ones. We're ruthless.

KJ:                                        26:00                    Isn't that funny - you're both the author who's like, 'No, hold on to my book and the bookseller who's like, 'Nope, sorry.'

Betsy:                                  26:08                    It's awful. Authors don't want to know how much gets sent back. I don't know if the retail industry works quite the same way in the U.S. but books are one of the only areas of retail that are full sale or return or at least partial sale or return. You know, that doesn't happen in the clothing industry, right? The stores don't get to send the merchandise back if it doesn't sell. And so yeah, we are ruthless about culling titles that languish on our shelves.

KJ:                                        26:42                    Do you think that's part of why you're going back in for another romcom or do you think it has more to do with sort of where you are in life and what you want to write or is it some combination therein and that it would be hard to tease out?

Betsy:                                  26:55                    I think it has to do with the fact that I have a two book deal with Orion in the UK and I'm contracted to produce another one. Also, I have the pressure of my agents saying to me, 'Gosh, we have these 12 foreign publishers...', So I was under pressure, both because I'm legally obliged to write one for Orion, but in fact Orion gave me the opportunity to segue into more comic literary fiction last year. And it was really my agent who said, 'Gosh, you know, we've got these 12 publishers queued up.' Mutts is only coming out for the first time in all those markets cause it took a year to translate it. So they're the ones that are going to come knocking on our door in January or February saying, 'Oh, what about the next one?'

KJ:                                        27:52                    When was the decision made to write Mutts under a new name?

Betsy:                                  27:56                    Do you mean Natalie?

KJ:                                        28:00                    Yeah.

Betsy:                                  28:01                    Right, sorry. Okay. At the point of sale for publication, the agents, I said to them, 'What about my brand?' And they said, 'We'll sell you as a debut.' And that is what goes on in the industry. I don't know that it's the best thing. I don't know necessarily that it did me any favors as an author, but publishers of course are always looking for debuts. There's an absolute mystique in the industry about making the next big discovery. So it's easier for agents to sell debuts. So I was sold as a debut romcom writer with the caveat that it was a pseudonym for someone who had written in another genre. So publishers at the point of bidding were told that I was an existing writer.

Betsy:                                  29:02                    They weren't told who I was, but I was sold as a debut. Does that make sense?

KJ:                                        29:10                    Yes, it does. It's a crazy system.

Betsy:                                  29:12                    It is crazy indeed. So now I have fiendish social media cause I have social media under Betsy, and I have social media under Natalie, and I also do all the social media for the bookshop. So I'm constantly toggling between Facebook and Instagram and Twitter on all three accounts and kind of posting the wrong thing from the wrong account and getting into trouble. So that's what ended up with, I don't know how desirable it is for me as a writer. One thing I would say is that this has a different title in Britain than it does in the U.S. and that is something I will never repeat again because that was even more of a nightmare publishing two...

KJ:                                        29:56                    What is it called in Britain?

Betsy:                                  29:57                    So in Britain, we have a really famous dog charity rescue charity, a nationwide adoption center called The Dog's Trust. And their motto is 'Dogs are for life, not just for Christmas.' It's very, very famous. It's a famous enough charity that pretty much everyone knows that line dogs life. And so my editor from day one was determined to call it Not Just for Christmas. And of course it's not a title that works at all well in the U.S., it doesn't play in America. It's not a title I wanted particularly, but it certainly works very well in this territory. I I was worried about it elsewhere and I was worried about the idea of books going out with different titles. The same book going out and it was a bit of a problem, I had kind of angry readers saying...

KJ:                                        30:56                    I have as a reader, bought the same book twice.

Betsy:                                  30:58                    Yes, exactly.

KJ:                                        31:00                    Because I liked it so much one of the times and I thought, 'Oh, it's a different one.'

Betsy:                                  31:05                    Yeah. I had irate readers kind of emailing me saying 'Who would do that?' And it didn't help that Amazon in the U.S. had both editions up. Anyway, it was a nightmare. So that's how I ended up as Natalie Cox. Gosh, Natalie was the name of my old dog, so that was a nod towards her. And Natalie's three syllables and I knew I needed a really short three letter surname for the cover. So it was either Dicks or Cox. Fox was taken. I actually did try Fox. My publisher said there was some other writer publishing under that name. So yeah, that's how I ended up with Natalie Cox.

