It’s pouring rain on a November evening in New England, and inside Emerson College’s Walker Building on the south side of Boston Common, Lissa Warren urges her graduate students to think like publishers.
Each student has a handout that reads “A Day in the Life of a Publisher” with a list of problems publishers confront daily. The challenges include an author who shows up to events drunk and a drummer threatening to sue over being featured in his bandmates’ memoir. But the 10 young women in Warren’s class aren’t intimidated; they readily tackle each scenario.
Another example: A cookbook published 10 years ago is out of stock, and the author’s agent asks for the rights to be reverted. The publisher notes that the cookbook is about being vegan, a genre that sells even better today than when the book was originally published. “What would you, the publisher, do to handle the problem?” Warren asks her students.
“Well, first of all,” replies one, “I’d sit down and have a nice, proper cup of tea with the author.” The class smiles and giggles. There’s a lot of smiling in Warren’s class. She teaches with a light and playful flair, an approach made possible by her enviable position of teaching students already engaged and invested in the topic of book publishing.
The student continues. She would apologize to the author for allowing the book to go out of stock and then explore the possibility of having the author do an updated version, perhaps adding a few new recipes. The student also would consider whether the author, who clearly had the mojo to produce a successful cookbook the first time around, could write a second book since the vegan trend is still on the upswing. She answers pragmatically, but she keeps in mind the key tidbit that Warren seeks to communicate to her Book Publishing Overview students: At the end of the day, publishing is a business.
Warren has taught this class at Emerson for a decade. She also writes poetry, has authored two books – The Savvy Author’s Guide to Book Publicity and The Good Luck Cat: How a Cat Saved a Family, and a Family Saved a Cat, a memoir published in 2014 – and serves as vice president and senior director of publicity at Da Capo Press in Boston. About once a year, she acquires and edits one of Da Capo’s titles. Somehow, this 5-foot-4, 42-year-old Bay Village, Ohio, native finds the energy to keep a finger in every single book-publishing pot.
“It’s been exhausting,” she admits, “but exciting.”
Warren’s second book was born when her cat, Ting Pei, a beloved pet who served as a companion for her father before his death in 2008, had surgery to implant a human pacemaker. When the surgery was successful, Warren knew she had stumbled upon a story, but how could she make a personal story take on a universal theme? Turns out, she didn’t have to do much. Her agent told her he thought anyone with a close family or anyone who had always wanted a close family would identify, as would anyone who loved pets. So she moved forward.
Having earned an MFA in poetry from Bennington College in Vermont, Warren credits her poet’s education with making her prose more lyrical. But it also plagues her, setting a standard for perfection that is hard to replicate in longer works.
“When you write a poem, you look at every word, every line break, every stanza break,” she says. “It has to be concise, and it has to be perfect. I feel the pressure to make my prose as perfect as poetry needs to be, and that’s a very difficult, perhaps impossible thing to do with prose.”
Partly due to that perfectionist impulse, the writing of The Good Luck Cat progressed very slowly. Warren couldn’t just write a sentence and move on to the next. She’d write a sentence, revise it, get a cup of tea, read the sentence aloud to Ting and then revise some more before finally moving on.
Something else interfered with her writing process too: A third of the way into writing the memoir, Warren was diagnosed with of multiple sclerosis, which slowed her down physically and complicated her life, but also had to be included in the book.
“At first the book was about my father’s illness and death and my cat’s illness and life,” she said. “I realized that I didn’t fully understand what the cat meant to my dad until she started to mean the same thing to me, which was comfort in times when I felt sick and a desire to rally for her sake, because I had a cat to take care of. So [after my diagnosis] the ending of the book had to change.”
Still, the hardest part about writing the book wasn’t finding the energy to produce while battling a chronic illness or making the time between her two other jobs. Instead, word count proved to be Warren’s toughest adversary.
“I was contractually bound to 65,000 words,” she says, “and at about 50,000 words, I felt in my bones that I had told the story. I tinkered with it, padded it for another 5,000, and at that point I started thinking: I’m going to do more harm than good if I keep padding it.”
Her editor agreed and told her to stop writing. Instead of continuing to pad, they decided to add more photos of Ting to achieve the original page count. The solution proved to be a win for both the creative vision of the memoir and the bottom line of the publisher. Don’t be surprised if that scenario appears on the next Book Publishing Overview “Day in the Life” handout.
Writing the memoir taught Warren a lot about the book publishing and publicity process from the author’s point of view, even more so than writing and promoting The Savvy Author’s Guide to Book Publicity.
“I understand now what it feels like to go to a bookstore event and have 15 people show up and 10 of them are friends who already own the book,” she says. “But it makes me grateful for those 10 friends and for my publicist who, God bless her, keeps plugging away on my book’s behalf.”
