From Hot Journalist to Retail: Q&A with Author Caitlin Kelly

Ever wonder what those big-time New York City editors look for in a story pitch? Or how successful authors pulled off a great book deal?

Caitlin Kelly
Caitlin Kelly is the author of “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail” (Portfolio, April 2011), a memoir of working as a sales associate in a suburban New York mall. Winner of a Canadian National Magazine Award for humor, she has written for The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Glamour, More, New York, Smithsonian and many others. Her first book is “Blown Away: American Women and Guns” (Pocket Books, 2004). She blogs at broadsideblog.wordpress.com.

Today, journalist and author Caitlin Kelly shares some of her secrets as a former senior editor for WorldBusiness in New York and a successful author of two books. Caitlin has been published in the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and the Washington Post. She recently published her second book, “Malled: My Unintentional Career in Retail.”  Briefly, here’s a snippet from her book’s opening:

My writing career had gone well from the day I graduated from college, whether I had a staff magazine or newspaper job or worked freelance. But by the fall of 2007 I was scared of the precipitous decline in my industry, journalism. I was also newly aware, after pneumonia landed me in a hospital bed from overwork, I needed a ready, steady source of cash,  something solid. And so I decided to join a populous, if largely ignored, tribe – the fifteen million Americans working in retail.

On a personal note, I can relate to Caitlin’s situation. The year 2007 was also when I left my beloved journalism job. That seems to be the fateful year—of the housing market crash, the journalism crash, and the start of the Great Recession.

So, here’s my interview with Caitlin Kelly. Hope you find some valuable insights in these 10 questions, as I did!

1. SHARI: You’re a veteran journalist, having written for notable publications such as the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, the Hartford Courant, and Glamour. Journalistically, what drew you to the topic of America’s retail industry–for a book?
 
CAITLIN: I was amazed that this enormous industry — $4 trillion, 15 million workers, the nation’s third-largest and its greatest source of new jobs — had not been examined in book form in any serious way. There have been several excellent books on low-wage labor, but none focused exclusively on retail. Once I had spent 27 months working at its lowest level for a large and well-known retail company, I realized what inequities and absurdities the industry contains. They spend millions on new technology and software but most refuse to pay their front-line workers — who drive sales — decently. Since we’re a nation of shoppers, I wanted to explore this subject in depth.
 
2. SHARI: “Malled” is your second book. Your first was “Blown Away: American Women and Guns.” I have several writers new to the publishing world who follow my blog. What tips can you give them about the process of finding a literary agent and publisher?
 
CAITLIN: It’s not simple, quick or easy! Finding an agent means finding someone whose skill, experience, ambition, personality and stable of other writers matches your vision of what you hope to accomplish. My agent on Blown Away, William Clark, was then — in 2000 when we first met — fairly new to agenting and was eager to build his brand, so that helped me. He, like my current agent, Kathleen Anderson, was also extremely dedicated to the project — both books received 25 (!) rejections each before finally selling to major NYC publishers. You need someone who really cares deeply about the work, and gets what you are about: this is not a game for the easily deterred or fantasists. You must find someone who is utterly straightforward with you about every aspect of the process and demands excellence and professionalism from you. It helps if you like them personally as you must trust them with your work.Find an agent by: reading acknowledgments in books similar to yours (they always thank their agent); attending annual writers’ conferences like the ASJA where members can meet and pitch agents face to face; networking well and generously with accomplished writers who may share the name of their agent (or not) with you. The agent will find the publisher, not you. 
 
3. SHARI: You spent time working as a senior editor for WorldBusiness in New York City. From an editor’s perspective, what do you look for in a pitch from a freelance writer? What will make you choose one story (and writer) over another?
 
CAITLIN: You want a feeling of authority, why this writer really knows the issue and can handle it well and stylishly. I want to see that they have a strong news sense and feel confident they will be able to both report accurately and deeply and write well, which is a rare combination. I would almost always choose a former or current newspaper writer over someone with no news background. There is too much PR puffery out there, and experienced journos know to ignore it and dig much more deeply when necessary. I’m interested in writers who think outside the margins, who may have lived a less conventional life, as they may ask different questions and see things from a less predictable perspective. I want someone who is culturally sophisticated and who understands the need for diversity when sourcing, for example.
 
