JoAnneh Nagler on Getting Her Non-Fiction Book Published
JoAnneh Nagler is a woman of many passions and talents. When we met her, she was trying to figure out how to put that passion into print. Now, she’s on her third book. So we thought we’d pick her brain about what it takes to get a non-fiction book out into the world successfully.
THE BOOK DOCTORS: Tell us about your new non-fiction book, Naked Marriage.
JoAnneh Nagler: First off, David, thanks so much for interviewing me. So, here’s Naked Marriage in a nutshell: it helps busy, married couples find ways to touch, get sexual, get close, talk, and find agreement — all with simple shortcuts — so that we feel our love rather than just talk about it.
We’re all affected by our ability to love well: we all have challenges staying close over the course of years, and we all have busy lives and heavy responsibilities that pull us away from sex and intimacy.
And that’s a major premise of the book: we are not — no way, no how — schooled in loving well over the course of time. What we are schooled in is the chase. The flash and dash, the slam and jam, that sense of thrill of meeting someone new and the heat associated with new bodies colliding. But then, after that, we’re all left in the dark on how to generate mature heat; heat that builds on itself and benefits from being known. And there’s a whole world of that good stuff — the deep stuff that comes from exploring places sexually and intimately that we never thought we could go — places that can only be discovered with a foundation of knowing each other.
I’m all about that: I think we have an opportunity to learn that the difficulties of marriage need not stand in our way of hot and compelling closeness — that intimacy can actually help us get over life’s crazy calamities, and then lead us to commit in a deeper way — a delicious way.
Now, you may say, ‘Wow, that’s a great premise and a terrific idea, but how in hell do I put that into practice when my life is nuts and my partner and I slip into weeks and weeks of not touching each other, or not talking to each other in a meaningful way?’
And that’s the bingo! of the book: Naked Marriage a practical guide to getting to our intimacy. It offers steps, tools, strategies, ideas and shortcuts. One of the simple tips from the book is the Naked Date: a weekly intimacy date that you set with your partner — hell or high water — to get naked in bed with each other. And, yeah, yeah, I know — it’s not “spontaneous.” And I have news for you all: marriage is not a spontaneous animal. In fact, marriage crazily conspires against all of that running through the wheat fields, ripping each other’s clothes off.
So we have to get past the thought that our long term love affair should look and feel the way it did when we were dating. I offer the Naked Date — and write in detail about how to set it up, how to handle our own resistance, and then how to get into the glory of knowing we’ll have pleasure with each other every week. If we have more sex or closeness than our Naked Date — well, bravo! But more than likely, life is going to challenge our ability to get naked unless we set up the time slot and take it. Having a regular Naked Date tends to make us relax with each other about when, and who’s in the mood or not, and we end up showing up for each other as an act of passion and commitment — and it works!
My husband and I have been doing the Naked Date for almost ten years, and it makes us stronger and more passionate with each other. I figured out that we needed it because stresses were knocking us off our sexual block too often. Then I expanded the Naked theme to cover the other stuff we need to get to in marriage — talking to each other, affection, fun or romance, lifestyle choices.
Personally, I hate books that tell us stuff like, ‘Hey, your marriage will thrive if you get intimate regularly’, or, ‘You need time together,’ or even, ‘It’s a good idea to get out of debt to take the pressure off your love life,’ and then don’t tell us how. It’s like, ‘C’mon! Really? I knew that before I picked up your tome!’ I’ve stood over the garbage can and hurled many a book into it out of sheer frustration that the author is posing a thought without giving me a concrete way to act on it.
My book does. It’s a book of easy shortcuts and actions which get us into the stuff we say we really want: closeness; the ability to talk; hot, fulfilling sex on a regular basis; romance. I even take on money clarity in the book, because money issues tank marriages faster than anything else, and they kill our sex lives. What I’m saying in Naked Marriage is, we don’t have to have perfection to make a marriage sweet and sexy and loving. All we need is a simple set of shortcuts to get us into the things we want on a regular basis. That’s what I’ve done with the book.
TBD: How did you go about getting Naked Marriage published?
