Paolina Milana's memoir, The S Word, was published by SheWrites Press earlier this year, and just won a National Indie Excellence Award. I had the pleasure of working on this book with Paolina on two different occasions, and knew that there were some interesting plot twists and turns in how the book came into being. I wanted to share that story with you to show you that there are many different paths to publication, and many different ways to define success.
Q: It took you a long time to hone in on what your story was really about – and since I had a tiny role in that process, I remember that it was a real act of courage. You had to look with new eyes at an already-finished manuscript, strip your story to the core and let go a lot of the “noise” of your life in service of the story. Why do you think you were willing to do that hard work? Why didn’t you, in other words, give up?
A: I did give up. Lots of times. I had so many moments of doubt, so many times I did, indeed, “waive the white flag.” Ironically, for every time I put the manuscript out of sight and out of mind, something would happen to make me take it out…just one more time. And because there’d be some time and perspective in between each mini “giving up” period, when I returned to the story, somehow it became more clear to me what needed to be done.
Why was I willing to do that hard work…? I kind of had no choice in the matter. The universe kept forcing me back to the story. On one occasion when I really had had enough of it, I witnessed something with a young grocery check-out girl that so reminded me of what happened to me. I felt I had an obligation to keep working at the story for all the girls who need to know what I did not know back when. In January of last year, my younger sister died unexpectedly. And that just further underscored that I had to share this story as well as start working on the next one. Jennie also offered up inspiration and “tough love” – you wouldn’t allow me to just give up – even pointing to the rejections I got as “great” (given they weren’t form letters and had positive things to say). So thank you.
[Jennie chiming in here. OMG Paolina got GREAT rejection letters. Heartbreaking rejection letters. People loving her story, calling her brave, saying how they knew it would sell – and then rejecting her manuscript. These letters are rare and they are a very good sign!]
Q: You did everything right in terms of trying to get an agent but it just didn’t work. Can you talk a little about that process? How did it go and how did it feel when you have to face the face that a traditional publisher wasn’t going to be in your immediate future?
A: I used to think that the hardest part was getting the story out of my head and onto the page. Now I’m not so sure. True, it took me longer than a decade to “vomit” The S Word out, and at times, I needed to reconnect with my shrink just to deal with the emotions of resurrecting my past, but trying to get an agent proved almost as draining. It’s frustrating to have to boil down your story into just a few sentences. And then it’s even more frustrating to have to “sell” someone else and make them believe that your story matters. With each rejection, no matter how kind they may have been, I would feel deflated, and again, I would want to just give up.
I have heard of writers getting 500 rejection letters before one “yes”; sometimes those who have been rejected so many times turn out to be best-sellers (Carrie by Stephen King, Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, Slaughterhouse Five by Kurt Vonnegut). It dawned on me, too, that JK Rowling got rejected and a tiny press finally published her. She was discovered then (I believe) at some flea market that was selling her book. Look at what happened to her.
When my sister died, it really was a turning point for me. No longer did I think of fame or red carpet or anything like that. The only thing that mattered was getting the story out because I knew it deserved to be told. I also realized that I wanted to retain my rights, so when I found SheWritesPress, that’s what I decided to do…invest in myself in advance with the reward of knowing that what I went through might help others. And THAT is what made me forget about “traditional” publishing and focus on the story and the readers.
Q: You spent a lot of money on your cover, which is one of the most fabulous covers I’ve ever seen. How did you make the decision to make that investment? Are you happy that you did it?
A: I LOVE the cover. And I did spend money on it, because I know how much a book’s cover can influence a reader to pick it up. Plus, everyone wanted to pigeonhole my story…so much happened to me during my coming of age that it wasn’t about just ONE thing…and certainly not what people thought I was about. I realized that in my life, so many “S” words came into play…like a vortex, they threatened to suck me in, like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz. I started to look at covers I admired, and so many of them were designed by Christine Van Bree. When I explained to her what my story was about, she nailed it. And note that this wasn’t the only great choice from the concepts she provided. I would pay again to have her do more book covers for me…but I better get to writing the books first!
Q: Do you mind sharing how much it cost? I mean, more than a cupcake, less than a trip to Paris? That kind of thing?
A: LOL…Actually way less than I thought it would be. I had Christine do two covers – plus my Blueberry Hill Cottage Cover that can be seen on my website www.paolinamilana.com. The covers cost me about $800 each, which I don’t think is that much. I DO think Christine maybe took a shine to me and my story, so that may not be her usual rate. Also, if you look at my website…I paid for that, too. A great designer who does author sites. Denise Biondi studio, and the cool things about Denise is that she listened to my story and my mantra that’s gotten me through life (“Be Bold, and Mighty Forces Shall Come to Your Aid”) and heard me when I told her that people sometimes call me “Powerlina” and so she created a little superhero character on my website for me. Denise and Christine and Brooke and Crystal and Megan and Sam Dunn and you = all power women who helped make this possible. And before you ask me how much the website cost, I think for everything including my personal superhero Powerlina, it was about $2K. Worth every penny.
Q: You decided to publish with SheWritePress, which is a hybrid publisher. Can you talk about your thinking around that choice, and what you felt were the pros and cons?
