Who’s reading “Pastors’ Wives”?

I ask myself this.

When you’re an author with a new book out, you think about who’s reading it. I mean, maybe not if you’re Stephen King. Or Anna Quindlen. Or someone else who’s at this very moment headlining a panel at BookExpo America jam-packed with her quazillion fans. I’m not bitter.

Me, I sit at home in New Jersey and wonder who’s reading my book. I’m particularly curious in the case of this baby. Because it’s a quirky little thing. It’s women’s commercial fiction set in an evangelical megachurch. Yet it’s not a quote-unquote Christian book (more about that here). And I’m a former journalist whose line of faith is best described as—to borrow my friend Desa’s term—devoutly tolerant.

I wrote about women married to men married to God because I found their predicament complicated, poignant and fascinating. At the time in my life when I wrote “Pastors’ Wives” and my TV pilot “The Ordained,” I struggled mightily with religion. I found fiction a way to write about it without bludgeoning readers and viewers over the head with theology dogma.

So who are the readers of “Pastors’ Wives”? Are they Christian or pagan? Churched or mosqued? I asked a few friends and readers to let me introduce you to them (thank you, dears!).

This small and highly unscientific survey proves “Pastors’ Wives” may be consumed safely by parties of any faith. Side effects include a very slightly heavier beach bag.

Shari

Shari, Louisiana
I am: mom of three, nurse, sports fanatic
Religious views: Baptist

Desa Philadelphia

Desa, California
I am: working mom, lover of all things literary
Religious views: devoutly tolerant

Amy Sullivan

Amy, Washington, D.C.
I am: Journalist, mama, and semi-professional beach reader
Religious views: Baptist

Helen Mitternight

Helen, Virginia
I am: a PR leader, mom to one human and two canines, writer, aspiring world leader
Religious views: Lazy Wiccan

Rebekah Sanderlin

Rebekah, Florida
I am: Mother of three, amateur (and unwilling) wrangler of turtles, frogs and lizards
Religious views: Christian (Protestant, non-denominational)

Bee Ridgway

Bee, Pennsylvania
I am: English prof, novelist, good eater
Religious views: Methodist as a child, minister’s daughter for life

Emi Dantsuka

Emi, California
I am: Mom of one, wife of a football fanatic, subcontract manager
Religious views: Non-denominational Christian

Reader of "Pastors' Wives"

Carla, Indiana
I am: Business owner, executive leadership coach, mom of triplets
Religious views: Catholic until six months ago, now attending evangelical church with my formerly Jewish husband

 

What it’s like to launch a debut novel in 2013

Hard, is what it’s like. Hard. It’s hard.

My first novel, “Pastors’ Wives,” debuted April 30. You already know that if I’m on your Facebook or Twitter feed because I WON’T SHUT UP ABOUT IT. My sister says I’m turning into the Amway lady, pushing dish detergent and hand lotion on increasingly weirded-out acquaintances.

It’s true. Launching a debut novel in 2013 is all about sales.

Pastors' Wives at Barnes & Noble

My friend Gerry sent me this snap of my book at Barnes & Noble. But many folks these days buy online.

You know who’s bad at sales? Writers.

Marketing a new book is a monstrous task. It’s made harder in my case because mine belongs to a genre called women’s commercial fiction, and we simply get very little traditional press. When’s the last time you saw a major newspaper review of a novel with a beach towel or flower basket on the cover?

Here’s another tricky fact: my novel is set in a Southern evangelical megachurch. Yet it’s not a quote-unquote Christian book. This is an important distinction. Christian books have their own publishers (mine is Plume/Penguin, a secular house) and their own set of rules.

For instance, characters must spend a lot of time in church. Given the setting, that’s a check for me. There can be no language or sex scenes. Um, mine has mild PG-13 content. Characters must also be or become believers; in “Pastors’ Wives,” a conflict arises when a main character’s husband becomes an evangelical pastor just as she realizes she doesn’t believe in God.

We knew all this going in, me and my team (my agents, my publisher, and a wonderful marketing company called Litfuse—I highly recommend them if you have a book like mine). So we decided to focus our marketing strategy online.

This is new for me. In 2006, when my first book was published, the marketing was all about radio interviews, newspaper reviews and personal appearances. What’s changed is how people buy books.

Check out this graph from Bowker:

Book sales chart

The portion of books bought online went from a quarter in 2010 to 44 percent in 2012. In just two years!

It’s desperate enough attracting notice in a bookstore with thousands of titles. So how do you get the attention of readers in a space whose edges you can’t even see?

One answer: book blogs. There are now thousands, maybe millions, of independent readers who have said to hell with the local paper’s weekend book review, if their local paper even has one any more—they’re going to publish their own damn opinions.