4. SHARI: On your website, you have a whole list of “work tips” for writers. What are your top three favorite tips, and why? 
 
CAITLIN: Hard to choose! In general: 1) expect and learn to handle rejection. It’s normal and awful and expensive and you are going to run into it at every stage of your career. Set aside savings for slow times and keep your ego in a box. 
 
2) Remain (or become) intellectually voracious. Read fiction and history and biography and magazines and blogs and websites beyond what feels cozy and familiar or in your current specialty areas. Read Canadian and British publications and those in other languages to remember that we all do not see the world in the same way. That alone will set you apart from many of your competitors.
 
3) Rest, recharge, relax. We tend to run ourselves at an industrial speed and intensity that can easily lead to fatigue and burnout, or worse. Make time for exercise, friends, patting the dog, long walks in silence. Creative work demands a brain and heart that are both open and refreshed regularly.
 
 5. SHARI: “Malled” has been written about by Entertainment Weekly, the Financial Times of London, and the Associated Press, among others. So tell me, what is “Malled” really all about?

CAITLIN: Work, identity, class struggle, corporate greed. What professional status means, and what happens when you don’t have it. The true underpinnings of easy catchphrases we never really question or challenge: “shareholder value”, “global supply chain”, “operations management.”These are the underlying/overarching larger themes of “Malled,” beyond its many anecdotes, interviews and statistics. I’m fascinated by how we work, and the trade-offs we make and why we choose to make or accept them.
 
6. SHARI: You guest-blogged on the Harvard Business Review about a lesson you took away from writing your book (why retail workers drive the customer experience). Overall, what is the top lesson/experience you took away from this project?

CAITLIN: That every single person working in retail can add value, from the invisible stock room clerk to the associates on the floor — despite the fact that most corporate managers refuse to pay them accordingly. The most productive, yet unrewarded, people are often effective and high-selling associates working face to face with customers, whose skill and warmth can make or break a brand.
 
7. SHARI: As a successful writer, author and journalist, what have been your keys to success? What advice would you give other writers to attain a similar degree of success in their careers?
CAITLIN: I’m flattered by your description. Thanks! Persistence is huge. I simply don’t give up; my first agent said I was the most determined person he’d ever met. Once I connect with someone who seems to find my ideas or work of value, I stay in touch, sometimes for decades; having a strong network of people who believe in you can help you achieve many goals, from getting recommendation letters for grants and fellowships to helpful tips.
 
One friend in Canada — who edited me when she was at a magazine years ago — told me about a Canadian lawsuit settlement for writers I knew nothing about; it netted me a healthy windfall!
 
Network, in a generous and helpful way, with accomplished writers, no matter at what level of their career. I’ve gotten help from some of my former interns (now doing well!) and colleagues 10 to 20 years my senior. Truly ambitious and talented writers with a heart know what it takes to excel; they’ll cheer you when you win and cheer you up when the going is tough — as you, of course, will do for them too!I’ve given away a lot of time and advice to total strangers who’ve emailed me…it all comes back eventually and in surprising and terrific ways.
 
I also serve on the board of the 1,400 member American Society of Journalists and Authors and on the board of the Writers Emergency Assistance Fund; I like giving back.Invest in yourself. Create and update a great-looking and informative website for your work and book(s); attend conferences, take classes, read books, hire professional help to maintain your edge and focus, whether researchers or coaches. I recently paid a speaking coach (I found her on LinkedIn, Christine Clapp) to help me prepare for the Diane Rehm show on NPR (2 m listeners, live) and her advice has given me much greater confidence for all media and public speaking. And I’d been doing it for years already.
 
8. SHARI:  Tell me about a discouraging time during your career’s climb. Did you consider quitting? How did you get past this obstacle?

