Anora McGaha has loved art and literature since she was a little girl. Growing up in a home that emphasized academics and culture, she has always expressed a tendency toward the creative. After experiencing several eye-opening encounters within the business of literature and the process of publishing, Anora has found a calling and a purpose in providing opportunity for the unheard and suppressed female voices in modern literature to be shared.
As Founding Editor of the online publication Women Writers, Women Books (at booksbywomen.org), Anora has opened the door to possibilities “for women writers regardless of their experience or accomplishments in writing,” and it is apparent she has found her audience. She insists, “we need portals for new writers to come through.” Women Writers, Women Books (WWWB) has published over 250 contributing authors and has an extensive audience of over 20,000. Anora is the co-author of a social media book, and the micropublisher of a media readiness workbook for authors by Allison Hill. She founded the journal When Women Waken and will be publishing memoir pieces from Our Stories as an anthology, in addition to the #iamsubject project anthology edited by Diane DeBella. Anora has also authored her own illustrated book, The Blessing: A Fairy Tale about Healing Grief. She is a social media wiz who knows her way around the marketing arena, and she is not paying membership to the front-shelf, exclusive-authors club.
Anora’s passion for creative works and her openness toward new writers are some of the main reasons I asked Anora if she would grace us with an interview, and she has been more than generous with her brilliantly insightful and honest responses.
GTH: Anora, what inspired you to start Women Writers, Women Books? Have you always had a fascination with literature and writing?
AM: WWWB started the spring of 2011. Three forces came together to make that happen. Since grade school I’ve had a thing for creating groups and publishing and I hadn’t done anything for a while. I’d learned enough SEO, WordPress, and blogging to get in some real trouble. And, I’d had my first encounter with a literary agent. It was like running into a glass wall. When I came to, I had enough anger in me to make something happen. (Angry? Because in my fifties now, I’m tired of not being taken seriously. Not being seen what for what I had to offer.) Not sure where the initial attraction to writing and publishing came from, but I always wanted to have a newsletter, magazine or newspaper. I wrote a guide to two overseas exchange programs I went on. I started The China Hands – a newsletter for people who had lived in China just after graduate school that had a short but good life. And in my corporate career, I was hand-picked to start a weekly newsletter for our division, that ran for over a year.
Interest in literature and writing? I come from what I call “an over-educated family” where literature and music were loved. A friend visited my grandfather’s home and said he had never seen so many books in one place outside of a library. Daddy was really into poetry, song, plays and American music, as was grandfather. My mom sang. Writing poetry and skilled prose won you major points. I also was very studious as a girl. I liked to read and write. I redid 3rd grade in French school and finished grade school in French – important because the French memorize poetry (and history lessons) and recite it in the front of the class. Victor Hugo was the beloved father of French poetry, adored. That adulation for the poet and literary figure leaves an impression. It wasn’t a big step to want to be one of the special ones whose work is read, discussed and studied.
The one memory I hold onto in identifying as a writer was a night I thought I might die. (Kids, we’d been experimenting with smoking.) This thought / feeling / understanding came up: I won’t die because I am supposed to be a writer to share the many, many stories from all the countries I’ve lived in. I was 12. I’ve held onto that compass ever since, even when my boat was dry docked, which happened far too often, even when I swore I’d never write again, which happened after particularly chilling responses to my work.
Shaping the vision for WWWB was my own experience. Like this one. In college, I took creative writing from an elderly curmudgeonly former publishing professional from New York, a tenured professor at the women’s college I went to (I was going to say if it was a man or a woman, but in my experience gender didn’t determine response to young writers.) It was the late 1970s. I had come back from Kuwait (where my father was high in the US embassy) with what I now know as feminist and class stories: the over-consumption of the expat community; the tragic lives of the expat servants – our Indian housekeeper was working off debts incurred from her husband’s motor cycle accident that left them penniless.
Then there was this story: well-to-do-Kuwaiti’s (we joked about finding one who wasn’t – the country was so wealthy) offering a full month’s pay to Indian women as they came out of church, for one afternoon. Essentially prostitution. Women would take the risk and never be seen again. Both our Indian house cleaner and cook confirmed the stories. Were they killed? Were they sold into slavery? The Indians went to church together on their one day off a week so they were hearing and seeing this. These were serious stories that deserved telling, and young writer that I was, pursuing my social conscience and awareness of injustice, deserved encouragement and cultivation. I was only 19. The professor slashed them apart. I wouldn’t find my feminist writing teachers until I dropped out of the women’s college and signed up at the huge University of Massachusetts.
