Interview: Brynn Markham on Finding Writing Community and Support Through James River Writers

“Writing is hard and it can be isolating. Community provides the vital support to keep going. James River Writers provides that community.” This was the ethos that inspired James River Writers, and it has kept this dynamic, active, and connected collective of wordsmiths thriving ever since.

Today on our blog, we’re sitting down with Brynn Markham, Director of Programs and Communications for JRW, to discuss how this multifaceted group helped revitalize Richmond’s literary scene, and why writing communities can help improve and support each member’s individual craft.

1). What is and who are James River Writers? What does your writing community do?

James River Writers (JRW) is a nonprofit that builds community by connecting, supporting, and inspiring writers. We provide programming year-round to help writers at all skill levels develop their craft, as well as the business side of their work. In addition to our signature event, the Annual James River Writers Conference, we offer Master Classes, a Writing Show series, on-demand Encore! classes, and opportunities to socialize and connect through our monthly Writers Wednesday events.

2). How did JRW originate, and how did you get involved?

JRW was founded 20 years ago (next year!) when local writers in Richmond, Virginia, saw a need for supporting the growth of its budding literary community. This small group of writers hosted its first conference the following year, and James River Writers has continued to grow its membership and program offerings exponentially since then.

As a nonprofit communications professional in the Greater Richmond area, my work with public media (VPM PBS/NPR) connected me to James River Writers through my community engagement efforts. As a lover of writing, especially poetry, I always admired JRWs work from afar, and wanted to get involved with their efforts, both professionally and personally. In the fall of 2019, I made the decision to leave my work at VPM, in order to provide space for the perfect opportunity to come along. I wanted a flexible workplace that fueled my passions and allowed me to continue to work in Richmond’s nonprofit sector. James River Writers was the perfect fit. I now have the opportunity to add value to the community I live in, while also (selfishly?) benefiting from being inspired by talented writers every day!

3). What are the benefits of being involved in a writers community like JRW? How have you seen writers evolve and grow?

I joined JRW in February of 2020, right before COVID hit. As a result, I was only able to host two in-person events before we made the pivot to online programming, including hosting our signature event, the Annual James River Writers Conference, virtually.

I definitely had reservations about whether I would be able to effectively connect to our community in a meaningful way when there were no “live” options to do so. But this community of writers is nothing short of amazing, and my reservations were completely unfounded. Our membership is highly engaged and extremely supportive of one another. I’ve mentioned several times to everyone that you can plan all the details of an event or program, but if the participants and presenters are not authentic and personable, your planning is for naught. It’s the people that make an organization. The relationships within James River Writers are what make it such a success. Our seasoned presenters and instructors, like Newbery Medalist Meg Medina and Emmy Award-Winner Hank Phillippi Ryan, genuinely want to see our budding writers succeed. Our new members want to learn and be in community with one another. As one of our long-time members, accomplished author Karen A. Chase has said, “JRW…is so wonderful at championing all writing genres, encouraging diversity, and giving rise to varied viewpoints. If you’re a JRW member, as you grow and gain successes, you’re always welcomed back in to share that knowledge with writers coming up. JRW is the ladder of success, and it’s always there for everyone whether they’re on their first book, or their fourteenth.”

Writing is hard and it can be isolating. Community provides the vital support to keep going. James River Writers provides that community.

4). The James River Writers Conference appears to be your flagship event. What goes into creating a successful writers conference? What advice would you give to writers who want to make the most of their participation in a writers conference (whether they’re part of a panel or event, or just going as an attendee)?

Yes, our Annual James River Writers Conference, held in October every year, is our flagship event.

Because my first JRW Conference was hosted online, one of our main concerns was whether or not we would be able to recreate that sense of connection and community that keeps everyone coming back to us. Luckily, our attendees and speakers overwhelmingly told us that they were amazed at how connected they felt during our conference, in this online space. To do so, we not only incorporated the important professional development opportunities to teach the business and craft of writing, we also included ample opportunities to network and connect with other writers, as well as time to benefit from one anothers’ perspectives in more relaxed settings. As a writer, to make the most out of your time, force yourself to come out of your shell (so many of us tend to fight this), establish some new contacts, and then continue to connect after the conference. Writing is most definitely a marathon. You need someone to cheer you on, and to offer you refreshment along the path when you need it.

5). What suggestions would you make to writers who want to join–or get “more” out of–a dedicated writing group or workshop?

I would suggest that, in order to get the most out of writing groups, you do actively have to participate. Don’t just pop in to ask a specific question, or to make a specific contact, and then never be seen again. Some of the best moments that result in next steps for writers come from conversations with others before and after our programs. And, whatever time and energy you put into your community of writers, you’ll get back tenfold. Our community celebrates the successes of one another, both privately and publicly. Many times, they collaborate on events when their works present natural opportunities to do so. Writers are some of the most supportive people because they know how hard it can be. You’ll never see a successful writer only singing their own praises.

I also highly recommend building up your contacts on social media, and following those writers, agents, and publishers that align with your work. This will help you stay informed of submissions opportunities and industry trends, and feel inspired and seen on the days you just can’t seem to get any words on paper.

6). In your opinion, what does it mean to be a “successful” writer?

This is a tricky question, because the answer is most definitely different for everyone. And, depending on where you are on your writing journey it also changes for the individual. Success for a writer can be as simple as setting a goal and keeping to the measures you set to get there. Showing up each day and putting “pen to paper.” If you start measuring your success by industry standards, then that’s likely to keep you from getting you where you want to be. As a recent presenter on one of our panels put it – Are you still having fun? Enjoying yourself? If not, then stop and think about why that is. Are you constantly stopping the flow of ideas because you’re obsessed with the editing or word choices, at every turn? If so, change course. You’re probably not focusing on the writing, but on that goalpost.

