Episode 295: NY Times Bestselling Author Annabelle Gurwitch's 3 Musts for a Book LaunchJan 22, 2020
Annabelle Gurwitch is an actress, activist, and the author of the New York Times bestseller and Thurber Prize finalist I See You Made an Effort. Her other books include: Wherever You Go, There They Are, and You Say Tomato, I Say Shut Up (coauthored with Jeff Kahn).
She was the co-host of Dinner & a Movie on TBS and has appeared on NPR, The Today Show, CBS Early Show, Real Time with Bill Maher, PBS, and numerous CNN and MSNBC programs. Her essays and satire have been featured in The New Yorker, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times, AARP, Real Simple, Prevention, The Los Angeles Book Review, The Daily Beast, Time.com, Next Tribe, Lenny Letter, Hadassah and The Hollywood Reporter, among other media outlets.
She's also an extremely methodical (she might say obsessive compulsive?) person—one who starts planning her launch as she comes up with the book concept. And she works it—making lists, checking them way more than twice, reaching out to people she knows and doesn't know and ultimately making it so that her books have no option but to be successful.
If you want practical steps on how to prepare both emotionally and literally for a release, this episode is packed with tips, tactics and other t-words!
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ANNABELLE'S TOP 3 TAKEAWAYS FOR A SUCCESSFUL LAUNCH:
1) Organize your book around a topic you're so passionate about that you'll be willing to talk about it until you're blue in the face
2) Get as many people talking about your book as possible, by reaching out to specific groups, looking at media that has supported similar books and asking friends for help
3) Book live events by reaching out to organizers, telling them you'll be in the area (whether you will or not) and then, when they accept you, piggy backing other events around it.
“My great grandfather was what they called a peddler in the Ukraine who sold his wares off the back of a mule. Sometimes being a writer feels like that.”
"There's nobody who's going to love your book as much as you are and treat it like you do a child of yours to send out into the world with every advantage."
TIME CODES FOR KEY INTERVIEW MOMENTS:
8:18: Why to create a trail of material you didn’t include in the book that you can then pitch editors
13:06: How even an audience of 3 can change the success of your book
18:02: Why and how to tell people what you want them to say to help promote your book
21:58: Seek out editors who will want to promote your book by researching which creatives in similar genres they’ve supported already
27:59: Why Q-TIP is the most important acronym for a writer promoting a book
Anna: 00:00 I was just saying out of all the creative people I know, you seem like one who's got a system down. Like I see you with lists, stick in my head. Before a book comes out. Or like as you're putting like, you know, proverbial pen to paper, like you've got a plan. So how do you launch?
Annabelle: 00:24 I do have a plan. But the plan starts way before six months before the book comes out. The plan starts when I'm writing the book itself. So, for me, and this is just, you know, I'm going to, I'm really excited to listen to your podcast because I am only doing, I've developed this method just based on really my years of experience as an actress. And then I sort of took the idea that I had had as an actress about trying to find a niche for myself into book publishing. And then I, I'm not quite sure how I got this idea of this little, Oh, the way that I launched things, but this is what I do. So first of all, to me the most, there are two essential ingredients to make a project successful. For me, the idea is that first, you can't make something successful as a book. I don't know about other businesses unless you are so passionate about this subject and your relationship to this subject, that you are willing to spend the next several years making yourself the Go To person on that subject. Right? So even if it doesn't seem like it's a subject, because I'm a humorist, each of my books is organized around a principle and a message and something that I perceive to be in this social [inaudible] said, I have a specific relationship too. And for me honing exactly what that is as I'm, you know what, I might be writing a bunch of stories and then realize, Oh this is the organizing principle. So it's not necessarily that I'm writing to an idea at first, but then once I'm writing and then I get an idea of where this project is going to live in the Zeitgeists, then I have to shape all the material towards that.
