My Writing Ritual? Coffee, Beer, Repeat

There’s a fairly universal truth about writers: It’s hard to work from home. It’s hard for anyone to work from home, probably, but being a writer means you’re also in your own head a lot. Being in your own head and in your own house (and probably in your pajamas) can become a sort of black hole of self-focus. In my experience, you don’t do your best writing from a black hole of self-focus.

I’ve learned there’s an axiom to this truth: It can also be hard to work from your own coffee shop. I love Church Street, but lately I’ve been finding it tough to concentrate on writing a book when I’m surrounded by friends, books, coffee and Michael Jackson songs. It feels a lot like home (well, at home I play less Michael Jackson). Usually, that’s a good thing. But not when you’re up against a deadline for a book.

Getting out the door (of both my home and my shop, which has been a second home to me for awhile now) seems to help, so I’ve been spending my days, not in Crestline, but in the local shops of downtown Birmingham.

Another thing about writer-types, and maybe one of the only things we have in common with hard-core sports fans, is that we can be a little obsessed with rituals and good luck charms. If we have a day of good focus and good work, we’ll do everything we can to recapture it.

Last week, I had one really great writing day where I started the day at ZaZa (Trattoria Centrale, whatever), walked to Carrigan’s for lunch, walked to Urban Standard for coffee, and finished up at Paramount. In my black-hole-crazy-writer mind, one good writing day is reason enough to repeat that pattern. And repeat it again. And again. So I’ve been on a downtown loop a lot this week. It’s kind of like Groundhog Day, but with good food and really nice people.

Does it work? Well, I guess we’ll all have to wait until the book comes out to see I’m really doing good work, but at least I’m enjoying it. Obviously I love Church Street, but I also love that Birmingham has so many fantastic local places where I can feel welcome and at home even though I’m not paying the rent. (Well, I kind of am paying the rent, because I’m buying stuff.) I’m thankful that the staff at all these places is friendly and kind, and that they hardly even mention how weird it is that I’m basically camping out and pestering them for hours at a time.

So if you want to follow my writing formula, it’s this: 1 frittata and 1 coffee from Trattoria + 1 salad from Carrigans + 1 Americano from Urban + 1 Good People Pale Ale at Paramount = 1 good writing day. It also happens to equal about $21 that gets recirculated into our local economy. And maybe that’s worth it, even if it doesn’t cure my writer’s block.

Read about the book I’m writing, and donate to The Localist Kickstarter, here.

I Look Stupid on Kickstarter, and I Don’t Care! (Actually I Care a Lot)

Click here to donate to my Kickstarter.

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My best advice for running a Kickstarter campaign? Get ready to feel like an idiot.

My Kickstarter isn’t over. I don’t have all the money I need, but technically I have met my first goal, so a lot of people have asked me for advice about running a successful campaign. I gave some practical tips to See Jane Write yesterday, but I didn’t talk about the biggest issue: insecurity.

Marketing a personal brand, or even a business, for me is an exercise in fake confidence. I’m naturally incredibly shy, and I’m most comfortable being self-deprecating, but those qualities come off badly on social media; smiling selfies and confident posts perform much better. In a decision between what feels good to me and what’s effective, I’ll usually go with effective. It’s why I’m successful in business … and it’s why I’m uncomfortable most of the time.

Asking people to donate money to your project — to believe so much in what you’re doing, or so much in you, that they actually part with cash — is incredibly tough. It can feel wonderful when people pledge, but it can also feel overwhelming and humbling. And it’s worse, of course, when they don’t give money. I’m trying not to pay attention to who’s given and who hasn’t, but that’s a little bit impossible, and it’s hard not to be annoyed that people I’ve showered with gifts for engagements and weddings and babies can’t part with twenty bucks when it comes to something that’s important to me.

But there are a million valid reasons that people don’t pledge, and they probably have nothing to do with me or with my project. It’s more likely that they’re going through a hard financial time, or that they don’t understand Kickstarter. It’s really dumb (and not effective) to take a lack of pledges personally, but that’s a constant temptation, especially when pledges slow down, like they have for me.