If you’re interested in checking out James River Writers, a great entry point is our free monthly Writers Wednesdays events. Now offered online, and open to writers at all levels of expertise, Writers Wednesdays offer a chance to network and socialize in a relaxed environment. We’d love for you to join our community of writers.

Learn more about James River Writers here:
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Moving Forward After Rejection as an Author

Every author we’ve ever met has experienced a rejection of some kind: from an agent, a publisher, a writing program, you name it! While it can be frustrating or disheartening, it’s totally normal and part of a writer’s life.

This week on our blog, we’re asking our authors to share about a time they’ve experienced a rejection during their writing career — and also how they moved past it, and where they’re at now in their publishing journey. These relatable, thoughtful stories remind us that we’ve all “been there,” and hopefully encourage and inspire us to keep writing!

20+ Rejections, 19 Drafts — and an Instant NYT Bestseller
“I received 20+ rejections by literary agents on WINGS OF EBONY while querying and several from editors. And yet, WINGS OF EBONY debuted as an instant NYT bestseller. Back when I was querying, when all I had were those rejections in my hands and not a glimpse of what could be possible if I’d persisted, hope is what held me together. A sense of stubborn tenacity that wouldn’t accept I couldn’t get this book on shelves.

I wish I had some kitschy practical six steps with funky cool alliteration you could do to handle rejections to your writing, fix the problem, or write a book that’ll never see a rejection! But I don’t. Because that’s impossible for many reasons, one of which is the very nature of writing is incredibly subjective so what’s good to one agent or editor may not resonate with another. The same is true for readers. Rejection can also be instructive, motivating, depending on how you frame it. Just try to not let it frame YOU. Remember, the greatest tool in your toolkit when facing rejection — because it’s inevitable and recurring — is persistence.

I rewrote WINGS OF EBONY multiple times. The copy on shelves is draft nineteen. NINETEEN. As cliche as it sounds, keep trying. Belief in yourself is what’s ultimately going to get you there.”

— J. Elle, author of the New York Times bestseller Wings of Ebony

All About the But
“It’s always about the but.

‘Hi Sid, thanks so much for sending! I did receive and I dove in this past weekend but I’m afraid it’s not quite right for my list. I’m so sorry to disappoint. Thank you again for sharing your work with me. It was a pleasure to connect and best of luck with the book!’

This ‘but’ came from a prominent agent, and I received a few more before finding an agent and a publisher for the first installment in my Seventh Flag trilogy. It was a new experience for me. As a Pulitzer-nominated war correspondent for a major news agency, I would write several stories a day knowing that they would be accepted, edited and published. I found inspiration knowing that Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, one of the best-selling books of all time, was rejected by more than 100 publishers, and that Vincent Van Gogh never sold a painting while he was alive. Thankfully, I lived to see my art published, and you will too if you stay positive and resolute.”

— Sid Balman, author of the Seventh Flag Trilogy (second installment due out Aug. 3, 2021)

The Art of Not Giving Up

“It was November 2017. I had finally finished writing, editing, and polishing the manuscript for my debut novel, a manuscript that took me ten years to complete. I had done my research and had my list of agents to go. Fingers crossed, I plunged into the querying trenches.

At first, it was great. Most of my queries turned into full or partial manuscript requests. My hopes started to build even as the dreaded waiting process began. By mid-December, one by one the rejections started to come in. Everyone knows that querying is brutal, and one usually gets more rejections than requests for representation. Still, I was heartbroken.

One of the criticisms I kept hearing was that my book was too long for middle grade. Typically, the word count for middle grade novels is between 50,000-70,000 words while mine was 91,000. Yikes!

As hard as it seemed, I knew it was the right thing to do. During the last two months of my pregnancy in mid 2018, I cut down 23,000 words and rewrote large sections of the book. Once my baby arrived, I sent the manuscript back to my beta readers to see if the new revisions maintained the plot, pace, and character growth. I began querying again. Long story short, I signed with my publisher in September 2019 and my debut novel, Rea and the Blood of the Nectar, releases June 2021!

Perseverance is key when it comes to writing a novel, and sadly, rejections are a big part of being a writer and becoming an author. But in my experience, it is through these rejections, setbacks, and challenges that we find what it takes to make our manuscripts better, our writing skills stronger, and determination greater. So, hang in there and don’t give up!”

— Payal Doshi, author of Rea and the Blood of the Nectar (releasing June 1, 2021)

An Unexpected Save

As our family struggled with my mom’s Alzheimer’s, I wrote a children’s picture book about Alzheimer’s disease and dementia, Granny Can’t Remember Me. I heard from agents and editors that they liked the story but already had a book on the topic published or one in the works. After hearing this form of rejection time and again, I decided to publish it myself, and I floundered through three separate illustrators, dealt with many minute questions I’d never conceived of before (font type, size, bleeds), and waded into promotion and marketing. I was extremely happy with the end result and happy also that this lovely story has a voice.

I also write cozy murder mysteries, and wrote my first Fog Ladies book a long, long time ago. When I pitched this one to agents and editors, I was told, ‘We love cozies, but there’s no market for them right now. We want noir and edgy, vampires and zombies and goth and unreliable narrators.’ Then the world turned edgy, and cozies were back in. After years of trying to get my cozy published, I had two small publishers vie for my manuscript.

However, I did not waste all those years. The mystery was a much better version of itself when it was published, after I listened to critiques from conferences, agents, and a developmental editor. I reworked the story and made some crucial changes that I would have regretted not having if the book had been published in its original form. One feisty character, eighty-year-old Enid Carmichael, the apartment building’s unfiltered busybody, steals her neighbors’ grande latte coupons, unknowingly discovers whodunnit, and winds up in the ICU. Originally, she died at the hands of the killer, but several agents advised against killing off a great character, so she lives on now to bother tenants in the future books. Without the years of rejection allowing me time to reshape and rethink, she would be dead.”

