Trouble with querying

I’ve been meaning to answer Wendy’s question of a couple weeks ago. She asked, “In early June, I sent to queries to parenting magazines and I haven’t yet heard back from either magazine. How long should I wait before following up? Any advice for how to follow up?”

First off, I don’t know how your query went, Wendy–e-mail or snail mail? If you’re new to the parenting magazines, did you include clips? Often if you’re a new writer or new to a magazine, they want clips. And how many queries went out? And did you include a SASE?

It’s notoriously hard to break into the parenting magazines, or any major magazine. To answer your question, it’s time to follow up. Send a postcard–unless they like to be contacted via e-mail, then email the editor you queried. Unfortunately, many editors feel no need to respond to writers with whom they have no relationship.

If you respond to the questions above, perhaps I will be more helpful.

Kevin Smokler, author of Bookmark Now

Kevin Smoker, author of Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly Times

, was on my show a couple of years ago talking about blogs and Web sites. He’ll be back on, on August 25. I recently asked him some questions:

BDB: What was the genesis for Bookmark Now: Writing in Unreaderly

KS: Complete frustration with how books and reading were portrayed online, in the media and the world at large. I was 26, in the wrong graduate program and looking for something to dedicate my passions to. I loved books, reading, contemporary authors and fiction and was eager to find others my age who felt the same way, who were as addicted to Salon, NPR and This American Life as I was. I think it was a Sunday afternoon when I was doing searches online for “contemporary authors,” “gen X. book lovers” or something like that and found a site called “Book Radio” (it’s no longer around). I clicked on it excitedly and was met with yet another sweater-clad, tea-party discussion of books as if being a reader was the same as being a Limoge Box Collector. I remember jumping out of my chair and yelling, “Books are not stuffed animals! They are sexy, they are fun, they are relevant, godamn it!”. I think it started there.

BDB: How did you go about choosing the essays/essayists included in the book?

KS: I had a dream list of authors before I began the project, some of whom came through and others who didn’t. Others I had known and admired for some time. A few were recommended to me by authors who had already committed. A few more were repped by the same agency as me.

BDB: I don’t have the book yet, so I’m speaking blindly, but from what I read about the book, it seems what you’re saying is that all the hubbub about people not reading as much is just plain wrong, that people are reading more than ever. This true?

KS: I don’t if people are reading more or not, but accepting that is the case, moaning about the evil effects of the Internet and television and that kids these days don’t have any appreciation for intellectual rigor is not the solution. It’s precisely this fear of cultural change that my grandparents laid into my parents about rock n’ roll, that their grandparents laid on the younger generation about jazz. And it makes us all look like ostriches with our heads in the sand.

That said, 90 percent of the non-readers would like to but give two reasons why they don’t: No time and they don’t know what is good. That these folks want to read but feel lost, intimidated, too busy to, is a giant vault of wasted potential for all us us who depend on readers for our survival. That includes me.

BDB: Was it an easy book to sell?

KS: Fairly. I think it took my agent about three months. I don’t know how that compares with other first-time authors.

BDB: Any discoveries along the way, things you learned by doing the book that surprised you?

KS: Editing an anthology requires more tack and diplomacy than this Jewish/Leo/eldest child was born with. But when you’re dealing with 25 writers with their own styles, temperaments, and creative processes, you learn to be gentle. I didn’t expect I would have to be but in retrospect I’m glad I did.

Second, I grew up real fast while on book tour this summer. I was pretty convinced of how glamorous and exciting it would be and kept saying “More! More!” to my publicist. I was completely unprepared for how exhausting it would feel visiting 10 cities in 8 weeks, in telling an events manager in Portland that it sure feels great to be in Seattle because I didn’t remember where I woke up that morning. That isn’t glamorous at all. The only way it feels even slightly manageable is to be as humble about the process as possible, to say that it is your job each evening to be of service to to your book, to those who publish and believe in you and to the readers who support you. I learned quickly that if my first thought each day was, “Give me what’s mine!”, I would spend the whole summer unappreciative of publishing a book. And really, how many first books do you get?

