That First 5-Star Review: How Sweet It Is!

All you authors out there: you’ve spent months, maybe years, researching, interviewing, writing a book.  When you’re finally done (though never completely satisfied), you send it out into the world to make its own way like a mother bird feeding, preening its young until it’s time to let the chicks leave the nest.

The world for writers—as the world for free birds and all other animals in the kingdom—can be a scary, dangerous place, even life-ending. For writers, there are critics, sales figures, book signings, print and TV interiors (sometimes live), podcasts and all things online.  You may shell out a chunk of change and hire a PR company to do your bidding with the hope that they’ll do a better job than you ever could and, with luck, snag some primo “placements” that help spread the word.

I don’t know the stats, but I have to assume that those reviews from influential critics writing for influential publications can make a big difference.  Sure, the experts you interviewed have a vested interest and should be pleased that you’ve shared some of their wisdom.  But the strangers out there—those folks who don’t know you from Adam and hold your potential success or failure in their hands.  They are the ones who can make our break you.

So when that first review from a major publication arrives in an email or in the publication/online site, your palms begin to sweat, your heart races like a revved-up Indy 500 race car, and you feel as if the rest of your life hangs in the balance.

Thus, that’s how I felt earlier today when the red flagged first review of Dead Serious: Breaking the Cycle of Teen Suicide hit my inbox.  What did that red flag mean, anyway?  Was it a warning?  Was there danger up ahead?  Should I ignore the damn thing and go about my day?

Yes, I have a thick skin from the many book proposal rejections and tepid reviews over the thirty+ years of my writing career.  I was prepared to rationalize that this was only one review of many and that, even if it weren’t stellar, there would be others that might be.  Time to buckle up.

The review was written by one Melissa Wyske, a reviewer for Foreword Reviews which, by the way, I’d never heard of until my publicist filled me in on the details:

Readership includes 30,000+ librarians and booksellers, including 1,100 American Bookseller Association members, 7,400+ followers on Twitter, 3,500+ followers on Facebook.  Not bad!

        I opened the email.  I missed the 5 stars and the opening quote to be used on the back jacket cover and in future            PR materials.  I went right for the heart of the review:  ” . . . the book’s compelling, important goal is to save                    the lives of young people. Leder executes this task with fervor and assurance.”  (Wow!)  “Leder unpacks the                    emotional realities of those who are suffering and for those who are left behind.”  (Good deal!)  “The voices of                teens—through interviews, quotes and stories— are a highlight of the book.  The depth of their pain is vital and              moving.” (You can say that again!)  “This updated version is as fresh as it is urgently needed—a life-giving                      essential resource.

        I started to cry from a sense of relief, accomplishment, and validation.

        Thank you Melissa Wyske.  You made my day and, with luck, set the tone for the book’s success.

Author Jane Leder

Tale of A Traditional Author Turned Indie

I felt like a big girl author with bragging rights when traditional New York publishers signed me on.  I got advances against royalties, expert editing, and a supposed PR wing that would sing my praises.

And that’s what happened the first time around.  My book on teen suicide garnered great reviews, sold well, led to other assignments, and actually put some money in my pocket.  (BTW, even with Atheneum that supposedly “had my back,” I still ended up paying an outside PR firm to pick up where the publicists at Atheneum left off.)

It was downhill after that.  I didn’t make back my advance on my next two books.  I hated the book cover on one so much that I cried for an hour and moped for days.  It soon became clear that as a mid-list author, I was one of many thousands and thousands of publishing step children and that the publisher actually bet against the success of my book. The book didn’t stand a chance. When it got around to my third book—this one about love and sex in World War II—(a juicy subject, right?), I had a hard time finding an agent to take the book (my beloved agent, Berenice Hoffmann, had by then passed away) and an even harder time finding a publisher.  I didn’t have a PhD in history, and according to the high and mighty, I didn’t have the chops to write such a book.  I wrote it, anyway.

So, when I decided to write a 2nd edition of Dead Serious, the book about teen suicide first published in 1987 (Ouch!), I had made up my mind not to jump through the required hoops to find an agent who would then, hopefully, find a publisher.  I’d been warned at workshops, conferences, webinars, that, unless I had a “platform” (translate: thousands and thousands of online followers and, this time, an M.D. or some other combination of letters behind my name,) the chances of getting a traditional book contract were as likely as me winning the Mrs. USA contest—or whatever the heck it’s called.

Why knock my head against the proverbial wall?  Why face a pile of rejection letters with nice enough compliments about the value of my book, particularly at this time,  but that, in the end, shared the same message: we don’t want your book.  Nope, I wasn’t going to subject myself to a barrage of stabs at my self-esteem and abilities as an author.

