Zen and the Art of GoodReads: Author Priscilla Warner

Last year I happened to read Learning to Breathe by Priscilla Warner. The subtitle is My Yearlong Quest to Bring Calm to My Life. This is a beautiful book about centering onesself.

(In other words, it is not a book about doing ones' own book publicity.)

I happened to leave a short but very positive review on GoodReads. And to my surprise, Ms. Warner responded to it, thanking me. This blew my doors off, because I would have thought that anyone who knew about zen and calmness would cross the street to stay away from GoodReads. So I wrote Ms. Warner a note, asking her to enlighten me. How does an author find engagement there, in a way that's not soul damaging? Bless her, but she responded with some very sage advice.
--Sarah P.

By Priscilla Warner

When The Faith Club came out in 2005, my co-authors and I traveled to more than 50 cities around the country, speaking at events that drew as many as 1000 people. We occasionally remembered to set out a notebook and collect people's email addresses if they chose to share them, and our website allowed people to contact us pretty easily, but there was no efficient way to build a community online back then. Our publicist at Free Press did connect us with goodreads. I remember doing an online chat, which was very cutting edge (and confusing!) But when we tried to connect people so that they could form faith clubs across the country, we were often frustrated. MySpace just didn't work.

Once we slowed down a bit and took a break from our three year book tour, I spent time online and was delighted to rediscover goodreads. I could not believe how many reviews The Faith Club had gotten! I was shocked. And thrilled. I started engaging with people who'd liked our book, and I really enjoyed the interaction. The Faith Club was very a very honest, provocative book about religion, so I was used to the idea that not everyone on the planet would love it. Also, I wrote the book with two co-authors, and we'd discovered that sooner or later one of us was going to be criticized. We were very supportive and protective of each other, and were even able to joke about the criticism sometimes, on goodreads and in other places.

When I began to work on my memoir, Learning to Breathe, my experience trying to find inner peace was exciting and life altering. I knew my experiment to meditate my way from panic to peace was working. But writing is such a solitary experience, and I didn't know a lot of other authors. I was looking for a supportive literary community, so I started hanging out on goodreads. It was easy to engage with readers who'd liked The Faith Club, especially if they'd liked my writing in that book! If they criticized The Faith Club, or my writing in particular, I used everything
I was learning about Buddhism and letting go to detach from negative reviews!

I had a great time building my bookshelves on goodreads and remembering my favorite books over the course of my lifetime. I friended people I felt a connection to because of the books they liked. It gave me confidence as a
writer to see that many people in the goodreads community liked the same writing and authors as I liked. And to be perfectly honest, when I saw writers I loved being criticized there, I thought "Wow, if they get critiqued, who am I to complain?"

There are so many people on goodreads, and so many genres of writing, that I find it easier to let go of negative reviews there. Because people on goodreads love books, and spend the time to read and review them, I
respect their eagerness to engage with the written word, no matter how I might be personally affected by the words they use in their reviews. I find the community enormously engaged and respectful of a wide range of
opinions and interests.

I had a wonderful experience taking part in a discussion about my book on goodreads, in a group called Yoga Folks. The format allowed for a thoughtful, honest discussion that took place over time. People could
reflect on each other’s comments in a way I found quite unique and respectful of all parties involved. I’m a goodreads fan for many reasons!

Thank you, Priscilla! You can learn more about Priscilla Warner on her website, or find her on GoodReads.


Thriller Author David Klein on What’s He’s Doing Differently the Second Time Around

Author David Klein’s second thriller Clean Break was published two weeks ago. And this time, he’s doing things a little differently. —Sarah P.

When my first novel, Stash, launched in 2010, I didn’t have an author page on Facebook, I didn’t have a Twitter account, and I didn’t have an independent publicist working on my behalf. What I did have was a sympathetic sister who helped me reach out to book blogs, my own tenacity to pitch my novel to book groups, and the willingness to visit bookstores to read from my novel and sign books.

Although I would have preferred my publisher to allocate a fat budget to promote my novel, that didn’t happen. They did make an effort to launch the novel successfully, but once the training wheels came off, the book had to find another way to glide. Which meant a lot of pushing on my part.