02:35 And I say that because you know, there's a paradigm that people often work with in the book world, which is someone told me this when I started writing that when you want to publish a book, you need to think your publisher's going to ask you the three why's, why this book, why this author, and why now, right? So those three things are going to be essential to your success because you need to have a strong argument for all of those things. So, for instance, my book, I See You Made an Effort, right? Those were stories organized around the idea that I was turning 50 and I didn't know how I was supposed to approach that, how the world was supposed to see me, and what the fuck to expect from that experience, right? So, why that, so that I, and I knew that this is a perennial subject, aging and also are changing because of our longer, more, I'm giving you the background because this is how I'm thinking when I'm thinking about how I'm going to fit this into the world. So then I'm thinking, okay, so why is this subject important? Well, our mortality is longer, so we are all living longer, which makes sense why we don't know how to have a relationship to age. Also, we're inundated with images from the media. So there's all these issues that can give me not only writing points, but talking points, and ultimately provide me avenues for which to promote this book. Then a why this author.
04:18 So while I'm someone who's turning 50, I'm a humorist. I've had every experience you could possibly have in that arena from having worked as an actress and having people stare at my face, wondering how to light the bags under my eyes, to then being a mom and a person in the world who doesn't give a crap how people see me on a good day. So I felt like I had a well rounded experience of this and then, why now? So I felt that was timely. I mean, some of these things, they, they're interconnected, right? I felt the subject was timely because of the times we live in. And in the book video that I created, which is easy to Google, I also mentioned all what I did was, you know, I researched all the things that were turning 50 when I was turning 50 like Playboy magazine. Like all these things that would then give me both writing and talking points that would be historical and I could reference in my, you know, ultimate promotion and also in my writing. So then I have the why's, and I feel very passionately about this project and this idea and hopefully I have a good product, you know, good writing to go along with it. The next part of how I'm going to be successful in the launch, in my mind, is to mobilize and make 1,001 lists that have to do with the other principal that I feel is the two pronged thing. One is the passion and dedication to the project. And the second is I believe a project will be successful if I can get as many people talking about this project that aren't me as possible.
06:10 And that's where the thousands of lists come in. And these lists are all informed by the first principal, which is my passion for this project and dedication to this project. So my lists have to do with why should I reinvent the wheel, right? I don't need to invent an audience for something that's in the social zeitgeist. I just need to identify where people are already talking about the thing that I'm doing. So how do I do that? You know, in this age of, you know, internet, this is where one of the great things, this is one of the tools we have is first of all, you know, just starting out in my wide circle, narrowing the circle in closer and closer. So first of all, I go wide. I mean you could go either way small and then go wide. But first I might just do simple Googling of like groups that deal with people my age or aging, you know, I mean I might have things on the top of my head of, you know, let's say women's magazines or AARP or things like that. But then I want to go wider, things I don't know. So this is how I ran. Some things come to me obviously because of having a certain profile in the public. But then this is how sometimes things like women's conference in Boston, I'll see that that's happening. And then I'll see if there, if I know anyone who's connected with it and you know, the world is really small in the world of, ultimately in the world of people who write and people who speak on issues. And so maybe I will know someone who is associated with the conference and I can contact them. But I have also cold contacted people and had that work very well because I have a passion, a real passion and dedication to this idea.
08:18 And one thing I hadn't mentioned is, and in advance of publishing, I will have created a trail for myself of material which I have published on the subject. So I will be able to contact people prior to publication with not only references to the work I'm doing, but to my track record as a person who is knowledgeable, even I mean as a humorous or is writing on that subject. Right? So I will have, you know, let's say I'm contacting this, and by the way I do this even though there are people, you know, publishers or I have personally hired as publicists, sometimes outsourcing to other people is a good idea. I often find that people appreciate personal contact. It really depends on my relationship or lack of relationship to the organization. So, then I will email links or profile of myself of, you know, or some kind of demonstration of my connection to that issue or subject or group and say, Hey, I've got a book coming out. I'm going to be in your area. Whether I will be in that area or not, I will be in that area. I want to make it as easy for them as possible. If I think that I can find a way to piggyback a bunch of groups together, right? So then, let's say I get a positive response, right? I don't even know how it's all going to work out yet, but then I'm able to contact or tell the team of people I'm working with, you know, I'm going to be in Boston speaking at this women's conference at the time of the book release. Is there a book festival that's happening then?
