Epistolophilia: A Few Thoughts on the Occasion of a Book’s Birth

The day before yesterday I received a note from my publisher saying that copies of my book had arrived in the warehouse, and that I could begin announcing its publication. Though my official date of publication is March 1, 2012, the baby’s come early. It’s a strange and great feeling to know that my book is now ready for readers.

The process of writing and shepherding Epistolophilia through the production process has been long and sometimes difficult. The germ of the book began sprouting some twelve years ago when I first came across a collection of letters archived in Vilnius. Their author, a woman named Ona Šimaitė, had saved the lives of hundreds of Vilna Ghetto children and adults, and then had been arrested, tortured, and deported by the Gestapo.

The title of my book, Epistolophilia, means “a love of letters,” “an affection for letter-writing,” or “a letter-writing sickness,” and it refers to Šimaitė’s life-long dedication to her correspondence. She wrote on average 60 letters per month (therefore between 35,000 and 50,000 letters over her adult life), and not always with joy. The letters weighed on her. She often resented them and blamed the time-consuming correspondence for her inability to complete the memoir that many of her friends and colleagues were after her to write.

But to me her letters were utterly compelling. From the fragments I read in that first archive twelve years ago, I could tell I loved this woman, and I wanted to know more. Eventually, I raised enough money through grants and fellowships to collect the rest of her life-writing corpus, scattered as it was to archives in Israel, America, and other Lithuanian institutions. In the end, I suppose, I developed my own case of epistolophilia.

Now that the book is officially out, I should perhaps celebrate. But I’ve been here before, and I know that this is simply another beginning. Just as a manuscript has to be tended and cared for, so does a newly published book. And switching from an introspective and solitary way of being (that writing necessitates) to a bold, confident, and even crassly self-promoting one (that a newly published book requires) can be hard. Really hard.

Writers have fragile egos and are easily wounded. I’m no exception.

Just yesterday I sent out an email announcement to friends, acquaintances and colleagues telling them of the book’s publication. I received many kind and celebratory responses. Some people reported buying the book, others had suggestions for reading venues, and even requests for interviews. But among the sixty or seventy congratulatory emails, there was a terse one, asking to be removed from my “mailing list.” It was from a woman I’ve known for a couple of years, and someone who I genuinely thought might be interested in at least knowing about the book. I was stung. I felt stupid. I obsessed for an hour or so. But then I shook it off and moved on.

The last time around, with the publication of my first book, I did virtually no publicity to support it. I was pregnant and my newborn son beat my book by about three weeks. By the time the second “baby” (the book) arrived, I had my hands full. That said, I’m not sure I understood the importance of promotion back then, and may not have proceeded differently under alternate circumstances.

But this time, I’ve vowed not to abandon my book to its own devices just when it needs me most. I’ve vowed to be brave, bold, and even crassly self-promoting when necessary. And I won’t let the odd terse email get me down. I owe at least that much to Ona Šimaitė.

So, in the spirit of supporting and nurturing my new baby, please note that you can buy the book hereEnter the code 6AS12 to receive a 20% discount. Of course, you can also purchase it through your local bookstore or preferred online retailer.

If you enjoy Epistolophilia, I hope you’ll spread the word.

This post is part of a weekly series called “Countdown to Publication” on SheWrites.com, the premier social network for women writers.

“If you can read this book and not shriek with delight, your soul is dead”: On Authors Praising Authors

Praise the Sun by Omar Eduardo

The title of this post comes from an essay by Levinovitz called I Greet You in the Middle of a Great Career: A Brief History of Blurbs. He quotes George Orwell, who was a strict enemy of blurbs, calling them “disgusting tripe.”

The article is an interesting history of praise of authors by authors. And Levinovitz does a good job cataloguing the sins that the publishing industry has committed (for centuries, it would seem) in the process: corruption, cronyism, hyperbole, and the practice on the part of some publishers to provide sample blurb templates.

