The Secret to Becoming a NYT Bestselling Author with Jennifer K. ArmstrongAug 16, 2023
Jennifer Keishin Armstrong is the New York Times bestselling author of Seinfeldia: How the Show About Nothing Changed Everything; a history of The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted; and Sex and the City and Us: How Four Single Women Changed the Way We Think, Live, and Love. She spent a decade on staff at Entertainment Weekly and has since written for many publications, including BBC Culture, The New York Times Book Review, Vice, New York magazine, and Billboard.
She's also an old pal from my NYC days; in fact, we used to host Readings & Rubdowns events where people would listen to writers read from their latest books while getting massaged.
In the ensuing years, Jennifer has become a huge author and in this episode she breaks down, step-by-step, what makes for a successful launch.
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MENTIONED IN THE EPISODE:
JENNIFER'S TOP 3 TAKEAWAYS FOR A SUCCESSFUL LAUNCH:
-Know that you have a target audience, and find them, and go to where they are
-Apply for a space with the Jewish Book Council (if you or your book is Jewish)
-Do everything you can to promote it so that you feel good about what you've done, but know that you can only do so much, and once you've done as much as you physically can, just hope for the best
Anna: 00:00 I'm so excited that we're doing this.
Jennifer: 00:02 Yes. [inaudible 00:00:03] I love talking about this stuff, so...
Anna: 00:05 I know, and we're all warmed up because we just spent an hour doing it before.
Jennifer: 00:05 Exactly.
Anna: 00:10 But okay. You were just saying... Okay. So, you are the author of four books that have come out quite quickly.
Jennifer: 00:18 Yeah. I mean, I've been at about a year or two between books each time, so it's been... I finish a book, it comes out, I start a new one.
Anna: 00:30 But yeah, I guess also, every year that passes, time goes faster, so it feels like when we used to hang out in New York, that was just a couple years ago, because you didn't have any books out at that point.
Jennifer: 00:42 Right. It is crazy. It's really crazy, and then I was lucky enough, I had a... I feel like we all get sort of luck, especially on the first one. Something weird happens, and you get the first one. Then it kind of became... I quit my job at Entertainment Weekly after my first book, and then wanted to do this full-time, and if you want to do it full-time, you have to keep pumping them out, or you have to figure out other streams of income. Those are your two options. So, that's what I've been doing since I quit my job, which I believe was in 2011.
Anna: 01:17 Yes. Okay, and I left New York in 2010. So, yes, when I knew you, you were full-time staff at Entertainment Weekly. We of course had a reading series.
Jennifer: 01:30 We sure did.
Anna: 01:30 What was it? Readings and rubdowns.
Jennifer: 01:33 Yes.
Anna: 01:34 Not what you think, but more like we hired a masseuse. God, that was cute of us.
Jennifer: 01:38 I actually thought that was a really cute idea.
Anna: 01:40 It was really cute. Okay. So, you were able to get this first book deal, which you say as a result of the fact that you had been writing for Entertainment Weekly, so not just in terms of context, but in terms of regular writing experience, in terms of credibility, in terms of everything.
Jennifer: 02:01 Yeah, exactly. So, actually, my very first book deal was with Grand Central Publishing, and this was a kind of a work for hire. So, the publisher wanted a book about the 1950s Mickey Mouse Club, and was looking for someone to write it. So, through a variety of circumstances, an agent I had been talking to but had not signed with yet had heard about this, and she came to me and said, "Would you be interested in doing this?" I was like, "I actually write quite a bit about Disney kids." I was writing about Miley Cyrus all the time, so I was like, "So, I could get interested in this." I'm not old enough to have watched the original 1950s Mickey Mouse Club-
Anna: 02:44 Let's make that clear.
Jennifer: 02:46 ... but really wanted to be an author. It was my lifelong dream, and I thought, I will Google this, and I will figure out how to do it, and so I did. That's what I did, and so I was really lucky. I was at this major publisher with my first book deal, interviewing old Mouseketeers, and it was a fun experience, and it was such a learning curve, because I truly... No one really knows how to write a book the first time they do it. You sign on to do it, and then you're like, I will figure this out now. So, I kind of learned to write a book when I was doing that.
