Norine Dworkin-McDaniel and Jessica Ziegler are the creators of Science of Parenthood, the illustrated parenting humor site that many of us know and love. Norine and Jessica were kind enough to share some of the benefits they have enjoyed from having their work featured on other websites, as well as tips for other bloggers submitting writing. They also tell us about their new book and provide some amazing tips for those of you dipping your toes in the waters of publishing vs. self publishing.
Beyond Your Blog: Can you give us the Science of Parenthood elevator pitch for those readers who are just now clicking and checking out your hilarious blog for the first time?
Science of Parenthood: Science of Parenthood is an illustrated humor blog that uses faux math and snarky science to “explain” baffling parenting situations. We’re like “The Big Bang Theory” of parenting blogs. Jessica and I created Science of Parenthood in January 2013. We’re hoping the Nobel committee will eventually recognize our efforts.
BYB: Tell us about your experience appearing on other sites. What are some of your favorite places to have your writing featured and why?
SoP: We have appeared on most of the sites you’d expect to find parenting bloggers, including Scary Mommy, Bonbon Break and In The Powder Room. We’ve had several posts on Huffington Post Parents and we’ve been featured on BlogHer. A few months ago, BlogHer and Mumsnet in Great Britain had the same post on their home pages on the same day. That was pretty exciting. I (Norine) was also the Lifescript ParentTalk blogger for a few years, and now I do a monthly column on Parenting.com.
We tend to guest post when we have something that needs a larger or a different audience than what we have on Science of Parenthood. We’re fortunate that we’ve been able to guest post just about everywhere we’ve wanted to. And I believe that’s largely because we both have long careers in publishing, (Norine on the print side and Jessica on digital), so we have a long history of creating high-quality content.
BYB: What are the qualities you look for in a site when reaching out to submit your work?
SoP: We want to make sure that it makes sense for us to be there, that our content is a good fit for the website or blog we’re approaching, and that that site’s readers will be entertained by our content. It’s also a big plus if we can also reach new readers as a result. That’s one of the main reasons, I’ve guest posted on Scary Mommy and why we contribute content to HuffPo Parents. Forty-three thousand people saw “What To Say When Your Child Blathers On About Minecraft” when Jessica posted it there. HuffPo Parents brought Science of Parenthood exponentially more exposure than we can get at the moment just by posting on our own blog.
That said, sometimes we will submit to other sites because we’ve written something that’s, in Jessica’s words, “aggressively off-brand” — a piece of writing that doesn’t fit on our site but would be great on another. One of my all-time favorites is Jessica’s “The Giant Naked Man In My Mom’s Basement.” That’s a hilariously funny essay about a nude painting she stored at her mom’s house for 15 years. When she read it at the BlogU conference last June, the room was rolling with her. But it’s not our niche at all. So she submitted it to Leslie Marinelli at In The Powder Room, which not only snapped up the essay immediately, they created a whole “Peen Week” of like-themed posts around it. Earlier this year, I wanted to write about my reaction to Phillip Seymour Hoffman’s death. That’s a very personal, edgy essay, and it didn’t belong on Science of Parenthood, so I reached out to Jill Smokler at Scary Mommy to ask if she’d post it, and she very generously did.
BYB: Tell us about some of the sites that you contribute to regularly.
SoP: Val Curtis, the editor in chief of Bonbon Break, sought us out to interview us for her Bloggers In Focus feature. Val loves math and science — she used to be a math/science teacher — and she liked our illustrations, and she wanted to help us reach a larger audience. She’s been incredibly generous. We started out contributing illustrations once a week. Then that grew to Jessica’s writing short, funny posts to go with the illustrations. She has a lot of fun with that.
Meanwhile, I handle our monthly column for Parenting.com called “The Truth About Parenting.” That came about when a good friend of ours, the Chicago freelance writer Kate Silver, wrote a story about Science of Parenthood and the bloggers we follow for Parenting.com. Kate’s editor there liked the story so much, she decided to turn it into a monthly column, and now I’m the one interviewing other bloggers and turning the spotlight on the bloggers they read.