What’s more, online book marketing is far more targeted. I could sit in your local bookstore till the cows come home, but how many of its drop-in customers would be interested in my book? Yet if you’re clicking through a book blog specializing in women’s commercial fiction, you’re not there by accident. We could also target websites popular among Christian women readers who might be open to a respectful (if not “Christian”) book set in their world.

What this means for us authors is a lot of hustle—but of the kind we’re trained for, which is writing. So far I’ve written 26 online essays. I’ve participated in interviews for websites from Publisher’s Weekly to Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project. My online recommendations go from People magazine to Sharon’s Garden of Book Reviews.

Basset hound

On the Internet, nobody knows if you’re a dog.

Do some of these sites reach millions while others a few hundred? Yep. But as the author Cheryl Tan (“A Tiger in the Kitchen”) quotes from that New Yorker cartoon: “On the Internet, nobody knows if you’re a dog.”

Meaning: a mention is a mention is a mention.

And the hustle doesn’t end with the coverage on other people’s sites. I maintain author pages on Facebook, Amazon and Goodreads. I Tweet book news. Last week I hosted my first ever Facebook live chat event. And then of course there’s the upkeep of this here site.

Also it’s not to say you can skip out on live events. Coming up, I’m part of this fun Beach Reads Night on June 7 at the Princeton Public Library, and one at my wonderful local library, both in New Jersey.

Is it exhausting? Look at me. Is it a full-time job that leaves little room for working on other projects, among them my next TV pilot and next novel? Uh huh. Will it pay off? I have no idea. But this is the reality of book publishing in 2013. And there’s no turning back.

My novel published yesterday. Here’s why I wrote it

My novel debuted yesterday. Here’s a post I wrote for SheReads:

If you’d told me five years ago I’d publish a novel and shoot a TV pilot in the same month, I would have laughed.

If you’d told me they’d both be about faith, I’d have laughed so hard I’d have the hiccups for hours.

No one I know would describe me as religious. I was raised Catholic and practiced into my 30s, but Catholics—we’re private about our faith. Forget the yells and bells of more expressive denominations; we barely manage to mumble the liturgy in Mass. We don’t thumb the Bible on the subway. We don’t praise Jesus in polite conversation. We’re outed once a year by that smudge of ash on our foreheads.

And yet.

In 2008, my mother died. She died after a long and valiant battle with cancer, each step of which my siblings and I witnessed in ever heightening despair. Nine months later, our father died of a broken heart.

My parents were the root of my faith. My father was a former Catholic priest who removed the collar to marry my mother, who had in turn converted from Buddhism. They taught me all I knew of faith and love. They remained devout till their last. As I sat weeping by her bedside at the hospital, my mother said to me: “Remember this. You are not alone. You always have Him.”

When they died, I felt forsaken.

I quit my job as a staff writer at Time magazine, and my career in journalism. Inspired by an article I had written for Time, I began Pastors’ Wives, a novel about three women whose lives were defined and dictated by faith, married as they were to pastors at a Southern evangelical megachurch. I imagined their dreams and frustrations, their trials and triumphs.

After the novel sold to Penguin/Plume, I wrote a TV pilot inspired by my father called “The Ordained.” It’s about a priest who becomes a lawyer in order to protect his family, a New York political dynasty. It was bought by CBS last fall, and we just wrapped shooting in April. We’ll find out in mid-May if it will be picked up for series.

We writers have the great privilege of writing through our issues. My crisis of faith led me to write stories that, in their recording, led me to a kind of peace.

But I’d gladly trade that for just one more sunset at the Jersey shore, joking and laughing with my family, holding my parents’ hands.

Mom and Dad

This is my mom and dad. I miss them every day.

Our CBS pilot is finished. Now we wait.

The pilot for “The Ordained” is edited. It’s been cut and tightened, sound-mixed and color-corrected, tested and noted. It’s possible I’m slightly biased, but it. Looks. Great.

Now, we wait. Some images from the past couple of weeks:

The editing happened in Studio City, on the CBS lot. We didn’t get out much. One time I took a walk here, near my hotel. But mostly we spent a lot of time in the dark.

Universal City Walk

The mixing happened on the Paramount lot, in the Technicolor building. People get around on these golf cars because the lots are freaking huge. Also, in L.A., it’s against the law to walk. That’s a joke.

Technicolor

The lots have a bunch of sets and equipment from other shows.

Glee set

How cool are these control boards? The veteran sound engineer showed me how each column controls a different sound: every actor’s audio, including background; street sounds; music. With one punch of a button or tweak of a dial, he can emphasize a word of dialogue or the bark of a faraway dog.

Mixing room

One important part of post-production was obtaining ADRs, or automated dialogue replacement. In the editing process, you might realize a word sounds garbled, or maybe you need a new line to clarify a scene. The actor then goes to an ADR station where he or she records that line again. There are tricks to keep it from looking like a badly dubbed kung fu movie—like cutting to another actor during the line, or maybe to the back of the speaking actor’s head.