— Susan McCormick, author of The Antidote (releasing May 5, 2021) 

An Evolutionary Solution

“I knew I had a story to tell, but figuring out how to tell it took years. I tried it as a novel, but kept hitting walls. I wrote it as a play. Then as a memoir. Sixteen years later, on the third rewrite, each with a different point of view, I finally nailed it. There is something to say for having an obsessive gene.”
— Margo Krasne, author of What Would I Do Without You?: A Collection of Short Stories About Friendships

Keep On Playing

“As a young professional singer, I encountered the ups and downs of trying to get my foot in the door. I managed, despite the challenges, to make my way in this world and am now spreading my writers’ wings. I wrote a poem about my former life as a singer trying to make it in New York City. The following is a portion of that poem:


Audition after audition after audition circles round and round and round
like an old phonograph turntable playing the same song over again and again.
Will someone not lift the needle and get me off this merry go around and around?
Singing careers teeter totter up and down, up and down on the great seesaw of auditions.
One letter of rejection follows another letter of rejection following yet another until
one day a miracle appears in the form of black typeset words on a white sheet of paper.
“We are happy to inform you….”

The above segment from my poem is analogous to writing. With persistence and determination, we craft our works in hopes that we/they will receive validation. For me, life as an artist has been my journey. Any successful artist has had to deal with disappointment and rejection at some point. The following quote from Sister Mary Lauretta (1905-1995), a Wisconsin science teacher, sums up my belief as an artist: ‘To be successful, the first thing to do is fall in love with your work.’”

— Christine Isley-Farmer, author of Finding My Yip


How to Connect with Readers Who Have Reviewed Your Book Online

Seeing early positive reader reviews on Goodreads and Amazon can feel thrilling and gratifying. Finally, after all your hard work, real people are reading your book, and they felt invested enough to take the time to review it online!

But should you “do” anything after receiving a positive reader review — and if so, what? And when?

Reader reviews can be more than just validation that you wrote an engaging book; they also provide an opportunity to connect with people who have already shown investment in your work, which can also be a valuable tool for growing your author platform. Here’s how you can better connect with reviewers, and keep growing their investment in and engagement with you — and your future books!

Respond on Goodreads, not Amazon.
Goodreads allows authors and other users to respond to reviews and questions; Amazon does not. Goodreads is the better platform for responding to reader feedback anyway, because it’s a social media platform targeted specifically for readers who want to engage with books and authors!

Thank readers for their feedback.
Have you ever had the thrilling sensation of reviewing, tweeting about, or otherwise making social media commentary on the work of someone you admire, and then the person in question actually responds? It can be a wonderful, personalized moment that can make you feel “special” and “seen.” By thanking your readers for their positive and/or thoughtful reviews, you’re showing that you’re engaged with them, and this incentivizes them to continue to engage with you.

Answer readers’ questions.
If a reader asks a question about your book, characters, plot, etc. on Goodreads (or other social media platform), feel free to answer them (providing that it’s something you’d like to answer, and isn’t too personal and doesn’t give away spoilers)! This continues to build the relationship between you and your readers. We love seeing readers actively engaged with their audiences, and creating communities around their work!

Don’t feed the trolls.
It is a truth universally acknowledged that not everyone is going to like your book. Some may go so far as to leave a negative review or comment. Try not to take this personally. People are entitled to their own opinions. Plus, some readers assume that authors don’t read the reviews — which of course we know couldn’t be further from the truth!

If the reviewer expresses not liking your book, you can choose to ignore the comment, or you can simply and politely thank them for their feedback (and perhaps recommend another book of yours that they may enjoy more). If a reader points out an obvious plot hole or error, you can respond in a good natured way and thank them for catching it (and perhaps even lightheartedly joke that they should go into editing!).

However, if a reader is intensely critical of you or your work, or tries to argue with you in the comments, do not engage. Avoid being drawn into online arguments of any kind by always being respectful, polite, and knowing when to step away from the computer. It’s not your job to “win” anyone over!

Tell readers how they can engage with you further.
When you reply, let readers know that they can stay connected with you on social media (include your handles), get the latest news about giveaways and exclusives from your newsletter (include a link), and tell them more about your other books by linking to your website. (Note, it is overwhelming to include ALL of these things in each message, but mentioning 1-2 of these things can go a long way!). If a reader is asking a lot of questions, encourage them to follow you on socials so they can stay updated. Never be pushy or salesy; but don’t be afraid to ask people to follow you or check out your other work. These readers have demonstrated that they’re invested in you, so give them opportunities to connect with you further, and (when appropriate) ask for their support!

Readers and reviewers want to feel like they have a relationship with you, and cultivating those relationships can make a lasting impact on your current and future releases.


What you should know about hiring a publicist

*This article originally appeared in the September 2020 issue of Writer’s Life Magazine. 

Five reasons a book publicist may be your secret weapon in an oversaturated market

By Marissa DeCuir

You’ve spent years creating storylines, developing characters and polishing your book. Now you want it to have the best chance of success and the widest possible readership. But with millions of books published in the U.S. alone each year (including more than one million self-published books languishing on Amazon), how do you make your book stand out so that people actually see it, let alone read it? 

That’s where a book publicist comes in: a publicist connects an author to the media who will boost the book’s visibility, the event venues where connections are made, and, ultimately, to the readers you want to reach. That’s why you published a book, right?

Whether you’re a traditionally published author who needs more publicity support, an indie-published author eager to rise above the competition, or a first-time writer wanting to establish a brand presence, having your own publicist can make the difference in whether or not your book gets the buzz it deserves. 

