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So What Do You Do, Jennifer Weiner, Bestselling Novelist?

10 years after selling her debut novel, the author talks about how ebooks and social media are changing the game for writers

By E.B. Boyd - July 14, 2010
Author Jennifer Weiner burst onto the scene in 2001 with Good in Bed, a novel about a modern-day plus-size heroine who gets the fairy tale ending. The book became a word-of-mouth hit, and Weiner's been burning up the keyboard ever since, turning out another five novels in as many years, along with a collection of short stories. All told, her books have sold 11 million copies in 36 countries, one was made into a Hollywood movie (In Her Shoes, with Cameron Diaz and Shirley MacLaine), and ABC even gave Weiner a development deal. Now, Redbook is serializing a new story in its July and August issues, and the former newspaper reporter and magazine columnist just inked a new four-book deal with her publisher, Atria.

With her latest novel Fly Away Home, about a 57-year-old politician's wife confronting her husband's infidelity, now in stores, Mediabistro caught up with Weiner to talk about the things she wish she'd known when she first started and why tweeting commentary on The Bachelorette makes for a good marketing strategy.

Name: Jennifer Weiner
Position: Novelist
Resume: Reporter, Centre Daily Times, State College, Penn., 1991-1994. Reporter, Lexington Herald-Leader, 1994. Reporter and columnist, Philadelphia Inquirer, 1995-2001. Author of Good in Bed (2001), In Her Shoes (2002), Little Earthquakes (2004), Goodnight Nobody (2005), The Guy Not Taken (2006), Certain Girls (2008), Best Friends Forever (2009), and Fly Away Home (2010). In Her Shoes was made into a major motion picture in 2005, starring Cameron Diaz, Toni Collette and Shirley MacLaine.
Birthday: March 28, 1970
Hometown: Born in DeRidder, La., raised in Simsbury, Conn.
Education: Graduated summa cum laude from Princeton University in 1991 with a bachelor's degree in English literature.
Family: "I live with my family in Philadelphia."
First section of the Sunday Times: "I read the 'Book Review' online. Bitterly."
Favorite TV show: "God help me, The Bachelor."
Guilty pleasure: "I don't think pleasures are ever guilty! But: Reality TV."
Last book read: One Day, by David Nicholls
Twitter handle: @jenniferweiner. "Because I'm just that creative."

How did the new four-book deal with Atria come about?
I had written the last book in my previous contract. My agent and I sat down and looked at the landscape, looked at ebooks, and looked at marketing and publishing and all the stuff we think is going on. We talked about where I am in my life and what I wanted to be doing. We decided the book-a-year approach made sense for me. Four books felt ambitious, like it was me committing to my publisher in a very real way, and my publisher committing to me in a very real way. But not 12 books. Who knows what the world's going to look like in 12 years. We think we know what it's going to look like in four.

You mentioned ebooks. How did those play into this deal?
Ebooks are about 20 percent of my sales, which is higher than average for contemporary fiction and tells me that my readers are early adopters of these technologies. It's interesting to watch people go off on their own and say, "I'm going to deal directly with Amazon," or "I'm going to sell directly to the Kindle." That wasn't anything I was interested in doing. I've got a fantastic relationship with my publisher, and I really appreciate all of their support in terms of editing and marketing and promotion. But it's fun to watch other authors do different things with the new technologies. Not for me yet.

"There are people in publishing who fervently believe that a book is worth $27 and would like readers to believe that, as well. If the answer is $9.99 [ebooks], publishing is going to have to adjust."

This new four-book deal came almost 10 years to the day after you sold your first book. What changes have you've seen in the publishing industry over the past decade that most impact you on the business end?
Any writer will tell you that the biggest change in the marketplace has been the writer as promoter of her own work. Ten years ago, people were hanging on to the idea that the writer's job was to write this wonderful, smart, funny, engrossing, relatable book, and you would give it to your publisher, and they would make the magic happen. You could just go back to your apartment and work on your next one, and the publisher would be as busy as elves in their workshop, getting the word out and promoting it and getting it into all the right readers' hands. I think I was smart and lucky to recognize early on something that all writers seem take as gospel at this point, which is that nobody is going to be a more passionate advocate of your first novel than you are.

How about the Kindle? Some people in publishing think it's killing the book business. Do you agree?
No, I don't at all. It's causing a lot of fear because of that $9.99 price point. I feel that that big question, "What is a work of fiction worth?" has been answered. Amazon, in setting that price, is announcing to the world that a work of fiction, no matter how many years it took to write it, no matter how many people edited it, no matter how long the cover design or the page design took, a book is worth $9.99. (Unless it's worth $14.99 its first week of release.) It's a tough pill to swallow. Because there are people in publishing who fervently believe that a book is worth $27 and would like readers to believe that, as well. If the answer is $9.99, publishing is going to have to adjust. I don't know if those adjustments are going to come in the form of lower advances, different royalty structures for ebooks, or what.

