Monday, July 21, 2014

A Widow's Story - Books That Transformed Me

This week I’m remembering the 4th anniversary of the publication of Again in a Heartbeat, my memoir about being widowed at a young age.  The book changed my life.

Another milestone: In October, I’m coming up on 20 years as a widow.

In the days and months after my husband John Cavalieri died, I sat in my bedroom at night and thought  . . . some day I’ll be saying its been 20, 30, 40 years since he’s gone. Impossible.

Now the impossible is the reality.

As I look back on the last two decades, I realize that "after changes" – as Paul Simon said, "we are more or less the same." I’m still the brash, high-spirited woman I was when John first met me under dogwood trees at Valley Forge Military Academy. I was 26 then . . . so young and so hopeful. He was 29.

Yet, I am light years away from that young woman, too, tempered by age and the realization as Joan Didion wrote in this article and in her memoir – The Year of Magical Thinking: "Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant."

My journey as a widow has immeasurably been shaped by the many people, good and bad, I’ve met along the way, as well as my belief that it can all change in "a heartbeat." Most of all, events and circumstances too numerous to mention have made me realize one thing - if we allow it, great abundance can come out of great loss.

That doesn’t make loss any easier.

There is no way to sugarcoat how challenging these last two decades have been. Raising two children; being sole breadwinner; keeping my home; mapping out a plan in retirement that in all likelihood will be alone . . . the resourcefulness and resilience so necessary to survive are attributes I believe I developed due to the death of my husband – and my writing.

Many times I had to challenge the traditional “myths” society holds about the single woman and single mother. Women like me and those who have come before me have had to rewrite the narrative we grew up with in order to discover our own path and choices.

That's where writing comes in. Writing encourages psychic growth. It also serves as testimony and a way to break the silence. A woman in the Circle wrote about her first and truest love who died tragically in a horrible accident. Despite her children and grandchildren urging her to stop - "What's the use of reliving the past?" they asked, she went ahead anyway. Last week she told me, “I finished my story! It's as if a weight has been lifted. I feel so much better!  Now my granddaughter understands who I once was - that I had another life!”

Books and stories, particularly true stories, are the life blood of the grief-stricken. In them we find our way out of isolation and aloneness into a larger and more community-oriented vision of life.

I want to share a sampling of books which helped me discover my story, re-examine “traditional” narratives, challenge myths, and offer a path to transformation.

Are there books you can add to this list?  Please feel free to leave a suggested read, or just a comment.  Thank you.  ~ Susan

Writing A Woman’s Life by Carolyn G. Heilbrun

Women Writing for (a) Change by Mary Pierce Brosmer

How to Suppress Women’s Writing by Joanna Russ

Writing As A Way of Healing by Louise DeSalvo

Finding Meaning in the Second Half of Life (How to Finally, Really Grow Up) by James Hollis

Wishes Fulfilled: Mastering the Art of Manifesting by Wayne W. Dyer

Creating Love: The Next Great Stage of Growth by John Bradshaw

Monday, July 14, 2014

Author Platform - Selling Books Or Vision?

As writers and readers drown in an ocean of new books while publishing pundits promise that you, too, can be a bestselling author, how far are you willing to take your marketing?

Which brings me to author platform. We're told that if we want to sell a lot of books, platform and branding are the keys to the kingdom.

But what is "platform"?  A hard sell? The author's artistic expression in an attempt to connect with and engage her readers online?

As Jane Friedman wrote: "Platform is one of the most difficult concepts to explain, partly because everyone defines it a little differently."

I’ll agree with that. Several years ago when I created the Women’s Writing Circle blog and website, I did so with the idea that women finding their voices through writing was my “platform” as an author.

The subtitle – "a place to share our stories" touched on another aspect – that writing is a collaborative process that brings us together in an isolating world, a philosophy also reflected in my books. I had, after all, found my “voice” by writing my memoirs, Again in a Heartbeat and Morning at Wellington Square which are about a woman’s search for meaning after suffering great loss.

As I blogged about suppression of women’s voices; the changing dynamics of publishing; writing as a way of healing; the death of my husband; my childhood Christmas memories, it became apparent that people visiting my site ("traffic") were not purchasing my books. I average about 4,000 views a month.