10:25 Then I've got, once I get myself, for instance, one of the things we can do in this day and age that distinguishes us, if it's possible and you feel comfortable doing this, is live events. There's still nothing like a live event when you're actually selling books, which are, you know, there is a certain incentive to sell a actual physical copy. Although you know, I love my audio book listeners all that too. But also my goal, first of all, one of the things I want to mention about this is in piggybacking events and going to do live events, the goal is not actually the live event. The goal is the email list going to people who might come to the live event. They might not come to the live event. All again, it's this idea how many people are talking about my project that aren't me. So, it's not the event, it's the surrounding press, an email lists of the people who are then they're promoting their event and in turn promoting my project. So it's this cascading domino effect of getting more and more people spreading the word. And again, like it's such a funny thing. Every author knows this. You can be a bestselling author and have an event where two people show up. One year I did South by Southwest and it was standing room only sold out, one year I did South by Southwest and there were, I think three people in the audience. One was sleeping, one was someone who wanted to publish a book, and the other was in a dragon onesie, you know, I mean come on people, you know, it was kind of hilarious. I mean, and you have to have that attitude.
12:24 But ultimately it wasn't about, no, of course it's great to have a great event. And when I can, I also try to do a guaranteed book buys and then sometimes I'll do, I'll even forgo a part of my speech honorarium for a book by if I'm at pub date time. But again, like, yes, of course I want to sell books and then of course I want the most people there. Cause, you know, giving a presentation to three people, well, one who is sleeping, I think they loved it. There's always people who come and sleep at my presentations.
Anna: 13:03 But you don't know how you're impacting their dreams!
Annabelle: 13:06 You don't know. And the funny thing is there were three people at that event. One of them actually was a booker for other events and booked me at another event. So you never know. You absolutely never know. But also again, you have to have, your in it for the long run. And also what's called the long tail of publishing, which is you don't want to just sell a pub date. You're trying to create a very, you know, and by the way, publishers do not think about this. Publishers are really geared towards release date only if it hits grade, if not, goodbye. Call us. Never. How's never sound to you? But you as an author have to be thinking of your whole career. So you're in it for the long tail auxiliary markets of speaking, of sales to film and television film, also for setting up your next book. So you want to keep selling and selling so you're, you're in it for this longer effect. So once, so I've gone to the wide circle to try to get events or also press. Maybe what I've looked up and seen is a group isn't, you know, is a podcast, is a online magazine that I hadn't heard of. Again, I look for any commonalities of people. If not, I will either outsource that to someone else, or I will contact them cold or also one of the things, one of the ways that you, I think are successful in this business and everybody does it, everybody. From the biggest bestselling authors I know to people who are self published. Usually when I do, what I'm about to describe now I put it in the subject line. So if it, if it upsets anyone, please skip it. It's yes, this is that email from your friend with a new book coming out.
Anna: 15:08 I have gotten it from you.
Annabelle: 15:08 Yes. You have. Yes, you have. And, you know, it's the indignity of being an artist, but I feel that I try to tell myself this at least first. There's two things about this. One is that, I always, always promote my friends and colleagues work, a why, a rising, what is it arising?
Anna: 15:40 We don't write in clichés.
Annabelle: 15:44 Tides and boats go together? Right? I mean, it's, I want everyone I know to be successful because most of the people that I know, with very few exceptions are all people who feel like I do. This is a ridiculous career. And you can either make a killing or go broke doing writing books. I mean, it's crazy, but you do it because you have to do it because you believe in something, because you're convinced of an important of a message or an experience that you had. And so I want everyone I know to do well. So it's not a problem for me to get that email, but it's always nice to just know that we all get lots of these emails. And so, first of all, when I'm sending this email that I know that most likely I have promoted your work, you, the person who is getting this email and gladly so. I want to make that clear. Secondly, I tried to, I mean I'm a dedicated atheist. I do, it's hard to do this. And so I will say a little secular prayer before I send out the email, just saying, I hope that people don't get annoyed by this because I genuinely believe in the message that I am communicating here. And I do. It's just still, it's hard because some people are busy. I'm busy, you know? So some people will immediately return your email. Now that email might say, Hey, do you know someone at so-and-so organization? Or it might be, you know, the email closer to pub date saying, Hey, you know, I hope you will help me spread this word and what a lot of people do and what someone actually instructed me to do like another author said this to me. It's really helpful if you're asking your friends, and this is really a label towards pub date. But if you're asking your friends and colleagues to promote you, it really helps to give them the exact language. Don't make people work hard. Even people who love your work and who've read this latest work, you know, don't, don't make them work too hard.