Anna: 03:21 Well, it's interesting, because if you go fiction, you have to sell a completed book. So, my first book was a novel, and I had to do that learning curve, figuring it out, without any guidance. Okay. So, the focus of this show is now about launches, and we just were able to talk about sort of successful launches and not successful launches. So, how much of the learning curve on this first book was about that? They talk in publishing about how you can get orphaned if your publisher moves to another publishing house. You were quite literally orphaned on that first book.
Jennifer: 04:00 I was, and it's important for you to know that this idea was actually the publisher's. He was a very nice older man who watched the 1950s Mickey Mouse Club and said at a meeting once, "Gosh, I'd really love a book about that I love." He was so excited. I met him once, and so excited about this. Unfortunately, before the book was published, he died, and so we went from a situation where my editor was telling me about how the sales staff was getting Mouseketeer ears to wear, and they were super excited about it too. Honestly, from my end, radio silence. I didn't actually know he died.
So, it just seemed really quiet, and I had had friends who had published books, so I was little suspicious, but also not great at advocating for myself yet, and who am I? I got this deal because someone had an idea. It was really hard to assert myself. It's important to know I had a pretty young editor and a pretty young agent at the time. I was one of my agent's first clients. So, no one stepped in at any point to say, "What's going on? What's happening?" I really panicked about two months before, and my friend Jami Attenberg, the novelist, was already out there doing her thing, and she's so good at this, and I asked her about this, and she was like, "Oh. Well, you're way too late to get into a bookstore for your launch event," but I kind of put one together myself at Lolita Bar back in the day in New York City.
Anna: 05:42 Oh, yes. Yeah, that's where we did everything.
Jennifer: 05:45 It was because they liked authors. They would let us have stuff there for free.
Anna: 05:48 Yeah.
Jennifer: 05:49 So, I actually had a really nice party for myself, and I'm pleased with that, but to be honest, it was way too late to really do anything else, and I didn't know what else to do, to be honest. So, that was kind of it. That was the height of Why? Because We Still Like You: A History of the Mickey Mouse Club, because I had a great launch party, because I have been to a million book events, so everyone paid me back by coming to mine. It was really fun, and probably sold more books that night than any time.
I will say, and this is actually a teachable moment, the only other big moment I had for this book was when I went back home to the suburbs of Chicago a few months after it came out, and my father was so excited about this book, because he watched The Mickey Mouse Club. Also, because I wrote it, but he's a really, really proud dad, and he was really good at being a proud dad. He was a member, he was very active with veterans organizations, so he was very big at his local VFW post, and we basically had an impromptu book party at the VFW. I came with books. We sold a bunch of them. I signed them. That was the other big moment for this book, and what that tells you is this was the target audience, the right age group, and they were ecstatic about... They're asking me, "Did you talk to this person? Did you talk to Tommy? Did you talk to that person? I love Darlene."
They were excited, and it was the only... I really didn't know how to find this audience because they were not my age, and so I struggled and tried a little bit online, and I tried to join some Boomer websites and stuff like that, and tried to push it there, but being out on my own and not having experience, and then not having even an agent who could tell me what to do... Soon after, my agent actually stopped agenting. She was laid off from her firm, and I was passed on to her boss who did not really care about me. So, I got a new agent, and it wasn't until then that I understood the next time around what should happen, because she was on my side advocating for me the whole time.
Anna: 08:02 Yet, as we were discussing earlier this morning, a lot of times, even having an active agent and very experienced publisher, you were still left to figure out a launch on your own.
Jennifer: 08:15 Yes. Absolutely.
Anna: 08:17 I would say that in general, book parties do not sell books.
Jennifer: 08:22 Oh, no.
Anna: 08:22 They're super fun, and if you don't get too stressed out about the fact that no one's buying your book. No, the problem with book parties is that your friends show up, and that's so nice, and then all you're like, "Are you going to buy a book? Are you going to buy a book?"
Jennifer: 08:36 I know, right? You notice everyone who doesn't buy a book, and everyone who does.
Anna: 08:41 And they showed up. That should be enough, and yet in that circumstance it's not. So, what does sell books?
