Many people think they have a great idea for a Chicken Soup for the Soul Anthology. The trouble is, the publisher doesn’t usually accept a pitch for a Chicken Soup Anthology. So, how did Carolyn Roy Bornstein do the near-impossible? The answer may not help you pitch a Chicken Soup for the Soul Anthology; it will provide insight into getting your book published, what publishers are looking for, and how to network within the industry, meet professionals, learn skills and even attend courses that can prove valuable to get a traditional publisher interested.
Lisa: When did you get the idea to pitch a Chicken Soup anthology? Were you working on a related book or did you have some personal experience that made this particular book especially relevant for Chicken Soup for the Soul?
Carolyn: In 2003 my teenage son sustained a traumatic brain injury at the hands of a drunk driver in a crash that killed his girlfriend. I wrote about our family’s experience in the 2012 memoir Crash: A Mother, a Son, and the Journey from Grief to Gratitude (Globe Pequot Press.) I had also written several stories for various Chicken Soup for the Soul collections in the past: Family Caregivers, Find Your Happiness, Grieving and Recovery, and Just Us Girls) so I had a working relationship with one of the editors. It occurred to me that they had never done a Chicken Soup for the Soul book specifically geared toward traumatic brain injury. 2.4 million Americans will sustain a traumatic brain injury this year. That’s a TBI every 18 seconds. Five million children and adults live with permanent disabilities due to brain injury. That’s a lot of people I thought could benefit from this book.
Lisa: Wow, I had no idea the numbers were so high. Still, Chicken Soup does not usually respond to outside pitches. How did you successfully pitch the idea that became Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injuries: 101 Stories of Hope, Healing and Hard Work?
Carolyn: I was bold. I believed in my cause. And I used connections forged over years of writing. I was respectful. I reminded this editor of the ease of our past working relationship. (It pays to be an easy author to work with. Editors will want to work with you again.) I included clips of my previously published work (including essays from their own anthologies.)
Lisa: There’s a great tip for our readers–to start, submit a story to Chicken Soup for the Soul for other anthologies first–be a known quantity. I often recommend submitting a story to Chicken Soup to get some writing creds with a well established and much-loved brand. What do you think made your idea of Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injuries particularly compelling?
Carolyn: Okay so full disclosure: Shortly before I pitched this idea to Amy Newmark, a friend of hers had just been initiated into the world of TBI. Her son had recently sustained a TBI in a skiing accident. She was reading everything she could get her hands on about TBI and had told Amy, “You have to do a Chicken Soup book about TBI.” Then, voila. My proposal lands in her email inbox the next day. My message to your followers is that sometimes it’s not whether your idea is relevant or your writing is good. It may all boil down to what is going on in the life of your editor and what that editor feels is necessary in that moment. There’s a lot of luck and serendipity in what gets published sometimes.
Lisa: What a moving story. You mention that you learned the techniques for pitching your book Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injuries at the Harvard Medical School CME publishing course. Can you say more specifically about the techniques you learned at the course?
Carolyn: First of all, it’s very important to know your subject inside and out and to be able to distill the essence of your project down to a succinct couple of sentences. If you can’t do that, you may not yet understand your project well enough yourself. Having an absolute passion for your subject matter is key and will come across in your pitch and enhance an agent or editor’s interest in your project. Being a good writer helps a lot. I had published several other stories in the Chicken Soup series. I knew the style and tone they were looking for. In other words, I was a known entity. Finally, having a platform is critical. I had published a memoir about my family’s experience with TBI plus written essays on the topic in the Boston Globe, JAMA and many other venues. I had also been the Keynote Speaker at many Brain Injury Association conferences, lectured medical professionals about the new concussion guidelines for student athletes and been interviewed on radio and television. Publishers want to know that you are going to be able to not only write the book but help market it as well.
Lisa: Anything else you learned at the Harvard Medical School course that made a big impact on you?
Carolyn: I’ve taken the course several times now and I am always inspired by Beth Rider’s talk about the healing power of stories. I am becoming increasingly fascinated with this idea of how sharing our own personal narratives with others can help us process our own experiences. And as I go around to various Brain Injury conferences giving speeches, it strikes me that the opposite can also be true. As brain injury survivors and their families and caregivers share their stories with me, I come away inspired by their resilience and strength.
Lisa: I imagine that some of the networking that took place at the Harvard course was also quite valuable. Can you say more about that?
Carolyn: Absolutely. My advice to anyone coming to the Harvard course is “Don’t be shy!” This is a wonderful opportunity to meet industry professionals, get advice on your manuscript and even sign a book deal. I went to my first Harvard course with a complete book proposal for my memoir. I left with an acquisitions editor interested in the project. I talked with Rusty Shelton at the course this year who is the publicist for Chicken Soup for the Soul. We brain-stormed ways to market our book. I also met one of my contributing writers who was on faculty at the course giving a lecture on platform-building. It’s always nice to put a face (and a handshake!) with a name. This year, I had four agents ask me to send them my next book proposal. I exchanged business cards and email addresses with many other attendees. And of course I met you, Lisa!