CAITLIN: There have been more than one. This is not a business for the faint of heart or easily bruised! I studied interior design in the 1990s and planned to leave journalism, but stayed in it. I’m addicted to finding and sharing compelling stories, so my enthusiasm for the content is undimmed, even as the mechanics of the field have changed substantially. I have multiple skills, from photography and interior design training to foreign languages, so I have enough ways to keep pulling in income that I don’t panic. I also maintain a low overhead and don’t have children, so living with lower costs allows me more creative freedom in my choices of when and how to work.I also think you have to be very clear with yourself in how you define “success”. I am thrilled knowing that readers in Hong Kong, New Zealand and Ireland, to name only three, read my books — but am not (yet!) earning the sort of income some might wish or expect.
 
9. SHARI: Can you share a few recommendations of others experts in the writing field, whom it would be beneficial to follow?

SHARI: That’s a good question. I’ve recently started reading and enjoying Betsy Lerner’s blog and Kristen Lamb’s blog. I think once you’ve mastered your craft — through classes, practice, reading great writers’ work and analyzing it — it becomes a larger issue of finding and polishing ideas. I focus less on the mechanics of how to write and more on people whose thinking inspires me, so I read blogs that include Seth Godin and Design Milk, which is visual.Because I write only non-fiction, I try more to read great NF books and figure out why they’re so terrific: voice, language, tone, pacing, anecdote, etc.
 
10. SHARI: Anything else you’d like to add?
 
CAITLIN: Stay focused! The world is filled with a million ways to ding your confidence and/or to distract you, but only you and your computer can deliver the goods. If you want to produce a non-fiction book, read widely and critically to determine what place you might carve in that marketplace; “save string” — i.e. read and clip everything of possible use for that project; talk to people who might be able to help you.

Decide what you want to achieve and what is realistic, given your talent, time, energy and finances. It may not happen fast, or fast enough, but a life of ideas can’t be lived according to the clock or others’ dreams.

*****************************

Follow Caitlin on her blog, “Broadside Blog,” on WordPress.

Q&A: Jane Friedman, Former ‘Writer’s Digest’ Publisher, Tells All

I have a VERY special treat for you today. Jane Friedman, former publisher of “Writer’s Digest” and publishing industry expert, agreed to a Q&A for “Rogue Writer.”

Jane took time from her busy schedule to answer 10 questions, so that I may feed her expertise to you. Jane, thank you for your honesty, humility, and willingness to teach. SO, here it is:

Please welcome Jane Friedman, former publisher of "Writer's Digest" and publishing industry expert. Check out Jane's new ebook, "The Future of Publishing: Enigma Variations" (link at end of article).
1) SHARI: 
You’re only 34 (according to your blog), and you’re already the former publisher of Writer’s Digest and a visiting professor of e-media at the University of Cincinnati. How did you reach such success so early?
 
JANE:
It’s not talent or smarts. The conclusion I’ve come to is that it has been about these 3 things:
1. Being extraordinarily focused and stable in my career direction. I stayed in one place for a long time (F+W Media, 12 years). I outlasted a lot of other people and gained more responsibility as the years passed. I focused on developing my skills in a very specific area, and I didn’t waste energy on anything but that one, single passion: publishing (or: writing/editing).
2. Being dedicated and consistent. This is nearly the same as No. 1, but relates to what I pushed out to the world, or my external-facing career. When I started a blog, it wasn’t immediately successful. But I stuck with it, and I improved my skills. Same with speaking at events, same with Facebook, same with Twitter, same with other stuff that isn’t yet fruitful. Not every effort can be a winning one, but most ventures require patience for them to pay off. Given that we live in an environment of instant gratification, people who can see things through are often the ones who get a return on their time and energy.
3. Being aware of trends & industry. I’ve always loved reading news and opinions about the publishing industry. I seek out stories about who’s succeeding, or who’s pushing the envelope. When you read trend stories year after year after year, even if you can’t articulate it, you’re learning something fundamental about how the industry operates, and where it’s going. You’re soaking up the DNA of the industry, the texture and context of every decision, success and failure.
 
