Interview by Catharine Bramkamp
“My book Wrestling with God: Stories of Doubt and Faith was inspired by the amazing people I met on the religion beat at the Contra Costa Times back in the 1990s. So many stories. So many distinctive people. So many ways of experiencing the sacred. There wasn’t time on a newspaper to go deep with those people, so I decided to take some time – hours and hours with each one, as it turned out – to record some of those stories and put them into a book.
“To my dismay, publishers and agents were not much interested in publishing a collection of disparate voices—my book included Jews, Hindus, a Buddhist, a Native American, a fundamentalist Christian and a progressive Muslim to name a few. They kept telling me that my book needed an overarching narrative. I finally bit the bullet and wrote down my own spiritual journey – such as it was – and let that be the connective tissue that held all the stories together. I think the strategy worked, as the book received a starred review from Publishers Weekly and won a book award or two.
“Also, forcing myself to put my very private thoughts about my rocky spiritual journey into words paid off—I learned a lot about myself and I found that, indeed, I had a lot to say. This is the great thing about writing: it makes you learn and grow.
“I’ve been devoting myself to promoting the book full time for nearly two years. It’s hard to let go – there’s always one more book festival, one more blog post, one more influencer, one more book store to contact. A writer friend gave me this advice recently and I’m going to take it (I hope), and that is: Set a date for when you will stop promoting, do what you can within that time frame, then go on to the next book. I’m aiming for January 1, 2017.
“Some writers self-publish some of their works (the ones that are super literary, nichey or are outliers) and they go through a traditional publisher for their commercial books with wider appeal. I might self-publish my next book or two as I have quite a large collection of personal essays (funny and/or poignant) about family and what I like to call The Big Questions. I suspect that a traditional publisher won’t be interested because these books would be collections, which many believe are a harder sell to reader than, say, a memoir like Jeannette Walls’ The Glass Castle that has a beginning, middle and end.
“Self-publishing is looking like a better and better option for writers with every passing day, especially hybrid publishing, where the publisher does a lot of the work for you, while you maintain control over your book and its profits. I’m finding self-publishing really appealing at the moment because I simply do not want to spend time tracking down an agent and a publisher. That could take months. Self-publishing will let me get right to it.
“For better or worse, I have built most of my platform online. I post weekly on my website. And until recently I was posting weekly on Huffington Post and Patheos.com (my publisher’s site). I do Facebook (which I enjoy) and Twitter (not so effectively in my case). And I have been conscientious about going to various websites and posting lots of pithy comments that include links back to my website. I notice that, when people come to a page on my website via HuffPo or some other big site, it increases traffic that day, not just for that page, but for my entire website. In other words, the search engines notice when people are coming to your website from one of the biggies.
“I’m not so sure that my focus on online promotion was the right decision. It’s been very time-consuming. I might have been more successful had I tried to do events at churches and temples, spent time contacting librarians and book clubs, and reached out to the extensive interfaith community. Bottom line, I recommend that authors think hard about their readership’s demographic and go to where they are.
“Final thought for writers who are young, not-so-young and downright old: For my entire career in newspaper journalism, at the San Francisco Chronicle, at the Oakland Tribune and finally at the Contra Costa Times, I kept my age firmly under wraps. The HR departments knew, of course. But I let my colleagues and readers believe that I was 10 to 20 years younger than I actually was. Publications and their advertisers want young readers – that’s who’s buying all the stuff – so I felt it essential to give the impression that I was young and tuned in to the times.
“Very recently, I decided that maybe my next book will be about getting old. Really old. Like 75 years old. So I wrote a post called The Shame of Aging – The Big Seven-Five Has Finally Arrived. Hitting the Publish button on the post was one of the most liberating things I’ve done in years.”
WNBA-SF member Barbara Falconer Newhall is an award-winning journalist and columnist. Her book Wrestling with God: Stories of Doubt and Faith was published by Patheos Press in 2015. She has worked as a staff writer and editor at Good Housekeeping magazine, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Oakland Tribune, and The Contra Costa Times. Additional information is available on her website.