Here are five reasons why hiring a book publicist may be your secret weapon to publishing success:

1. They already know the media gatekeepers, event coordinators and other literary tastemakers you’re trying to reach — and they introduce you in the right way.

Launching a book is kind of like going to a crowded party where you don’t know anyone: It’s exciting to be invited, but it’s so much better when you go with a friend who knows everybody and introduces you to all the right people! That’s what your publicist does. They already have connections with reviewers, media outlets, bookstores, event venues and other tastemakers you need to reach. They cut through the media “vetting” process for you, and introduce you in a professional and effective way that makes the best possible impression. 

2. They are your insider experts within the publishing industry.

Have questions about publishing technicalities, processes or lingo? Need to bounce new ideas off someone who actually understands the complex publishing world? Your publicist is your resource for getting your questions answered. They actually have the industry experience and behind-the-scenes expertise you’ve been seeking, and they want to help you as true bibliophiles! 

3. They free up your time and resources by doing the heavy PR lifting for you, so you can focus on what you do best.

Life is busy whether you’re a full-time writer or not. It’s hard enough to write a book, but having time to pursue and coordinate PR opportunities, juggle interviews and event appearances, and continue writing (on top of other work, family or social commitments) can be even more challenging! A publicist arranges promotion for your book and author brand, so you can spend your time doing the fun stuff (such as interviewing with the media, participating in an event, working on a guest article or writing your next book)! 

4. They can generate new creative ideas and opportunities you never knew existed.

When you think of PR, you might imagine things already mentioned above: media interviews and events. But what about hosting a scavenger hunt in a public library based on your book? Or organizing “the world’s longest book tour?” How about creating a scholarship contest for indie bookstores to get booksellers excited about your title? Or reaching out to #bookstagrammers or YouTube book vloggers? Maybe creating an interactive white box mailing to key influencers? Publicists can guide you in new promotional directions that you might not have considered or be able to access on your own. And they can help implement those creative initiatives to get your book on the map in new, innovative ways. 

5. They’re your biggest cheerleader and publishing support system–really! 

Let’s face it, being an author can be a pretty lonely job, but it doesn’t have to be! A publicist is your book’s champion, and your biggest fan. Some writers are introverts and don’t feel confident “promoting” their own work. When you find a publicist who genuinely enjoys and believes in your book, you finally have someone in your corner who is ready to tell the world how great you are! They give you support, enthusiasm and encouragement so you don’t have to go it alone. 

To recap: Authors should consider hiring a publicist if they want more effort and expertise put into promoting their work than a). their traditional publisher is able to provide, or b). they have time, energy and industry knowledge to handle personally. By teaming up with your own publicist, you’ll give your book it’s best opportunity to succeed, and you’ll give yourself the opportunity to have some fun along the way!

A former award-winning journalist, Marissa DeCuir now helps authors share their stories and messages with the world as president and partner of Books Forward publicity and Books Fluent publishing. Under the 20-year-old JKS Communications brand, the companies are committed to elevating voices, breaking barriers, and promoting books that empower, inspire, and move the world forward.

Is TikTok the next Bookstagram?

You’ve seen it in the headlines, heard about it incessantly from your teenage niece, or (perhaps) you’ve even downloaded it yourself. Let’s talk about TikTok. 

TikTok is a very popular app that promotes the creation of short-form video content and slideshows of no more than 1 minute in length. The app is designed so that videos have a much greater chance of going viral than, say, content on Instagram or even YouTube. 

As of the time of writing this blog, TikTok has approximately 800 million monthly users, ranking just behind Instagram (1 billion monthly users). However the app is only two years old, so its growth rate is substantial. It also received a huge download boost during March-July 2020 due to Covid-19 lockdown. 50% of users in the US are under the age of 35, with the majority of users being 16-24

Like Bookstagram, TikTok has a healthy book community. YA is the most popular genre on TikTok due to its demographic, with YA Fantasy and YA Romance/Rom-Com being among the top most popular subgenres

Just like Bookstagrammers, BookTokers are influencers who review books, offer recommendations, and flex the extensiveness of their shelves (such as @zacharyjamesoffical, @treofpaperbacks, and @amysbooknook. Authors are beginning to find very influential platforms on TikTok as well, and since the app is still relatively new, it’s not inundated/saturated with authors just yet. TikTok viewers (who are often young, aspirational writers themselves), love connecting with authors writing in their favorite genres, or engage with videos of fellow writers explaining their successes, tips, and struggles. 

There is a niche on TikTok for EVERYTHING. So what makes a video become popular or go viral? Here’s the thing: Nobody knows. TikTok’s algorithm is notoriously “uncrackable” (as far as users are concerned, at least) meaning that even frequent users don’t really know why some content becomes popular and others, well, doesn’t. The pro is that technically anything can go viral; the con is that “trying to go viral” is a mystifying and frustrating endeavor. But there are a few indicators of success. 

When you publish a TikTok video, the video will not be visible to 800 million users — instead, it will be introduced to a pool of a few dozen (based on what content those users have engaged with previously). If your video is watched from start to finish, liked, and shared by that small pool of users, TikTok will then “show” it to a pool of a few hundred, and then if engagement is still high, they’ll “show” it to a few thousand, and so on and so on.

Videos with high engagement get exposed to more viewers. Engagement is measured by likes, shares, comments, duets, and view time (watching the video from start to finish is best). Videos tend to get highest viewership (aka most exposure to viewers/higher engagement) within the first three hours of posting, but not always — every person who engages with your video can give it a little “boost” in the algorithm (meaning suddenly more people see it), so videos can go viral “later,” like 3-5 days after posting. This is the exception though, not the norm.

