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Real Talk Publishing: Rachel Fershleiser, Part 2

Real Talk Publishing: The People Behind the Books

Real Talk Publishing: Rachel Fershleiser, Part 2

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 below to learn about the Reblog Book Club, the most frustrating part of Rachel's job and the Great Tumblr Book Search! Also, click here if you missed the first part of the interview, and be sure to look out for Part 3 on Wednesday, May 27th.

TRC: What is your favorite part of your job?

RF: I love Tumblr’s Book Club --- the Reblog Book Club --- because it combines a couple of my favorite things.  I love the ability to take a really deserving author and raise their profile --- to get more people to read them and get their book more widely out into the world. I love the incredible creativity of the book nerds in our community and the stuff that they will make and do around the book that they love, whether it’s fan fiction, a playlist, writing a song or making a quilt. People are doing serious stuff in reaction to the art that they love, and I love that. And I love the really smart conversations we’re having about feminism and culture and diversity and the changing book industry.

To me, the Reblog Book Club is a place where we bring amazing authors closer to the audience they deserve, and we let amazing, creative Tumblr users meet authors they adore. It’s a total interchange.

People are doing serious stuff in reaction to the art that they love, and I love that. 

TRC: How do you pick the books for the Reblog Book Club?

RF: I mean, I kind of just pick them! Again, this is the good and the bad. I don’t have a committee, I don’t have a jury … it’s just me. I look for authors who are already on Tumblr and who are genuinely a part of our community. This is partially because that’s who we want to celebrate and partially because they get it --- they’re ready to have these conversations and they’re not going to freak out because somebody remade their cover with marshmallow peeps.

I don’t care if the book is published as YA or adult, but I look for books that are appropriate for as young as 13 and interesting for as old as 60 (most participants are in their 20s and 30s, but there are also teens and older people). I look for books where there will be a lot to talk about and that are pretty fun. Some books are great and thought-provoking, but if they’re so serious that it would be inappropriate to paint your nails after them, it might not be right.

And picking the first book was so stressful. I had this community of hundreds of millions of people and I had to be like, “Here’s one book for you.”

TRC: What was the first book?

RF: We started with FANGIRL by Rainbow Rowell,and it was perfect. I had been ruminating on the idea of starting a book club for about two years at that point, and when I saw that book was coming out, I said “We have to hit go. The time has come.”

TRC: What’s the story behind the name “Reblog Book Club”?

RF: I thought a lot about this when I was launching the book club. There are a lot of online “book clubs,” but usually they’ll just choose a book, write a post about it and maybe interview the author. But to me, a book club involves peers talking to each other about a book and having in-depth conversations, and I thought Tumblr was so uniquely suited to this! You can use long form text or short form text, pictures, music, videos, anything you want, and then you can reblog and add to it.

So someone can write, “Ugh, I hated what happened in chapter five, why would he do that?” And then someone else can reblog it and say, “No, I love that he did that because of this and this and this and it was totally in his character.” And then someone else can reblog it and be like, “I hear what you’re saying, but don’t you think he should have done this instead?” And there’s room for context --- you can see what each person said and you can respond point by point. There are real conversations happening over real time between different people --- one of whom might be a 17-year-old in Indiana and one of whom might be a 58-year-old librarian in L.A. --- and other people can read them and catch up on them, and that’s all the magic of the reblog. To me, that was the essential piece that made Tumblr the perfect place to do this.

There are real conversations happening over real time between different people --- one of whom might be a 17-year-old in Indiana and one of whom might be a 58-year-old librarian in L.A.

Now, people know each other because they’re in the book club together; that’s what a “club” is. There are people who are friends --- they’ve met in real life --- because they started talking to each other in the book club. And so we have Book Club BFFs --- it’s a thing.