KJ:                                        32:02                    And the next one will be Natalie Cox.

Betsy:                                  32:03                    Yes, this is a romcom under Natalie Cox, absolutely. And it also involves a very large dog. It's a similar kind of book, similar voice, similar tone. It's about a woman who's fed up with her life, she's got a list of problems, and she just wants to run away from it all until someone steals her identity. And then she wants her life back.

KJ:                                        32:28                    Oh, that's good.

Betsy:                                  32:34                    So I'm busily beavering away at that at the moment. I'm hoping to deliver that in the spring. So we will see. I do like dogs, I'm a big dog fan. I definitely discovered that almost like Christmas, there's almost an identifiable readership of people who want books about dogs.

KJ:                                        32:54                    There absolutely is.

Sarina:                                 32:55                    Yes, that is true. In fact, in 2017, one of my publishers said, 'These are the pitches we want next from you. It has to be dogs, or Alaska, or cowboys.'

Betsy:                                  33:08                    Oh my God, that is hilarious. All three of those are great!

KJ:                                        33:13                    An Alaskan cowboy dog would just walk us straight.

Betsy:                                  33:19                    Oh, I would love to write any of those, that sounds fantastic. So did you write that? Did you write that book back then?

Sarina:                                 33:37                    No, I didn't because I just didn't want to. And it was also said to me like this, 'This is what Walmart wants.'

Betsy:                                  33:47                    Oh wow. Okay.

Sarina:                                 33:48                    And I thought, you know what...I didn't want to plan my life that way.

Betsy:                                  33:54                    No, and I agree. While I did make that comment about not writing in a vacuum and understanding what the market is for your books, I don't think you should let the tail wag the dog.

KJ:                                        34:06                    Well, there's a difference.

Sarina:                                 34:07                    Yeah. There's a difference between having an eye on it and letting it run your life. Also, you mentioned digital and so that made me curious. And as a bookseller, I bet this is something you keep an eye on, but is the digital sales ratio of your romcom higher than your literary fiction?

Betsy:                                  34:29                    Well, I haven't looked at the figures, but broadly I would say yes. I mean, the thing about digital is we have pretty good understanding of what digital reading habits are now. And they do tend to be in certain genres - so mystery and commercial women's fiction, particularly romance, romance and mystery I'd say are probably two of the biggest consumers of digital. And you know, these are people who are super fans, they're veracious readers, they're constantly looking for new sources of supply, they need to source their books cheaply because they're reading so much. So gosh, what was the question?

Sarina:                                 35:18                    I was just curious. So I'm very familiar with this concept because I'm about 98% digital. Or actually, if I put audio in there it wouldn't be 98 it would be more like 85. But also where is the line? So I have friends who do sort of book club women's fiction who are running at about 50/50 digital. And I was just sort of thinking that your book also looks like that midpoint between something that would be strictly a romance and a commercial women's fiction.

Betsy:                                  35:55                    Well, what I would say in the U.S. for the Natalie Cox book, is that they have not pushed it digitally at all and they've priced it very, very high because I think they really want to shift paper copies. And so I've looked at my digital numbers and they're incredibly low. I would say below 5%. I mean I think that this title has legs digitally and I assume that they will eventually tap into that and market it digitally and price it to sell digitally. But at the moment they're still not doing that. In fact, I can't see from here what the digital prices in the U.S. are.

KJ:                                        36:38                    It's $14.99 I think. It's quite high. And I just want to say it was super fun, I had a totally fun evening read. And I honestly wouldn't have done it if I did not also want to read it.

Betsy:                                  37:31                    You totally could've winged it.

KJ:                                        37:44                    But I wanted to read it.

Betsy:                                  37:46                    Thank you. You will be my one digital sale in America this week. Next week, when I look at my sales figures it will literally say two copies sold and you'll be one of them. I think Putnam really wants...they've got a lot of physical copies out there and they want people to buy those. And that's why it's been priced the way it has. I assume that in years to come that part of their marketing plan...

KJ:                                        38:12                    You know the worst part? I could've gotten the British edition for $3.99.

Betsy:                                  38:18                    No, you're not allowed to.

KJ:                                        38:20                    I could, I could do it right now. I have buy with one click.