Begging for Kickstarter donations feels desperate and icky, and frankly I don’t like it. But I’m doing it anyway, because I happen to think my project, a book about buying locally, is important. I also feel that the train trip/book tour is pretty essential to the book’s success, so I’ll keep pushing this stretch goal, even though I’m afraid I won’t make it and I’ll end up failing publicly. (The worst kind of failing!)

And I guess that’s my real advice for running a Kickstarter: If you’re going to do it, make sure you can be really proud of your product. Because looking like an idiot isn’t worth it for something you don’t believe in.

DIY Books? Why I’m Self-Publishing

Click here to give to The Localist Kickstarter.

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There’s a lot of drama surrounding self-publishing, and I used to advise wannabe authors to avoid it at almost any cost. Obviously, this has led to a lot of questions about why I’m self-publishing anyway. Luckily, I have a blog, so I can answer this questions all at once.

First, why does self-publishing get such a bad rap?

Oh, about a million reasons. Here are five:

  1. If no traditional publisher will pick up your book, there might be a reason. It could be either that you’re not a good writer, or your book doesn’t have an audience. Or both.

  2. There’s more to publishing than writing a good story (although that’s hard enough). A book also needs great editing, strong design and good marketing campaign to succeed. Most self-published authors don’t have these talents/resources.

  3. Booksellers (and librarians, from what I gather) don’t tend to like self-published authors and usually won’t promote their books.

  4. Traditional publishing historically blackballs self-published authors, so if you print under a vanity press you’re unlikely to get picked up by an established publishing house later.

  5. Self-published books often look tacky. Their shiny covers, bright white pages and poorly chosen fonts make for an unpleasant reading experience.

Why I’m self-publishing anyway:

  1. Big publishing probably would’ve passed on my book (I’m assuming — I didn’t try to pitch anybody) because it primarily has a regional audience. Yes, I think The Localist message is about more than just Birmingham, and the book could have a nationwide readership. (That’s certainly the dream.) But from a marketing and sales perspective, it’s just not a good bet for an established publishing house. Just because a book has a niche or regional audience doesn’t mean it shouldn’t exist, though, and self-publishing makes that possible.

  2. I’m hiring professionals to edit and design the book — that’s what the Kickstarter’s paying for — and I’ve worked in marketing myself. Will I do this perfectly or as well as a publishing house? Certainly not. But I’m happy with the quality, and I think my readers will be, too.

  3. Self-published authors tend to be pushy and aggressive. They usually don’t know the standard industry discount for books; they ask the store to buy their books outright instead of accepting them on consignment; they demand display space. I’ve been a bookseller for a lot longer than I’ve been an author, so I’m more aware of industry standards. (And I try not to be pushy and rude to people, especially not when I’m asking a favor.)

  4. After Fifty Shades of Grey and The Shack, successful self-published authors are more accepted, albeit grudgingly, by the industry.

  5. Printing standards have really improved, and it’s possible to produce a self-published book that looks and feels more like a “real” book.

I’ll be completely honest and say self-publishing isn’t the way I’d hoped to publish my first book. But I’m also being truthful when I say that I really do believe it’s the best choice for this particular material (I’m able to include local artists in book production, and the book is funded mostly locally). Sometimes, a publishing house is the best bet — I’d still say that usually it is. It’s just not the best bet for me; at least not this time.

Want to help publish this book? Click here to give to The Localist Kickstarter.

New Rewards on the Kickstarter!

I’m offering a few new rewards on the Kickstarter today, and I’m really excited that one of them is the I Am Bham tshirt. I wear mine all the time (including in my Kickstarter video, obviously), and get compliments on it constantly. Andrew Thomson, who’s designing The Localist book, designs and prints them, so it makes sense to offer it as a reward, and Andrew’s incredibly generous to let me do it. I’m really excited about it! I already said that!

Other new rewards include more books (I take it as a good sign that I keep selling out of books), Wagon Train postcards, and a backer-suggested Nail Art Workshop. You can read all about it in today’s update, or skip straight to giving on the main page.

