Sunday, May 25, 2008

Success in Writing and Publishing: A Mixture of Hard Work, Networking and Luck

I had been asked to write a summary of Kemble Scott's talk for my writers club, and thought I might share those efforts with my blog readers as well. Think of it as revising and extending my remarks from earlier when I posted about him and his book.

Kemble Scott was the guest speaker at the second annual Marin-Redwood Writers Joint Meeting. He is a San Francisco Chronicle Best Selling author of SoMa, a novel about the South of Market Street neighborhood in San Francisco.

Scott is a journalist, an alumnus of Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism, and has won three Emmys for his work in television news. He moved to San Francisco and wanted to live in an "urban" setting and decided against the tonier neighborhoods with Victorians and instead chose the SoMa neighborhood. He moved there without really knowing about the area's longstanding reputation. Some of the streets there were named after prostitutes from the Gold Rush era when the neighborhood first developed its own distinctive character.

After living in SoMa for awhile, Scott started becoming aware of unorthodox activities surrounding him and some of the dirtier secrets of San Francisco. Due to the sensitive nature of these human interest stories, he decided rather than use his reporting skills -- which might potentially embarrass people -- that he would take the events and situations and fictionalize them.

He also wanted to separate his fiction writing from his journalism writing and adopted the nom de plume Kemble Scott.

He couldn't find a proper venue for his stories, so he created one: the SoMa Literary Review. He was new to the literary scene in San Francisco and decided to take a leap of faith by launching how own online literary magazine and hope it would find an audience. The first issue featured ten of his stories and he used ten different pen names. Word quickly spread about his online literary journal and he soon received submissions from real writers meaning that he no longer had to hide behind multiple personas.

Scott also created the San Francisco Bay Area Literary Arts which sends out email blasts every Friday to publicize literary events and book signings. This effort has helped him generate many contacts within the literary community which came in handy when he sought venues for book signings.

He joined the Sanchez Annex Writers Grotto as well as the San Francisco Writers Workshop where he has connected with many authors such as Erika Mailman, Tamim Ansary, and Khaled Hosseini.

At one point, Scott was approached by an editor and suggested he turn the SoMa Literary Review into a book. He took the man at his word and printed out his favorites and stapled them together and sent it off. However, the editor did not want a collection of short stories, he wanted a novel with an overarching theme that wove those stories together in a compelling narrative. Scott had never written a novel before and it took him a while to figure out how to do it.

By the time he had something to show, the editor was no longer at that publisher. Scott "lucked out" and one of his manuscripts at the house of a trusted reader happened to be spotted by an agent who picked it up, started reading and liked it. The young agent contacted Scott and offered to represent him. Scott thought it was the break he needed. As it turned out, the agent was unable to sell the book and after a year, Scott fired him.

He decided to strike out on his own and identified an editor at Kensington Press who had published several offbeat travel books and thought it might be a good fit. Not only did he send off a manuscript, but he included blurbs from his writing friends and even one from the notorious JT LeRoy. Then Luck played a part. The editor was on vacation at the time SoMa arrived in the slush pile. The editor's assistant read the manuscript and fell in love it. The day the editor returned from vacation, his assistant sprang at him and passionately insisted that he buy this book.

Getting published was one hurdle, but spreading the word about his book was going to be an even greater hurdle since getting reviews for his book would be a difficult proposition. Newspapers have been cutting back on their book reviews and his novel's subject matter deals with kinky sex making it less likely to be reviewed.

One of his neighbors worked for YouTube and suggested he make a video about the book and post it online. Scott decided to make a series of short promos showing some of the locations mentioned in his book. Along with showing the places, he uses suggestive language to reference some of the unusual behavior in those places which are represented in his book. The video clips preceded the publication of his book and his novel appeared on the San Francisco Chronicle's best seller list the first week it was released, and according to Google he was the first author to publicize a novel on YouTube.

His video promos were panned on an online Silicon Valley gossip site named ValleyWag, but they spelled his name right and they included weblinks to help promote his book.

Because SoMa was listed as a best seller by a nationally recognized newspaper, even though it was not a New York Times best seller, his book has been purchased by libraries and has been sold in venues such his local Costco and even airports in Singapore that otherwise would never have carried his book.

Overall Scott's advice is to become part of your local writing community, network with other writers, create your own opportunities when you need to, be persistent and hope for a little luck.

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