Monday, March 31, 2008

How Elizabeth Gilbert Sold One Million Copies of Her Book

I had the great O-MI-GOD kind of privilege yesterday to hear the New York Times Best Selling author, Elizabeth Gilbert speak at UCSB as part of their phenomenal Arts & Lectures series.

In case you were recently hijacked and forced to live in absolute seclusion for the last year (not like that's a bad thing), you might have missed hearing about the incredible success of Liz Gilbert's memoir entitled Eat, Pray, Love that has been on the Bestseller List for 60 weeks. Wow. Yeah, that's what I think, too.

She lectured for about a half an hour about writing process, which I loved, and then turned it over to the audience for questions. This always makes me a little anxious because people can ask the corniest, most embarrassing things. And for some reason, I feel completely responsible for every inane thing that might come out of a fellow audience member's mouth. Like I'm the room monitor and Liz might hold it against me if someone says something truly stupid.

But the audience behaved itself quite nicely-- save for the guy that asked for her phone number. My favorite question to her was about intention vs. impact. A man asked her what the "size" of her intention was when she started her book. Did it match the impact? I knew that she had sold the book proposal for her memoir before she made the trip to the "I" countries-- Italy, India, Indonesia. She'd spent her advance money traveling and supporting herself for the year.

Her answer surprised a lot of us. She said she wrote that book for one reader-- her friend, Darcy, who was going through a hard time. Liz thought Darcy would benefit from hearing what she had learned about living. She said, the book could actually start out "Dear Darcy" and end "Love, Liz". She credited her younger sister, Catherine Murdock Gilbert, a young adult author, who had given her this sage writing advice. Write to one reader.

Know exactly who you are writing to, and stay with them. If you are focused on just one person, it will help you to know what to leave in and what to keep out. For example, Liz started to ask herself at some point in the book if she needed to explain yoga, then remembered that Darcy wouldn't need that. She moved right on.

In addition to "one reader" being strong writing guidance, it is powerful marketing advice as well. Liz Gilbert could have put the intention and pressure on herself to write a bestseller. But, she didn't. She wrote the best book she could to help a friend, and in doing so, wrote from an authentic place inside of herself. That naked, honest voice attracted ONE MILLION readers.

I was inspired by Robin's post last week about the Butterfly Effect and I think this dovetails with that. Yes, for god's sake, we all want to be phenomenally successful, great writers and strong promoters of our work. But there is enormous power in doing one thing-- one butterfly flapping their wing. One author speaking to one reader.

I also loved that in the middle of her lecture, Liz Gilbert took a moment to promote her sister's work. There will probably be a significant spike in the sales of Dairy Queen while she is on tour.
But her celebrity aside, that was one writer talking up one book. That's how it gets done.

The power on ONE. Take heart, friends--

Mary Hershey


Terry P. said...

Oooo, I LOVE this advice, Mary! Write to one reader. So simple. So do-able. Thanks so much for sharing.

R.L. LaFevers said...

Oh Mary, how envious am I that you got to hear Liz Gilbert!!

And I love, love, love her message: write to one reader. So simple and yet so powerful. She is a terrific example to us all! Thanks for reporting back to us!

Devin said...

I just wonder what would happen if everyone simply communicated to just one person instead of trying to be all things to all people.

Liz Gilbert, funny, but with a simple and powerful message.

I can see it, Mary and Robin on the stage at UCSB's Campbell Hall.

tanita✿davis said...

Thanks. This is worth hearing and worth sharing.

Mary Hershey said...

Tad, welcome to SVP! Glad to have you come by.

Devin, thanks for your vision... yeah, me and Robin and Campbell Hall. I'm loving that!

Hi, Terry! Looking forward to reading your April Fool's jokes over at Tina's.

Have a marvelous day, friends--

Anonymous said...

I adored DAIRY QUEEN and its sequel, THE OFF SEASON.

And I've given EAT, PRAY, LOVE to several Darcys of my own acquaintance.

Thanks for sharing your experience, Mary.

Anonymous said...

One reader. My brain starts whirling. Who? Which one? What are they like? Is it me? Or someone I know? Or someone theoretical?

Yes, I could go nuts with this, but I'm going to try to slow down the mind cycles and really think about this for my WIP. I do so want my MC to have a strong I'm-talking-to you-voice, and I think the reader out there is a big component of it.

I had NO idea that Elizabeth Gilbert and Catherine Murdoch Gilbert were sisters, and I've read all their books. I don't think I would have ever made the connection, even though they're both brilliant.I think its the image of D.J. Schwenk going along with Elizabeth in Italy and Bali. Okay, scrubbing the yoga center floors, maybe...

Barbara Shoup said...

I love this advice--especially how writing for one person (as a gift to that person) can keep you focused and help clarify what needs to be in the book and what can be left out.

Shari Green said...

Thanks for this!

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