With a publishing industry that is ever in flux, it can be hard for an aspiring author to figure out what information is relevant and what she needs to do to be successful. Recognizing this, literary agent Andrea Hurst and writer and blogger Katie Flanagan present a series of weekly interviews with publishing industry specialists. The AUTHORNOMICS Series features literary agents, editors, authors, marketing experts and more talking about their opinions on the publishing industry, writing, and what a writer needs to know.
Interview with Author and Blogger Mike Lanza
Mike Lanza, MA Ed and MBA (Stanford), is Chief Blogger at Playborhood.com (started in 2007), and the author of Playborhood: Turn Your Neighborhood Into A Place For Play. An expert on the subject of kids’ play in neighborhoods, Lanza has worked hard to create a very rich neighborhood play life for his three boys – ages 7, 4, and 2 – in Menlo Park, California. He’s also discovered and written about dozens of neighborhoods throughout North America that are doing innovative things to make a vibrant life for kids. Prior to his writing career, Mike was a five-time software and Internet entrepreneur in Silicon Valley.
1. You are author of Playborhood: Turn Your Neighborhood into a Place of Play, and you keep a blog that complements the book. Which came first? Can you talk about the process of turning a blog into a book or a book into a blog?
I started with the blog, playborhood.com, five years ago, in 2007. Back then, I knew I had a lot to learn about the subject of kids’ play in neighborhoods. I wanted to try to find some solutions to the problem of lack of neighborhood play for my kids and then write about it for other parents. I also wanted to find neighborhoods other than my own where parents were making play happen for their kids.
So, writing the blog gave me a platform for learning about my subject matter and for meeting other people with similar interests. I started thinking about the book in 2009 once I felt that I had become somewhat of an expert in the subject matter.
2. How did you, as a non-fiction author, build your platform? How much of a platform did you have before you sought publication? What advice would you give to fellow writers looking to build their own platforms?
The blog was my first platform. Before that, I had zero credibility in or knowledge of my field. Soon after I started blogging, I sought speaking engagements. In my first engagements, I didn’t do that great a job, but doing them motivated me to get much better. My speeches are now very high quality – most of my attendees are very enthusiastic, and a few usually linger after each speech to tell me how I’ve motivated them to change their children’s lives.
I also started tweeting (@playborhood) and posting to the Playborhood Facebook page back in 2010. These social media platforms have been learning experiences for me. I’m still not completely comfortable sharing short snippets every day.
At the time I published the book Playborhood, Playborhood.com had about 5,000 visitors, my Twitter feed had about 800 followers, and the Playborhood page on Facebook had about 500 followers. I was speaking about once a month, which included a mix of national conferences and local school visits.
Because I spoke at a fair number of conferences in the fields of play, child development, landscape architecture for children, and early childhood education, I became known to many experts in these fields. So, when I solicited “blurbs” for my book from experts, I had no problem getting over a dozen very favorable testimonials.
My advice to aspiring authors would be to work very hard on your platform every day, corresponding with as many people as possible with a very clear, consistent brand (name + graphics + message). For the purposes of book platform building, I wish I had more of a taste for blabbing on twitter and Facebook, but I just couldn’t bring myself to talk about myself multiple times a day and tell dozens of other people how great they are every day.
3. What was the publishing process like for you?
I spoke to a few book agents back in 2009 and 2010 and ultimately decided to self-publish. In those conversations, it became immediately clear to me that I wasn’t going to get a big-time, big publisher contract because I wasn’t a well-known professional in child psychology – I was “just” a very motivated parent. I did think that I might be able to get a mid-tier publisher to work with me, but as I saw it, these were mediocre organizations in a dying industry.
On the other hand, self-publishing was very enticing to me. Before writing, I had a career as an Internet and software entrepreneur, so I felt very capable of pulling together everything I’d need to publish and market my book.
I did pull everything together pretty well, I’d say. The book is top-notch, I think, and the marketing is going well. Sales aren’t pulling in anywhere near enough to give me a good salary, but I didn’t expect them to because this is my first book, and I’m not famous. However, I’m getting a lot of speaking gigs, and a few pay decently. In addition, I’m getting a lot of media appearances that, I hope, are expanding my platform quite a bit. My web site, Twitter feed, and Facebook page are all getting a lot more traffic since I published Playborhood last month.
