I met Brooke Warner in 2007 at the Agents and Editors conference, sponsored by the Writers League of Texas. Standing in the lobby of the Sheraton Hotel in Austin, Brooke was surrounded by young writers eager to get their manuscripts before her. She was Senior Editor at Seal Press then, a publishing house specializing in women’s writing. Seal’s list included books about rape and incest, about lesbian relationships, and about the difficulties of motherhood. Brooke stood patiently among her admirers, listening to pitch after pitch, thanking each woman who came before her and handing them her card.
In 2012, Brooke left Seal (she was Executive Editor by then) to found She Writes Press with Kamy Wicoff of SheWrites.com. About a year ago, I came across Brooke’s blog post, laying out the distinction between the She Writes hybrid publishing model vs. both traditional and self-publishing. Brooke had used her stature in the industry to get traditional distribution for She Writes authors as well as coverage in Publishers Weekly. Because She Writes authors are vetted — you have to apply for this publisher like any other — their books are taken seriously.
Every Creative Mix Interview contains at least one “aha” moment. When I asked Brooke about role models, her answer not only surprised me, but belied the generosity underneath her energy and drive. Unlike other industry professionals, who talk about platform as the genesis of sales, Brooke admires women like Elizabeth Gilbert and Cheryl Strayed, who use their platform to reach out and help other women achieve their creative goals. Women championing women.
I interviewed Brooke in the spot I first met her, at the Sheraton Hotel in Austin, where she was a speaker last spring for PubU.
Saundra: You began as an editor, and later became a coach and a publisher. But I see that you do your own writing, too. Maybe we should start there.
Brooke: My own writing is focused on writing and publishing. I blog actively on She Writes and Huffington Post and maintain two websites, “Write Your Memoir in Six Months, ” and Warner Coaching, for which I also blog. I write four or five posts a month, which feels like a lot to me.
Saundra: That is a lot.
Brooke: I’ve also written a book as well as two e-books, and I’m working on another book right now about publishing. I like to write because it helps me experience the struggles and successes of my coaching clients and She Writes authors. But that’s the extent of my creative writing. I haven’t ventured out into other genres other than the more prescriptive work.
Saundra: But you teach courses on writing memoir, and I took one of those excellent courses where you carefully analyze a single book.
Brooke: Glass Castle or Wild?
Saundra: Wild, and it was very good, very clear and straightforward.
Brooke: I don’t hide that memoir is my favorite genre, which extends from my work at Seal Press. While Seal has a lot of different kinds of books on their list, they’re very memoir-driven. I came out of my time as Executive Editor there realizing I had expertise in memoir, that I understood it and could teach it.
Then I partnered with Linda Joy Myers from the National Association of Memoir Writers. We see ourselves as champions of memoir writers, and that has been the main drive of “Write Your Memoir in Six Months,” which is craft and process-driven. We teach two classes every six months, leading twenty-eight students through a six-month writing process. And then we teach the bestseller courses, which are a lot of fun.
Saundra: So writer and teacher. Those are two of your roles.
Brooke: Yes, and then coach and publisher.
Saundra: Tell me first about your coaching business.
Brooke: My business is Warner Coaching, although I’ve scaled back a fair amount because of my role as publisher of She Writes Press. During my time at Seal, I was looking to make supplemental income because publishing pays so poorly. I was an executive editor and still not feeling like I could live in Berkeley in a way that was working for me.
When I told an agent a friend of mine that I needed to make more money and wasn’t sure what I wanted to do, she said, “You should coach. That’s what you already do.” And it was like a light bulb clicked for me, because I didn’t realize that my role as an acquisitions editor was being a coach to authors. But it’s the same—shepherding people through the process and boosting their confidence, saying, “Yes, you can do this,” and occasionally cracking the whip. I’m a guide taking authors through the publication process.
Saundra: And you understand the psychology of it for writers, what they go through, what hurdles they have to overcome.
Brooke: Exactly. Also, I help people complete manuscripts, which I did at Seal all those years. It was a natural fit.
I started coaching in 2007 while I was still at Seal, taking on clients here and there, and it grew by word-of-mouth. Because I was at Seal, the people who found me were amazing, generally strong women, feminists, people who were fans of Seal. And I loved it. My clients were engaged and talented, and they still are. But now, because of She Writes Press, I have to be a more selective about taking on coaching clients. I’ve hired a stable of coaches to support me.