If you’ve already donated and want to increase your reward, or claim two rewards, I’ve put instructions for that in the update as well.

Thanks so much to everyone who’s backed The Localist book, and to everyone who’s following along on our journey.

The Wagon Train Needs Your Help!

Today, the new phase of my Kickstarter begins as I try to raise even more money ($3,000 more) to create a press tour and blog for the book. I’m calling it The Wagon Train, and the idea is that I’ll take Amtrak’s Crescent line all the way from New Orleans to New York, stopping in cities along the way to do book signings and events at local bookstores and libraries.

Adding a stretch goal to Kickstarter is really scary. I don’t want to seem greedy, and I don’t want people to get sick of hearing me ask for money. But I really believe this tour could be an essential part of getting the book to a lot of people, and I think the message of buying local is pretty important — important enough that I’m willing to risk looking stupid to give the book its best shot at success.

Why do I need a tour?

I want the buy-local message to reach a lot of people, and I’ve worked in publishing and bookselling long enough to know that it won’t just magically happen when I publish the book. To really spread the word, I’m going to have to go out in the world, get uncomfortable, and actually tell people about it. This book isn’t just about Birmingham; it’s bigger than that. Social media will only get me so far in getting the word out, and meeting people face-to-face will be hugely important.

Connecting Communities

Buying local is all about community. That’s why I’m using crowdfunding to support it in the first place, and it’s why I want to reach out to other cities and communities by visiting them. But the real point of this journey is to connect those other cities to Birmingham, and to other readers of The Localist, through a blog. I’m guessing people in North Carolina and New Orleans and New York have different ideas about buying local, and those are ideas that I think we can all benefit from. Visiting different communities and blogging about what they have to say helps connect all of us.

Spreading the Word

I want to spread the word through social media, through the blog and through personal connections, but I also want to do it through traditional media like newspapers and TV news. My job used to include sorting through press releases to decide which ones would run in the newspaper, so I know that, in order to get press coverage, you need to have an interesting angle. The train trip gives me that: “Local Girl Publishes Book” just isn’t as interesting as “Girl Hops Train to Promote Crowd-funded Book.”

Why the Train

I chose Amtrak partly because of price — it’s cheaper to buy a Rail Pass and get on and off in different cities than it is to buy a bunch of plane tickets. I also chose it because I love riding on the train, and I love writing on the train. There’s just something romantic about riding the rails, and I’ve always been able to get a lot of reading, writing and thinking done on a train trip. Most of The Localist book was written on trains, actually, as I took short trips to New Orleans and Austin (okay, that trip wasn’t so short) to get blocks of writing time. Why “The Wagon Train”? Because my last name is Rollwagen, and I’m a nerd.

I know the train trip is a much harder sell than The Localist book is. What we’re creating (a blog, and a community) isn’t as obvious as it was when I was asking money for a book, and the goal is pretty ambitious. But I’d love it if you’d consider giving anyway, and spreading the word about the project. Thanks to everyone for your support so far — it means the world to me. To give, or to check out The Localist project, click here.

We Got Our Kickstarter Funding!

Saturday night, I was at Carrigan’s, drinking a Good People Pale Ale and sharing a plate of fries (served with Hipster Ranch, duh) with my friend Mollie, when I got a message: The Localist Kickstarter met our first funding goal, raising $5,000 to publish my book about shopping locally. To celebrate, we went on a little Localist pub crawl, hitting Collins and Paramount with a stop to see the light rails tunnel on the way.

Okay, this was our plan anyway. But it was the perfect way to celebrate a project about buying local, because I felt supported everywhere I went: from Angel at Collins to Russell and Kyle at Paramount, who all congratulated me on reaching my goal, to Zach from Carrigan’s, who makes a cameo in my Kickstarter video. They were kind to me because they’re all really nice people, but it isn’t unusual to walk into an independent and find people who care, who support you, and who become part of your community. That’s part of the point of being a localist.

