An award-winning independent journalist, author and speaker based in Washington D.C., ASJA 2018 keynoter Katherine Reynolds Lewis is fast on the heels of the success – or shall we say, pre-success, of her about-to-be released first book, The Good News About Bad Behavior (PublicAffairs, April 2018). But hers is no overnight Cinderella tale. Along with spending over two decades as a working journalist and reporter, she gathered bylines from such notables as Bloomberg Businessweek, MSN Money, Money, The New York Times, Parade, Slate, and the Washington Post Magazine. Today, along with promoting her book, which sprung from a Mother Jones article, she also contributes to The Atlantic online, Fortune magazine, USA Today’s magazine group, the Washington Post and Working Mother magazine.
Let’s get straight to the good stuff: How was your book catapulted into the upper stratosphere of conventional publishing?
Actually, it was at an ASJA conference that I heard author and science writer David Dobbs say that if you write an article and it does well, then you can turn it into a book. So when Washington Parent asked me to do a service piece about how discipline at home is different from that at school, I came across the work of child psychologist Ross Greene, himself the author of several books. Not only did his theories make sense but they were helping kids at schools and juvenile correctional institutions. Under Greene’s philosophy, you’d no more punish a child for yelling out in class or jumping out of his seat repeatedly than you would if he bombed a spelling test. His model is collaborative and encouraging, rather than being punitive or offering rewards. The goal is to get to the root of the problem, not to discipline a kid for the way his brain is wired.
When I approached Mother Jones about an article on Greene and his work, I made him promise to let me know if any other reporter contacted him about a story. On a leap of faith, I flew to Maine where he was based and interviewed him and visited principals and teachers at schools where the program was being implemented. And when the Mother Jones piece appeared in July 2015, it immediately went viral; since then, it’s been viewed nearly 6 million times, with 800,000+ Facebook shares and 6,000 tweets.
I had a feeling it was going to be major but had no idea it would be that huge. And I went from trying to get the time of day from agents to meeting with all six of my top picks. After choosing the agent that was the best fit, I wrote the proposal. We took it to publishers and got multiple bids. Obviously this is a very timely and sensitive topic, but also one I was passionate about since I have my own school-age children.
So you’re getting the whole package. A book tour, radio and TV publicity, appearances throughout the US. What are you doing to prepare for that?
There were a couple of things that I did before even reaching this point. The first was to promote the Mother Jones article on as much as possible on social media and elsewhere. And the second was, during the proposal-writing process, to listen to my agent’s suggestion that, instead of focusing on struggling children, it should be a book that any parent can pick up and read whether or not they think their kids have issues. Because they might, only the parent may not realize it.
I am also a certified parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP). I was surprised at how important that was to publishers. Being a recognized subject matter expert is a huge plus. And I also have a background in public speaking, having led workshops on journalism and spoken at conferences for many years as well as having taught parenting classes.
I’m actually working very closely with my publisher on the book tour, which we hope will reach 8-12 cities. Along with parenting speaker series, we’re looking for a combination of opportunities that will make most of their budget.
And now for the 101 question: How—and why—did you get into freelance writing? Actually my undergraduate degree was in physics. It wasn’t until my senior year that I realized I was not cut out to be a physicist! But I was also interested in business and journalism…and actually journalism and physics have a lot more in common than one might think. They both involve understanding the world around us and explaining it to the public. So in 1994 I got a job as a copy editor for the Bond Buyer in New York City and worked my way up to reporter. I worked full-time until 2008, when I was laid off from the Newhouse News Service, where I’d been the Washington, DC national correspondent. It was then that I decided to go into freelancing—it was time to write about things that were meaningful to me.
Many journalists would love to be in your situation. What advice would you give them to help them succeed?
- You need to follow your dreams but also be practical. It took me a lot longer than I thought to get to where I am now, so I kept chipping away at projects I felt deeply about while taking on assignments that would pay the bills. It’s a balancing act.
- At times, you’ll need to step outside your comfort zone. For example, I thought I was being presumptuous when I emailed my top pick agents about the book. But I believed in the project and it finally paid off. You can’t get discouraged.
- Too often writers feel like supplicants, begging for assignments or work. We create something valuable that publishers cannot survive without, so we need to bring that confidence to the table. Telling stories is the most fundamental human activity and as long as you have that ability to do so in writing, you will find work.
- Face-to-face networking is the best thing you can do for your career. Go to conferences; attend classes, readings and seminars. While applying for the various fellowships and residencies took a lot of effort—and I didn’t always get them—along with uninterrupted writing time, they provided a chance to connect with other writers and artists, many of whom I am still in contact with today. The same is true of ASJA, which was incredibly important in growing my career while offering the emotional support of a community of freelancers.
While people like to bemoan the state of publishing, talking about the good old days of print, it’s easier than ever to connect with readers, publishers and share our work.
Follow your writing vision and register for Navigate. Motivate. Captivate., ASJA’s annual New York conference on May 18-19. Discounts are still available until Saturday, April 7! For more information on the schedule, keynotes, and hotel, please click here.