2) SHARI:
There’s been a lot of growing interest in the self-publishing industry. Recently, the Huffington Post reported that eBook sales are up 116 percent, while paperback sales are down 31 percent. What’s your take on this trend?
 
JANE:
It will only accelerate, and eventually most people will read e-books. Paper books won’t die, but they’ll become more like the vinyl record.
 
3. SHARI:
What are your TOP THREE pieces of advice for writers just starting in the self-marketing/self-publishing world?
 
JANE:
1. You have to be focused like a laser beam on what your message is (or what you stand for) and who you’re trying to reach. Too many writers haven’t identified their genre or key readership, and that quickly leads to meaningless or wasted marketing and promotion efforts.
2. You have to be patient. I’ve had writers ask me, after 2 weeks of writing a blog, or after 1 month of participating on a community: Why am I not seeing results? Well, that’s because it takes time to build reputation, authority, and trust. It doesn’t happen overnight. Most people give up before their effort pays off.
3. You have to be service-oriented. No one cares that you’ve written and released a book. People want to know what’s in it for THEM. Always make that clear, and always be focused on serving and helping others. This attitude also helps you avoid you appearing like a smarmy shill for your work. Be a person, not a constant all-day marketer.
 
4. SHARI:
What about for writers choosing the more traditional route–through publishing houses? What’s your best advice (top three tips) for them?
 
JANE:
Those other 3 tips still apply, but I can add these 2 tips as well.
1. Treat your agent and publisher as professional partners, but not as caretakers. They will not take care of you. They are too busy looking out for themselves. They’re treating it like a business, and you should too.
2. Be very clear on what your publisher is doing to market and promote your book. Get specifics, and be proactive in partnering with them. Don’t wait for them to come to you. They can help amplify your own marketing efforts.
 
5. SHARI:
What inspires YOU to write?
 
JANE:
All the little things that keep me up at night. Memories and past experiences that I replay in my head, because they are still unresolved in my heart. The dilemmas that we face when we have to choose between 2 cherished values. How it is that we deeply hurt the people who most love and care for us.
 
6. SHARI:
Do you ever suffer burnout and/or Writer’s Block? If so, how do you combat it?
 
JANE:
Not really. But if I’m feeling tired, uninspired, and listless, if I stay offline for 12-24 hours, and spend time with friends, that will do the trick.
 
7. SHARI:
Your site (JaneFriedman.com) says your award-winning blog, “There Are No Rules,” receives around 55,000 visits a month. How did you grow it to be so successful?
 
JANE:
I’m very consistent. I’ve been around since April 2008, and I stay focused on writing and publishing topics, for an audience of writers. Word gets around when you do quality work, and I try to keep delivering day after day.
 
8. SHARI:
Tell me about a discouraging time in your professional life and how you overcame it (i.e. rejections from literary agents or magazines, not getting a job, no one giving you a chance, etc.).
 
JANE:
The most discouraging time was when my insight and expertise on important issues were disregarded by my superiors, and I was asked to support and promote what I didn’t believe in. I never overcame it. So I left.
 
9. SHARI: 
What’s your favorite aspect of your work today?
 
JANE:
I love developing content and curriculum—whether for Writer’s Digest (online and in print) or for my students, in the classroom. I love to help, teach, and serve. And I’m very lucky I can focus on that exclusively now.
 
10. SHARI:
Can you share a few recommendations of other experts in the writing and publishing industry, whom it might be beneficial to follow?
 
JANE:
Yes, I highly recommend Christina Katz, Dan Blank, Guy Gonzalez, and Robert Brewer.
 
Jane recently released a new ebook, “The Future of Publishing: Enigma Variations.” It’s only $1.99 and “consists of 14 variations or brief insights on what the future of publishing holds.” When you have a moment, feel free to check it out!
 
 

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5 Killer Twitter Tips: Expand Your Network Power!

I used to hate Twitter. No, seriously–I did.

