David Henry Sterry

Author, book doctor, raker of muck

David Henry Sterry

Tag: bookstores

Melissa Cistaro on Horses, Mothers, Bookstores and How She Got Her First Book Deal

We first met Melissa Cistaro when she pitched her book to us at a Pitchapalooza we did for Book Passage (one of America’s great bookstores) in Corte Madera, California. We’ve been doing this so long we can usually tell when someone has a book in them and is capable of getting it out successfully. And we knew Melissa had the right stuff as soon as she opened her mouth. Arielle then made a suggestion to Melissa that she calls perhaps her greatest move as a Book Doctor: she told Melissa that she should get a job working at Book Passage. This is what separates the doers from the talkers. Melissa actually did it; she got a job at Book Passage. Eventually she became the person who introduces authors when they do events at Book Passage. Some of the greatest authors in the world come through that bookstore. Now Melissa gets to move from being the person who presents authors to the author being presented. So we thought we would pick her brain to see how she did it.

To read this interview on the Huffington Post, click here.

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The Book Doctors: How did you get started as a writer?

Melissa Cistaro: This may sound odd, but I think that becoming a mother is what turned me into a writer. Even in college, I still considered writing one of my greatest weaknesses. But when I saw my own child for the first time, I knew I had to figure out how to tell the stories that had been hiding inside of me for so long. I started taking classes at UCLA Extension, and it was there that I caught a glimpse of my writing voice–and after that, I couldn’t stop writing. I’ve always believed that motherhood opened a portal inside of me that gave me permission to write. If I hadn’t become a mother, I don’t know that I would have become a writer.

TBD: What are some of your favorite books and why?

MC: In the house I grew up in, we rarely had access to books. I was not a child who discovered books early–they came late for me, and when they did, I had a lot of catching up to do. One of the first books to completely mesmerize me was Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. The language was magical and the story deep, evocative and riveting. I am often pulled into stories through language. Fugitive Pieces is another book that I drew me in with its incredible poetic narrative. Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje and a short story collection by John Murray called A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies. Oh this is hard! I could go on and on with favorite books.

TBD: What made you decide to write a memoir?

MC: I started this story as a work of fiction. It was easier for me to dive into it as someone else’s narrative rather than my own. For years, I wrote calling myself Paisley Chapin in the story, but eventually I realized that I wasn’t very good at drifting away from the truth, as I knew it. Early on, I showed my oldest brother some chapters, and he said to me, “Sorry Sis, but this ain’t fiction you are writing.”

TBD: How has your family reacted to seeing themselves in print?

MC: The book was very difficult to hand to my father. There were many facets of our childhood that he wasn’t aware of–and it was definitely emotional for him to take in our story on paper. He has been exceptionally supportive of the book and, ultimately, a proud father. My brothers also have been generous and supportive. Naturally, there were some details that we recalled in different ways, and we have since had some great conversations about our childhood.

TBD: You attended a number of writing programs, do you recommend this? What are some of the benefits and liabilities?

MC: Classes and workshops were crucial along the way, as was being in a writing group. But I eventually got to a place in the process where outside input began to stifle me as a writer. The feedback was always helpful, but I also had to take responsibility for what I ultimately wanted to write. If there are too many voices and opinions, it can get overwhelming. I’ve become less fond of workshopping and more of a fan of having a few select and trusted readers.

TBD: Which helped you more as a writer, being an equestrian or a mom?

MC: Whoa–this is an interesting question. I don’t know if I’ve ever considered how riding has informed my writing. Communicating with an animal requires a great deal of paying attention and observing, and I think that certainly translates into the writing process. I once had to throw myself off of a horse that was running at full speed back towards the barn. I could see the low awning of the barn ahead, and I knew I had lost control of the horse. I didn’t want to end up trapped under the awning or thrown dangerously sideways–so I made a decision to pull my feet out of the stirrups and make a flying dismount. I skidded and tumbled across the hard summer dirt, landing safely (and sorely) between two spindly birch trees. I think, whether we are parenting or writing or on a runaway horse, we have to make big decisions and sometimes we don’t know precisely what the outcome will be.

