The Pros and Cons of Traditional Publishing Deals with Michaeleen Doucleff

Michaeleen Doucleff is an NPR science correspondent and the author of Hunt, Gather, Parent, a book about how cultures around the world raise kids.

Like many past authors, she avoids coffee because it gives her too much energy and headaches. She does enjoy a latte or decaf from time to time but mostly drinks tea.

For her research on parenting in ancient cultures, she travelled to Yucatan, three places in the Arctic and Tanzania with her 3-year-old daughter Rosy. She paid the travel costs herself, hoping the advance of her book deal would be enough to refund these costs and some extra.

The most expensive part was without a doubt transport. The accommodation was cheap as she stayed with families or even in a tent. Other costs included paying for translator fees and other help. In Tanzania, for example, she had to hire a translator, a cook and a safety guard.

At times, she felt like the effort she was putting in seemed foolish. She was basically doubling her workload and the travel completely drained her bank account. At the same time, she didn’t know if anyone would ever care about this story or if she would recover any of the money. But she kept writing and researching because she loved meeting the people in this book and learning from them. Moreover, she felt like she was growing as a writer and journalist through the process.

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Pros and cons of traditional publishing

Michaeleen had been writing about a range of topics for her job at NPR when an agent contacted her and convinced her to write this book about parenting. When asked why she chose the traditional way to publish, she admitted she was a bit lazy and just went with the flow. In the end, she’s still happy with the outcome, though.

Hunt, Gather, Parent was published with Avid Reader Press, a division of Simon and Schuster. 

For Michaeleen, these were the pros of traditional publishing:

  • The book will be available in over 30 languages.
  • The publishers did a lot of work to promote the book.
  • They have lots of useful connections.
  • The publishers know what needs to be done to get people to read the book.
  • They help with the cover and to get people on the back.
  • They got her on TV and helped to set up interviews.
  • Help with line editing improved the book.

There were a few neutral experiences too:

  • She had to write essays to promote the book. This was a lot of extra work but it paid off.
  • Writing a proposal is a lot of work. Her proposal was around 50 pages long. It does help with the structure of the book and it meant there was less editing work afterwards. For a second book, the proposal can generally be a bit shorter, unless your name is David Kadavy.

However, not everything was as positive:

  • Michaeleen felt like she was just along for the ride and not in control.
  • It was a very stressful experience because of the pressure to do well.
  • The turnaround time was a bit shorter than Michaeleen had hoped. 
  • Friends recommended to her that in-house editors don’t always do much so she hired an outside editor. And she was happy she did. 

All in all, it was a good experience for Michaeleen. She would do it again but first, she needs some time to recover from the pressure and criticism she received. 

Dealing with criticism 

Unfortunately, writing a best-seller comes with three types of feedback, the good, the bad and the ugly.

The ugly feedback really got to her. Hearing criticism is hard, but when people say mean things about you and your book, without even having read it, that’s tough. Michaeleen still thinks about it sometimes now and it affected her job for a while.

But that’s the way it is with best-selling books, people want to ride the wave of your popularity.

Fortunately, most people give the good kind of feedback. They support her and tell her how much the book has helped. I was one of them before I invited Michaeleen on the podcast. I can’t wait to apply her findings when my daughter’s a bit older.

Earning and costs

Michaeleen started doing research on the topic of cross-cultural parenting about 18 months before the book proposal was made. She did some of the trips for her job at NPR, but as I said in the intro, Michaeleen paid for most of the travel expenses herself. She was hoping the advance would make up for those costs and for one year of salary so she could write the book.

Travel locations for Hunt, Gather, Parent

Now, she’s not receiving any royalties until the advance is covered. She’s not expecting to make any more money from it, actually. And she might even lose money if she doesn’t do her taxes right. 

And what she earns goes back to the communities she spent time with to do research. Not to silence the critics who say she’s making money off those people’s backs, but because she genuinely wants to help.

Storytelling and Journaling

Hunt, Gather, Parent isn’t just a book about parenting, it’s also about the importance of storytelling. There’s even a hidden story in the book: different isn’t wrong. 

Stories are a great way to indirectly tell someone they do something wrong. You can criticise someone without them realising. And so, you avoid conflict.

