Five Questions: A Conversation Between Wendy Call and Midge Raymond

In June, Wendy Call’s narrative nonfiction book No Word for Welcome was published by University of Nebraska Press and in April, Midge Raymond’s award-winning short story collection Forgetting English was reissued in an expanded edition by Press 53. Several months before these book (re)debuts, Wendy invited Midge to collaborate with her on several events. Midge and Wendy ended up organizing a joint book tour, offering readings, talks, and writing workshops together in five states. Here, they interview each other about their experiences.

 

Midge: What inspired you to invite me to collaborate on joint book events with you?

Wendy: I have always loved doing joint readings—it’s a way to build a bigger audience and reach potential readers who’ve never heard of me. When I began organizing my book tour in January, six months before my book’s pub date, I quickly felt overwhelmed by the enormity of the task: researching bookstores in cities I barely knew, collecting media lists, and finding local organizations that could help spread the word about my events. All this—before querying a single bookstore about a possible author event!

It occurred to me that sharing this task with another author would lighten the workload and broaden my reach. I immediately thought of you, Midge, because I knew that Press 53 was reissuing your book just two months before my pub date, and I had loved the first edition of Forgetting English so much. Although we work in different genres and our books appeal to somewhat different audiences, we both write about far away places and about the human relationship to place.

As it turned out, organizing a joint book tour has offered delightful benefits I’d never imagined. Not only did we pool our Rolodexes and divide up research tasks, but I found it was much more fun (and easier) to pitch your book than my own. We’ve offered each other encouragement for making cold queries, commiseration as we faced the inevitable rejections, and creative brainstorming when we hit dead ends.

And, my, did we hit some dead ends!

 

Midge: Do you want to talk about some of those dead ends?

Wendy: Looking back, I’m remembering that the joint book tour we’re doing this September and October actually grew out of failure. We originally planned to organize a week’s worth of events together in Oregon, traveling between your hometown, Ashland, and mine, Seattle. But in spite of many queries, plenty of follow-up, and a few encouraging responses, we struck out almost completely!  In the end, the event that was supposed to be the “finale” of our Pacific Northwest tour, at the wonderful Orca Books in Olympia, Washington, was the kick-off for the joint tour that will take us to Iowa, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Vermont this fall!

Even our planned events came only after many rejections. Every bookstore in the greater Boston area rejected our queries (or steadfastly ignored them), in spite of the fact that between us, we’ve spent more than sixteen years in Boston! But thanks to your Boston literary contacts, we eventually secured three paid gigs in the city—two writing workshops at Grub Street and a talk at your alma mater, Boston University’s College of Communication—earning far more than even the most wildly successful bookstore event could possible garner for us.

 

Wendy: What are the most valuable things you learned during the planning of our tour? And also during the planning of your original release for Forgetting English, two years ago?

Midge: For one, I’ve learned that is indeed fruitful, as well as a lot of fun, to plan a joint tour. Our combined writing and teaching experiences provide so much more than just one writer can offer. Plus, as you’ve mentioned, I found it so much more fun to pitch your book rather than my own and to share the ups and downs.

A solo tour can be more challenging. When I was planning my first Forgetting English events two years ago, I’d just moved to Seattle, knew no one, and was a completely unknown author with a collection of stories from a university press—this made planning every event an uphill battle! So I offered to do free travel-writing workshops at bookstores and community centers, and this brought in people who didn’t know who I was (and may not have shown up for a traditional reading); participants got a free writing workshop, the venues got customers and book sales, and I met lovely people and found new readers. This was probably the best lesson: Ask not what your local indie bookstore can do for you but what you can do for your local indie bookstore and its customers.