Jennifer: 08:50 Yeah, that's a really good point that I... So, from that experience, what I've really took away from then on and to this day is that I never assume my publisher's going to do anything. I always say, and this is not an insult to even my past or current publishers, but it's just best to assume this way because then you're pleasantly surprised if other stuff happens. I always say just pretend that they are your printing and mailing service, and you assume you're going to do everything else.
I've had publishers do other things for me, but from then on I did my own stuff and just barreled ahead and actually got in trouble a few times, where they were like, "Hey, you need to tell me if you're going to do this stuff." I mean, it's hard to know what sells books, is the first part. It's a complete mystery, and you think something's going to sell, and it doesn't. You don't think something's going to sell, and it does. I did eventually have a bestseller called Seinfeldia that came out in 2016, and I kind of had a feeling about it, but I also didn't want to jinx it, because I just knew from doing a year plus of research on Seinfeld how Seinfeld people are.
Anna: 10:12 Meaning the fans or the people involved in it?
Jennifer: 10:14 The fans. So, that to me is something that you talk about, which is having an audience that you are serving, and also, PS, that will buy books, and that's hard to totally know. So, you may be able to tell from this conversation that I write books about TV history, and since that Mickey Mouse Club experience, the one thing I got from it that was great was that I thought, oh, what if I did this on a topic that I cared about? What if it was a show I was excited about, and I knew the audience? Right? So, that was the big lesson, is I truly didn't know where to find those people, except at my dad's VFW.
So, next time I did a book about The Mary Tyler Moore Show. Still to this day, in some ways my favorite book, just because it was a passion project, and I sold it on proposal to Simon & Schuster with my new agent, and it was like the dawning of a new day. I still love talking about it. People still talk to me about this book. I at least knew a little bit better where to find the TV nerds for this particular kind of show, and that book did okay. It did fine. It wasn't a bestseller or anything, but it got really nice reviews. It was reviewed in The New York Times. It felt like a big step up from the previous one, and then Seinfeldia was next, and that was like, okay, take what worked with The Mary Tyler Moore Show now, and try to find a show that people are super passionate about, there's a large contingent, they're still interested in it, and they're so into it that they will buy a book and come to events and want to talk about it and buy it for their friends. Right?
So, that was kind of the thinking behind that one, and it was really a group effort with my publisher. We talked about a number of shows, and we felt like this was where there would be a sweet spot. It's also a reading audience. They're old enough. I don't know. It's a hunch, but we thought it was a reading audience, and it turned out to be true. So, I did a lot of work to get ready for this one. I planned events. I planned pitching stories to outlets that I could write for, in addition to my publicist pitching me to talk about Seinfeld, and the other thing I did that's sort of interesting is that I did the Jewish Book Council. Do you know about this?
Anna: 12:53 No.
Jennifer: 12:54 Okay. I'm so excited. I love telling people about it. So, when I started writing this book... I'm not Jewish, but my longtime partner is Jewish, so we celebrate Jewish holidays. I don't know why I'm telling you that, but...
Anna: 13:08 Relevant, relevant.
Jennifer: 13:10 It is a little relevant, but-
Anna: 13:11 I don't, and I'm 100% Jewish, so go on.
Jennifer: 13:14 There you go. Okay. So, people start kind of doing this thing where it's like I'm at events, and someone will go, "Oh, you're writing a book about Seinfeld? Do you know about the Jewish Book Council?" It was like this weird secret thing, and I was like, "No." So, it turns out this is an organization where you apply. It is something like $500, and the other big thing is you have to get them some absurd number of copies of the book, like 900 or something. The reason being that what it is is it's a network of everybody, all these people around the country who plan events at Jewish centers. So, JCC is in synagogues. Here is a big reading audience, friends. What you're really seeing is truly the tradition of scholarliness and reading in the Jewish community at work, because they still value this so much that they have this JBC. It's a very funny process. They all come to New York City one day in the spring, in a big synagogue downtown, and you go up, and you have a hard two minutes to essentially pitch your book-
Anna: 13:14 Oh, my god.
Jennifer: 14:24 ... and yourself to them. I'm not kidding, they hold up cards that say 30 seconds left, 15 seconds, because they just have... I can't remember how many, but there's probably something like 50 to 100 authors to get through, and then at the end there's an awkward cocktail thing. Then for the next year, you are officially on, and at any time they can invite you to come to their place and give a talk, and the key here is they pay for travel. So, this is a way to get a book tour in a time when no one pays for book tours.
