Today's guest post by Judith Newton is part of the virtual tour for her new book, Tasting Home: Coming of Age in the Kitchen. Judith shares how her book promotion journey improved her writing and led to a hugely successful appearance on the popular Huffington Post.
A Gig at The Huffington Post: How Promotion, Platform Building and Social Media Made Me a Better Writer
by Judith Newton
In my former life as a professor, I was unfamiliar with the word “platform” except as it referred to principles, a flat raised horizontal surface, or possibly a trendy shoe. Six months after I retired, I began to think about writing a memoir, and in March of 2009 I took a class with the express purpose of learning how not to write like an academic. Trained to do research, I began to read books and articles about writing and publishing for a general audience. I learned more about self-promotion, “platforms,” and social media than I ever expected, or wanted, to know. I had never sent a query, posted a blog, used Twitter, visited GoodReads or heard of Pinterest, and had only joined Facebook to keep track of my daughter’s life.
As I wrote the memoir, however, I began to think that maybe it could be published and, even more, that perhaps it should be. I began to feel I owed it to the book and to myself to make the attempt. Thus began my head long dive into self-promotion, platform building and social media. In the late summer of 2012, having finished a respectable draft, I read and downloaded dozens of articles on writing queries. I hired a consultant to help me craft a proposal that would promote me and make my work look good, and I proceeded to query four or five agents in New York.
Some wrote back to say they couldn’t “place” the book. Others, apparently out of the country, never answered the email. I stopped writing to New York. But drafting the queries and the proposal had not been a waste of time. The proposal, especially, which had required chapter summaries and a comparison of my book with comparable titles, had clarified what the book was really about. I revised the book accordingly.
Next, I hired a West Coast agent for a consultation. She liked the idea of the story, a food memoir that was also a love story about a marriage between a straight woman and a gay man, and she suggested that I write a piece based on the romance and send it to the editor of a Sunday column in The New York Times. I completed the piece and sent it to the editor who wrote back politely that “we have decided not to use it.” Nonetheless, I had distilled the essence of the romance in my book and saw its trajectory more clearly. More revisions followed.
Shortly thereafter, a young woman I’d met in a poetry class contacted me. She wrote for iPinionsyndicate.com, a collective blog. They wanted a food writer, and she knew I was writing about food because we’d been in a memoir class together as well. “Would you be interested?” she asked. I said I would and I began to blog bits of the memoir on this site. Blogging chapters of Tasting Home, forced me to re-examine my materials, to sharpen the arc of my chapters, and to interact with an actual audience. The blogged chapters, and even my rejected romance piece, improved.
By September of 2012, I had downloaded and underlined a stack of articles on self-promotion, platform building, and social media almost one foot tall. I had my own website now and was duly revising and republishing pieces of the memoir. I had also learned to Tweet and when the Tweets were about Tasting Home, I was forced to condense and sharpen my understanding of what I was trying to do. I had created a fan page for the memoir, posted descriptions of myself and of my work on LinkedIn, She Writes, and GoodReads and had joined and been active on several writing sites. Every time I set up a page, I reinforced a new identity. I was a writer, writing for a general audience. There’s nothing like a firm identity to give you confidence, and confidence makes you a better writer.
Learning these new technologies was sometimes painful. Those who grew up with computers in their strollers cannot comprehend the technophobia of older folks who wrote their dissertations on Smith Coronas and still prefer to write first drafts on plain white paper with a Ticonderoga pencil—number 2 ½. But Pinterest, at least, was fun. I spent many happy hours pinning pictures of the food and landscapes of Tasting Home. And I could justify my investment in these stolen pleasures because even Pinterest had its writerly effects. By inviting me to visualize what I was writing about, it improved my ability to imagine scenes.
By November of 2012 Tasting Home was accepted and being readied for publication by She Writes Press. I was advised to hire a publicist and I did. I hired two. One was to set up a blog tour which required me to write short pieces linking my memoir to larger social issues. I began to better understand the relation of Tasting Home to the present world. The other, who wrote a press kit for a reasonable price, had read some chapters from the book and told me, “Send something to Huffington Post, something tied to a holiday.” I pulled out the romance piece on my gay ex-husband. Perhaps there was something here for February 14. I revised the piece again, pared it down, changed the ending and the beginning, entitled it “A Valentine for My Gay Ex-Husband” and dutifully sent it in. Fifteen minutes later I heard from a Huff Post editor who she liked it a lot and wanted to see it in print. I was amazed.
I was even more amazed when people began to read it—a lot of people. It was posted on a Thursday and by Monday it had 10,000 likes and 500 comments. It had struck a chord. People wrote to say they found it beautiful, that it made them cry. They shared their own stories. It was like receiving an unexpected flood of valentines. A glitch on the site prevented me from answering the comments for the entire weekend, but the glitch was corrected by Monday, and I began trying to answer as many as I could. Overwhelmingly, the comments were kind and had obviously come from the heart. By Monday, when the piece was being featured in the French edition of the Huffington Post, I noticed that several French men had begun to follow me on Twitter. Unfortunately, they wrote in French. But I was happy to have the connection.
The Post then decided to do a podcast and host a discussion of the column. The camera attached to my computer was aimed at the top of my head, and though I had read six or seven articles on how not to look terrible on Skype, I didn’t look very good. Still, the podcast went better than I’d anticipated. The next week, the Valentine piece was featured in Huffington, the iPad magazine. The “likes” kept coming and my book hadn’t even been released yet. Luckily my publisher had my book up for pre-orders and those began coming in. My Facebook fans increased and a site I hadn’t heard of suddenly asked to feature Tasting Home for the month of March.
Most importantly, however, I had begun to feel in touch with an audience that would be responsive to what the memoir, Tasting Home, has to say. This sense of being connected, of exchanging stories, moved and heartened me. It made me freer to be out there, to take chances. I believe it has emboldened me as writer. One sign of that emboldening effect was that I, who spent nearly half my life without a computer, began to write this piece on self-promotion, platform-building, and social media. I even generated this list of what I could share with you.
1. A query letter and book proposal, even if they fail to gain you representation, may succeed in helping you better understand and revise your work.
2. Social media sites are not only about building a platform. If used carefully, they can improve your writing.
3. Aim for quality. Write with heart, and try to connect with your readers. You are not just building a platform, you’re creating a community, and community is what writing and being read are all about.
About the Author