The marketing and selling of a novel is no different than any other product. You have to find your target audience, demonstrate the value of your product, convince potential customers to buy. It doesn’t seem fair to authors that after they’ve done all the writing, they still have to promote the book. But markets aren’t fair; they’re competitive—and constantly changing.

In terms of attention from my publisher, it’s pretty much the same with my second novel, Clean Break, which launched June 5. But other things are different. This time I do have an author page on Facebook, a Twitter account, and a professional publicist to help promote the novel.

I kind of went kicking and screaming into social media. I already spend hours a day in front of my computer. And I’m not a very social person. I don’t have a lot of interesting and poignant news and notes and comments to share with the world. The most fascinating story I have to tell is between the covers of my books. But I was told, and told again—by my agent, publisher, publicist—that I must develop a social media platform. So I’ve done it. I’ve Facebooked and Tweeted any and every tidbit that could be remotely relevant or interesting to potential readers. And here’s a confession: it hasn’t been an awful experience. I’ve gotten good feedback. I’ve found new fans. I’m interested in what others are saying about my novels.

The other new strategy I’ve deployed to launch Clean Break is to work with an independent publicist. I’ve always believed in hiring experts to do what I can’t do, yet must get done. It takes time and toil to reach out to and follow-up with book reviewers, blogs, and readers. I simply don’t have the time or skill for it. But my publicist does, and she’s working with my publisher to help Clean Break get attention.

What hasn’t changed for me is the writing. From one novel to the next, I still have to show up, sit in my chair, and work. I have to balance writing with other responsibilities in my life. I have to battle lags in confidence when the writing bogs down. But I continue to write, day after day, because without the writing, there isn’t any launching.

You can visit David Klein at his website, or check up on his Twitter efforts. Thanks, David!


Memoirist Carolyn Roy-Bornstein asks: What Am I Doing?

Carolyn Roy-Bornstein is a physician, a writer and a mom. Her dramatic memoir Crash comes out in a few short weeks. Reading her post, made me realize that as tricky as publicizing one's fiction may be... a memoir comes with a host of thornier questions. Thank you for sharing this, Carolyn. --Sarah P. 

     I’ve had my “what am I doing?” moments as a writer. Writing my first book, my confidence waxed and waned without rhyme or reason. One minute I would believe in the importance of my memoir: I’m sharing my family’s experience of my son’s accident and subsequent traumatic brain injury. Educating the public about the dangers of underage drinking and drunk driving. Enlightening the masses about the trauma of hidden wounds. The next moment, I’m asking myself ‘Who am I kidding? Who will want to read this?’

     Even as I secured an agent (or “achieved representation” as I’ve learned to say) and then landed a book deal, the doubts still lurked at the edges of my consciousness, ready to bring me to my knees. What if my editor rejected the final manuscript? What if she decided I can’t write after all? What if nobody buys my book?

     But I never thought I’d have one of my “what am I doing” moments while being interviewed for my first profile in a glossy magazine.

     Journalist Katie Lovett knocked at my door at exactly the appointed hour one unseasonably warm February day. She wore a short hot pink wool coat, a red Valentine pinned to her lapel. She looked astonishingly young, though I knew from reading her bio on-line that she had been at her current position for more than five years. She snapped her head up sharply when I opened the door, a tentative half-smile on her face. Was this the proper expression to present to a woman who has written a memoir of tragedy?

     I invited her in, offered her tea. We settled onto the couch, sipping our Constant Comments. She kept thanking me for allowing her into my home and sharing my story. I kept assuring her that the pleasure was all mine. I wanted to tell my story. That’s why I had written a memoir after all.

     Then the questions began. They started innocently enough. Benignly. Chronologically.

     “Where were you when you learned that your son had been hit by a drunk driver?” And then, “Who was the person who told you?”

     I recounted for her the events of that night. I elaborated with details about my son’s relationship with his girlfriend, the one killed in the crash.

     But as the questions kept coming:--“How is Neil now?” “What is he doing?” “Does he need any extra academic help at school?”—I felt the familiar “what am I doing?” question bubbling up in my insides. Only now the question had morphed into a stomach-churning no-turning-back “what have I done?”

     Neil has supported me throughout the writing of this memoir. He read and approved every word. Whenever I gave him a chapter of the book to read, I always cautioned him, “Now if you’re uncomfortable with this being out there, I won’t publish it.” Neil has always known he has had total veto power over any of my work that deals with the crash. Each time, he reads it and assures me, “No. You can publish that.”

