You are the author of the chapbook Victory Boulevard (Finishing Line Press, 2018). Talk about the promotion work and the steps you took—galley editing, copywriting, publicity, and more—in the lead up to and release of your first chapbook. What did you learn along the way and what advice might you offer to a poet who’s just had their first chapbook accepted for publication?
Finishing Line gets a lot of chapbooks into print each year. Because they’re a small operation, they rely on their authors to do some of the work. Other authors no doubt grumble or feel overwhelmed, but I like the detail work of publishing and appreciated having control over the process. I never had the unpleasant experience of a choice made without my consent.
One of the first tasks was creating the cover art. I am lucky to have a beloved sister-in-law in Atlanta who designs book covers for a scholarly religious publisher and is fluent in the language of pixels and bleeds and tifs. She said yes immediately to my request for an image made of cut colored papers, a method she had used to create a visual diary of each day of the year a few years earlier: one small white card per day which she filled with an image that somehow captured that day. I loved the charm, naivete and bold graphics of her pictures. It took us several weeks of groping toward the vague ideal in my head, which seemed quite clear until I tried to translate it into words. I worried a lot about hurting her feelings when I said no to her first few attempts, but she’s a professional and understands that you have to get it wrong on the road to getting it right. I knew for sure I wanted a skirt on the cover because I realized that a lot of the poems mentioned skirts, which is funny because I rarely put one on. I knew I wanted the suggestion of a woman stepping out onto a street but not an actual whole woman, and I want the skirt to swirl and vaguely evoke the 1940s. We spent hours Googling “twirly skirts” and “Lindy hop skirts.” I eventually made a rough sketch and sent her the scan to explain what I couldn’t quite get into words. She understood. And suddenly there it was.
Once the cover was ready, it was time to put the word out. Finishing Line’s strategy is based largely on the pre-order period. The idea is for authors to sell as many books in advance as possible, with the pre-sales determining the size of the press run. I decided to aim for a press run of 1,000, which meant I would receive 100 books of my own to do with as I wished. It also meant I had to pre-sell 200+ copies.
I did my outreach mostly through postcards and emails. Finishing Line creates a promotional postcard with the cover image and pre-ordering information and sends out 100 postcards free of charge; all I had to was provide filled-out mailing labels. I’m embarrassed to admit this was the hardest part of the whole process – I never did get my computer to align the addresses correctly on the labels and ended up writing them out by hand. I then took the PDF to Staples and had 1,000 more postcards made. All fall I never left my apartment without a stack of postcards in my pocket, and I handed them out liberally. I gave a stack to all the local communities I could think of that I have a connection to: my kids’ former school, the community theater where I sometimes perform. I even gave one to actor Joel Grey, who lives in my neighborhood and often walks his dog at the same time I do.
I emailed about 400 personal notes, too. I decided it was worth the investment of time to avoid sending eblasts, which are so easy for the recipient to ignore. I created a spreadsheet to keep track of who got a postcard in the mail, who got an email, and who ended up buying a copy of the book.
At the end of each week during this period, the press sent me a tally of how many books I had pre-sold that week, and to whom. I felt like a spy being privy to this information, but I must say, it was exciting and useful to see the names of both good friends and casual acquaintances on the list.
As for the book itself, early on I swapped out a couple of poems from the original manuscript and moved a couple around to create a more coherent flow, and the press didn’t mind. Because my book contains 14 poems, I thought of it as my record album, with an A and B side. This helped me sort the poems. Because I’ve put in plenty of time as a professional editor and proofreader, I did all my own poring through the text and later the galleys. I recommend that others who don’t have experience find some professional help. Finishing Line provided clear instructions on how to mark up the galleys. I read the manuscript again and again and am proud to say I’ve found no typos in the finished product.
One of the more daunting tasks was asking well-known authors for blurbs for the back jacket and the postcards. I didn’t realize that these blurbs would also appear on Amazon and B&N. I hesitantly approached Phil Schultz, who had been my long-time teacher at The Writers Studio, where I’ve now been teaching for many years. I know he’s jealous of his writing time and tries to avoid this kind of industry busywork. He graciously agreed.
Some other tasks: providing an author photo, writing a short bio (for the back cover) and a long bio (for the last page), writing promotional copy, providing SEO tags.