When people are not encouraged to develop their voices, when only the best are plucked from a group and the rest abandoned, we are damaging people and diminishing our society’s strength, so I think. So I have experienced.
GTH: Your publication focuses on the female writer and publicly states, “We are interested in giving opportunities to unknown writers to be published, as well as publishing posts by well known authors.” Why the unknown and unpublished? Can you tell us a little more about this mandate?
AM: Humans (like many creatures) are hierarchical, distinguishing and conferring attention on those with honors, ignoring those without recognition. Although I was born into a family at the top of the education world and my father was a diplomat, because we traveled so much, I started at the bottom in the schools and neighborhoods everywhere I went – the outsider in school, at times the outsider who couldn’t speak the language. I became very aware of what it’s like to not be included. The writing world, probably like every art, is very hierarchical – focusing attention on the winners. The more recognition you have, the more you can get. But for new writers, getting seen early on is tough. Somewhere, someone has to invite you in.
We need portals for new writers to enter, be seen, heard, celebrated. From my own experience, as an all-too-sensitive person, I know how delicate young or new writers can be. I know the power of an encouraging space; a greeter; someone at the entrance saying, are you new? Welcome. Let’s introduce you and find you a place.
As an example of how much need there is for supportive environments for women writers, earlier this spring 2014, an organization in the UK set up a mentorship program between well-known writers and new writers, and demand was huge! The WoMentoring Project. Reach out and invite someone along for the ride, “Come, come walk with us.” I’ve noticed that the real story of how things happen is often hidden from public information. It’s too tough to figure out all the unspoken rules for getting ahead, to know what really is going on, without a mentor.
Lastly for now, my father’s books had different book labels. One of them said this:
“I shall pass this way but once; any good that I can do or any kindness I can show to any human being; let me do it now. Let me not defer nor neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.” Etienne de Grellet (1773-1855); Quaker Missionary
GTH: What, in your opinion, is most important in sustaining an online magazine? Is it consistency, content, or social media connection?
AM: Our culture really likes to split out variables for cause and effect. We usually want to say –either, or… Is it this, or that? But in my experience, it’s really “and” that is the important concept. So many things interact with each other. So much is unique that comparing one with another to figure out what to do is a rough approximation at best. There are so many qualifiers. So many different situations. What is success? Is success monetary subscriptions that pay your expenses – then NYTimes, The Nation, Wall Street Journal – all these are trying ways to make ends meet.
Our online magazine is funded by our other jobs – teaching, publicity, websites–patched together in this “post”-recessionary economy. We could not pay ourselves even $5 an hour for our work on the magazine, and working on it means we have less time available to earn other income. But it’s meaningful. We learn. We build relationships. We make a difference in the lives of some women. It’s positive what we’re doing. We’re weaving connections and sharing knowledge. And more women are stepping up as Sponsors, investing in us in exchange for our marketing experience, our site’s profile and our growing Twitter following. That’s encouraging and exciting.
Is success the number of followers on Facebook or Twitter or blog subscriptions? Yes, somewhat. Though we’ve realized that just because someone has clicked once to like or follow, doesn’t say but 1% of what they might do in the future. It’s so thin. Like counting the number of glances people give you at a shopping center. Is success the number of RTs or Shares? Is it the number of people who participate in give-aways, and commenting, and submissions for projects? Is it how many sites quote and link back to your online site? Is it, perhaps, ongoing learning, ongoing exposure, ongoing deepening of value and relationships? Or all?
Everyone says consistency. If you succeed and you’re fabulous – hysterically funny, or deeply inspiring or moving, or fascinating, yes people will be waiting for you. Look at TV shows like Scandal and Nashville. The audience is huge and waits eagerly for each new show. For your online site, if you’re not publishing once a week, your site doesn’t look very alive, very current. However, if you don’t bill yourself as a Monday blog or an Every Friday post – I don’t think it matters. But then I haven’t hit the big time. Frequency, rather than consistency as far as I can tell, is valuable for getting Google’s attention for search results.