As authors become better known, they inevitably find themselves overwhelmed by blurb requests. Often these come from publicists, but some come from authors themselves. Ignoring a publicist is one thing, but turning down a fellow writer can be awkward. Even more awkward is reading a colleague’s book to find that you can’t give it a a positive blurb. Many accomplished authors deal with this by having a no-blurb policy. Others, like Camille Paglia, have publicly called for an end to the practice all together.

In To Blurb or Not to Blurb, l Morris asks the question of whether or not blurbs sell books. The answer appears to be a qualified yes. Praise by an author you know and like may indeed get you to pick up a volume from a display table. That said, Morris also finds that a blurb by an author a reader distrusts or whose work she dislikes may be a turn off.

Last spring I got a note from my publisher that it was time to start seeking out pre-publication praise for Epistolophilia. I swallowed my pride and started to cast about for writers to contact. In some cases, I was met with silence. In others, I received kind notes that explained, with an apology, that the writer had a no-blurb policy. (One answer arrived long after the due date for jacket copy, and though I didn’t get a blurb, I did make a valuable and friendly new contact with whom I continue to correspond. So even this most humbling of processes can bring unexpected rewards.)

Getting turned down didn’t surprise me. Nor did the silences. What surprised me most was getting three sincerely positive blurbs for my book. One of them is from David Bezmozgis. His blurb for Epistolophilia: “An intelligent, humane, and noble book that rescues from obscurity an intelligent, humane, and noble woman. It stands as a testament to the power of reading, writing, compassion, and extraordinary courage.” Wow. That even impressed my publicist.

Is the process of blurbing cynical and corrupt? Sometimes, yes. But it is also a way for established writers to help unknown ones.

The first time this occurred to me was when I heard Stephen Elliott (The Adderall Diaries) talk at the AWP Conference last year. When Roddy Doyle blurbed his book (writing, “You don’t just read The Adderall Diaries; you fall right into them. You read as if you are a few words behind the writer, trying to catch up, to find out what happens, to yell at him that he’s doing a great job. And he is. It’s a brilliant book.”), he changed the game for Elliott. Far from a cynical move, such a blurb is a gift.

The same is true of Bezmozgis. He didn’t have to read my book, or even answer my email. He didn’t know me or owe me anything, and goodness knows, he has enough on his plate. But he read it, found it valuable, and said so. It was an act of generosity that I’ll never forget.

Perhaps one day I’ll get the chance to do the same for someone else.

Your thoughts on blurbs?

[Photo: Praise the Sun by Omar Eduardo]

This post is part of a weekly series called “Countdown to Publication” on SheWrites.com, the premier social network for women writers.

Workshop: How to Be Your Own Publicist (Canada)

RETRO POSTER - What's in Your Future? by Enokson

The Writers’ Union of Canada (TWUC) is offering the Professional Development Workshop HOW TO BE YOUR OWN PUBLICIST in Toronto, Winnipeg, Calgary,Vancouver, and Victoria, in February and March of 2012. The workshops take place from 9:30 am to 4:30 pm. For those who can’t attend in one of the participating cities, a 3-hour webinar will be offered, distilling the highlights of the workshop.

Authors Elizabeth Ruth and Ann Douglas will present on traditional but innovative book marketing strategies as well as new media opportunities for writers.  Kelly Duffin, Executive Director of The Writers’ Union of Canada, will update participants on the latest evolutions in the publishing landscape.

Whether you are an aspiring writer wanting to develop your audience before publication; an emerging writer who needs to stay visible; or long-published and looking for new tips and techniques, this full-day workshop is for you.

Participants will leave the workshop having gained the know-how and confidence to creatively promote their own future works, and an expanded, inspired sense of what it means to be a writer in the current publishing context.

The price of this symposium is $89.00 and covers costs, including lunch, $75 for members of The Writers’ Union of Canada. For registration information please go to www.writersunion.ca/registration.pdf.

[Photo: Enokson]

If You Build It, They Will Come: On Blogging, Service and Platform-Building

Shoeless Joe Jackson by John McNab

I started my blog almost two years ago after attending a writers’ workshop on publishing in the digital age. There wasn’t much talk of e-books or self-publishing from the presenters. Instead, they hammered a single message into us all day: you, as writers, need an electronic presence . . . preferably a blog. It’s how you control the message of who you are and what you do. Your site is Google’s gateway to you and your work.

