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Episode XVIII: "Writing isn't in trouble; reading is in trouble"

Published 6/17/15
In this installment, I speak with Bethanne Patrick. Topics include her (long and winding) path to publishing, becoming a social media master, predicting the future, the trouble with reading today & more.

I’m here with Bethanne Patrick, though you may know her as @TheBookMaven, the founder of #fridayreads. She’s a writer, journalist, speaker, PR consultant and a lot more. She helped launch the AOL Books Channel, Book Riot and Shelf Awareness for Readers. Above all, she’d liked to be known as a reader—and I want to start with that. But first. We’re far away. We’re are you? What do you see?

Thanks for the introduction, Andrew! I should include a couple of new things I’m doing, but we can get to those later. As to where I am: I'm in my home office in Northern Virginia. I'm seated in a comfy chair, looking simultaneously at my bookshelves and out the window at my neighbor's glorious crepe myrtles and Japanese maples.

Very nice. Let's start from the beginning. Take us on the path from the first book you loved into a career in publishing.

Wow, this will be a great exercise in self-editing...The first book I remember loving was HAROLD AND THE PURPLE CRAYON. I loved it because I could understand it before I could read. Shall I go on?

Please. I imagine that isn't all it took to jump into the industry.

Haha! If only. I was, as so many of us are, an exceedingly bookish child, and I was exceedingly fortunate to have a mother who not only encouraged me to love books, but loved reading aloud to me. What a gift! I think my mother, in a different life, would have been a terrific actor. Her voices, accents, inflections, and more really drew me in to the world of stories. So I grew up reading, and went to college...and was quickly terrified that I was a terrible reader and a worse writer.

Not uncommon.

I should have been an undergraduate English major, but I went into Government instead—which is germane to the question because that led me to meeting my husband, then a West Point cadet. This is important, because it's where my path veers wildly from many of my colleagues in publishing. I was "supposed" to take the job I was offered at St. Martin's Press as a publicity assistant and start down the road many NYC young women do. Instead, I got married and we moved to Berlin.

Now, HOW does one get to publishing from being essentially a military housewife? Sheer force of will. Maybe. But one day a dear friend said: "You know, you seem to be happiest when you're talking about books." So when my husband had the chance to go to law school, I took that chance, too—and went to graduate school for English literature. Grad school, ooooof—well, that's material for another chat. However, it was excellent training for reading lots of material, fast. That skill has been invaluable to me as an editor, critic, and writer.

After that, we moved around a bit and had two daughters. As I wrestled with new motherhood and military relocations, I decided to try freelance writing. A few publications asked me to write regular book reviews, so I joined the National Book Critics Circle—and started to write more about books and authors. In 2001, I joined a print magazine called PAGES (remember Book Magazine?), and that is where my career in publishing really took hold. I spent four years at PAGES as an editor. I wrote reviews, front-of-book news, author profiles, and lots more.

HA, I'm taking SO long! There's tons between PAGES and now. Basically, from PAGES to AOL Books, as Editor. Then, Publishers Weekly for a couple of years. for a couple of years. I helped launch Shelf for Readers and Book Riot, then decided to devote my time to writing. In between, in 2009 I founded the #FridayReads hashtag, wrote two books for National Geographic, and wrote reviews/articles for The Washington Post, O the Oprah Magazine, Virginia Quarterly Review, AARP The Magazine, and lots more. I tweet as @TheBookMaven (which you mentioned), an account which has nearly 212K followers. Whew!

This goes to show us that the term "linear career path" is often a farce. You mentioned new projects. I’d love to get the rundown. I know you’ve just started writing for Literary Hub. How would you describe them?

I am enchanted with Lit Hub! I've joined at Contributing Editor, by the way, a great honor considering the other writers in that slot. I'd say Lit Hub is a showcase for the best thinking, writing, and creating of literature today. The daily emails (I'm not sure which editor puts those together—Jonny Diamond, or Emily Firetog, or someone else) are such a joy, combining Lit Hub content with the best literary links out there.

Excellent. Their layout is superb as well.

Andy Hunter of Electric Lit has done a superb job! I'll be contributing essays with book lists, author Q&As, and reviews. My first piece, up last week, is on "The New Loser Lit." My next will be an interview with Jim Shepard on THE BOOK OF ARON.

Oh, I can't wait to read that.

Thanks! Jim's work should be more widely read. But the great thing is, he truly doesn't let the world enter into his creative space. But I may be digressing...

New projects.

OK, I'm doing a lot more writing, now. I'm contributing weekly to a site called The Mid, which is for people in "the messy middle" of life and has a great staff of real writers and journalists. I'm working on reviews for The Washington Post, an essay for an anthology, and a book project for Regan Arts, as well as various creative projects of my own that may see the light of day...

Speaking of The Post, we'll have Ron Charles on here in a few weeks.

Excellent! He's really funny, will be much more sparkling on GChat than I am. (Hey, Ron!)

@TheBookMaven has 212K followers on Twitter. In short, you’re a social media master. First of all, what’s your secret? Second of all, how crucial do you think a social following is for a career in publishing (either in front of the page or in back of it)?

