The Viagra Diaries: A self-publishing mega success story

“Barbara Rose Brooker is fearless. The Viagra Diaries does for single seniors what Helen Gurley Brown’s Sex and the Single Girl and Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying did for the women’s sexual revolution in the sixties and seventies.”  – Entertainment Tonight

It’s a blurb to die for, and well deserved. I’ve known Barbara for more than 25 years and worked with her on several books, including The Viagra Diaries.

She’s a dynamo, an anatomizing social satirist and commentator with a keen ear and profound empathy for everyone she writes about. She’s been in the news recently for selling Viagra Diaries, which she originally self-published, to Simon & Schuster for a six-figure advance and to HBO for a TV series coming this fall.

We spoke the other day and she agreed to share her story here at The Book Deal.

What’s the book about?

It’s the story of Anny Applebaum, a 65-year-old writer with a weekly newspaper column called “The Viagra Diaries,” about love and sex after 60. She falls for Marv, a 75-year-old diamond dealer and they have a passionate affair — but Anny soon discovers that he’s a serial online dating-service customer, that he can’t face aging, and he’s on the prowl for younger women. So Anny struggles with Marv, with aging, with her own fears of intimacy, and also worries about her 41-year-old unmarried daughter. Anny takes the reader through her funny, insightful account of a woman who ignores the fallacies of age, romantic love, sex, and makes some surprising new choices.

How does an author go from self-publishing to a big book deal?

First you write the book, believe in it, and ignore the agents who reject your project. Then you self-publish the book, do your own marketing and publicity, online social networking, and call bookstores to see if they’ll order your book from Ingram. The rest of it is up to the public. They make a book happen.

Tell us about the HBO TV series, which came before the Simon & Schuster book deal. How did that happen?

The Viagra Diaries had been out for about six months and was selling well. Then I received a call from Wendy Riche at Alan Riche Productions in Hollywood. Wendy said she had read the book and loved the premise. She asked if they could option the novel for a feature film. After I checked them out and saw they were very reputable, I said yes and hired Patti Felker, an entertainment lawyer in Los Angeles to negotiate the contract.

The Riches had one year to sell the book. They had an almost deal with Universal but then passed: “No one wants old,” they were told. “No one will watch a 70-year old woman having sex,” But my daughter Suzy Unger, a VP for the William Morris Agency said “Mom. It should go to HBO. It should be a television series.” She gave the book to Aaron Kaplan, a well-known producer and a week later he sold the book to HBO. HBO hired Goldie Hawn to play the lead, Darren Star who wrote Sex in the City to write the script, and Paul Feig, director of Bridesmaids and The Office to direct. The latest news is that they dropped Goldie Hawn, so they’re recasting now for the pilot in May.

And how did you get the book deal?

Patti Felker, my entertainment lawyer, referred me to David Vigliano, a literary agent in NYC, since she does the legal work on most of his book contracts. He loved the theme of ageism and sex after 60, and sold it right away to Simon & Schuster. I think that the new edition, which will be published in October 2012, is fabulous. And David has sold the book to eight foreign countries so far, along with world wide audio rights.

Tell us about your background as a writer

I’ve wanted to be a writer as long as I can remember. Early on I wrote poetry and short stories. In my 30s, as a single parent with two daughters, I went to graduate school and finished my MFA in creative writing. While there, I wrote my first novel The Rise and Fall of A Jewish American Princess, which my then agent Fred Hill sold, but it got shelved and never came out.

Then I wrote another novel So Long Princess, and worked on it with you, Alan, to get it to the point where Fred sold it to Morrow in 1987. It had great reviews but there were big problems with distribution. After I left Fred Hill, I wrote thirteen other novels and book projects, but I couldn’t get an agent, and couldn’t sell anything. In the nineties, when self publishing was still looked down on, I put out my own book about AIDS in San Francisco called God Doesn’t Make Trash. We had nine film options with Sharon Stone, James Woods and others but it never got made. My new agent is interested in selling So Long, Princess, and other books that no one would read at the time.

How did the The Viagra Diaries get started?

It was 2007 and literary agents were telling me it was “too late” to pitch my projects, because my books were “outdated,” or, “too old…” They told me, “Rest on your laurels and get another husband or something.” This really made me angry. What’s outdated or too old? It seems that unless you write chick lit or you’re 20 and look like one of those reality show housewives with hair extensions and fake boobs, you’re treated as if you’re a throwaway.

I was tired of ageism. So I began writing a column in a local paper called “Suddenly Sixty”, until the new editor wanted me to write about “seniors and goldfish,” so I quit. Now I write “Suddenly Seventy” for the San Francisco Jewish Weekly, and get tons of fan mail. I also write a column for The Huffington Post about dating at 70.