I also learned that an author has to be her own best publicist. Even if your publisher has an in-house publicist, this person is working with many authors and can’t do everything. So, for example, I’d ask my publicist to make an initial bookstore contact for me, and then I’d follow up myself, which was more efficient all around and allowed me to work closely with the store and its staff. I also learned to ask for media lists and to send out my own press releases, which takes some of the burden off of the bookstore for promotion. Authors often depend on bookstores to get the word out about their events, yet booksellers can be pretty overwhelmed. While it’s a lot of work as an author to be making calls, following up, sending out press releases, it’s all worthwhile when you have a good crowd and an event that’s a win-win for both you and the store.

 

Midge: Speaking of being one’s own best publicist, in addition to the eight events we’re doing together, you are organizing dozens of additional events for No Word for Welcome. What types of events are you doing beyond the traditional reading-and-signing at a bookstore?

Wendy: The truth is, most of my events aren’t traditional bookstore readings. My event venues include a Oaxacan restaurant (my book takes place in Oaxaca, Mexico), a labor union building where I organized meetings fifteen years ago, the main library of the college I attended more than twenty years ago, the visitor center of the national park where I’m currently working as writer in residence, two universities that use my first book (Telling True Stories) as a course text, and my favorite bar in Seattle.

Each of those event venues (well, except for my favorite bar) was secured by a colleague: a former co-worker, my undergraduate advisor, someone I met when we were on a panel together at the 2011 AWP (Associated Writers & Writing Programs) conference. I’ve learned that the people you know really will help you, but you never know which of them will lend a hand. (So make sure to let everyone you have ever met, and have an email address for, know about your new book.)

Though I’ve focused on in-person events—readings, slideshows, writing workshops—I decided to devote one-third of my book tour budget (which was, by the way, entirely self-financed) to hiring a publicist to secure radio interviews. So far, I’ve done more than two dozen radio interviews, most of them via phone. Most have been local shows, all across the country, but my publicist did land a couple of nationally broadcast interviews, including the PRI / BBC show “The World.”  Even some of the local interviews, like one on the KPFK Morning Show in Los Angeles, led to attention far from LA, because the podcast posted to the web was publicized on several blogs.

 

Wendy: Now that you’ve organized two book tours for Forgetting English, what advice would you give to writers who are just beginning to organize a first-book tour?

Midge: My first bit of advice would be to think outside the book. This is especially important for debut authors or authors with books from small presses, as it’s more challenging to get the word out when you don’t have a large marketing budget or a publicity team. Try to set up events that offer something above and beyond the book itself, but tie in well with the theme of your book. And again, team up with other writers! In addition to teaming up with you, Wendy, for this book tour, I also collaborated with my husband, John Yunker, to create this book trailer for both our books. Love in the Time of Amazon.com introduced our books to people we wouldn’t have reached otherwise, especially fellow authors who could relate to such issues as obsession with sales rankings! And, as with our tour, it was a lot of fun to put together.

I also suggest making the most of an online presence, which is especially useful for those who can’t travel to meet their readers face-to-face. Right after the second edition of Forgetting English was released, I did a “virtual book tour,” in which I did guest posts for various blogs on reading and writing, and it’s a wonderful alternative to an in-person tour. It puts your book out there in front of new readers. Through the guest posts you can share a little bit about the writing process and respond to reader comments and questions, very much like an in-person reading.

And, finally, I would advise authors to look at book promotion as a long-term endeavor. I was doing events for Forgetting English for the entire year after it was published, and the only reason I stopped was because it went temporarily out of print after my first publisher closed. Now that it’s been reissued with Press 53, I’m back out there doing events—and though I won’t be traveling quite as much once our tour ends, I’m always keeping an eye out for ways to bring the book to new readers.

 

Connect with Midge Raymond and Wendy Call through their She Writes pages:

http://www.shewrites.com/profile/MidgeRaymond

http://www.shewrites.com/profile/WendyCall

 

Visit Midge & Wendy online at their websites:

http://www.midgeraymond.com/

http://www.wendycall.com/

 

And visit their blogs here:

Midge: Remembering English

Wendy: Many Words for Welcome

 

 

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