Author and book promoter Ben Tanzer talks with five authors about releasing their latest books amidst the COVID-19 outbreak.
If we accept that there are profound challenges for getting a book, any book, out into the world and into the hands of readers who may have no reason to know that it exists, what are we to do, or to think, now, when books are coming out during this weird, horrible, sad time? I asked five authors with whom I’ve been working (four associated with independent publisher Green Writers Press — Satish Prabasi, Stephani Nur Colby, Matt Fitzpatrick, and Shifra Malka, and one self-published author — Hosho McCreesh) to talk about how they’ve been strategizing through all of this, how they’re looking to market their work, and the opportunities and challenges they’re encountering along the way.
BEN TANZER: First off, please introduce yourselves, your books, and your marketing pitches.
SATISH PRABASI: I am a citizen of Nepal born almost a century ago in what was a Himalayan Kingdom. This book is my life story with a focus on three themes that have been important to me: education, intercultural and international experiences, and rediscovering my homeland. The breadth of my lived experience, from feudal Nepali society in the 1940s, to a modern data-driven global society, makes me feel as though I’ve lived through two centuries in one life time. Fragments of Memory, my memoir, is also a gift to my young friends and grandchildren with the hope that they will appreciate their cultural roots and understand a bit more about their heritage.
HOSHO McCREESH: Writer. Painter. Drunk Poet. I’m putting out my first audio project, A Deep & Gorgeous Thirst: Unabridged Audio. It’s my drunken opus, read by 37 different narrators (writers, friends, and family from all over the world) for three and a half hours of drunken shenanigans + death, love, life, heartbreak, redemption … you know, the real loot!
STEPHANI NUR COLBY: Since childhood I’ve felt fleeting touches of grace, like the brush of unseen bird of Paradise wings from another world. This drew me on the search of healing for myself and others from a great ineffable harmony I sensed at the core of everything living. Spiritually seeking, I was already bathed in the powerfully mystical atmosphere of the Greek Orthodox Church from birth, ultimately becoming a tonsured Psaltria/Cantor/Reader. Over time, I explored other Christian expressions, as well, a rich and subtle Sufism open to those of all faiths, a Native American transmission carried through hawks, owls, and falcons, herbal apprenticeship, and the study of various gentle but dynamic forms of energy-healing in trying always to follow the leading and guidance of the Holy Spirit. My book, Walking with the Ineffable: A Spiritual Memoir (with Cats), is a memoir of one woman’s walk through the mystery of spiritual experiences. It is about the changing weather of belief: what we believe, why we believe, and when we believe. Steeped in the mysticism of Christian, Sufic, and other spiritual transmissions and pilgrimages, I have tried — aided by a vibrant company of wise-eyed, mischievous cats — to bring a broad spiritual perspective to the perennial quest of the human soul to know itself and its Maker, and to the discovery of that hidden splendor, waiting to shine, in the depths of us all.
MATT FITZPATRICK: My dream to be a writer started around age nine. At the time, I was an only-child, and with no siblings, books became handy companions. If everyone around me was busy, picking up a book would instantly provide a connection to interesting people and wondrous places. It all began early on by reading Judy Blume and Beverly Cleary, but not long after, I quickly moved on to Stephen King and Nelson DeMille. A Boston College graduate, I grew up in a politically active and connected Irish family, many of the characters in my novels are reflective of colorful people I know or knew over the years, and the scenes are often anecdotal. To explore these people and ghosts well within midlife, I find to be an adventure. Crosshairs (published September 2018) and Matriarch Game are not books that I could have written 15 years ago, as the memories and vapor trails would not be so poignant. Upon reaching adulthood, I found myself steeped in the American dream. I had a beautiful wife who had a successful career, two angelic daughters whom I will forever adore, earned a U.S. Coast Guard sea captain’s license, and moved to Cape Cod. All that on top of having a successful 25-year career in the investment management industry. To most looking in, I had won the game, but what was missing was my lifelong ambition to become an author. Regarding my latest book, Matriarch Game: it’s been one year since hot-shot attorney Justin McGee, Boston’s most deadly and elusive assassin-for-hire, took on the highest stakes assignment of his career. Killing an assistant district attorney in broad daylight is risky enough, but this assignment carried an especially risky wildcard. Justin finds himself on the lam living in hiding on a fishing yacht in Jekyll Island, Georgia. There he dwells among his dock-mates who consist of drug dealers, smugglers, prostitutes, and even an illegal undertaker. The rug is pulled out from under his entire world when the woman he believed he loved and had subsequently murdered for money, shows up alive in order to exact a unique type of revenge. The two lovers in an unorthodox way recommence their torrid affair and engage in a risky, yet lucrative, counterfeiting trade operation. The sudden arrival of an 11-year old ragamuffin with holes in her clothes and blood on her hands, only further complicates matters. Each of the players at the table eventually finds themselves caught in the crossfire of a terrorist plot the likes of which the world has only envisioned in its worst nightmares. …
