Q & A with Tall Poppy Writers
Tall Poppy Writers is a marketing co-op of authors who help one another reach their target readers. We reached out to Ann Garvin, the founder of the group, as well as some other members of the community to share their insights on how trends in publishing are affecting them and what it's like to be a professional author in the digital age.
GG: Why did you start Tall Poppy Writers?
TPW: When I started publishing my books, I was a true unknown. I’d been writing science, teaching and raising children, and I didn’t know a soul in the publishing industry. When my first book On Maggie's Watch was released in 2010, I didn’t understand how much I would need to know about marketing if I was going to make writing a career. I had no idea how to get my book into the hands of readers, and the only networking connections I had were at the University where I taught or other mothers whose kids went to school with my kids. If Berkley (a division of Penguin Random House) hadn’t been so supportive I never would have been able to sell my second book The Dog Year.
I started meeting authors, women like myself, who had spent their careers working and raising their families, not traveling the world building a fan base. As publishers' budgets started to dwindle, I wondered if women’s voices would also disappear, especially the voices of women who didn’t grow up with a smartphone in their hands and are therefore not used to promoting themselves and posting about their lives online. Considering the time-intensive, solitary work of producing a book while caring for children and, as is the case with so many women, their own parents, I saw a road littered with women’s voices, quieted in the storm.
I knew that if I didn’t think of something, I was never going to be able to continue to publish traditionally. I saw how the music business helped aspiring performers by giving them the opportunity to open for more-established bands, and I thought this is what we need for writers. Little by little, I approached the few writers I knew in the Madison, Wisconsin area, and a whisper became a chat, then a website, a Facebook page, and a Twitter handle. We are hoping for classes and conferences and maybe even a cruise to come soon.
I know I haven’t invented the idea of writing co-ops or partnerships that help each other get the word out, so Tall Poppies isn’t new in that regard. But, our group is an organized, enthusiastic support system for women authors young and old, debut and established. A community where everyone is on equal footing with a full understanding that what is good for one Poppy is fantastic for all Poppies.
—Ann Garvin, USA Today Best Selling Author of I Like You Just Fine When You’re Not Around
GG: What do you think is the biggest misconception surrounding women’s fiction today? How do you define the term?
TPW: A large misconception about women writers and women’s groups is that all women writers write "women’s fiction." Among the Tall Poppies, we have writers of thrillers, mysteries, historicals, romances, magical realism, literary fiction, and narrative nonfiction as well.
The women’s fiction genre is not defined by the gender of the author. Like all genres, it is defined by certain conventions, allowing readers to identify it as "their kind of book." The main characteristics of the women’s fiction genre are so loose that only avid readers would know they are reading it. Women’s fiction refers to a novel that focuses on the emotional journey of a female main character who is facing something so difficult that a series of plot points will send her along an inner arc of growth. Growth tends to require some level of introspection, so that is a hallmark. It also tends to be a good thing, so such novels tend to resolve on a note of hope. While the story may have romantic elements, the resolution will not be dependent on the intervention of a man.
Women’s fiction is a term rarely used by end users, and is instead a way of talking about certain types of novels to industry insiders who seek to promote stories featuring women’s lives in this way. Because of the prevalence of issue-oriented conflict between inner character desire and external plot, women’s fiction often makes a great pick for a book club. Keeping in mind that book clubs also attract men busts another misconception: that only women read women’s fiction.
—Kathryn Craft, author of The Far End of Happy and The Art of Falling
GG: What trends have you noticed in women-driven fiction in the past couple of years? How do you think they have affected writers and readers of these types of books?
TPW: One big trend is toward more suspenseful work. In my opinion this change reflects time demands of modern society that can be met by so many easier entertainment options. If you hook the reader fast and do not let them go, the reader will not set down your book. Themes are growing darker as well, as topics once thought taboo are brought into the light. The effect on writers and readers of women’s fiction is a natural progression of the women’s movement: the subject matter and issues that propel a woman toward growth are as varied as any man’s.
