I need to start by telling you that this post is seething with information. Really. Truly. I wouldn’t lie. It’s a bit long…but so worth it.
Do you know Alisa Bowman? (pronounced aleesa) If you do, you’re lucky. If you don’t, you’re about to get lucky – pun fairly intended.
Alisa is a writer extraordinaire. Her story and topic are bold (marriage and sex) – but her honesty and undeniable sweetness and realness make it all work. When I read her words, I feel like it’s just her and me doing some serious girl talk, pool side, with good drinks in hand. Besides the fact that she’s ghostwritten 6 bestsellers, Alisa is hardcore working her own gig right now – Project Happily Ever After – the blog and the book that several publishers are vying for at this very moment – she’s got it going on. But don’t listen to me…let’s listen to her.
Julie Roads: What came first, the idea for the book or the blog?
Alisa Bowman: They sort of evolved at the same time. As I was working on my marriage, I was sending very long and somewhat humorous emails to a friend, the very friend who convinced me to work on my marriage. One of these emails, for instance, was about my first bikini wax ever. The wax was called The Martini, and I got it because I am a Type A perfectionist who was about to have sex with her husband again after a 6 month long dry spell. I planned our second first time down to the very last detail–including the shape and size of my pubic region.
I sent her emails about all sorts of things: how we’d tried this thing called the “relaxed hug” and how it hadn’t exactly worked for us. I gave her all of the details about the Second First Time, even down to the fact that I finally figured out how to give my husband a good blow job. Seriously. I left nothing out. It was the first time in my life that I’d ever been so candid with anyone, but I felt so open with her. She was one of the only people who knew about my marital problems, and she was right there with me through every step of our marital improvement project. But she lives in Va. and I live in Pa., so we mostly communicated by email.
Anyway, she kept emailing back telling me that she laughed until she cried. She encouraged me to send my emails–as is–to Slate and Salon. I didn’t have the courage to do that just yet, so I started taking classes online. I first took a fiction class and dropped out about half way through when I realized I was basically writing erotica and I didn’t need the teacher’s help (not to mention the fact that she honestly did not know what to do with me). Then I took an essay writing class. The teacher was so encouraging that it gave me the courage to dream big.
So one day I was walking my dog and I started thinking about how I had my husband’s funeral completely planned out. I knew what brand of beer I would serve the mourners. I knew that waiters would be walking around with lamb on a stick. I wondered, “Do other people do this? Am I a freak?” And just like that, this line came to me, “I knew something was wrong with my marriage when I planned my husband’s funeral.” You never saw a woman walk back to her house so fast. I just sat at my computer and started typing. That turned out to be the first line of my book, and before I stood back up, I had an entire first chapter.
Then I entered this manic state where I knew it was good. I don’t know how to explain that. But I knew I had something, something that could help others. I knew I had a strong voice. I knew I had a story to tell. At the same time, as much as I knew it, I completely doubted myself. “You’re just a ghost writer. You can’t write a memoir. Your life is so completely boring. It is no Glass Castle.” Seriously. That was the sort of thing I told myself.
But I was having this rebirth where I was continually inspired to write all sorts of things, some of it related to my marriage and some of it not. I didn’t know what to do with it all. I finally got the courage to send the first chapter to my agent. I also sent him a bunch of other crap that I’d been writing (I kept the erotica to myself, but I did mention that I had it if he knew of a market for it). He read it all while on vacation. I still have the email he sent to me, from his vacation. One line was, “I really, really like P:HEA [Project Happily Ever After]. Great title, great concept. By far the most commercial of what you sent.” And so, I just kept writing.
Other writers had been telling me to start a blog for a while, but I’d resisted because I didn’t know what I would blog about. Most freelancers write about writing, and I didn’t want to do that. I also didn’t think I could write about ghost writing without ending my career. Then one day I had one of those “Duh you silly person” moments and realized my blog should be about marriage. And then I realized that the blog and the book could work together. And then I realized that I needed a platform, etc etc etc. That’s when things got serious.
Julie: How has the blog impacted the book…and vice versa?
Alisa: I don’t think the actual content of the blog influenced the book all that much. They are really separate entities. The book is the story of my marriage: falling in love, falling out of love, falling back in love. It spans 2004-2008. The blog is based on that backstory, but it’s a lot more advice oriented than the blog and all of the real life stories take place 2008 and beyond. That said, I blog 5 days a week, and blogging has allowed me to strengthen my voice and become a much better writer. I’m much more in touch with my audience now that I blog. So the act of blogging has allowed me to craft a better book. I started writing the book in late 2007 but I didn’t finish it until early 2009. (Well, I’m still tinkering and will probably do so until someone forces me to stop). So blogging allowed me to go back and edit the book and make it A LOT better. I would have never developed my voice this quickly if it were not for blogging.
As for a timeline, I started writing the book toward the end of my official marriage project, so around Sept 2007. I had a pretty solid first draft by summer 2008. I’ve been editing and tinkering with it ever since. I started the blog Oct 2008.
Julie: My readers and I are brilliant, so we understand the importance of ‘giving it away for free’ as a way to create buzz and gather an audience. What has been your approach in that respect?
Alisa: I agree that you are brilliant! And I’m one of your readers, so that means I must be brilliant, too!!
Before I started blogging, I didn’t understand why any writer would give her words away for free when she could get paid for them. It went against everything I’d ever been taught about valuing ones work, not to mention copyright. But, honestly, there are not many paying markets for what I do. I have a very strong voice, and while my readers love that about me, magazines don’t.
And the blogging makes me happy. I seriously don’t care whether or not I get paid for it at this point. The process is what matters.