JN: Well — I have to say this — the book world is getting weirder. My first book, The Debt-Free Spending Plan (2012), was me coming out of nowhere with an idea (a five-minute-a-day, debt-free plan for people who hate numbers and never liked math), and I knew it was well-written (that’s my job as a writer: to bring a great product to the table), but I had no history as a financial person. It was written from personal experience with what’s called a “peer-to-peer” approach — no “expert” voice, just a human, regular-person voice. And I’ve kept that voice through all my books, including How to Be an Artist Without Losing Your Mind, Your Shirt and Your Creative Compass (2016), and now, Naked Marriage (2018).
I bring that up because the landscape hugely changed by the time I sold the marriage book. My first agent — I became friends with him and his wife, both writers/editors who love the written word and respect it — got my debt book sold by selling the importance of the premise, and by saying my social media platform was “nascent.” It was. I had 80 twitter followers. Then he sold my How to Be an Artist book, with me having busily worked on seriously increasing social media and blogging presence. I had worked really hard at it.
By the time I got to selling this terrific idea — Naked Marriage — I had worked my twitter followers up to 19,000 — often four times more than many of the publishers looking at my manuscript had on their pages, and it really didn’t buy me any respect. Even though that’s what we’re told to do as authors — to kill ourselves getting a following — it didn’t help. My new agent, Joelle, thought for sure we were going to go out and sell the marriage book right off the top. And that didn’t happen.
Editors loved the idea, loved the writing, loved the premise, loved the book. But they wanted me to be some huge national voice — a national radio or TV presence before they’d bite. It was a weird quotient: all of the stuff I’d been told to do to get a book sold didn’t work. Joelle, my agent, and I really had to encourage each other the whole way through, because it just got ridiculous. It was like there was no attention being paid to the quality of the product — and we know editors have got to deliver quality product every fall and spring — and the only focus was please be bigger and bigger and bigger or we can’t buy it. So, we probably took it to forty editors before Joelle found a good home for it. And it was her diligence that did it. I went to New York and had dinner with her after she sold it, and she told me she’d say to her colleague every day, “I swear to God, I’m going to sell this damned book!”
And, after a story like that, all of us authors go…“Oh, dear God — what the hell am I doing with my life?” And I say: no. That’s not the sentiment. I still have to do what I do, because that’s who I am and what I have to offer. I don’t enter the world as a marketing director, or a nurse, or a tech guru. I enter the world as an artist; as a human being who has some things to share with other humans about what it is to be alive. I have some helpful insights to share born of falling down and finding a way back up.
I think it was Agnes DeMille who said, “It’s hard. Yes it is. It has always been hard. Do it anyway.”
I do have to say, though, after this last round, I’m pretty much done with nonfiction — I’m moving on to fiction full-throttle. I wrote a play last year and got it produced this past summer at Sonoma Arts Live Theatre Company (my husband and I got to direct — thrilling!), and I’m writing a book of short stories. I’m submitting about thirty a month to journals and starting to get some recognition. That’s the game with short stories, so I’m doing the work. I’m more than willing to have my fiction published by smaller presses, and that will require my sweat and blood getting it out to them, pouring through Writer’s Market, because agents don’t usually work with the smaller publishers. That’s okay. It’s just the lay of the land as an artist. You show up, you do your work, you offer it professionally, and you do your best.
I think writers need to know what a true act of service writing a book is these days. My first two books were on Amazon’s Top 100 list — which is an algorithm that pops up and feels like Hooray!, but doesn’t mean I earned a house down payment with the book proceeds. (I didn’t. Money I’ve earned, even with good sales, has been so, so modest.) But oddly, what I get out of it is the joy that comes when someone emails me from Fort Collins, Colorado, or Brooklin, Maine, or Boise, Idaho and says, “Hey, I want you to know that this book changed my life and here’s how.” I get one of those about once a month. I print them up and paste them on my closet mirror.