As for keeping many people’s attention… I’d say frequency (3x a week or 5x a month) is more important than consistency –(every Tuesday, Thursday & Saturday at noon). But it all depends on your goals. As for being consistent in the topic of your content – surprises can help sustain interest, but people are following you for a reason so you would want to sustain your focus. That’s common sense, right?
Content? Some say content is king. If you don’t produce content that your target audience is interested in… you won’t attract people. (You could try producing the content you’re interested in writing and experiment in seeing who shows up.) Content is what you’re offering – it’s your service, it’s what your trading for people’s attention. It’s your currency. If you want to build an audience and community, you’ve got to keep finding value to offer, and that’s very challenging, and very very exciting too. An ongoing puzzle to solve. An ongoing experiment. Sometimes the results are strong, sometimes not, it’s all experience.
Social Media? Yes. Not exclusively, traditional media channels are still huge, if you can get their attention. But social media is like sky writing. You can potentially be seen by many thousands of people. Potentially. If you have content. If you have some level of frequency. If you’re lucky. If, if, if…. Social Media is where many of us keep a least some little connection, and so you need that. In fact, we built Women Writers, Women Books through Twitter alone. The day-to-day editing and marketing communications of WWWB is run by my business partner in Spain, Barbara Bos. She’s the genius behind the Twitter channel content and audience growth. That is our primary channel. We added Facebook later, just like another bulletin board or sign. Twitter is where we happen.
Here are a few takeaways from the last six years online:
Relationships take time. Though clicks are fast, and people can click a like or friend button in a millisecond, what isn’t fast is trust and depth of relationship. Except in rare moments when instant best friends happen to find each other, there is no bypassing the impact of time and experience interacting together for building trust, and with that the willingness to buy from each other, take action from each other’s recommendations, and participate at deeper levels.
Identify your audience and find out where they are. Most of us know what we want to offer…many times it starts with that. I want to write about this…. Finding our audience is kind of like digging for gold somewhere where gold hasn’t been found before. It doesn’t feel so easy for many of us. Tackling that nut early on – really digging into it is so important. I tell you I resist it like I do digging into the heavy clay of my North Carolina soil. It’s just hard, hard, hard. But the thing is, with the right tools it can be done. Wetting the soil. Adding chemicals. Getting a mechanical digger. Gathering a team. You know what I mean? Understanding your audience and what you’re giving that they want. Understanding what you want from them –and checking out whether they’re good for it, whether it’s a good value proposition. We’re still working on it at WWWB – like all online publications, we’ll always be working on that.
Find the people who want to do what you want to ask for. I targeted writers. Because writers write. Writers want an audience. Writers need to build their network. So that was easy. I ignored my friends who write – half of them weren’t online, and to keep friends, one has to let them be as they are, not push anyone. So I went for strangers, women writers already on Twitter. I looked for ones who sounded interesting, who were doing interesting things, and, ones who were interested in interacting. I decided to grow WWWB on Twitter, to source our guest writers on Twitter, publicize their work on Twitter, announce sponsorships, our journal and anthologies on Twitter. Writers will help publicize it. Their friends will see and may be interested. I try to only ask more from those with an incentive to do it like asking contributors to invite two or more friends to comment on their posts to get the commenting going. Or, on www.whenwomenwaken.org, asking contributors to comment on two submissions. This reinforces the value and importance of commenting. This brings their community in to participate. This rewards our contributors.
Want to know something funny? I started WWWB to grow a platform, half thinking that I would also be able to use it for the authors I publish as a micropublisher, and then my own books. But starting a community platform is completely different than your own platform as a writer and author. You see, this online magazine, it’s not about me. My name is on it in only a few spots. It’s really about women writers, other women writers. About helping others hear each other; about facilitating the step into writing; about being an example. Listen. Read. Comment. Lift someone else up so they can participate. Give a break to those who are just starting out. Don’t let them hang out on Twitter all alone to merely watch the popular people interact. (Where does that come from? You try first day in French school as an American standing in the cement courtyard at lunchtime with no one by your side. Eight years old. Something I’ll never forget. I probably made a vow about it too – never to ignore someone standing alone at a gathering.)
