The Art of Commerce sits on the corner of literature & the marketplace, asking the age old question: Who's got the right of way?
We talk with writers, editors & entrepreneurs about, really, anything. All conversations are 'manuscript-first', meaning they were typed as you see them. Small edits have been made for structure.
Episode XLII: "Teach a man to blog, he'll eat for a lifetime or something"
In this installment, I speak with Rachel Fershleiser of Tumblr. Topics include what she actually does, the net good of Amazon, poet ragers, her braintrust, what she’s reading & more.
I’m here with Rachel Fershleiser. In researching for this interview, I came upon a great quote from The Millions describing you: “An energetic person whose job at Tumblr seems to be using technology to make things happen with books to make things happen with technology.” In lieu of trying to make sense of that, why don’t you tell me what Tumblr’s Director of Literary Outreach actually does, and how you got into the industry?
I got into publishing 12 or 13 years ago. I started out as a book publicist in big six publishing, and after that I was a research assistant on Freakonomics, a freelance writer, and I worked at Housing Works Bookstore in various capacities for a long time. I did the six-word memoir books, which was one of the first big successes translating an online phenomenon into print. So I'd been on a lot of different sides of lit and publishing culture, At Housing Works I had a lot of success translating that culture online. I guess all of that leads to what I do today, which is connecting literary and internet culture, both online and in real life.
And what does that tangibly mean?
Well, at Tumblr I teach publishers and authors and bookstores and libraries how to use our tools to reach readers (and each other), and I come up with ways for readers to connect online, like the Reblog Book Club, or in person at meet ups and book launches. I also help people with creative Tumblr blogs get book deals (and agents and editors find that talent). So I do a lot of connecting people, and a lot of helping people figure out how to connect themselves. Teach a man to blog, he'll eat for a lifetime, or something.
Or something. This is surely a job you couldn't have imagined when you were a kid. You appear to be great at it. Why is that?
I couldn't have imagined this job, no, but I liked reading and talking about books and collaborating with people to tell stories (often through making theater). And I was never shy, which I think is somewhat unusual among book nerds. I think I'm good at this because I genuinely love both books and internet culture, and genuinely understand both, and I genuinely want to demystify. I still feel like I'm fighting this idea that they're at odds. Sometimes people will be like, "you're good at promoting things, come promote my book/app/start up, etc", and like, I could, but mostly it works because I mean what I say, and I'm lucky enough to work for a platform/community where I mean it, and where I can choose which books to gush about.
On your TEDx talk, you go into how different bookselling is than it was ten years ago, the most salient difference being writer-to-reader connections, and community groups. I have a feeling you're not the type to wax nostalgic about what’s lost in the digital age, but do you think something, anything is, in fact, lost?
I think that some writers don't want to be online, and that's fine, and they shouldn't have to be. I think some books don't work well in eBook, but I think a lot of energy is going into making books that are uniquely physical. I think some people are dicks on the internet, but they were probably dicks somewhere else too. And I don't think any of that approaches the benefits of diversifying voices and access. Certainly I'd like to live in a time where more novelists get rich and more publishers give them fat marketing budgets for cushy tours and independent bookstores are raking in millions. But I'm not convinced that that existed until it was crushed under the steel-toed boot of twitter.
In your TEDx talk, you also mention some of Brooklyn’s best bookstores—BookCourt, Community Bookstore, Greenlight—and then say that “the bookstores that are thriving right now, aren’t trying to compete with Amazon.” One thing I love to do is ask a frustratingly broad and vague question, because it sometimes yields fantastic results. So steel yourself: While the emergence of Amazon has squeezed out big box stores more than independent booksellers, would you say, on the whole, it’s good for the literary industry?
The industry, absolutely not. What I will say is it's hard to feel bad that we live in a time when any kid living anywhere who can scrape together ten bucks can get any obscure or forbidden book that ever existed even if his town has no bookstore or library.
That is fair. You used to be the events coordinator for Housing Works, a bookstore that hosts some of New York’s greatest, funniest, most must-see literary events. What’s the secret to growing a following like Housing Works has?
Oh there are so many secrets! Certainly one is to use free online tools to grow your audience and target the right fans for any event. One is to combine several writers (and maybe musicians, artists, filmmakers, comedians) for any event, even someone's book launch, so you create a unique experience, and of course, fill a room that holds 300. One is have a liquor license.
Nothing makes book nerds less like nerds than a nice $4 chardonnay.
And of course, having a meaningful mission beyond literary events is a nice aspect. Everyone feels good about spending time and money there. And the staff and volunteers are just incredible. I don't know if you know Amanda Bullock and Molly Rose Quinn, subsequent events directors there— it's a pretty phenomenal squad.
What event, if you had to name one, was your biggest success?