     But I still worried that maybe he doesn’t understand what it all means. I’ve published stories about him before for sure, but in specialized publications—medical journals for doctors like me and literary magazines geared towards mothers who write. I worried that once the book was out, read by neighbors and friends, that things would be different. That Neil would have second thoughts about being the subject of my memoir.

    Now as I faced Katie Lovett’s seemingly endless barrage of questions, I had another thought. Maybe it’s me who doesn’t understand what it all means. Maybe I’m the one who’s not ready for all this to be happening. Maybe I’ve been so busy worrying about protecting Neil that I ended up kidding myself. Of course I thought long and hard before embarking on writing this memoir.          But I thought I had it under control. I had an important story to tell. Not just about traumatic brain injury and drunk driving, but also about psychological wounds that are unapparent,  the non-linear nature of recovery after trauma, and the disenfranchisement of certain types of grief. Of course I realized I would be opening up my family’s story to the world. But I realized it on an intellectual level. Knowing something in your head and  knowing it with your gut are two very different things. And now here was a reporter. In my home. On my sofa. Delving deeply into my life. A life that I have readily offered up to the world.

     Julia Fox Garrison, a young stroke survivor who wrote a wonderful memoir called Don’t Leave me this Way, read an advanced copy of my book and loved it.

     “Now you are like me, an open book,” she told me.

     And so I am. I realize this now on a deep and abstruse level, a level unknown to me as I sat scrawling words longhand in spiral-bound books, then typing them into ten-point Courier font at my computer. I know it now keenly, as I did not know it then, when I hung over Neil’s shoulder as he read, awaiting his approval, and worrying that he was not fully aware of where this all would lead. I realize this now concretely, tangibly, as I sit on this sofa staring into the fresh inquisitive face. I am an open book.

You can find Carolyn Roy-Bornstein on her website or on Twitter @CRoyBo.


Five Favorite Things to Hear from an Author Proposing an Event

Jenn Northington has the kind of job that book nerds everywhere find glamorous.  She is the events manager at WORD, a truly wonderful indie bookstore in Brooklyn.  (Motto: EAT SLEEP READ)  Author readings, signings and events are in her hands.  Here at Blurb is a Verb we often hear the author’s side of the book publicity story.  Jenn wrote this post last year, and I think it is perfect for a Summer Re-Run. Her glimpse of a bookseller’s perspective never gets old. These are her Five Favorite Things to Hear from an Author Proposing an Event:

"You know what might be fun?" No! Tell me! We love to do events that are out of the ordinary, that invite audience participation, that take the average reading-plus-Q&A and make it better, faster, stronger.

"I noticed from your website (or, even better, from shopping in your store) that you sell a lot of the genre that my book is in. In fact, you even have a staff pick for one of the books that influenced me!" Don't say it if it ain't true, but do do your homework before approaching a bookstore. If they sell mostly mystery and your book is a nutrition bible, trust me -- they're not the store you want to do your event at. Take a look at their events schedule, get a feel for the types of things that they are saying yes to, and pitch (or don't pitch) accordingly. 

"You'll be my only event in the area." Hallelujah! Many folks seem to think that if they're not reading and signing at every bookstore, library, rotary club, and grocery store in a given region, they're not doing their jobs. But I honestly believe that you'll better serve yourself (and your chosen venue) to pick just one. If you saturate an area, you're really just splitting your audience. 

"My (aunt/best friend from high school/second cousin/whoever) lives in your neighborhood and loves your store, and will bring people to the event." Glorious! Listen, we want to put butts in chairs just as much as you do. When an indie says yes to an event, it's because they want it to go well, and they'll do everything they can to help get people out for it. But there's no doubt that we can always use the extra help to spread the word, so if you've got local connections use 'em!

"Why no, I haven't put my book online as a free download." While this may help you in a multitude of other ways (yes, I realize we live in the age of Seth Godin and Cory Doctorow), it does not help sales at author events one iota. A signature on a page is not enough to make a person buy your book twice, especially if they didn't have to pay the first time, and even more especially if the book is in hardcover. If you want to do a giveaway online, consider a teaser chapter -- or maybe just wait until after you're done touring.
Sarah:  Thank you!  I'm especially intrigued by your first suggestion.  What was the quirkiest event that an author proposed?

