From Self-Published to Simon and Schuster: An Interview with Lori Culwell, Author of Hollywood Car Wash

Lori Culwell is the author of the novel Hollywood Car Wash, a novel that won first prize in Project Publish:

Via Project Publish, Touchstone Books was the first major publisher to put our market-based method for evaluating media content to the test…a team of editors, including Touchstone publisher Mark Gompertz, evaluated the 50 top scoring book proposals on Media Predict. They selected five book proposals as Project Publish finalists, and eventually one grand prize winner.

The novel – originally published through iUniverse – was put out by Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster, in May 2009. Publisher’s Weekly says: “Rumored to be a roman à clef by a Katie Holmes insider, this primer on selling your soul chronicles the rise and abrupt fall of talented, fresh-faced actress Amy Spencer, star of a wholesome breakout TV hit…a beach book shoo-in.”

Self-Publishing Review: You got a publishing contract via Project Publish. What exactly is that and how did you get involved with it?

Lori Culwell: Project Publish was an “American Idol” style book contest that was put on by Media Predict in conjunction with Simon & Schuster in 2007. Media Predict uses a stock-market like model to help media companies choose the books, CDs, films, and television shows that people really want, and “Project Publish” was part of that. I got involved when my husband saw an article in the New York Times and said “Hey, you should enter!”

SPR: What sort of rejections did you get about your novel? As a writer of a Hollywood novel, I’ve gotten responses like: “People don’t want to read about Hollywood.” Given that Hollywood fascinates people to the point of obsession, this seems like a weird response.

LC: The real question is, what sort of rejections DIDN’T I get? I got the “people don’t want to read a book about Hollywood” so many times, I started to find it funny, since it’s just not true– people are totally fascinated by the Hollywood life. Then there was “Your protagonist is too old for YA but too young for mainstream fiction,” or “I’m not feeling the story,” or “We have a book just like this.” I think part of the concern is that the Hollywood machine moves so much faster than the publishing industry, the subject matter and references would be stale by the time the book came out. The solution for this, of course, is to work with themes instead of specific references. The “destroyed Hollywood ingenue” is a theme that has been around since the first days of Hollywood and keeps going on, just with different characters playing the lead.

Really, though, in terms of rejection–you just have to tune it out. There will never be a time when everyone likes your work, and it’s better to just get over that now and decide to forge ahead with your career. I (along with every other working writer) could tell you my “war stories” about mean rejection letters and other criticism, but you can’t let that stop you. If you think you have something people will like, don’t quit until it’s out there! It’ll all be worth it when someone sends you an email saying they loved your book.

SPR: How difficult was it for you to make the decision to self-publish? Were you defeatist about it or were you excited about the prospects?

LC: Honestly, I wasn’t thrilled about the possibility just because I know how hard self-published books are to promote, but I felt like I had a good story so I bit the bullet. Just in terms of logistics, though, I think if I had to do it today, I would do it through CreateSpace just because it’s so much faster and more efficient.

(iUniverse cover) SPR: Your book reached #45 on Amazon when it was still with iUniverse. How did you make that happen?

LC: I was really, really dedicated to promotion when I put the book out myself–I did several hours per day, actually, on MySpace, calling magazines and newspapers, and trying to get non-mainstream places to review the book. I literally built the readership of that book reader by reader, piece by piece, and actually it was one of the hardest undertakings I ever attempted, but eventually it started to pay off. One of the places that picked it up was an amazing network called Millionairess Weekly– they picked it for their summer reading book club, and that’s the day it went so high. Also, I gave the book out to a lot of people in the industry, and someone (let’s not say who) might have been mad about the resemblance.

SPR: Since the book got picked up by a traditional press, how’s the process been? Do you find yourself still having to do your own marketing or have they taken it on themselves?

LC: Honestly, working with Simon & Schuster has been great from beginning to end. It’s great to have a smart editor to help make your work better, it’s amazing to see your books in bookstores, and it’s wonderful to have the support of a publicist to get you exposure. I’m totally grateful for any and all effort that’s made on my behalf.  That’s one of the benefits of self-publishing and doing all of your promotion yourself– once you get some help, it’s huge!

Still, I think authors, even with the help of big publishers, should always be promoting. I will go into bookstores, email people, call friends who work at newspapers, anything it takes! That would be my other piece of advice to self-published authors– don’t think someone else is going to do all the work once you get a contract.  You still have to get yourself out there– don’t forget your work ethic!

SPR: What sort of impact has being chosen by Marie Claire as the top of the “Pop Culture Pyramid” for May? Did you see an immediate rise in book sales – curious what sort of impact this kind of mainstream attention has.

LC: That was right before the book came out, so I couldn’t really answer the question about sales yet. But, I will let you know!

SPR: OK, enough about the marketing stuff. Why exactly did you write Hollywood Car Wash? The book’s “based on true Hollywood events and people.” I’m picturing a kind of Truman Capote thing, where he’s dishing about people he’s known through the years. How much of this is based on actual experience of people you know? Or is the book based on celebrity stories you’ve watched from afar?

LC: My husband is in the entertainment industry, a lot of my friends are as well, and I grew up in Palm Desert (near Palm Springs) with the kids of some celebrities, so the world is not unfamiliar to me. I heard enough crazy stories and I was like “Wow– these would make a great book!” Almost all of the stories are true, or something I heard from someone. There also is the “living here in the middle of it” factor that helped, I think– I see celebrities all the time, and everyone in Los Angeles pretty much knows each other, so it doesn’t take news long to travel when something weird happens.

SPR: Next up for you is Reality Check – about the world of reality TV. What’s your experience with that world?

LC: I did “Reality Check” as part of National Novel Writing Month (www.nanowrimo.org), so I’ll have to take a look at that one and see if there’s actually anything there. As far as the reality tv world goes, I’m friends with a couple of producers and have heard some insane stories, so that’s how that started. I’ve got a YA project in the works that I’m excited about, and I do my blog, www.funnystrange.net, so people can come over and see what I’m up to.

SPR: Obviously, everyone can’t have the success with self-publishing that you’ve had, but is it something you’d recommend to people?

LC: I would say if you’re confident and you believe in the book, and if you haven’t had success through mainstream channels, then self-publishing is a decent option. But–be prepared to put as much work into the promotion of the book as you put into writing it (if not more). Definitely make a website for the book, start a blog, do a little work on it every single day. The internet makes it a lot easier–I actually teach a class through UCLA Extension, the goal of which is to help people make their websites stronger and better optimized. This is definitely a plus if you’re putting out a book yourself– you must have a website, and it must be search-engine friendly.

SPR: Thanks, Lori.  Congratulations and good luck with the book.