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.

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

The Curse of Knowledge–Do You Have It?

I bet Adam and Eve never saw this phrase coming thousands of years after that dang apple.

Google Images
Nevertheless, here it is: The Curse of Knowledge.

“What in God’s name is she talking about?” you might ask. Well, it’s the golden piece of advice for any writer OR business owner trying get a message to the public.

What is the Curse of Knowledge?

You cannot summarize the curse of knowledge in one sentence. It’s an idea, an understanding.

Think of this: Have you ever listened to a doctor describe a diagnosis, and every term they used scrambled your brains? Or perhaps, a lawyer’s “jargon talk”confused your understanding of a topic even more.  

This doctor, or lawyer, was so engrossed in his or her field of specialty, that upon talking to YOU–an outsider–he or she FORGOT how much they know. Consequently, you did not understand or fully absorb their message or information.

This is the curse of knowledge. And every professional deals with it.

Break the curse!

Journalists know about the dreaded curse. They are some of the foremost experts in taking something complicated, and breaking it down. The result? The average reader can absorb the information.

How can you learn this skill?

First and foremost, self-awareness is key. If you know the curse exists, try to identify when it reveals itself. Here are some other techniques you can use to break the curse:

1) Ask yourself, “Could a 5th-grader understand what I’m trying to explain?” If not, go back and simplify. (Hint: Layman’s terms)

2) Ask a colleague or acquaintance OUTSIDE your field of specialty to review your article, or blog, or video, etc. Then, ask what message they took away. If it’s not what you wanted to convey, you know the curse struck.

3) Your communications are littered with jargon. This is very typical in business or corporate writing. If you’re writing for your executives, then fine. However, if you’re writing to encourage the average person to take action (whether it’s to buy something or donate their time), this type of communication will turn people away.

So tell me, have you been struck with the curse of knowledge? And how did you overcome it?

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No Experts in Social Media (but . . .)

In the midst of researching strategies to better your blog and its following, you run across a self-proclaimed “social media expert.” RUN! Run far, far away!

There are no experts in social media.

That’s because, no experts can exist in a field which the world is still trying to define. I’ve had several people ask me lately, “How can I better my blog and get people to follow me?” What you need are some lessons in social media strategy.

And while we don’t have experts in social media, we do have leaders—gurus. I’m talking about the people who’ve paved the way in a constantly evolving field.

So, I’m going to do two things here: First, I’ll list three “gurus” I urge you to follow, and why. Second, I’ll give you a few of my secrets to building a following on your blog.

3 Social Media Gurus to Know

  1. Gary Vaynerchuk. I cannot, cannot emphasize this man enough. Gary is one of the pioneers in social media marketing. Before most of the world even heard of “blogs,” he was creating “VLOGS.” Gary wrote a short, but deeply insightful book called “Crush It.” Reading this book helped me lay the foundation to my blog, as well as the strategy I used when helping develop my company’s social media marketing plan.
  2. Beverly Macy. Beverly teaches at UCLA and is the CEO of Gravity Summit Events and Consulting. I’ve met with Beverly in the past and she taught me some great strategies for social media measuring (a.k.a. knowing how to determine if you’re successful). Follow her on Twitter.
  3. Carol Tice. I discovered this great writer on Twitter. And boy, does she know her stuff! On her blog, Carol offers many amazing—and helpful—tips about building your credibility as a writer. She also talks about strategies to monetize off your blog, as well as your writing.

And now . . . my top 5 social media tips

Before I delve any further, know this. If you want to grow your blog, you MUST dedicate time and research to it. My blog’s readership is growing for one reason only: I took the time to read and educate myself on social media and writing strategies. I then pulled the pieces together for my own plan.

Remember, no experts in social media. But anyone can develop into a guru:

  1. Give your blog a theme. If your goal is to write and share photos only with family, then fine. However, if you want to build a following, your blog has to be ABOUT something. Notice the theme on mine, “Shari Lopatin: Rogue Writer.” And . . . I stick to it.
  2. Engage. The whole essence of social media is engaging with others. If someone comments on your blog, comment back. If they ask for advice, visit their site and leave a comment there. People want to know they’re being heard—by you.  
  3. Invite visitors to subscribe. People need a call to action. Therefore, prompt people to subscribe to your blog. Invite them at the end of your posts. Make the subscription box easily viewable at the top of your page. Following you should be an easy endeavor.  
  4. Simplicity. Your blog has to be easy to read and navigate. Don’t overload the eyes with too many widgets and columns.
  5. Accessibility. Be transparent. Do you have a tab on your blog inviting visitors to contact you? You should. And even if you don’t want to list an e-mail address, link visitors to Twitter or Linkedin.

 Like the advice I offer? Subscribe to my free blog (upper righthand corner) for email notifications on new writing tips, short stories, and media lessons. As a professional writer/editor, journalist, media strategist and communications consultant, I enjoy sharing some expertise to help others grow.