It scaled a bit, but the principle is the same—a lot of handholding, developmental editing, and a container for people to move along in the process. Writing a book brings up so much self-doubt. People struggle with real psychological issues. The coaching involves accountability and also having someone there to help you through something difficult, in addition to the hard work of actually doing the writing.
Saundra: It can be lonely.
Brooke: Many women don’t even have support from their own partners or their families, especially if they’re writing memoirs. Sometimes they have the opposite of support. They have people actively telling them, “What are you writing? You can’t do that.” Or, “Why are you spending all this time? For what?” And that can be damaging to the process and eroding.
Saundra: Writing a book can test your self-esteem.
Brooke: Yes, a lot. And it paralyzes people. I have clients and students who have been trying to write something for ten years. It’s rewarding to finally shepherd them through that process.
Saundra: Tell me about your fourth and final role as publisher of She Writes Press?
Brooke: It started because I was thinking about leaving Seal. I had many reasons, which I’ve spoken about publicly. The industry was shifting so much. My leaving stemmed in part from being hopeful about the future of publishing and in part from my frustration with traditional publishing. I knew I didn’t want to coach full-time, what a burnout that would be, and I worried what would happen if I wasn’t in the industry anymore. I felt like what I knew was publishing.
I reached out to Kamy Wicoff, who founded SheWrites.com with a business idea to build a publishing company on top of her platform. Several people had approached her, so it wasn’t a new idea, but I brought the right sensibility because of Seal and my history of championing women and women’s voices, the feminist underpinnings of all of that, women supporting one another. The synergy between Kamy and me has always been there.
SheWrites.com was founded in 2009 and then She Writes Press was founded in 2012. And it’s skyrocketed. From the beginning we’ve had a lot of interest, and a lot of women excited to publish their books with us.
Saundra: How do you put all these things together and call it a life without going insane?
Brooke: It’s cobbling. You think, “I can do so much of this and so this much of that, and how much money and time and energy will it take?”
Saundra: It’s like a quilt, with all the patching together. This goes over here and this goes over.
Brooke: And then constantly rearranging it.
I’ve found that interesting over the years, looking at it like a pie chart with the percentages always changing. Sometimes it’s more of this and sometimes it’s more of that. I like it that way, because it’s creative in itself and feeds me.
I don’t do well if I’m stagnant in something, which was another part of why staying in traditional publishing was hard for me. I maxed out. I had been at Seal for eight years, and I thought, I’m on the wheel. I was good at acquiring books and editing books, but there was nothing new or energizing, except new books of course, but the process wasn’t changing.
Saundra: I’ve been thinking about this a lot, when you’ve gone as far as you can somewhere, then what?
Brooke: Do you take the leap or do you grow roots? People do both, but for me, the growing roots thing was not going to work.
Saundra: I want to back up a bit to your coaching business. You mentioned you were taking on new people. You’ve been an executive editor and an acquiring editor, so you’ve had people working under you before. But for a lot of people, for myself and for many friends with small businesses, it’s a leap to hire, especially when you’re trying to generate income. Can you address that?
Brooke: The biggest leap for me was not only recognizing that I could not do everything by myself, but that I didn’t have to, and that the people who were hiring me were going to be okay. I used to feel that I had to be the one coaching everyone and editing everything, but there’s not enough time in the day. If you want to scale your business, you have to be able to say, “We’re a team.”
Warner Coaching was Brooke Warner, but now it’s more than me. That was a major paradigm shift for me, which honestly took more than two years to fully embrace. Finally, one of my own coaches said to me, “Brooke, you can’t do everything. You think you’re going to be letting people down, but in fact if you have more people who are experts at what they do and you can take on more people, you’re going to help more people.”
I’ve hired coaches, copyeditors, and proofreaders, all on contract. I’ve learned how to have the conversation with people who approach me. Instead of, “Oh, I’m sorry, I can’t help you,” I tell them, “Yes, we can help you, and I have this person who’s an expert in this.” I have full confidence in the people I’ve hired. But building that stable took some time, in terms of trust and training and what I wanted it to look like in the processes. But it’s been great. There are people who only want to work with me, but many just want a good coach, and we have a good reputation.
Saundra: People can get hung up on the name. I understand that.
Brooke: I’ve seen my clients fall into that hole, thinking they’re going to work with someone like Cheryl Strayed or Dani Shapiro. But those author-teachers have to leverage themselves. They have to teach to groups. At that level you can’t take on one-on-one. You just can’t.
Saundra: You’d go crazy.
Brooke: And you’d have to charge insane amounts of money.