18:02 Tell them exactly what you want them to say. And you can couch it in. Hey, whatever you want to do is fine. If you would like, here's a shortcut, here's the link to tweet, here's the wordage, here's something that people have done. There's one thing that drives me crazy and I really recommend people not do this. Say a friend like me takes the time to tweet or Facebook or promote and doesn't use the exact language you've used. Suck it up, do not email and say, “Hey, could you change that to be the blah blah, blah, blah,” live with it people! You know what I mean? That is just, that is where it gets annoying. I have one person on my list who does that regularly and I just, I bristle at that. Otherwise I'm happy to get your email. You're going to get one from me and if I, and I feel it's a trade secret to not stay, you know who sends me these emails, but every, almost everyone I know with the exception of I think one person who wanted a Guggenheim Genius award or MacArthur and a Man Booker prize, everybody else, best sellers alike send those emails saying, “Hey, this is pub date. It's coming out.” But back to doing this is in the advance. I also have, and I think this is super important again, a community of friends who are writers who we regularly share information of like, “Hey, do you have an editor stone so and so? And do you have an editor so-and-so?” Because as this circle gets closer, smaller and smaller to my research on outreach, I am looking towards places I can publish.
19:55 So, what I've done is I've typically saved stories or thought about areas I will want to write on that didn't manage to fit in the book. And then I'll look for publications that might be printing something that I could write. And if I don't know someone there, I'll sort of gauge whether or not it's going to be best coming from my publishing publicists or it's going to be best coming from me directly. I don't usually write too cold. I don't, yeah, that I don't, I don't really recommend that. Although there are some places that are deliberately looking for people to do that, but that's usually non-professionals. They want sort of real people stories. So, if you’re a professional, I think it really helps if you can find a connection. It's just a sort of a safety valve that editors use of you putting in the subject line, “So-and-so said to reach out to you.” And then I, and one of the things that I do in order to do my research, this is, as the circle gets closer and closer because I've done my research on what titles are in the same arena as me. I will go to the websites of those writers. And this is not in any way I think. I don't want to sound stalkery or also like I'm trying to like, you know, piggyback off of someone's, you know, or like write something similar. It's just if I know where there are books that are in what I consider my vein, then, and I see who liked their books or who published articles from them, then I can direct my energies towards the most likely places that would want to hear from me.
21:58 Personally, that really works out and sometimes it's more tangential than other times. So, for instance, I'm going to give you an example that where I mentioned someone's name. So, when Jill Solloway who’s an acquaintance of mine who generously blurbed me before and I love her work so much. So when she launched Transparent, my book, I See You Made an Effort was coming out, I think it was close to then or one of my books. I looked at who was giving Transparent press, not because my work was related to her work. And this is another level of like this is like the opposite or maybe it is Dante's inferno front circle of hell of publishing pre publishing release. But it's the reason why I researched who was covering Jill was because Jill is also a Jewish artist. Now that is a category that I fit in. I am a secular humanist person with a Jewish background. And yes, I absolutely use any kind of personal identification because there are readers who seek out writers with my background. At the same time, and I guess people could judge for themselves whether this is exploitative, but I write about Jewish themes, but I have to write about secular themes and living life as a person of identifiable background. But it was also a secular humanist. So at the same time as I was promoting my last book, Wherever You Go, There They Are. I simultaneously went on the Jewish Book Council Tour and toured the country with secular humanist atheist groups. Because these are on, I actually was not connected to those groups, but I contacted people in those groups and I traveled with Richard Dawkins and interviewed him.
24:14 I did an event at the National Mall with a big convention that was happening because that is, because one of the stories in my book was about the family of secular humanists and what draws us to that world. And so, those are two seemingly contrary groups that I write about and genuinely identify with and feel passionate about. It might seem contrary, but this is the life that I genuinely lead conversation that I genuinely engage in with myself and others. So I was on the atheist and Jewish tours at the same time.
