the writing and photography of Neil Kramer

Interview with Emily

Success as a published writer is possible.   Currently, I am reading the terrific “Planting Dandelions: Field Notes from a Semi-Domesticated Life” from long-time blogging friend, Kyran Pittman.   As talented a wordsmith as Kyran is, even she will tell you that luck and the right concept go a long way in getting your project published by a major publishing company such as Riverhead, a division of Penguin.   I’ll write more about her book next week.

My blogging friend Emily Rosenbaum has also just published a book. But she has gone a different path than Kyran by self-publishing it.

In the past, this approach to self-publishing might be viewed with mockery.  But I’ve been around long enough to know that not every book Random House publishes is good, and not every book they reject is bad.  I’m also familiar with Emily’s writing talent online.  I think anyone who finishes a book and puts it out there to be read by others should be proud of their work, and there is no reason I shouldn’t take it seriously.

The publishing industry is in chaos. Things are rapidly changing, especially as we all begin to read our novels on Kindles and Nooks.   As the world becomes digitized, it is easier for writers to bypass the traditional system completely.   The question remains — is this a good development, an opening of doors, or does it destroy the quality of our literature, as maintained by our gatekeepers, the agents and editors?

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The following is not a review of Emily’s book.  I have not read it.  The book is not geared for me.  This is a conversation between me and a blogging friend, a writer, about her experience self-publishing a book, and what it means to her.

Oh yeah, I also would love to help her sell some books, because I think the subject might appeal to quite a few of my readers.

Her book is titled “Cooking on the Edge of Insanity.”

Her bio reads as following, “Emily Rosenbaum is a writer, mother, adult survivor of child abuse, and lousy gardener striving to live sustainably in New Jersey.”

The book blurb: “Emily Rosenbaum is that mother; you know, the one who avoids chemicals, minimizes food waste, shops locally, fears sugar, hides from corn byproducts, and tries to convince her son that lemonade is not a fruit. Don’t even get her started on BPAs. Six years after making her first batch of muffins, she’s not just pureeing squash and baking bread. She’s forming little lumps of chicken-apple-spinach mush into nuggets, coating them in homemade breadcrumbs, and lovingly brushing them with olive oil. She is poised on the edge of craziness, unless she toppled in last Tuesday.  In Cooking on the Edge of Insanity, Rosenbaum shares recipes and tells the tale of living sustainably while cooking for a family of five.”

It’s available for download to your e-reader for $2.99, from Amazon or Barnes and Noble.

The Interview:

1) First of all, this is a book about sustainable living, part essays/part recipes.   Just so I understand more of where you are coming from, when did you get involved in worrying about the food you eat? From your parents? College? Friends? And how do all your kids manage with such a crazy green mother? Have they ever eaten a Big Mac? Do they feel as if they are missing out?

Well, definitely not from my parents. My mother died when I was two, leaving me with a detached father and abusive stepmother. They actually were very into the whole sustainability thing: compost, gardening, etc. They were also assholes. Then I lived with a few other relatives, none of whom were at all foodies.

I didn’t even start learning to cook till college. I had an old Moosewood Cookbook I had taken from my aunt, who most likely never had cooked a single thing in it. Have you ever seen a Moosewood cookbook? The recipes are labor intensive, to say the least. Learning to cook out of it is like learning to play the piano starting from Beethoven’s Fifth. But, I began to teach myself, and over the years learned to love the process of figuring out how ingredients work together.

Then I had kids. And when you put nine months into making a little body (not to mention the fertility treatment) plus another year into breastfeeding it, you get kind of particular about what you put into it. I also really began to worry about the future of the planet because I have these little people and they’re going to inherit the earth that I leave them.

There were two other catalysts for my eco-mania. The first was rereading and teaching Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower when I was pregnant with my first child, Zachary. It is a phenomenal book, and it made me think hard about the world my son-to-be child would inherit. Then, Hurricane Katrina happened right around Zachary’s first birthday. It was a wake-up for a lot of people. We’re screwing up the planet so badly that it’s actually fighting back.

Hell, no. My kids have never had a Big Mac. Once, I let Zachary have a chocolate milk at McDonald’s. That said, it’s easier to shield them from McDonald’s than it is to avoid the sugar/chemical-laden snacks and candy that pervade kids’ lives. People hand that shit out to kids all the time, and adults get all huffy if I try to object. Really? The teacher doesn’t know why I wish she wouldn’t hand my first-grader a candy necklace?

I think it’s hard for my kids, especially now that we live in a very conservative area. I make some concessions, to be sure, like the chocolate milk thing. But some things are non-negotiable.

2) How many books or stories have you written outside of blogging that you have sent into magazines or publishers? From your blog it sounds, like with many writers, you’ve had to face some rejections with publishers, even when they gave you positive feedback, saying things such as “It’s very well written and compelling, but in the end I just don’t have a clear enough vision for how to position it.” How have you been able to overcome these frustrations?