Michaeleen also learned to use more circular storytelling instead of the linear stories we’re used to. It’s a softer way of communicating. And in the cultures she studied, you also see these softer forms in other communication. Is that why kids have fewer tantrums and there’s less conflict in general?  

These people don’t tell each other or their kids what to do. They give indirect hints. That’s also what Michaeleen aimed for in her book. She wants readers to make up their own minds. This means that she used the passive voice more than is generally recommended. The publisher wanted to edit much of that out but thankfully, she managed to explain that everything was intentional. 

To improve storytelling for writers, Michaeleen recommends keeping a journal. During her first trip, she didn’t. She trusted her memory but it failed her. So from the second trip, she wrote a journal entry every night even when it felt like there was nothing to tell. 

Not coincidentally, the book contains more stories and anecdotes about those trips.

Writing tips

When Michaeleen started writing, a friend told her she wrote 1,000 words per day for her book. Michaeleen liked the idea of a daily goal but she stuck to just 500 words per day. You can’t write for 7 or 8 hours a day; maybe 4 or 5 but afterwards you need a long break.

Whenever she was at a deadlock, she wrote herself into the point of a chapter. She just kept writing until she could figure out what the chapter needed to look like. Of course, she knew what it needed to be about because she had the structure, but it was about finding the right angle. Sometimes, it took up to 4,000 words to find that angle.

Fortunately, she didn’t have to throw out much content. Many sentences could be moved to other chapters or repurposed in the promotional essays.  

“The more you write, the better you get. You gotta do it. You gotta put yourself out there and take risks.”

Additionally, Michaeleen recommends involving kids: getting interviews with kids is way easier and people talk in a more informal manner. 

On a serious note, though: if you have kids, talk to them and ask for their opinion. They often have surprisingly clear ideas and they always bring different perspectives. 

Next up, she never takes notes of her ideas. If the ideas are great, they’ll come back and nag her. And if that happens, they’ll resonate with others. 

Finally, she always questions what she sees. Many things we believe are normal are not right. Even in science, we make wrong assumptions. Especially when it comes to big topics like parenting. If we were doing things right, we wouldn’t have problems.

And her secret is to stay in tune with her feelings. If it makes her feel something, it’s going to make other people feel something too. So as a writer, you’ve got to have a big heart. When she mentioned this, I had to think about Helena Roth and I introduced the two of them immediately. 

Some parenting advice

I know you’re here to learn about writing, but since it’s a book about parenting and many people tend to have kids, I might as well include some advice.

In the ancient cultures Michaeleen and Rosy visited, babies and toddlers were rarely upset. According to Michaeleen, because babies are almost exclusively held in carriers. They are meant to be held all the time. So even when people in our cultures tell you not to carry them too much, don’t listen and don’t feel bad about it. Parents can do a lot while holding their babies in a carrier (except write, that’s impossible for me, unless my Mia sleeps.)

Secondly, don’t entertain them. Babies don’t need to be entertained. Just go on with your life while carrying them and they’ll be happy enough to follow along.

“With little kids, you often think they’re pushing your buttons, but that’s not what’s going on. They’re upset about something, and you have to figure out what it is.”

Michaeleen Doucleff’s future

Michaeleen has the perfect idea for her second book. For this one, she plans to visit different cultures again, but this time, she is going to study back pain. She promises there’s a juicy reason why people suffer from more back pain than they should. 

If you want to know the reason, you’ll have to listen to the podcast. Just kidding, she didn’t even want to tell me after the interview. We’ll just have to wait for her to submit the proposal, write the book and publish it. 

It might take a while though, because she’s still recovering from the great pressure and stress from writing her first book, Hunt, Gather, Parent.

But one thing is sure, when she travels again, Rosy is going along with her. And as she’ll be older, she’ll be able to chip in a lot more.

If you’ve got any questions or words of encouragement for Michaeleen Doucleff, you can reach her @foodiescience on Twitter or via mdoucleff@npr.com. Her personal website is https://michaeleendoucleff.com/. And if you have any ugly criticism, there’s a nice little button with an “x” in the top left corner of this window you can click.

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