Anna: 24:58 Amazing. Well, life is full of contradictions. Now, okay, we have to get close to wrapping up. So let me ask you one thing that, you have been so successful at this. I mean, we should talk about how you get on Bill Maher, how you got on WTF…
Annabelle: 25:18 I've been on Mark's show several times and Bill's show numerous times. So these are longstanding friendships that I've had with people in the industry and that just really speaks to, first of all, how old I am. That Bill Maher and I did a movie together in 1989 when I was headlining a show on HBO and he was a comedian trying to get a standup specials. I might appear to be a little misanthropic, but I value community and community building, genuine community building. There are communities I cannot, I mean I draw the line. There are people and groups, anything to do with Marianne Williamson, I always lose friends and followers this way. Have at it people, anything to do with magical thinking and new agey, secret stuff.
Anna: 26:30 Vision boards are not hanging behind you the way white boards are.
Annabelle: 26:34 No. They're not. But you know, longstanding friendships and communities, we all work together. And so it's because of those now then I will make…because my subjects matters often deal with things in the social, political, economic arena that allows me to branch out on various MSNBC and CNN and PR, you know, kinds of media beyond my known circle of friends. So having a community really look—identifying where your message will speak to and having the genuine passion to propel yourself past a thousand no's that you will get along the way, I think are all combined ingredients to making a project successful.
Anna: 27:34 We will meet people. We will have, I'm particularly great at having connections with people who become huge and completely alienating myself from them by the time they're huge, and then feeling uncomfortable about ever reaching out as if they've forgotten me, even though they might have been people I was really close to.
Annabelle: 27:59 Well, yeah. And I'm going to give you some examples. So, at one point I had a writing partner who has gone on to a fair amount of success. Let's just say Peter Spiegel, the host of and creator of Wait, Wait, Don't Tell Me on NPR. And you know, I've never gotten booked on that show and I reached out a number of times and you know, ultimately it's someone's prerogative whether or not they feel that you or your project will add value. And there's this horrible acronym that always gives me the creeps, but it's really good. It's Q-TIP. Quit Taking It Personally. Because some people will see a value in your work and having you as part of their universe that you knew from the way back and some people will not. And you know, that's just not my business. Sadly, although I can totally spiral into “I can't believe,” you know, but, you know, it's just, it's pointless there. It's just not going to; it's just not going to get you anywhere. I mean, I enjoy obsessive compulsive thinking. This is where your obsessive compulsive nature is your friend and your enemy. My obsessive compulsive nature, my OCD, makes me just so driven to, you know, just do, to push every limit and to explore every option. It also, I can, sure I can spend an entire night thinking about someone, how I work. “I can't believe they don't” you know, whatever, pointless and yeah, they have their own reasons. Who knows? And you know, also sometimes it can switch. And again, this goes back to do I really feel I have an important message. That's ultimately what keeps you going when you get rejections.
Anna: 30:21 And it's so, it's such an interesting point too, because I know when I was really in the traditional publishing world, there was this thinking that you had to produce a book a year. That's what my publisher told me. And that's what I did for six years. That not only makes it so that you're not as passionate about it because it was this pressure to come up with new ideas, but you just don't have the time to nurture it the way, to send out those requests as sporadically as possible, to wait two years between them. Do you know what I'm saying?
Annabelle: 30:51 I do know, I know exactly what you're saying and it's really hard. I think the thing is most people understand, and I think, you know, it's just the nature of the business. And, you know, there are some times when I will feel like, “Okay, that person is just not interested in me. I get it already.” And I'll just cross them off my list. But, you know, even when you're producing things, I mean, you know, you have to be strategic about what you're asking. And it's not always fun. And again, one of the things you can do as to counter the asks that you make is also sometimes I'll be on it before my friends will ask. You know, I just, I really take that seriously that I must, you know, walk the walk and do the same for my friends. Also, if you have a friend and you are going to their book event.
Anna: 32:09 Buy their book.
Annabelle: 32:12 Buy the book! It kills me. It kills me when someone who you, I mean the hilarious thing is authors, you know, there can be like a thousand people in an audience and you will remember who didn't buy the book.
Anna: 32:26 It's the worst because it's so, it's such a big deal to show up, especially in Los Angeles. And then you hate them for not buying the book. And yet they showed up for you. It's the worst.
