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Real Talk Publishing: Rachel Fershleiser, Part 3

Real Talk Publishing: The People Behind the Books

Real Talk Publishing: Rachel Fershleiser, Part 3

A lot of you are probably familiar with Tumblr --- that social media website where you can engage in your favorite fandoms, share images, stories, memes and quotes and connect with people from across the globe.

One of the cool things about Tumblr is that it has a HUGE book presence, including authors, readers, publishers, bookstores and everything in between. You can connect in Tumblr’s book club, share photos of your favorite-book-inspired manicure or participate in genuine discussions with authors about your favorite (or least favorite) character.

And even cooler still, it’s someone’s JOB to make sure that all of this “book content” runs smoothly. We talked to that person --- officially called the Head of Publisher Outreach --- for our latest Real Talk Publishing interview, and we couldn’t be more excited to share this super modern, ever-changing and fun part of the business.

Read the third part of our interview with Rachel Fershleiser, below, to learn why she is such a huge proponent of the "Bookternet," her favorite books growing up and her predictions for the future of publishing. And if you missed them, click here to read Part 1 of the interview, and here to read Part 2!

TRC: What do you think “success” means on Tumblr, whether for an individual or a literary organization?

RF: I think success on Tumblr is following people you find interesting and inspiring; being followed by people who respect and value you; and drawing creativity, inspiration and happiness from those interactions. And, to be slightly more cynical, I guess, to be followed by people and to follow people such that you find the audience for your books or your music or your painting. But if you try to mark success at 100,000 followers or 200,000 followers, you’re going to be miserable.

TRC: You’re a huge proponent of the “Bookternet” --- why do you think it’s so great?

RF: I think it’s so great because reading and writing can be very solitary activities. When I was in middle school and didn’t have a lot of friends and read a lot of books, I had no sense that there was this broader world out there full of people just like me, waiting for me. And it even felt that way when I was a book publicist in the early 2000s, and it felt like the only way to get a book noticed was to buy a billboard or get on the cover of the New York Times Book Review or get on NPR.

And that’s just so not true anymore. There are so many ways now to find people who love what you love, who care about what you care about, whether or not they live in your town, whether or not they live in your country, whether or not they’re the same age as you. As a writer or a creator of any kind, you don’t have to reach this one big mono-culture --- you can reach the exact people who want your work, and it becomes so much easier to publish in a weird genre, whether it’s a cookbook about how to cook healthy, organic food for your dogs or a teen romance about ghosts and ballet.

There are just so many more ways to reach the specific people who are going to love what you love, and it turns self-promotion and marketing into, “You’re just finding the people who are going to be genuinely thrilled to find your work!” You’re doing them a service!

And so I think the ability for writers, readers, people on the other side of the world and people who love the same TV show, album, book series or article to connect and have conversations is really amazing.

TRC: And what about the opposite --- do you think there are any negatives of the Bookternet?

RF: Yeah --- I think it’s the same things that everybody says. I think it can be distracting for writers. I think people can be mean, particularly to women and people of color and queer people and, God forbid, women who write about their own lives. I still think it’s worth it. I think there can be a sense that it’s just all so much, all the time, and I think that the answer to that, per everything, is to be yourself and do what works for you. If you hate being on a platform, don’t be on it. If you want to block someone, block them. And if you want to have a private email thread with your friends, do that. I think that, for authors especially, reaching your audience directly is an amazing opportunity and I don’t think you should pass it up, but I think you should do it in a way that works for you.

TRC: What do you think makes Tumblr stand out amongst other social media platforms?

RF: On the product level, I think what Tumblr does better than anybody else is have a variety of content --- long form, short form, pictures, music, GIFs. There’s the ability to create a feeling on Tumblr; you can read a historical fiction book and put up all these vintage photographs that you found.

There’s the ability to create a feeling on Tumblr...It’s not about “Who’d you go to high school with? Who’d you go to summer camp with? Who do you know? Who do they know?” It’s about, “What do you love? What do people who love that also love?