Again: No one knows the exact formula for making something go viral. Success can feel very arbitrary. However, popular TikTok content is pretty much always entertaining, authentic, and relatable. Seriously, leave your sales pitches at the door — no one is interested. But if you entertain, are authentic, or are relatable (or best, a combination of all three), the influence/following you’ll gain is extensive and unlimited. Telling people to “buy my book!” on TikTok is content-death — but authentically demonstrating your passion for your work and then asking people to check out your book / showing why it’s appealing can have a huge effect. Viewers on TikTok want to support creators; demonstrate why they should support you. 

Why do virtual events have higher attendance but lower sales?


After a monumental shift to hosting 2020 author events online, many bookstores reported that attendance for virtual events is higher (sometimes much higher) than for physical book events–but event-related sales are way down.

In fact, during a briefing at the SIBA/NAIBA trade show in September 2020, Brooklyn bookstore Greenlight Books (who had hosted 150+ virtual events since March!) shared that one event drew 80 online attendees, but they only sold 12 books. And this rate is actually above average: many booksellers are reporting an average sales conversion of 10% for virtual events. So what’s happening?

There could be any number of reasons for this, but one intriguing possibility revolves around active vs. passive investment.

It takes effort to attend a physical event: you have to get ready (even if you just put on your shoes), travel to the venue, potentially spend money on fuel or food while you’re out, and spend at least a couple of hours outside of your home. That’s active investment; you’ve put work into being in that space, and this increases your stake in what you “take away” from the event at the end of the night, whether intangible (general enjoyment) or tangible (a book or other purchase).

Subtle social pressures may also influence sales at physical events: the signing and sales are public, and choosing to buy–or not buy–the book may feel “noticed” by other attendees, booksellers, or the author. At physical events, you have an opportunity to connect with an author directly, and even this brief interaction can create a positive impression, even a feeling of “relationship,” that incentivizes you to support the author with a book purchase.

Contrast this to a virtual event, where there’s no expectation to dress to “go out,” no travel is required, and you can turn off your video and “disappear” from the event at any point without scrutiny. This is more passive investment. You can’t peruse store shelves, or mingle with other participants in a physical space. The bar to attendance is lower than ever–but “attending” is not the same thing as engaging.

In addition, the instant gratification of the book signing a challenge. At traditional author events, attendees who buy a book during the event leave with it in-hand. Physical book signings also enable readers to have direct, personalized experiences with authors. Not so with virtual events: Book plates and mass-signed stock don’t have the same personalized feeling, and waiting on a book delivery is not as satisfying as leaving with it. A lack of physical connection and instant gratification also contribute to lower sales and event engagement.

During virtual events, book sales are handled privately and not publicly, and (much like any online shopping experience) passive investment, distraction, apathy, lack of peer pressure, and even the subtle inconvenience of writing in your payment/shipping details can result in fewer purchases.

Virtual events have lowered the bar for participation, which dramatically increases attendance — but not sales. It’s important to understand that, for the time being at least, online events revolve less around sales and more around:

  1. pure necessity (as some stores just aren’t able to physically reopen right now),
  2. enabling participants to join regardless of location (meaning you now have a better chance of working with bookstores that aren’t necessarily “local,” and involving nonlocal participants from around the world), and
  3. engaging with your audience in fresh new ways.

Online events are still your time to shine. Even if there’s not an immediate sales boost, increased attendance and exposure during virtual events can have a positive impact on growing your readership, relationships, and sales long-term. So if you’re wondering if you should participate in virtual events, the answer is a resounding: yes! Understanding the challenges and opportunities of this unique virtual space will help you set better expectations, get creative, and strategize how to best invest your own time and energy during your event!

6 Fun Things You Can Do While Procrastinating On Your NaNoWriMo 2020 Novel

NaNoWriMo 2020 is here y’all! Annnd…we’re tired. Like, really tired. Maybe you can relate.

Maybe the events of this year have you bursting with pent up angst creative energy, ready to channel all of your insecurity anxiety anger ideas onto the page, allowing yourself to be absorbed by the escapism of writing. Or maybe you’re sitting in front of that blank blinking cursor trying to mobilize your brain into some semblance of sentence structure, tea gone tepid as you wonder “Where do I even start?” Or, “Why is all of this garbage?”

For those who may be feeling a little less than inspired this year — we get it. And it’s time to plan your procrastination strategy. Wait wait, here us out. Exhaustion naturally results in a lack of creative energy, difficulty focusing, and (you guessed it) procrastination. This year we invite you to skip the guilt trip and plan ahead. Don’t just schedule your well-earned writing breaks; actually allow for time off that isn’t tied in any way to your productivity. You can even add a space to your calendar titled “Time I ‘should’ be working on my NaNoWriMo novel but I’m procrastinating and no one can stop me.” Procrastination sans guilt can be very edifying, and may even give you a little creative boost.

How should you fill your procrastination time? The answer is, of course, however you’d like. But before you fall into another mind-numbing social media rabbit hole, consider that there may be more fun, interesting ways to procrastinate. Here are a few:

Make a funny photo series or video about procrastinating. Documenting your NaNoWriMo journey does not have to be all pretty Instagram images of steamy beverages beside computers or humble brags about your word count. Plenty of authors are procrastinating just like you; they’re just not showing it online. Create a tongue-in-cheek photo series or video about the trials, tribulations, and procrastinations of NaNoWriMo; no doubt countless authors can relate (and will be relieved that they’re not the only one!).

Make an over-the-top snack or dessert. Good procrastination needs food fuel, and procrastination fuels the best food. You don’t have to be a Master Chef or a Great British Bake Off contestant to whip up a dish worthy of either (at least as far as your taste buds are concerned). Imagine the best possible snack you could eat right now, the most delicious thing you could think of piling together. Then go make it. You can also look up a new recipe for an especially tasty dish or dessert, something you wouldn’t normally give yourself time to make, and give it a try!

