Letters from the Editor: On the good in judging books by their covers, sharing lit with coworkers, and more
Why you should start thinking about your book’s cover while writing the first draft
Alright, I’ll say it: the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” is...mostly wrong.
When people drop this line it’s usually in reference to a person rather than an actual cover of a book, but let’s take this literally for a second — why shouldn’t we judge a book by its cover? A cover can tell readers so much about a book before they even crack it open.
So why not think about your own cover sooner rather than later?
Covers, when given the right treatment, are a launchpad for examining what’s popular and relevant in your genre, as well as for learning about your audience, and you can use what you learn from that exploration to prepare your book for the best reception possible.
Click below and read on for an exercise to get those marketing/design juices flowing and advice on how you can get rid of concerns about your book's selling power, because there's no time to worry when you've got a book to write.
Behind the Scenes of a Six-Figure Book Deal: A Peek Inside the Publishing Industry with Debut Author Ash Ambirge
A conversation with author Ash Ambirge on how shattering convention led to the creation of her wildly successful company, and her new book, The Middle Finger Project.
Publishing, an industry built on tradition and convention, isn’t often kind to authors who decide to play by their own rules. Ash Ambirge did just that and landed a six-figure book deal. I recently sat down with Ash to talk about how she took what she learned from running her rebellious online company, also called The Middle Finger Project, and channeled it into making her dream book a bold reality.
Before we dig in, a little about Ash and The Middle Finger Project:
Ash Ambirge is an internet entrepreneur, creative writer, speaker, and advocate for women being brave and doing disobedient things with their careers and their lives. She’s inspired tens of thousands of people to reject the world’s expectations of success and get on their own path to happiness, and now she’s funneled a lot of that advice into her debut book, The Middle Finger Project (Portfolio; on-sale February 11, 2020). Expanding on the short, pithy advice on Ash’s blog, The Middle Finger Project draws on her unconventional personal story to offer an empowering and occasionally potty-mouthed manifesto for the transformative power of radical self-reliance and taking risks. On a personal note, Ash’s entrepreneurship advice was even instrumental for me when I was first starting my editorial firm, and I can credit a lot of my early growth to her inspiration.
I think all of us have interesting, relevant stories, but I don't think any of us should be writing for the sake of telling our stories for ourselves. I think it should be about contributing to a larger conversation in a larger dialogue around some topic or theme.
I love that. I think getting that perspective is paramount to figuring out what your book actually is, and what it needs to be. You know, if it's too close to you, then you just have no perspective.
Yeah. The thing I kept asking myself over and over and over and over and over again was: What does this story mean for all of us? Why does this matter? Because I think all of us have interesting, relevant stories, but I don't think any of us should be writing for the sake of telling our stories for ourselves. I think it should be about contributing to a larger conversation in a larger dialogue around some topic or theme. So how does this story help illustrate that topic or theme, and why does anyone care? Am I saying something that is useful here that speaks to the greater human experience? That was really helpful for me to keep going back to that.
When You Thought You Were Right about What You Should Write, but You Weren’t (and What to Do Next)
I did want to create something original. And originally this all came about because I found these really old amazing return checks of my mother’s. And I was fascinated by how the memo of each different check my mother wrote really told this incredible story about poverty, about struggle, about resilience, about the things you sacrifice for your children, about the tiny little gifts you give yourself when you don't have a lot of money to spend. So originally the intent was to create a story around money and meaning, and how those two intersected. So it was a very memoir-driven proposal in the beginning. In execution, though, my style of writing in particular is very voice-y. It's not driven by scene, it's not a literary voice. I have a much more commercial, modern internet voice. So we worked on it for some time to see if we could bring that version to life, because it felt like something I really was proud to be working on. But in the end, it felt like this giant mismatch between who I really am as a writer and this very soft concept, and in execution, it wasn't working the way we thought.
So your agent originally said, “Yes, I'll represent you based on the original proposal.” Then you went back to the drawing board and said, “You know what, this actually doesn't quite work.”