Like many writers, I long resisted self-promotion, finding the very idea distasteful and embarrassing. But I’d learned from the experience of publishing my first (mostly overlooked) book, Silence is Death (oh! the irony of that title in this context…), that if you don’t advocate for your own work, no one will. I knew that this time around, I had to swallow pride and do things differently. So, in preparation for the publication of my second book, Epistolophilia, I decided to take the workshop’s advice. I bought a domain name (my own name as well as my books’ titles), and started a blog.

Despite my initial reticence, blogging quickly brought unexpected rewards. From the very beginning, I enjoyed the discipline regular posting required, and the way the site grew slowly, like a garden or a manuscript. I’m obsessed with archives, so I love the way blogs are keepers of their own histories. Finally, I have been delighted by the community-building opportunities that a blog creates.

A long time ago, I sat on an academic board that organized a biannual conference whose participants’ median age was going up and up. Board members worried constantly about the organization’s impending death and wondered how to attract younger attendees. “Offer them something,” I suggested. “An opportunity to win a book prize or a shot at a fellowship. Offer them something, and they will come.” So, that’s what we did. Once the association started a modest fellowship program and book prize, youthful scholars began returning to the association (and the financial investment quickly paid for itself).

The same principle works for a blog: offer something, and readers will come.

Blogs need not be navel-gazing, self-aggrandizing, or mean-spirited. When setting up the parameters of my blog, I asked myself how I could serve fellow writers. I decided on a ratio of 1:2. For every post about myself or my work, I featured at least 2 items about someone or something else: a review of a book or essay; a funding announcement or call for submissions; an author interview with a fellow writer of creative nonfiction.

By shining the spotlight (small as mine may be) on another writer, or by giving her a platform to talk about her work, I not only gain traffic on the blog (for every other writer brings friends and fans with her), I also gain insight, contacts, friends, knowledge and the occasional free book.

The more I extend myself to other writers, the more they reach back.

Writers are also readers. We are each other’s colleagues, but also each other’s audiences. Serving writers means reaching readers.

Be brave, be bold, and build. Then open yourself up to others and share.

[Photo: Shoeless Joe Jackson, by John McNab]

This post is part of a weekly series called “Countdown to Publication” on SheWrites.com, the premier social network for women writers.

A Call for Beauty in E-Books

Illuminated Manuscript Koran, The right side of a double-page illumination, Walters Art Museum MS. W.575, fol. 2b by Walters Art Museum Illuminated Manuscripts

A few weeks ago, I finished editing the proofs of my new book Epistolophilia. It was a great feeling to see the text typeset, designed, and looking official (and beautiful). This, in combination with some back and forth about cover design a month or so ago has got me thinking about how books look. And whether or not, as e-books gain traction, we may be hearing the death knell of book design as a profession.

My new e-reader is what sparked all this. Not long ago, for the first time ever, I paid good money for two electronic books. The transaction was fast, easy, and the product light-weight. But there was one real drawback for me: design.

There is none.

Instead of a carefully chosen font and luxurious white space around images to rest a reader’s eyes, the text pours into the page haphazardly. Large spaces gape between words without rhyme or reason, and endnotes (of which I am not an enemy, and yes, I realize this makes me a minority) are rendered basically unusable.

For some reason, the electronic jumble of text bothers me less when I’m reading books from Project Gutenberg (like Middlemarch). These are free, and no one is making any money off them (I don’t think…), so I don’t expect a paid designer to be in the mix.

But electronic books that cost about as much as a paper copies? These too should come in contact with the hand of a designer before they reach my screen.

A friend and I disagree on this point. He claims that all I have to do is play with the text on my e-reader: I can manipulate both font style and size myself!

And he says this like it’s a good thing.

But I don’t buy it. It feels like a con. It feels like work that the publisher should have paid for. It feels like a designer out of a job. And it feels like disrespect for both reader and writer.

And so, here’s my new call: a bit of beauty in the e-book business please!

Thoughts?