SHIFRA MALKA: Thank you for allowing me to introduce my memoir, Dare to Matter: Lessons in Living a Large Life. In this deeply personal response to the childhood messages that I, like my personality-disordered aunt, did not matter, I write to the core of the struggle to recover my beaten spirit and to build the large life that matters to me. Addressing the questions of what mattering means and what makes our lives noteworthy, I lay out the search through the prism of how the question played out for me in my relationship with my family, with my religion, and with the American culture focused on appearance, food, and money. The underlying lessons energize readers to opt in to their lives, and to build the large life that makes getting out of bed every day, and staying out of it, irresistible. It is a call to satisfACTION.
TANZER: At the risk of not sounding empathetic or concerned about the sad, horrible state of world, what is it like to strategize around a book release in the current climate?
PRABASI: The upheaval and utter social dislocation caused by the coronavirus has affected everything, including planning for a book release. On a practical level, the print publication date for my book has been postponed and will be rescheduled when possible. At the same time, plans to release an ebook are proceeding. I had planned for a launch event and some “in conversation”-type events which will not be possible as envisioned. I am not the most tech-savvy person, so moving everything online is daunting, yet it also gives me hope that not everything will be canceled. The defining thing about this period is the uncertainty, and this of course makes planning of any kind for the “after” scenario, quite difficult.
McCREESH: I’m fortunate in that I am, once again, doing my own thing here. If the project were coming out via another press, I would be terrified that they’d lose their shirt in this climate. But because it’s my shirt to lose, I am far less stressed. I sell a few books via my website and, frankly, don’t know how much “success” I could actually handle logistically … so doing my own thing in my humble and exacting way works for me.
COLBY: Despite the difficulties of the times — or perhaps even more because of them — people still want to read, so providing excerpts in literary and other magazines and guest-blogging seem logical pursuits. Also, participating in podcasts and radio interviews.
FITZPATRICK: Not to capitalize on the horrible times in which we find ourselves, but actually this is an exciting time to be releasing a book. Where there are no sports on TV, and everyone is tired of watching the “virus channel” 24/7, entertainment avenues like novels are finding new life. A couple of weeks ago before the final “shutdown,” I was in my local bookstore meeting with the owner in order to schedule a launch/signing date for Matriarch Game (which has unfortunately been postponed due to another delay in releasing the book). However, I noticed during the 30 minutes of meeting with the owner, the register was ringing. He said that he was having his best March sales season in years. People have been coming in and buying two and three books at a time, where normally a good amount of the people who came into the shop would peruse a few books and walk out with nothing. Again, not to seek to profit amidst this pandemic, but for an author, there might be opportunities that were not present even six months ago.
MALKA: If I believed that this book had possible relevance for people three weeks ago, I am certain that it can offer positive energy and compassionate direction to us now as we experience frightful events unfolding fast and furiously. Dare to Matter speaks to our impulse to stay tucked into our beds, balled up in a fetal, scared, powerless position, waiting for this night to end. And yet … we have a life to build and live. Because more than our circumstances, which at present feel so constricted, it is our inner reality that shapes who we are and holds our great power and hope. Perhaps now more than ever, each of us is confronted with choices in how we will matter to ourselves, and to others. Working around this chaos, we have made a few decisions: While the book itself will not launch on its originally scheduled May 4, the audiobook will proceed close to schedule … with a virtual launch on May 13. And while our original host, Baltimore’s Ivy Bookstore, is closed for now, they’re virtually hosting the launch (all their programming is now virtual).