I owe big thanks to more than just my bartenders, of course. A huge thank you to every single person who supported the Kickstarter. A lot of the money we raised was local, but we also had donations from across the country (Oregon, New York, New Hampshire), and even from Canada. I’m really humbled by and grateful for the response. That kind of support for the message of The Localist — that shopping from independently owned stores and restaurants strengthens our communities and makes our lives better — is really exciting.

So, is the Kickstarter finished? Not by a long shot. We’ve met our first goal of actually printing the book, but the buy-local message has the best chance of success if I can bring it outside of Birmingham, too. That’s why I’m asking for continued donations so we can meet our stretch goal of another $3,000 to create a marketing campaign and take The Localist on an East Coast bookstore tour via Amtrak.

I’ll be announcing some fun new rewards for the train tour in the next day or two, but for now I think we should all bask in our success. Yeah, I hit my Kickstarter goal. Yeah, I’m excited. But I quite literally couldn’t have done it without you.

Want to support this amazing Kickstarter you’ve been reading about? Check out and donate to The Localist Kickstarter here!

Fear Not the Red Pen: The Joys of Being Edited

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It takes a village to write a book. When I picture “a writer,” I see someone sitting behind a typewriter alone, slurping out of a big cup of coffee, looking frazzled. In some ways, it’s true — as I write this blog, I’m sitting alone behind the computer, drinking my first cup of coffee. And I pretty much always look frazzled.

But although I’m starting this day (and most days) alone at my desk, I don’t really work alone. At least, not when my work is best. Most writers, including me, are hugely improved by editors (and proofreaders, and fact-checkers).

For my blogs, I don’t have an editor (unless you count the emails I get from my mom when I use a comma incorrectly). The mini-essays that make up a blog are casual, and best when they’re fresh, so it’s not really practical to hire an editor. Sometimes, that’s fine, and my brilliant wit comes through anyway. Sometimes, I could’ve used an editor, if only to cut out phrases like “my brilliant wit.”

So when I decided to self-publish The Localist, a book based on this blog, I knew I’d need an editor. Writing a book has turned out to be incredibly different than writing blogs, and it’s proved much more difficult for me to hang onto a narrative thread through a couple hundred pages than it is to hold it through a few blog paragraphs. Could I publish The Localist without an editor? Sure. It would, technically, still be readable (I do make my living as a writer, after all).  But that’s not the best choice, either for me or for my readers. I want this book to be the best it can be, and that means I need another perspective, more insight, and a serious critical look at my book.

I got that hard look this weekend when my editor (and fellow former independent bookseller), Bobby Watson, met me at The Garage for an hours-long session of picking through my latest draft page-by-page. Bobby’s edits were insightful and smart, and he did a really brilliant job of helping me shape the book without losing my voice or changing what I’m really trying to say. Our session left me with a lot more work to do, but I’m happy to do it because it will make the book better. (Well, I’m kind of happy to do it. Edits aren’t exactly fun, even when they’re necessary.)

I do like writing alone at a desk. But — and this is weird for me, a hard-core introvert, to say — I like collaborating even more. When you can work with an editor or a co-writer or a team that really gets what you’re trying to do, who is smart, and who brings a lot of creativity to the table, you get a sort of magic that’s difficult to find on your own. I found this kind of alchemy with Bobby, and I know The Localist book will be better for it.

This is what I’ve found really beautiful about the process of creating this book — the fact that it’s not just mine. It belongs to over 100 people who have already contributed money to the book’s Kickstarter campaign, and who’ve helped spread the word to others through social media. It belongs to Bobby, who gave me great insights and ideas to make the writing better, and to the designer who’ll make the book look great on your shelf or coffee table, and to the web designer who’ll create the companion blog.

I absolutely love the fact that this book, a story that’s all about community, already has a community of support. To all you who’ve contributed to the Kickstarter, thank you so much for being a part of it. And to those who haven’t and want to, click here to watch a silly video of me and contribute. Then read this post again and enjoy the warm-and-fuzzy feelings of knowing you really are a critical part of making this book happen — even if you never picked up a red pen.

Shop Small. Donate Big?

Click here to donate to my Kickstarter!

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(Paper arts by Jill Woodruff. Quirky face by me.)

