Sometimes overwhelmed parents are less interested in reading measured advice than hearing someone say what they’re thinking— or wouldn’t dare to say in front of their kids. That’s the insight that led Karen Alpert to write and self-publish her irreverent book of anecdotes and reflections on the indignities of motherhood, I Heart My Little A-Holes. And its immediate success reflects how the right mix of crass and caring can attract a huge readership.
As the title shows, Alpert’s not interested in niceties when it comes to discussing raising her son and daughter. Rather than “kids say the darnedest things,” I Heart includes chapters such as “Yo baby book, you can take your milestones and shove them up your you-know-what,” and “Going from one kid to two is, uhhh, how do I say this, let me see, hell.” But that was not always the tone she took to her writing.
Alpert started blogging about parenthood in 2010, when her daughter was 10 months old. After a name change, the blog became Baby Sideburns (based on the title of one of her posts) and had enough success to attract the interest of the ChicagoNow blog network run by the Chicago Tribune.
She had worked for years as a copywriter so had no trouble putting together engaging posts, but hesitated to go too personal with her writing.
“I was figuring out what readers were interested in and how far I could push the envelope,” she says.
Alpert’s “a-ha” moment came in the fall of 2012. She had been getting occasional feedback to her posts and had 170 Facebook followers, and felt that was a great place to be for a casual writer. But on November 26, 2012, she wrote the post that would change the direction of her blog and her writing career. Titled “What NOT to F*ing buy my kids this holiday,” the list included “Any toy without an off button,” “Anything alive,” and “Talking dolls,” along with plenty of colorful commentary and salty language.
It was much ruder than any of her previous posts, and readers loved it. The straight talk, wit, and sprinkling of profanity delighted parenting blogs and other outlets, which reposted the piece and sent it into the viral stratosphere. She saw her number of Facebook followers shoot up by tens of thousands practically overnight.
“I’m not a huge curser, but I cursed a lot in that post and people said, ‘we love it! We curse all the time and it’s great to see someone speaking like that,’ and I said, ‘alright, I’ll dial that up,’ ” says Alpert.
From that point on, she wrote with “more of an edge” in her tone and as feedback and fans rolled in, Alpert increased the frequency of her writing (going from two pieces a week to three pieces a day during her most prolific periods).
It was not long before readers began asking whether a book might be in the future. There was clearly a market for it: the profane picture book Go the F**k to Sleep was dominating the bestseller lists, while Louis C.K.’s hilariously unsentimental look at fatherhood had helped make him one of the most popular comedians working.
But while the idea excited Alpert, she had reservations about going with a traditional publisher.
“I had concerns that they would have a lot of control over what I put out there,” she says, while also admitting that, “it was a little bit of laziness— I didn’t want to do the whole querying process.”
Alpert decided that self-publishing would be the best way to address all these concerns. But her experience as a marketer propelled her to do a bit more market research before getting to work on the manuscript. To see if there was genuine interest (i.e. readers willing to spend money on the book), she launched a Kickstarter campaign in April of last year.
“I knew it was going to mean a lot of time, and I would have to hire a babysitter, and I just didn’t want to make the investment if there was not going to be a return on it,” says Alpert.
She set a goal of $10,000 over two weeks and promoted it to her Facebook followers and readers of her blog. By the time the campaign deadline hit, she had raised $21,000—clearly there was potential.
From Blog to Book
Alpert says the Kickstarter campaign was valuable not just because it provided her with the funds to complete the project, but because it also shifted her fans into a concrete group of active investors whom she wanted to be sure were happy with the final product.
“They were rooting me on and were just so encouraging,” she says. “Writing the book was harder than I thought it would be, and if I didn’t have them there, I’m not sure I would have finished.”
Among the difficulties that fans helped Alpert through was the rookie mistake of giving herself an overly optimistic deadline. With the funds in hand at the end of April, she promised to have the whole book edited and ready by July. In fact, it would take until late October before it was actually ready, but rather than complaining about the delay, the supporters cheered her on.
“I’ve been so scared that the fans are going to rebel at some point, but they’ve been completely the most supportive people you’ve ever seen,” says Alpert.
She began putting her pieces into different buckets—“about how much my kids are a-holes” or “throwing up and pooping”— and figured out from there which sections needed more material and which had enough, while adding images throughout.
When it was finally ready, Alpert reached out to Amazon’s CreateSpace to publish the paperback version of the book. The company’s team helped her design the cover of the book, format the text, and even select the right font style, so that, “it looked 1,000 times better than anything I could have done on my own.”
After having trouble getting her book onto iTunes, she reached out to author services firm 52 Novels for the e-book formatting, conversion, and design. It just so happened that the woman at 52 Novels was a fan of Baby Sideburns and she worked with Alpert through every step of the formatting and posting processes.
Ahead of the book’s release on October 20, 2013, Alpert says she really only promoted the book on her Facebook page, but made a concerted effort to include creative and humorous messages in her posts, expressing concern that “just saying ‘buy my book, buy my book’ could turn followers off.”
“Every time I ask someone to buy my book, I try to also give them a piece of entertainment,” she says.
For example, one post informed fans, “this is the copy I’m sending to my grandparents” and showed an open book with pages full of blacked-out curse words. Or another post in which she showed a copy with comedic Post-It notes with such directions as “Read This When You Want to Kill Your Rugrats” or “Read This When You Feel You’re a Sh*tty Parent.”
While its humor won the book the greatest fan support and interest from other moms, Alpert was surprised to hear that one of the chapters for which she got the most comments was the only serious piece in the book (actually titled “The serious chapter”)—about post-partum depression.
“I had experienced maybe five minutes of it when I had my daughter, and I debated about including the chapter in the book because it was so different than the rest,” says Alpert. “But I can’t tell you how many e-mails I got from people saying, ‘I’m so glad you included that.’ People liked the honesty of it and related to the book.”
She also created a basic Web site for the book at www.iheartmylittleaholes.com through GoDaddy.com, which includes blurbs, jacket copy, and links to where visitors could buy the book.
It went up for pre-order five days in advance and within that time took the 46th spot for all of Amazon and stayed in the top 100 for days. Even more exciting for Alpert: It hit number 22 on the New York Times list of nonfiction e-books.
The success caught the interest of a handful of agents and publishers who reached out to Alpert. Eventually, she clicked with Rachel Sussman of Chalberg & Sussman literary agency, who worked out a deal with HarperCollins.
“As the mother of a toddler, I was immediately drawn to Karen’s authentic and hilarious voice,” says HarperCollins senior editor Amy Bendell. “She says out loud what we are all thinking, and her writing had our office in stitches. Amidst all of the Facebook and Instagram posts of seemingly perfect families, it’s refreshing to have someone who is not afraid to share the sometimes dirty truth about parenting.”
The new HarperCollins edition will be available April 8, repackaged as an ideal Mother’s Day gift.
Despite her earlier reservations about working with a traditional publisher, Alpert says she has found the process of shifting from DIY to working with a major house to be a total pleasure. She says the company “let me keep the book the way I wanted it,” while also providing plenty of advice and encouraging a collaborative effort.
“They’re mass marketing it, whereas my target was people who were on my Facebook page already,” says Alpert. “I’m holding in my hand the book I always wanted to do.”