Do a random chore or run an errand that you’ve been putting off. Isn’t it funny how when we’re procrastinating on one task, suddenly we must go accomplish another task we’ve been putting off RIGHT NOW? Lean into that. Go buy that fancy cooking item you meant to get that one time. Rearrange your bedroom furniture, or organize your closet by color. Go drop off that dog grooming kit you should have taken to your aunt months ago. Look at how productive you are! No matter how big or small, now’s the time to prod-crastinate.

Design a wardrobe for each of your character(s). Use Pinterest, draw, create a photo file or PowerPoint, or even cut out pictures from magazines. What elements define your characters’ individual styles? What would their activewear look like? How would they dress for an elegant event? What about their casual day-to-day attire? If they could time travel, what would they wear in various eras?

Create a mood board for your ideas and aesthetics. When you imagine the “feel” of your book — its settings, mood, character styles, and various aesthetics, what do you think of? Collect various images that you associate with the world you’re building. These can be literal or figurative interpretations; totally up to you. Digital Pinterest boards are perfect for this, but physical boards with collaged cut-outs can be great as well.

Write a 1-3 page short story or a poem you intend to delete. Feel like what you’ve written is trash that you want to burn in a fire? Good _ let’s do some more of that. Write a silly, random, and/or bad short story or poem that is unrelated to your NaNoWriMo project. You can even use a random idea generator to get started. Pour that frustration into this; show that page what bad writing really is. You even start having fun with how over the top you can go. Delete the piece at the end — or, you might find that you actually enjoyed it enough to keep it.

“Tell Me a Ghost Story:” The Books Forward Team Shares Tales of the Supernatural

Picture this: You’re gathered around the campfire on a crisp October night, s’more in hand, the moon high overhead, when somebody asks: “Does anyone know any good ghost stories?” Chances are that you’ve heard a good ghost story or a creepy urban legend in your time. Perhaps you’ve even had a spectral encounter yourself, or know someone who claims this experience. Our Books Forward team loves a good spooky story (especially during Halloween), so let’s gather around the virtual campfire and trade our favorite supernatural stories, urban myths, and tales of terror! 

The Farmhouse 

“My dad has always sworn that he had a ghostly encounter when he was a kid. He told me that my great grandparents used to live in an old farmhouse up in the Tennessee countryside that was rumored to be haunted. One night when he was 10, he went to stay with them on his first overnight visit. The guest room was technically the master bedroom; a little weird, but he didn’t think anything of it. It was a hot July evening and they didn’t have any AC, so the windows were open, and it took him a long time to fall asleep. But in the middle of the night he woke up suddenly: the room was freezing, so cold he could see his breath, and he said there was a static feeling in the air. He thought he was dreaming. But there was a rocking chair in the corner, and as he watched it started rocking — just a little at first, but then faster and faster, until it was practically scooting on the floor. He started screaming and his grandma rushed in: as soon as she flipped on the light, the rocking chair stopped moving and the temperature rose. He said he still would have thought he had been dreaming — except there was condensation on the windows from the sudden temperature change. 

The next morning, his grandma calmly explained that she and her husband had experienced several unexplained phenomena in the house (things moving, temperature changes, etc). She even went as far to say that a local rumor about a murder-suicide of a couple who lived there in the 1930s was probably true, because there was a bullet hole in the kitchen wall. She assured him that, if there were ghosts in the house, they couldn’t hurt him. It was the first and only supernatural encounter my dad ever had, in that house or anywhere else. Nevertheless, he never stayed overnight again. 

My dad has stuck by this story throughout my entire life. He says he’s not even sure ghosts are ‘real’ or that he believes in them, but he nevertheless maintains he experienced something that can’t be explained.”

 — Chelsea Apple, Content Creator

The Sultan’s Mansion

“I live in New Orleans, one of the most haunted cities in America, so of course I have a ghost story or two to tell! There are nightly ghost tours throughout the French Quarter, and I happen to live near one of the famous stops, the Sultan’s Mansion. I’ve heard several versions of this story, but my favorite goes like this: 

A mysterious man who claimed to be the brother of a Turkish sultan moved into the multi-story house, and every night from then on were lavish parties with loud, exotic music, booze flowing freely and beautiful women dancing high up on the balconies. This went on for weeks, but then one rainy night, there was stark silence. A woman walking her dog saw blood spilling from the doorway into the street and called for the police to come immediately. The police arrived at a gory scene, dismembered bodies throughout the mansion and the sultan’s brother freshly buried in the courtyard. No one knows for sure why this massacre occurred, but they suspect the man who moved into the house had actually fled his home country after stealing his brother’s riches and harem, and the sultan got his revenge. 

Today? The Sultan’s Mansion is separated into apartments. I knew someone who lived there, and let’s just say the ghostly happenings inside that house creeped her out so much, she moved out a month later.”

 — Angelle Barbazon, Lead Publicist 

A Rocking Chair for Charlotte

“The middle school I went to in sixth grade had a girl’s locker room haunted by a girl named Linda Landy who died there years ago after a tragic accident. There was a plaque outside honoring her and everything. There were multiple instances where people felt as if they were being pushed while we got ready for PE. There was a heaviness about the locker room in general. 

I also had a friend who lived in the old post hospital that was renovated into a house. There was a mother named Charlotte and baby who died there and it was a genuine rule that whoever lived in the house had to provide a rocking chair for Charlotte. If you didn’t have one, they would supply one. His bedroom was the old morgue and he invited us over to see the house once. When we were there we went upstairs to where the rocking chair was and it started to move slowly. There was no window open and the AC was off and I still have no explanation.” 

