Novelist Ellen Meister Gives The Book Doctors the Skinny on Switching Genres, Independent Bookstores and Thick Skin

One of the questions we get asked all the time is: What if I want to write more than one kind of book? Can I write a cookbook and a cozy mystery? Can I write a dark literary novel and a vampire romance? When we met Ellen Meister, we discovered that she was on the brink of changing courses, genre-wise. Her new book, The Other Life, is a literary novel, which comes on the heels of two novels that are squarely commercial women’s fiction. So we were excited to ask her about her experiences with this change. And in the course of doing so, we were able to find out some other great tips and information about Ellen’s publishing trajectory.

THE BOOK DOCTORS: Many writers come up against brick walls when they change genres or styles. With your latest book, you’ve moved from fun, sassy, upbeat women’s fiction (i.e. the perfect beach reads!) to a more literary premise and story. Did you have any difficulties with this change? Did your agent or publisher want you to stick with the voice you’d already established in your first two books? Did you, yourself, feel you had to stick with what you’d done so well?

ELLEN MEISTER: I was pretty worried about that when I came up with the idea for THE OTHER LIFE, which was clearly a major departure from my previous books. But I fell so in love with the high concept “what if” story about a woman who has the ability to slip through a portal to the life she would have had if she never got married and became a mother, that I knew I had to write it, even if my agent said she wouldn’t be able to sell it.

Of course, I hoped she would adore it, and prayed she wouldn’t tell me I had to stick with what I had been doing. So I wrote a proposal and sent it off, then spent an incredibly anxious week waiting to hear back.

When she called, her response was even better than I had dared dream. Not only did she love the idea, but she had shown the chapters to everyone at the agency, and the reaction was unanimous. Fortunately, several editors felt the same way and the book wound up selling at auction.

THE BOOK DOCTORS: Can you tell us how you got your first book published? Did you encounter rejection? If so, was there anything you learned from this rejection?

ELLEN MEISTER: Oh, the rejection! Pure anguish.

When I finished writing GEORGE CLOONEY IS COMING TO APPLEWOOD (later titled SECRET CONFESSIONS OF THE APPLEWOOD PTA), I attacked the chore of finding an agent as a full time job. I spent my days researching literary agents, honing my query letter, and sending it out again and again and again.

For nine months, the rejections poured in. And then it happened. A wonderful agent called to say she loved the book and wanted to represent me. I went to her New York City office to meet with the whole team. A dream come true.

Ironically, after all those months of rejection, another big agent called the next day to offer representation. It was stressful to turn down a major player … but validating.

I wish I could say I learned something from all the rejection–that my skin got a bit thicker and my fragile heart a little stronger. But I’m afraid this hyper-sensitivity is an incurable condition. Steelier types have lectured me about bucking up and growing a tougher hide. But that’s like telling someone who sunburns easily to go outside naked and ignore the UV rays. It’s just not going to happen. We thin-skinned types just have to nurse our wounds and hope for the soothing balm of success to make it all worthwhile.

THE BOOK DOCTORS: You established your own sales promotion agency. How did the experience with this business help you with being an author? What tips do you have for other authors on embracing the promoter within? Are there any unique promotional ideas you’ve employed as a result of your experience?

ELLEN MEISTER: That experience helped me in so many ways. First, being a copywriter was great training. I learned how valuable it is to grab the reader’s attention from the first sentence and never let go.

Also, my background in marketing helped me understand how difficult it is to stand out in a crowded and competitive marketplace. So I never sat back and expected my publisher to do all the heavy lifting in terms of promotion and publicity. There are so many thousands of books in stores vying for attention that an author has to work tirelessly to help the sales effort. Once the book is finished, my floppy artist hat get tossed in the closet and replaced by my rigid marketing hat. (Or perhaps I should say helmet. Yup, it’s that rough out there.)

My advice to other authors is to keep trying and learning and figuring out what works. The Internet is such a dynamic and ever-changing medium that you have to stay agile and quick.

THE BOOK DOCTORS: We met through Book Revue in LI, near where you live. Can you tell us how your local independent bookstore has helped you become a more successful author? Any tips on how newbie authors can embrace their local independent?

ELLEN MEISTER: Book Revue has been so good to me! I’ve done several events with them, and just adore that store.

My advice to newbie authors is to understand the toll this economy has taken on the publishing industry. And indies, in particular, have taken a big hit. That means they’re often understaffed, and you have to be willing to roll up your sleeves and do a bit of work.

For instance, if you drop into your local indie to sign stock, know that the staff will probably be busy helping customers. So offer to round up the books yourself, and tell them you’ll be happy to affix the “autographed copy” stickers. When visiting smaller indies, it’s a good idea to bring your own stickers in case they don’t have any. (You can buy these pretty cheaply online. The source I use is Alpha Business Forms.)

Another tip: Indies are often happy to supply books for offsite events, but can’t spare the personnel to send out. So if you’re doing a non-bookstore event, contact your local indie ahead of time and ask if they would be willing to supply the books and sales slips. Then line up a friend or relative to lend a hand and write the orders.

THE BOOK DOCTORS: You’re on book #3. How has your approach to publishing your books changed from book to book? What have you learned that has only come with time and doing it over and over?

ELLEN MEISTER: On a practical level, I’ve learned that breaking down my deadline into manageable chunks is critical. For instance, if I’m contractually obligated to turn in a manuscript on a specific date, I look at the calendar and calculate how many pages I’ll have to write per week to meet that deadline. Then I make that my weekly writing goal and stick to it. I recommend weekly writing goals even to authors who aren’t on deadline. If there’s a book you want to finish, this is the best way to accomplish it.

On a more philosophical level, I keep learning the same lesson in karma again and again. And it’s a good one. Throughout this journey, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet some of my literary heroes. A few of them were disappointingly cold and stingy souls, but most were warm, supportive, appreciative and generous. These are the ones I try to model myself after! And I’m happy to say that I never regret it–being kind and helpful to my fellow writers is always worth the effort.