Anna: 15:04 And to get people to show up.
Jennifer: 15:06 And to get people to show up. Most of the places, I will tell you not all, most of the places I went to, part of the key here was in fact... Because I don't have people in Cincinnati. I did a strange amount of Ohio with this one. It was odd. But Cleveland, Cincinnati, Columbus. But yeah, and you also... It's important for you to know that you can say no. It's very hard to say no when you're an author, so I did not say no very much, but you can. So, it's not like an obligation, but the fact is that if they invite you, they will pay for a hotel and travel, and their rule is... This is another key. You can come, actually, and book another event in their town as long as it's after theirs.
Anna: 15:49 Wow.
Jennifer: 15:49 Theirs has to be the first one. So, you could stay an extra day, pay for it yourself, and the hotel, and go somewhere else if you wanted. But they did also get people to show up. I had some really lovely ones. I think it was Columbus, maybe. I can't remember where. I feel bad about that. But they had a wonderful event for me. I still have a visual of it. It was packed on a Thursday night, and they had a couple... A lot of the places did this, actually. They had Seinfeld-themed foods. Tons of people would come. They also obviously had arranged all the book selling, and they would always have the books for sale, is the other part of this. So, I probably sold 25, 30 books at that thing, which is huge, you know that, to have a line of people waiting.
Anna: 16:39 Absolutely.
Jennifer: 16:42 Then another one I did in Louisville I loved. They rented out a restaurant, and they had Seinfeld-themed cocktails and food. They had invited the guy who did the music for Seinfeld, because he happened to live there, and we did a joint event where he played the piano and talked about theme music, and I talked about Seinfeld, and it was a classy event. People dressed up and came out on Friday night. No, it wasn't Friday night. It was Thursday night, again, to do this. So, the right venue that has a following and has a tradition of doing this kind of thing can be really key. So can just the Jewish Book Council, because they get you out across the country, and you get to go all of these places for free. I did do at least one or two events through them where it was the typical three people showed up, and the only person who bought the book was the guy who organized it.
Anna: 17:45 Yeah. It's going to happen.
Jennifer: 17:46 But at least it was paid for. So, that really helped, and then I also send myself on a, quote, book tour, which is just usually to Chicago, where I'm from, and LA, where I have a huge audience because I write about show business. So, those feel worth it to me, both just as a celebratory thing, and often I'll go out to LA and do an event with people from the book. I did an event with a couple of Seinfeld writers in LA. That's going to be more of a draw, quite frankly, than just me. So, that's kind of been my strategy for the event portion of things.
Anna: 18:28 How many books would you estimate that sold? Could you estimate?
Jennifer: 18:33 I couldn't.
Anna: 18:34 Well, you said you have to give them 900 books. Right?
Jennifer: 18:37 Oh, the 900 books is for the members, is what I call them-
Anna: 18:42 Oh, my god.
Jennifer: 18:43 ... the people who book you.
Anna: 18:45 It's an audition, basically?
Jennifer: 18:46 It's an audition.
Anna: 18:48 So, you could be out 900 books?
Jennifer: 18:50 Oh, yeah. I mean, that part is tough if you are not traditionally published, because they... My publisher, the minute I said to them, "I'm doing Jewish Book Council," they're like, "Okay, cool," and then I just said, "I have to get them these books by this date. Here's the address," and they handled that for me.
Anna: 19:08 Oh, right. Okay. You didn't have to pay yourself.
Jennifer: 19:10 Yes, but then once you're in it, it's really... I really wish I knew how many it sold, because it's hard to decide whether to do it again because of that, but I did a lot, a lot, a lot of events, probably too many, as my partner will attest. I nearly killed myself the year of Seinfeldia, because you know how this is. It's like, if you're an author and you've been doing this for a while, you feel like you have to strike while the iron is hot, and it felt very difficult to turn down the attention. It went on for a year or two.
Anna: 19:43 That's amazing.