 — Rachel Hutchings, Publicist 

Electric Rougarou

“As a native Louisianan, there’s one urban legend that instantly comes to mind: the Rougarou. Funny name but terrifying to think about. The werewolf-ish creature stalks the swamps and bayous of southeastern Louisiana, allegedly feasting on disobedient Catholics who don’t observe Lent. (I could breathe a sigh of relief growing up in Evangelical north Louisiana!) 

But I do know a lot of people whose parents scolded them as children, threatening them with, “If you don’t behave, the Rougarou is gonna get you!” But you could protect yourself from the monstrous dog creature by putting 13 pennies or rocks on your doorstep or windowsill for him to try and count (he’s REALLY bad at math, and this will distract him until he ultimately gives up and goes back to the swamp.)”

 — Jennifer Vance, Publicist 

Deja BOO!

“I’ve always had a lot of deja vu — when I was younger, I just assumed I was a witch, naturally, but someone told me a story about deja vu when I was a teenager that has always stuck with me and creeped me out. They said that deja vu happens when a spirit has appeared and needs to mist over our memory of what we’ve just seen because it was too much for us to handle. So now I shiver EVERY TIME I have deja vu — what did I just miss, and who has been messing with my mind?”

–Ellen Whitfield, Senior Publicist 

Bloody Mary

“I’m not saying I believed in Bloody Mary…but I didn’t not believe. The Bloody Mary legend I heard was sort of like a dare: you were meant to go into a bathroom, turn out the light, close the door, and chant her name while staring in the bathroom mirror. Supposedly she was meant to show up in the mirror and — well, I’m not sure what was meant to happen next, but I’m guessing it wasn’t good! I definitely would get freaked out when friends tried to summon her in the bathroom in grade school. I never did so myself. However, I did overcome my fear by dressing as Bloody Mary for Halloween with a New Orleans spin. I used a mirror and a fake Bloody Mary drink to make it look as if the drink was pouring over my head!”

 — Marissa DeCuir, President & Partner

The Invention of Horror Literature

October is the perfect time for a good ole ghost story or scary movie, but did you know that the “horror genre” is a relatively modern invention? While some staples of horror (such as witches, demons, bloodsuckers, spirits, and other malevolent entities) have haunted folklore, mythologies, and classic literature for centuries, “horror” as a marketable genre has really only come into its own in the past two centuries. So how did our most shudder-worthy literature come to exist–and why so recently? 

Ancient civilizations had a healthy fear of (and fixation on) witches and evil spirits. The Greeks had several stories featuring vampires called lamiæ or empusæ (which appeared as early as 450 B.C.E. in Aristophanes’ The Frogs). Biblical texts contain stories of demonic possession, and make several references to the dangers of “conjurers.” The Inquisition in 1235 ignited a publication frenzy of literature about witches (all reportedly “nonfiction”) which continued into the 16th century. Meanwhile, Dante’s Inferno (1307) fueled public imagination about the monstrous denizens of the afterlife. Witches and ghostly spectres also feature prominently in Shakespeare’s work, particularly Titus Andronicus (1594), Hamlet (1600), and Macbeth (1605). 

While many stories featured “horror” elements, the first notable work centered on supernatural occurrences was Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto (1764). The youngest son of prime minister Robert Walpole, Horace was fascinated by medieval history, and even built his own Gothic-revival castle, Strawberry Hill. In his novel, Walpole combined medieval beliefs about the supernatural with modern (for his era) literary realism in order to saturate his work with unpredictable dread–and the (rather bizarre and melodramatic) result is regarded as the first work of Gothic literature. 

The success of Walpole’s novel inspired similar books about ominous castles and diabolical nobility, such as Anne Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and Matthew Gregory Lewis’s The Monk (1796). Gothic literature continued to feature high melodrama, romance, and a range of sinister threats, until a fateful literary experiment propelled the genre into new territory. 

That experiment occurred the night Mary Shelley, her future husband Percy Shelley, Dr. John Wiliam Polidori, his patient Lord Byron, and Mary’s stepsister Jane Claremont found themselves trapped by rain at the Shelleys’ summer villa, where Byron challenged the group to a spooky story-writing contest. Mary Shelley’s story would ultimately become Frankenstein (1818), credited as one of the first works of sci-fi / science-based horror. Dr. Polidori’s story, “The Vampyre” (1819), was the first popular work about vampirism published in England (made more popular by the view that the titular “vampyre” was a parody of Lord Byron), and the first work to introduce the idea of “the gentleman vampire.” Both novels were immediately successful. Boom–the market was evident, and other writers began racing to accommodate. 

Enter an author who needs no introduction: Edgar Allen Poe, whose stories of hauntings, murder, and revenge cemented key genre tropes that continue to thrive to this day. Beginning in 1833 with his first short story “MS. Found in a Bottle” (in which an otherworldly summons lures a man on a doomed seafaring adventure), Poe blended the best of the Gothic supernatural with the notion that dark, sinister impulses could lie within even the most mundane, “ordinary” individual. 

Meanwhile, the Industrial Revolution was underway — and crime, violence, murder were on the rise in cramped cities. Cheap works of mystery and gore called “Penny Dreadfuls” were becoming popular, mass-produced entertainment during the 1840s. Vampires and vengeful spirits were still prominent, but a new class of horror was growing: the rise of crime literature, centered on diabolical murderers who were not castle-dwelling nobles, but “normal” citizens who committed ghastly deeds, “hiding in plain sight” among fellow city-dwellers. Inspired by true crimes of the day, works such as Thomas Prest’s “Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber” (1847), Robert Browning’s The Ring and the Book (1868), and Robert Louis Stevenson’s The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1885) all dealt with the evil impulses that could lie at the heart of the “everyman” — and all were instant successes. 