TBD: Did working at a bookstore help you as a writer?

MC: Absolutely. If you love books as much as I do and you want to surround yourself with likeminded people, go work in an independent bookstore. Bookstores are magical places. You get to meet authors and discover new books all the time. I also learned how sometimes great books thrive and other equally beautiful books can sometimes wither on the shelf. I quickly gleaned how subjective the world of books can be. This armored me with very humble and realistic expectations as I entered the publishing arena with my own book. I had a completed draft of my memoir when I started working at Book Passage, and I decided to put it in the proverbial drawer for a year so that I could focus on other books and writers. This turned out to be a great plan. Two years later, I met my agent during an event I was hosting.

TBD: You’ve now seen hundreds of authors do events as event coordinator at one of the great bookstores in America, Book Passage. What mistakes do you see writers make? What do you see successful writers do to help themselves?

MC: I have a wonderful job at Book Passage. I introduce authors, host their events and read their books. I find that, for the most part, authors are truly grateful and gracious when they come to Book Passage. I learn something new at every event I host. I take a lot of notes. We always appreciate when an author stands up and thanks independent bookstores for the hard work they do, because we certainly don’t do this work for the money (which is essentially minimum wage). We do this work because we love working in the landscape of books, ideas and creative minds.

TBD: What did you learn about finding an agent and publisher that you think unpublished writers would like to know?

MC: Finding that one agent who falls in love with your work takes a lot of time, patience and perseverance. Expect a lot of rejection. Grow extremely thick skin. And keep writing what you are passionate about. When you find that agent, he or she will help get your manuscript to the right publisher.

TBD: What was the most frustrating part of the publishing process from idea through publication for you?

MC: The publishing process is full of surprises, and I had to carry my publishing “Bible” with me everywhere. (That would be your book!). There are so many things you can learn in advance about how publishing works and all the ins-and-outs of contracts, deals, agents, etc. It was a tremendous and challenging education going through the publishing process. The landscape is changing so fast that it’s important to keep informed.

TBD: How can writers best use their local bookstore to help them in their career?

MC: Support your local bookstore. This means buying books from them. Attend their events. Introduce yourself to the booksellers and tell them you are a writer. Ask them for advice and book recommendations. Let them know you are not going to get a recommendation and then go purchase it for a few dollars less online. Today there are many ways a writer can professionally self-publish their books, and this is a perfectly respectable way to publish. Just make sure that if you self-publish, it’s on a platform that is compatible with independent bookstores. (This is kind of homework that authors need to do when looking into their publishing options!)

I love meeting writers at Book Passage, and I appreciate when they tell me they are a writer because I know how challenging this path is. I also know that one day they may come in and tell me that their book is being published–and guess who is going to make sure that they get a reading at Book Passage?

TBD: What advice do you have for writers?

MC: If there is a story you need to tell, you must do it. You must keep writing and writing until you are both empty and full. No story is too small for this world.

Melissa Cistaro‘s stories have been published in numerous literary journals, including the New Ohio Review, Anderbo.com, and Brevity as well as the anthologies Cherished and Love and Profanity. She works as a bookseller and event coordinator at Book Passage, the esteemed independent bookstore in Northern California. Between the years of raising her children, writing, bookselling, teaching horseback riding, and curating a business in equestrian antiques – Melissa completed her first memoir, Pieces of My Mother.

Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are also co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, June 2015). They are also book editors, and between them they have authored 25 books, and appeared on National Public Radio, the London Times, and the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.

Andy Ross, agent Andy Ross Literary Agency

How to Find an Agent: The Book Doctors and Andy Ross

The Book Doctors first met Andy Ross at Cody’s Books, which was one of the most influential bookstores on the West Coast, smack dab in the middle of Telegraph Avenue in book-crazy Berkeley, California. In fact David did his first professional book reading at Cody when his first memoir Chicken came out. Andy’s now an agent, and we thought we’d check in with him about how he views the book business from behind a desk dealing with writers rather than behind a cash register dealing with readers. To read on the Huffington Post click here.

Andy Ross, agent Andy Ross Literary Agency

The Book Doctors: How did you get started in the ridiculous book business?

