Miranda Beverly-Whittemore is the author of BITTERSWEET, the New York Times Bestseller that exposes the gothic underbelly of an idyllic world of privilege and an outsider’s hunger to belong. All New York Times Bestsellers have great marketing behind them. But Miranda shares one book promotion idea that didn’t take off and what she learned from the undertaking.
When Crown bought my third novel, BITTERSWEET, in the spring of 2013, I decided to dedicate the year before publication to promotion. There were a lot of necessary (if unexciting) fixes to my author platform, from revitalizing an outdated website, to relaunching a defunct newsletter, to overcoming my shyness on social media. But my main promotional idea was something that enticed me: a website where women could share stories of the ups and downs of their girlhood friendships.
The driving force in BITTERSWEET is a passionate, dark friendship between college roommates Mabel and Ev. I’ve always been intrigued by that particular era in any female life before adulthood when the loves (and heartbreaks, and envies) of our lives are other girls. As I mentioned the book’s premise to friends and colleagues, a funny thing happened: these women would spontaneously share stories of their own complicated friendships. I heard tales of being saved from something perilous, of being unnecessarily cruel, of never getting to say goodbye when a best friend moved away. I was inundated with these beautiful, sad, funny stories, and I wanted to make a home for them. FriendStories.com was born.
I didn’t do this alone! Oh no. I am not a builder of websites, and I needed a lot of practical help. Enter Dan Blank of WeGrowMedia, a media consultant who I’d hired to help me with all my promotional work. He brainstormed the URL (we were pleased to discover FriendStories.com was still available) and designed a basic website in WordPress. Meanwhile, I wrote a few FriendStories of my own as examples, and started reaching out to my in-group—both writers and not—using the pieces I’d written to solicit pieces less than 1000 words in length.
Along the way, Dan and I had many conversations: about my goals for the project (he pushed me to create practical milestones instead of simply endeavoring to “make a home” for these tales); about the site’s visual style (we decided to ask each writer to send a picture of herself, ideally from the era she as writing about—and if she had a picture of herself with the girl she was writing about, all the better!); about whether I could realistically devote myself to the project’s maintenance (I knew it would take hours every week to edit and post and solicit these stories); and about the site’s sustainability (I was particularly concerned about how I’d replenish this stable of stories; I hoped that by reaching out into gradually larger concentric circles of friends and acquaintances that eventually the site would “take off” and start soliciting the work based on its reputation). We talked about privacy and respect; this wasn’t a place for take-downs or insults, and any photos we used would crop out everyone but the author herself.
Beginning in August, we amassed stories and theories and plans. I decided to post a FriendStory twice each week, on Mondays and Thursdays. I wanted at least sixteen stories—two months’ worth—amassed before we went live. BITTERSWEET wasn’t coming out until May, so when we launched on January 20th, we knew we had plenty of time for the project to grow before publication day. Because that’s what we kept coming back to: ultimately this was a way to help promote BITTERSWEET—wasn’t it?
Let me say here that the pieces I received from friends and fellow writers—at all walks of their careers—were generous, honest, and gripping. I am profoundly grateful to everyone who contributed to this project. I found that the FriendStories that worked “best” were the ones in which the author generously recalled and revealed her own blunders (this one is a great, emotional example). It was so exciting to receive these stories in my inbox. It was so exciting to post them online and share them with the world. But that middle ground between receiving them and posting them? I discovered I was not excited about that aspect of running the website, although this middle ground was what took up the bulk of my time.
There was so much work! It sounds naïve, but the truth is, I just had no idea how many (wo)man hours this endeavor would require, despite Dan and my many conversations. My days were spent soliciting stories, nudging and bugging people who’d said yes, following up on emails, editing the pieces when I felt they needed help, sending them back to the authors, waiting for the authors’ approval of these changes, and more. I discovered that although I loved the idea of creating the hub for these stories, I didn’t exactly love the reality of what that creation meant.
Then it became apparent that although within my tight-knit circle, contributing a FriendStory was urgent and enticing, that was not necessarily the case for the rest of the world. It began to feel like pulling teeth to get submissions, and I started to question the wisdom of asking for free content from hard-working writers, no matter what stage they were at in their careers. The question of audience emerged: who was reading these pieces? The authors had worked hard on these, and they were getting very few hits. I felt as though I’d let these writers down. I started to realize that most of FriendStories’ readers were fellow writers. If the goal here was to be reaching out to a larger audience, to spread the word about these FriendStories beyond that first circle of writers I knew (and to spread the word about BITTERSWEET, the book that had inspired me to start this project in the first place), I wasn’t accomplishing my goals.
Perhaps it was a question of length. I asked for the pieces to be between 250 and 1000 words, but even that started to feel excessive in the era of the soundbite. Later that same spring I watched my friend Julia Fierro’s Parenting Confessional Tumblr—built to spread the word about her novel CUTTING TEETH—receive a lot of media attention (not to mention a deluge of submissions. Beyond being simply a fantastic idea, I think a large part of that project’s success had to do with the length of what she was asking for, combined with the secret, illicit nature of a safe space where people could be totally honest about the challenges of parenting. Not to mention that Tumblr has a fantastic built-in platform for easy sharing and interaction.
Just as the upkeep of FriendStories.com started to wear on me, I started to experience success—as much as one can—in other aspects of my marketing plan. Dan and my book launch blog, sharing our efforts from contract-signing to publication (including on FriendStories.com), was getting very good response from fellow writers (the same audience that seemed to be reading FriendStories.com). Then, with Julia Fierro, we decided to host a five-week-long book giveaway on my website with twenty-two other writers who had books coming out that spring. By asking them and their publishers to cross-promote the giveaway, I learned how helpful it was to share the promotion with others across social media. Hundreds, if not thousands, of discrete individuals who never had heard of me or BITTERSWEET were coming to my website on a daily basis. That simply was not happening with FriendStories.com, and, much as I hated to admit it, the project was not enough of a labor of love for me to want to devote myself to it.
By June of last year, little over a month after BITTERSWEET came out, I had exhausted all my resources with FriendStories.com. I’m sad (and a little embarrassed) to say I threw in the towel. I can see a number of ways in which I let the project down, and I regret those. But I also think I learned some valuable lessons, chief among them discovering my limits as a writer who also wants to help do promotion. I can’t devote the bulk of my time to curating a website when what I really want to do is write books.
But I haven’t given up on FriendStories. The subject matter of girlhood friendship is very much at the heart of my next novel, JUNE, which will be published by Crown in 2016, and I still love the idea of creating a place to talk about this crucial time in so many women’s lives. I’ve been toying with the idea of creating a Tumblr where people can share memories of the worst thing they ever did to a friend—I think that might have the same kind of viral appeal as Julia’s project—although I wonder if that doesn’t reduce this complex topic into something a little too pat. What do you think? I’d love to hear your ideas for improving on this messy little idea of mine that didn’t quite work the first time around.
New York Times bestselling author Miranda Beverly-Whittemore has published three novels: BITTERSWEET; THE EFFECTS OF LIGHT; and SET ME FREE, which won the Janet Heidinger Kafka Prize for the best book of fiction by an American woman published in 2007. A recipient of the Crazyhorse Fiction Prize, she lives and writes in Brooklyn and Vermont. She is currently at work on a forthcoming novel for Crown, titled JUNE.Connect with Miranda on her website, Twitter, and Facebook.