I think about the faces of the people who have been touched by my work, and then I move on to the next artistic thing. Because as an artist and a writer I don’t know how the world is going to receive my work. No one is waiting for it. I am creating it out of thin air. So I just have to do what I’m called to do, support myself as best I can financially, and keep getting down to business with my writing. I have figured out that I don’t have a choice: if I want to be happy, this is how I have to live.
TBD: How have you been getting Naked Marriage out to readers? What has worked and what hasn’t?
JN: My husband and I did a big book party that my sweet friend Donna (our town’s vice mayor) hosted at her beautiful home, and we invited our local bookseller, Books, Inc., to sell books at the party. We had about 80 people, and that was a great kick-off. I think we should all celebrate our successes — especially as artists, when we birth something into the world — so that was a grand thing. I’ve done some radio, and I have built relationships at regional TV shows like Good Day Sacramento, and they have been very gracious about having me back to interview me.
What I think works — and this is going to seem really retro — is radio. It’s easier to get hits than most outlets, and they need five-minute or ten-minute interviews and spots. You can start locally and build, but I have found that big stations need content, too. Magazines are ridiculously hard — too many gatekeepers and editors that prefer to connect via email but largely blow you off, so that hasn’t been a good source. I’ve done plenty of blogging on big sites, too, but it’s difficult to know if you’re reaching readers with your specific interview or by-lined article — there’s just so much content out there now.
I’ve discovered that if I can get a book publisher’s PR department to do one thing — which is about the bandwidth they will have for one book — then a good magazine or newspaper placement is perfect. They have better contacts than authors, and can get through in ways that I haven’t been able to. Local libraries are great — I’ve done many talks and presentations, but I usually only sell seven or eight books at those events. In truth, I killed myself marketing my first book, and then I knew where to focus by my second. On Naked Marriage, I’m doing some strategic things and then moving on to fiction.
TBD: Any tips for getting a great agent like Joelle Delbourgo?
JN: This is going to sound really inside, since I love The Book Doctors — you and Arielle — so much, but I made my contacts by going to your seminars and participating, then getting some paid help from you two on my manuscript, then working the contacts I made. I believe in face-to-face, in-person experiential stuff. My husband Mike taught me this: if you want to get something done, go in person. So though I can’t afford to go to all kinds of events, I go to some.
For instance, last year I took a writing workshop at Stanford, and from that class I now have a fiction writing group that’s just kick-ass great, and I workshop all of my fiction with them. Going to groups or classes or events connects me, too, to other writers, editors. When I do that, I meet other folks who are doing what I’m doing–and since writing is a solitary business to start with, it’s a grand thing to connect with people who revere the written word. I listen and then I move towards people who hold the same ethics I hold: art, written word, the power of sharing what we have to share.
TBD: How did you get in Cosmo?
JN: This was the hit that Skyhorse Publishing, the publisher of Naked Marriage, got me. It was a great interview with writer Julie Vadnal, and I had a terrific time being interviewed by her.
Once again, I say to writers, you have to be prepared for the fact that the days of book tours and lots of support from a Publisher’s PR department are gone. They are working with small staffs now, due to Amazon’s sales format (which has made less publisher money available), so if we writers get one good hit from the publisher, that’s a good thing. The rest is on us. Cosmo was my one great hit from them.
TBD: This is your third non-fiction book. How did you get started writing and publishing in the field of non-fiction?
JN: Honestly, it was a friend who got me to write my first book. I had gotten into terrible debt trying to fund a creative project that I had hoped would save me having to have a day job. It didn’t work! So I came up with this little five-minute-a-day spending plan to live debt-free, because I figured five minutes was about the bandwidth I had for my finances. I started sharing it, and my dear friend Theresa said, “You have got to write this down. This saved me.”
I had been a grant writer, so I knew how to “beat the room” — meaning, I knew how to work my procrastination into the time it took to get some real writing done. Then I learned to write by the timer — one hour a day, four days a week — and I found I had a lot to say. I never had any ambition to write a book about debt, but once I sat down, there was so much in me I wanted to get out — and since no one was dealing with how to solve money vagueness with a simple, personal approach, I knew I had something.
