I sat down with bestselling author, Charlotte Laws, to discuss her award-winning memoir, Undercover Debutante, which comes out in August 2019, and to ask her about the writing process and book promotion. Laws has authored a number of books as well as articles in the Washington Post, L.A. Times, Newsweek, and Salon. She starred on the NBC show The Filter, currently works as a political pundit on BBC TV, and is known around the world as “the Erin Brockovich of revenge porn” for helping the FBI put a notorious hacker in jail.
Hello, Dr. Laws. Thanks for joining me today. I know a lot of this is in your memoir, but how did you get into writing? Did your interest begin in childhood, and if so, did your parents foster your talent?
I toyed with writing as a preteen and teenager, but it was nothing serious—mostly just embarrassing love poems that I gave to a cute boy in my class. He probably thought I was crazy, but thankfully he escorted me to the prom and some debutante parties. I was raised in Atlanta by adoptive parents, but the experience did not foster much of anything except a desire to escape. My adoptive mom committed suicide, my adoptive brother was killed in a car accident, and my adoptive father was verbally abusive. In addition to the family tragedies, I felt like a black sheep in the community. I didn’t seem to have anything in common with the people of upper class Atlanta. I eventually left Georgia and tracked down my birth family. I learned that my natural father had authored books. He and I have much in common, and after meeting other birth relatives, I came to believe that nature is much stronger than nurture.
Really? That’s interesting. What other commonalities did you find?
Although my birth mom and I knew absolutely nothing about each other, we’d both ventured down the same religious path. We were raised Christian, then attended a Unitarian church for a while, and eventually converted to Reform Judaism. My natural grandmother and I enjoyed the same bizarre hobby: buying brand new department store dresses and decorating them with sequins and beads. We also had the exact same furniture, including a rare carved desk that I have never seen elsewhere. Other similarities are mentioned in my new book.
Let’s get back to writing and book promotion. What advice do you have for wannabe authors?
I find that it takes stamina and passion to write a book. It takes persistence, innovation, insider knowledge, and a sprinkle of fairy dust to turn it into a bestseller. I believe that everyone has at least one book-length story to tell, and anyone can be a talented writer. Sometimes it takes practice. A writing instructor once told me that after you’ve written 100,000 words you become a good writer. I think that is right.
First, you need to figure out when you are most productive. I have a surge of energy early in the day, so I tend to work on my books and articles at that time, usually from about 5 a.m. until 2 p.m.
You also need to establish a process. I begin each new project with research. I might conduct interviews, travel to particular locations, read relevant articles and books. It can take me months, or even a year to complete the research phase. By the way, I also do this for fiction and creative nonfiction projects. My next book is set in seventeenth century Holland. I have purchased dozens of resource books about the time period, the language, the customs, and even biographies about relevant historical figures. Before I put pen to paper—or more accurately fingertips to keyboard—I will pour over these books and make detailed notes as well as a rudimentary outline.
Do you have suggestions on getting a publisher and promoting a book?
The process can be a full-time job. Completing a book is phase one. Phase two is finding a publisher, and phase three is promoting the heck out of the book. With my first manuscript, I crashed publishing houses in New York in search of a publisher. I remember chatting up a Simon & Schuster employee in the lobby of his building, having lunch with this fellow, and convincing him to introduce me to a big-shot editor. I was able to pitch my book.
Crashing also helped me with promotion. I was able to land TV interviews. For example, I once crashed a major studio and made my way to the executive offices for the show, A.M. Los Angeles. I talked a producer into letting me be a guest on the program. I was introduced as “the woman who crashed the studio.” I appeared on the show twice.
Easy for you, (laughter) as you are listed as one of 15 most notorious party crashers in the world.
True, but anyone can do it. In 1988, I wrote a book about how to crash celebrity events… or really how to crash anything. Crashing is a strategy that can help you get to the right people. One time, I sneaked into a political fundraiser to hand a movie treatment (which was based on my book) to actor Matt Damon. He asked his agent to meet with me. Last year, I crashed the Golden Globes for only one purpose: to hand my book to Oprah Winfrey. She has a popular book club.
Oprah? You’re kidding? Tell me about this.
Oprah’s website states that advance review copies from authors and publishers are not accepted. In fact, it says that all books they receive are tossed in the trash. I knew I needed to hand it to Oprah in person, but how? She was slotted to attend the Golden Globes, so I decided that I would gatecrash. Although I’d sneaked into quite a few award shows in the past, this one turned out to be amazingly difficult. There was a tremendous amount of security, and the streets were partitioned off around the Beverly Hilton hotel, where the event was being held. I ended up trudging through a construction site behind the hotel in my high heels and evening gown. It was hilarious stepping over mounds of dry mud and weaving around tractors. When I got to a back door of the Beverly Hilton, I told a guard that I had already been inside the award show, but had left to get coffee at Starbucks. For some reason, he bought this ridiculous story. Then I had to finagle past another three guards in order to finally get into the event. It was not easy! I eventually ended up sitting at a table with Christopher Plummer, Ridley Scott, and Natalie Portman. Oprah was at the next table. During a commercial break, I was able to strike up a conversation with Oprah and hand her a copy of my book. I have no clue whether she read it or will read it, or whether it will make it into her book club, but at least I did everything I could.
That is hilarious. You say that it takes innovation, persistence, insider knowledge, and a sprinkle of fairy dust to turn a book into a bestseller. What do you mean by this?
The persistence part is obvious. You must keep plunging forward even if you get 1000 nos for every yes. Innovation is simply thinking outside of the box. It means doing something unusual like party crashing.
By “insider knowledge,” I mean that it helps to learn everything you can about the book industry by talking to authors, agents, publishers, book designers, and others… and by reading articles, books, and blogs on the subject. You can learn insider secrets. For example, it is smart to drum up pre-sales by doing press well before your book is released. Presales are important if you want your book to be a bestseller on day one. Why? I’ll illustrate with an example. If you get 5000 advance orders, these presales are tallied on the first day of the book’s release. In other words, it looks like, wow, this book sold 5000 copies in one day! This can catapult your book to number one on Amazon and get it onto various bestseller lists. Another tip that most authors don’t realize is that Amazon will allow you to list your book in a full ten categories, but they do not tell you this on their website. You have to wait until your book is on the market and phone them. Then they will add the categories. When you have insider knowledge, you will have an advantage over other authors who don’t know these tricks.
I talk about a “sprinkle of fairy dust” because luck unfortunately plays a part in success. There are as many as a million books published each year in the U.S., so it is not easy to get recognition for even the most amazing one. You need to persevere and not beat yourself over rejection. The greatest authors have all been rejected at some point. They succeed only because they do not give up. Notice how we have circled back to step one, persistence?
Yes (laughter). Lastly, I want to ask you about book title? If an author has the ability to choose the title or offer input to a publisher, what do you suggest she do from a marketing standpoint?
Obviously, you want to pick a title that will make readers pick up the book, but few authors realize that the title should also be unique. Do a Google search in advance and check out the competition. Try not to select a title or phrase that is plastered all over the Internet. When a potential buyer looks for your book, you want her to find it.
Thank you for your time and this valuable advice, Dr. Laws, and good luck with your new book.