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Real Talk Publishing: Rachel Fershleiser

Real Talk Publishing: The People Behind the Books

Real Talk Publishing: Rachel Fershleiser

A lot of you are probably familiar with Tumblr --- that social media website where you can engage in your favorite fandoms, share images, stories, memes and quotes and connect with people from across the globe.

One of the cool things about Tumblr is that it has a HUGE book presence, including authors, readers, publishers, bookstores and everything in between. You can connect in Tumblr’s book club, share photos of your favorite-book-inspired manicure or participate in genuine discussions with authors about your favorite (or least favorite) character.

And even cooler still, it’s someone’s JOB to make sure that all of this “book content” runs smoothly. We talked to that person --- officially called the Head of Publisher Outreach --- for our latest Real Talk Publishing interview, and we couldn’t be more excited to share this super modern, ever-changing and fun part of the business.

Read below to get all of Rachel Fershleiser’s insights on “the bookternet,” learn what it’s like to work at a startup, discover some of Tumblr’s newest book-themed initiatives and hear why this is the best time to work in the book world --- and be sure to check out the second part of the interview on Wednesday, May 20th!


Teenreads: Quick --- describe your job on the most basic level.

Rachel Fershleiser: I’m the Head of Publisher Outreach. Basically I work on our outreach team and specialize in publishers, authors, booksellers, libraries and nonprofits --- kind of everything in the reading and writing ecosystem.

TRC: OK, and now time for specifics --- how do you spend your time?

RF: It’s a mix of different things.  There are usually some big initiatives, like the Reblog Book Club and the Great Tumblr Book Search.

But a big part of my job is to know what’s going on in the publishing industry and what’s going on in the Tumblr community so I can draw those connections. So, I keep a lot of tabs open all the time --- I’m basically always in email, Gchat, Tumblr, books.tumblr and Twitter. And, I get a lot of newsletters.

I also spend a lot of time out of the office; I’ll sit in a conference room at Random House and show publicists and marketing people how to use Tumblr to find the right audience for a certain book. I’ll speak at a conference to help authors figure out how to use the web to reach their readers. I’ll help agents find new clients from Tumblr.  Just today, I had lunch with an agent to see which of her authors would benefit from being more involved in the online community.

No matter what I do, it’s really about making those connections.

TRC: How did you get your job at Tumblr?

RF: Mark Coatney started the Newsweek Tumblr, which was one of the first news organizations to have one. Tumblr brought him over to help other news organizations start Tumblrs, and now we have outlets like theNew York Times, NPR, The New Yorker and The Atlantic.

I had been at Housing Works, and we were the first bookstore on Tumblr. We used it to reach a bookish audience and to connect with the people who came to our store and believed in our mission, and it was hugely successful for us. This gave me a bit of a reputation for being able to help old-school things work well on the web and on Tumblr, particularly, so Mark hired me. He wanted me to do what he had done but with books and publishers --- he wanted me to help more literary organizations do well on Tumblr.

TRC: What is it like working in a startup environment? What are some of the positives and negatives?

RF: Certainly things change a lot. I’ve been here for about three years, and when I started it was about 50 people. Now it’s 300, and since we’re part of Yahoo, it’s technically thousands. I’ve also had many different bosses. 

In terms of positives and negatives, I think they are basically the same thing. I have a lot of freedom --- I’m the only person who knows the book world, so I set the priorities and I do what I think is important. I chase things that I’m excited about, and if I’m not excited about something, it doesn’t really happen. For a self-starting kind of person who already has relationships [with other people in the industry], I think that’s wonderful.

The flip side is the same thing. When I’m like, “Oh my God, Cheryl Strayed joined Tumblr!”, nobody knows who that is. There are people here who read books, but not a lot of people who are as book-focused as I am. I can’t go to someone and say, “What do you think about this particular partnership-relationship?”

The community of people who are serious about books and love internet culture is still pretty small, and those are my mentors --- I Gchat cross-company a lot, with people like Maris Kreizman, who works with publishers at Kickstarter, and Amanda Bullock, who ran events at Housing Works after I left. So, it’s fine because I ask them for advice all the time, but within Tumblr I work very independently.