Blogging about shopping small was supposed to be a year-long project, and that means I should’ve quit writing around the beginning of 2012. Well, I didn’t really follow the rules … a quick scroll down will show you a few posts I managed to sneak in a little later (like, uh, two years later). And I didn’t stop there, either — instead of putting down my metaphorical pen like I’d said I would, letting go of shop small, I kind of … well … I wrote a book about it.

Oops.

So now I have the draft of a book based on the Shop Small blog. It’s called The Localist, and it’s all about buying locally and helping your community. Well, it’s sort of about that, and it’s also kind of about my own adventures in local shopping — it’s the story of writing this blog (This blog here! That you’re reading right now! Hashtag meta!), and it’s the story of opening my little bookshop/coffee shop, Church Street Coffee & Books.

Now that I’ve written a manuscript, I need money to print it. (I love owning Church Street, but owning a small business doesn’t exactly make you a millionaire — something I talk more about in the book.) So I did what any young entrepreneur with a MacBook and a Twitter account would do: I put up a Kickstarter.

Let’s cut to the chase. (Here in the next-to-last paragraph, let’s cut to the chase.) I need your money. I want to turn this blog into a book, and I need your help to do it. Head over to the Kickstarter to see a video my friend Seth made of me running around Birmingham looking silly (it includes cameos from a few of my favorite local businesses), and then please please please donate. (Or give me your money first and then watch the video — I’m not picky about the order.)

Seriously, though, thank you to all my readers for making Shop Small a success, and for inspiring me to write the book. Thanks to everyone who made the video possible. And to those of you who donate to the Kickstarter? Thanks in advance. Your support means a lot to me, and to this project.

The Pope Hates Black Friday, Too! (I Assume.)

Pope Francis and Carrie … the next buddy comedy?

I didn’t want to write about Black Friday this year … but the pope made me do it. Every year, I talk about how hurtful Black Friday specifically, and our big box corporate retail culture in general, is for our families and our economy. This year, with most big stores opening Thanksgiving Day instead of at midnight on Black Friday, the problem is even worse. These stores are asking us to give up time with our families — some of the only time we have all year to just be together and reflect — in order to race around to retail stores in a quest to buy as many Christmas gifts as possible for the least amount of money. Basically, they’re telling us to leave our families in order to buy a lot of stuff that we will turn around and gift to our families in an attempt to prove how much we love them. The irony is profound and absurd.

I didn’t want to write about that this year, because I’m tired of being the bearer of bad news. I’m tired of seeing the commercials about power gifters and Christmas tree farms full of Lexuses and all the fake merriment that successfully convinces us that we don’t really love our families unless we buy them Microsoft Surfaces and Target sweaters and diamond jewelry.

But then I saw the pope’s apostolic exhortation, released yesterday. I’m not Catholic and I don’t agree with everything he wrote, but his words about materialism and greed were powerful. “The culture of prosperity deadens us,” he says. “We are thrilled if the market offers us something new to purchase; and in the meantime all those lives stunted for lack of opportunity seem a mere spectacle; they fail to move us.”

His words are so accurate and on-point. What is Black Friday but one big market thrill that deadens us to the real fact that many people suffer because of this shopping holiday? Black Friday is bad not only because thousands of American retail workers are forced to spend their holidays away from family in exchange for being exposed to mean, demanding, greedy shoppers who don’t understand that the people they yell at from behind the cash wrap are almost never the people who are actually responsible for the problems they’re encountering. But Black Friday deals often center on electronics and toys, two of the markets that are are most dependent on slave labor and other abusive labor practices. You may think you’re suffering by getting out in the cold to chase down discounts, but those discounts exist because people have to suffer in ways that are incredibly severe. Real people are forced to work without breaks, without proper pay, without being able to go home at all because they live in factory dorms, and without even a sliver of humanity, all so we can get discounts on more stuff.

As the pope says, “To sustain a lifestyle which excludes others, or to sustain enthusiasm for that selfish ideal, a globalization of indifference has developed. Almost without being aware of it, we end up being incapable of feeling compassion at the outcry of the poor, weeping for other people’s pain, and feeling a need to help them, as though all this were someone else’s responsibility and not our own.”