Annabelle: 32:38 It is. It's just awful. But you're trying to be entertaining or maybe your book is very serious and you're trying to service this really important message and in your brain you're also counting how many people are going to buy. “Is anyone going to buy?” Because what a civilian doesn't know is that if you don't sell a certain number of books at your event, you will not be having an event there again, it's not, Oh, next time, you know, it's so hard. Writing books is not for the faint of heart.
Anna: 33:16 But I think that promoting them is for the even less faint of heart.
Annabelle: 33:20 Well, writing the book, I mean is, is you know, my God, first of all, writing is hard. Selling is hard. What's so funny? It's, I think it's so fucking hard to sell a book and you know, you just, it's really, it never ceases to amaze me when someone will say, Oh, I'm going to, they are somewhat a friend of mine, whatever friend would come to, has come to a lot of my events and said, “Oh I'm going to share a copy with so and so.” You just want to, you know, you want to stab them and, but it's hilarious because the truth is they just don't know how small a margin you have as an author for being successful, and you don't want to hate people, but you are mentally Xing them off your Hanukkah list, of cards even. I'm not going to, you know, it's the most undignified piece. I feel like, you know, my great grandfather was what they called like a peddler in the Ukraine. It all comes back to Ukraine just by the way.
Anna: 34:32 Always.
Annabelle: 34:32 Always. But so they were a peddler and Ukraine but sold like their wears off this like the back of a mule. And I think I’m like that sometimes.
Anna: 34:40 That's how it feels.
Annabelle: 34:44 How sad he would be to see me like I've got, I've got books right now, you know.
Anna: 34:49 In your trunk.
Annabelle: 34:50 In the trunk. And the other day. Okay. The other day I'm with a very good friend and their mother and she says, “Do you have a copy of your book, my mom should read your book. Do you have one in your car?” I'm like, “Well of course I do.” I'm ready to sell her mom a copy of my book in the trunk of my car. She takes a look at it and it has like a tiny spot of coffee on it and just, “Oh no, I want a fresh copy.”
Anna: 35:18 I know. I will say that's why self publishing rules because you've only paid like $3 for a copy and you know what I'm saying? And you're fine giving them away.
Annabelle: 35:31 Well, self-publishing to me I feel like is a great option if you know you have an audience. I'm still hooked into traditional publishing because I don't know that I could publish and not have at least some of that machine behind me. But I mean, if you can make that work, it's fantastic. I totally see how the advantages. I haven't gone there, but yeah.
Anna: 36:02 I'll convert you. The machine never did anything for me, but that's like even what you're describing, you did it.
Annabelle: 36:08 Yeah. Well, but see what I did was, I mean, and look, there's a lot of different ways to cut this thing. What I did was I am capitalizing on the fact that a large publishing machine is, I can use their name. Right. But I mean, you know, there are some, there are so many downsides to the big publishing machine because if they're not in your corner, your book doesn't have a shot unless you are, I shouldn't say that's true because it's not totally true. But you have to really know that. I've had the experience. I've had great experiences with a big publishing machine, but then I've also had the experience where I thought they were really going to push something and they didn't, which is why there's, you know, there's just nobody, there's nobody who's going to love your book as much as you are and treat it like you do a child of yours to send out into the world with every advantage. You know you are really, you know that that book is your, is your offspring and to launch your kid or a book into the world, it's going to take more love and chutzpah then you would ever think is possible.
Anna: 37:31 Okay. We are so over time, so let me just wrap up. This has been fantastic. I would say the three main points when it comes to a launch according to Annabelle Gurwitch, be passionate, make sure you are so passionate about this topic that you can talk about it forever or at least until your next book. Get as many people talking about it as possible who are not you. Reach the F out and then piggyback events around this potential, like, Oh, I'll be in town. Even if you weren't planning on being in town. Those I feel and Q-tip, quit taking it personally if it doesn't work.
Annabelle: 38:11 Yeah. That's it.
Anna: 38:14 I'm so glad I took notes. Annabelle, thank you, you’re a goddess. Thank you for doing this. Thank you everybody for listening. If you would like to find out more about Annabelle, what is the best way to find you?
Annabelle: 38:24 Go to my, go to my website. AnnabelleGurwitch.com and if you don't spell it right, you'll probably get there anyway.
Anna: 38:30 Yeah, it's like so dissimilar from any other person's name out there. Okay. Delightful. Thank you so much.
Annabelle: 38:38 Thanks.