One of my favorite events was after I came to Tumblr, in collaboration with Amanda on the Housing Works side. We did a poetry month event with Philip Levine, Tracy K. Smith, and two young poets from the Tumblr community. One of them was Saeed Jones, who is really successful now. And it was a huge, excited crowd, just a real poet rager. And bringing together famous people and their fans and the people who they might all be fans of someday is such a good feeling.
What people or organization in the lit community do you admire most?
Amanda and Molly, per my previous mention. Jenn Northington, Stephanie Anderson, Maris Kreizman. Ami Greko. I have a small braintrust of other weirdos who do books and web and events. It's a pretty specific field so it's not like I can turn to the person next to me at Tumblr and ask about it. And then there are a ton of writers I'm into, Julie Buntin, Rahawa Haile, Danielle Henderson, Mallory Ortberg, Ashley Ford, Mira Jacob... who just make my internet life so much better. Oh and Maret Orliss and Steph Opitz and all those great people who run whole book festivals! Book events people are just the greatest.
Two of those—Buntin and Ortberg—have been on 0s&1s interviews! (And both are great.) Before this interview, you mentioned that you are very into ‘debut novels by young women.’ What have been some of your favorites?
This year I was very into The Turner House and Make Your Home Among Strangers. The Girls From Corona Del Mar. The Sunlit Night. Under The Udala Trees. God there are a lot, that's mostly all I read.
The Sunlit Night was just on a list for the most underrated novels of the year. Why do you think that book didn't receive the attention it deserved?
I saw that, and I was sort of surprised. I guess it should have had more reviews (and more sales) but I felt like I knew a lot of people talking about it and they all loved it. I guess it depends what underrated means.
I mean, look, if I knew for sure how to make a book sell, I would be very, very rich. And I think we all know that many brilliant books never find a huge audience.
It seems (to me at least), that there are two narratives about women writers and they are (somewhat) contradictory. The first is that debut women novelists have a harder time breaking into the industry than their male counterparts. The second is that the new crop of writers (especially literary fiction writers) are more female than male. Do you agree with either of these statements?
I don't think I do? I certainly think there's an immense amount of sexism in the industry still. And maybe the nuance I'm losing in your wording is what "breaking in" means. I don't think women don't get book deals or don't sell, necessarily. I think that books by and about women don't get treated with the same seriousness as similar books by and about men. Or win awards as often, or get talked about in the same terms.
That's an interesting point of nuance you bring up. In what other ways do you find sexism in the industry?
The number of dudes who touched my leg at "professional" drinks, I guess. But look, this is a great fucking year! Lauren Groff! Hanya Yanigihara! Angela Flournoy!
Carrie Brownstein, a bunch of major memoirs.
What else have you been reading, both in books and magazines?
Adrien Chen's piece about Westboro was great. Kashana Cauley's piece about the Gun Show. In books, I'm reading forthcoming galleys mostly: The Nest, Hold Still (The Lynn Steger Strong one), American Housewife. (Also, I read all four Ferrantes this year and they are just amazing, obviously.)
I get The New Yorker, New York, and Time Out New York, because I'm very unpredictable. And Short Stack Editions and One Story. And I'm always reading some YA or middle grade. Some for the Tumblr book club and some because my husband and I read childrens books out loud to each other.
If you could hope for one thing to change in the industry in 2016, what would it be?
I'd like to be in charge of giving out the Booker, Pulitzer, and National Book Award. (Oh fine, or at least I'd like to see them go to some of these incredible genius women I keep talking about.) I'd like to see more books by people of color in a whole range of topics and styles. Not being fooled by "the single story" and all that. And seeing more people like Roxane Gay and Mallory Ortberg, who we, the nerdy feminists of the internet were already all over and then broke out. Katie Coyle should probably be elected president. Stuff like that.
What percent of the words you read were written by a woman?
I don't know. 90% of the books, certainly. What did I read by men this year... Welcome to Braggsville, Missoula.
Why do you think that is?
I mean, some combination of natural inclination and intention. Or as Claire Vaye Watkins might say, I feel like they're writing towards me. Also here is a true phenomenon: Once writers and publishers get to know What You Like To Read and Talk About, they send you more and more. So there is a self-fulfilling cycle of my receiving more and more women-processing-their-shit novels and my feeling more likely to read them because they were specially recommended to me.
Well, now that I know What You Like To Read and Talk About, I'll recommend Victoria Hetherington: www.0s-1s.com/ihtty
Wonderful, thank you!
We're nearly out of time, so I'll ask one more. If there's one thing you want the casual reader to know that the casual reader probably doesn't know, what is it?
Ooohh. I guess that if the last book you read was Girl on The Train and before that Gone Girl and before that Wild...those are the tip of an iceberg full of things that you will love just as much, and a bookseller or librarian or internet friend (hi!) will be happy to help you find them. And also just that the best read people in the world will still only read a tiny percentage of worthy books before they die. And there is no correct canon.
"There is no correct canon". I love that.
So read what you want to and it's all good. Love, Rachel.
Thanks for your time Rachel, and your words.
Thanks for having me.