4. Your background is in education and software design. How did you learn the craft of writing?
The best writing experience of my life was writing for my high school newspaper. I became editor in my senior year and wrote many of the most important articles for our paper. I think it’d be difficult to be a good nonfiction writer without learning the craft of journalism first. For instance, due to my journalistic training, I always endeavor to write a great “grabber” lead paragraph, and I think this enables me to engage my readers very well.
In college, I wrote lots and lots of papers. Not only did the large volume of writing hone my writing skills, but also, my professors pushed me hard to do deep, thoughtful research and to write very logically and clearly.
Since college, I’ve always strived to write clearly and engagingly. I try to never lapse into lazy email or texting shorthand. Instead, I aim for correct grammar and complete sentences, and I often spend extra time trying to turn a good phrase, even for “quick” emails or texts.
5. What tips do you have for keeping a successful blog? Do you have resources you use to regularly find fresh material for your blog?
a) Write very well, with special attention to the headline and first paragraph (the “lead” paragraph).
b) Respond quickly and thoughtfully to every comment and email.
c) Be thoughtful to the point of being controversial, but always stay on the side of your followers (i.e. don’t turn on any of your followers).
d) If you ever piss anyone off, try very hard to repair the damage as soon as possible.
e) Choose a subject that you’re totally obsessed about. If you’re not obsessed, you’ll never be able to continue coming up with good material after the first few posts.
f) Try to overcome any taboos so that you can write about anything that’s on your mind. You write best about things that are most in your head.
6. Was Playborhood ignited by your own children, or was this an idea that came from your childhood?
Well, both. I had a great childhood, and almost all of my best memories are of playing with my friends in my neighborhood with no adults around.
On the other hand, at the time my first son was about to be born, all the kids I saw were having far inferior childhoods – with virtually no neighborhood play. Instead, they were spending all their free time either sitting inside in front of screens or getting driven around to various adult-led activities. From what I could see, they weren’t having much fun.
I resolved right then that I would not raise my kids like these other kids I saw. That’s led me to where I am today.
7. How do you find the balance between maintaining privacy for your family and using your family as material for writing?
There is no “balance.” I don’t care about privacy. Telling other people about my family’s inner life doesn’t bother me in the least. The only thing that stops me from writing more about my family is that I know my readers have different perspectives, so I want to share stories of other families different from mine.
8. With a career and kids, how do you find time and inspiration to write, and what is your creative process like?
I’ve been doing this full-time for a few years now. As for kids, there’s a lot of synergy – my writing helps me deal with my kids better, and my life with my kids gives me a lot of great writing material.
9. What is your advice for other parents who would like to write a book and get a message out?
a) Blog first to build up your platform and learn more about your subject.
b) Commit to writing and posting on social networks regularly.
c) Don’t expect to make good money, at least for a few years. You may get lucky, but you should treat it like a labor of love.
10. Do you have any upcoming books or events we can look out for?
I have an idea for a new book, but I haven’t committed myself to it yet.
As for events, boy, I have a lot, but none that are huge “home runs” like The Today Show. Here are a couple highlights: on Thursday, May 24, I’ll appear on Chicago’s WGN for their “Midday Live” newscast at noon, and on the following Thursday, May 31, I’ll appear on Portland’s KOMO on their AM Northwest program from 9am-10am.
Andrea Hurst has over 25 years experience as a published author, developmental editor for publishers, and skilled literary agent. She works with both major and regional publishing houses, and her client list includes emerging new voices and New York Times best-selling authors. Andrea represents high profile Adult Nonfiction and well crafted fiction. Her clients and their books have appeared on the Oprah Show, Ellen DeGeneres Show, Good Morning America, National Geographic network and in the New York Times.
Katie Flanagan is a fiction major at Northwestern University. She is currently an editor with Booktrope Publishing and Pink Fish Press. In the past, she has interned with Andrea Hurst Literary Management and the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts. Her favorite genre is women’s fiction, but she reads any fiction put in front of her. Check out her blog about the writing life at katieflanagan.wordpress.com and follow her on Twitter at @K_Flanagan.