Until I discovered its networking power. Less than six months ago, I opened my account. I initially had six followers, most of whom were personal friends. I couldn’t, for the life of me, figure out how some people had 1,000 followers, yet only followed 300.

Now, I’ve not only helped build my company’s Twitter account to that status, but I’ve reached nearly 300 followers myself. Recently, I hit a personal landmark: more people are following me, than I follow others.

How have I managed to build this growing social media presence? Here are 5 killer Twitter tips that will help you develop your presence into a powerhouse:

1. Don’t make your tweets about you; make them about everyone else. People are selfish creatures. So, what makes you think they’ll care about YOUR blog post? They won’t. But they WILL care about improving their own presence on Twitter (hey, you’re on my blog, reading my stuff, aren’t you?).

2. Ask questions. If you wrote a cool blog post on how gardening inspired your creativity, your tweet could look like this: “How can gardening help YOU become more creative?” Then link to your post. Questions tease people’s curiosity.

3. Always, always thank or acknowledge your new followers. If you choose not to follow certain people or entities back, fine. Be prepared, they may not stick around. However, they’ll be more likely to keep following you if they see you’ve acknowledged their presence.

4. Be an information forum. Choose who you follow wisely–the experts in your field of practice. C’mon, you know who they are.  THEN, let them feed you information, and you can  tweet it to your followers. Your news will be coming from legit sources, and people will turn to you as an expert in the field.

5. Tweet often, but remember: it’s better to tweet fewer solid tweets, than many useless tweets.

Social media is a time investment. The tools may be free, but becoming an online sensation doesn’t happen overnight. Your community will build slowly, but, it will build. Just keep at it, and you’ll reap the rewards.

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Barnes & Noble Welcomes Self-Published Writers? Yup!

For the first time ever, self-published authors may have a shot at placing their books on the shelves of Barnes and Noble–so to speak.

Google Images

This news, reported in a Feb. 24 article published by GalleyCat on Mediobistro.com, comes right as Borders announced it’s filing for bankruptcy. According to the article, Barnes and Noble opened its doors to writers using the PubIt! self-publishing program.

Just to make sure this was a legit report, I hopped onto Barnes and Noble’s corporate website. Sure enough, there sat the official press release, “More than 11,000 Independent Publishers and Self-Publishing Authors Bring Their Digital Works to Barnes & Noble’s PubIt!™ Publishing Platform.”

How does PubIt! work?

Personally, I’d never heard of PubIt! Therefore, I followed the link to this program from the Barnes and Noble press release. Here’s what I found:

  • PubIt! appears to be Barnes and Noble’s self-publishing platform for eBooks.
  • It launched four months ago, according to the press release.
  • The website for PubIt! states there is no cost to use the service.
  • According to the PubIt! service policies, “the publisher will set a List Price for each eBook between $0.99 and $199.99.”
  • It also appears, from the service policies, the publisher will be paid royalties off the List Price.
  • I personally found the site and platform easy to use, from my brief time poking around.

What does this mean for writers?

This is a huge paradigm shift for publishers and writers. Can lesser known, self-published authors now compete with major names such as Nora Roberts, Dan Brown and Sara Gruen (Water for Elephants)? Do publishing houses and literary agents hold the same weight as they used to? Or can any marketing-savvy writer now make his or her way into the world of publishing and take the literary audience by storm?

Here’s another scenario to consider: perhaps this is a way for giant, Barnes and Noble, to tap into the huge market of self-published writers. Is this just a ploy to make money, while the real edge still remains in the hands of major publishing houses?

Take a moment and contemplate. Then tell me: what do you think?

Write for a Cause! ‘Writers for the Red Cross’ Launching

(Used with permission)

Calling all writers who want to make a difference! The Red Cross needs you.

My local chapter of the Red Cross, knowing of my writing reputation, pinged me on Twitter with information on a new national Red Cross campaign that combines writers and their communities. That’s right . . . as a writer, YOU can make a difference in your community–using nothing more than your talents (as a side note, I have no self-motivated interest in publicizing this; I simply think it’s a great idea and want to inform my fellow writers of the opportunity).

