Friday, February 15, 2013

Interview With Austin Author Debra Winegarten

1.      What inspired you to write your book? "There's Jews in Texas?" is my fourth book. Each book has had a different theme, although the overarching theme for all of them would be biography or narrative. I consider "There's Jews in Texas?" my surprise fluke run-away book. This book came about because a good friend of mine sent me a link to a chapbook contest for Poetica Publishing, an online magazine specializing in contemporary Jewish writing. My friend urged me to enter because she knew I had some good Jewish-themed poems. I agreed, so I entered, hoping against hope that I might win.

And I did win the national contest. Part of the prize, in addition to a chunk of money, was publication of my book. When I put the book together for the contest, I remembered the advice I got years ago from a workshop I took on "How to Write an Award-Winning Chapbook." Essentially, the advice was: Put your best poem first. When the judges open to the first page, they will see your best poem. Then, put your best poem last. When the judges reach the end of the book, they will be reading your best poem. Put your best poem in the very middle. That way, when the book accidentally falls open, your best poem will be there for all to see. Then, fill in the rest of the pages with your best poems.

I did my best to follow that advice. And even though I only had about 13 poems I felt worthy of being the "best" of my work within the broad theme, I went with those. I then had to figure out a title for my little book. I tried to think of an "angle" that would help set apart my book from the rest of the entrants. I looked to see where Poetica Publishing was located and saw that it was in the state of Virginia. I remember falling asleep that night, wondering, "If they're in Virginia, do they know there's Jews in Texas?" And with that inspired thought, I leaped out of bed, ran across the house to my computer, and typed in "Are There Jews in Texas?" as the title. But it didn't have quite the right ring to it, so the next morning, even though I knew the grammar police would disapprove, I changed the title to "There's Jews in Texas?" When I ran it by my retired librarian friend, he disagreed, saying it was improper and without the contraction, the title would read, "There is Jews in Texas?" which would be really wrong.

I decided to ignore his advice because, well, here in Texas, that's how we talk.

2.      What is the book's lasting message? The book's lasting message is the shining of a spotlight on what it means to be "other" or "different" in the middle of the dominant culture. Not in a bad way, just giving voice to the outsider experience. Because we all have that experience of "not belonging," regardless of our status in life. And I'm funny, so the book has a lot of humor.

3.      What have you done to market and promote it? You name it, I've probably done it. For me, a book is merely a "shmoozing delivery device," and in my heart-of-hearts, I'm a marketer first and a writer second. This comes from being a bona fide extrovert. I sold a little over 600 copies of my book in the first year of printing. The majority of my sales came from giving talks and presentations. I typically sell between 40-80% of my audience. Also, because the book has both a Jewish and a Texas theme, and I'm a member of the Texas Jewish Historical Society, I sent oversized postcards with the book cover on one side and ordering information on the other to 300 society members.

This year, I'm going to the Kosher Chili Cook-Offs in Austin, Dallas, and Houston and have reserved a table at each venue. I have found that when I'm at these types of events, such as the Texas Book Festival, "members of the tribe" can't help but smile when they walk by and see the big poster with my book cover on it. I can tell someone's relationship to Judaism by their responses--some I can tell feel guilty and walk by faster, some come over and buy the book for their mothers because they know it's the perfect gift for her, some tell me about the book they've always wanted to write. 

I also had good success in the month leading up to my book launch by running a promotion on Facebook. First, since I was turning 54, I said I wanted to sell 54 books online before my official book launch. When I reached that number, I said I would continue the sales in this fashion: Since my launch was at a local independent woman's bookstore here in Austin, one of the last 11 feminist bookstores left in the US, I would donate $1 to the bookstore for every book bought prior to the official launch. I think I ended up selling something like 80 books. I then went to a local printer and had them make one of those big checks like people get for winning the lottery, and used it as a photo op at the end of my book launch to present to the book store. And, I donated $2 for every book sold during the promotion. The book store still has that big check sitting on top of one of their shelves for everyone to see. We all got lots of good publicity and good will out of that event.

4.      What do you really, really love about writing? I love the way my brain feels when I'm "in the zone" of writing. The timelessness, the experience of being able to "talk" to my readers one-on-one and bring my subject matter alive. I'm one of these people who is passionate about what I do and I do my best to infuse my writing with that essence. I also love writing because it's a way of uplifting myself and others. I write lots of biographies for middle-school students, giving them inspirational role models in life. There is way too much gloom and evil being focused on in the world. I want my life to be a beacon for bringing forth beauty, truth, possibility and joy, so I stand in that place when I write.

5.      Where do you see book publishing is heading? I think we will always have books and book publishing. There are Luddites like me who are still very "20th century" and adore the weight and smell and feel of book pages and the paper between our fingers. I also love being able to throw 10 books on an e-reader device and plop it in my backpack on international trips so I can save precious luggage space for my flute and not have to shlep all those books around.

I do see the internet as doing away in some senses with the "middle man" and bringing the consumer right to the door of the author. However, I also see that Amazon is a huge force to be reckoned with in terms of distribution and it's the distribution that's key these days. The author's dilemma is how to rise above all the "noise" and kazillion things vying for peoples' attention so that they will slow down long enough to choose the author's book.

6.      What advice do you have for other writers? Find one or two people who are doing what you want to be doing in terms of writing, marketing, or publishing. Learn everything you can from them. In this day and age, a writer has to be an entrepreneur. My mother, the author of 18 books on women in Texas history once told me, "Don't quit your day job."

"But Mom," I protested, "I don't have a day job."

"Then get one," she said. And so I did. I work part-time at UT Austin in the Astronomy Department and this gives me amazing benefits. But my mornings are my own to write. 

Find out when your best writing time is, then guard it fiercely. And write during your best writing times. During the rest of your day (or night), do laundry, take walks, grocery shop. Don't try and write during the times that aren't your best, you'll write dreck and come away frustrated. Above all, have fun.

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Brian Feinblum’s views, opinions, and ideas expressed in this blog are his alone and not that of his employer, the nation’s largest book promoter. You can follow him on Twitter @theprexpert and email him at He feels more important when discussed in the third-person. This blog is copyrighted material by BookMarketingBuzzBlog 2013 ©

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