[Photo: Illuminated Manuscript Koran, The right side of a double-page illumination, Walters Art Museum MS. W.575, fol. 2b, by Walters Art Museum]

Job Opportunity: Publicity Workshop Leader (Canada)

Work with Writers from Coast to Coast

The Writers’ Union is seeking two members who are subject matter experts and skilled presenters to create and deliver professional development workshops on the topic of “How to be Your Own Publicist.”

Specifically we are seeking one member who can present on traditional but innovative book marketing and one who can present on maximizing digital marketing platforms and new media.  Both presenters should have a track record of success in self-marketing and be engaging speakers.

Each presenter will be responsible for:

§         developing and delivering three-hour presentations in a series of full-day workshops in five Canadian cities,

§         developing and delivering a condensed presentation for two shorter webcast sessions, and

§         providing a 600-word article based on their presentation for publication in Write magazine.

All workshops are expected to be delivered in February or March in 2012 and again in 2013.

Fees, travel and accommodation are paid in accordance with the program budget.

The Professional Development program is made possible with assistance from the Department of Canadian Heritage. Its purpose is to enhance the careers of book writers, whether unpublished, emerging, or established.

Interested members are invited to submit an expression of interest including:

§         an outline of their proposed presentation, and

§         a brief bio highlighting their self-marketing and presentation experience

to Kelly Duffin, Executive Director of the Writers’ Union of Canada. Submission deadline is September 16, 2011.

For any questions, contact Kelly at kduffin@writersunion.ca or 416-703-8982 ext 221.

[Photo: Jasoon]

Pre-order Epistolophilia

My second book is now a virtual reality at the University of Nebraska Press (never mind that it doesn’t even have a cover image yet! Ha!). I’m expecting the copy edit in a matter of weeks, then proofs, then voilà!

If you’re the kind of person who likes to have all her ducks in a row, click here to be among the first to own Epistolophilia: Writing the Life of Ona Šimaitė.

[Image: virtual reality by OlivIreland]

Revisiting the question of titles

I recently joined a women’s writing network called Shewrites, and have been following a discussion on titles. People post their working titles, and the community reacts. On the one hand, it’s a great opportunity to get a lot of quick feedback. But on the other, it’s made me realize that we’re not all on the page when thinking about what makes a good title. So I wanted to raise the question here again.

There have been objections to titles put forth on the Shewrites list on the grounds that they don’t tell exactly what a book is about. It’s an objection I struggle with a lot, especially since I write non-fiction. But, as I look around my study and at some of my favorite books of non-fiction, here’s what I see:

The Year of Magical Thinking
Algerian White
Nox
Autobiography of Red

I, for one, like titles that hint rather than baldly declare what the book is about. I like titles that are evocative and a bit poetic. I like titles that reveal their meanings fully once you’re part-way through a text. But I may be in the minority in this respect.

I’m interested to hear what you think is important in a title. How much does a title have to tell you? How tolerant of the abstract are we when it comes to titles? What are your favorites, and why?

[Photo: sleeping sun]

Internet resources for writers: publicity, grants, submitting

USING SOCIAL NETWORKING TO CREATE A PLATFORM:

I’m not expert on this, but my friend Jill Murray (www.jillmurray.com) is. She’s a Montreal author of young adult fiction, and is super-tech-savvy. She recently gave a talk on how to build a web presence through social networking, and posted her slides on her website. I found the advice there really good. Check it out here. You can find a link to Jill Murray’s website at the right margin as well.

GRANTS:

If you could use some tips on grant writing, check out Mira’s List. It’s a great blog where Mira Bartok gathers and disseminates grant announcements. I’ve subscribed to her email list, and have received a grant as a result of a listing I found there. You can also get to Mira’s List via the link under Grants at the right margin.

SUBMISSION IDEAS:

Though she doesn’t update very often any more, Sarah Wagner Yost’s blog archives give some good ideas as to where to submit personal essays and travel writing. She recommends trying The Smart Set and Modern Love (NYT) for starters. She provides editors’ email addresses and submission guidelines.

[Photo: austinevan]