Monday, March 31, 2008

Jen Singer is a Good Mom...And Her Books Aren't So Bad Either

So today, I'm thrilled to host a Q/A with my friend, Jen Singer, who founded the very prosperous MommaSaid.net network and is the author of two books, including the newly-released You're a Good Mom (and Your Kids Aren't So Bad Either). Jen is admirable for a lot of reasons - for one, as you'll read below, she turned the other ear when rejection knocked on her door; for two, she then went ahead an established an unbelievable platform; and for three (among other things), she was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma smack in the middle of writing You're a Good Mom, but she absolutely refused to put her life on hold because of cancer. Read on to see why I (and a lot of others) think that Jen is pretty kick-ass. And don't forget to pick up a copy of her book!

1) You have a great story about how tough the road can be to publication and how if you dig into the trenches, you can come out on top. Can you share with us that success story?

When I tried to publish my first book, 14 Hours 'Til Bedtime, all I knew about platform was the About the Author paragraph in the back of books. I figured that if I'd been published in major magazines like I had been, that would be enough to get a book deal. Silly me. The subsequent rejections from publishers all pretty much said the same thing: "Talented writer, but she has no platform." One editor even lamented, "Too bad she's not famous!" If only I could prove I was Elvis' love child.

My book was published by a very small publisher and sold well despite being available pretty much only on Amazon and the trunk of my mother's car. But I wanted more for my future books, so I set out to build my platform up from the ground by growing my web site, MommaSaid.net, from a cute little site that only my mom and a neighbor read to a formidable presence among the mommy blogging community. I hired a personal publicist, who still works with me today, and together we blasted the media until my platform got big enough to get the attention of publishers, especially the ones who had wished I was famous.

2) We've been chatting a bit about platform building recently on the blog, and you are one of the best examples I know of as someone who created an amazing platform for herself. How did you go about doing this?

The short answer is dogged determination and the desire to keep on writing funny little things. But it's more complicated (and exhausting) than that. Launched in 2003 when my kids weren't in school at the same time, MommaSaid is now the base of my platform. It allows me to keep in touch with moms around the world, which makes me attractive to journalists and producers who want to know what makes moms tick. I answer Profnet leads relentlessly, and I set up a page on MommaSaid called the Magazine Rack, where journalists and producers can troll for sources. It keeps MommaSaid in front of the media while providing them a free service. Meanwhile, my readers get to see their names in print.

Over the years, I've acted as a spokesperson for Huggies Pull-Ups, Similac and Listerine, and as a consultant for Disney's Family.com. Their PR firms contacted me through MommaSaid. I've also forged relationships with the publicity departments at various publishing houses by giving away free books as Housewife Awards. So, when my books are being shopped around, the PR folks already know me. And I blog and blog often. That keeps the readers coming back for more. Plus, relentless blogging helped me land a parenting tweens blog at Good Housekeeping. I could prove to my editor that I could keep up a quality blog for the long-term because I'd already been doing it. Now that I've blogged for them for a year, the deal has gotten even sweeter: Yahoo will syndicate it starting this week. That's about six million readers, and I don't have to do anything more than I've already been doing.

Finally, I've built up a fan base by being true to the moms who visit MommaSaid, which is about to have a makeover. I keep up the site -- posting just about every day. (I taught myself HTML, but my husband is an IT guy who can help me with the technical stuff. I married smart.) I've even created a social network based on my newest book, "You're a Good Mom (and Your Kids Aren't So Bad Either)" out this week from Sourcebooks.

3) How critical do you think having a platform is these days and do you have any beginner's advice for readers who are looking to establish a name for themselves?

Platform is king. The writing has to be good, too, but we all know that celebrities get book deals and sell books because of their names. You can build platform, too, but you have to shift your mindset. For example, at last year's ASJA meeting, fellow author Paula Spencer was telling another writer about my online success. She had just published a book, and was trying to build an accompanying blog after years of success in traditional media, most notably as a Woman's Day columnist. The other writer, a curmudgeonly old-school journalist was unimpressed. "Why would I give away my writing?" he barked. "I'm not writing unless I’m getting paid." If you want to be a working journalist, that's a fine approach. But if you want to build platform, you need to "give away" some of your writing in order to create a fan base. ("The Long Tail" author Chris Anderson wrote a great article about this concept in Wired: http://www.wired.com/techbiz/it/magazine/16-03/ff_free. A book is due out next year.)

I won't kid you; it's a lot of work. But it affords me the opportunity to do the kind of writing I love. There aren't enough essay markets to make a living, and, even though I've managed to garner a lot of back page spots in Parenting magazine, that's only part of the multi-faceted platform behemoth that MommaSaid is becoming.

4) How much easier was it to sell/publish your second book than your first?

Actually, I didn't sell my second book. Two years after my first book was published, my (now former) agent tried to shop around a book called, How Come I Only Get to Sit Down in My Mini-Van? But I was up against an onslaught of mommy bloggers, and, apparently, my platform was still too small. I was deflated. A year later, I switched agents. My new (and current) agent shopped around You're a Good Mom (and Your Kids Aren't So Bad Either). Sourcebooks bought it in January of 2007. At the same time, I got a call from an editor at Healthcare Communications, the publisher of the Chicken Soup series. They wanted to create a series of books based on the MommaSaid brand. Four years after launching MommaSaid, my platform had arrived -- and I didn't even have to write a book proposal. I've finished writing the first of those books, a guide book to raising toddlers, and now I'm working on the preschooler version between publicity gigs for Good Mom. Those two will be published before Mother's Day of 2009. A baby book is slated for the following fall.

5) I LOVE the cover and title of this book. How did you come up with the concept and what made you want to write it?