Jennifer: 19:45 It was really crazy, and it's almost only in retrospect that I can be like, "Oh, my god. That was really crazy." I don't know how people who really sell a lot of books must feel, because this was nice, and I was on the bestseller list for many weeks. But it was exhausting, and people should know that, and I basically almost wrecked my life and myself doing it. So, be careful. Be careful with that part.
Anna: 20:12 So, let me ask the crass question of, how financially did that pay off? Did you get a huge deal the next time around?
Jennifer: 20:21 No, I did not. I got a little bump, but I'm trying to remember how... It's so funny. You have to figure out how all the timing worked. So, a couple things. First of all, Seinfeldia wasn't an instant bestseller, so what's funny about all of this I just told you is that it was definitely helpful, but it wasn't the thing, if that makes sense. It's like, I did all this, I booked all this Jewish Book Council stuff months in advance, and then I have a distinct memory of I was in the back of a car being driven to a New Jersey event the Wednesday after it came out, so when reporting happens, when you find out, and that's when I got the call that I was on the list, and what's hilarious about that is I got there, and four people came to that event, and no one bought a book, and it didn't matter because I was like, "Oh, well. I'm a bestseller."
So, it's hard to know what works, but I do think the momentum was helped by continuing to do all that stuff, because it kept it out there, and what happened is that it came out in July, but then we kept up momentum long enough that we got to December, and then we got a... We still to this day get a really big Festivus bump. I never honestly, as much as I believe in the power of Seinfeld, and never would've thought that three years later I'd still be getting a Festivus bump, but people have asked me to do events for Festivus this year.
Anna: 20:21 That's amazing.
Jennifer: 21:46 They do Festivus displays at Barnes & Noble and other places. This is what they like to put out. There's a couple of things that... You really can buy a Festivus pole. So, they'll put out a couple things, and they like to do this. So, yeah, I don't know. Ultimately, it's hard to know what worked and what didn't, but I got a little bump on my next advance, but that's because we signed that deal a week after Seinfeldia came out. So, we knew it was a bestseller, but we didn't know how big or how much it was going to continue. So, I got a slight bump on the next one, which was Sex and the City and Us, and I will say... I mean, it is the gift that keeps on giving in terms of-
Anna: 22:35 Royalties.
Jennifer: 22:35 I still get royalties every... What is that? Every six months I get a royalty check. I try not to check, because I like to be surprised, and I like to pretend that money isn't real until happens.
Anna: 22:45 Yeah, yeah, yeah.
Jennifer: 22:46 You know what I mean? So, that's always nice, and then I don't have a ton of ancillaries, but there's this company that does these desk calendars with little trivia facts, and I think we're three years running now that we've had... They're called Sellers. The company is Sellers, and they do these desk calendars. So, I believe we've had three editions now. We just got the 2020 edition, and I get royalties on that, and that's fully free money, if that makes sense. I did nothing for that, and I got a couple thousand dollars just to sign the deal, and that's every time we a sign a new deal, every year, and then I've actually gotten some royalties in addition to that quote-unquote advance.
So, in that way it's paid off, and also in being able to... I do feel like The New York Times bestseller thing, it's like they can't take that away from you. You're always that, and actually, in the back of that car when that happened, it was weird, but my first thought was, oh, my obituary just got written unless I do something else. So, I do think that helps, and I actually ended up going to a different publisher for the book that I'm working on now, and I have to think that that helped when pitching a slightly more difficult-to-sell idea.
Anna: 24:12 Right, right. Now, what's interesting is over the years, traditional media has mattered less and less, and back in the day when... My first book came out in 2005, and basically, I was told, "If you can get on The Today Show, and in People Magazine, that same week, guaranteed New York Times bestseller." I actually do remember hassling you about, "Can I get in EW? Can I get in EW?"
Jennifer: 24:41 Oh, I'm sure.
Anna: 24:42 Yeah, and you were super nice about... I think you were like, "I can pass it on," but EW was a huge... because that was a reading audience. I would say Party Girl, I got on The Today Show, and I got in Cosmo, and it wasn't a bestseller. Over time, it just matters less and less and less. Today, if you don't have the sort of built-in passionate, people who are passionate for your subject, it's influencer stuff. It would be like Jerry Seinfeld Instagram posting about it and stuff like that, and yet you hear Instagram influence is going away. So, what do we think is the thing that will make a launch successful?