Comments were often lively, although not as frequent as possible, due to problems people told me they encountered trying to comment through Google.

The covers of my books were prominently displayed along the sidebar of the website with links to purchase. Links to readers’ reviews and interviews with me about those books were also displayed.

When I lamented online my lack of ebook sales, one woman in publishing who looked at this blog/website took the time to personally write this:

Susan, I suspect that you'd be more objective, and more willing to re-do, a piece of journalism than this book's promotion and website. Could that be because of the subject matter?

If so, I suggest that you consider whether or not you want to make the mental adjustment necessary to sell the memoirs and make money from them, or whether you just want to let them be.

Not making money is a valid choice for something that cuts this close to home.

Who said anything about making a choice not to make money? Not me.

But I got to thinking.  Was I too "emotionally involved" in my subject matter? And, if so, what was wrong with that? Isn't that what all the "experts" on"brand" and platform (the two are often interchangeable) advise? Let your readers know who you are. Establish a relationship with them.

My first memoir is about being widowed at a young age. As one woman in publishing suggested, Loss, Grief and Healing as the title of my website would drive the “right” readers to my books. 

But, truthfully, marketing to bereaved widows felt like an ambulance chasing lawyer - distasteful and disrespectful.

I also felt I wrote for a broader audience –  not just those widowed - who might enjoy my memoirs of a woman testing the waters with online dating, changing careers, searching for second chances and renewal.

In the end, would changing the title of this blog have made a difference in sales?

While I have considered a separate blog/website just for Susan G. Weidener, "author," I don’t expect to veer from my “platform,” which is finding our voices as writers; challenging the status quo; and empowering ourselves through storytelling.  

This is why I write. It is why I am ever grateful to the many, many readers who have read my memoirs.

This is my 294th blog post in four years. My Google+ profile has been viewed 510,000 times. This site has had 104,000 views. I regularly post on Facebook and Twitter. If platform is all about visibility, I think I achieved that. But maybe it's still not enough - to sell those bazillion ebooks, that is.

As always, your comments and thoughts are welcome.  Is platform a hard sell or an engagement with readers . . . or a combination of the two?  What are some of your favorite author websites/blogs?

NOTE: Last week, I ran a promo through a site featuring bargain ebooks.  I sold 77 ebooks and my author ranking on Amazon soared (I was 6,667) and my memoir Morning at Wellington Square  listed as #3,765 on the best seller list for Kindle ebooks. I guess that’s how you do it. Run a bargain promo and you, too, can call yourself a “bestselling author”!

Monday, July 7, 2014

Author Beware - Publishing Is Big Business

The ebook market is growing stronger every day.  It's yours for the taking. 

Are you to blame if you’re not selling the volume of ebooks “they” all say you should or could sell?

Here's what they'll tell you when you start to unveil the truth about how tough the market is:

"Your marketing lacks focus." 

“You haven’t found the right reader group.” 

"People who KNOW about books are telling you that your site isn't as clear and obvious as you think it is."

"Your tag line is waaay too long.”

Or this one:   "I say this with kindness - you seem too emotionally attached to your website. Maybe because the blog portion is so personal to you? In order for your website to drive traffic and sales, you must separate yourself from it." 

That’s what I heard from those in publishing last week after I wrote on this blog my experience with the digital book market . . . how I ran promotions, mastered social media, developed marketing strategies, and wrote well-received memoirs by those who study the genre, yet struggle to earn more than the luxury of an iced latte a month at Starbucks.  

This past weekend I met with a friend and fellow writer and told her about my blog post – So much (little) for digital bestsellers, which referenced a NY Times op ed by a journalist who made very little to no money off her ebook once she calculated the time and effort that went into it.

The blog post  generated 20 'shares' on Google+ . . . 300 views in five days, and apparently hit a nerve among some in publishing who on LinkedIn contended that my lack of sales was my fault.

My friend just smiled. “They tear you down to make money."

