Larry Smith is the founder and editor of SMITH Magazine, and its younger cousin, SMITH Teens. SMITH Magazine is best known for launching the Six-Word Memoir® project, which is a bestselling series of five books, two of which he self published with Blurb. Anticipating the microblogging explosion, Smith originally launched the Six-Word Memoir project in November 2006 in partnership with Twitter with a simple online challenge asking: “Can you tell your life story in six words?” We were thrilled to get the opportunity to interview Larry Smith about writing, creativity, and self publishing with Blurb.
1. Much of your publishing career – including several of your six-word books – has been in the traditional publishing realm. What drew you to self publishing and Blurb?
I’ve been lucky to have a lot of success in traditional publishing, but I always knew self publishing would work well as a way to extend and expand the Six-Word Memoir® series for certain kinds of books. SMITH Mag just self published “Oy! Only Six? Why Not More? — Six-Word Memoirs on Jewish Life” with Blurb, and it’s a great example of a case when the marketing and distribution of a book have very specific outlets and communities that interest me perhaps more than my traditional publisher. And why Blurb? For ease and, most importantly, the incredible quality. In six words: “Books look great, easy to create.”
2. What are your best tips for building community and doing marketing and PR for self-published books? Do you hire someone to do that for you or do you take a DIY approach? What have you found works best for getting PR for your books?
Press coverage is essential to reaching readers. With Blurb books I do my own PR, and each of the two recent Six-Word Memoir books has been publicized somewhat differently because they’re about very different topics (work life and Jewish life) and for very different audiences. A couple of things I always keep in mind, no matter what the topic is, include:
• Gear up for the long haul. Books today, whether published traditionally or self-published, don’t have single “release days” where you try to make a big splash and then the excitement either gets bigger and bigger or it just dies a quick death. I see the promotion of my books as a continual process, with obvious moments to seek attention (Labor Day, for the Work books; Passover for the Jewish one) and in between these moments I’m constantly sending books out to people, places, and organizations who I hope will tell their communities, spread the word, and buy books themselves.
• Engage both “little” and “big” media. By “little” media I mean blogs and newsletters and people with strong social media presences. I’d rather get a tumble or a tweet by someone with 1,000 followers with specific tastes and interests than someone who has 100,000 passive fans. Every topic – work, Jewish life, knitting, spider collecting, gadgets, you name it – has a never-ending group of people with a shared passion for the topic. It can take a while to find them and send them out personal notes, but it’s worth it.
In terms of “big” media, I’m lucky that the Six-Word Memoir brand is a strong one and all our books have a great track record, which helps a lot when trying to get the ear of big media spots like The New York Times and NPR. That said, the Times and the public radio crowd consist of audiences that are smart and literate and so, unsurprisingly, they are responsive to Six-Word Memoir books, so I focus on places like those rather than spread myself too thin.
• Have a Jewish mother. My own Jewish mother is not very tech-savvy, but I’m pretty sure she moves information around faster than the Internet itself. And it turns out we all have “Jewish mothers,” by which I mean we have networks – friends, family, peers, coworkers – that want to help us promote our ideas. But we must remember to aggressively give them the tools to do so. We’re often shy or aren’t sure how to do this, and we shouldn’t be. My mom doesn’t have a Facebook page but she has a pocketbook; in that pocketbook are postcards about my books that she hands them out to everyone. On the other hand, the community on SMITHmag.net, SMITHteens.com and our social media extensions are more tech-savvy, so I’ve created easily embeddable “six-word badges” and logos and other bells and whistles that they can post on their blogs, pages, sites, etc.
• Evangelize, don’t sell. People always say I’m a great publicist, something I’ve never aspired to be. But I never think of what I do as PR or marketing or even some version of sales, but rather as evangelizing for something I love. And the Six-Word Memoir project and all that its spawned – from classrooms to boardrooms and everything in between – are easy to love.
3. Did you design your books yourself or do you work with a graphic designer? Which Blurb tool did you use?
I work with a graphic designer who really knows the Six-Word and SMITH Magazine brand well. She designed in InDesign using specs and the free plug-in for InDesign from Blurb’s PDF to Book workflow.
4. What single thing is the best creative catalyst for you?
What catalyzes me, and I think most people, is passion. When I’m working on a project, I can’t wait to wake up in the morning, make coffee, and wait for the caffeine to kick in and the work to pour out. More specifically, even with something as simple as a single Six-Word Memoir, people really recognize when someone is writing from a place of passion, truth, and heart. When my son was born, I started writing Six-Worders about the experience of being a dad (“Was a pinky; now a pacifier;” “Parenting: Idiot. Expert. Idiot. Expert.;” “All they want is your time”) and never before have I received so many comments from the SMITH community. They could feel my passion for this new experience.
5. What was the “aha” moment when you knew you had something with the six-word idea and turned it into a book?
I originally launched the Six-Word Memoir project in November 2006 as a one-month challenge with a newish company called … Twitter. The contest began right before Thanksgiving and all the submissions went straight to my inbox, not publicly shared on SMITH as they are now. I remember telling my family about it and everyone at the table, from six years old to 80, totally got it and started swapping Six-Word Memoirs; sixes were flying across the table. When I checked my inbox that Friday I had 2,000 messages waiting for me. That combination of events told me we were onto something big. More than five years, seven books, a board game, and half a million Six-Word Memoirs on SMITHmag.net and SMITHTeens.com later, the concept just gets bigger and more interesting in ways I could never have imagined.
6. What websites and blogs do you turn to for inspiration?
• Noah Scalin’s Skulladay.com, which is exactly as it sounds, one skull creation each day.
• Recordsetter.com, which is the Wikipedia of Guinness World Records.
• This one is a bit self-referential, but what the teens do at SMITHteens.com every day is mindblowing, amazing, and inspires me each and every day. Some of the SMITHteeners (as they call themselves) have done 10,000+ Six-Word Memoirs, treating the form as a diary that’s updated throughout the day. The teens are deep and funny and make me so enthusiastic about the future of creativity and personal expression.