While the popularity of the undead never died (inspired by writers before him, Bram Stoker’s Dracula would take the world by storm in 1897, and remains a staple to this day), the rise of technological innovation and emphasis on “future technology” at the turn of the century transformed horror again. In 1898, H.G. Wells published The War of the Worlds, ushering in a new brand of terror: cosmic, technologically advanced, alien (read: foreign) and futuristic. With the publication of his first short story “Dagon” in 1919, H.P. Lovecraft would continue to push the boundaries of cosmic horror until his death in 1937, creating worlds at once both ancient and mythological, and also incalculably advanced. 

During the 20th century, the Great Depression and both World Wars fueled a growing sense of social unease that there were devastating, unreasonable forces at work in the world, forces that would leave one helpless and bereft. Yet society was painfully reminded that human beings were at the heart of these modern catastrophes, expanding the idea that mankind itself was fundamentally destructive and corrupt. The world was no longer a safe, predictable, or trustworthy place–not on a micro scale (as during the citywide crime rise of the Industrial Revolution), nor on a macro, worldwide one. Change was rapid. Humankind flawed. The future uncertain. The stage was set for all imaginable terrors to come into play.

By the mid-to-late 20th century, the most popular modern horror tropes of today bursting into public imagination: the sci-fi/alien threat and the dystopian society can be attributed in no small part to Ray Bradbury (The Martian Chronicles in 1950 and Fahrenheit 451 in 1953)  the serial killer (Robert Bloch’s novel Psycho in 1959); the occult (Ira Levin’s Rosemary’s Baby in 1967); the demonic (William Peter Blatty’s The Exorcist in 1971); the paranormal (Stephen King’s first novel Carrie in 1973–and pretty much all of his novels thereafter); and the monster story (Peter Benchley’s Jaws in 1975). Even vampires would make a resurgence with Anne Rice’s Interview with a Vampire in 1976, albeit a much sexier and more sympathetic portrayal that persists today. 

Blockbuster films further cemented these stories in popular culture and inspired today’s horror storytellers. In fact, thanks to cinema we are widely touted to be in the midst of a “horror Renaissance” of smart, well-crafted, and absolutely terrifying media. While film and streaming services have created unprecedented competition for literature, great storytelling inspires great storytelling, regardless of medium. So look out for the next generation of incredible, iconic horror stories 


7 Nonfiction Reads That Are (Almost) Too Crazy to Be True

You know that wide-eyed, jaw-drop feeling you get when you hear a story that’s so outrageous, so out-of-the-park bonkers you think there’s no way it can be true? Followed by that alarming (yet bizarrely satisfying) feeling you get when you Google or fact check said outrageous story and discover it is, in fact, facts? That’s exactly the sensation we had when we dove into these bizarre nonfiction reads. These books had us shaking our heads, gasping for air, exclaiming out loud–and then left us super eager to share with everyone we know. Here are seven nonfiction books that are (almost) too crazy to be true: 

I’ll admit, anything in the healthcare/technology fields confuse me, so I was surprised when I got sucked in by Bad Blood: Secrets and Lies in a Silicon Valley Startup by John Carreyrou. For Elizabeth Holmes to finesse and fraud her way into a multibillion-dollar startup speaks to a lot of different privileges. If you’re hooked on true crime of the white collar variety, this one’s a must-read. (Jennifer Vance, Publicist)

Educated by Tara Westover is one of the craziest coming of age memoirs that I’ve ever read. The author was raised by a survivalist father, and her family went along with his whims — often endangering their own lives. Tara and her siblings didn’t receive a formal education, so she taught herself, and eventually went on to study at schools like Harvard and Cambridge. (Ellen Whitfield, Lead Publicist) 

Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair That Changed America by Erik Larson sounds like something straight out of the speculative fantasy and thriller books that I love. With a surprisingly gripping and engaging narrative, this historical nonfiction tells the story of two architects: Daniel H. Burnham, a young man tasked with designing the famous “White City” exhibition of the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair, and H. H. Holmes, widely regarded as America’s first serial killer and the mastermind behind the infamous “Murder Hotel,” where he lured unspecting fairgoers to their deaths in ingeniously macabre ways. The story of these two men — Holmes in particular — is so shocking and incredible that it’s hard to believe this really happened! (Chelsea Apple, Content Creator).

I Am, I Am, I Am: Seventeen Brushes with Death by Maggie O’Farrell is a memoir of sorts in short stories, but each of those stories explores a near-death experience from the author. Each account is a reflection on life and what it means to live in this world. O’Farrell’s alarmingly frequent encounters with multiple types of danger gives her writing a sense of wisdom and melancholy, but also seems to prepare her to be the perfect mother to a child with a life-threatening immune disorder. I read this book as a love letter to her daughter — “See? Look what I survived. And you will too.” (Ellen Whitfield, Lead Publicist) 

Dr. Mütter’s Marvels: A True Tale of Intrigue and Innovation at the Dawn of Modern Medicine by Cristin O’Keefe Aptowicz tells the story of a game-changing surgeon. Before he stepped on the scene, there was no bedside manner, there were no sterile operating rooms, and there was no anesthesia. The picture the author paints of the medical world in the early 1800s is cringeworthy and ghastly, and will make you thankful Mütter was around. (Ellen Whitfield, Lead Publicist) 

I was upset most of the time reading Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan because I wanted more than anything for the people in her life to believe and support her. Suffering from an extremely rare disease, it was fascinating seeing how she not only found her way to a correct diagnosis and recovery but also how she leaned on the people around her to help research and reconstruct the narrative of her own life. (Jennifer Vance, Publicist)

The Radium Girls: The Dark Story of America’s Shining Women by Kate Moore is about the girls who worked to paint the illuminated numbers on watch faces around the same time as the first world war. The only problem is that they were using radium, and they soon began to get sick. The way the workers and the people in charge reacted and covered up what was going on still echoes today. (Ellen Whitfield, Lead Publicist)