And I think that the community is mostly very nice, very progressive, feminist and nerdy. People are primarily here because of their interests and fandoms.It’s not about “Who’d you go to high school with? Who’d you go to summer camp with? Who do you know? Who do they know?” It’s about, “What do you love? What do people who love that also love? What books? What movies? What music? What stuff makes you excited, and how can you connect with the other people who are excited about those things?” It’s interests, it’s passions. For that reason, it’s really positive.

TRC: You have done a lot of public speaking. Do you have advice for teens on how to be effective speakers?

RF: I do --- I really like public speaking, which I didn’t expect when I started. I guess it’s similar to what I say about social media: “You’re just talking to people.” Talk like a person. Be yourself. People are there to learn and hear what you have to say, so you’re serving your audience best by being honest and straightforward and real.  If you try to be formal and “business-y” and do what you think is expected, the audience is probably bored. And I think that genuinely believing you have something useful to say helps a lot.

When SIX-WORD-MEMOIRS came out, I started to be invited to speak at bookstores and on the radio, and I was kind of like, “I’m a writer! I’m awkward! I don’t know!” But when people ask you about what you created and why you created it, it’s not that hard to talk about.

To be really honest,I was reluctant to do a lot of conferences until I watched all these old white men in suits on stage who don’t know as much as I do, and I was like, “Forget it! Put me in!” And then a lot of it is self-fulfilling --- if you speak on one panel and people think what you’re saying is useful, they’ll ask you to speak on another panel. Now I’m starting to have to say no to things because I have a job to do also!

It’s really great when you’re on panels with people you like and respect --- you can learn interesting things from conversations with them and expand your worldview. I’m not a very shy person so I don’t want to overstate how easy it is, but I think that if you know what you want to say, you’re excited about what you want to say and you genuinely believe the audience will benefit from it, then it’s something you should do.

TRC: Is there one speaking engagement that you feel particularly proud of?

RF: I was on a panel at AWP [Association of Writers & Writing Programs] that was about the future of the industry with a group of men who were older than me and had very prestigious jobs. I suspect that I was put on that panel because they knew I would speak over the men.

On some panels, I speak for the internet. I’m the one whose job it is to be like “No, this is not stupid or trashy or a waste of time. This is a place for genuine conversations about important things. This is the next generation of readers.” 

On some panels, I speak for the internet. I’m the one whose job it is to be like “No, this is not stupid or trashy or a waste of time. This is a place for genuine conversations about important things. This is the next generation of readers.” I feel proud when I get to open people’s minds about the world of online literary culture and how genuinely gratifying it can be.

TRC: Obviously you’re a big reader. How do you choose what books you’re reading?

RF: It’s really stressful, actually! My genre is “women processing their shit” books, which I have an email newsletter about. I’m very drawn to debut novels by young women about figuring out life, career and balancing all the things you want. I like dark, weird books, I like unlikable narrators. I read a mix of YA and adult, and mostly forthcoming books. Usually, by the time a book is out, I’m like, “Oh, I read that a year ago, I don’t remember.”

And it’s hard to keep a balance of reading specifically for work and reading things I just want to read anyway, like classics or Elena Ferrante, even though she’s not on Tumblr. It is very tricky, and I have piles on my desk.

I probably read 60 books a year, which is not a lot in publishing and not a lot for bloggers, so I try to be selective. I’m not that good at reading a few chapters and then letting it go. I think that if I were a book reviewer or a book review editor, or something where it was more specifically my job to be on top of everything, I would have to read that way. But as it is, I value my ability to have reading as my leisure time.

TRC: Yeah --- it definitely gets hard when it all starts blending together.

RF: Yeah, and it’s not just reading! I go to book events every night mostly because I want to, but it’s not not work, and I’m on the Board of Housing Works and the Committee for the National Book Foundation and the Committee for the Brooklyn Book Festival and the Committee for the Portland Book Festival.

I love doing that stuff, but it’s definitely like, “What’s my personal life and what’s my professional life and what are my extracurricular activities?” I have no idea anymore. And like we’ve said about so many things, that’s the good part and the bad part. Making a career out of what you actually love is the biggest privilege in the world and I’m incredibly lucky, and making the thing that you love into your career can make you crazy --- you can’t have the thing you love as an escape.

