e’re thrilled to welcome back our friend and beloved writing champion Susan Shapiro, the author of an exciting new book tailor-made for WOW readers which debuts January 4. Publishers Weekly describes The Book Bible as “hard-earned wisdom with plenty of verve. Would-be authors, take note.” Booklist gave The Book Bible a starred review, describing it as “a great pick for public libraries, both as a refresher for publishing veterans and a valuable resource for those new to the field or unsure where to start.”
In her latest guide, Susan breaks down the complicated world of publishing for authors of poetry, essays, short stories, novels and nonfiction, and every subgenre in between, even cookbooks, humor and picture books, with valuable and up-to-date advice that will inspire and often surprise you.
She lives in Greenwich Village with her scriptwriter husband and is the national bestselling author/coauthor of seventeen books her family hates, including Lighting Up, Only As Good As Your Word, Five Men Who Broke My Heart, The Byline Bible, World In Between, and The Forgiveness Tour. Susan freelances for numerous magazines, including The New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Salon, Oprah, and The New Yorker online. She teaches her popular “instant gratification takes too long” courses at The New School, NYU, Columbia University, and now privately online.
WOW: Congratulations on writing and publishing your 17th book! The Book Bible outlines a direct pathway to publication for writers across the board. Have you written the book you wish you’d read many years ago?
Susan: Yes. I started writing full time at twenty and sold my first hardcover to Random House at forty-three. It took a long time to figure out. They say write the book you wanted to read and teach the class you wanted to take, so I do.
WOW: And we are so grateful! My favorite thing about The Book Bible is that you open each chapter with a detailed list of what NOT to do. For example, in Chapter 4 on “Nonfiction” you say: “Avoid publishing anything shorter first,” and in Chapter 7 on “Humor and Graphics,” you say: “Submit your humor manuscript everywhere.” Are these no-nos based on common mistakes aspiring authors make?
Susan: Yes. I didn’t want to do a boring self-help “now do this, now do that” book but I wasn’t sure whether I would get away with sarcasm at the start of each section. Then several young members of my writing group told me they liked the what not to do parts best. They said it made them laugh, and they see themselves in the mistakes. So I kept it up.
WOW: Your sense of humor shines in this book. On another note, I completely agree with you that one of the biggest challenges facing beginning writers is figuring out which category applies to their book. What advice can you offer?
Susan: Read books similar to your own. As I say in the chapter on book proposals, it’s helpful to find comparable titles to your project published within the last few years. Once you find something similar, study the category and shelf it’s on in the bookstore and how it’s described. What genre do they call it? Emulate work you admire.
WOW: I loved the story about how you transformed a match-making memoir into a how-to book, Secrets of a Fix-up Fanatic: How to Meet and Marry Your Match. Can versatility in genres be an asset?
Susan: Yes. I actually give many examples of what I call genre fluidity. In my case, I had several books that didn’t sell in their first incarnation. I spoke with my agent, editor, shrink and brilliant critics in my writing workshop, analyzing what the problem was. Then I switched a memoir to a novel or a first person self-help and it found a home. This is a thing.
“Every pitch should explain: why you, why me, why now?”
WOW: In your communication with a potential agent, how important is it to explain why your book needs to be published now?
Susan: An editor who Zooms into my classes says every pitch should explain: why you, why me, why now? It depends on the genre, project and your platform. But I teach my online book students how to do a compelling short Hollywood movie pitch that expresses why your book is timely and important.
WOW: As a student of yours, I think about that axiom all the time—it has been so useful to my own pitching! You generously include the 1,600-word synopsis that helped sell your latest novel, World In Between, co-authored with Kenan Trebincevic. In this synopsis, you lead with a specific gripping question to get the reader involved. What tips can you offer for writing a compelling statement about your work?
Susan: Universal questions that readers relate to can be gripping. With Five Men Who Broke My Heart, it was “Did I wind up with the right person?” In Lighting Up it was how do you tell if something is a harmless habit or a dangerous addiction. In The Forgiveness Tour I ponder whether you can forgive someone who hurts you but doesn’t apologize.
WOW: How important are the sample pages of a book proposal?
Susan: The most important part!
WOW: You state that you believe genre fiction may be easier to publish than literary fiction? Why?
Susan: Well, they say literary work is about the language whereas commercial writing is more about the plot and characters. It’s much easier to create a compelling story than it is to come up with a brilliantly crafted 300 pages.
WOW: Well said! You advise aspiring poetry book authors to become poetry “junkies” and that future novelists read at least 20 bestselling, award-winning books in their category. How do we balance writing with reading?
Susan: I write first thing in the morning with my earliest energy. I tend to read late at night since reading is more passive and less important to me at this stage. Though if it’s a good book it’ll wake me up.
WOW: Ha ha! How many words do you write each day? And do you think writers need to write every day?
Susan: A mentor who was a bestselling novelist once told me that a page a day is a book a year. A page is about 250 words, so that’s been my goal.
WOW: I learned so much in The Book Bible that I didn’t know before, such as not needing a PhD to write a self-help book. But in writing any type of book, it does help to have a platform. Beyond getting 2 million Twitter followers, what are some other ways to build readership for our books?
Susan: There’s tons of ways. I teach my students how to publish a short piece on the topic of their book. This past year one student’s Washington Post piece led to an Farrar, Strauss and Giroux novel and another’s New York Times essay led to a Random House memoir.
WOW: That’s incredible. In your classes as well as in The Book Bible, you often speak of good writing karma. Would you give us an example of how this force has helped you personally?
Susan: Yes, quite often I’ll help a student revise a piece in class. They’ll sell it to an editor they recommend I have come speak to my class. I’ll try out the editor and then wind up pitching that person myself and selling a piece. I actually think helping so many students get published is why I’ve had so much luck myself.
WOW: You dedicated The Forgiveness Tour to your late father, Jack Shapiro. The Book Bible is dedicated to your mom, Mickey. What does she have to say about her daughter’s latest accomplishment?
Susan: I dedicate it to my mother, who is really sick of coming to my book events. At this point she’s mostly happy that I’m happy though my parents inspired the first rule I tell my students: “The first piece you write that your family hates means you’ve found your voice.”
WOW: You sold three books in 2021 and launched wildly popular online classes. I have a feeling that one of your New Year’s Resolutions for 2022 will NOT be slowing down and taking it easy! What do you have coming up in 2022 that you’d like to share?
Susan: I’ll be doing a lot of book events to promote The Book Bible, including a free online publishing talk with my student David Levine on Tuesday, January 4, a Zoom panel with Shakespeare & Co on Monday, January 10, and an in-person panel to launch it at the Strand bookstore’s Rare Books Room on Saturday, January 22 from 6-7:30. So save the dates. Hopefully The Forgiveness Tour and World In Between will come out in paperback. I just found out my coauthored memoir, The Bosnia List will be made into an audiobook. And I’m going to teach one class in person and one on Zoom, so 2022 should be busy.
WOW: Fabulous! I just marked my calendar, and I hope to see many of my WOW friends there as well. I always learn so much at your events. Thank you so much for spending time with us today, and we wish you all the best in the New Year.
With Kenan Trebincevic, Susan’s co-author for The Bosnia List (Penguin) and World In Between (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt)
For more about Susan, visit susanshapiro.net or follow her on Twitter at @susanshapironet or Instagram at @Profsue123.
Ashley Memory lives with her sculptor husband and two rescue dogs in the rolling and mysterious Uwharries, west of Asheboro, North Carolina. She has written for The Independent, Poets & Writers, Real Simple, Wired and Healthline. Follow Ashley’s blog or find her on Twitter @memoryashley.