Saundra: We almost missed a role. On top of everything else, you’re also a mom. How do you balance work and motherhood?
Brooke: My son is four years old. I also have two older stepsons, who are eighteen and twenty. The eighteen-year-old is still in the house, so we have a full home life, for sure. How do I manage it? I don’t sleep as much as I would like to.
When my son is around, I’m not working, although as he gets older, maybe on the weekends, he’ll watch a show and I’ll check my email.
But that juggling act is difficult. I think it is for every mom. The older my son gets, the less guilty I feel. But when he was younger, I felt mother guilt a lot, struggling with being at work and wishing I was with him, and being with him and thinking about work. I think that’s universal. I’ve had my share of grappling with all that.
Saundra: How do you deal with the calendar itself? Do you have a time management system?
Brooke: No. I’m hyper, hyper time-oriented and very, very scheduled. My day is regimented. I’m lucky, because I have pretty steady energy. I know a lot of people who have crazy energy dips, or they can’t sustain a certain kind of schedule. But I have the endurance.
Saundra: One of my mentors, Jeffrey Davis, often mentions Haruki Murukami’s book about running and writing, which is about endurance. He says he realized if he was going to be a writer, he was going to have to build stamina, because it takes a toll on your glucose.
Brooke: I read that book and loved it. I’m a runner, too, so I relate. Just like running, you have to bring a mental toughness to what you do.
When I look at my day, I think of it like a race sometimes. But I’m not a sprinter. I’m a long distance runner. So if I think about my day like a 10k or a half marathon, I pace myself, and find ways to make it all fit in.
Saundra: You have to be slow and steady.
Brooke: And deliberate. I’m pretty good at compartmentalizing things, which is partly learned and partly personality-based. At Seal I was a project manager, juggling multiple projects. I’m good at multitasking, although people talk about the detriment of that. I think it’s problematic in that it can split your focus sometimes, but I also think it’s necessary to have good multitasking skills if you are managing many different things.
Saundra: To what extent can you focus on one thing at a time?
Brooke: Since becoming a mom, I’ve become better at saying that things can wait. I used to be much more reactive. People email and tell me things have to be done now, and that keeps you on high adrenaline, which is unhealthy. I’ve become much better about how I handle that. People are not going to hear back from me within an hour of emailing me. Sometimes it’s going to take two, three, or four days, and sometimes people don’t like it.
Saundra: There is an issue of discernment, knowing when something is important and when to say no. Chris Brogan says, “Email is the perfect vehicle for someone else’s agenda.”
Brooke: The busier you get, the more intense and insane your email box is, and for me it’s often overwhelming.
Saundra: It’s the downside of your success.
Brooke: I know people who are so successful, they have an auto-responder. I still get to everything, but I’m not as timely as I used to be.
Saundra: You have to protect yourself. Like you said, you’re working for other people. You’re championing their work. You have to protect them also.
Saundra: Do you have an office?
Brooke: I have a home office. I work in an in-law unit. I’m very lucky. It’s gorgeous and in my backyard. People tell me, “You need to get an office, and have people working in a central space, and blah, blah, blah.” But I don’t, and I don’t want to. And maybe that will shift some day. But right now we have a huge staff and they’re all contractors, and they are all over the place, and the person I work with the closest is in Connecticut, and we’re thriving.
The way people work has changed and I think if it worked out to have an office some day and employees in the office, I might want that, but for right now it’s perfect.
Saundra: Your life is so busy anyway, it becomes something else to maintain.
Brooke: And I have a short commute.
Saundra: Did you have role models or mentors who were important to you?
Brooke: Championing people the way I do, I believe in mentorship. I’ve had several important mentors in the publishing industry, people who took me under their wing, who taught me a lot, who opened doors for me. I think it’s an amazing industry for people who care about books, but also for bringing people up. I haven’t felt much competition in this business, and I have been supported by women above me. I have not been in the position ever in my publishing career of having a person above me who was jealous of my success or trying to prevent me from rising in the ranks. It’s been quite the opposite.
My mentors have been mostly women, but there have been a few key men. Seal was a unique environment, too, championing women. People care about Seal Press so I was lucky, because everyone wanted to see it succeed.
When we went through hard times, I felt the people who were championing and mentoring me saying, “Yes, you can do this and you can see it along.”
Saundra: Did anyone in particularly inspire you?
Brooke: The people who teach. When I say that I mean the best-selling authors who teach. I’m inspired by Elizabeth Gilbert, the way she has parlayed her platform into leading a conversation about creativity and championing women, becoming a feminist voice.