Then I ventured onto a singles Internet site, only to be told not to put my age above 60.

So I decided to write about an aging protagonist who doesn’t believe in age, a boomer hottie, who still pursues her dreams. I decided to take all the stories I had from researching and make them the basis for The Viagra Diaries, the story of Anny Applebaum.

Why did you decide to self-publish?

I didn’t want to waste years sending query letters to agents and publishing. When I sent it to agents those few who responded said things like “There isn’t a demographic for over 60” and “No market for seniors.” Self-publishing was becoming more and more respectable so I thought, why not? At least my book will be out there. I’ll have control.

So as you know, I worked with you, Alan, to edit the early version of the book. You were the only one who took The Viagra Diaries seriously at the time.

What did you do to market and publicize the self-published edition?

I wrote a good pitch and sent it to all the San Francisco Bay Area papers, television and radio shows. A few responded with some good press but most of the local media said “We can’t sell age.”

So I asked my daughter for a list of movie stars who might endorse. Some of them were very kind and generous, including Joan Rivers, Ed Asner and the poet Phyllis Koestenbaum, whose blurbs are up with the book on Amazon.

Then Suzy got the name of Kathy Lee Gifford and Hoda’s publicist at the Today Show. I sent them a letter along with along with a copy of the book. Kathy Lee and Hoda emailed back quickly and said they “LOVED” the book and were glad someone was at last talking about age, dating, and ageism. Their producer booked me for a fifteen-minute segment.

After the Today Show, I got on Entertainment Tonight, CBS Morning Show, The Talk with Sharon Osbourne, Touch Of Gray Radio, and a few others. It was an important experience. I learned a lot and from 2009-2010 the book sold 10,000 copies.

How did readers react to the book?

Beyond my hopes. Immediately after I self-published, I started getting fan mail from aging boomers around the country, saying, “Thank God someone is writing about this. At last a real character with her real age.” Fans wrote me stories about their fears of aging, the age discrimination they suffered. They want to find new love, too.

What’s it like to have a huge success at this point in your life?

Well, I feel great about getting some recognition for what I believe in at last. I don’t think of my current success as an end but more a process. I am 75 and I want to be a star.

What’s your advice to authors?

Keep writing. Never give up. Don’t get caught up with snobby elitists or prissy cloistered groups of writers, authors, teacher, who label your work bad, good, mid-list, this or that. Don’t listen to anyone who discriminates, who tells you how to write. Break the rules. Find your voice. Learn from those who are there for you, who have real expertise. I learned from you as my editor all those years, and from the higher power and from myself.

Write your books in YOUR VOICE, and don’t worry about what other people might think, or if it will be a bestseller. Write every day, as discipline is talent. See a project through even it if it’s not great or if you’re struggling. Go on to the next project even when you’re down.

Do you recommend self-publishing?

Definitely. I heartily recommend self-publishing to all writers. It’s the way to go. It’s a way to get your book out there–instead of waiting years for an agent to send you a form letter or ignore you. Publishers, I’ve been told, are scouring self-published books, checking out sales, and buying them for conversion to their lists, like Simon & Schuster did with me.

What’s your next project?

I’m currently working on Should I Sleep In His Dead Wife’s Bed, a book of monologues and snippets about boomer-plus love, sex, and dating and there’s already interest in a television sitcom based on it. I haven’t showed it to an agent yet, only to a producer.

It’s exciting being on a new mountain. I wonder if there’s a top?

_________________

What about you?

Does Barbara’s experience with publishing resonate with you?  She struggled with rejections for many years and yet found a way to soldier on.  We’d love to hear your thoughts here in comments, and will watch for any questions.

15 Responses to The Viagra Diaries: A self-publishing mega success story

  1. Monica Shaughnessy

    Awesome interview!

    Barbara is a beacon to anyone who’s writing something that doesn’t fit into a neat little publishing bucket or who doesn’t happen to be a reality star look-alike and 20. I can’t imagine writing 13 novels and not getting anywhere with them. I would have torn my hair out! Her story is truly inspiring.

    And, yes, Barbara’s experience resonates with me. I’m not anywhere near her age, but I still feel as if time is sprinting by while I “hurry up and wait” for that book deal. With the double-whammy of recession and ebooks, it’s getting tougher and tougher for debut authors (or mid-listers with career gaps) to break through the system.

    Barbara, you may have taken the rocky path to success, but you’ve made that path a little smoother for others. Thank you.

  2. Becky Povich

    Congratulations to Barbara! As the old saying goes, it appears she’s laughing all the way to the bank! Thanks for posting this amazing story. It just gave me a bolt of writing energy and courage!