Andy Ross: I got into it for ridiculous reasons. I was in graduate school studying German Intellectual History at the University of Oregon. I was unhappy. I didn’t understand Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, my girlfriend left me and joined a hippy free love commune, and it rained a lot. I decided I needed a change and I liked bookstores. These were/are not good reasons to set one’s path for the rest of his/my life, but still…. That was 40 years ago, and here I am today.

TBD: What did you learn about the book business in your time owning Berkeley’s iconic Cody’s Books?

AR: That would be a very long list. I owned it for 30 years. What strikes me now is all the things I didn’t learn. A bookstore is the end of the literary food chain. By the time I opened the shipment box from the publisher, the books had been written, edited, designed, printed, marketed, and shipped. I only did one thing, but a pretty important thing: I put it into the hands of the book lover.

TBD: How has becoming an agent changed your view of writers, writing, and the publishing industry?

AR: Otto von Bismarck is reputed to have said: “Laws are like sausages. It is better not to see them being made.” I think the creative process is like that too. It’s pretty messy. But also pretty miraculous, when I see the transformation from a train wreck of a first draft into a masterpiece.

TBD: How has the book business changed since you started, for better and for worse?

AR: I first opened a small store in Sonoma County, California in 1972. It was 600 square feet, about as big as my living room. My first day, my sales were $32. Remember the counter culture? We sold a lot of books, mostly paperbacks, on humanistic psychology, eastern mysticism, and other things spiritual. Fritz Perls, Abraham Maslow, Alan Watts, The Urantia Book, Be Here Now, and Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism were some of my best selling books and authors back then. I made a lot of money on the I Ching (Princeton University Press edition). And, of course, all things having to do with the ever mysterious, Carlos Castañeda. The big topic of conversation was whether Casteñnada really existed – although much later he married a friend of mine. She said he was a rat. But the business still had its share of schock at the top of the lists. It was no worse than it is now.

TBD: What mistakes do you see writers make? What things do you see successful writers do?

AR: Let’s talk about mistakes in writing fiction. What I see from inexperienced writers is not knowing when the story starts. Too much literary throat clearing, usually in the form of “prologues.” The use and misuse of adverbs. My advice to the writers is: “get rid of all of them.” (Andy said authoritatively.) Using too many metaphorical figures of speech is a sign of insecurity in an inexperienced writer. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a green tree is a green tree.

TBD: What are your pet peeves about writers and their submissions?

AR: We don’t have enough time for this, but here are just a few things: In your query letter, don’t say “this is a fiction novel” and really don’t say “this is a non-fiction novel.” Don’t mention Eat, Pray, Love; Malcolm Gladwell; or Oprah in the query letter or book proposal. Be honest and transparent to your agent, and I will be/do the same with you/the publisher. I don’t know what your advance will be. If any agent tells you: “I can get you a 6 figure deal” or “this book has Hollywood written all over it,” best to find a different agent.

TBD: Tell us about the Slush Pile Derby?

AR: I made a bet with somebody that anyone could see talent right away, even if you couldn’t explain it. So I took 10 first paragraphs from my slush pile. None of them were horrible. Some of them I decided to represent based on that first paragraph. They were subsequently published. When I do the slush pile derby at writers conferences, pretty much everyone can identify the books that got my attention.

TBD: Do you google potential clients? How much attention do you pay to the platform?

AR: I like to say that platform means one of two things: Either you have an endowed chair at Harvard or you are sleeping with Oprah’s hairdresser. Platform is almost essential in non-fiction. But with fiction, it’s usually about the story and the style.

TBD: What advice do you have for writers?

AR: For writers of literary fiction, most of it won’t find a publisher. If I’m representing you, you are good enough to get published. But commercial publishing is a business. You have to be good, but that isn’t enough. They usually make decisions more for marketing reasons than for aesthetic reasons. Rejections are a big part of this business. Learn to live with it and keep writing. If you are writing memoir, it’s often even harder to find a publisher. Remember that the journey is the destination. Or as Camus famously said: “The struggle itself is enough to fill a man’s heart.”

