We first met Melissa Cistaro when she pitched her book to us at a Pitchapalooza we did for Book Passage (one of America’s great bookstores) in Corte Madera, California. We’ve been doing this so long we can usually tell when someone has a book in them and is capable of getting it out successfully. And we knew Melissa had the right stuff as soon as she opened her mouth. Arielle then made a suggestion to Melissa that she calls perhaps her greatest move as a Book Doctor: she told Melissa that she should get a job working at Book Passage. This is what separates the doers from the talkers. Melissa actually did it; she got a job at Book Passage. Eventually she became the person who introduces authors when they do events at Book Passage. Some of the greatest authors in the world come through that bookstore. Now Melissa gets to move from being the person who presents authors to the author being presented. So we thought we would pick her brain to see how she did it.
To read this interview on the Huffington Post, click here.
The Book Doctors: How did you get started as a writer?
Melissa Cistaro: This may sound odd, but I think that becoming a mother is what turned me into a writer. Even in college, I still considered writing one of my greatest weaknesses. But when I saw my own child for the first time, I knew I had to figure out how to tell the stories that had been hiding inside of me for so long. I started taking classes at UCLA Extension, and it was there that I caught a glimpse of my writing voice–and after that, I couldn’t stop writing. I’ve always believed that motherhood opened a portal inside of me that gave me permission to write. If I hadn’t become a mother, I don’t know that I would have become a writer.
TBD: What are some of your favorite books and why?
MC: In the house I grew up in, we rarely had access to books. I was not a child who discovered books early–they came late for me, and when they did, I had a lot of catching up to do. One of the first books to completely mesmerize me was Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things. The language was magical and the story deep, evocative and riveting. I am often pulled into stories through language. Fugitive Pieces is another book that I drew me in with its incredible poetic narrative. Divisadero by Michael Ondaatje and a short story collection by John Murray called A Few Short Notes on Tropical Butterflies. Oh this is hard! I could go on and on with favorite books.
TBD: What made you decide to write a memoir?
MC: I started this story as a work of fiction. It was easier for me to dive into it as someone else’s narrative rather than my own. For years, I wrote calling myself Paisley Chapin in the story, but eventually I realized that I wasn’t very good at drifting away from the truth, as I knew it. Early on, I showed my oldest brother some chapters, and he said to me, “Sorry Sis, but this ain’t fiction you are writing.”
TBD: How has your family reacted to seeing themselves in print?
MC: The book was very difficult to hand to my father. There were many facets of our childhood that he wasn’t aware of–and it was definitely emotional for him to take in our story on paper. He has been exceptionally supportive of the book and, ultimately, a proud father. My brothers also have been generous and supportive. Naturally, there were some details that we recalled in different ways, and we have since had some great conversations about our childhood.
TBD: You attended a number of writing programs, do you recommend this? What are some of the benefits and liabilities?
MC: Classes and workshops were crucial along the way, as was being in a writing group. But I eventually got to a place in the process where outside input began to stifle me as a writer. The feedback was always helpful, but I also had to take responsibility for what I ultimately wanted to write. If there are too many voices and opinions, it can get overwhelming. I’ve become less fond of workshopping and more of a fan of having a few select and trusted readers.
TBD: Which helped you more as a writer, being an equestrian or a mom?
MC: Whoa–this is an interesting question. I don’t know if I’ve ever considered how riding has informed my writing. Communicating with an animal requires a great deal of paying attention and observing, and I think that certainly translates into the writing process. I once had to throw myself off of a horse that was running at full speed back towards the barn. I could see the low awning of the barn ahead, and I knew I had lost control of the horse. I didn’t want to end up trapped under the awning or thrown dangerously sideways–so I made a decision to pull my feet out of the stirrups and make a flying dismount. I skidded and tumbled across the hard summer dirt, landing safely (and sorely) between two spindly birch trees. I think, whether we are parenting or writing or on a runaway horse, we have to make big decisions and sometimes we don’t know precisely what the outcome will be.
TBD: Did working at a bookstore help you as a writer?
MC: Absolutely. If you love books as much as I do and you want to surround yourself with likeminded people, go work in an independent bookstore. Bookstores are magical places. You get to meet authors and discover new books all the time. I also learned how sometimes great books thrive and other equally beautiful books can sometimes wither on the shelf. I quickly gleaned how subjective the world of books can be. This armored me with very humble and realistic expectations as I entered the publishing arena with my own book. I had a completed draft of my memoir when I started working at Book Passage, and I decided to put it in the proverbial drawer for a year so that I could focus on other books and writers. This turned out to be a great plan. Two years later, I met my agent during an event I was hosting.
TBD: You’ve now seen hundreds of authors do events as event coordinator at one of the great bookstores in America, Book Passage. What mistakes do you see writers make? What do you see successful writers do to help themselves?
MC: I have a wonderful job at Book Passage. I introduce authors, host their events and read their books. I find that, for the most part, authors are truly grateful and gracious when they come to Book Passage. I learn something new at every event I host. I take a lot of notes. We always appreciate when an author stands up and thanks independent bookstores for the hard work they do, because we certainly don’t do this work for the money (which is essentially minimum wage). We do this work because we love working in the landscape of books, ideas and creative minds.