TRC: Can you tell me more about the work culture at Tumblr? How does it compare to publishing?

RF: Publishing is mostly women and tech is mostly men, and, in particular, a lot of very young engineers. And so, the office culture can be a lot of drinking and beer pong. There are a lot more women now than when I started, though, and many more on my floor (which also has the editorial, community and marketing departments).

If you look at Tumblr as a whole, it’s about all these separate passions and fandoms, and that’s reflected in the employees, too --- you’ve got the film people, the music people, the fashion people, the book people, the art people and also the science people and biology people. There’s someone who has a personal project where they take close-up photos of insects. Someone here used to build atomic clocks. There are all kinds of interesting, passionate people --- we just have lots of different interests.

If you look at Tumblr as a whole, it’s about all these separate passions and fandoms, and that’s reflected in the employees, too --- you’ve got the film people, the music people, the fashion people...there’s someone who has a personal project where they take close-up photos of insects. Someone here used to build atomic clocks. 

 So it’s really great, but I think it would have been hard if it’s the first place I ever worked because I’m not engineering focused, I don’t like beer --- I go to readings and book launch parties every night! Sometimes people from Tumblr come with me, but sometimes they’ll go to a Fashion Week party and I’m like, “Have fun! Bye!”

TRC: Do you work with other people at Tumblr? Who, and how often?

RF: Yes. Sometimes I’ll work with the music outreach person and the fashion outreach person when we’re figuring out programs to help the creative communities on Tumblr do cool things. I also always make sure that the content team knows when something cool is happening in the writing community so it can go in newsletters and on Radar [“a small promoted post space shown on the dashboard of every user.”] When we launch a new book club book, I work with the communications team to make sure they can communicate it to the press. At one point, I was working with the film team because Veronica Roth, the author of the Divergent series, was writing something on Tumblr --- one of her films was coming out. That’s mostly coming from the film side, but she’s been on Tumblr forever and I know the book community, so I helped out.

However, I don’t work with people at Tumblr as much as I work with people in the book industry. People use Tumblr in a lot of different ways, but the promise of it for this particular area is how writers can reach readers and how readers can talk to writers. So, I probably work the most with people whose job it is to make sure that readers and writers connect, whether that’s booksellers or writers or book publishers.

TRC: And how do you make these connections --- are they reaching out to you, or vice versa?

RF: Part of the reason I was hired was because I have these connections already --- I’ve been working in the book industry in some way for 13 years. But in terms of new connections, it’s some of both. People in publishing will send me books when they come out if they think I’ll be into them, or send an email that says something like, “Hey, what else can we do on Tumblr for STATION ELEVEN? I know you really liked that book! Do you have ideas for us?” Or sometimes I’ll reach out and say, “Hey, it would be really cool if Pottermore were on Tumblr, we have a huge Harry Potter fandom.” So it can go both ways.

TRC: You said that you work with nonprofits as well. Are those literary nonprofits, or are they also nonprofits from different realms?

RF: Kind of both. I worked at Housing Works Bookstore before this, which is a books job, but it’s part of an AIDS charity, and so I have some experience on more activist-y word-spreading. It’s not that different, really --- you’re trying to find the people who will be passionate about what you’re doing. I work with all kinds of nonprofits, but there’s another woman who does causes and politics, so usually we’ll divide it. So, if it’s a global hunger NGO, she’ll probably work with them, and if it’s The Poetry Foundation, I’ll work with them. But I also work with theaters and museums…I’m basically just here to be a resource to make sure that amazing organizations are using our tools as well as they can.

TRC: Do you see a difference in the way that people are using Tumblr when working with adult books versus young adult books?

RF: Some. The imaginary think-piece that I always want to write but never have is “What Adult Publishing Needs to Learn from Teen Publishing.” It’s definitely true that for the most part, young adult publishers are ahead of the game in terms of not just social media, but also fan engagement. They embrace fan fiction, fan culture and fan art, as well as being in a two-way conversation with the readers.