After that, my friend Alexia said, “You could have a real debt-free empire here, and write book after book…” I thought about it, and realized that my bent was really broader — I wanted to share the things I’ve learned about adult life that we never got taught. I wanted to help people to be happy. I knew I had to write How to Be an Artist because we have, as a culture, mythologized the making of art so severely that all of us who do it feel like misfits if we’re not multi-millionaires, or by turns, feel like we’re not ‘real artists’ if we’re not willing to suffer and starve to do our art. So I knew we needed a new milieu and a new model, and since I’ve lived that struggle, I was good person to write about it.
Naked Marriage was an easy segue to write because I wanted to talk about my husband’s and my experience marrying each other again — specifically, about what we did differently after we divorced each other, then came back together some years later, to make a happy, passionate marriage the second time around.
So I guess to answer your question directly, David, it really was my life stuff — the way I finally learned to build a happy life — that led me to sit down and write non-fiction books.
Now, I’m truly in love with writing fiction, and I find it a very powerful medium to move hearts — my own and others’. It was the thrill of my life this summer to see my new play Ruby and George in Love go up at Sonoma Arts Live Theatre Company. I think the answer really lies in saying yes to what’s calling me from my creative heart. I don’t ask how anymore; I don’t ask who will publish it or what money will I make? I just do the work when it’s in me. I get it out. That, I believe, is my job.
TBD: You are also a coach. How do your non-fiction books help your coaching business?
JN: It’s a funny thing about coaching: clients do come to me from the books sometimes, but I find that word of mouth is the more prevalent referral, and then I often reference my books for whatever the person is challenged by. My coaching for The Debt-Free Spending Plan definitely informed the next two books I wrote. I saw so many creative people who were having issues with more than money clarity: they needed to find a way to field the things that we all field — family, jobs, responsibilities — and still be creative. I’ve coached a lot of couples around money and lifestyle choices, too, and I found myself offering the relationship tips I learned with my husband Mike, and so my Naked Marriage book came out of that.
I’m a very personal coach. I don’t like the distant-expert-impersonal approach. I find that a peer-to-peer format works better — in other words, I’m not afraid to let my slip show as a coach and be vulnerable with my clients about the ships I’ve run aground. The best coaches I have had have said to me, “This is how I screwed up, and how I got better. Here’s some ideas you might want to try. Take what you like and leave the rest.”
That’s how I write my books. I want people to have the dignity of a personal story to relate to, to get practical tips, and then have room to apply what resonates with them and toss the rest.
My biggest life story is at the heart of all of my writing: my husband and I married each other, got divorced, were apart for more than a dozen years, then got back together and remarried each other. Since we’re both creatives, we had all kinds of issues with money and how to build a life, and then with intimacy when we ran our ship aground. In Naked Marriage, I share how we fell apart, and how we got back on a track that’s truer, more honest, and more thrilling and fulfilling.
TBD: You have a website with posts about marriage and intimacy, debt-free living, music, art, travel, and yoga. How do you keep all those balls in the air?
JN: I’m asked that question a lot. It took me a long time to realize that I’m not happy putting all of my eggs into one basket. I tried that for years. I’d think, I know! I’ll be a screenwriter! And then all of my energy would go into that basket, and then after some good time-in, if things didn’t click fast enough to support me financially, I’d get dejected and angry.
But here’s the thing: as an artist I don’t know which thing is going to pop. I have no idea which art form is going to get traction (or sell) in the world when I take it out there in a professional way. I have learned that I’m so much better off doing multiple things and letting them each grow slowly, versus having all of my eggs in one bucket. I think of it this way: if I give myself a few hours a week in multiple things, and I make slow, steady progress in all of them, then over six months I’ll get a hell of a lot of work done. And, I’ll feel more fulfilled because more of who I am is getting expressed in the world.
For me, this was the revelation: set up your life like school. A day job, family and relationship, some personal care, some friends, and all the rest scheduled out for art — a bit of music, a bit of writing fiction, a bit of writing plays, etc. Right now, I’m singing in a new music duo and we’re playing gigs (and getting paid for it); I’m work-shopping short stories in my writers’ group and submitting them to journals; I’m re-writing and editing my play. I teach yoga as a day job; I’m doing less painting and travel writing as the fiction kicks in. I try to trust the creative process where it leads me. And I get good and practical about delivering on my creative impulses. I do the work and I finish it.