I understand that some businesses need to be open on holidays. My own business is open until 11 a.m. on Thanksgiving, but we are only staffed with owners (Cal and I will be working) and another barista who volunteered (thanks, Sri!). I’m not saying we can’t ever shop on holidays. I am saying that we shouldn’t make it so central to our holiday experience that we depend on it and create an ever-growing market for it.

When it comes to talking about the benefits of shopping locally, I tend to want to give up. But the pope has a few words of hope for me on that front as well: “One of the more serious temptations which stifles boldness and zeal is a defeatism which turns us into querulous and disillusioned pessimists, “sourpusses.” Nobody can go off to battle unless he is fully convinced of victory beforehand. If we start without confidence, we have already lost half the battle and we bury our talents. While painfully aware of our own frailties, we have to march on without giving in, keeping in mind what the Lord said to Saint Paul: ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness’ (2 Cor 12:9).”

I will try not to be a sourpuss (how awesome is it that the pope said “sourpusses”!). I will try to be hopeful that more of us will prioritize giving time and attention to our families instead of showering them with gifts. I will try to believe that this fight matters, and to be less aware of my frailties. And, this Thanksgiving, I will try to enjoy the time I have with my own family.

Pop-up Fever: Pop-up Shops Get a Hand from Mom-and-Pops

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Books from my non-pop-up-shop Church Street Coffee & Books make friends with beautiful pieces from local artists at the Design Week Birmingham pop-up shop.

If you live in Birmingham, you can’t escape having heard about pop-up shops or REV Birmingham lately. But just what is a pop-up shop? Generally, it’s a temporary store that provides a chance for artists and potential entrepreneurs to get exposure to new customers and to test whether or not their products would benefit from permanent storefronts. Or, as one of my friends had to explain to her twin sons when they asked why their new favorite donut shop, Doughboys, had disappeared: A pop-up shop is a store that won’t be here next week.

I’m excited about the pop-up shop movement, and it seems like the stores are doing some pretty amazing things in our city. I’ve been introduced to some fantastic new products and brands — I’m in love with the chapstick and body oil from Freedom Soap Company, my leather keychain from Hide + True, and my tiny owl earrings from Little Forest — and I’ve enjoyed the convenience of visiting Freshfully each week in a different location. My favorite shops have been the ones who turn their temporary space into an almost magical oasis, like Rugged and Fancy and Little Forest. But what really excites me is when pop-up shops collaborate with existing stores, strengthening the small businesses that struggle through the lean times as well as the exciting ones.

Through my shop, Church Street Coffee & Books, I was lucky to get to curate a book selection for Rugged and Fancy in their downtown Birmingham shop, and again for Design Week Birmingham (in the former Bare Hands Gallery space) that opened last week and runs through the end of this week. I love selecting books that speak to a specific (and new) audience, and I love that these pop-ups were generous enough to open their spaces to existing vendors. It helped Church Street find new customers, it helped the shops extend their product lines, and it helped pop-up shoppers discover even more to love about their city when they visited the stores. Using the fresh excitement of pop-ups to highlight not only new businesses, but also existing mom-and-pops, seems like a win for everybody involved.

It’s also exciting to see that local pop-ups might not be limited to local shops. Today at West Elm, a couple of my good friends and fantastic Southern artists, Alison and Robert Belcher, will be showing their art at West Elm from 11 am to 3 pm. You can go check out their stuff, and you can also make a purchase from the artists while you’re there — I think reaching out to local artists and craftspeople like this is a pretty positive step for a corporation to make, and I hope we see more ideas like it from established businesses.

This week, you can visit the REV pop-ups in Woodlawn, check out the beautiful Design Week Birmingham pop-up (with my books!) on Richard Arrington Blvd. and 1st Ave. South, or go see Alison and Robert’s work at West Elm at the Summit. That’s a pretty great line-up of pop-ups, and an opportunity to benefit some stores that have chosen to put down roots as well.