Yeah. But both of us knew it. We brought in a couple of other folks from her team and we looked at it and said, “What's missing here?” We made a really good attempt at trying to see if I could go forth and expand myself and be a bit more earnest and sincere in my approach. It just wasn't on brand for me. It felt weird in that process. An acquisitions editor from Penguin Random House approached me directly because of my blog and she was like, “Hey, I love you. I've been following you. Where's your book? What are you doing?” And I was like, “Oh my God, we're working on one. I promise.” And it took a whole year for us to finally go back to her, and we submitted this proposal to her to get her take on it. And this was still back when we were working to be sincere and earnest and all that stuff. And she wrote me back and in the most polite way it was like, “What the fuck is this? Ash, what is this? This isn't your voice. This isn't you. No offense, but I love you, the blog you. Where did you go?” And I was like, okay, all right, I know what I gotta do. “Give me a week,” I said, “just one week.” And I went back to the drawing board and I said to my literary agency, “All right, you know what? We tried it that way. Let's try it this way. I'm going to write this thing exactly how I would have written it, just myself.” And within a week I had over a six figure book deal.
I had to have enough confidence to say to my literary agency, “All right, back off, I'm going to do this my way. Let's do the damn thing.
Isn't that wild? And I talked so much about trusting yourself and your own instincts and I think that there is that balance. At first I was trying to be humble. I want to learn from the pros. But in the end, it didn't work. And I had to have enough confidence to say to my literary agency, “All right, back off, I'm going to do this my way. Let's do the damn thing.”
Which is tough, to turn to them and say “Look, I know you've bought into this idea that I pretty much sold you, but guess what? We're going to go in another direction.” I love that it took the world pushing back on what you thought they needed for your true self to come out.
Well yeah, I needed her to tell me that that was shit. Because people have very subjective opinions. You might have somebody at my literary agency who really loved that proposal, and then you've got an editor here who was more familiar with me and wanting something different. And so that part's tough. You only have your own opinions at the end of the day, because everyone else has got others.
Right, right. And publishing is so subjective. People will have you believe otherwise, but no one actually knows what will sell. And all we're sort of doing is looking at the market and we're saying, “Well this did sell,” but you know, you're not necessarily that same person. You've got a different voice. That's exactly why I say to the writers I work with that they are the best experts on what they have to say. My job is to help them do that as best as they can, rather than bringing in my preconceived notions of what their book should look like. I love that that was your journey. Aren't you so much happier that this is the book you're coming out with rather than this different voice?
Yes, absolutely. And I think I had to go through that process to really appreciate and understand my own value in the marketplace as well. And you know, understand that yeah, you know what? I do have a blog-y voice and it is like a voiceover. And it also works. So that's cool.
Instagram Matters More to Some in the Publishing Industry than Others
That was a heartbreaking, really weird experience. The story you're referring to was getting on the phone with a major publishing house when we were going through the sales process, and originally we were scheduled to have a meeting with everyone from the imprint. But we got on the phone and it was the weirdest thing. It was a conference call, and it ended up just being my agent, myself and the acquisitions editor on the call, and the acquisitions editor made small talk, pleasant pleasantries. And then we finally had to say, “Well, we're waiting for more people, right?” And she said, “Oh, you know, no, actually it's just going to be me today.” And that's when there was a silence that fell over the phone line. And we all kind of knew, that's not a good sign. What changed in the last 24 hours? And finally we got to the heart of it after she started asking me weird questions. I was being interrogated about my business and how much money we earn. In the end, she finally just came out with it and said, “Here's what's going on. Our marketing person reviewed your Instagram account before we got on the call. And, frankly, some of the members in our office have more followers than you do. So we're not confident that you'd be able to sell this book.” That's knowing that I had this email list, almost 100,000 subscribers. And our open rates have been, for almost 11 years now, consistently across the board at almost 50%, which is unheard of in the industry.
Which is so much more powerful than an Instagram following. You know, that means people are opening those emails and want to actually hear your words.
And that has been my main strategy. So I did just take a moment to explain why that was. This is where I shine. It's really effective for selling things, and I'm typically selling things that are hundreds of dollars each and I'm able to move good portions of those. So you know, a $20 book, I think we're going to have a lot of success with. And that was it. It was kind of like the whole call fell flat, and they declined based on my Instagram followers.
Let us say for the record, there is actually no evidence to support that a strong Instagram following results in sales. Like I said, the problem in publishing a lot of times is that they're trying to figure out what can tell us that things will sell, because they want to make money—as they should, it's a business—but they're kind of looking at the wrong things sometimes. Thank goodness you found a publisher that was looking at the right things, right?