One other important note: I figured out that I’m multi-talented — which is very different than living in fear of having ‘focusing issues.’ I’ve had so many people call me or write to me after they read How to Be an Artist and say things like, “Thank you! I’ve always been told I was unable to focus. Now I know I’m multi-talented and I need a mechanism to help me get numerous gifts out!”
So, if you’ve got multiple art forms to share and you’re starting from scratch, then I think it’s wise to create a life that lets you get your hands into all of it. Particularly the stuff you feel most pregnant with — the ideas that are pushing on you to sit down and birth them. To make this practical, and to get some real work done, I use what I call a Time Map, which I describe in my How to Be an Artist book, which teaches people how to work this way in a realistic, deliverable, grounded-on-earth format.
It’s the stuff of fulfillment I’m talking about here, and it’s just priceless. Can you tell I’m madly-passionate about this?
TBD: It seems you have lots of passion. How do you successfully put your passions into print?
JN: Ah! A perfect segue question!! I work at it. Not the answer we all want to hear, is it? I know now that the only thing that will calm me down — the thing that will stop me from letting my mind regale me about what’s wrong with the world, and what’s wrong with my life in particular (we all have that voice) — is to get down to my artistic work. If I write, I calm down. If I sing, I calm down. If I paint, I calm down. It doesn’t really matter what the outcome is.
Sure, I want big success. But the truth is, my big success in life is to be able to get to do the things I’m dying to do. To have a life that’s meaningful to me, to have a marriage that’s passionate and rock-solid and sweet, to field the shit-storms of life knowing that whatever gets rained down on me, I have love — for my life, for my husband, for the creative work I do in the world. For the support I have around me to live this life. I will lay my head down at the end of my life and know I did what I came to do. That gets me through and keeps me feeling alive.
Getting my work into print is a quest, no doubt. And I just keep walking the walk. I keep trying. I keep figuring out what the next format is for books and print and whatever else is getting hurled our way, and I take steady steps to bring my work into the light of day. It’s the old writer’s rejection-slip thing: you just keep submitting until there’s a break in the dam. Especially when you know you’ve produced polished, good work. The trying may take different avenues over the years, and that’s fine, but I keep trying no matter what the changes.
TBD: We hate to ask this, but what advice do you have for writers of non-fiction (and any other categories you’d care to comment on)?
JN: In my early twenties, my husband Mike (boyfriend then) was the person who first valued my creativity enough to encourage me to focus on it in my life. He always encourages me to remember what, as artists, we have come here to do. We are here to reflect back to other human beings what it looks like and feels like to be alive. We are reflecting back the joys, sorrows, challenges, beauty, sweetness, sexuality, passion and delight that life offers us. That’s our job. So, I say to writers, make your work the best you can make it. Give up dreams of money grandeur and do the work for the work’s sake. Dream, surely. Yearn, definitely. But make it about the work — about the faces of the people whose lives your work will touch. There is a great proverb I live by that goes like this, “She who saves one soul, saves the whole world.”
I say, start today. Keep at it. Don’t give up. Live as well as you can while you’re doing it. Be brave. Be willing to live outside the lines of what’s common. Invest in love and intimacy and friendship and showing up, and above all, give yourself to your art. That’s my recipe for writing, and for happiness.
JoAnneh Nagler has published three nonfiction books: Naked Marriage; How to Be an Artist; and The Debt-Free Spending Plan, two of which were Amazon Top-100 books. She authored the new play Ruby and George in Love (Sonoma Arts Live Theatre Company, 2018), and has written music CDs (I Burn and Enraptured), travel essays, scripts, and short stories. Find these and links to her blogs and happiness coaching at www.AnArtistryLife.com
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 co-authors of The Essential Guide to Getting Your Book Published: How To Write It, Sell It, and Market It… Successfully (Workman, 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. Get publishing tips delivered to your inbox every month.