She shared with me this story.  About 15 years ago, she hired an editor from California. The woman edited her novel, which was about witches

"She put me through six or seven revisions, only to say it still needs rework. Oh, she was really nasty. I think, if you give them the power, they will still say there’s a problem. Just start out with the original and don’t make all the changes. It saves you a lot of money in the end."

Publishing, my friend said, is “all about connections.” And, for her, it also turned out to be a writer’s worst nightmare. 

She wrote another novel, and found an agent. "He and I worked together for a while, but then he sold the business to a man who didn't really know what he was doing. But I didn't know it at the time," she confessed.  

He sent off the first 60 pages of her manuscript to a big publisher in New York. An editor there had an intern email her with questions about synopsis, plot. 

"This was followed by more questions. I answered them because I thought I was promoting my work, when, in fact, I was giving it away for free," my friend said.  She heard nothing.  Then one day she walked into a bookstore.  There it was.  Her novel.

A very well-known author whose name shall remain anonymous had come out with a new novel that was my friend’s story. 

“Oh, I think she knew the story was stolen,” my friend said of the author. “Worse, she and others probably do this all the time to people.”

What happened sent her into depression for years.  Her fiction writing career had been robbed.

"I want to tell my story," my friend said.  "What happened to me still goes on all the time. I don't want anyone else to have to go through it."

Publishing is a big business.  You've heard it before, but let me say again - Author beware.

I want to go back to why I got into writing this blog, and writing my memoirs four years ago this July.

I wrote because I wanted my writing to go out into the world. If it could enrich others, then I had accomplished what I set out to do. And I believe I did. And will continue to do so.

What I’d like to say to everyone struggling  to sell books is this. Speak up loud and often about the writing process and why you write – or any of the other things you are experiencing with publishing, finding an agent, trying to break into a business that is not only incredibly difficult, but, at times, lacks honesty and integrity. 

Speak up if you encounter those in the business who have an agenda, are out for themselves . . . lie. Sharing our experiences, as well as our advice and insights, helps us all. 

I love what author Sharon Lippincott wrote last week on this blog:  

"My experience with last year's volumes, "The Heart and Craft of Writing Compelling Description" and "Adventures of a Chilehead" has been much the same with one difference. My initial promotion was minimal and I've done no give-aways, yet sales trickle in each month. $9 here and $23 there do add up. My personal philosophy is that I write because I love and need to write, and those who are intended to read it will find it."

Meet your readers at signings, book fairs, conferences, and talks.  I'm hoping to meet soon with a small group of breast cancer survivors to talk about my healing journey that became Again in a Heartbeat.  

Don’t let anyone get away with, “You’re doing it all wrong." 

FOOTNOTE:  Several of the suggestions from those on LinkedIn as to how I could improve this site and my author visibility were made on this website early last week. To date, it has not resulted in one additional ebook sale.  More to come as I try additional marketing strategies.

As always your thoughts, comments, experiences and insights are welcomed.

Monday, June 30, 2014

So Much (Little) For Digital Bestsellers!

Articles on the new digital publishing and stories of authors selling a bazillion copies of their ebooks seem to pop up everywhere on the Internet. "Five Proven Tips: Selling ebooks is easier than ever!" There's even a book, How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months!

If only it were that easy . . . 

A writer from the Women's Writing Circle mailed me a copy of an op-ed in the NY Times. Entitled I Was a Digital Best Seller! the article related in painful detail one journalist's experience with an online publication and small digital publisher for her nonfiction book. She wrote: "One reason “Boom" sank, I suspect, is that there aren’t many people willing to pay even $2.99 to read at length about a trek through the oil patch, no matter how much I sexed it up with cowboys and strippers."

So how does an author recoup her time and investment in the ever elusive ebook market?  Does selling 700 or 800 books (a lofty amount for many authors) translate into any money for all the hard work? I wish I could say it did. My monthly royalty checks from Amazon now afford me the luxury of one iced latte at Starbucks.

When I entered the new digital world of publishing in 2010 with my first book, Again in a Heartbeat, I felt fairly confident. I possessed an arsenal of tools that most beginning authors don’t have. I had spent close to three decades as a journalist, including the last 17 years with a Pulitzer Prize winning city newspaper.