TANZER: You all touched on various elements of launching a book, and finding success, and I’m wondering whether, and how, your definition of what a successful book launch (both a launch event and the life of your book) looks like has changed in the current climate?
PRABASI: At this point, just getting the book out, published, first as an ebook and then in the fall in paperback, will be a huge success. It’s a time of such uncertainty that it is difficult to think longterm or anticipate all the ways our behaviors and customs will change. What will the post-coronavirus book launch look like? Many people are taking everything online, but I think there will be a saturation point and a digital overwhelming and fatigue that will set in. The life of the book I hope will be meandering and that if not with a big splash, it will continue to travel out and meet its readers through various digital platforms, word of mouth, and communities with an interest in Nepal, with an interest in memoir, and international affairs.
McCREESH: Success: A concept responsible for the vast majority of compromise. I don’t say it as some sort of idealist, because I have spent all my artistic years trying to find the balance of “success.” And clearly, after 20 years of trying to unlock the mystery, I have given up on it! For me, I want to make the things I make as well as I can make them, and to always push myself to do something new or different, using whatever I’ve done in the past as a foundation. When I catch myself wondering how to “make it,” that’s when I know I’ve lost the plot. There is no making it. … They just never bother to tell us that! In terms of a book or event: finding some new eyes, raising a few eyebrows, and maybe winning a few new readers seems to be the measure.
COLBY: My definition of success around my book remains what it always has been. Although significant sales would be welcome, that has never been the point for me. My wish is to offer some hope, comfort, and inspiration to hearts in need of these — perhaps now more than ever — and a little humor, as well, an important but often forgotten component of spiritual life. “Getting comfortable with God” has never been so needed, and at the same time, that experienced with the consciousness that our God is “a consuming fire,” an unfathomable and personally overwhelming mystery. Not contradiction but paradox, as St. John the Evangelist discovered, leaning on the breast of the beloved man Jesus at the Last Supper but also falling to the cave floor on Patmos at the fiercely beautiful and overpowering presence of Jesus Christ as God, the Ancient of Days whose tongue was a fiery sword. For me, success is my book getting to those in need of inspiration and support, independent of numbers.
MALKA: I have never launched a book before, but I have attended other launches. While certain physical realities have changed, the spirit of excitement and gratitude will carry the launch all the same, maybe even more. And the launch will be an innovative hybrid of in-person and virtual formats. If you wanted details about the 3 P’s, here they are!
Place: As mentioned, the book was due to launch from Baltimore’s Ivy Bookstore, which planned on setting up 65 chairs and a table of calorie-rich cheesecake. With the Ivy closed for now, the guests will be virtually hosted … which means we can welcome many more guests, who will bring their own chairs! We’re still not sure how to offer the dessert table with calorie-rich cheesecakes we were planning to serve; any ideas?
Program: The show will go on as planned, using either Zoom or Facebook Live. There are four components being planned. First, author and local radio personality Judith Krummeck will join me at the Gramercy for a live interview about the book. Then, I will do a reading, after which we will welcome questions from the virtual audience. As a former radio host, I enjoyed taking live phone-in questions. I imagine this will be even more engaging for all. Finally, we are planning to virtually feature an entertaining conversation with the team behind the book: editor and publicist Ben Tanzer, publisher Dede Cummings, and the original force behind the book, Steve Eisner.
Product: Even though this project was conceived as triplets for simultaneous release — the book, the ebook, and the audiobook — it is the audiobook that will be the firstborn and will have to pave the way for its “siblings” to arrive in the world in September. And if you must know the truth, I am quite connected to this firstborn and am pleased that it will be playing this role; it is definitely the most personable of the trio. And since audiobooks don’t get signed, I can save my ink for the next phase: the launch of the softcover and ebook!
FITZPATRICK: While I think that my media experience and presentation skills are one of my most solid marketing attributes, I think the current climate will make a successful launch look very different than with my first book. Specifically, where all of the bookstores are closed, as well as the libraries, it would be tough for me to engage in what I would see as a successful launch. A home-run launch to me looks like several appearances where I can engage potential buyers one-on-one and entertain them with not only stories about the novel itself, but also anecdotes about my life and how it has changed on leaving the corporate world in pursuit of a lifelong dream of becoming an author. A successful launch right now would look like falling back on my radio experience and trying to get call-ins to shows who (most likely) will not be having in-studio appearances in the near term.