Betsy:                                  38:25                    But I thought they weren't allowed to. So there's copyright constraints that prevent you from buying digitally.

KJ:                                        38:34                    It's priced in pounds.

Betsy:                                  38:37                    Kindle should throw it out.

KJ:                                        38:39                    Oh, you know what? I'm on the UK site cause I went to it from your website.

Sarina:                                 38:46                    So when your new book comes out and there's doing the still the whole paper push maybe you can get them to do a BookBub deal.

Betsy:                                  38:58                    Yeah, absolutely. I'm certainly about to press my UK publisher on a BookBub deal because unlike the U.S. they aren't bringing out another edition. They're not pushing it into shops this Christmas. And it absolutely should be. They should be marketing it more aggressively in the UK. The U.S., I've just looked, they've got like 40,000 paper copies out in shops.

KJ:                                        39:21                    And the kind of amazing thing is that because I knew we were interviewing you and I've been in one airport bookstores and one non-airport bookstore looking at the holiday. And to be honest, I didn't see it. It wasn't on the holiday.

Betsy:                                  39:35                    Well that is disappointing. This is the ultra mass market addition though, so those are only certain types of outlets I assume in the U.S.

KJ:                                        39:44                    I was primarily in airport bookstores. I was in one indie bookstore, the one owned by Ann Patchett, actually. Speaking of author bookstores.

Betsy:                                  39:53                    She came and signed copies at my shop.

KJ:                                        39:56                    Well, darn it, she needs to be stocking your book.

Betsy:                                  39:59                    So last year, with the trade paperback, that was a book that definitely was in Barnes and Noble and some of the independents. This year, with this new mass market edition I don't know which outlets stock these kinds of books that are priced at this very low price point, $7.99, I was very impressed with that. I assume it's more supermarkets, Walmart, that sort of thing.

KJ:                                        40:30                    The airports had a few, but they were big name.

Sarina:                                 40:34                    Also, American airport bookstores hate romance. There's nothing with even a whiff of romance in airport bookstores.

Betsy:                                  40:42                    And to be honest, I would not have expected to be in the U.S. airport, actually. That's sad, but I can live with that. There are 40,000 copies out there but they're not in airports, but that's okay. I'm okay with that. Maybe my people aren't travelers, you know, maybe they're not travelers.

KJ:                                        41:12                    I have one last question, but it might be a long one. I'm sure it's one that many of our listeners are wondering, 'Wait, wait, do I want to run a bookstore?' Sarina and I are always reminding each other that we don't, in fact, want to run a bookstore. So tell us.

Betsy:                                  41:30                    Well, what do I say about running a bookstore? It's a little bit like owning a dog. I always liked owning a dog to having a perpetual toddler, you know, one that never grows up. With that level of commitment, and responsibility, and supervision. And I think running a small business, a customer facing business, it's open seven days a week, trading 70 hours. Yeah, it's the same sort of thing. It's like having a perpetual toddler. It's a lot of work. It's very full on, I have a business partner. We don't staff the shop, but we run it, we manage it ourselves from our laptops, mostly remotely. Although I certainly am in the shop. If I'm in London, I'm in the shop most days at least for a couple of hours to sort of oversee things. And it's terrific fun. I can't undersell that.

KJ:                                        42:19                    That's not what we wanted to hear.

Betsy:                                  42:20                    I mean it is absolutely incredibly fun, but like any small businesses, it is a lot of hard work. And we are very much a DIY business. We do everything ourself. We do all our bookkeeping, we do all our social media, we do our website, we curate by hand. You know, we're very hands-on for two people who aren't physically there all the time. But I travel a fair amount and so I can run the business from my laptop pretty much wherever I go. And it works and our customers love it and they're incredibly grateful that we're there. So they're happy to support us and are happy to pay full cover price. We never discount anything, we're ruthless about that. I just turned away a customer this afternoon for a book by someone I really, really dislike. When he asked why we didn't have it I said, 'Because we didn't buy it in, because we hate him.' And I said, 'I can order it for you, but can I just sell you something else?' It's done. So I talked him into buying something else. I said, 'His ex wife's book is out next year and it's much worth the wait for that.' He's an odious you would think. That's what you get to do when you run a bookshop. That's a terrible thing, I shouldn't be saying this.