Oh, yeah. That’s the $10 million question, isn’t it? How do you overcome rejection?

I only really became a writer four years ago, when my second child, Benjamin, was turning one. I was so sensitive to rejection at the beginning. I have no confidence in my work at all, and every rejection made me feel like I should give up. A good friend and far more established writer, Jacob Sager Weinstein, believed in me as a writer. His willingness to see me that way made a huge difference.

The last year has been good to me. I’ve been fortunate to have quite a few articles published – Hip Mama, Glamour, Bitch, and Brain, Child, to name a few. Plus, I have gotten a lot of bread-and-butter work, so I’m starting to feel like it’s not just an indulgence as the checks come in. Of course, I also lost the agent who was representing my other book, so the year has not been perfect.

Rejection still hits me hard. We all want that stamp of approval from the people who are supposed to know about such things. And you have to understand that I went to college with Elizabeth Banks and others who are unbelievably successful. So, I get that whole, “Well, we started from the same place and look where she is and look where I am” jealousy thing sometimes, no matter how happy I am for them. On the other hand, the amazing actress, Jamie Denbo, was my high school friend and she has been one of my staunchest supporters, so that has lessened the sting of her being beautiful and talented.

Ultimately, I remind myself it’s not a contest. Given the childhood I had, I’m proud of myself for getting my ass out of bed every day. I have three lovely kids, only two of whom regularly tell me they hate me. Life is about slowing down and living, and I work very, very hard to realign my idea of success whenever it gets out of whack. Cooking does that for me. It’s so completely basic. Food is what life is about, not blog stats.

3) Was there a moment during the process after writing the book where you just said to yourself, “Screw the system, I’m just going to publish this myself. I know it is good and there is a audience for it?”

There are two books. There’s the first one I wrote, which is not about food, and which was a much longer, more intense process. Then there’s Cooking on the Edge of Insanity, which is short and a labor of love. I’ve wanted to do a cooking book for years, but it’s a completely saturated market and my husband isn’t famous. Plus, there isn’t a whole lot of market for cookbooks with the F-word on the first page.

So, I decided to e-publish the book that would never land an agent or publisher, anyway. I figured it would be a great way to see if I am up for this kind of publishing or not. I didn’t care whether 5 people or 5000 people read it, so there was nothing to lose by trying.

4) You are selling your book as an ebook for $2.99 on Amazon and Barnes and Noble? Can you give my readers a quick breakdown on what steps you did to do this? Was it a simple process of downloading the content to these companies? Did it cost you anything to publish an e-book? Do you have a business plan or are you winging it for this first time?

Publishing an e-book is absurdly simple. Seriously. Kindle Direct Publishing and Pubit (which sounds dirty but really is the e-publishing arm of Barnes & Noble) are very, very user-friendly. You get about 70% of the profits from those sites, so it’s win-win. They don’t care if you only sell three copies, because they’ve done nothing to publish your book, and you don’t get charged anything upfront.

Anyone can get a Kindle App for a smartphone, iPad, or a computer, so people can download the book even if they don’t have a Kindle or a Nook. The bigger problem is that people wanted to see the book on the iBookstore or get it for their other e-readers. That’s where it got sticky.

There are several sites that host e-books and would have channeled it to those other readers. I chose Smashwords and uploaded my book there. But to get “premium distribution,” you need to format it just so, and my book as complicated formatting because it is a combo of essays and recipes. They also end up taking a larger chunk because Smashwords gets a small take and then the other stores take another chunk. Plus, you need to buy an ISBN in order to get into the iBookstore. That’s a $125 cost, so I’d need to feel I’d have an additional 60 readers to make up the difference. Since anyone can get a Kindle app, I knew that some of those who would go to the iBookstore would just get it from Amazon, so it wouldn’t be cost-effective.

The book is up on Smashwords, so folks can get it from their website. This is important because Smashwords knows no international borders, unlike Amazon and B&N. But I eschewed premium distribution. So far, I’ve sold one book on Smashwords.

You do need a cover, and you should get a professional to do one. I am lucky that another woman I went to high school with, Karen Hallion, is a bitchin’ artist, and she designed my cover.

I am developing a business plan as I go along. My husband has an MBA, so he’s helping, but we’re treating this book as a learning experience. For example, I had thought it would only be an e-book. Then I realized that there’s a huge potential readership in farmers’ markets. So I’m creating a physical book with on-demand publishing. Added bonus is I get to spend the summer cruising farmers’ markets, which is about my favorite thing to do.

We’re winging it, here.

5) Did you have to develop a thick skin because the promoting of the book fell entirely onto your shoulders?

I’ll let you know if I ever develop a thick skin.

Women have a much, much harder time selling ourselves then men do. We’re taught it’s grabby to throw back our shoulders and say, “I’m the shit.” I can say, “My writing is good,” but I feel like I need to sit back and wait for people to notice. It’s a damned good thing I am fortunate enough to have so many lovely and supportive people around me.