Oh yeah. I mean, it broke my little heart. I didn't see that coming, and since it was my very first publishing meeting, I was destroyed. I can see the value of something like Instagram being almost like a label where your followers are giving credibility to the rest of your work. I can understand that. But I think it's also shortsighted to look at that as the main reason why a book won't sell. And I think that was unfortunate. I don't think that that's the experience for other publishers always. I mean, listen, Penguin Random House, completely different thing. So I will say that it might be something you bump up against, but at the same time, don't let it discourage you.
On Making Half the World Hate You—and Why That’s a Good Thing
What's the point of publishing a book if you're not sharing an idea that you actually believe in, if you're just saying the same things that have been said, or saying something that doesn't feel novel or fresh or interesting? The point of a book should be to push the conversation forward. It's a fool's errand to try to make something for everyone to like. It's impossible. Just the other day I had a girlfriend in town and she was on the Bumble app, you know, the dating app? And she was reading me some of these profiles and I couldn't help but notice that there were a lot of men who were saying straight up in their profile, “no Trump supporters.” And I thought to myself, that's genius. Because now it's like, okay, well he's taken a stand. Now we know we're going to be a better match.
What's the point of publishing a book if you're not sharing an idea that you actually believe in, if you're just saying the same things that have been said, or saying something that doesn't feel novel or fresh or interesting?
If I'm reading something you've written, I want to believe that you have conviction in your beliefs. I don't want to read a summary of other people's ideas. I want to know what you think and I want to know, based on your experience, why you think that.
Absolutely. And I would argue that it's the exact reason that you've built such an incredible following, because you really put that stake in the ground and you say “This is where I stand.”
I think a lot of us run into the issue of “I don't want to offend anybody, but I don't want to seem so self-important that I'm a know-it-all.” And I see this a lot with new writers, they use phrases like “In my opinion” and “I don't know about you, but for me this is true.” And doing that has this very wishy-washy effect. If I'm reading something you've written, I want to believe that you have conviction in your beliefs. I don't want to read a summary of other people's ideas. I want to know what you think and I want to know, based on your experience, why you think that. It's not about being right. It's about taking your experience and then using that to say, “So this is what this has meant for me, and maybe this is what this will mean for you.” There's so much value in doing that, but so many of us do the hedging thing and it's uncomfortable to read.
That is one of the key elements to having a voice, to feel like you're willing to stand up and put a stake in the ground and lead something forward. If you were running out of a burning building, who are you going to follow? The guy who's like, “Well I think there are four exits and they're all of equal distance. So we could probably go to any one of them.” No, you’re going to follow the guy who’s like “Okay, over here, here we go, let's do it, move move move.”
It is about getting that experience and then using that to inform your decisions going forward. One of the things that I talk a lot about when I teach business is this idea between showing up with the posture of a freelancer versus showing up with the posture of an advisor. When you show up as a freelancer, you take orders from a client and whatever they need you to do, that's what you do. But when you show up as an advisor, an advisor is not taking orders. The advisor's job is to give orders. They're the consultant, they're at a completely different level. It changes the dynamic of the relationship entirely. It changes the way your clients view you. It changes how much money you can charge, changes everything. And I think the same applies to writing in a way. Are you showing up as a freelancer, asking the world permission for your ideas, or are you showing up and TELLING the world, “These are my ideas”?
Oh, I love that line. That's another sticky note!
Personal vs. Professional, or Why You Shouldn’t Write about What You Had for Breakfast This Morning
Well, the number one rule I've always followed is I always write about things in the past. I don't ever write about something that's happening now. I think that's really important. Sometimes social media lends itself to coming across as, “Oh, woe is me, me, pity me, look at me.” When you're talking about things in the present, it's just a whole different ball game. Whereas if you're talking about something that happened to you in the past, there's enough distance there to be able to at least draw a meaningful, tangible, teachable moment from that. And that's why anyone's reading, nobody cares about what happened to you. You might have a fascinating story, but it's really not that interesting. All we care about is ourselves. So anything that I talk about will always have something to do with, “What does this mean?” And I can't normally do that when something's happening to me now, because I don't know what it means yet.
The number one rule I've always followed is I always write about things in the past. I don't ever write about something that's happening now.
I think the context is important for writing, and since I'm my own brand and I don't really need to be thinking about which employer's going to hire me, I think I have a little bit more leeway than most people might. But that's my own personal stage.
