Monday

Author Jenna Blum: How Book Clubs Saved My Life

Dear author & agent & bookselling friends, I bring you an incredible success story by New York Times bestselling author Jenna Blum.  She helped march her novels Those Who Save Us and The Stormchasers up the charts in the most amazing way.  I get shivers reading this.  Jenna, take it away! —Sarah P.
By Jenna Blum
When my first novel, THOSE WHO SAVE US came out, I was underwhelmed to learn I’d have to participate in my own publicity.  For years I’d heard writers bemoan the legwork they had to do to promote their novels and I’d thought smugly: I’ll never be like that.  
Then THOSE WHO SAVE US was published and I ranted to my agent:  Why hadn’t the novel been reviewed by the New York Times? Why had my publicist confessed, “I haven’t actually read your book”?  When my agent advised me to think how I could publicize the novel, I raved, “But I’m a WRITER. Isn’t it enough I WROTE the damned book?”
My agent, who’s French and inimitable, said, “Non.  Your publicist is overworked. She has 20 other titles besides yours. So go do whatever you have to.”
I did.
My publicity method consists of throwing spaghetti at the wall to see what sticks. For THOSE WHO SAVE US, I hired an independent publicist—a hybrid of a Jewish Audrey Hepburn and Cujo—to get the novel to Jewish audiences.  I did stand-up for the Jewish Book Council, schvitzing through my dress while trying to entertainingly explain why Hadassah members should read a novel about a German woman.  I stuck business cards on Starbucks bulletin boards and under windshield wipers.  I paid to fly to any bookstore that’d have me, from Chicago to Seattle to Minneapolis, reading to audiences of, sometimes, two: my mom and a homeless person who’d come in from the cold.
But like many things having to do with writing—the perfect sentence that descends from nowhere, the agent who takes you on after 47 rejections—what really helped was a stroke of Providence I couldn’t have foreseen.
I teach at Boston’s Grub Street Writers—the best writing school anywhere—and one night a novelist in my workshop, Chuck Garabedian, asked, “Would you consider speaking to my mom’s book club about THOSE WHO SAVE US?”
At this point, THOSE WHO SAVE US had been out a few months in hardcover, a.k.a. the Family & Friends Edition.  That’s who’d bought it so far.  I’d written the novel because I was in love with its characters and their stories. Anything I could do to get it into people’s hands was worth doing.  Anything.
I said, “Sure, I’d love to.”
A week later, I sat in front of Mrs. Garabedian’s house in my car.  I hadn’t been so nervous since interviewing Holocaust survivors for Steven Spielberg’s Survivors Of The Shoah Foundation.  Then, as now, I’d rung strangers’ doorbells and stepped inside.  Now, as then, I hoped my reason for being there would trump my fear of making an ass of myself.
What happened at Mrs. Garabedian’s book club was much like what happened in survivors’ houses:  everyone was as nervous as I was.  I walked into a beautiful living room.  There was a chair set out for me.  There was a pot of coffee and a plate of small cakes.  The difference was, there were ten women instead of one survivor.  And everyone had my book.  It was so weird to see it in their hands instead of in untouched stacks on a bookstore table.  It felt so good.
I sat in my chair and began: 
“Thank you,” I said. 
Then I answered questions about my book for three hours.  What a privilege!  What a delight!  How long had it taken me to write the novel? Where did the idea come from? Were the characters based on real people? Why was there so much sex in it? What did my mom think about that?  Why hadn’t I used quotation marks?
By the time I left, I felt I’d made a roomful of friends. 
The next week, another woman emailed me.  She’d heard about Mrs. Garabedian’s book club; would I visit hers?
The following week, I had two invitations.
The next month, five more.
By the time THOSE WHO SAVE US jumped onto the New York Times bestseller list two years later, I was speaking to three book clubs a day.  Drinking way too much coffee and talking way too fast, like the Tasmanian Devil.  But loving every second of driving to women’s houses, meeting their families, talking about my own babies—my books—and making new friends. 
Book clubs keep books alive.  My readers have passed my novels from hand to hand, mother to daughter, friend to friend. I still get bookings the same way:  women write via my website and ask, “Will you come?” And no matter where they are—MA, FL, NH or NY—I do.  By phone, by Skype, or, my favorite, in person.  Because my readers have given me a gift beyond even the bestseller list.  When I was a kid, I was fat and bullied by my peers, with the result that as an adult, I called myself a misanthrope.  “Writers aren’t supposed to like people,” I growled.  “We’re solitary. We’re supposed to be set apart.”  But really, I was scared.  I used writing as an excuse to hide.
Going from house to house, being greeted by strangers with smiles, taught me I really like people.  That as Anne Frank said, most people are truly good at heart. Every time I think of this, I say thank you to the orchid Mrs. Garabedian gave me after my first book club.  I still have it, and it still blooms.
You can find Jenna at www.jennablum.com.