Oooo, "a social media master." Thank you!

You don't just trip onto 212K followers.

My secret, if I have one, is a combination of timing and temperament. By timing, I mean I joined at the point when Twitter was the new black.

So users snowballed into users. And temperament?

Temperament, because Twitter really is one big cocktail party. I like meeting new people and finding out what makes them tick. I joined at a point when I had time and curiosity about social media. It was new, I was eager to learn, and I was fresh from finishing one gig and looking for something new. As I've said in other interviews, then I broke my leg—and I had EVEN MORE TIME to study Twitter/Facebook etc. It was as if I were earning a certificate in new media. My lesson from that: If you really want to succeed at some aspect of this crazy new world of publishing, go deep. Be a little intense, for a while.

I do think, today, that all brands need to have social presence—and publishers are brands. Does that mean everyone in publishing needs a social presence/following? Probably not. A corollary: I don't think social + publishing = sales. I think social + publishing = buzz.

And buzz + (x + y)z = sales. Solve for x, y & z.

I was always terrible at algebra. I prefer calculus. In other words, it's still a mystery to me, like it is to almost everyone in our industry. I believe in the handsell, and that can happen on social media—but it's difficult to track.

I imagine with 212K followers, there's more pressure to "watch what you say" more or less. Do you think an increased audience necessarily leads to a more conservative take on the medium?

Another excellent question. Long ago, when I first joined an online message board for writers, I remember looking at some of the posts and thinking: "TMI! I don't need to know about your spouse's hemorrhoids if we're merely professional acquaintances." If Twitter is a cocktail party, you need to consider what information you share at cocktail parties. And even if Facebook is, therefore, more like a potluck dinner, well, you don't tell your neighbors everything, do you? @TheBookMaven is a persona, while @JustBethanne is my more personal account. People can follow both (or neither!), or just one.

But here's another important point: You have to decide, sooner or later, why you're tweeting/pinning/'gram-ing at all.

Hm. I think that's a question that would be lost on a lot of users of all of those mediums. I think in a lot of cases, it's a matter of "why not". Agree? Disagree?

Oh, agree! But if you want to conduct some sort of business/professional thing, you have to decide what face you're presenting. You don't want to get fired for tweets that offend your employer's customer base, for example.

As has been done, many a time. What's the difference between the @TheBookMaven face and the @JustBethanne face?

@TheBookMaven is all about books, authors, and publishing—and about encouraging reading of all kinds—different genres, different purposes, etc. @JustBethanne is a writer, a critic, and a slightly eccentric woman who loves wordplay, Early Music, and literary fiction.

I like that you used the word "encouraging". Do you think there's a correlation between optimism/positivity and social media success?

Hmmmm. Less optimism than consistency. There are a few misanthropes on social media who do very well. But you know what you're in for when you follow them/read their posts. That said, you have to be optimistic, in a way, that people might be interested in what you have to say.

That's a great point. I want to switch gears (slightly) and play a game called "Remember When". Pretend you're Bethanne Patrick in 2030, talking about social media today. What do you think will be the most remarkable changes? (i.e. "Remember when hashtags were a thing?")

(Takes a moment to calculate what my age/stage will be in 2030.) Social media opened up conversations and connections and made the globalization buzz tangible for many people who might not even have heard of Thomas Friedman, e.g. People thought social media was trivial and superficial, but it was not. It forged real networks. People got and lost jobs because of it, created businesses and organizations on it and around it, and received news faster than any media outlet could provide. Eventually, social media became part of commerce and other institutions, which made it less hip, but more useful.

That's a great call—and I couldn't agree with it more. Social media platforms seem like neighborhoods. Over time some become more commercial, and thus, less hip. It's a natural change and follows the nature of commerce.

Also: Richard Nash said a few days ago that publishing seems to be reverting to its pre-industrial model, when almost anyone could print a broadside. Social media really made that possible. I'm not big on SELF publishing. But I'm very big on SMALL and CRAFT publishing. The kind of thing you're doing, Andrew.

Aw, you're too kind. And I completely agree with Nash (who also happened to be a guest here.)

Everyone needs an editor, so no one should just put their stuff out. I hate that kind of thing. But we don't need huge corporate publishers for everything.

Ha! Great minds. (Hi, Richard!)

We're nearly out of time, so I'm going to ask for last call on comments, perspective, predictions, etc.

First, I'd love to keep chatting. Really lovely to be able to both share, and discuss. Right now, I've moved more into a writing space because I realize that creating content, telling stories, and sharing perspective remains vital. But writing isn't in trouble; reading is in trouble.

How do you mean?

People aren't reading as much due to other distractions. I told a panel the other day that a dear and respected colleague in publishing told me some months back that she is reading less "because there's so much great television!" That worries me. I want to get to the point where I can write more deeply and seriously about reading, its history, its utility, its implications. Social media helped me to establish a credible presence. I will keep tweeting and posting, for sure. I don't think any of that is going to vanish.

That's a great ending note Bethanne.

Thank you so much, Andrew! We will talk again soon, I'm sure.