Jenn: I once had an author ask me how much knife-throwing I would like during an event. No lie! And before you ask, we actually ended up going with "none" (there were going to be small children in the audience, and our event space has a very low ceiling, and, well, I chickened out).


Ann Patchett's Book Tour Wisdom

Summer has (unofficially) arrived. There are strawberries at the farmers' market, and my kids are getting out of school in (gasp!) a few short days. I look forward to getting a lot of reading done this summer, as I hang out by the pool / playground / soccer camp. I've giddily loaded up my to-read list on goodreads, and I'm ready to dive in.

Four summers ago, Ann Patchett wrote a most wonderful essay about going on book tour, for Atlantic's fiction issue in 2008. The title is "My Life in Sales." Doesn't that sound familiar?

A month of living in a suitcase, eating in airports, and cracking your forehead open against hotel-room walls in the middle of the night often comes to very little. But the only thing worse than going on book tour is not going.

For its wisdom, for its inspiration, and for its calming influences "My Life in Sales" is a must read.  You can thank me later.


Author Dawn Tripp's Ten Year Vantage Point: on Being Reviewed

Author Dawn Tripp finally has something that all debut authors wish they had, which is ten years' experience with receiving reviews. As her beautiful novel Game of Secrets is published in paperback today, Tripp reflects back on her learning process. The advice she offers here may be some of the most valuable ever to grace Blurb is a Verb... and also, the most difficult advice for first-time novelists to take. --Sarah P.

Several months before my first novel came out, the good news began to roll in. We received a blurb from Edna O’Brien, my living hero, who described the book as “a shimmering work, an audacious debut, a gem.” Random House was sending me on a tour. The novel was going to be reviewed in People, featured in Elle; it was going to be in a summer round-up for USA-Today. I was thrilled. I was anxious. I walked around every day feeling like I was at the edge of a cliff. My stomach was in my throat, and my whole sense of normal, for some reason I could not pin down, was on its ear. And it was hard to explain this feeling of angst to anyone, because my friends and family, and the other writers I knew, kept telling me how lucky I was, how excited they were for me, and I kept thinking there was something all wrong that I couldn’t seem to feel the same unbridled joy. I couldn’t escape the sense that what was about to happen—publication—had very little to do with the actual process and art of writing. But again, it was my first time through a book release, and it was hard to put these feelings into words and harder, too, to justify them.

Then the first review came out, in Library Journal. It came out on a Friday. The reviewer wrote: “Unforgettable...brilliant characterizations...shimmering descriptions...a gripping climax....Tripp's poetic narrative will remind some of Michael Ondaatje and others of Barry Lopez, but she's an original.”

I was over-the-moon happy. Beyond thrilled. And all weekend I kept telling myself: “See, everything is going to be okay. Nothing to angst about. This is only first time stage-fright. It is all going to be fine”

Then on Monday, I got my second review, from Publishers Weekly, and the reviewer described my novel as “overwritten,” “a tangle of reverie and lore” with a “plot that moves at a snail’s pace.”

I was devastated. Literally, a puddle on the floor. I phoned my editor in tears, and she said to me something I have never forgotten: “You are a beautiful writer. Just write.”

Needless to say, in the moment, I couldn’t quite take her advice. For the next few weeks, after that scathing PW, I couldn’t seem to write at all. I could barely focus on the draft of my second novel even though it was nearly finished.

But in the ten years since, I have come to see those first two reviews as a gift—both of them as a gift. In the span of four days—I got a pure rave and I got the worst review I’ve ever received. And I have come to see that neither of them really has much to do with what I am called to do, as a writer. Reviews come. You get the praise, the raves, you get the mixed, you get it all, and at the end of the day, what really matters is that there was a story you loved once, that burned in you enough that you took a year or two of your life and wrote it down. What matters is that there are the glimmers of a new story, perhaps a new novel, moving in your body, prickling around like liquid silver in your veins, and snapping you awake at 3 a.m.

I have learned this: Whether someone loves what I’ve done, or whether it just isn’t their cup of tea, someone else’s reaction to a book I’ve written has very little to do with why I was driven to write that book in the first place. It has very little to do with what still drives me to wake up every day, go to my desk, and pour myself into the page.