Jennifer: 25:25 I think it really is... I mean, it might be more clearer for somebody like me with these kinds of books, but it really is about targeting the audience, and that's why publishers have sort of liked these books for me so far too. Right? So, another thing that I'm thinking about is, funny thing that happens is there are actually... We've talked about your publisher ignoring you and stuff. There are kind of levels, essentially, internally that they don't tell us about, and it's like when I hit The New York Times list the first week, and felt like I advanced a level in a video game.
Anna: 26:04 Right, right, right.
Jennifer: 26:05 I unlocked this whole new level that I didn't know existed. On my last book they'd all been very, very polite, and had been like, "Here is another thing someone has written about you. I am passing it on," and that was kind of it, whereas the minute this happened, they were all like, "Do you want to have a marketing call and blah, blah, blah, blah, blah?" I was like, "I thought we already had that meeting," when it turned out that was... I don't know what that other meeting was, but I was-
Anna: 26:32 It was to appease the author, basically.
Jennifer: 26:34 Right, right. So, then they're like, "No, but do you want to have a real meeting?" essentially, and I was possibly a little overburdened and cranky at the moment. I got a lot of stuff the first week. I was running around. I have these stories about how I hadn't been paid yet, and I was almost out of money. So, I was waiting. The check was literally in the mail, and there was a point at which in the July heat in New York, I was walking tens and twenties of blocks in heels to my interviews because I couldn't afford a taxi, because I had no money. It was ridiculous, and I was like, "You all can have a marketing meeting and decide what you're going to do, because over here, [crosstalk 00:27:14]"
Anna: 27:14 I can't even afford to get there. Yeah.
Jennifer: 27:16 Yeah, and I was doing so much stuff already that I was like, "It sounds like you should figure out what you're going to..." I was a little cranky at the moment. But yeah, and I appreciated it actually because one of the biggest things that came out of that was that Seinfeld, I guess, was about to come to Hulu, or had just come to Hulu. So, they reached out to Hulu, and this is the kind of thing that publishers can often do that we can't. I don't just call Hulu headquarters and, "Hey." Maybe I could. I don't know.
But they were able to do it fairly quickly, and Hulu sponsored a, what do they call it, satellite tour for me, which is where you sit in a studio for a day, and a bunch of different... I must've done 30, mostly morning news show interviews in one fell swoop, and they've got the Hulu Seinfeld backdrop behind me so that the people know it's on Hulu, and I'm talking about the book. Everybody's happy, and that's the kind of expense that publishers won't even do anymore, and is difficult, is a significant expense for an author. So, I got hair and makeup and the studio, and somebody else set up this whole thing. Yeah.
Anna: 28:36 I mean, it's enraging to me to hear that because I never made it to that level, even with my New York Times bestsellerdom, and I knew this secret society existed.
Jennifer: 28:47 You knew it existed, right?
Anna: 28:49 I know an author who I remember telling me his book was a huge hit, and he's like, "Yeah, they did nothing until it was a huge hit," and it's so enraging because it's like low-hanging fruit. Then why are they giving this idea that they... It's so unfair, this idea that they don't give a shit about you in the first week, and that is totally not within your control. It has nothing to do with how great your book is, and it's so unfair.
Jennifer: 29:20 Well, exactly. It was a little even in the moment because I had been around already. I had been through two books, and so seeing... I guess the good news is it was a progression for me. So, the first one was like crickets. The second one was like polite acknowledgement, like, "Here. You have been reviewed in The New York Times. It is good," that kind of thing. Then this one was like, oh, now I see.
Oh, another interesting thing was they started telling me a week before, all of a sudden they were telling me the pre-order numbers are really good, and I was like, why have they never told me pre-order numbers before? Oh, right, because they weren't good, so they just shut up, and that's fine, I guess. I don't want to hear bad news, and I certainly don't want to hear, "Your pre-order numbers are not good," but it just was very interesting to see that there was this other side, this whole other world. It's like having lived in a house for years, and then finding out there's a secret beautiful attic that you didn't know about. It is a little frustrating, right? I get it business-wise, but it's also frustrating that you don't get help with success until you get success.