BYB: Any good rejection stories you can share to make the rest of us feel better about ourselves?
SoP (Norine): Oh my goodness! When I was just starting out as a freelance magazine writer — back in the days before blogs — I got rejected all the time. My undergraduate and graduate degrees are in theatre, and back in the early ‘90s, all I wanted to do was write about theatre for The Village Voice. Every week, I pitched 10 or so stories to the arts editor, and every week he’d turn me down. Then one week, something stuck, and I got an assignment to write a small review of a one-woman show waaaaay-the-eff-off-Broadway in the East Village. When it came out in the paper, I was doing the happy dance. After that, I began writing fairly regularly for The Voice and other arts publications in New York. Then I branched out into writing about other things: health, parenting, nutrition, relationships. The trick is to keep pitching the editors at the sites or publications you want to write for … and to keep making contacts and networking with other writers, bloggers and editors. You never know who will be able to open a door for you. Case in point, I had a go-getter intern when I was a staff editor at Vegetarian Times. After working with me, she got a job at Good Housekeeping as an editorial assistant. A story assignment came up that she thought I’d be good for, and she got it assigned to me. From that point on, I freelanced steadily for the top women’s magazines, until last year, when I began scaling back to focus on Science of Parenthood. The key lessons I learned: Be nice to EVERYONE. And be tenacious. In blogging, publishing, No doesn’t mean Never. It means Not now. Not this idea. Not this story. But keep trying.
BYB: Are there any specific sites you still aspire to be published on?
SoP: The New York Times Motherlode blog is a bucket list item. That, and the Modern Love column in the Times’ Sunday Styles section.
BYB: What about advice for new humor bloggers as far as submitting work?
SoP: I really can’t emphasize enough how important it is to work on the craft of writing and storytelling. The best humor writing sounds like someone’s telling a funny story off the top of their head. But so much time and effort goes into story structure and word choice and timing and rhythm. It’s a different skill set from what you need to be a successful blogger, which tends to be more focused on memes and jokes and what’s happening right now. They aren’t mutually exclusive, but it really is two different skill sets.
So for aspiring humor writers, I suggest reading good humor writing — both online and off. And read not just for the content but for structure, how the writer builds the story. I have files on my desk stuffed with essays torn from magazines that I keep as examples of good writing. I read through them whenever I feel stuck in my own writing. And because learning to write well is a bit like learning to swim — you really have to get in the water — I’d also suggest taking some writing classes to get some professional guidance. Mediabistro, for instance, offers terrific online “breaking into …” classes, taught by veteran writers and editors, that are very helpful for learning basics and making contacts. When you write well, your writing will be welcome almost anywhere.
BYB: You’re in the process of putting together your first Science of Parenthood book. Congrats! A lot of bloggers who read Beyond Your Blog have book publishing goals. Can you give any tips for how to get started if you are just in the ‘I think I want to write a book’ stage?
SoP: Thanks so much. We are really excited about our first book.
To answer your question, the first question writers should ask themselves is Do I have a book? Some stories, good stories, are best told in a magazine article or series of blog posts. Sweet spots for books are 50,000 to 125,000 words. If you’re stretching to fill that, the story might be better served on your blog, or perhaps as a Kindle Single (5,000 to 30,000 words).
Next, go to a bookstore and browse the shelves or scroll through Amazon. Think about where the book you want to write would fit. That’s really key. A friend of ours, a really beautiful writer, has a memoir that she’s shopping around, and unfortunately she’s getting turned down by agents who’ve told her on the one hand that she’s written a beautiful story, but they’re going to pass because they know publishers won’t know what to do with it, how to market it. Publishers really want to know what niche your book would fit in, what shelf will it go on. And as the author, you really need to spell it out for them.