18 comments:

  1. This is my inspiration for the day. Once I have my coffee, I'm going to be set to take on the world! Thanks so much!

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  2. Jenna,
    What a wonderful story! Hoping for a Mrs. Garabedian of my own someday. . .

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  3. Jenna -

    What a beautiful tribute to the power of sharing your story one to one with readers. I just attended my first book club meeting. All of the women held a copy of my novel, and boy was I nervous. But once we all started talking and we moved past the awkward start, it was wonderful! I cannot wait to meet with more book clubs.
    My first book club host was Marie Wexler. I'll always remember the gift of that night.

    Thank you for sharing your story, as always!
    Kaira

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  4. I'm inspired! Thank you for sharing this great story. I can't wait to get authors to visit my book club, and to be an author who visits book clubs as well.

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  5. Great post Jenna, made me smile.

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  6. I've been a book club member since 1995, and I remember those nights when we had an author guest much more clearly than the members-only meetings. Mark Brazaitis, Joe Connelly, Mark Stevens & Annalyn Swann, I will never forget your books!

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  7. What a great post. Thanks for sharing your story. I'm a writer, but also an avid reader. And there's nothing I love more than hearing an author talk about their book. I can only imagine how fun this must be for you.

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  8. This is such an awesome story! Glad to hear that Jenna's hard work paid off!

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  9. Oh my, you are an incredible person and I hope I have the privilege of meeting you one day. You deserve every success.

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  10. What an inspiring story!! Wow, just wow! xo

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  11. Oh my, what a simple concept to promote your book. A circle of people having coffee and talking about the story. I'm so impressed at the sweetness and genuine humanity involved. That's how writing ought to be.

    Hope Clark
    FundsforWriters.com

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  12. Love it! I love people who love books. :)

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  13. Jenna, This is now my most favorite essay of all time. Thank you for sharing, with so many of us, in so many forms and ways. Truly beautiful. Thank you! Jennifer King

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  14. What a great story! It's amazing how much of a difference stepping out of our comfort zones can make.

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  15. Hi, everyone! I'm coming a little late to this party but so completely grateful for all the lovely comments--and especially to Sarah Pinneo for inspiring and running this piece in the first place. I've long wanted to be able to give my book clubs a fraction of the homage they deserve for being so good to me, and BlurbIsAVerb provided me with that opportunity. Thank you! And thank you all for reading. Hmmm, 15 commenters....I'm thinking we might be an ideal-sized book club....

    xoxo & happy reading & writing,
    Jenna.

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  16. Those Who Save Us is a very intriguing book. It gives an account of history from a perspective we are not accustomed to hearing: the German civilian perspective during WWII. It leaves the reader with much to ponder, and one walks away with the thought that history does not have such simple explanations. This book will spur a lot of good discussion.

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  17. Jenna thx for coming to our may meeting of our "better than therapy book club" in caledonia mn! What aprivilege to have you! It was such a fun evening ( but we always do have fun as we all love books...and a little cino) god bless you...nel

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