  3. L. M. Quinn

    Bravo, Barbara! You’ve tapped an audience waiting to hear from you. The U.S. market is so behind other countries on recognizing that the elderly still have a life. Look at the popularity of the series “As Time Goes By”, “Summer Wine”, and “Waiting for God.” Wake-up time for the U.S. publishing and film industry thanks to you, Barbara and Alan.

  4. Judith Grahanah

    Barbara. As writers we’re told that, a damn the torpedos, never give up attitude, proppred up by some bull-headeness, is what perservers. You’ve just proven it. What an inspiration you are to me and anyone trying to do anything. I’m saving your interview for my down days. Thanks

  5. Heide Braley

    Hello,
    What a wonderfully inspiring article! I just finished writing my first collection of sort stories and decided to go with the self publishing route. I too, have no interest in the friction between authors and publishers. I just want to write stories…. Thanks for the inspiration.

  6. Dean Sudan

    Thank you Barbara and Alan for the inspiring post! I self-Pubbed a work awhile ago that went nowhere and I felt bad about it. Your new found commercial success gives me hope for the long-run scenario.

  7. A

    I love everything about this. I’m only 24 but my feminist education already has me all to aware of how once I hit about 35, I will cease to see anything I can relate to in the media. I thank Barbara for being a stubborn pioneer in this- hopefully when I get to be her age there will no longer be a fight for me to join and agism will be much reduced.

  8. Georgette Todd

    What a wonderful story! I’m bookmarking this post so to re-read when I, an overactive writer bogged down in the molasses drudgery of publishing, need a little inspiration to motor through and keep going. I especially loved Barbara’s self-determination to break the blockage of this ridiculously ageist (dare I say childish) Americana media culture. Although it helps to have a sage daughter in the biz, it appears Barbara was not over reliant on her to forge ahead. Just a little help here or there. While I’m not a TV person, I rent HBO series’ all the time. So, I look forward to being exposed to something refreshingly different. Thanks Barbara for sharing your story and Alan for this interview post.

    Kudos to Alan for giving Barbara that early validation.

  9. Gretchen

    This is absolutely terrific! I am thrilled by your new success Ms. Brooker. There are millions of sad hungry readers who do not see themselves reflected in the ageist media anymore, and it is my hope and my wish that all of them find you, and I bet they will. I’m working on a short story group with a 62yo woman as one of the main characters. When it’s ready I intend to self-publish, so thank you for the encouragement your experience provides.

    On an unrelated note: you look great.

  10. Ann Medlock

    The more elders who keep writing, refusing to sit down and shut up, the better. Thanks for this interview. I’m going to go by her self-published version of the book now.

  11. Ann Medlock

    Well, damn. You can’t buy it until the S&S version appears. The self-published copies are all gone. Well done, Ms. Brooker!

  12. Ursula de Brun

    I loved this interview. I totally agree with the importance of writing in one’s own voice, of not focussing on who’ll like/publish the work, but sticking at it and writing, writing, writing. Some of us would actually like to read novels that reflect our lives. Publishers – take note.

    Thank you, Ms Barbara Brooker! So happy for your success.

  13. Julie

    Congratulations to Ms. Brooker, and best of luck. I wonder, though, if she would have been as successful if her daughter wasn’t already an industry insider. While this is an inspirational story to us (still) as-yet unpublished dreamers, it seems as though most of us wouldn’t be able to achieve Ms. Brooker’s level of success because we just don’t have any modicum of insider access and are most likely winging it alone.

    It sure does help to have a daughter who works for Wm. Morris is all I’m saying. :-\

  14. barbararosebrooker

    Julie-my daughter left WMA, or WMe, many years ago. I was approached for this book by producers who found me. If I had the kind of nepotism you’re implying I would not have had to self publish —-

    I must tell you not because I’m angry but because if anything—because of my daughter’s status at Wme, but in television only, I had less of a chance to get to an agent. I did it myself, because of Alan Rinzler’s editing, encouragment, and the public demand.

    So go for it.
    Blessings,
    BarbaraRoseBrooker

  15. Francine Toder

    Hi Barbara. Your article totally made my day! I applaud your energy and belief in your writing. I thank you for sharing your experience. At age 72, and a retired psychologist who took up the cello a couple of years ago, I recently finished a book titled,The Vintage Years: Finding your Inner Artist (writer, musician, visual artist) After Sixty. Like your target demographic, it targets the years beyond sixty and is about finding meaning and having fun through the arts at this stage of life. It’s my third book and I assumed I would have no difficulty finding an agent or a publisher. With no time to waste and no bites from anyone, I’ve decided to self publish and was so inspired by your story. It reinforces the impetus to move ahead with my project.

    Thank you Alan for posting this interview. What a fabulous service to the community of writers!

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