Next, analyze that shelf — how crowded is it? It’s a good idea to find some books in your niche — that proves there’s a market for the topic. But if it’s too crowded a market, the book will be a tougher sell to publishers. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t give it a go, but then you really need to think about how to position your book within the niche — what makes it different from the rest of the books out there? It’s a balancing act to be sure. The book needs to be similar enough to other books in the niche so publishers know where it fits on the shelf … and then unique enough to stand out from the pack.
Finally, consider your audience and how you plan to get the book in front of those people so they can buy it. These days traditional publishers want to see that authors come with a strong platform for selling books. That doesn’t necessarily mean a huge social media following, although an online following is certainly part of it. “Platform” is the sum total of what you bring to the table that makes people want to read you. Brooke Warner, publisher of She Writes Press, did an excellent post that explains what, beyond a strong social media following, goes into your platform: your contacts, your TV/radio experience, previous writing experience, your personality and, of course, your ability to write a stellar book. You can read more about platform building in Michael Hyatt’s Platform: Get Noticed In A Noisy World.
Of course, a key plank in a platform is your blog. One of my favorite new authors, Jerry Mahoney is a great example of using a blog to build audience for his hilarious memoir, Mommy Man. His blog, also called Mommy Man, is all about his life now as a gay parent to two children conceived through egg donation and surrogacy. And once you’re drawn into the hilarity of his blog, how can you not want to know how it all began? Voila! His book tells the backstory of how he and his husband, Drew, set about to become parents. The two dovetail brilliantly.
BYB: Can you talk a bit about your book and how you are going about getting it published?
SoP: Publishing is a bit like steeplechase — a long series of hurdles you have to clear before you cross the finish with a published book … and you can get a little banged up and bruised in the process. For us, we’ve got a classic story of how you can get an agent (one hurdle down!) and still not end up with a sale. We’d been publishing Science of Parenthood for about two months when an agent approached us. And, of course, we were over the moon excited and figured we must really be on to something because Look! An agent wanted to sell a book based on our blog! Yippee!
Our agent peddled our book proposal all over New York. But while we got some very nice compliments from editors, not one offer came. In hindsight, we really cart-before-the-horse’d it. We’d just started, so we had no track record. Our online audience was very small and despite the fact that our backgrounds were magazine writing (Norine) and graphics/web design (Jessica), no one was willing to take a chance. By the time we realized this, every editor had passed and we weren’t going to be able to send our book proposal around again. But as it turns out, NOT getting a deal with one of the Big 5 publishing houses is probably going to be the best thing that happened to Science of Parenthood.
We still believed we had a good book idea. And initially we thought about doing it all ourselves through Amazon’s CreateSpace platform. But there’s a lot we don’t know about book publishing, and the learning curve is steep. So over the summer we signed with She Writes Press, which is at the forefront of a new publishing model called hybrid publishing.
With hybrid publishing, rather than getting an advance from the publisher, the author pays to produce and print the book. That’s the self-publishing part. But for that fee, the author gets a team of publishing professionals who edit and design the interior of the book and the cover so that it looks like it was traditionally published. Then because of She Writes Press’s unique distribution partnership with Ingram, the book also gets sold into bookstores, big box stores and airport newsstands — outlets that are usually closed to self-published books. Perhaps the biggest plus of all is that Jessica and I will retain our copyright. Traditional publishers buy the copyright to the book along with e-book and merchandising rights. By going with She Writes Press, we retain all of those, which is important because we already have merchandise that we sell in our online store — fridge magnets, notecards, posters, mugs — and we’re not interested in giving up that revenue. It really is the best of both worlds — we get a professional team to shepherd our book through the process so that we don’t have to reinvent the wheel … or make critical mistakes simply because we didn’t know something — AND we get to hold onto our copyright and keep a bigger cut of profits too. It really is win-win.
BYB: When and where can we get it/how can we stay updated about your book?
SoP: Our book, Science of Parenthood, is due out November 2015, and it will be available wherever books are sold. In the meantime, we’ll post updates on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to keep readers informed about how and what we’re doing. You can also follow Science of Parenthood on Pinterest.