Warren now finds herself in her authors’ shoes, waking up at the crack of dawn to do a radio interview or dragging a magazine writer with her to class. “I always knew that publicists had to be tenacious,” she says, “but now I know how tenacious authors have to be as well. You have to be bold as an author when it comes to promoting your work. You can’t be quiet and mousey and shy about it.”
Promoting her own book demands a large chunk of Warren’s time and attention, but when the hype dies down, as she knows it does for all books, and her publicist’s calls trickle off, she’ll still be first and foremost a publicist.
“I love my job. I love promoting other people’s work. I think I’m very lucky that’s what I do for a living,” she says, “but it has been fun when every once in a while, the email’s for [me] or the call is for [me]. It’s just nice.”
Warren feels she was destined to build a career in publishing. When she graduated from high school, the school asked all the seniors’ parents to write what they thought their child would be doing in 20 years. Both Mom and Dad Warren said their daughter would have published a novel or collection of poetry.
“They were slightly off,” she says. “It was a memoir instead, but they saw in me . . . that this is what I was meant to do in some capacity.”
Into her second decade in publishing, Warren has to learn constantly to keep up.
“[Book publicity] is so much harder now,” she says. “There are now so many websites, so many blogs, and now social media is becoming part of the publicity process, and that’s like a whole other job. So now you pitch the review, you provide the cover art and the author photo, you get the review, you pull a quote from the review, and then you tweet the review and you Facebook the review and you send a link to the author so they can do the same.”
Warren also pointed out that even if you land a New York Times book review or an interview on NPR’s Fresh Air – once a guarantee of a book’s success – you may barely see a sales blip.
“You have to keep pitching,” she says. “You have to get more and more and more.”
This environment makes the author behind a piece of literary fiction even more critical than in the past. When she sits in on editorial board meetings at Da Capo, Warren advocates for authors she thinks will help a book succeed, not authors of the high-maintenance sort in her book publishing class exercise.
“[I look for] authors who are promotable, meaning they are media-genic, they look the part, they are well-spoken,” she says. “Interesting people who, forgive me, can speak in sound bites. Also authors who make it clear in their proposal or in conversations that we have with them prior to making an offer that they will work their butts off to promote the book.”
Remember Warren’s mantra: Publishing is a business. No matter how fantastic the book, it still has to sell.
“There’s certainly an art to publishing, but at its core, it’s a business,” she reiterates. “If you focus on nothing but the art, the lights don’t stay on.”
How about that for a sound bite?
But this mantra isn’t just a snappy one-liner that Warren throws around in class. She lives that perfect balance of business and art, displaying her creative side in The Good Luck Cat and in her poetry, which has appeared in Quarterly West, Oxford Magazine, Black Warrior Review and Verse.
Looking forward, Warren has some ideas for another book and might consider doing an update of her Savvy Author’s Guide to Book Publicity, which is now a decade old. Until then she’s happy to continue promoting The Good Luck Cat and her titles at Da Capo, and of course, teaching her students how to think like publishers, keeping the art alive while keeping the lights on.
An excerpt from The Good Luck Cat: How a Cat Saved a Family, and a Family Saved a Cat
by Lissa Warren
Ting slowly adjusts to life without Dad. We all do. Because he’s not there to pal around with upstairs, she spends more time on the window ledge on the lower level, napping in the sun. Mom and I agree that she’s sleeping more than she used to – more than the thirteen to sixteen hours a day that’s normal for grown cats. We Google “cat depression.”
It seems entirely plausible to me that Ting is depressed. In fact, it seems entirely plausible to me that a cat can have pretty much any emotion a human can. I reread a book I publicized, Drawing the Line by Steven Wise, in which he claims we know enough about the cognitive abilities of certain animals – bonobos, chimpanzees, orangutans, elephants, dolphins, African grey parrots, and dogs – that they should be afforded the same fundamental rights as humans: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Sounds a bit crazy until you learn that he was the first person to ever teach animal rights at Harvard University. And until you really think about it.
Wise says the jury is still out on cats – that we haven’t studied them enough yet to determine how much they can comprehend. It’s just a matter of time, I say. One thing’s clear: They grieve.
While Ting takes one approach, Mom and I take the other – going into overdrive. Mom busies herself as best she can. She goes to the market almost every day, though we have enough food to last us months. She makes all of the appointments she was loathe to make for herself when Dad was sick – eye doctor, dentist, hairdresser. She has the deck repainted, a new furnace installed, a bunch of chair cushions redone. She learns how to use an ATM because my father always gave her cash. I teach her how to balance a checkbook, just like years before my father taught me: “To the penny, Lissa. To the penny.” She switches Ting, who is thirteen now, to Eukanuba for seniors, and clips Ting’s nails like it’s religion. She brushes Ting so often she starts to give off light.
Excerpt reprinted with permission from Lissa Warren © 2014, Lyons Press.
Megan Kaplon is a contributing editor at The Writer.