I knew how to craft a press release, write a pithy and to-the-point author bio, and a compelling synopsis of my book. I understood the importance of contacts in the community – although, increasingly, the question became how to reach them? Where are people getting their information? Not though the local newspaper, or even the big city newspaper, or radio, or any of the other channels that until a few short years ago were key. Now everything was on the Internet. 

The growing din of online voices trumpeted the “good news” for authors - a golden age of digital publishing was upon us! When it came to selling ebooks to readers as far and wide as India, Japan, the UK, Australia, and China, the sky was the limit.

I soon learned that my ebook’s Amazon ranking was as mercurial and shape shifting as technology itself. Again in a Heartbeat fluctuated wildly - from 79 on the Amazon bestseller list for memoir . . . this after only two or three ebook sales . . . dropping like a stone to 309,000 a day or two later when no one bought the book. It made me wonder if even the top 10 books garner more than a dozen sales a week.

I ran giveaways through the KDP Select program; soon my book ranked No. 1 on the Amazon “free” bestseller list for its category, memoir. Amazingly, 12,000 people in the US and UK downloaded the book for free.  I had a digital bestseller! I shared the news with my son.  "Hey, Mom, what a great accomplishment.  Maybe it will go viral," he said.

But, apparently, few, if any, read it. Almost four years later, I only have 28 reviews on Amazon and 18 on Goodreads. 

But at that time, I believed the exposure invaluable.  Soon after the free giveaway, the book’s ranking nose-dived. Eight or nine ebook sales dropped to five . . . to one, then to none.

I tried different price points; $3.99 seemed safe – the “soft spot.” Then I lowered it to $2.99, wrote more blog posts, more promotional pieces . . . appeared as guest blogger on authors' websites.

When I wrote and published in 2012 the sequel, Morning at Wellington Square – about leaving journalism, and remaking my life in middle age after the death of my husband and parents, I thought selling both ebooks in tandem might be the key to improving sales. They could be read together or standalone. Or at least that was the prevailing wisdom on the Internet.  Write more books!

I soon found out – once again, that the new book’s ranking fluctuated wildly . . .  in the top 100 in the memoir category one week to an abysmal 420,000 two weeks later. The free giveaway, however, resulted, once again in my book becoming a digital bestseller. 

Like the prequel, it ranked first in free memoirs.  Although this time, only about 800 readers took it for free.  But by then I read about Amazon's changing  "algorithms"  . . . due to an apparent hue and cry from traditional publishers that indies were receiving too much exposure in the ebook market.

Yet, I was learning one very important thing. Despite my marketing and blogging expertise (I receive over 4,000 views a month on this blog), regular posting on Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn, it had become a Sisyphean task in getting the public to BUY my books.  

Books, which, I might add, had received excellent reviews from many who study memoir, read them, and write about them.

My sales were largely the trade paperbacks. I sold them at conferences, book signings, book clubs, to editing clients, and to the women who came to my writing group and workshops. So much for the digital age. It was back to good old-fashioned, person-to-person contact.

My paperbacks displayed at a writing conference
I ponder new ways to market and promote my books. As John Lennon said, I just "keep on keeping on."  Selling books, one at a time – still, hopeful, checking my Amazon rankings, although less and less. Frankly, it's just too discouraging.

But I’m a writer. I have to write. My new book – a novel based on a true story – is nearing completion. Then it starts all over again.  This time, I’m ready. Like the author of the NY Times article, my ebooks might end up in the slush piles of anonymity, but there is one saving grace.  Unlike the ephemeral ebook, I can lovingly hold a paperback copy of my book in hand.

How about you?  What are your experiences with ebook sales?

Monday, June 23, 2014

Women's Writing, Voices and Visions

This is my fourth year traveling to women's writing conferences. It never gets easier . . . schlepping the bags and laptop onto the train; enduring the gridlock over the George Washington Bridge; finding your room and orienting yourself on large campuses as diverse as Yale University, Drew University, and Skidmore College.

But once you get past that, take a deep breath, and look around, you realize magic surrounds you.