I look to people aspiring to go beyond their little corner. How do you do something like that? It’s often times the successful memoirists who are able to do it, because they have bestselling books, and the ability to create a thriving platform on top of that. I think Cheryl Strayed has done it as well. I admire that. I think they’re both amazing.
Saundra: It’s interesting that memoir creates a platform to serve other women, championing their creativity.
Brooke: I admire the desire to help other women. It’s key for me, because the good ole boys clubs are still out there.
Mentorship is ingrained for men, less so for women. The people I admire are overtly supporting one another and opening doors for one another and not feeling the scarcity. I don’t ascribe to scarcity thinking at all. I believe there is plenty for everyone.
It’s one of the primary things I work on in my coaching. Someone will say, “This book has already been written,” or, “Someone stole my idea.” I tell them that it doesn’t matter. What they bring to their book is wholly and uniquely theirs—because of their unique experience or way of articulating their idea. I never feel like there’s not room for my voice or room for the voices of the people I’m bringing up.
I see this kind of support in other writers I’ve admired, like Maya Angelou. Even Oprah and other high-profile women. I believe there is a general creative culture supporting women and when I see it I am inspired.
Saundra: I never made that connection. I wondered, “What is Elizabeth Gilbert doing?” But of course that’s what she’s doing. It’s the hand out and the hand up.
Brooke: I saw her speak twice last year. I’ve been following her and watching what she was doing.
Saundra: She was on the Oprah tour, wasn’t she?
Brooke: Yes, and I went, and it was great. And Liz was the best part. She delivered an incredibly feminist message in a palatable way, because there are still so many people, women included, who are afraid of feminism.
Saundra: The “F” word, I know. I tend to think feminism stopped with my generation. I went to graduate school in the eighties to be a feminist, because that’s where feminism had gone, inside academia. The next generation didn’t even talk about it. It was uninteresting to them. So I love it when people use the “F” word.
Brooke: It’s resurging. And obviously the work I did at Seal came out of that. Jessica Valenti was one of my authors at Seal. She’s a strong feminist voice, and there are a lot of younger people coming up. Feminism has been a cornerstone to my self-definition and things I care about.
Saundra: Well of course it makes sense given you were the executive editor at Seal.
Brooke: Yes, and continuing on at She Writes. It underlies everything.
Saundra: What obstacles have you faced and how have you overcome them?
Brooke: Well, there have been many. At Seal two of our books got us into trouble with some women of color bloggers. We were accused of being racist. It was a very, very hard time, both professionally and personally. We rallied together as a group. We responded and apologized. We made some missteps. It was not overt racism, but it was one of those situations where you don’t see what you don’t see. It was probably one of the hardest things I’ve gone through professionally, and it had reverberations.
At She Writes Press I’ve had challenges that I would probably attribute to fast growth. A lot of writers were interested in what we were doing right away, and we grew fast. The growing pains came out of that as we tried to articulate what we were doing in this “hybrid” space, which was relatively unexplored and open to being defined. At first we were a hybrid company that was helping people to self-publish books, but within a year we got traditional distribution, and it really changed the model. Today we are not helping people to self-publish. We are the publisher. We’ve gotten very clear about who we are. The authors helped with what they thought the press was, too, and a few other key players, like agent April Eberhardt, were supportive in helping me define the press.
Being on that leading edge has been challenging. We get a fair amount of flak from people who think it’s pay-for-publishing. I’ve had to develop a thick skin against critics of the model who don’t really understand its nuance.
I’ve also had to be of stalwart in my advocacy of our authors, who are not self-published authors. We’re vetting and curating. We have high editorial standards. I singlehandedly convinced Publishers Weekly to take us on as a traditional publisher, to review our work, and not include us in their Select program, which was a huge coup.
I’ve had successes through all of it, but the challenge has been to stay unflappable. No one remains unflappable all the time.
Saundra: Do you know Mihlay Csikszentmihalyi, who wrote about flow and creativity? He said that creativity is putting two existing things together in a new way. You created a paradigm shift with She Writes Press.
Brooke: I think that’s true. Though there are a lot of others in this space. We’re creating it together. What’s exciting is all the creativity that’s emerging from these models, and the conversation about the changing face of publishing. This is an exciting time to be an author, and it’s an exciting time to be an innovative publisher. I think it’s a less exciting time to be a traditional publisher, confined by the way things have always been done—and then realizing that that’s not really working and feeling the limitations around that.
