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Author Jennifer Miller merges the old-school lemonade stand with new-school social media

Novel Ideas



Brooklyn author Jennifer Miller has what every young writer would kill for. For The Year of the Gadfly, her second book and first work of fiction, she's with a major publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. The story of a 14-year old prep-school girl/budding journalist whose only friend is the ghost of iconic American reporter Edward R. Murrow, Gadfly has received praise from an enviable cadre of publications including O, The Oprah Magazine, Glamour, The Boston Globe and The Washington Post. An online trailer for the book, featuring elite journalists such as Sam Donaldson, Christiane Amanpour and Brian Williams reading passages from the book, went viral.

But a serious publisher, critical praise and viral videos can go only so far in a society oversaturated with content available from a multitude of devices that in theory make our lives easier, but often make us feel like we're only scratching the surface of what's out there. Miller spent seven years writing Gadfly, and she didn't want it to get lost in the clutter. In addition to creating the trailer — Miller, a seasoned journalist who's contributed to The New York Times, The Washington Post Magazine and The Christian Science Monitor, called in favors from her journalistic colleagues — she knew she had do something different.

"It's much harder to make a splash these days, because 60,000 novels are published a year, and my novel is one of them," Miller says. "Even with a lot of national coverage, it's been really hard to get the book in front of readers. I was thinking, as a joke, what if I got a little red wagon and sold my book door to door, like a Girl Scout? But that was totally inefficient for obvious reasons, so I thought, maybe I could sit in one place, and sell my wares on the street."

Miller and her husband set up shop — a table, signage, a stack of books and a bunch of homemade cookies — at a busy intersection with plenty of foot traffic near their Brooklyn Heights home. Miller dubbed it her "novelade" stand.

"I was expecting no one to come over," Miller admits. "I was expecting to sit there for a couple of hours, and then pack up all of my unsold books and walk home with my head hung."

Instead, she sold 22 copies in a few hours, handing out free cookies with every sale. "It was just really amazing. I think people are curious, and they are naturally drawn to that setup because it taps into something — the classic lemonade stand is something we all delight in," Miller says. "And it also makes book-buying feel special and fun."

Miller says people are often surprised when they find out she's not self-published, but that might make them even more likely to purchase her book. "I think they realize [that] if this is what I have to do, and I'm with Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, they want to support me. Because I'm really willing to put myself out there to connect with my readers. I'm fighting for my career; it's what I love to do, and I want to keep doing it. In order for that to happen, I really have to show my publisher that I'm willing to fight for my books. And I love it. Otherwise, I wouldn't meet all of these great people."

Meeting people has become easier for Miller since the advent of social media and the proliferation of smartphones, neither of which were factors when her first book, the nonfiction Inheriting the Holy Land, was published in 2005. Just as the music industry experienced a shift in music discovery, delivery and communication between artists and fans, authors have been affected by the rapid dissemination of content and increased opportunities for connection to other authors and readers.

"It's been really helpful to have this network of authors and readers on Twitter," Miller says, explaining that her Nashville trip originated through a Twitter friendship with Nashville writer (and Scene contributor) Kim Green. "I would never have met Kim if not for Twitter, and now I'm actually coming to Nashville, and I'm going to meet a whole new community of readers face to face, and that's because of social media."

This is the first time Miller is taking her novelade stand out of Brooklyn, and she's testing her concept here to see if she can take it across the nation. "If it works in Nashville, then I'm taking it on the road," she says. "I'd like to do a novelade stand in every state!"


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