To me that’s really amazing, and it’s very much the promise of Tumblr --- the point is not that I choose a book and it instantly sells 250,000 copies (although I would love that). The point is that you have a smallish group of people having such a genuine, passionate engagement with this book and this author, and making such cool stuff, that by the time it gets reblogged all over the Tumblr network, it feels like 250,000 people are talking about it, and more and more people are hearing about it and buying it and reading it later.  You could  come onto the Tumblr year after we talked about that book because you read it and searched the tags and find all this interesting content about the book that’s going live on.

TRC: And how many members are there right now?

RF: It’s not a members thing; I announce each book and then people join. The number varies --- there are some people who do it every time because they’re hardcore, and there are some people who do it depending on whether they’re interested in the book. Or maybe they follow the author on Tumblr, and they see Katie Coyle [the author of the recent Reblog Book Club book VIVIAN APPLE AT THE END OF THE WORLD] post “My book was picked for this club!” and they join because they were going to read it anyway. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’ll do the next one.

TRC: Do you have a most frustrating part of your job?

RF: I think that people can think of books as a smaller, less hip part of the cultural landscape. To some extent it’s true --- Taylor Swift is on Tumblr. Beyoncé’s on Tumblr. They are bigger stars than most of my stars.

But I wish we could all remember how important writers are to our culture, online and off. They’re responsible for a lot of huge currents through our culture, like The Hunger GamesDivergentTHE FAULT IN OUR STARS, Pretty Little Liars. Books are behind almost everything we enjoy, including Beyoncé songs!

TRC: What is the most surprising part of your job?

RF: What’s hard to understand from the outside is the fact that the engineering team, product team and support team are all separate. So when people ask, “Why does this part of this button work this way?”, I have no idea!

Also, I don’t think people understand how hard some things are, and I had trouble understanding this at first, too. I’d say “Why don’t you do this so it’s easier to write in long form?” and the response would be “because it would break this and this and this.”

People tend to think that the way that feels intuitive to them is the way it obviously should be…sort of like the recent “white and gold” versus “blue and black” dress phenomenon.  People say to me, “Obviously, when you click this, this should happen!” and then other people say, “Obviously you should have to click this for this to happen!” People’s brains work all different kinds of ways.

We want Tumblr to be a place where you can post all different kinds of work --- we want it to work for animated GIFs and we want it to work for videos and we want it to work for long form writing and we want it to work for cartoons, but everybody has slightly different needs. Therefore, we’re always trying to tweak it.

On a related note, everybody’s Tumblr dash feels like home to them, so sometimes it’s surprising to find out what kinds of totally other things are happening at the same time. For me it’s a books and fandom place, so it’s crazy to think that the people over there are using it for classic cars or professional wrestling.

And I love that audience-reaching part --- yes, you can get a million followers and reach everybody, but can also reach the little pockets of weirdos who are into the same things you are. I got really into cooking soup and I started tagging all of my posts with #stocktips, which is a soup pun. I found there were all these other people who are into soup and puns. And then we put out a zine and were like, “We are the 14 people who care about soup and zines and cross-stich.” And actually, it turned out there were 743! 

In THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, Hazel is a big fan of a fictional book called AN IMPERIAL AFFLICTION. She doesn’t have anyone to talk to about it, so she makes Augustus read it. John Green actually said that Hazel existed in real life, she could have gone on Tumblr and found the other people who are obsessed with this obscure, out-of-print book.

So that’s cool to me --- it’s cool that we’re all talking about Veronica Roth, but it’s also cool that when I find a weird out-of-print book from the ‘50s on a 50-cent cart outside a library book sale, I can go find seven people who are talking about it. 

Maybe all you like to do is draw cartoons about silverware --- someone else is into that. Maybe all you want to look at is pieces of vintage jewelry shaped like food. There are people who are into that. It’s finding your subculture, whether it’s teeny-weeny or much bigger than you ever thought.  That’s the real promise to me.

TRC: Besides starting the book club, do you have a proudest moment at Tumblr?

RF: A few years ago we did a poetry month initiative and people were like “Poetry? Really?” Poetry’s huge on Tumblr! People love to write poetry and read each other’s poetry and make these emotional connections.