From a business sense, though, I’ve completely changed my views about the value of blogging. Free or not, it offers many, many values including and not limited to:
* It’s how I prove myself as a writer. After I started my blog, another website discovered me through my blog and offered me a regular job as a relationships editor for $1000 a month. It only lasted 4 months because the website lost its funding, but it was fun while it lasted. I also was able to place a first person piece in American Baby, mostly because the editor liked what she saw on my blog. Your blog is your virtual resume. Almost no one looks at the paper version anymore.
* I can monetize it eventually. I now have 75,000+ monthly visitors, so I’m definitely looking into ways to monetize. I’m looking into launching a store on the site that sells branded items. We’ll see.
* As I said, it makes me a better writer. I’m also a better marketer, which helps me land more ghosting work because my authors all know that my knowledge of social media and digital marketing is valuable.
* It’s one of the only ways a non-connected not-remotely-rich person can gain a fan base. If you were not born rich or are not an actress or a model, then a blog is your best shot at building a following. A following is what you need to make ANY business successful. Your blog is free advertising. You could pay to put up billboards all over the country or you could blog for free. Blogging is a lot more fun and a lot more effective.
Julie: You’re currently in negotiations to have the book published, I think we can safely assume that the blog has helped make your case with the publishers – can you tell us how exactly?
Alisa: This is one of those things that confuses a lot of people. They think they can just start a blog and get a book deal, but it’s more complex than that. You don’t just need a blog to get a book deal. You need a successful one, one with a big following. Zen Habits had 1 million unique visitors before he got a book deal. Same with dooce.com. I believe Hungry Girl had 250,000.
You can get a deal with fewer visitors (I am about to), but you need to: 1) have an amazing product (book) that showcases a story with a complete arc and strong voice 2) show that you are gaining momentum quickly. Essentially you need to know that you are gaining site visitors, that you are a hot commodity. You need to prove that you are about to hit your virtual tipping point.
And the content on your blog really needs to be different than the content you want to put in your book. Otherwise editors will continually ask you, “Why would someone pay $24.99 for this when they can get it for free on your blog?” That’s a valid question. You need to be able to answer it with, “Well they can’t get it for free on my blog because my book is completely new and different.”
The blog definitely helped me, though, especially because my traffic numbers are moving in the right direction. That helps to prove a number of variables: people like my voice, people like what I have to say, my writing can attract a following, etc. That I can tell 75,000 or more people about the book just by writing a post about it also doesn’t hurt.
But what’s more important are my relationships. I’m a former newspaper reporter and former magazine editor. Between my previous jobs and blogging, I’ve gotten to know many different writers, from reporters at the Pittsburgh Post Gazette to bloggers at MSNBC and tlc.com (not to mention YOU) to one of the anchors at the FOX news network. I’m connected to hundreds of freelancers through Twitter, Facebook and a couple professional organizations.
As a result, I know what stories various freelancers are working on at any given time, and I know when they are desperately trying to find that rare person who is willing to talk about her sex life and allow her complete name to appear in the story. I really am a rare woman in that regard. Most people are not comfortable talking about the things I am willing to tell the world. So between my connections and my openness, I’ve had a fairly easy time lining up media for myself. Just in the past year, I’ve been quoted in Redbook, First, and Pregnancy magazines, as well as iparenting.com and cnn.com. I’ve been a guest on several blog talk radio shows and my essays and articles have appeared in a number of different consumer magazines.
Blogging has also taught me a lot about social media and digital marketing. My following on Twitter and established presence on Facebook certainly helped me gain interest from publishers.
Publishers like authors who can market and sell their own books. Their budgets are shrinking, and their publicity teams are continually forced to work on more books with fewer people. So an author who can serve as her own publicist–by launching a blog tour, doing guest posting, smoozing with freelancers, doing public speaking, etc–is very attractive.
I might not be Suzanne Somers, but I can get my message out. My relationships with other bloggers and journalists really helped to make me attractive to publishers.
Julie: Has the blog hurt the publishing process at all?
Alisa: I don’t think it hurt. Publishers really are not as out of touch as many people think. They are pretty on top of the trends in all things digital. But they are still operating in two formats: paper and digital. That’s pretty tough and it takes a near genius to find ways to straddle both formats well.
I did have one publisher ask about my ebook, which I’m giving away for free, but the content in the ebook is different than the content in the paper book that I’m shopping around. If I was repurposing, then the blog would probably hurt. It would also hurt if I had no site visitors. But that’s not the case.
Julie: You write about your life, your relationship, sex – all very personal. How do you approach the issue of transparency?
Alisa: Many years ago, I used to be a very secretive person. I was also very, very depressed. I’ve since learned that I’m much happier when I keep no secrets. I have nothing to be ashamed of and nothing to be embarrassed about. I’d rather people know the real me. If they know everything about me and still like me? Then I know they are true friends. If I hide parts of myself from people, how will I ever truly know what they think of me?
Blogging has really helped me become more comfortable with sharing the intimate details of my life, though. I continually get comments and emails from people who thank me for helping them. Those comments mean the world to me and they make any moment of bashfulness so worth it.
I used to worry about the effects my blogging and writing in general would have on my daughter. She’s only 4 now, so I’m not sure what the future holds. But I do think I’m a better parent that I can talk and write about these issues openly. I’m sure she’ll hate that I write about my sex life when she’s 13. But if she didn’t have that, she’d find something else to hate about me during that stage of her life.
My general rule about the transparency is that it has to have a point. I don’t write about my sex life just to be graphic. I always make sure I have a point or that I’m trying to be helpful. That’s my rule and that’s what allows me to sleep at night!
Where to find Alisa…