"Nobody is going to be a more passionate advocate of your first novel than you are."

In Her Shoes was made into a film, and you and your sister were cast as extras. How involved were you in the screenplay and the production?
I had a film critic friend tell me that a novelist trying to adapt her own book was like a mother trying to circumcise her own son. Let somebody else cut. I made a decision really early on that I had told the story I wanted to tell in the book. The book was done. It was published and in bookstores. Nobody was going to go into bookstores and start changing what I'd written. So I said I'm going to let the movie be the filmmaker's story to tell. And I wound up really, really pleased with every choice they made. I loved the screenplay. I was very happy with the casting. I was very happy with the movie.

From the big screen to the small screen: What happened to the pilot you were working on for ABC?
I had a two-year development deal with ABC in which I wrote a half-hour pilot and an hour-long pilot. I came really close with both of them, but eventually neither one wound up getting picked up, which was a little heartbreaking. But it was a really incredible learning experience in terms of how things work out there [in Hollywood] and how things make the journey from "I have this idea for a show" to you turn on your TV set at eight o'clock and there it is. It's a lot more collaborative than writing a novel. I was working with different writing partners for the pilots, and I really liked that part of that. You'd get notes, and I think for people out there, it's like, "Ugh, another notes call." But for me, it was, "Yay, I get to hear what somebody thinks." Because when you write a novel, your publisher is like, "Great, we'll see you in a year." I liked the back-and-forth of television.

You're a big social media user. You tweet, Facebook, and blog a lot. Do you have any sense of what impact that has on book sales?
When I ask people who come to my readings how many of them are my Facebook friends, half the hands go up. But I don't know if it's creating new fans or creating more feeling of connection among existing fans. I would hope it's both. One of the things I do do is, every week, I live-tweet The Bachelor or The Bachelorette. [Ed. Note: Sample tweet: "Ty pronounces himself 'tickled to death' that Ali has ambitions. Betty Friedan rolls over in her grave; gives him the finger."] And I would get a couple hundred new followers every time I did this. And at the end of the night, I would say, "Welcome new followers, thanks for joining in. By the way, I also write books." And then I'd say something like, "They're like tweets, but all strung together." And then I'd direct them to my website. I hope they back into it that way.

"You realize you're making certain trade-offs when your first book is called Good in Bed, and there's naked legs and cheesecake on the cover."

What are three things that you wish you'd known 15 years ago?
I wish I would have known how little the New York Times review would matter. Like every writer, I bought into the myth that you haven't written a book until The New York Times takes notice. I remember realizing it wasn't going to happen. You realize you're making certain trade-offs when your first book is called Good in Bed, and there's naked legs and cheesecake on the cover. One of the things you're letting go of is the idea that Michiko Kakutani is going to take your galley home for the weekend. I wish I'd known it's okay to be called "a delightful beach romp." Lots of people want to read a delightful beach romp.

Second, I should never, ever go to the art department with an idea for a book cover, because all of my ideas are crap. I would tell the me of 10 years ago: Just let the cover be the cover. You just tell the story.

And third, like many writers, I had the fantasy that, once I had a book contract, everyone would be nice to me. Because they'd think, "What if I'm not nice? Maybe, she'll put me in her book, and I won't like it." It doesn't work that way. No one's nice to you because you have a book deal. And the people you try to settle scores with by putting them in the book, generally by the time I'm through five or six drafts, they're so altered that I don't even remember who it was supposed to be anymore.

Your books are in print in 36 countries, and yet your stories seem very specific to the lives of women in Western countries. What do you hear from readers in non-Western countries?
It's the body stuff. The one thing the West has managed to 100 percent successfully export is distorted ideals of what it means to have a good body as a woman. Women all over the world have told me, "I've been on a diet since I was… (insert ridiculously young age). I've never been able to feel good in my own skin, and I never thought I could have a happy ending looking the way I look. Thank you for writing books where someone who looks like me gets the happy ending."

E.B. Boyd is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco.

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This interview has been edited for length and clarity. The foregoing is the sole property of WebMediaBrands Inc. The opinions and views expressed in the interviews and/or commentaries are solely those of the participants and are not necessarily the views of WebMediaBrands Inc., its affiliates or subsidiary companies.

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