One of the great pleasures of teaching at Grub has been helping to develop and run the Launch Lab (subtitled, Introducing Your Book/ Directing Your Career, which nicely describes its purpose). The experience is invigorating: what’s better than convening with a group of dedicated writers, focused on spreading the word about their books in an authentic, sustainable and energy-giving way?
Wearing my Launch Lab hat, I interviewed Kathleen Buckstaff, a writer from Marin who just self published her memoir, The Tiffany Box. I was most interested in the new found sense of control and opportunity that many can achieve when they take the reins for themselves instead of placing all their trust and hope into traditional publishers. And in the process, I found out the greatest myth about self publishing…
1. Some years ago, you were a popular humor columnist for The Los Angeles Times, but stopped when it felt too intrusive to your personal life. What made you decide to publish these intimate emails about your mother’s death?
I lost my ability to write humor when my mom was diagnosed with cancer. Many years after my mother passed away, I went back and started sorting through old emails and diary entries.
Initially, I read them out loud to a dear friend who is also an Artistic Director of a Theater. I’m a compulsive note-taker. I like words that people say. Funny things, inspiring things. I write them down. I did this in my emails and inadvertently captured a lot of things I’d forgotten. When I read those emails out loud to Carol in her kitchen, we were both stunned.
I had preserved something intimate and raw. There was a voice there that I could never have created for a public audience. It was what you tell your very, very closest friends at night after a long, crazy day of taking care of everyone. It’s about me becoming a mom to my own kids and then becoming a mom to my own mom. And it’s told as it’s happening. Emails were how I sorted through contradictions of life– humor and pain, sorrow and joy that were right next to each other everyday. Carol is the one who told me I had to do something with those emails.
2. Have there been any surprises for you in the few weeks since your book came out? Good and bad?
Yes! People are buying the book. They’re reading it and then they’re coming back and buying handfuls more to give to friends.
3. I often wonder whether self-publishing is for everyone, or if there’s a certain personality type who would be better at it. What do you think?
Good stories float. People love good stories. We love telling them. We love hearing them. We love sharing them. Having a good story to share is a wonderful commodity. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter at all who publishes it. What matters is that the story touches someone and lights up a tiny corner in the world and someone else gets to see that place for a little while. Stay a bit. Feel something new. Experience something new. Share something you thought only you knew. A good story says, “hey, I’m human and this is how.”
4. In the last five years, self-publishing has grown by 287 percent. That’s a lot of books flooding the market. How do you approach marketing your own book without getting overwhelmed? What can you do to stand out in the crowd?
I do get overwhelmed some days when trying to figure out how to market my book. But I am studying online marketing and am learning a lot. 1. It’s essential to have a great website that easily discoverable (read about SEO) 2. Study Google Analytics at least 1 or 2 times a week (learn where you are getting traffic and put more energy there and reduce energy where you are not getting traffic) 3. Reach out to organizations that are connected with your book (your main character, a trauma in your story, a joy in your story) 4. Target your audience (find your most likely readers and find what sites they frequent and write guest blogs) 5. Write blog posts on related topics (to your book), making yourself an expert.
Most people at some point in their lives are caring for someone they love who has a serious illness. It’s a big market. And my story is crazy and honest. People read it and laugh and cry– probably because that’s how I got through that time, laughing and crying.
5. Are there some steps in the process that are often overlooked by self-publishing authors that you think are critical?
I spent months going back and forth with my book designer Shannon Bodie at Lightbourne on cover design and interior design. She and I iterated and iterated. I had absolutely no idea how much time it would take to make a cover feel the way I wanted it to.
I love experiencing a book. I love holding a book. I now have so much more appreciation for what goes into creating an experience with a book. Together Shannon and I chose every single detail carefully. We took time. A lot of time and I think it comes through.
6. What’s the biggest pitfall of self-publishing? The greatest joy?
I think the biggest pitfall, which I consider bigger than any pitfall associated with self-publishing, is a story that is written and never shared.
The greatest joy of self-publishing? I got to make this story mine, all mine– the story, the title, the cover, the book. I had a vision for the how the book would feel and worked closely with Shannon, my book designer, and we got what I wanted. We actually created a cover that exceeded my expectations.
7. Your book cover really stands out. It’s eye-catching and professional. Tell me about the process of designing it.
We wanted it to have texture. The story has texture—it is told only through emails, letters, diary entries and columns. I took hundreds of photographs of the actual Tiffany box to use for the cover.
The box is almost 25 years old now. It had contained a wedding present for my husband and me, and I saved the box. After my mom died, I put her correspondences there along with letters she received and other things. I always associated that box with her death, until I opened it. And I found life. I wanted the cover to feel like something old that is treasured.
The process of working with Shannon was creative, collaborative and extremely fulfilling. She helped me see what the book cover could become. We laughed, iterated, got goose-bumps and pushed each other hard to make it what it is. I also love the layout of the interior, the variety of fonts we chose as well as the placement of diary entries and emails on a page. We paid attention to the details.
8. A lot of indie and self-published authors cut corners on costly things like covers. Why did you choose to spend money in this way?
I’m a visual person and I often judge a book by its cover. When I walk through a bookstore, I am aware of picking up books that I want to touch. Something in the cover calls to me and I want to know more. A book cover done well sings the song of the book and the passerby hears it and responds. This is my experience of books and I wanted to honor that with my book. I knew I was investing in the story by investing in the cover.
9. What would be your advice to other writers in the process of assessing whether they want to go legacy or indie?
My experience is that most writers don’t have the choice. Very few writers are getting their books published by traditional publishers these days. A lot more writers have great stories completed sitting in files in their computers.
I believe it’s important to share our stories. I need to restate that– I believe it is essential to share our stories, as essential as breathing. If you are a writer and you write, then I believe that you have a message to the world, a unique message and you need to share it, with the best of your ability and give it away. I have been in many writers’ workshops and I have heard beautiful, poignant stories being read out loud and most of those stories have not become books.
The barriers are gone. It is possible now to make a beautiful book without waiting for someone else to give you permission. I’m thinking of the dance scene in Grease when a girl had to wait for a guy to ask her to dance and only some girls were asked to dance and the criteria was narrow and exclusive. That’s changed. Everyone can dance now. Thank God.
10. What’s the biggest myth about self publishing?
That it only takes a few hours!
Kathleen Buckstaff, author of The Tiffany Box
Kathleen Buckstaff wrote humor columns for the Los Angles Times and The Arizona Republic. She performed her one-woman play “The Tiffany Box, a love remembered” to sold-out theatres in CA, AZ and NYC. Kathleen has a BA in Creative Writing from Stanford and a MA in Journalism from Stanford. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area with her husband, their three children and their dog Lily.