TBD: What did you learn about finding an agent and publisher that you think unpublished writers would like to know?
MC: Finding that one agent who falls in love with your work takes a lot of time, patience and perseverance. Expect a lot of rejection. Grow extremely thick skin. And keep writing what you are passionate about. When you find that agent, he or she will help get your manuscript to the right publisher.
TBD: What was the most frustrating part of the publishing process from idea through publication for you?
MC: The publishing process is full of surprises, and I had to carry my publishing “Bible” with me everywhere. (That would be your book!). There are so many things you can learn in advance about how publishing works and all the ins-and-outs of contracts, deals, agents, etc. It was a tremendous and challenging education going through the publishing process. The landscape is changing so fast that it’s important to keep informed.
TBD: How can writers best use their local bookstore to help them in their career?
MC: Support your local bookstore. This means buying books from them. Attend their events. Introduce yourself to the booksellers and tell them you are a writer. Ask them for advice and book recommendations. Let them know you are not going to get a recommendation and then go purchase it for a few dollars less online. Today there are many ways a writer can professionally self-publish their books, and this is a perfectly respectable way to publish. Just make sure that if you self-publish, it’s on a platform that is compatible with independent bookstores. (This is kind of homework that authors need to do when looking into their publishing options!)
I love meeting writers at Book Passage, and I appreciate when they tell me they are a writer because I know how challenging this path is. I also know that one day they may come in and tell me that their book is being published–and guess who is going to make sure that they get a reading at Book Passage?
TBD: What advice do you have for writers?
MC: If there is a story you need to tell, you must do it. You must keep writing and writing until you are both empty and full. No story is too small for this world.
Melissa Cistaro‘s stories have been published in numerous literary journals, including the New Ohio Review, Anderbo.com, and Brevity as well as the anthologies Cherished and Love and Profanity. She works as a bookseller and event coordinator at Book Passage, the esteemed independent bookstore in Northern California. Between the years of raising her children, writing, bookselling, teaching horseback riding, and curating a business in equestrian antiques – Melissa completed her first memoir, Pieces of My Mother.
Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry are co-founders of The Book Doctors, a company that has helped countless authors get their books published. They are also co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, June 2015). They are also book editors, and between them they have authored 25 books, and appeared on National Public Radio, the London Times, and the front cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review.
Murder in Marin, Science in SF, Books In(c) Berkeley, Standing Room Only in Santa Cruz, Fun Down on the Farm
We started off our Bay Area Tour with a bang at the Mystery Writer’s Conference at Book Passage (one of our ATF bookstores). There were maniac murderers, femme fatales, and international men of mystery run amok. And that was just at the faculty dinner! As for the Mysterypalooza, the bar was raised very high—lots of writers flew in from all over the country to chase their mysterious dreams. In fact, Sheldon Siegel, the attorney turned NYT bestselling mystery author who chairs the conference, was once a student there. Elaine Petrocelli, owner of Book Passage, welcomed us with her usual grace and warmth. We also had a phenomenal panel, bestselling author Hallie Ephron was an font of wisdom about the ins and outs of the fine art of the mystery pitch. How much to reveal, how much to conceal. How to create a sense of suspense, character and place. Bridget Kinsella of Publisher’s Weekly and Shelf Awareness, as well as an author, brought her market savvy and understanding of the publishing biz to the table big-time. Everyone who pitched came away with a whole host of tools for how to improve their pitch, but perhaps more importantly, how to solve the mystery of the dastardly publishing game.
One of the great joys of going to conferences like these is the socializing. At the after party, at a gorgeous home overlooking the Bay of San Francisco, we met one of the true mastercraftswomen of her trade: Rhys Bowen, who is the author of over 100 books (that’s not a typo, we’re talking one hundred!). She told us that before she starts writing one of her mysteries, she visits the specific location. She walks the streets, studies the buildings, smells the smells and listens to the sounds. And when you read one of her books, you feel the authenticity shining through.
We had never held a Pitchapalooza in a bar until our next stop when we watched pitchees rock it at the Rock It Room in San Francisco. We were joined by two more fab panelists. Pitchapalooza veteran Elise Cannon, the grand pooba of the pitch, and Head of Field Sales at Publishers Group West. Elise tossed off comp titles and tweaked and toned pitches with a fun-loving ease. Christina Amini, Executive Editor at Chronicle Books as well as an author, brought her editorial and marketing savvy (a rare combination in an editor) to the party. Green Apple Books sponsored our event. This super cool bookstore has an eclectic mix of new and used books. And it happens to be located down the street from one of our new favorite restaurants in San Francisco, Burma Superstar.