June Gould and Jan Phillips
The alchemy of creativity hums in a collaborative community of writers . . . enhanced by consummately professional and generous writing teachers such as June Gould, who offers women poetry readings followed by "rolling writing prompts" and read arounds; in the unique and original vision of Jan Phillips, founder of Living Kindness, the organization which sponsored this past weekend's conference at Skidmore in Saratoga Springs, New York.

Together you enter the "magic kingdom" of sharing stories, sharing lives, breaking out of a cocoon, emerging from the chrysalis. A butterfly alights on your hand with the wonder of your creative purpose in life revealed.

For me, it is the Women's Writing Circle, and doing what I can to help women find their voices through writing since writing gave that to me and continues to do so.

Fittingly, called Women's Voices, Women's Visions, the three-day event at Skidmore was a combination leadership vision bootcamp and writing workshop. I thank my friend and memoir author Kathy Pooler for encouraging me to attend the debut conference with her.

Thanks also go to Suzi Banks Baum who was instrumental in organizing the conference. Proceeds benefited an educational center for young children in Nigeria.

At the artist's marketplace, Suzi and I traded anthologies we helped produce:  Hers: An Anthology of Babes  . . . and mine, Slants of Light: Stories and Poems from the Women's Writing Circle.  Conferences are a way for authors to network, share visions and validate and reinforce each other's hard work and commitment to the craft of writing and publishing.

For three summers prior to this, I attended conferences of the International Women's Writing Guild. It helps if you set intentions at the beginning of each conference as to what you hope to accomplish.

A sampling of the "gifts" of awareness a women's writing conference offered me and might for you.

  • Out of great loss, comes great abundance.
  • Listen to yourself because if you can't, you can't listen to others.
  • Dig deep into what has been silent.
  • If words are haunting you, here is where you can write them, and read them aloud to listening and supportive ears.
  • Wrestle with the meaning of memory.
  • Be uplifted by the creations of each other.

And this:
  • It is a gift to write because it wasn't that long ago there were (and still are) places where women were not allowed to do so.
  • Have and hold something you are dedicated to, passionate about, whether that be writing, forming a community or a nonprofit reflecting your vision.
  • Become a risk taker.
  • In order to be an artist, humble yourself.
  • Accept what it feels like to stand in a happy place where you are validated and loved.
  • If she can, I can.

Final night concert by Libana

With Kathy Pooler

Monday, June 16, 2014

Novels, Memoirs, and Writing Guides

It's always a treat when my memoirs, Again in a Heartbeat, and Morning at Wellington Square, are praised, as they were in a recent blog hop. I’ll pay it forward, offering my recommended books from traditionally and independently published authors that may whet your appetite this summer. Please feel free to leave a comment recommending your favorite reads.

Katherine Sartori
The Chosen Shell by Katherine Sartori. Celia O'Rourke is an idealistic naive girl who by her own admission feels her decision to become a nun "impossible to comprehend." Yet, follow the calling she does, despite the attention of a young man who hands her a dozen long-stemmed crimson roses before she leaves for the convent, pulling at her heartstrings.

This sets the pattern for much of what follows: Celia's desire to help others and serve God, contrasted with her love of romance, poetry, and, yes, longing for sex. When she meets a man who appreciates her sensitivity and beauty and confides in her, we sense that Celia's path is leading away from the convent into a new and empowering direction as the woman and writer she is destined to become. Inspired by Katherine Sartori's own life, The Chosen Shell is a lovely and honest story of a young girl's search for meaning.

Madeline Sharples
Leaving the Hall Light On by Madeline Sharples. This is a powerful example of the healing power of writing our most compelling life story; that is, if there ever is healing from the death of a person we loved almost more than ourselves. Sharples writes poignantly and in detail and depth of her son's battle with bipolar disorder, his suicide, and her grief. Here is Madeline’s guest blog for the Women's Writing Circle about her 20 year journey that led to writing this book.