BDB: What are you reading right now?

KS: I just finished Bel Canto by Anne Patchett which I’ve been trying to get to for about two years, and Can’t Stop Won’t Stop by Jeff Change, an excellent political and cultural history of hip-hop music. Right now, I’m reading A Complicated Kindess by Mariam Toews, which was recommended to me while on tour, I May Not Get There With You, Michael Eric Dyson’s biography of Martin Luther King and Nathaniel West’s Day of the Locust for a classics book club I’m in.

BDB: I want to talk for a minute about blogs. When you last came on my show, you said it was never too early to create a web presence. Will you elaborate?

KS: Sure. for the generation of readers coming up now and pretty much all the ones afterward, they get most of their information online. So if you don’t represent yourself and your work in that space, to future readers it doesn’t exit. It’s also a generation raised on high levels of access to information about creative people (“Inside the Actor’s Studio,” DVD commentaries). So for any writer looking to have a long career, they have prepare for this inevitability. And that means having the most complete information about you and your work available and nicely organized on the Internet. Your page at Amazon or your publisher’s Web site is not enough because then someone else is controlling the information and can do with it as they see fit. Having your own Web site under its own domain name enables you not only to retain control of the essential information about you and your work but also lets your readers communicate with you and provides a place for their enthusiasm to land. What is your biggest fan to do if you don’t have a Web site other than wait 3 years for next book to come out? Have a Web site and they can sign up for your mailing list, get info about when you’ll be in their city, send their friends to it. It creates a fan culture around your work.

BDB: So creating a blog, and not a Web site, would be fine?

KS: A blog is a kind of Web site, one that is frequently updated with links and commentary in reverse chronological order. I don’t think it’s necessary for most authors to blog unless they have something to say that frequently. However some, like Gayle Brandeis, Nelson George and Danyel Smith just do it because they have fun blogging and they are interesting people. But the most important parts of an author’s Web site are the bio, book information, links to online booksellers, events calendar and a mailing list. A blog is nice but not essential.

BDB: Are there too many blogs?

KS: No. There is too little education about how to find the good ones.

BDB: What should I have asked you but didn’t?

KS: “What are you doing next?” I’m currently in the middle of the proposal for my second book which will be an oral history of ordinary people answering this question, “What Book Changed your Life?” and playing around with several article and radio ideas. I’m also looking forward to several weeks at home with my girlfriend, my cat and a stack of unread books.

Visit Kevin’s Web site


Marilyn Elise Powell Berns 1931-2005

This post isn’t about writing. Not exactly.

I went to Marilyn Berns’ funeral today. She was the mother of my good friend, the artist Leslie Berns Richman. I last saw Marilyn and her husband Norm when they came to my book launching party at Book Soup. I lived with Leslie in San Francisco in the late ’70s and we’ve been friends ever since, though since ’81, at least, we’ve lived in different locales.

Her mother Marilyn died last week. She had lung cancer that progressed into her liver. Her passing was rather quick. She had two daughters, Lisa and Leslie, and was married to Norm.

I was moved by the talks everyone gave in remembrance of Marilyn. Over and over people said how Marilyn was generous and loving, and quick to tell you if you weren’t doing your best. Marilyn is the sister of Colin Powell, former secretary of state. While I was moved by everyone’s talks, I was most moved by what Colin said.

He talked about how they grew up in a Bronx, New York, tenement with their parents, Luther and Ariel. Colin said Marilyn always pushed him to do his best and while she got into a good college–Buffalo State Teachers College–the one of her choice, he kept getting turned down by colleges. But he kept trying, and ended up going to City College. His sister went to college and so he had to, too. I found that moving–here was one of the most respected politicians in recent history, and he was saying it was his sister who made him want to do better, who prompted him to go to college and do all he could.