Lisa: Yes, beyond all the valuable information shared in the course, I recommend the course to many of my clients because of that and the additional connections they’ll make in person with colleagues, agents, publishers, publicists and others. Even if I introduce them to many of these agents by e-mail, there’s a big difference in meeting people in person, getting a sense of who they are and having a feel for whether there is chemistry (for instance with an agent or publishers). So, as editor of a Chicken Soup book, what’s your role? Anything that surprised you in putting the book together?
Carolyn: As editor, I had the distinct honor and privilege of reading every story submitted for the collection. Hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of them. I knew that the book would be an important resource for TBI survivors as well as their family and caregivers. I knew it would help them enormously. What I was unprepared for was how much the reading of all of their stories would help me. I found each of their stories of resilience and courage profoundly moving and inspiring. I wish I could have included them all.
Lisa: Wow, That’s wonderful. What are some of the highlights of working on a book with Chicken Soup?
Carolyn: Working with Lee Woodruff was a major highlight for me. Lee, as you probably know, is the wife of ABC World News co-anchor Bob Woodruff who, in 2006, suffered a traumatic brain injury while embedded with the United States marines during the invasion of Iraq. She wrote a book about her family’s experience with TBI called In an Instant.
She and her husband founded the Bob Woodruff Foundation which raises money and awareness for military families returning home to help them adjust to a changed life. She generously wrote a blurb for my memoir Crash. So when I started working on this Chicken Soup book, I reached out to her to see if she would be willing to write a foreword to our book. Not surprisingly, Lee jumped in with both feet, eager to spread the word about the effects of brain injury. I am profoundly grateful to her for her contribution to the book. I am also proud that part of the proceeds of the book will go to her foundation.
Lisa: What a lovely synergy. Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injuries has been out since June of 2014. Any exciting moments or reader stories you can share with us?
Carolyn: Each of the stories in the collection illuminates a different aspect of brain injury recovery, from intensive care to rehabilitation to living with the long-term aftermath. The stories are also told from many different sides: from survivors themselves to family members to professional caregivers. So the book really does encompass the breadth and depth of the TBI experience. There seem to be several universal themes that emerged as I read these stories. One is the way TBI survivors’ lives are changed in an instant. There is the life you had before the injury and the new life you have now. Our contributors had different ways of writing about this. One wrote about the death of the old David and the birth of the new. One wrote about two distinct people—Angela 1 and Angela 2. Another theme was that of TBI as inspiration. Many survivors changed careers after their injuries, some because they were no longer capable of doing their old job but all because they felt a new calling. Many now volunteer for their local brain injury associations. Some became special education teachers, writers, physical therapists, lawyers and even neurosurgeons because of their experiences.
Lisa: What have been some of the more successful strategies for book promotion?
Carolyn: I do a lot of keynote speaking for Brain Injury Associations and neuro-rehabilitation conferences around New England. At several of those events, conference attendees were each given a copy of the Chicken Soup for the Soul book. It was so amazing to see folks walking around with copies of my book tucked under their arms. And at the book signings, I always hear the most inspiring stories from them.
Lisa: What’s next?
Carolyn: Well, I’m four chapters into a young adult novel. Not surprisingly, it has a medical theme. I’m also working on a non-fiction book geared towards health care professionals who want to write. There’s a lot of research out there about the beneficial effects of writing, so I’m focusing on writing as inspiration but the book will also include tips for getting work published and finding paying assignments, agents and publishers. I do a lot of speaking at writing conferences and I may venture into the world of self-publishing and hand sell the book as a companion piece to my workshops. Finally, way in the future, I think I have another memoir in me—about raising foster daughters, one with a severe eating disorder—after raising two sons.
Lisa: Wow, good luck with all of that and thank you for sharing your experiences with us today.
Carolyn Roy-Bornstein is a practicing pediatrician and an award-winning author whose work has appeared in the Boston Globe, JAMA, The Writer, and many other venues. She is an experienced public speaker on the topics of traumatic brain injury and the healing power of narrative. Her most recent book is Chicken Soup for the Soul: Recovering from Traumatic Brain Injuries: 101 Stories of Hope, Healing and Hard Work.
Harvard Medical School’s CME Publishing Course (Achieving Healthcare Leadership and Impact through Writing, Publishing and Social Media) takes place in Boston From April 9-11 and offers the opportunity to learn many of the pitching, writing and publishing skills Dr. Roy-Bornstein refers to, as well as to network with professionals–editors, agents, publishers and others–in the publishing industry. For more information or to register, click here.