Maybe all you like to do is draw cartoons about silverware --- someone else is into that. Maybe all you want to look at is pieces of vintage jewelry shaped like food. There are people who are into that. It’s finding your subculture, whether it’s teeny-weeny or much bigger than you ever thought.  That’s the real promise to me.

We worked with the publisher Knopf and built a blog for the month that was showcasing poetry by their published poets, and poets from the Tumblr community could also submit. I was publishing both all month long, and then I picked two poets from the community to read at an event at Housing Works along with Philip Levine, the Poet Laureate at the time, and Tracy K. Smith, who had just won the Pulitzer. It was a packed house with 400 screaming fans, and we were even on New York Magazine’s approval matrix!

That event encompassed a couple of my favorite values --- first that poetry is  badass and awesome, and second, bringing the established elders in a field and the young aspirings in a field together as part of the same community. I’m always very proud when we get to do a book launch for a book that grew out of a Tumblr blog or somebody gets to have their debut book come out because they were writing on Tumblr and they got discovered.

TRC: Can you tell me more about the Great Tumblr Book Search?

RF: The kinds of books that come out of the Tumblr community --- at least initially --- are creative, humor and gift books like F*CK! I’M IN MY TWENTIESSURI’S BURN BOOK and FEMINIST RYAN GOSLING. The art, design, humor and cookbooks publisher Chronicle was publishing these kinds of books very well, and they’re very good at the internet.

Therefore, we teamed up for The Tumblr Book Search. Instead of going through the traditional process, where you write a book proposal and get an agent and pitch it, you use your Tumblr as your book proposal. That already was happening, to some extent, but we formalized it.

And it’s so cool to have a publisher that I love say, “Tumblr is where we find our best stuff. We want to hear from you.” And on my side, I’m able to promote, which is beautiful, and I’m able to say to my audience, “Chronicle’s a great place and you want to be published by them.”

We worked out the details really, really carefully. Sometimes contests for creative people can be slimy, but for this, you win being consideredfor a book deal. You negotiate your own book deal with or without an agent and they have to pay you in advance; they have to do everything that they would do with any of their authors. You’re just like anyone else in their stable.

The first year the winner was SH*T ROUGH DRAFTS [by Paul Laudiero], a literary humor Tumblr written by an undergraduate. Now he’s a humor writer and has a web show at IFC, and he just wrote a Shouts & Murmurs for TheNew Yorker. I’m not going to take credit for that, but we had a place in the launch of his career, which is clearly going to be amazing.  The following year, Chronicle chose two books that aren’t out yet. 

This year, they opened the contest up to cookbooks, art books and humor books.  And that’s something neat that we’ve seen all the way through the Tumblr books community. Initially it was very much “bathroom books” --- silly, funny, cartoony, cat pictures, etc. Increasingly, there are all kinds of different books coming out of the Tumblr community --- there are a lot of really beautiful cookbooks and a makeup artist made a makeup guide. There are also memoirs --- LAUGHING AT MY NIGHTMARE was a really amazing Tumblr blog about living with a disability, and [author Shane Burcaw] has a whole book now.

I think that increasingly, publishers and agents are realizing that there are new voices coming up through this community, and even though a lot of them are humor, not all of them are. It’s not like you’re going to find a novel fully formed on Tumblr and stick it between two covers, but you can find a great voice on Tumblr that’s going to write an amazing novel.  It’s really cool to be a place where people are now looking for talent.

TRC: Aside from Chronicle, have you worked with publishers and agents who want to turn Tumblr blogs into books?

RF: I think that in general more and more people are looking to Tumblr. I work with agents, I work with publishers. I’ll see a blog that I think should be a book and email someone and say, “This seems up your alley.” I work a lot with Kate McKean, who is an agent who works with a lot of humor, craft and illustrated books. I’m working more with publishers now too, and making sure that when a book is “born on Tumblr” they say so on the cover, and we’ll help promote it. So, sometimes there are more formal or less formal partnerships, but the idea is always to help creative people in our community get amazing opportunities and to make sure that people in creative organizations know that we’re a great place to be.