If I were writing for the New Yorker, I'm going to have to change the way I show up in accordance with the context. So context matters as well. I think you have to be intuitive enough to understand who you're writing to and think that through. Empathy really matters when you consider your audience, even if it's just one person on the other side of the screen. I'm a pretty empathetic person, so I think that's helped me a lot with writing.
Empathy really matters when you consider your audience, even if it's just one person on the other side of the screen.
Sometimes when you're having writer's block, I always go back to “What would be the most helpful? How can I help somebody else? What is the helpful thing I need to be saying to someone right now?”
What I'm getting from that is it's less about you and your lines and it's more about the audience and thinking about what they’ll get from what you’re writing right now. Is that right?
Yes, of course. Sometimes when you're having writer's block, I always go back to “What would be the most helpful? How can I help somebody else? What is the helpful thing I need to be saying to someone right now?” That's the business side of me, understanding that I'm a copywriter by trade, so that's kind of the job. But it's useful too because it simplifies everything. Especially when you're writing a book, especially when you're asking for money to do a project with a client, whatever it is, all you're doing is showing up and trying to be as helpful as you can. So put the focus there when you're experiencing that block and see what happens next.
In my heart of hearts, this is for who I call “trailer park girls.” You might not have grown up in a trailer park like I did, but that doesn't mean that you don't have these moments of just total insecurity and self doubt. Maybe you've just gone through a horrible divorce, you really want to do something different with your life and your career, but you don't know what. Everyone around you thinks you're crazy. This book is for them. It's for every woman who has hit rock bottom, who's going through the hard, who needs to believe in themselves again, who needs someone else to believe in them. It's for anyone who is far more capable than they believe that they are.
Letters from the Editor: On what writers can learn from '1917,' the morality of ripping books in half, and more
Why Writers Should Watch the Film 1917 Right Now
A Lesson in Building Scenes That Grip Your Readers
If you've been struggling with bringing a sense of immediacy to your writing, I've got just the movie for you.
I'll keep it really bare bones here: 1917 is a movie about two young soldiers in World War I tasked with delivering a message that could save a lot of lives. Director Sam Mendes made a decision to make the film appear like one continuous take so that it felt like more of a real-time thriller. (It isn't actually a single take, but the illusion is pretty spot on.) The camera follows just one or two characters at a time and in every moment you're either seeing what the character is seeing; you're seeing the character close-up; or you're seeing the character as an element in the larger landscape. Every moment, you feel like you're alongside them on their journey through the trenches.
What Mendes does expertly in 1917 is choreograph "a dance between the camera and the characters and the landscapes, all three of which are moving all the time." He layers shifts in perspectives in a way that gives you a sense of constant momentum and of both the objective and subjective scope of the story. You see how big the situation feels to the character; how small they are in comparison to the landscape; how the characters' actions make an impact on the greater narrative. And it's all just subtle shifts in perspective! You'll notice Mendes never lingers too long on one point of view before moving on to the next, and that every shift maintains a connection between the perspectives it serves as a transition for so it has a naturally fluid progression.
When you're writing a novel, you get to play director, cinematographer, and camera. You have complete control over what your readers see, and every piece of information you include or leave out will change how they experience the story you're telling. You are the narrative lens, and for your story to be as effective as possible, your reader needs to live through it with your character more often than they're a removed observer. I highly recommend watching 1917 for some notes on how to bring exactly this kind of immediacy and intimacy into the scenes you're writing.
Letters from the Editor: On taking control of your writing career, the books to be excited about in 2020, and more
It's 2020, A.K.A. Time to Take Control
A continent is on fire, World War III memes have situational relevance, and the to-do list grows longer by the second. It's enough to make you feel at least little nuts, but I'm not going to let 2020 keep my head spinning, and you shouldn't either.
For all my writers out there who need a little New Year's inspiration, take a few minutes to read (or read again) the piece we put out last month: Authors Aren't Getting What They Need From Publishers Anymore. Here's What They Can Do About It. When I wrote this, my mindset was more one of criticizing an industry that doesn't love writers like it should. That still holds true, but rereading it now, all that comes to mind are all the opportunities you have to take control of your own damn destiny as a writer. 2020 is a great year to give a middle finger to anything that doesn't help you flourish and to be bold.
If you want some insight on ways you can give yourself what publishing isn't giving freely anymore, read on; and if you've got questions or ideas you want to bounce off me, I'm all ears. This is the year we make some magic happen!
