Monday, July 28, 2008

The Writing Life: the Secret of Book Store Readings

by Kemble Scott

Years ago when I was working on my first novel SoMa, I went to a reading at Book Passage by Augusten Burroughs. He was internationally famous for his memoir Running with Scissors.

I enjoyed that book, but what I really wanted was to meet an author whose work I felt was similar to mine. I don't write memoirs, but in a very broad sense I considered us in the same genre of books: weird.

SoMa is a weird book, and so is Running with Scissors. Both have fairly graphic content, mixed with a twisted sense of humor. Since Augusten was so enormously successful, I figured there might be something I could learn from him.

There was a big crowd, filled with fans. I bought a book and made sure I was the last person in line for him to sign. I told him I was an aspiring writer, and he asked me about my work. We probably spoke for a good ten minutes. He ended the conversation by giving me what seemed like odd advice at the time. "Make sure your first novel is published as a trade paperback."

I didn't even know what a trade paperback was. How is that different than a regular paperback?

Years later when Kensington offered to buy SoMa, the editor explained that they wanted to publish it as a trade paperback. My heart sank a little. Silently, I was incredulous. Paperback? Wasn't I going to get a big hardcover book that I could show off to all my friends?

Then I remembered what Augusten said, and I did a little homework. It turns out that Augusten's first book was a novel, and it was published as a trade paperback - a soft cover version of a full-size book. Why? Because he was a complete unknown then, and his publisher figured that readers might take a chance on him at $15, whereas a hardcover at $25 might be too much to ask. The strategy paid off, and his first novel did well enough to have his editor ask him if he had any other books he wanted to write. "Well, I had this unusual childhood..."

If I hadn't met Augusten that day and heard his then-mysterious advice, my enthusiasm for my first book would have been dampened. Instead, I embraced the publishing process and tried to learn the rest of what I clearly did not know. SoMa ended up becoming a bestseller, even as a trade paperback. And a division of the Doubleday Book Club bought the rights and published another edition of SoMa: as a hardcover!

Writers who are serious about getting their books published should get out to readings and meet their favorite authors, especially those who are writing similar books. Ask about their journeys to publication. You'll undoubtedly learn something. Even if nothing strikes you as significant at the moment, you might be like me and discover years later that you'd received a pearl.

I'm such a strong believer in the power of this type of shared wisdom that I publish a weekly newsletter designed to connect people to authors. It's the San Francisco Bay Area Literary Arts Newsletter. It's my selection of the coming week's top book and author events, delivered in one convenient email each Friday morning. Once you sign up, you don't have to remember to do anything. It simply arrives.

The newsletter also includes links to all literary events categorized by city, town and neighborhood. Subscription is free. There's also an online version, for those who don't like email.

Kemble Scott is the author of the bestselling novel SoMa. He is the editor of SoMa Literary Review and the SF Bay Area Literary Arts Newsletter. His next novel is called Phage.

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