Rachel Fershleiser is the young book professional every young book professional dreams to be. Ten years into the publishing industry, Rachel has toiled for two of the big six, worked in the fabled land of bookstores, landed on the Times bestseller list, and (for now) settled into the ever-growing, ever-changing world of literary social media. Responsible for literary and non-profit outreach at Tumblr, Rachel chatted about how the advent of social media is affecting the world of literature.
PT: What was your first job in the book business and what were the most important things you gained from it?
My first job in books was as an assistant publicist at William Morrow, which is part of HarperCollins. I think the most important thing I learned was just how to have a Real Job. I think a lot of kids come out of fancy colleges and don’t realize they’re going to be sitting in cubicles, making conversation at water coolers, sending faxes, buying coffee–and keeping their mouths shut even when they think their idea is better (I was not very good at that last part.) Ultimately big corporate publishing wasn’t for me, but it was valuable experience. Publicity departments teach you how things really work — who you call when you want to reach someone important, how stories actually end up in the news, how to get people talking about the good stuff and not noticing the bad.
PT: How do you explain your current job?
I’m on the strategic outreach team at Tumblr. Basically that means that we recognize that Tumblr’s 83 million blogs are not really one community, but many. So someone specializes in music, and someone in politics, gaming, art, food, news, etc. We all come from our respective fields and understand the needs of the various players. So I work with authors, publishers, bookstores, libraries, literary nonprofits, etc., to help them use Tumblr in the most effective ways. Sometimes I help writers get book deals, or throw parties or readings to celebrate the amazing voices we have. I want to create opportunities for talented people, and help people who have those opportunities (agents, editors, grant-givers, etc) find the greatest people to fill them. My vision is basically that Tumblr is your dream publishing party, but you’re invited no matter who you are or where you live. You just come on in, and there’s The New Yorker, and there’s Knopf, and there’s Neil Gaiman, and there’s your favorite lit mag and your favorite bookstore, and you can discover them, and they can discover you.
PT: How did you previous jobs or internships prepare you for what you do at Tumblr?
My career’s been pretty non-linear, but I’ve definitely picked up perspectives from a lot of different pieces of the book world along the way. I’ve been at the publisher, been the author, the bookseller, the marketer, the event planner, etc, so that helps me look at our tools with all those varied goals in mind. Housing Works bookstore was the most direct connection. I was handling 200 events a year, from poetry readings to a Black Keys concert, and doing all the marketing, PR, and web stuff myself. I had no marketing budget, so I tried out every free tool I could find. That’s how I basically became a social media professional in the basement of a used bookstore. We were the first bookstore on Tumblr, and it was a huge, huge success for us. So I’m a total true believer in the stuff I’m teaching to other organizations.
PT: What is the biggest challenge you face in your current job?
The biggest challenge is probably just being “the book girl” at a tech start up. In publishing, I was usually the most web-savvy person around. Here I’m the least. I’m always trying to catch up and learn the lingo. Sometimes I miss bookselling, or just being around more people who understand my nerdy obsessions. But I have amazing opportunities here to help writers and publishers reach a huge, engaged audience and to learn skills I’m probably going to need more and more in the next 30 years, so it’s totally worth it. And there’s a growing group of us who are passionate about literature and web culture. I call that The Bookternet, and they’re my favorite people.
PT: What similarities do you draw between new authors and non-profit organizations?
I think whether you’re a writer, a nonprofit, a store, a band, or a presidential candidate, your goals online are the same. You want to give a voice to the stuff about you that other people will find interesting too. Sometimes that’s your books, and sometimes it’s your favorite pie recipe or your new shoes. You can weave together the little things that make you who you are, as an author or as a charitable organization, and the more people feel like they know you, the more they are invested in the things that you do. And you always want to find existing communities and join them; never just talk about yourself, never be too sales-y or too cocky. Be interested in people and they’ll be interested in what you have to offer too — it’s not much different than any other kind of conversation.
PT: What are the most profound ways in which you think the advent of social media is affecting what it’s like to be an author and the literary world?
It used to be that an author’s work was released in one large, finished chunk, once every few years. For most people, that just isn’t true any more. When I started in publicity ten years ago, we talked to bookstores and we talked to the media, but we never talked directly to readers, and we certainly never heard back from them. That’s totally changed now. You have the opportunity for constant interaction. You know what your fans think, what fellow authors are into, you can bounce around ideas and geek out over shared fandoms. Writing is a very solitary life. The addition of a social outlet that you can turn on and off, not to mention participate in in your underwear, is pretty life-changing for some people. You can be part of a rich literary community no matter where you live. You can chat with your heroes about their heroes, or about their new nail color. I just think it’s all pretty great.