She was his sister, and she was a teacher. Marilyn was an effective teacher. That same quality, wanting the people she knew and loved to do their best, carried over to her students. Marilyn was charismatic and had an infectious laugh. She was self-assured and she wanted her students to have confidence in themselves, too. I’ve been thinking about that, about teaching and how you help a student believe in him or herself when that belief in self is lacking. Should a teacher never take no for an answer, when a student says, “I just can’t do that,” or does a good teacher persist?

I almost quit high school but there were a few teachers who wouldn’t let me. Who knew I could do better, if only they could find the key. And they did.

I wish Marilyn were here to discuss teaching (too often it takes someone passing to remember what we meant to do with that person, what we meant to talk about) and if you ever take no for an answer. Yet, I imagine she would have said, No. You never take no for an answer. You always expect more and hope for more. And sometimes the best happens.

I love Moleskine notebooks

I first corresponded with Armand Frasco, the founder of, just after my Web site

went live. I wrote about Moleskines in my book, and later linked my site to his Web site and then he linked to mine. I revisit Moleskinerie

often and love it. It’s so well done, as well as being a gathering place for Moleskine obsessed users. A few weeks ago there was a wonderful piece in The New York Times Magazine about him and his site.

I asked Armand some questions:

BDB: Can it be that your Moleskinerie site only a year old? In the NYT mag article, the writer (Rob Walker) said you started your blog last year.

AF: Yes, went live on January 12, 2004.

BDB: Are you surprised at all by the attention to your blog?

AF: Yes, the attention constantly amuses me. I never dreamt of being in the New York Times Magazine, etc. With the attention came the expected rise of e-mails and other requests and running the blog has become an almost full-time occupation. Moleskine is a good product that I patronize, am satisfied with and happy to share the good news.

BDB: When did you discover Moleskines?

AF: I bought my first Moleskine about four years ago at a mall in suburban Chicago. I’ve used different journals before that and still do.

BDB: What do you love about Moleskines?

AF: I love Moleskine notebooks for their sturdy construction and unobtrusive, minimalist look. The paper is excellent for my own use, which is mostly writing and some drawings. As Louis Henri Sullivan said, “Form follows function”. That is Moleskine.

BDB: Tell me more about your blog. What was the intention, when you began it?

AF: Honestly, Moleskinerie was started on a whim, on a bright but boring winter day. I searched for Moleskine users online and found hundreds. With a basically underutilized TypePad blogging account I opened Moleskinerie with the intention of connecting with other users from all over the globe.

BDB: What’s your intention now? The same?

AF: Since then, Moleskinerie has evolved to become the premier gathering place for Moleskine enthusiasts worldwide. My basic intention of bringing people together remains with the added sense of responsibility for providing a forum of expression for our readers’ amazingly diverse creative use of the notebook and the site’s continuity.

BDB: Do you write?

AF: Yes I do, for Moleskinerie, of course and for other print publications and online sites. My major interest though is photo
documentaries which I do for organizations and families. I also struggle to keep a personal journal updated.

BDB: What are you reading right now?

AF: I received a copy of Drawing from Life by Jennifer New for my birthday (July 16). This very interesting book gave me a deeper understanding of why people keep journals. A snip: “Like old Shaker chairs grown smooth from supporting so many bodies, or a handmade quilt faded from decades of laundering and human contact, journals are utilitarian objects transformed by repeated and fond use. They hold life in them, which is why we cannot let them go. And yet they are
ubiquitous to the point of invisibility.”

BDB: You’re now seen as a sort of expert on Moleskines. How does that make you feel?

AF: To paraphrase the Dalai Lama, “I am a simple Moleskine user, nothing more, nothing less.”

BDB: Anything else?

AF: Thank you Barbara for giving me this chance to share my thoughts with your many readers. Memories make us what we are and what we will become. Journals and diaries help keep those memories within ready reach (no batteries required) so get out, get a life and write about it!