TANZER: A thread across your responses is one of your need or desire to bring your voices to the world, as well as some kind of comfort, and I’d like you to weigh-in on how literature (and art) brings us comfort and what you might say to people who are struggling to read for pleasure and solace in the current climate (myself included)?
FITZPATRICK: For me, and this is something that you told me personally, is that I like to “bear witness.” I was always an observant kid. To this day, I frighten friends and family with my longterm memory capacity. I couldn’t tell you what I had for dinner last night, but I can tell you the names of most of the motels on the Hampton Beach strip in 1977. As a writer, one of the joys, hell, one of our obligations is to bear witness and grab onto those experiences and sensibilities that bind us as people. All of our experiences are, of course, different in their nuances, but the themes are mostly the same: love, fear, joy, sadness, disappointment, and pride. For people reading for pleasure, I would suggest making book selections whose underlying themes and characters can strike a chord within the readers’ own lives. With the pandemic, we are truly all in this together, and to read stories that can always seem anecdotal in a way, can help soothe the trepidation and uncertainty that we all feel at this time. I recently saw a clip on YouTube of 15-year-old Toni Cornell singing her late father’s version of the song, “Hunger Strike.” While there was pain in her voice, there was also a sense of “self-soothing” that we all can relate to in one way or another, and that’s a feeling that is so crucial right now.
McCREESH: I think if any of us knew what would comfort the world and hadn’t yet done it, then shame on us! I can only speak for myself and say that the things that have deeply moved me, or have helped me through dark and troubled times saved something that otherwise would’ve been lost … and I suppose I am motivated to try and keep that deeply human tradition going. Nothing works for everyone, but whatever we’re doing need only work for those it does. The connection to something artistic is a personal, individual thing. And always should be. As for what I would say to anyone struggling to read for pleasure or solace, I’d say why don’t you listen instead! (Audiobook pun!) I don’t believe in forcing things — so if the juice isn’t there, don’t fret … find what does work. These are extraordinary times, and I see great value in circling the wagons within and saving our hearts however we can … even if that means doing nothing but being gentle with ourselves and our loved ones.
MALKA: I have learned that we never know in whose words our healing will be found. And healing can come in the form of something that makes us cry, or laugh, or just gives us the energy to take one small, compassionate step forward. It can come to us via a personal conversation, a book, a show, and for me, through the occasional piece of the most calorie-rich cheesecake I can get my coral-painted lips around. I describe in Dare to Matter a personal, complex health situation that I managed for more than a year. This gave me the opportunity — okay, forced me — to begin to learn how to choose faith above fear. I connected with people who knew how to direct my efforts toward finding a healthy pathway through it all, that would leave me more whole on the other end of it. We make that choice toward wholeness and faith hundreds of times each day: Will I stand at this moment in a place of hope or fear — we cannot be in both at the same time. Faith tells me there is a purpose and a power to this moment, while fear drains both.
But that was not the first time I had encountered this choice. No. As a person given over to a very fearful nature (something I inherited from my businessman father who basically knew whom to trust: no one), my entire life has presented me with this very need to keep finding pleasure, comfort, and purpose. It is an intense existence, yet natural for me. In Helen Keller’s essay on optimism, she states clearly that one cannot have optimism without first having known its opposite force. And thus I stand in the paradox of being dual-natured, both fearful and hope-filled.
We have all been thrust dramatically and with remarkably short notice into an intense existence. It elicits from us a host of our base nature impulses which we now must confront, if we are to claim it as any kind of real opportunity for our personal and collective growth and development as people, and as an American people. As I have said to a few already, I cannot help but feel that I, a former doula, am standing by a birth bed, watching the drama of something great and powerful happening to, and for, our world, frightful as it is. I think of it as G-d, Creator and Father, redrawing the lines of His world and how we are invited to live in it. I do want our world back, but not the way it was five weeks ago. Perhaps we all need a healing, a redirection, a reset, and I pray it happens with manifest kindness that tastes sweet to our human sensibilities. And I pray for the courage, strength, and know-how to practice spirit-saving faith.