Andy Ross was the owner of the Legendary Cody’s Books in Berkeley from 1977-2007. In 2008 he started the Andy Ross Literary Agency. Andy represents books in a wide range of genres including: narrative non-fiction, journalism, history, current events, literary and commercial fiction, and teen fiction. Andy has a popular blog, “Ask the Agent,” where he talks about writing, and book publishing and reminisces about his life as a bookseller. You can find Andy’s website at www.andyrossagency.com.

 

911: The Power of Small Town Independent Book Stores

DowntownSisters911 said the sign as we edged into the central Oregon town of Sisters.  We weren’t sure if that was the population, or a cry for help.  It was Saturday afternoon, and we were booked into Paulina Springs Book Company as part of our Putting Your Passion Into Print Tour.  In fact we had put together this event to sell our books Satchel Sez: the World, Wit and Wisdom of Satchel Paige, and Pride & Promiscuity: the Lost Sex Scenes of Jane Austen, because our publishers, Simon & Schuster, and Random House, had told us it would be very difficult to do a successful event in a bookstore revolving around Satchel Paige or Jane Austen, both of whom are dead, and most likely will remain so.  But Kate Cerino at Paulina Springs seemed to think differently, and had insisted on doing an event about Satchel Paige, instead of Passion Into Print.  So there we were.

We walked into the store at 4:40 for our 5:00 event, and apart from Kate, none of the 911 Sisterites were there.  Our expectations, which had been extremely low to begin with, plummeted as we spied the 30 empty seats sadly facing one lone chair, which was staring off into space self-consciously.

As we strolled around Sisters, we noticed that all the shops were closed, and no one was around.  It was like a Twilight Zone episode.  We began to wonder if there really were 911 people in Sisters, or if we were going to be abducted by author-starved aliens who would make us write books day and night for the rest of eternity.

Well, imagine our surprise at 5:00 when we returned to find Paulina Springs Bookstore packed with 35 of its 911 occupants.  3% of the population.  If this was LA there would’ve been 300,000 people there.  Our jaws hit the floor.  Those melancholy chairs were now full and happy, brimming with Sisters bottoms, all waiting for us to say something intelligent, insightful and witty about Satchel Paige.

I scanned the crowd, and it suddenly hit me: there were only two people under the age of sixty in the audience.  Talk about your target audience.  Afterwards, the crowd asked great questions, and many of them shared their own Satchel Paige stories.  It was America at its best, oral history flying all around us, right there in Paulina Springs Book Company, Sisters, Oregon, population 911.  Turns out almost everyone there had seen Satchel pitch, which is not as strange as it might seem, since he barnstormed North America from Moosejaw to Miami.  One woman told a story about when she was a little girl and her father took her to Comiskey Park in 1948 so she could see Satchel pitch against the Cleveland Indians.  As she told us, her eyes glowed like gold as she lit up the room.

Towards the end of the event the Oldest-Man-in-the-Room raised his hand.  In a voice weathered with age but still going gangbusters, he said, “I was the batboy on Satchel Paige’s team.  My uncle was his manager.  I used to ride in his car with him.  He was fast.  He would have made a great race car driver, Ol’ Satch.”  He stole the whole show in about twenty seconds.

After the event, the Oldest-Man-In-the-Room approached me.  He had several hundred thousand miles on him, but his smile was wide, his mind was tack-sharp, and he had incredible posture.  Made me stop slouching just looking at him.  He thanked me for writing the book.  Then he told me that he had one of Satchel’s old gloves.  I said I would love to buy it from him.  He said, “No, sir, I want you to have it.  Give me your address and I’ll mail it to you.”  I insisted on paying for it, but he wouldn’t hear of it.  He gave me his pen, and I wrote down my address for him.  He carefully folded the paper and put it in his pocket.  Then he stuck out his hand and I took it in mine.  It was old and thin, but the grip was strong, with a little pump at the end.  I hope I’m shaking hands as well as that when I’m 80.  After we said our heartfelt farewells, I was distracted by someone asking me to sign a book, and this led to another signature, then another.  As I signed the books, I was so happy when the buyers asked me to make the inscriptions out to their grand-sons and grand-daughters.  Then it hit me: this is why I wanted to write the book in the first place, so the next generation would know about Satchel and his 6 Rules for Staying Young.  As I signed, I felt a tug on my sleeve.  It was the Oldest-Main-in-the-Room.  I smiled to myself.  I figured he probably forgot something.  “Sonny, you got my pen.”  I cracked up, handed him the pen, and smiled as I watched him walk away slow but steady, overjoyed at 44 to be called Sonny.