Letters from the Editor: On being a non riot-forming writer online, how to get stickers off books, and more
For the Modern Writer, the Personal is Professional
It’s an easy line to cross -- or in some cases, trip over very ungracefully. Take this latest bit of beef from Book Twitter, for example.
Publishing is obsessed with your follower count.
Should you be too?
As a writer of nonfiction, It’s a word that you’ll hear all the time when trying to get published — “you need a strong platform if you want your book to do well.” “Your platform is the only way to guarantee publishers will look twice at your book.” Platform is a nonfiction writer’s key to success.”
Eventually you start to get the gist that this is important — and it is! Platform is what sells your books, makes you an attractive prospect to agents and publishers, and keep readers, new and old, engaged with your work. Basically, platform is to nonfiction authors what promise is to fiction authors; it’s the incentive agents and publishers need to take you on.
Publishing industry polymath Jane Friedman explains that when you’re a fiction writer, agents and publishers assess your viability as an author “based on the quality of your manuscript and its suitability for the current marketplace.” When you’re a nonfiction author, however, a big piece of your puzzle is to have a large and loyal enough built-in audience that publishers feel confident your book will find success with the readers you intend it for. Your manuscript is absolutely still important but as it’s often not complete at the time you would be submitting nonfiction proposals, you have to give agents and publishers a good reason to take a chance on you beyond “I promise my book will be good!”.
In a sense, platform takes precedence over your writing samples during the nonfiction proposal submission process.The goal of a platform is to sell yourself as an author and authority so that your book, when it’s released, has the community and credibility that you’ve built around your name as a giant green flag for readers (AKA buyers).
For a concrete definition, just think of platform as the infrastructure of your public presence. It includes everything from your social media to your collective body of work to your attendance at workshops and conferences to your professional network, and anything else you do to make yourself visible and accessible to the public.
Given this description, you could get the sense that all a good platform needs is some of Kardashian-grade marketing tactics and an iron will to get people to like (and listen) to you. If you have a certain amount of followers and a big enough name, you’re guaranteed success as a nonfiction writer and the dollars will flow freely...
...And then you hear about situations like Caroline Calloway’s and realize that’s not quite the case.
Getting Your Priorities is Self-Care
For example, right now I have a million and one things to take care of at home. For weeks I’ve wanted to switch out my summer clothes for my winter ones; go through the stack of magazines that have colonized a corner of my living room; find a new dermatologist.
But instead of switching out my clothes, I’m at a friend’s baby shower. Instead of tackling the magazines, I’m cooking an over-the-top (very worth it) date night dinner. Instead of researching dermatologists, I’m helping a friend with their resume.
All of these random odds and ends keep coming up, and I end up getting pulled away from my overarching projects and goals to keep up with all the obligations I have to the people I care about and more due dates than a maternity ward. And it kind of sucks because those bigger projects are the ones that will help me out a lot and improve my life if I can get them done…but I don’t ever seem to have the time. And because they're not things with strict deadlines, they just keep getting shuffled back to the bottom of the pile.
Maybe you’ve felt this kind of frustration lately with your writing. Unfortunately, our projects don’t exist in a vacuum, and the real world can – and frequently will – interfere with our progress. You get pulled away from what you’re passionate about by your day job, by the writing you do to pay the bills, by your family and friends...the list goes on. At some point you’ll start to wonder, am I doomed to an eternity of postponing my long-term satisfaction for short-term subsistence?
I don’t think so.
America's Literary Towns: Sleepy Hollow
But first, I have to tell you about a little trip I went on recently to Sleepy Hollow. You know — severed head, lanky Ichabod Crane, unrequited love for an eighteen-year-old girl, the bridge? That Sleepy Hollow.
Writing in Spite of the Real World:
The Art of Balancing Side Projects with Normal Life
Writers, freelancers, and artists: this is the season where the real world starts to breathe again, and if there’s anything that interferes with making strides on your side projects, it’s the real world. But striking a healthy work-life-other work balance is possible, and it all begins with the right frame of mind.
Letters from the Editor: On what agents look for in submissions, remembering Toni Morrison, and more
The #1 Thing Your book Needs to Have Before You Start Submitting to agents
At many times during the querying phase, often after a rejection or two rolls in, you might wonder to yourself: is there anything else I can do to get one of these agents to bite?
In fact, there is.