I had been writing a blog called MommaHeard designed to bring the news that's important to moms who don’t have time to read more than the headlines. (I still write it. I am a news junkie.) I also did a weekly radio spot based on the blog until the show's host left radio. What I found is that mothers were trying too hard to try to keep up with Super Moms, thereby giving up and becoming Slacker Moms. One was bad for mom and the other bad for the kids. But I knew that there was a sweet spot between the two where you can raise perfectly good kids without losing yourself or your sanity. My editor at Sourcebooks, Shana Drehs, pushed for a better title, and I'm glad she did. It was originally "Don’t Answer the Phone When the Class Mom Calls," after one of the chapter titles, but that didn't tell the whole story of the book, so she asked for more. Then, just like "14 Hours 'Til Bedtime," I woke up with the Good Mom title one morning.

I pushed for the cover, because I didn't like the image Sourcebooks had chosen. It was stock drawing of a retro housewife, and I felt it didn't fit the book. (Turns out, it's on another book's cover anyhow.) They used Goldfish crackers first, and I loved it, but when Tom Perrotta's publisher had used them on "Little Children," Pepperidge Farm sued them. So we ditched that idea. On the way to the pediatrician's office one night in December, my kids and I brainstormed and came up with the rubber ducks. I love that Sourcebooks made one of the ducks going the other way. We all have a kid like that. So far, it's gotten a lot of attention from radio shows and magazines. We'll be pitching TV soon.

6) You've also had an incredible year personally: in addition to publishing your second book, you kicked cancer's ass after you were diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma and managed to keep an incredible sense of humor about the whole thing as you did. And I know that your snarky good humor is also in full form in the book. I'm always talking about positive thinking on my blog - both as a mother and as a writer - so how do you maintain your healthy attitude, even when things, whether it's your aspirations for your book or your health, veer wildly off-track? I think there are some wise lessons to be learned from you!

I had four chapters of You're a Good Mom left to write when I found out I had cancer, fittingly on D-Day, June 6th. I know I could have abandoned the book and nobody would have flinched. But when you're faced with death, you find out what's truly important to you. Turns out, writing -- or at least the kind of writing I do -- is important to me. Sourcebooks gave me a six-week extension, and my brother gave me his laptop. I wrote parts of the book on the oncology floor at New York Hospital and parts at outpatient chemo. (When else do I get to sit for four whole hours and write?) Lucky for me, humor is my defense mechanism. I turned in the manuscript a week early, and I'll bet no one can tell which chapters (written out of order) were penned pre-diagnosis and which were fueled by Percocet and fear. Meanwhile, Good Housekeeping let me blog about parenting with cancer once a week on my blog. My editor and I call it "Cancer Thursdays!" like it's a special at Applebee's or something.

Even though I'm in remission now, I still write about cancer, because it's cheaper than therapy. Besides, I still have something to say. The three-book deal has also helped pull me through this crisis. I had just met my HCI editor at BEA five days earlier when I found out I had cancer. At that point, we didn't have anything in writing, and I feared they'd dump me. When my agent e-mailed me in the hospital to tell me HCI was 100% behind me, I cried with relief. My nurse went out and bought me Haagen-Dazs pops to celebrate, and I've been hooked on them ever since. I attribute the hard work of "my people" for helping save my career. My agent, my publicist, my manager/lawyer and my assistant all kept the MommaSaid machine running, even though I was laid up. I didn't start out with all of this help five years ago, but as MommaSaid grew, I needed them to get my platform to the next level, because unless you're Dave Barry or Madonna, there's always a next level. Frankly, I'm just glad I have hair now. You know, in case The Today Show calls.

12 comments:

the_lazymilliner said...

"You know, in case The Today Show calls." I love it. Jen Singer, always thinking ahead. God bless you!

Dawn Papandrea said...

Wow -- Jen Singer, you continue to inspire, amaze and amuse me! I love your articles, blog and site, and can't wait to read your book. Best of luck with everything -- and say hi to Matt and Meredith for me. :-)

And, thanks Allison, for including Jen's story, which is a great lesson in professionalism for aspiring parenting writers.

Beth said...

Thank you for sharing your story, Jen. You are an inspiration.

Great blog, Allison. :)

Shannon said...

Awesome Q&A. Kudos to both of you and a big group hug.

Thanks for posting this.

Tammie said...

Great Q&A! Love your insight on attacking the marketing that goes with writing.

Larramie said...

You're "Super Woman," Jen, who had a dream to be published. Now you have so much more than a platform, you have Center Stage. Congratulations!

Alison Ashley Formento said...

Great post!
I loved Jen's first book and can't wait to read this one, too. I know she's happy to have hair again, but her website's wacky wig contest she held when bald was hilarious.

Eileen said...

Great Interview! I love your story of how you stuck with it both in building your platform and writing through chemo.

Trish Ryan said...

How inspiring (and informative). Congratulations Jen on the great book!

Manic Mom said...

Jen, you don't need hair for The Today Show, look at Matt Laurer!!!! (But I'm thrilled it's growing back and that you're in remission!

WOW! What a terrific interview! I've known Jen in the blogging/writing community for quite a few years now and she is a source of KICK ASS NON-STOP ENERGY anywhere you go in print, blog, internet, books!

Talk about building your platform. I am so thrilled to see you succeeding this way, you certainly deserve it for all the hard work you've put into your passion!

Great job! Love the cover, can't wait to read the new book! And yes, I still, still, STILL always flip to the back of my Parenting mag to see if your name's on the last fun page!

Steph

Patti said...

inspirational...

Susan Kuchinskas said...

Both incredibly inspiring and full of great how-to, just the kind of thing I love to read when I'm flagging.