So now we wait. We hear nothing, nothing at all, until the upfronts in mid-May. That’s when the networks hold big parties in New York to announce their line-up for the coming fall. If we get picked up, you’ll hear me hooting and hollering from wherever you are in the world. If we don’t, you’ll hear nothing, nothing at all, until I emerge from my deep, blue funk.

(If you like, please follow me on Twitter at @lisacullen or friend me on Facebook for more frequent updates. And please check out my novel, “Pastors’ Wives,” debuting from Plume/Penguin on April 30!)

How to ask a famous author for a blurb

You know, a blurb. Those quotes you see on the back of a book (or, if it’s from someone super famous, the cover) that tell you it’s “brilliant” or “insightful” or “the best thing since the invention of EZ-Pass.”

Among the many steps involved in preparing a new book for launch is the gathering of blurbs. (Not to be confused with reviews from newspapers and magazines; those come later.) A lot of authors prefer to let the publicity department handle this. With good reason. No one likes to grovel.

Because grovel you must. Think about it. You’re asking someone famous, or at least way better known than you, to read your entire manuscript, and then say some flattering thing in a pithy manner. It’s a big ask. A big, honking ask.

Some people like to blurb. Take my friend Gretchen Rubin, author of the best-selling “The Happiness Project” and the upcoming “Happier at Home” (pre-order now!). She reads like I worry: constantly, by nature. Plus she has a helpful soul.

The author and journalist A.J. Jacobs blurbs so promiscuously that his editor and agent performed an intervention. He writes in The New York Times Book Review of his “blurbing problem”:

My friend, the writer Andy Borowitz, sent me an e-mail that said: “I had the strangest experience today. I went into Barnes & Noble and saw a book that you didn’t blurb.”

But the Gretchens and A.J.s are the exception. Some big-name authors are so busy churning out their own prose—Lisa Scottoline says she “starts at 9 a.m. and goes until Colbert”—that they’ve instituted no-blurb policies. (I don’t know if Lisa S. has a no-blurb policy. I haven’t asked. Yet.) And who can blame them? Easier to hand out a blanket “no” than to assess and cherry-pick and reject.

So what’s a desperate writer to do? I don’t know about you, but here’s my plan of action:

Make a wish list. I’ve been compiling one for a year. On it are some of the biggest names in women’s commercial fiction. You can probably guess most of them. They’re all writers I admire for their clever narratives and memorable characters and—let’s say it—their muscular sales. You want a name that will resonate with the readers you target: “If you like Brand X, you’ll love Brand Y!” But it’s more than that. It’s an endorsement. When Yogi Berra tells the Yankees to check out a young catcher, they listen. (I don’t know where that baseball analogy came from. I just had to Google Yogi Berra to check the spelling.)

Find a connection. Any connection. I ran my list by my agent and my editor at Penguin. They knew some of the authors, or had useful intel (“that one NEVER blurbs, but she might talk it up to influencers”). One author on my list is the friend of a friend. Another shares my agent. Another blurbed one of my editor’s previous books. None of these are guarantees by any means. But it’s like anything else in life…networks help.

Cain’t hurt to ask. Even when the author won’t know you from George. The worst she could say is no. Which brings me to the big question: who does the asking?

I do the asking. Me. Not my editor or my publicist or my agent. Because it’s my damn book. No one will represent it better. And you know what? It’s easy to say no to a rep. Not so easy to slap a no on the face of a hopeful new writer and crush her dreams forever. And yet I must—

Brace myself for No. Because it’s coming, my friend. Some are polite. Others are like the one I got for my first book from a Famous Author, who strung me along with “maybe,” “I don’t know”…and then finally told me he’d decided he didn’t like it enough. What the @#$$%#^!!! Deep breath. As writers, we’re inured to rejection. I’m kidding. We’re so totally not. Rejection blows. And yet we face it, regularly. And here we are. Still not dead. Still not throwing in the towel to go sell life insurance. When you get the No, swallow hard and accept. Or…

Ask again. Sometimes this works. Seriously! I’ll give you a fer example. I once begged the author Mary Roach to blurb my first book, “Remember Me,” about weird ways we celebrate death in America. Besides being one of the funniest and smartest science writers around, Mary had practically birthed my book with “Stiff,” her book about weird ways we use cadavers in America. She was absolutely Number One on my wish list. I got back a lovely note apologizing that she was so busy and her nightstand so stacked with manuscripts by people she actually knew that she just couldn’t in good conscience add mine. So…no. I sunk into a funk. I kept thinking about it. I couldn’t let it go. She seemed so nice. And I really, really wanted her blurb. So I asked again. And guess what? She said yes! Here’s her quote (on the cover of my book, it was that good):

A must-read for anyone who plans on dying.

And that is what makes it all worthwhile.