Memoirs of the Soul – A Writing Guide by Nan Merrick Phifer. Brimming with writing prompts that help develop a rough draft to polished memoir, this book leads writers into the heart of meaningful experiences. An associate director of the Oregon Writing Project at the University of Oregon, Phifer offers instructions and guideposts along the memoir writer's journey. Chapters devoted to breathing life into your writing, focusing on your subject, understanding the soul of the child, writing about adolescent angst, dreams and aspirations, make this book an essential component of any writer’s library.

Seeking Peace: Chronicles of the Worst Buddhist in the World by Mary Pipher. In this memoir, Pipher provides an up close and personal look into how her sudden catapult into fame with the publication of Reviving Ophelia led to a near nervous breakdown and re-examination of her life. As a reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer, I  interviewed Pipher during one of her grueling tours for Reviving Ophelia that she writes about in her memoir. Seeking Peace is brimming with the author’s personal truth and authentic voice. She offers portraits of her parents; her battle with anxiety and perfectionism; her earliest childhood memories around the time she felt abandoned by her mother. By Pipher's own admission, writing saved her life . . . and as the title suggests, meditation, yoga and the study of Buddhism paved a path toward serenity and peace.

Boyd Lemon
A Long Way to Contentment by Boyd Lemon. Brad Wilson, is a 31 year-old writer grappling with disappointments, drug and alcohol addiction and traumatic relationships with a wife, mother and sister. As told in first person, the novel feels much like a personal memoir of discovery, with entertaining side trips, including Brad being busted for drugs and thrown into a prison in Myanmar. There is an element, too, of Hollywood with an escape scene from prison that keeps the reader turning the pages. Take the ride with Boyd through Brad's journey of love, loss and reinvention through writing . . . and ultimately seeking contentment in a world gone crazy. Here is Boyd's  guest blog post on writing fiction.

Now I'll pass the baton to Madeline Sharples as our blog hop continues.

Monday, June 9, 2014

Writing As A Spiritual Way Of Letting Go

This past weekend I attended Women Connecting, a ministry of the Church of St. Martin-in-the-Fields in Chestnut Hill, Pennsylvania.

Thirty-five women gathered in a circle. These same women weeks ago contemplated what they wanted to let go, move on from, change in their lives. They wrote their most fervent wishes and prayers on slips of paper.

The group leader, Harriet, lit the candle and asked for a few minutes of silent meditation.  Then we passed around a decorative box containing those slips of paper. Each of us pulled out a slip, read the words aloud, and passed the box to the person next to her.

Letting go of anxiety, anger, perfectionism, grief, denial, grudges. Those words filled the empty spaces among us.

We shared a short excerpt from Sue Monk Kidd's When the Heart Waits. The piece centered on the beauty of transformation, a butterfly emerging from her cocoon, and God watching over her.

Later, we went outside, gathered in silent prayer. Then, our slips of paper were placed in a small fire pit. Harriet struck a match. The paper ignited, smoke rose toward the treetops . . . finally, ashes.

Harriet was presented a bouquet of cream-colored roses as farewell gift for organizing and holding the circle of women these last three years. We move on, let go, transform and grow.

Letting go is a way of freeing and unburdening ourselves spiritually.  "It's a loving community," my friend said of the women connecting gathering. "It's a reminder of a time when people cared for and helped their neighbors and offered emotional support," she said.

So much of writing is like that, and in writing groups, especially, we come together and let go . . . we work to put aside despair over that tragically ended love; anger at an estranged sister; guilt of finally saying 'no' to everyone's needs, but our own; fear of impending poor health and old age; bitterness that lack of  money jeopardizes our safety and security.

I often remind myself that writing promotes mental and physical well being. It offers an outlet for anguish and deep personal pain. It did - and does, for me.  

If you desire to write as a way of letting go, these ideas might work.
  • Enjoy the moment when you begin putting your thoughts on paper.
  • Concentrate on what your body is saying as you write.
  • Read the diaries, journals, life stories of writers who fascinate you.
  • Take advantage of writing prompts.
  • Write a letter to the person; read it to them.
  • If they are deceased, visit their gravesite and read it aloud.
  • Keep a journal.
  • Write your earliest childhood memory and explore the takeaway.
  • Start writing without stopping to censor or edit.

What about you?  Do you have writing tips to share as a way of letting go?