GTH: You have an established internship program for WWWB. How has opening your project to intern involvement enhanced your publication?
AM: Young energy fresh from college. Interns bring access into different worlds. Victoria spoke French and researched French-speaking women writers. She also was a strong editor and fast and efficient, and significantly launched a career during our internship. She took to Twitter like a bird to the sky. Rachel helped us start our journal When Women Waken and reach out to young women. Another intern, Chelsea had lived in South Africa and did a lot of outreach for us that then resulted in significant queries and submissions from South Africans. Tynisha came very motivated with a work ethic, organization skills and attention to detail that was stunning. And she had an eye for design. She’s just finishing up her grad school studies. We just got an inquiry from a Chinese student, Chialin who is researching Chinese women writers during her trial period.
And, I love to help others. I love to mentor others, help them feel good about what they can do and get practice in negotiating work tasks and arrangements.
GTH: What are your long-term goals for WWWB?
AM: As you might imagine, we want to be a fully funded organization with the capacity to continue over time. We would like to surface voices of women from different countries, cultures and styles; to capture trends; to share know-how; to encourage and learn.
Barbara Bos, my business partner on this project says, “I see us as a vibrant community of women writers, an international platform where women writers can turn to for mutual support, and where great sources of information are available online.”
We’re exploring possibilities like courses, Internet radio, video talks and interviews on publishing (I have published about a dozen books already, so have the experience), forums, an association. One possibility is associating ourselves with a college or university, or another organization that has financial resources to sustain this. But this is very organic. We stay present and explore options and opportunities as they emerge.
GTH: Are you currently looking for any specific talent? How can an interested writer contact you for publication?
AM: Email email@example.com if you are interested in any of the following activities:
Because internships are virtual, and we’re handling so much, we need individuals who step up and play, and who pay careful attention to the mission and voice of the magazine and journals. You’ll need initiative, motivation and the ability to sustain contributions on your own.
•Sourcing interesting writers with valuable angles of the writing life, marketing or publishing.
• Writing articles about the most famous contemporary women writers in a country; or the writing scene for women in a region; or trends in women’s writing.
• Editing articles based on the style we’ve established, including laying out photos (photo editing).
• Developing tweets of women’s quotes, quotes from our articles, quotes from our sponsors.
• Reading submissions and commenting on them.
• Online layout of our online journals, and loading all the selections for the new issues, including photographs, table of contents, and more.
• Laying out the content for print editions of the journal and anthologies.
• Publishing through CreateSpace and Amazon Kindle.
GTH: May I ask an abstract question? In your opinion, what makes a piece of writing excellent?
AM: Two things here.
1. One of about six big eye openers from becoming the editor of a magazine is this one. Every editor / publisher has an objective, and preferences. I used to think there was one great standard and all editors used it, and if I wasn’t accepted, my writing was no good. Seems ridiculous now. But I didn’t “get it” until I changed sides to the editor’s desk. Everything is subjective. There is not one standard of excellence. (Okay we do have common ground, but my point still holds.)
2. I went to a tiny experimental school for 12th grade. My main teacher was an Exeter / Harvard graduate. He was so smart it was intoxicating! I remember him writing the word Freedom on the black board and asking what it meant. After a big silence he said – “In and of itself, freedom means nothing. You have to ask Freedom FROM what TO DO what.” So with excellence.
Excellence in what context, and for what purpose. Excellent at keeping me interested? Excellent in bringing light to multiple sides of a conflict? Excellent plot? Excellent phrasing? Excellent innovation? Excellent historical context? Excellent because it’s innovative? Excellent because it mastered a classic form? In my opinion? For me at any moment in time, excellent is what feeds my soul, my whole, my human being. It could be making me laugh. It could be the most exquisite lyrical writing. It could be powerful visionary story telling. For me excellence grabs my attention and holds it, but if research is correct, I’m similar to less than 5% of people. So my excellent won’t be representative.
GTH: Thank you, Anora, for opening up to us so that we may learn more about the vision and purpose of Women Writers, Women Books and how our new writers might get involved. We love your platform and we wish you all the best!
You may visit Anora McGaha’s online publication, Women Writers, Women Books at booksbywomen.org. New writers are always welcome.
Follow WWWB on Twitter @WomenWriters.
Interview by Reagan K. Reynolds.