The greatest advice I have ever been given came as a result of those first two reviews, and it is advice that I have passed on:

Just write. Trust your own voice. Trust your own instincts. Find a story that you are on fire to tell. And write.

You can find Dawn Tripp at, and Game of Secrets wherever books are sold.


Summer Reruns: Fun With Numbers: An Author’s Guide to Free Sales Data

In case you missed it the first time, I'm re-running this useful (and gently updated) post about tracking your book's sales data online.

By Sarah P.

So what’s a girl to do if she wants to know how her book is selling?  The answer used to be: stare at your Amazon ranking, that curious but meaningless statistic.  But these days, you can do better.  The following is a brief tour of the free data available to you if you know where to look. 

First Stop:
When you register your book at, the site will begin taking hourly looks at your Amazon sales rank.  So closely does NovelRank track the hourly updates from Amazon’s API (which is nerdspeak for data stream) that the site can tell when you make a sale.  So NovelRank (which, in spite of its name, will happily keep an eye on nonfiction books too) can show you a charted history of your Amazon ranking and tell you with reasonable accuracy how many books were ordered via or its international subsidiaries.

Caveat: if your book is selling so well that multiple sales occur during each one-hour observation period, Novelrank’s sales figures will be understated.  But if you’re selling multiple copies per hour, you won’t really care.

Other Caveat: you have to keep going back to Novelrank every couple of weeks to look at the results.  If you forget to check back, they’ll stop following your book.  If you can remember to visit your data once in awhile to keep it active, Novelrank will store a full year’s worth of data, and you can export the numbers to a spreadsheet whenever you wish.

Second Stop: The Evil Empire’s Author Central Program
Amazon, for all their carnivorous ways, has given authors a luxury-priced gift: Bookscan data.  BookScan is the bookstore arm of Nielsen (the TV people who keep track of whether or not you watch American Idol.)  Their data captures point-of-sale numbers at many of the nation’s bookstores, but not at some big box stores like Wal-Mart.  If you register for Author Central on Amazon, and then link your books to your profile, the “Sales Info” tab will show you BookScan data for your own books.

Not only do you see how many sales of your book BookScan reported for a given week or period of weeks, you’ll see a geographical breakdown of where those books were sold.  The 100 regions have been divided up as oddly as gerrymandered congressional districts, but the data is solid.  My Ski House Cookbook is a perfect test case.  Guess where its most active regions lie?  The Denver area is always at the top of the charts for me, followed by the BookScan blob representing Vermont and New Hampshire.  But there are surprises too.  Southern California appreciates ski house cookery at a rate unforeseen by moi.

Caveat: Amazon does not archive this information—you only get 8 weeks of free Bookscan data at a time.  If you want to save the data, open up a spreadsheet and enter in your weekly numbers.  If you remember to look at least every 8 weeks, you can save it all.

Sanity check: this data is updated only once per week. I forbid you to stare at it more often than that.

Third Stop: Your Own Publisher. Hopefully.
Publishers have finally begun to understand that they are better off if Amazon isn't the best resource in town even for traditionally published authors. So the past year has seen a few of them, including Random House, unroll new sites and features for their authors. The RH site is the only one I've experienced personally, but it is a triumph. My fingers are crossed that other publishers will follow suit.

So, now that you have sales data for your book, what should you do with it?
Authors have often said that staring at numbers can only make a person crazy.  And surely that's a risk.  But there are things you can learn from the numbers, especially from the geographical data.  Is your book about to be released for the first time in paperback?  If you know which regions had the best sales in hardcover, it’s easier to make a push for touring there. 

Also, you will learn something about the effectiveness of your own marketing efforts. If you've been driving all over the tri-state area to do bookstore events and book club meetings, you will probably see a corresponding sales concentration in that area. Don't forget that the effectiveness of your bookstore events is greater than the number of attendees at your events.  Bookstores who take the time to invite you in will often A) advertise the event, and therefore the book and B) hand sell the leftovers afterwards. 

Finally, don’t forget that this is data that publishers can see.  They pay many thousands of dollars each year to Nielsen for the privilege of slicing and dicing any book’s sales data whenever they see fit.  When the time comes to negotiate your next book deal, it’s good to know what numbers they're looking at.

And there you have it. Use it well, but not too often.  That way lies the abyss.