The campaign is called “Writers for the Red Cross,” and it’s launching mid-February. According to the Red Cross on its campaign website:

What is Writers for the Red Cross? This online event is intended to raise funds and awareness for the Red Cross and its work in communities across the country. We’ll be auctioning off publishing-related items and services donated by authors, publicists, agents, and editors. We’ll also have daily guest posts from authors about “What the Red Cross Means to Me” and a daily countdown of “31 Things You Didn’t Know About the Red Cross” on the official event website. All donors who give over $25 will also be able to select one free book from a range of books donated and shipped by publishers for the event.”

Why Writers? Writers share our commitment to community by bringing people together through their stories. And these communities continue to be strengthened as readers come together with writers in their local bookstores, in book clubs, online through social media…and through partnerships with national organizations with a similar mission of community: national organizations like the American Red Cross.”

Interested?

You better hurry. Although the campaign launches in mid-February, the campaign’s website says fundraising ends March 31. A Red Cross representative told me they especially need donations of 15+ copies of books to use for donor incentives. If you’re an author with a new book, great opportunity for you!

Visit the campaign’s website for more details on the event, as well as how YOU can get involved: http://www.writersfortheredcross.org/

Make your writing count. Share this with your contacts, and write for a cause!

Be the Chicken Nugget in a Bag of Vegetables

My boyfriend found a chicken nugget in his bag of frozen vegetables the other day.

And just to make sure it was a chicken nugget, he popped the frozen mound into the microwave. Sure enough, it emerged crispy and delicious. Like McDonald’s.

Concerned that perhaps the workers at the packaging house were rebelling, and some poor vegetarian would end up with the same fate from another bag, my boyfriend called the company.

“Are you sure it wasn’t a carrot?” the manager asked him, after he explained his immaculate discovery.

“Of course I’m sure,” my boyfriend replied. “I think I’d know the difference between a chicken nugget and a carrot.”

Though laughing hysterically, this got me thinking. The odyssey of his chicken nugget was so outrageous, that it became contagious.

So here’s my question to you: When you write, are you being the chicken nugget in a bag of frozen vegetables?

Make Your Writing Stand Out

I struggle with breaking free of clichés, as does every writer. But whether you’re a journalist trying to engage the public, a creative writer encouraging people to buy your book, or a corporate writer building your company’s brand, you won’t get anywhere if you don’t stand out.

Besides writing about the unexpected, consider these tips to transform yourself from a frozen carrot into that chicken nugget:

  • The Curse of Knowledge: A communications coach from my work once fed me this term. Are you so embroiled in your area of expertise, that you forgot what it’s like to be an outsider? Think: what would excite an 8-year-old to read your story?
  • Humor: Of course, this depends on what you’re writing, and for whom. But while making people cry takes talent, making people laugh takes true genius. Ask yourself: am I laughing as I’m writing this?
  • Your Personal Voice: Don’t you want to slap those teenagers who try on new identities as easily as they change outfits? With writing, you need to let your unique voice shine through. Don’t try to be anyone else, except you, even if you’re writing for a company (yes, I said it!).
  • OBSERVE: Admittedly, I’d forgotten this tip lately. My boyfriend had to remind me that the best writers observe the world around them. Are you stepping back and just looking? Seinfeld was insanely successful for a reason.
  • Realism: I don’t care whether you’re writing about a real person, or a character you developed. That person, and his or her story, better be realistic and believable. If people can’t relate, they won’t care. Which leads me to my next point . . .
  • Conflict: We’re all drama kings and queens at heart. Without conflict in a story, we’re bored! Build the tension of conflict, whether for a novel, article, or short story. In the corporate world, you can do this too. Established a new process? Interview an employee and learn how hard their job was before the new process kicked in.

Considering this is probably the longest blog I’ve ever written, I’ll stop here. But make yourself that chicken nugget in the bag of frozen vegetables—and surprise the world!

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