6) Do you think our opinions on self-publishing are changing? How did you feel about self-publishing in the past? Did you see the content as “lesser?” Have you changed your views since then? Do you think that this is the wave of the future in publishing? Are you as proud of your writing as you would be if Random House published the book? Do you consider yourself a real “writer?” Do you think this project will help you get noticed by traditional publishers for your next project? Or would you prefer to continue self-publishing?

Great questions.

I used to think self-publishing was for narcissistic assholes. Mostly because my father self-published.

But, now, with e-publishing, we as writers are redefining the marketplace. It’s a heady time. It’s still a tiny market, and trust me when I say we’re not going to pay to fix my daughter’s teeth on what I’m making on this book. The majority of people still want a physical book. I agree, I have to say. Since I figure the Apocalypse is coming in the form of us destroying the planet we live on, the day will come when we may have to live off the grid. When that happens, I’ll be glad to have all my paper books.

I digress. No one knows the future of publishing, right? The agents and publishers are all scrambling. Right now, they still have a headlock on the channels of distribution. It’s awfully hard to get noticed as a self-publisher. I don’t see the content as lesser, but there’s still a stigma attached. Is that changing? Absolutely. To what degree? I’m not sure.

As to whether I’d prefer to continue self-publishing: I don’t know yet. You have to understand that I hate the nuts and bolts work. HATE IT. I like the writing and author appearances, but the rest is paralyzing for me. I fight that, but it’s painful. That said, you sure keep a lot more of the profits if you do it yourself.

7) Any insights or advice about the publishing world that you would give to someone writing their first project? How did you learn about the worlds of agents and publishing and e-books? From websites? Books? Conferences?

Mostly? I learned as I went. You need to build a platform, which means publishing other places. If you want to get published in magazines, which is a great way to build a platform, you need to start small. Send things places that don’t pay, just so you can say you’ve been published there. Then build your way up. It scaffolds.

The most important thing to do is read, and read things longer than 140 characters. I read so many magazines and books. It’s the only way to figure out where you want to publish.

And get a professionalish website.   Jennifer Schmitt (who introduced me to you, by the way) designed and maintains my website. She has saved my ass many a time. It’s an easy place to portal all my work, and it looks professional, so I can channel people through there.

8 )  How do you see your blog and your presence in social media as related to you as a writer? Are they separate entities or do you find yourself “branding yourself?” Do you find interaction with other writers helpful? Do you consider yourself a “mom blogger” or a “writer” or both?

For a long time, I couldn’t understand why my blog didn’t get noticed. I thought it was a reflection of me as a writer. I’ve been blogging for four years now, and I never get listed in those “top blog” things, even by magazines I write for.

I made peace with it last summer. I’m a writer who blogs, not a blogger who writes. The difference being that my blog is not my primary way of getting noticed. I use the blog to develop my voice, write about things that matter to me, etc. It has been a great way to connect with some amazing people. No matter what happens, Coco, and Magpie will keep coming back.

I hate the idea of branding myself. I’m not a brand. I’m a person. I won’t post pictures of my kids or talk about their genitalia or try to fit myself into some mold. Life is too short for that shit. I write. I sell writing. The minute I start branding myself, I’ll be caring more about the brand than I will about what I want to say. What’s the point of that?

I am so very lucky to have had so many people support me as a writer. I have a small following, but they’re there because they trust me to keep it real.

11 Comments

  1. Bon

    fabulous. the cookbook sounds it and the interview absolutely was. thanks for making the space, Neil, to honour and explore self-publishing with a writer as talented as Emily.

  2. Loukia

    Great interview, Neil. I think that if someone is passionate about writing, has the drive and determination to write a book about a topic they care about, and go through the steps it takes to self publish, more power to them. Like you said, not all books that are published by a big publishing house are good.

  3. denise

    I’m really disappointed you didn’t feature a recipe in this post that you cooked in your new microwave.

  4. sage

    Truly inspiring, thanks for sharing!

  5. christine

    I have to say that Emily is a true inspiration to me as a person and writer. Loved reading this interview.

  6. Jennifer

    One of my favorite people, interviewed by another. That’s a lot of talent in one place, too, and I loved reading this.

    (And thank you for the shout-out! xo)

  7. Megan

    It’s a brave new world out there, and that is both good and bad. Good luck with this book, Emily. I hope you’re able to find enough channels for promotion so that your audience can find it.

    Thanks for the interview, Neil. Great topic, good information.

  8. Memoirs of a Single Dad

    I’ve been wrestling with trying to shop my book around in the traditional channels vs. self-pubing too. A lot of what Emily says about herself and her writing I’ve also felt. Great interview – I took a lot of research points away from it!

  9. magpie

    Loved reading this. Thanks for doing the interview, Neil.

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