Anna: 30:39 It's so unfair, and it's so... Because I talk to so many authors or potential clients for my company who, bless their hearts, do not understand how hard it is to get a book deal, and then do not understand that their publisher, statistically speaking, probably won't do anything for them, and there's these visions of, yeah, if it's good, they'll just buy it, and it's this statistic that is three in 10,000 books sell to publishers. I had my heart broken six times with that. So, I'm a big believer, as you know, in take control of the process. Do it yourself. Hire someone to do it if you can't do it yourself, because it's a sort of countdown to heartbreak. But not for you. But you are in the .0001%.
Jennifer: 31:35 Right, and it's so important to remember that too, because... It's hard to talk about this stuff publicly too because I feel like I have to start every conversation with the 10-minute caveat of groveling about how grateful I am that this happened to me, because it's hard to complain because you'll get... I've had this happen. I've been on forums and private Facebook groups, that kind of thing, for people to share information. People ask for the information. I give it to them, and they're like, "Well, it must be nice to even have a publisher," and I'm like, "It is," but it's just important for people to know the heartbreak, as you say, that awaits them on the other side. It's so funny how you think... First you think getting the agent is the big thing. Okay?
Anna: 32:22 Yeah, yeah.
Jennifer: 32:23 Then you realize there's still a bunch of work to do, and then you think getting that first deal is the big thing, and then they ignore you and drop you and say... It was like, literally, I got an email at some point about that first book. They didn't actually say it, but essentially it said, "We're going to mulch the rest of the copies of your book."
Anna: 32:40 Oh, I got that letter. It's the worst.
Jennifer: 32:42 The mulching letter is the worst, and they're like... Because the hilarious part about it is that they're telling you mainly to tell you, "If you would like to buy copies at cost..." I'm like, I made that thing, and now you're offering me a discount on it before you kill it? It's just the worst feeling. It is ups and downs, and expectations is a huge thing I've learned, because my next book after Seinfeldia was about Sex and the City, and everyone kept saying, "This is going to be the biggest book of all time. It's going to be even bigger," and it did great. It did fine, but it did not exceed Seinfeldia, and so everyone was sad.
So, it did better in its first week than The Mary Tyler Moore Show book did in its first three years, but it didn't exceed the expectations. It didn't keep going up, and so everyone was very sad, including me. It was really, really hard to shake that off, because I felt like a failure. So, it's a weird thing, because what that made me realize is that it did feel surprising, because it felt like, wouldn't Sex and the City people be even more into reading? It was based on a book. Women are supposedly the big book buyers, et cetera, et cetera. But you can't make thousands of people do something they don't want to do.
Anna: 34:09 Which is so annoying.
Jennifer: 34:11 It's very annoying because I got lots of press on that. You know?
Anna: 34:11 Yeah.
Jennifer: 34:15 That's a huge thing people should know, and I swear to God, no matter how many times I say it to people, they don't believe me until they experience it themselves, but it's like, publicity does not equal sales.
Anna: 34:27 Does not. Does not. The thing is that whoever writes your forward does not equal sales. Whoever blurbs your book does not equal sales. However many tours you go on really does not... It is catching lightning in a bottle, it really is.
Jennifer: 34:44 It really is, and so you have to... That's why it's interesting being post-Seinfeldia in the sense that I've had a book since then that didn't do quite as well, so now I get it. You know what I mean?
Anna: 34:56 Yeah.
Jennifer: 34:56 I always say every book finds a new way to kick my ass, so I'm sure that my next book will also find a way, but I feel a little... Each time I learn more, and so then I feel like, okay, I sort of know this other part that I didn't know before, and I understand. So, I understand that I might not always be treated like... I had one week, by the way, with Sex and the City and Us where they really kind of treated me like a bestselling author, and it was great.
Anna: 35:26 Right, right, right. Then you're like, oh.
Jennifer: 35:27 It was very exciting.
Anna: 35:27 Yeah.
Jennifer: 35:29 I actually got a little glimpse. It wasn't huge, but they did pay for me to go to Chicago for a book festival, and I got a room at the Four Seasons, way at the top, and when I got there, there was wine and cheese waiting for me, and I was like, this is it, and then it was all over.
Anna: 35:47 Right. Well, it goes back to Down with Love, that Ewan McGregor movie where you were like, oh, my god, being an author is so glamorous.