COLBY: In a time of loneliness, like the one we are currently experiencing (whether one is living alone or in enforced proximity to others with whom one may not always be in harmony), literature can provide the sympathetic mind, the empathetic companions, with whom we feel recognized and known, and whose beliefs and experiences we may share. This is a profound comfort. Such enlivening relationships can span centuries. Someone writing a thousand years ago may express feelings and ideas that strike an immediate chord in our beings that perhaps many of our contemporary writers do not. We find that we are not alone in the fog; we are embraced — what joy! My advice is to seek the gentle and illumining in a time like this, with a goodly pie slice of what will make us laugh. Harsh, tormented, cynical literature is poison, especially at such a time. Wholesomeness is healing. Be gentle with yourself; out of your heart’s authentic healing, supported and inspired by the words, wisdom, and love of others, comes healing for the world.
PRABASI: My life has revolved around books. They have nourished me and given me sustenance. They have provided solace when I was grief-stricken. Books have been so important in my life that my memoir has a section at the end called “Highly Abridged List of Books,” where I list books that were influential in my childhood, youth, midlife, and beyond. Even now, I read voraciously, and I have little self-control in libraries and bookstores. In fact, once we are able to leave the house, away from quarantine, the public library and a bookstore are likely my first destinations. For those struggling to focus and concentrate on reading during the pandemic, I say, start with poetry.
TANZER: What have I failed to ask and what else would you like people to know about you and your work?
FITZPATRICK: I guess the one thing that I hope that people will one day know about my work is how autobiographical it is. When I wrote my first novel, Crosshairs, I honestly thought that I was creating a totally fictional protagonist whom other people might find interesting. It took me months of rewrites and editing to realize that I was actually creating an autobiographical sketch. To finally figure that out was not only gratifying, but downright cathartic. For me, therein lies the power of jetting a big part of my former corporate/material world, and becoming an author.
MALKA: Thank you, Ben, for granting us this opportunity. As a final word here, I would ask all of you: What set of questions have emerged for you as this retreat from our “real” lives has taken hold of the world? In a world where making money/having money has been uncomfortably stilled, what wealth has opened up that we were not aware of until now? In a quick share, my husband and I found ourselves for the first time in our decades of married life, courtesy of the pandemic, without a single family member or guest for the recent Passover holiday. All eight days of it. And without exaggeration, it will remain one of our favorite holiday celebrations of our lives. With a lot less food on our table, we put our focus to more discussion and song about the miracle and meaning of the holiday. And toward the miracle of us as a couple, courtesy of a loving G-d.
COLBY: Several years ago, when there was a wave of fear about the Mayan calendar possibly predicting cataclysmic global disaster, I heard a Mohawk woman address this subject. She said that she had studied with both Mayan and Mongolian shamans, and that both groups had sacred calendars that represented these times not as ones of total destruction but rather the converging of great cycles that we would experience very intensely with pain and suffering, part of a great and necessary purification. Some people would freak out, but others would come through to work with a changing paradigm. “To get through this successfully, you need two things,” she said. “You have to have a talking relationship with the Creator and a talking relationship with the Creation, with Nature, and then you’ll be fine.” My book is about working with this paradigm, abandoning the secular materialist “religion” in favor of these deeper realities and possibilities, and re-interesting ourselves in a more profound read of the wisdom traditions that carry true knowledge about the Really Real.
PRABASI: One aspect, that my book, Fragments of Memory, does not dwell on is my spiritual life. I have been deeply influenced by the cultural traditions of Hinduism, Buddhism, and Confucianism. These have given me solace and sharpened my quest for the meaning and purpose of human life. I was fortunate to meet with and to learn from a Hindu saint-like teacher in Kolkata, India, who taught me the depth of Buddhist compassion and the philosophy of Yoga. I have only briefly mentioned Guruji in my memoir. I had an early attraction to mysticism as promoted by Sufi singers of South and Central Asia (such as Rumi, Hafiz, and Kabir). I am fascinated by and committed to the precepts of non-denominational spirituality.
McCREESH: Nothing about me … I just want to encourage everyone to give small and indie press books as gifts. The vast majority of readers out there still don’t know about us, so give people copies of small press books you love!