The imaginary think-piece that I always want to write but never have is “What Adult Publishing Needs to Learn from Teen Publishing.”...the move toward embracing literature in a fun, creative, multi-media way is for everyone.

But increasingly, adult publishers are doing it too, which is important because I don’t think there’s really such a dividing line between who’s reading adult and who’s reading YA. A lot of us are reading both --- certainly librarians and book bloggers are --- and I think that the culture crosses over. For example, when we read the adult bookCALIFORNIA [by Edan Lepucki], the Tumblr book club readers posted fan art, fan needlecraft, fan cake baking and fan nail art. I thinkthe move toward embracing literature in a fun, creative, multi-media way is for everyone.

TRC: As you mentioned, you have a ton of experience in the book world --- you worked as a publicist and at Housing Works, among other jobs. How have your past positions helped you in your current position?

RF: My job is to work with every different part of the book world and writing world. And I’ve been on the publisher side, I’ve been on the bookstore side and I’ve been a New York Times bestselling author for SIX-WORD MEMOIRS. I’ve been an event planner. I’ve been at a non-profit. So, I think I know what everyone I meet with needs from us, and that’s really important.

I think that a lot of people who are trying to sell a tech platform can be very tech minded, and you can’t really go in somewhere saying “You should use our platform --- here’s how I use it.” It has to be “What is this platform going to do for your goals?” And if you’re a publisher, if you’re an author, if you’re a museum, your goals can be really different.

So, usually the first thing I say to people I’m meeting with is, “What are you hoping to achieve?” It could be book sales, but it could also be awareness. Nonprofits might want donations, literary magazines might want submissions or subscriptions. People might want to find new authors to publish, or to be part of the daily conversation or to push traffic to a website --- it could be all kinds of things!

So, even though I’m very pro-digital and pro-web culture, I think it really helps that I come at it from a publishing point of view. I understand what they’re trying to achieve, and don’t think that they’re stupid dinosaurs who need to get with the program.I’m like a translator --- I speak both languages.

I can genuinely say, “This is not scary, this is not hard, this is not something totally different that you have to do. This is just another way of talking about books. This is real people, having real conversations about reading, about writing, about food, about creativity. That’s all it is.”

I’ve talked to so many authors who are afraid of it, and once I can get them to realize that they’re just being offered another way to talk about books with people who love books and who buy books, it’s not some scary tech goal anymore. It’s just part of the writing world.

TRC: You mentioned SIX-WORD MEMOIRS. Can you tell us a bit more about it and how that’s helped you work with authors?

RF: About 10 years ago, I had quit publishing and became the books editor of a website called Smith Magazine, where I was coming up with lots of different ideas for blog posts and prompts. For one blog post, I asked for writers something like, “You may have heard about the six-word Hemingway story, but now that we’re talking about memoirs and personal stories, what’s your six-word memoir?”

It got big very, very quickly and got a book deal. Larry Smith, who owned the site, worked with celebrities and tech connections, and I was basically the community manager/editor/shrink. The most amazing part was getting to send a copy to every single person who had six words in it (800, all together) and saying, “You’re a published author. Here it is, boom!”

And working with all those people basically gave us a national street team. They were all genuinely excited, and that went a long way towards making us a bestseller.

Even though the books I work with now might not have 800 contributors, pretty much every one has a coalition of people who are innately excited about it. Figuring out ways to empower those people and help that book make a splash is really, really fun.

Part of what was so fun about SIX-WORD MEMOIRS was the fact that it was an infinitely memeable concept. People did it with kindergarteners, with grad schools, in hospitals, at AA groups, in shelters, in baking classes. So I love to think about that with all books. Even if it’s about a dysfunctional family, you can say, “Let’s see pictures of your sisters. Let’s see artifacts from your childhood bedroom.” SIX-WORD MEMOIRS taught me to think about the threads you can pull out of books that would be fun for people to participate in.

I also understand that books are authors’ “babies”; they’re not “products” in the same way that other things are “products.” It’s never about “moving units”; it’s about finding people who are going to be as excited about your project as you are, who will feel invested in it and want to use it in different ways.