After you had the manuscript ready to go and a blurb, what happened next in your process? Can you talk a bit more about publicity towards the final weeks of your presale and your publicity work once you had chapbooks in hand? What avenues did you explore—radio interviews, bloggers, readings? In your answer, talk about your favorite publicity moments.
I have to answer this question in a personal way. Three days before Christmas, when my presale period ended, I got the final tally and was delighted to have made my quota. My final edits were in, and the galleys were due back in a couple of weeks. My classes ended for the term, and our grown kids and other far-flung loved ones were arriving for the holidays. Then the phone rang at 3 a.m. Christmas morning. My aged mother, suffering from dementia and a heart condition, had died. She had always been taciturn and private and had hardly said a word in months. Once an accomplished seamstress, in recent years she couldn’t even couldn’t pick up a needle. She was very ready to go.
The book gets its name from a street on Staten Island, near where she grew up. The poems are all about mothers and daughters, girls and women. One is about her grandmother. Several are about her. Maybe in some indirect way all of them are about her. I’ve joked that the poem that captures our dynamic the most directly, “In the Pale Green Sewing Room,” took an entire lifetime to prepare for and about an hour to write.
The original dedication said simply “For Betty,” which was purposely a little noncommittal. Some readers would know that Betty was my mother’s name; others might think it was a reference to Betty Boop, who gets her own poem in the book, too. I went back to Finishing Line and asked to amend the dedication to include her full name with her birth and death dates, which they graciously allowed. I read three of the poems at her memorial in early January.
The book shipped at the end of February. I snapped a photo of the open carton of books and posted it on Facebook. Meantime I lined up a bunch of spring appearances. I am lucky that in recent years my life has opened wider than I ever imagined it might, maybe because I myself have opened wider to possibility than ever I imagined I could; I am part of many communities, including The Writers Studio where I teach and was already lined up for an April reading. I was also named first-ever Poet Laureate of Tortilla Flats, the rowdy Tex-Mex restaurant across the street from my apartment in Greenwich Village, and gave three readings there to surprisingly attentive diners. I gave a lunchtime reading/talk at my hometown library in Norwalk, CT. Almost every month I participate in The Grind, the brainchild of poet Ross White. By invitation, he gathers groups of writers who commit to emailing each other a finished draft of something, even a sentence, every day for the month – no critiques, just that good daily kick in the pants. Through a fellow Grinder, I appeared at a reading series called Yeah You Write that was featuring the work of musicians and lyricists that month; I shared work and talked about another ongoing project of mine: my new translations of more than 60 Jacques Brel songs.
What did I learn through all this? I learned that if you arrange for a reading at your local library branch in Manhattan, you should not assume they will drum up an audience; only a few friends, one stranger and one woman coming in out of the cold showed up for that one. I learned that even if only a few friends, one stranger and one woman coming in out of the cold show up, you should keep your end of the bargain by treating them like a room full of people. My hometown library was a different story and might have been the sweetest experience so far — on a weekday at noon I had a decent crowd that included three high-school classmates and my high-school French teacher. Having never been a headliner of anything before, I was pleased to learn that I could easily keep an audience engaged for an hour by reading and answering questions. Word of mouth from that event was so good that the local poet laureate has invited me back.
Sad to say, I also learned that it’s difficult to sell books to people I don’t already know. I’ve made quite a few calls to Staten Island booksellers but haven’t managed yet to entice any of them to carry my book. I’ve done much better with one-on-one outreach. Readings have potential, but the room has to be set up to emphasize the fact that it’s also a book sale and to compel people to walk past the book table.
I’ve kept my eyes open for additional publicity opportunities. I approached The Bookends Review, which had put out a call for interview subjects, and did a long audio interview with the editor. During the interview, I had a chance to give a plug to our favorite Cape Cod band, the Chandler Travis Philharmonic. That, in turn, gave me a reason to make contact with Chandler himself, something I’d always wanted to do. He said maybe someday he could set one of my poems to music, so I instantly sent him one. A couple of days later, voila, he’d turned it into a song. This fall I was inducted into my High School Wall of Honor, largely on the strength of my being an author with a book. One of the poems in the book, “Thelma Ritter Steals the Show,” was just featured in a theater piece at the Hudson Guild Theatre, and I got to be in the cast.
So even though I could have worked harder to move more books, the book keeps on enriching my life in ways I never anticipated.