I jumped head first into the indie world.  No need for an agent, though I do have a distributor.  Full control over cover and interior design.  An editor of my choice.  More money upon the sale of my book.  Ability to upload an ebook without searching for a second publisher.  I would control all the strings and mold a book that would check off all the boxes and turn out exactly as I wanted it—not some unknown publisher in NYC who, in truth, could care less.  Stick with the Stephen Kings of the world.

There have been some snafus along the way.  The pdf was initially rejected by Ingram because the page count didn’t meet its requirements.  When I got the first test copy, the book looked so—paltry and unimportant.  At 167 pages, it didn’t reflect all the months I spent researching, interviewing, writing, editing, proofing, designing.  But there was a solution: I changed the book size from 6″ X 9″ to 5″ X 8″, and that made all the difference.  The book is now over 200 pages and looks like a serious tome on a dead serious subject.

Yes, I’ve had to shell out a chunk of change.  The editing and cover design fees, as well as the programmer”s fee for the ebook, were reasonable.  But the interior designer charged about twice as much as I’d expected.  But she did a spectacular job, and the book looks so much more engaging than your basic print edition.  The kicker, though, has been the PR firm.  There was no way I was going to pitch this book in this online media age with book sites, review sites, podcasts, blogs, Twitter/Facebook/Instagram and the like, professional organizations, experts in the field, SEO, mailings, and more.  Nope.  I’d been there, done that and couldn’t stomach the thought of handling all that myself.

PR firms are not cheap.  And it makes no sense to bring them on for, say, two months.  So, up the ante and watch the balance in your checkbook or savings dwindle a chunk every month.  Granted, there is no dearth of ideas on the part of the publicists on “Team Jane.”  TV shows about lesbians, trans people, gender fluid folks.  “13 Reasons Why” about a teenage girl who takes her life and then “comes back” from the grave with thirteen tapes, each one addressed to a different person whom the dead girl holds partially responsible for her death.  A new song titled with the phone number of the National Suicide Prevention Hotline.  Teen suicide deaths reaching a 40-year high.  More middle school kids taking their lives than ever before.  And the list of what in the biz is called a “news hook” goes on.

Will the book sell well?  Will I have made the right move by going indie?  The results will tell.  The book will be available for pre ordering at the end of this month.  Folks can get their hands on the real thing or download the ebook at the end of January, 2018.  I doubt I’ll make my money back.  But my hope is that thousands of teens, adults and educators will read the book and that, as corny as it sounds, I will help save a couple of folks from taking the plunge into the abyss.





As A Teen, Did You Smoke Weed?

“When Your Asks, “Did You ?”

A potentially tough question can lead to a healthy conversation.

Part of parenting is being asked to answer some tough questions. Do you believe in God? Why is there so much terror in the world? Why don’t I have a lot of friends? And, among many others, the question that some parents may dread: As a teen, did you smoke weed?

The article in the New York Times cited above got me thinking about how I may have reacted when my son did (or could have) asked the question. It’s all a bit blurry at this point. (That should be a clue right there.) But knowing who I was then and how I parented, my guess is that I tried the “lecture” approach—you know, citing all the bad things pot can do to one’s not yet completely formed brain, affirming that pot is a “gateway” drug that can lead to harder stuff. All the obvious “adult” responses that made me out to be a hypocrite and a lecturer instead of a listener. I missed one of those magic moments when teens ask a question that, when answered honestly, can end up opening the lines of communication for more questions down the line and can, according to new research, impact adolescents to be less likely to experiment with drugs.
Regardless of what your history is, it can help to receive “Did you smoke weed?” as an overture rather than an inquisition. Your teenager probably has more pressing questions lined up behind that one. Whether conscious of it or not, a teenager asking, “What choice did you make?” is often wondering, “What choice should I make?”
So, as I drink the truth cool aid and face facts, the truth had been out of the bag for years. My friends liked to party. We were in our 30s, and it seemed there was a party on the social calendar almost every week end. The majority of us had young children and, when we hosted the gang, it was our assignment to get the kids “down” and out before the festivities began.

But my son was smart; he knew something was up. He must have hoodwinked me into thinking he was off in Never Never Land when, in fact, he was waiting patiently until I closed his bedroom door and tiptoed downstairs. He wasn’t fooled but did, when he was older, ask me the “Did you smoke weed?” question. As I said earlier, I didn’t rise to the occasion; in fact, I probably denied that I’d ever smoked pot or that I’d smoked but had soon come to realize the error of my ways.

“But I smelled it,” I remember him saying. “How could I not?”

I fumbled for some response to get me off the hook. But he had me where he wanted me—caught in a bold-face lie.

That should have been the moment when I owned up and listened to what he had to say: what he thought, the peer pressure he might have felt, whether he’d already smoked a joint.

As soon as I post this, I’m calling my son. I need to set the record straight—even if he’s 44 and long into his own adulthood and his own decisions about pot and everything else.