Sarina:                                 43:40                    It's hilarious.

KJ:                                        43:41                    It's hilarious. Yes, we're all over this bookshop.

Betsy:                                  43:46                    In fairness, that customer did look down and he spotted a slim volume by Niche and he said, 'Well, if that's your standard then you shouldn't be stocking this either.' Absolutely, we get to choose. It's really fun owning the shop and it's incredibly gratifying and it's lovely not to be just facing a keyboard all day.

KJ:                                        44:14                    And now you make it sound fun. That's terrible, we didn't need that. Well, this is a great segue into what we've been reading. So have you read anything good lately?

Betsy:                                  44:25                    So I have just read this book and I'm going to forget the author. U.S. book called Three Women by Lisa Taddeo. So this book, my 28-year-old son, his girlfriend loaned me her copy. It was a bit of a sleeper success for us in the bookshop. It was published here by Bloomsbury, I'm not sure who published it in the U.S. and we didn't really clock it initially on our radar in the shop until it started to kind of sell. I had all these kind of mid-30-year-old women coming in and sort of slyly purchasing it. It's about women and sex and it's a stunning piece of really in depth report where she surveyed hundreds of women and then chose three and followed them for literally years and moved to their home towns and told the story of their sexual history. And when my son's girlfriend loaned it to me, she said, 'Don't read it on the Metro.' And it's very, very explicit. It's incredibly gripping. And the stories are all true and it's beautifully written. It's written like a thriller. She cuts between the three stories very cleverly. And I thought it was a remarkable piece of work, actually. So yeah, definitely recommend it. And a lot of food for thought in terms of sexuality.

KJ:                                        46:17                    How about you, Sarina?

Sarina:                                 46:18                    Well, I wanted to keep with the holiday theme and I am acquainted with this author named Jana Aston, who writes what is very much an of-the-moment romance in the contemporary space right now. She writes kind of like billionaires and young women and it's very snappy and also kind of romcom, but also probably quite dirty. She came out with three holiday novellas right now and they are brilliantly packaged. And I'm reading the first one right now. It's called The Boss Who Stole Christmas.

Betsy:                                  46:57                    And I bet they're racing up the Kindle charts.

Sarina:                                 47:00                    Yes. And I have to tell you the title of the second book because it makes my heart pitter-patter. It is so funny. It is called If You Give a Jerk a Gingerbread. Isn't that impressive? And so I'm having a great time reading book one and I can't wait to get to the jerk with the gingerbread.

KJ:                                        47:20                    Well, as I've said multiple times, did really enjoy Mutts and Mistletoe. Super fun. Although you need to look for the paperback, not necessarily the Kindle edition. They probably won't let me loan it to you. I also read Beside Herself by Elizabeth Labon. Elizabeth Labon is a Philly author who writes really, really place-centric commercial women's fiction. And I love the cover of this book. It's a coffee cup, like sort of spilling as it topples over. And it's the story of a woman whose husband has an affair and who still loves him but wants to get back at him. And it's a happy ending, romcom, very much fun read, especially if you're a Philly person. And yeah, I enjoyed it. I've enjoyed her previous books. So yeah, it was fun. I think it's a good time of year. You know, I have a stack right now that is a combination of sort of more serious stuff and really, really light stuff because this is just such a rich time of year for book shopping.

Betsy:                                  48:25                    Absolutely. And I think over the Christmas holidays, frankly, everybody wants the literary equivalent of a malteser way. I mean, you know, really, that feeds aside for all of us. And you know, there's room for all those books on our shelves.

KJ:                                        48:44                    Well, thank you so much for coming. This has been incredibly fun. We thought it would be fun when it was just going to be holiday, but when it turned into let's talk about owning a bookstore and writing multiple books in multiple genres. We got super excited, so thank you.

Betsy:                                  49:00                    Fantastic. Thank you so much for having me.

Sarina:                                 49:02                    And until next week, everyone, keep your butt in the chair and your head in the game.

Jess:                                     49:14                    This episode of #AmWriting with Jess and KJ was produced by Andrew Parilla. Our music, aptly titled unemployed Monday was written and performed by Max Cohen. Andrew and Max were paid for their services because everyone, even creatives should be paid.

Loading more posts…