I think part of the reason I’m able to handle it is that I’m not primarily a writer. I sometimes write essays or write about books, but I don’t write fiction.  If you actually want to be a novelist, a career like this will make you crazy, I think, because it’s not a day job.  I think it can be really smart for people who are primarily focused on their writing to have an administrative, 9-5 job so they can save their creative juices for themselves. I definitely put my creative juices into this job. 

TRC: What were some of your favorite books growing up?

RF: I loved Judy Blume. I loved FOREVER, which I think is probably the book I’ve read the most times in the world. I was a FROM THE MIXED-UP FILES OF MRS. BASIL E. FRANKWEILER [by E.L. Konigsburg] girl, hardcore. I loved A TREE GROWS IN BROOKLYN [by Betty Smith]. I was reading “young girls processing their shit” books at that point!

TRC: What about now? Are there any books that you’ve recently read, teen or otherwise, that you really enjoyed?

RF: I love THE GIRLS FROM CORONA DEL MAR [by Rufi Thorpe]. I was recently able to meet the author; she was in New York for a reading, so I threw a party at my apartment so she could meet a lot of the people I’ve been recommending the book to over the past year. It’s a great, great book.

I also read a few good debut novels that are coming out soon: THE SUNLIT NIGHT by Rebecca Dinerstein, AMONG THE TEN THOUSAND THINGS by Julia Pierpont and THE DAUGHTERS by Adrienne Celt.

For YA, I read THE WALLS AROUND US by Nova Ren Suma and ALL THE RAGE by Courtney Summers. I’m sort of in “book club hunt mode” [at the time of this intervew], but I tend to fall behind on reading I’m supposed to be doing for work.

TRC: Do you have any advice for teens who want future jobs in the Bookternet?

RF: I think teens who like making their own creative stuff and are just ready to go with it would do well. For instance, if they like making their own book blogs and putting things online and reviewing for places, they might have that kind of self-starter attitude.

For me, it’s been very valuable to know both sides --- having started in the traditional publishing industry really helps me with everything that I do. But there’s just so many more options now. You could work for a small press. You could work for a digital first press. You could work for Kickstarter.  You could work any number of places.

It helps a lot if you know two things, whether it’s traditional publishing and tech, nonprofits and social media, or whatever your intersection is.  It just gives you more of an edge, I think.

Another thing teens can do is show how awesome they are, even if they’ve never had a job before. They can apply for an entry-level marketing job without any experience, but still show a super creative Tumblr they made where they cooked all of the meals in certain books. That is creative marketing. Now, you don’t just have to say, “I have a bunch of great ideas I think will work.” You can say, “I have a bunch of great ideas that do work because I did them, and here they are.” I think it’s a pretty amazing opportunity.

I also think that teens should just read a lot of stuff, try a lot of stuff and figure it out later. In college I was primarily a modern dancer, which is not what I ended up doing. I think there’s a lot of benefit to using the next few years to explore and not to drive toward a certain career.

TRC: You’ve been a part of publishing for a long time, and it has obviously changed dramatically over that period of time. Do you have any ideas of how it might continue to change over the next 10 years, and what might be on the horizon?

RF: I think it’s going to diversify more and more. I don’t think the big publishers are going anywhere, and I think self-publishing will continue to grow. I think there will be more discovery platforms, I think there will be more hybrid publishing and I think there will be more crowdfunding sites.

There will be places where you can get your first job that don’t exist because no one’s thought of them yet. 

And the bigger that self-publishing gets, the more they’re going to need editors and cover designers and marketers. And I think that more social platforms are going to need people who understand writers, and more writing companies are going to need people who understand social platforms.

There’s just not a lot of difference anymore between “What’s PR? What’s marketing? What’s social media? What’s event planning? What’s outreach?” I think that all the constituents meet all of these things, and it’s going to make for a really broad ecosystem of lots of different kinds of people.

It’s a cool thing. There will be places where you can get your first job that don’t exist because no one’s thought of them yet.