We thanked Kate, she thanked us, then we all patted each other on the back for quite some time.  We promised her we’d be back when my memoir Chicken comes out in February, and she said she was looking forward to it.

Everyone in the store bought a book.  It was the most successful event on our whole 13-stores-in-15-day tour.

As we packed up to leave Sisters, population 911, Arielle turned to David and said, “You never know.”

 

D & A: Why did you buck conventional wisdom and bring an event revolving around Satchel Sez: The Wit, Wisdom, and World of Satchel Paige into Paulina Springs Bookstore, when most publishers say in-store events about baseball players don’t work when the ballplayer is dead?

K: Someone in the store heard David being interviewed by Scott Simon on National Public Radio, and thought it would make a good event.

D & A: Why did you think an event about a Negro Leagues legend would work in your store when there are so few African-Americans in your town?

K: I don’t really think about it like that.  We try to only bring in great events, so when people come to see an event here, they know it’s going to be interesting.  Like all independent bookstores that have managed to survive, we have very loyal customers, and they support us.

D & A: So, you don’t make automatic assumptions of which books will draw crowds, and which won’t?

K: No, not really.  We just try to bring in high-quality authors we think will put on really good events.

D & A: Your store has such a nice feel in it, it seems very intimate.

K: I think that’s important.  A lot of people are intimidated by writers.  A woman came to an event here and she said she’d always wanted to go to one of these events, but she felt intimidated.  We have a very casual feeling here, and I think that makes a big difference.

D & A: And you had books I’d never seen before.

K: We’re able to hand-select the books we sell.  I think almost every book in this store has been read by someone on the staff, or was recommended to us by a customer.  One of our customers lives most of the time in Berkeley, and she comes into our store to buy books.  I asked her why and she said, “You guys always have seem to have great books I can’t find anywhere else.”  And she’s from Berkeley, where there are so many bookstores!

D & A: Your event was the most successful on David and Arielle’s 13 stores-in15-days Northwest Tour.  Why do think the event such a success, in a town with 911 people?

K: Well, that’s a little deceiving.  There are actually about 10,000 people who live in and around Sisters.  But I think Paulina Springs Book Company is in many ways an intellectual center here in Sisters, and, in fact, for the larger Central Oregon community.  The store’s owners, Dianne Campbell and Dick Sandvik, have worked very hard over the past nine years to develop strong audiences for our in-store events.  People really pay attention to who we bring in.  Like a lot of small towns all over America, many well-educated, interesting people live here.  People have chosen to move here because it’s such a great place to live.  We really work hard to get the word out on our events, and we benefit a lot from word of mouth in the community.

D & A: Do you think that publishers sometimes underestimate small-town bookstores’ ability to sell books and stage successful events?

K: Most definitely!  We have a very hard time getting publishers to send their authors here.  We’ve been very persistent, especially at making direct contact with writers.  Authors like Sandra Dallas, Barry Lopez, Ivan Doig, and Craig Lesley came to Paulina Springs despite reservations of their publicists – and had great receptions and wonderful experiences.  We think it’s time publicists and publishers took note that their authors might make a bigger splash here, rather than being part of the background noise in the big city.  I was cleaning the files the other day and I found a note from Pete Fromm addressing this very point.  “…the entire way to Boise, where the Barnes & noble experience was pretty much a bust.  Meeting you guys, the dinner and the reading at your store turned out to be one of the high points of the entire trip.  Thanks for pestering the publisher to get me there.”

D & A: That was our experience, too, Kate.  Thank you so much for talking to me, and thanks for making us feel so welcome.

K: Thank you.

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