Another trend is the purposeful promotion of authors of color, and the inclusion by white authors of a more diverse set of characters. While white-only pockets still exist in America’s suburban and rural populations, the publishers who buy our work live in cities with diverse populations, and like to see a cast of characters that reflects their reality. Authors must remember, too, that a publishing career is an international affair, and that foreign rights can often be more easily sold with casts that seem relevant to inhabitants of other countries. The benefit to society is a perfect example of what literature does best: helping readers gain empathy for characters who may have different backgrounds and cultures, yes, but whose desires and dreams bind them to a common human condition.
—Kathryn Craft, author of The Far End of Happy and The Art of Falling
GG: One of the goals of your community is to interact more directly with readers and fans. What have you found your audiences to respond to? What hasn’t worked as well?
TPW: Because we are an international and diverse group of women writers, we rely heavily on the electronic world for connection and communication with each other. Social media gives us a wonderfully convenient way to communicate, but it does have its limitations of course. Which is why we meet live at an annual conference in NYC or Chicago that we call "PoppyCon." Part brain-storming weekend, part sleepover, it's our chance to get to know what everyone is working on, reading and championing. We've always wanted to bring that same feeling of connection to our community of readers. Because we can't exactly invite all of our readers to one giant sleepover, we have tried to replicate the experience through our new interactive online community, BLOOM. Bloom is a vibrant, often spontaneous, round-the-clock party with great swag and giveaways. One Poppy "takes over" each week, but all the Poppies drop by often to check in. We have found Bloom to be much more engaging than, for example, weekly newsletters or public Facebook pages.
—Amy Impellizzeri, author of Secrets of Worry Dolls
GG: Last week the New York Times announced it was eliminating several of its bestseller lists—including mass market fiction and ebooks—or relegating some (like trade paperback fiction) to online only. How has your community reacted to this announcement?
TPW: We have several New York Times-bestselling authors in our community who earned the title through e-book and mass market paperback sales, and taking away this opportunity obviously hurts. There is no denying that the New York Times Bestseller label sells books. I understand that the rationale behind the cuts are sound. First, all newspapers are struggling to make ends meet, and they have to find ways to be sustainable. If cutting the lists down is necessary to keep afloat, as a businesswoman, I have to respect that. Also, there is some belief that expanding the list as they have over the past decade has “watered down” the prestige of being called a New York Times Bestseller. They want to restore it to the gold standard it’s thought to be. I definitely respect that, but am concerned that with the drastic cuts they’ve announced we will see the same fifty authors on the list from year to year and it will be very difficult for new voices to be heard. I hope a compromise will emerge that will prove both viable for the NYT and still offer some room for emerging authors to grab a piece of the limelight.
—Aimie Runyan, Duty to the Crown and Promised to the Crown
GG: Recent reports have indicated that sales of ebooks have slowed in the past year compared to print books. How do those in the Tall Poppy community feel about this trend (or rather anti-trend)?
TPW: Publishers and booksellers have much greater insight into sales trends than I do, but speaking as a Tall Poppy author and an avid reader, I am encouraged by the upswing in printed book sales. However, I am also interested in trends that show increases in overall book sales – regardless of which formats consumers choose.
While there are definite benefits to e-books, I’m biased. I love bookstores and libraries and holding actual books in my hands. Books I can collect over time. Read to a child. Loan to a friend. Give as a gift.
EBooks offer wonderful features for readers, convenience, cost savings, and the capability to hold a library of books in a single device. However, living in a “plugged in” culture where we spend hours on our devices, I am heartened to know that a growing number of people want to unplug and pick up a book to unwind. For example, I am encouraged by publishing news that says millennials now represent a rapidly growing percentage of book buyers and that they are regarding bookstores as “cool again” (Fortune, 2016).
The Tall Poppy Writers, like other authors, value our relationships with booksellers as well as readers. An increase in printed books is good for those businesses, whether they’re national chains or independents. The same is true of our community libraries.
In the end, The Tall Poppy Writers are delighted to share our stories with others. Whether they come in electronic, audio, or paper form isn’t as important as knowing that people of all ages are finding joy by delving into good books.
— Kerstin March, author of Family Trees
For more information about Tall Poppy Writers, visit https://tallpoppies.org.