Since David’s family has been living in Berkeley for 25 years, it was a homecoming of sorts when we brought our dog and pony show to Bezerkly. Although we’re a big fan of Books, Inc., we had never been to the new store in Berkeley. We’re happy to say that books are alive and thriving in Berkeley. Over a 100 brave souls showed up pitch their books on a Monday night. We had a wonderfully eclectic sampling of revolutionary agitation, waxing New Age gurus, and startups gone terribly wrong. Again, we were graced with an extraordinary panelist, the lovely and talented Laura Mazer, who runs Soft Skull, the phenomenal independent publisher. She just signed a deal to publish our first Pitchapalooza winners (held during last year’s Litquakepalooza), Nura Maznavi and Ayesha Mattu, who have written the wonderful anthology, Love, InShallah: The Secret Love Lives of American Muslim Women. As usual, Laura was incredibly generous with her expertise, both as an editor, but as someone who runs an independent, and actually acquires books.
Santa Cruz is a magical place, rich with California history, radical hippies, party hearty students, and a spectacularly laid-back sunshine-drenched vibe. We’d never been to Bookshop Santa Cruz, but the second we stepped foot in this magical Emporium of literature, we fell madly in love. George, who’s been working there since the last millennium, catered to our every need, and made sure that the show ran like clockwork. She is a bookseller’s bookseller, and we salute her. The bookstore has been around since 1966, and has been run by the Coonerty family for over 30 years. Casey Coonerty Protti, who basically grew up in the bookstore, runs it now. Casey took the time to meet and greet us, and make us feel right at home. The bookstore also supplied us with two judges, Kat Bailey, and Susan McCloskey. They both had such an incredible passion for books, and deep insider’s knowledge which they dispensed with almost alarming alacrity. We had a feeling this was going to be a big event, you never quite know. So, we were excited and deeply gratified over 200 people showed up Thursday night to shower us with their pitches and love. We can’t wait to go back.
Stanford is a universe unto itself. Every time we go the sun is always shining, pretty people always seem happy, and even though the campus itself is an essentially unnavigable maze, there is a deep vein of contentment which pervades beautiful buildings. We love teaching at Stanford, in part because almost all of our students are better educated than we are. They are wicked smart, and have a deep thirst to learn. Since our classes are interactive, this makes for a scintillating exchange of ideas, and the five hours fly by in a flash. We will be absolutely shocked if several published books don’t come out of this class.
The bad news is that we have to leave the Bay Area. The good news is that we will be doing our second annual Litquake Pitchapalooza on October 9 at 5pm. Come on down. Who knows, maybe this year you will be the author who gets published out of Litquakepalooza!
The Book Doctors, aka, Arielle Eckstut and David Henry Sterry, authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published, will be making house calls all over the Bay Area. They want YOU to pitch your book at Pitchapalooza, which was recently featured in The New York Times, and in mini-documentaries for Newsday and NBC. Pitchapalooza is like American Idol for books–only without the Simon. 20-25 writers get one minute to pitch their book ideas to an all-star panel of publishing experts. The winner receives an introduction to an appropriate agent or publisher for his/her book. Plus, anyone who buys a book gets a free consultation worth $100. In the last month THREE Pitchapalooza participants have signed book deals with great publishers. Two of them are from the Bay Area.
July 23, Mystery Writers Conference, Book Passage, Corte Madera, California
July 24, 1 PM, Green Apple Books, (Rock-It Room) San Francisco, California w/ Publishers Group West superstar Elise Cannon
July 25, 7pm, Books Inc, Berkeley, California w/ Soft Skull top dog Laura Mazer
July 28, 7 PM, Bookshop Santa Cruz, Santa Cruz, California
July 30, 10 AM, Stanford University, Palo Alto, California (workshop)
Arielle Eckstut has been a literary agent for 18 years. She is also the author of seven books and the co-founder of the iconic brand, LittleMissMatched. David Henry Sterry is the best-selling author of 12 books, on a wide variety of subject including memoir, sports, YA fiction and reference. His last book appeared on the cover of the Sunday New York Times Book Review. Together, they’ve helped dozens and dozens of talented amateur writers become published authors. They’ve appeared everywhere from NPR’s Morning Edition to USA Today, and have taught publishing workshops everywhere from the Miami Book Fair to Stanford University. Find more at www.thebookdoctors.com.
Stanford Workshop: How To Get Your Book Published
It is the greatest time in history to be a writer. The barrier to publishing has been torn down and now anyone can get published. But to get published successfully is a whole other matter. Eckstut and Sterry take you through the entire publishing process, from choosing the right idea, to writing a door-opening proposal or manuscript, to finding the right agent and/or publisher (or going right to self-publishing), to promoting and marketing your work, to effectively using social media. This all-in-one, soups-to-nuts workshop will leave attendees with a compass and map to a successfully published book.
Here’s what people are saying about The Essential Guide To Getting Your Book Published:
“I started with nothing but an idea, and then I bought this book. Soon I had an A-list agent, a near six-figure advance, and multiple TV deals in the works. Buy it and memorize it. This little tome is the quiet secret of rockstar authors.”—New York Times best-selling author Timothy Ferris, The 4-Hour Workweek: Escape 9-5, Live Anywhere, and Join the New Rich,
“It is a must-have for every aspiring writer… thorough, forthright quite entertaining.”—Khaled Hosseini, New York Times bestselling author of the Kite Runner
“Before you write your own book, read this one first.”—Jonathan Karp, editor-in-chief, Simon and Schuster