How do you define chapbook? A shortish book, sometimes with a spine. As I said before, I thought of mine as my record album – a collection small enough to take in all at once and big enough to come back to many times.
What makes a good chapbook? A storyline or a specific world or a theme. I think everything ought to have some humor.
What chapbooks are inspiring you these days? I’ve been enjoying the ones Rattle publishes and think it’s a brilliant strategy to send them to subscribers along with a Q&A with the author in the magazine. This way I’ve gotten to know lots of authors: Diana Goetsch, Zeina Hashem Beck, Mather Schneider. I’ve even assigned the students in my memoir class at The Writers Studio some poems from these chapbooks.
What chapbooks or chapbook poets have impacted your writing the most? Probably the first one I ever encountered when I’m not sure I even knew the term chapbook: Lush (Four Way Books, 2001) by Frazier Russell. He was a much-more-accomplished classmate in my early years in Phil Schultz’s master class at The Writers Studio. Back then I didn’t know many people who had published books and was a little in awe. I was focused on fiction and didn’t believe I might someday write a successful poem, let alone write a whole bunch, let alone get them published.
What do you look for when you put together a chapbook? Having done it only once so far, I found that the poems cohered with surprisingly little futzing on my part – I looked at what I had and saw that I seemed to be fascinated by the world of females — past and present, real and fictional, mothers and not mothers.
How are you trying to get better as a chapbook poet? By finally doing the damned thing: writing every day. I also spend a lot of time translating Jacques Brel songs and have to assume that walking around with a head full of challenges involving melodies and meters and rhymes is sharpening my poetry skills.
What’s next for you? I have another chapbook all ready to go, with the working title To the Pieman. It grew from one of the poems in Victory Boulevard, “The Oldest Child’s Lament,” which is told from the point of view of the oldest daughter of the Old Woman Who Lived in a Shoe. My original idea was to play around with children’s songs I have known and loved, but I took a slight detour into nursery rhymes.
Current chapbook reading list: Whatever arrives next from Rattle.
Number of chapbooks you own: 10-15.
Number of chapbooks you’ve read: 10-15.
Ways you promote and serve other chapbook poets: I’ll do it right now! I’m proud that two of my students have recently published chapbooks with Finishing Line, just like me: Marianne Gambaro’s Do Not Stop for Hitchhikers and m.nicole.r.wildhood’s Long Division. And some friends: Nancy Hechinger, Anne Whitehouse, Katherine Barrett Swett. I’ve even made a new chapbook friend: Jean-Marie Osterman, whose Finishing Line chapbook There’s a Hum came out the same time as mine. I’ve read Lisa Bellamy’s chapbook Nectar (Encircle Publications, 2011) several times; she’s a teaching colleague at The Writers Studio and an inspiration. She has a new full collection out called The Northway (Terrapin Books) that’s on my Christmas list.
Your chapbook credo: I’m a small person; I like small things.
Where you spend your chapbook earnings: Mostly Trader Joe’s. My proceeds so far have gone straight to my wallet. I am very frugal, so I granted myself the luxury of a little extra spending money.
Your chapbook wish: That more people knew of their existence and carried them around in their back pockets and maybe traded them like baseball cards.
Residence: New York City
Job: freelance writer, developmental editor, writing teacher and coach; occasional community-theater actor and cabaret spoken-word performer
Chapbook Bio: Michele Herman’s stories, poems, essays and articles have appeared in dozens of publications including The New York Times, The Sun, Lilith and Diagram. Her poetry chapbook Victory Boulevard was published in 2018 by Finishing Line Press. She teaches at The Writers Studio, and as a developmental editor and private writing coach, she has helped many writers bring their manuscripts to fruition. She won the 2018 New York Press Association Better Newspaper Award for best column, is a two-time winner of the Willis Barnstone Translation Prize for her translations of Jacques Brel songs and was a semifinalist for the 2016 Raymond Carver Short Story Contest. One of her short stories appears in the anthology The Writers Studio at 30 (Epiphany Editions, 2017). She is also a long-time columnist for The Villager, the Greenwich Village weekly paper, and often performs her own prose and poetry in cabaret and theatrical settings around New York City. She is a Norwalk, CT, native, the mother of two grown sons, and lives with her husband in Greenwich Village. More at www.micheleherman.com.