A: SheWritesPress is female driven…that’s important to me. They also offered to do the work of editing and formatting and more, taking care of everything having to do with the actual “publishing” AND I got to retain my rights. I can’t really think of a con, and even when we had disagreements (me being a first time author, I made a lot of stupid requests), they were so kind and gracious and yet firm in what would be best for a professional book. They also connected me with a publicist, and thank God because while I do marketing for a living, not only did I not have time to do it for myself, but it’s sort of odd for the author to also be pitching the book.
[Note: SheWrites is run by Brooke Warner, a pal of mine. She’s a book coach, too, and is one of the founders of SheWrites. They just merged with BookSparks, which Paolina mentioned below. They are occupying a powerful and interesting new place in the publishing universe – a hybrid with huge integrity and lots of power.]
Q: Do you mind sharing how much the publicist cost – you know, more than cupcake…
A: Publicist costs depend on what you want them to do. For what I needed, it is a few months work at about $1K/month. Again, if I had the time, I’d do it myself, and because I know how much work it is, I gladly pay it!
Q: You just won a major award! (Indie Excellence Award in Psychology). How did you decide on the strategy to enter – it costs money and time to figure out which awards to enter. You also chose a unique category. How did you make that decision?
A: I know. I kind of can’t believe it. :) Honestly, the publicist at BookSparks is the one who recommended we gave it a shot. So glad I did.
Q: Has the award created a boost in sales?
A: You know what’s funny? I have been so busy with my “day” job that I do not know. I have to ask the publicist. What I do know is that among the five authors at my first book signing, my book sold out. And it just got an excerpt posted on Patheos, and I was told it hit 400 shares in one hour, and they think it’ll hit 1,000, which apparently is really good. Yes, I know I should really care about selling, and I do, but right now, I think I’m a bit “deer in the headlights” with all that’s happening. I leave for NY for BEA now and then head to Chicago for a book signing. It’s a lot to focus on and keep straight. And I am more a writer than a sales person…even though this experience is teaching me that you have to be both.
Q: BEA! Book Expo America. The biggest book convention of them all. So fun! Are you doing a signing with SheWrites?
A: I don’t think we’re “signing” like Jonathan Franzen and Emeril and that level of author who will be at BEA. But we have a booth, and we have our books there, and SheWritesPress has been promoting it. My next real book signing is June 29 in Chicago where my story took place, and already my friends who were around and with me in the 8th grade are trying to plan a mini-reunion. LOL.
Q: You’re getting some great reviews. What has been your marketing strategy for generating those? (And I should say that you are a marketing expert in your day job – so you know what you are talking about!)
A: Yes. Ironic that I do marketing for a living…and yet have no time for my own book marketing. Cobbler’s children have no shoes, for sure! The best strategy has been to watch what is going on in the news that relates to your story, and then contact a blogger or journalist who has written about it and pitch a follow-up piece. Writing your own content – new pieces or excerpts from the book – is key, too. It’s A LOT of work. So really consider getting a publicist to help, especially with social media.
Q: What are your ongoing marketing plans for the book?
A: Ongoing marketing plans for the book include starting to do speaking gigs and presentations at conferences that are book-related but also topic-related. So I have contacted, for example, NAMI (National Association for the Mentally Ill) about their upcoming conference…hoping it’s a possibility. I think, too, that throughout the year, I’ll be looking for more national days of note to piggy back onto. AND I fully intend to approach cross-over, including film/movie. I may even take out some digital and social ads.
Q: What has been the biggest surprise about having your book out in the world? Was it better than you imagined?
A: Loaded question. Biggest surprise…? I’d have to say seeing it on Amazon and seeing it make lists like BuzzFeeds top 5 memoirs of the moment. Very bizarre to see my book in the same list as Kate Mulgrew’s! It’s very surreal to go on Amazon and read your pages right there…a bit scary, too, because everybody now knows what you struggled so long to keep secret.
Is it better than I imagined…? Yes and no. Yes, in that I find myself at peace with the intent behind why I wrote the memoir. No, in that The S Word doesn’t tell the whole story. It ends when I enter college and a lot more happens, including my younger sister being diagnosed a schizophrenic and me having to commit her. So the experience of The S Word is not better than I imagined because in my head, I already should have book two done and out!
Q: So I guess that probably answers this question – what’s next for you, Paolina?
A: I need to write book two of The S Word, and I have to get to a final draft of Blueberry Hill Cottage: Finding My Way Home, AND I really owe it to my little sister who died to tell her story which I intend to call, I’m with Crazy: A Love Story. I sure am hoping it takes me less than a decade for each of these next books! I guess I need to enroll in more Jennie Nash classes to get them done. LOL.
Q: Ha! You know you’re always welcome! But my class has morphed into AuthorAccelerator.com! The first 5-7 weeks is hammering out your book idea, wrapping your mind around the whole thing, nailing down the structure, getting the narrative set….with weekly feedback from my amazing staff of editors. It’s such good stuff! Can I tempt you with a one-month half-price offer? Come try it out with the new book idea ;) And hey, anyone else who has read this far and who hasn’t yet tried Author Accelerator, you can have that offer, too. Just write to Jade@AuthorAccelerator.com and say, “In honor of Paolina, Jennie offered me a first month special of $100.”
A: SOLD!! I am headed to Africa for a month, but when I get back, I’m circling back with you! One thing I think is priceless with what you offer…you force writers to think of their story, but in terms of the spine and audience and the marketing of it…doing it this way helped me crystallize Blueberry Hill Cottage: Finding My Way Home, and I wrote that first draft in 30 days!