Jennifer: 35:56 Yep, and it's important to know that is obviously not a documentary, but also, it was the '60s, so I would say things probably were a little closer to that in the '60s. It was a different... I always look at those. I loved Tom Wolfe when I was coming up. He was my big idol. So, it was different then. This guy's out there in his white suits, living the high life, just writing a book every few years if he feels like it, and he's treated like this huge celebrity, and it's not the way it goes.
Anna: 36:29 Except it is for people like Elizabeth Gilbert, for people like J. K. Rowling. It is true for a select few, and that was probably true for a select few then, and those were the ones we saw.
Jennifer: 36:40 Yeah, absolutely, and to be those people, that's a funny thing too, is once I was a bestseller, that's a word that people can use for me now. There is a gigantic difference among us all. Right?
Anna: 36:40 Yes.
Jennifer: 36:53 You and me are over here, and Elizabeth Gilbert and Gillian Flynn are way over there, and probably, I would say, even farther over there is J. K. Rowling and Stephen King. Right?
Anna: 37:06 Yeah.
Jennifer: 37:06 Very, very different.
Anna: 37:08 Yeah, and I always said the way to have a bestselling book is to get people who don't read books to read your book so that it's people who are at a party, and they're going to feel stupid for not having read Eat, Pray, Love. So, that's really the secret. If we relied on readers, like the people who read books every day, nobody would be a bestseller. I mean, the problem with people who read books is that... I'm a person who reads books, and I've purchased a fair number of them, but I also have this giant to-read pile. So, it's very hard to penetrate that, whereas you're right, you want the books that literally moms at a pool party in Nebraska are talking about. Right? So, it's reached everywhere. You can't get away from it. It's the kind of thing... I remember when we used to have albums, CDs, and there were certain albums that you wouldn't even know how you got it. You wouldn't know why you bought it. Why did I have that Shania Twain album? That's how Eat, Pray, Love was. Right?
Jennifer: 37:08 Yeah.
Anna: 38:18 You just sort of blacked out and woke up one day, and you had Eat, Pray, Love, and you're like, I might as well read it. Apparently I bought it. That's the big, that book, bestseller kind of thing. But it's important for people to know there's a big difference between some bestsellers and other bestsellers. To get on the list is a relative thing. It just says you sold more books than other people that week, which could mean a variety of things.
Jennifer: 38:42 Yeah, yeah. Okay. So, this has been amazing. Let us just wrap up. So, your top three tips for doing a successful launch, just to summarize what you've said.
Anna: 38:53 Yeah. I would say know that you have a target audience, and find them, and go to where they are. Think about reading audiences as well. Right? So, that's something like the Jewish Book Council, and if you or your book is Jewish, you can do the Jewish Book Council. So, I got in on the book is Jewish on that one. I think my other one would be kind of a cautionary tale, which would be simply, volume of noise does not equal sales, whether that's lots of events or lots of publicity. Do all that stuff. Do everything you can to promote it so that you feel good about what you've done, but you can only do so much, and once you've done as much as you physically can, you just have to let it go and hope for the best and realize that you wrote a book, and that's amazing, and you should celebrate that, and that because it didn't launch well doesn't mean you shouldn't keep at it either. You should keep telling people about it because you're passionate about it.
Jennifer: 40:00 And it's your legacy. Even when they mulch it, it's still there.
Anna: 40:05 I've still got a bunch of copies of Why? Because We Still Like You right here, and people occasionally still talk to me about it, and I learned a lot. So, you learn with every book, and even the bad experiences teach you. So, it is a great thing to write a book, but you do want people to find out about it. As long as you can balance those two and tell as many people as you can and feel good about what you've done, that's the best you can do.
Jennifer: 40:31 Well, thank you so, so much. This has been amazing. Where is the best place for people to find you?
Anna: 40:37 You can find me at jenniferkarmstrong.com, and from there you can find all of the other things, like social media and my podcast, Pop Literacy, and #Authoring, which is in fact about the business of being an author.
Jennifer: 40:53 And you have an upcoming guest, Anna David-
Anna: 40:56 That's right.
Jennifer: 40:57 ... who's just fantastic. Okay. Thank you so, so, so much, and thank you all for listening.