Saundra: There was something else that you said a minute ago about evolving. If you’re alive, things are evolving.
Brooke: Yes, I believe that. People seem to love the idea that you can think of something and then execute it. Like The Law of Attraction. But that’s not my experience, not with writing and not with my businesses.
Saundra: You have to be awake and you have to listen. I was listening to you and thinking that on one hand you’re working with all these people getting their books out. On the other hand, you’re building this new genre of publishing company and you have to be alert and you have to be thoughtful, and you have to have some space for it to grow into whatever it’s supposed to be.
Brooke: It’s challenging. Publishing in general is challenging, because the role of an editor oftentimes is therapist. I love it and I think I’m well suited to it, but it’s challenging in its own way because you’re dealing with people’s egos and their fears and frustrations. The relationship aspect is a big deal. And sometimes it’s gorgeous and the relationships are amazing, and sometimes you’re dealing with the fallout of people’s frustrations and disappointment, on both sides.
People have been frustrated and disappointed for not having sold as many as books as they thought they were going to sell. And on the coaching side, I’ve worked with people who worked their butts off and never got a book deal. That’s the nature of the business. For me, dealing with people’s disappointment is an ongoing challenge, because not everyone is going to be happy. When I think about my day-to-day challenges, that’s one of the most difficult things I face. I would love to make everybody happy, but that’s not what this is.
Saundra: I coached writers for a while, and found it difficult in a specific way, because you’re dealing with the mind.
Brooke: Exactly. And that’s why I say it’s like therapy because it brings up a lot. Memoir in particular, because it’s personal and because people expose themselves and sometimes they freak out. I have clients and students who literally get sick. They have actual trauma come up. An interesting fact about our memoir course, the one I teach with Linda Joy Myers, is that about 90% of our students have suffered abuse.
Saundra: I knew you were going to say that.
Brooke: The statistics show it’s a high percentage of the population. So as a coach and editor working with this population, you have to have the compassion that goes with that. Linda Joy and I are well suited to it, but it’s a lot to hold.
Saundra: You have to create a container for it while creating boundaries for yourself.
Brooke: My parents are both psychologists, so it’s been interesting for me because I’m not. But I understand it and get the lingo. It’s part of me, a world I’m familiar with.
Saundra: Did you grow up in the Bay Area?
Brooke: I grew up in Southern California. I live in Berkeley now. When I first moved there, Fourth Street was called Publishers Row, because there were so many publishing houses. The first job I had in publishing was at North Atlantic Books on Fourth Street (they’ve since moved).
Photo by Edgar Valdes (www.edgarvaldesphoto.com)
Saundra: What advice would you give someone starting out, not necessarily in publishing, but who is trying to start a new venture, an entrepreneurial venture or a creative?
Brooke: It’s hard to be an entrepreneur, but it’s also exciting. Something that’s worked for me, though I can’t advise it for everyone, is to just take the next step. People get bogged down with thinking everything has to be figured out. I didn’t know what She Writes Press was going to be when I started. We just said, “We’re going to do this,” and then it evolved.
People who have a perfectionist mentality get stuck in taking that next step. They think it’s supposed to be figured out or done. But the creative enterprise is its own breathing organism, and you show up and massage it and move it along. It’s the only way to succeed, I think, because you cannot avoid failure by tinkering.
To the outsider She Writes Press looks like a success, and it is, but there have been many missteps and failures and problems. But we’ve figured it out by moving forward and through.
Saundra: Dealing with things as they come up.
Brooke: You can’t anticipate everything. Trying to anticipate is actually more soul-crushing than walking into the challenge or the failure.
Saundra: That makes sense. You can’t do anything or figure out what it is even until you start.
Brooke: It can be paralyzing. One of the things I see as a coach, and I’m sure you see or saw it in your work too, is paralysis.
Paralysis is the absolute number one thing that prevents people from doing the thing that they say they want to do. And it’s either that they don’t know how or they’re afraid. Which is why you have to take that next step, whatever it is.
Saundra: I’ve been working with the idea that if you recognize your work as something you’re being called to do, you’ve got to get out there.
Brooke: I believe that, absolutely, and answering it. The people who answer the calling are brave. Some people do it without a whole lot of need to be pushed. Although I don’t think it matters if you need to be pushed.
I’m in favor of people finding support. I’ve had coaches and mentors all along the way. You can’t do this stuff alone. You can’t do it in a bubble.