Author Interview: Janna Marlies Maron

Janna Marlies Maron wears bright red boots. She’s a woman in progress who, in addition to her many projects advancing Sacramento’s creative class, writes fearlessly about the things that inspire and horrify her on the most intimate levels. Janna is a champion of the sport and art of storytelling, and it’s from that platform that she’s now launching her ebook, How to Manage Depression Without Drugs: 5 Game Plans That Helped Me Get My Life Back.

How-To-Manage-Depression-Cover-Yellow-WEB

The book is a quick read, about 15,000 words. Without belaboring the point, it takes the initial stance of “I didn’t want to use drugs, so…” before describing five self-care strategies that Janna has found transformative in her journey with depression and multiple sclerosis (MS).

Her five “game plans” are not particularly novel. They are widely endorsed by the mental health establishment, not only as helpful stand-alone practices but also as adjuncts to medication and/or talk therapy.

The thing that I’ve learned is, when you’re working with non-novel content, as is common in the self-help genre, what you are actually selling is your unique perspective on that content. Your own spin, as it were.

As such, Janna’s five game plans for beating depression are as follows:

  • The Story: re-framing, or re-storying, your life to integrate your new reality
  • The Music: organizing your environment to create conditions in which you feel happy
  • The Food: eating well, even with a lot of dietary restrictions
  • The Rituals: simple, thoughtful practices to give shape and meaning to each day
  • The Resources: educating yourself so you can be your own best advocate

I described the book using the word “you” in the list above, but really, this book is more about Janna’s specific experience. To overlay your own issues and figure out what will work for you takes some extrapolating. This is not an advice book in the same sense that books by So-and-So, M.D. (or PsyD, or PhD or whatever) are. Janna tells her particular story in such close detail that readers can’t simply follow steps 1, 2, 3 and put her game plans directly into action. Instead, we feel the reverberation of Janna’s testimony…and then are empowered to start with our own blank page.

For more on the ins and outs of this book’s content, visit some other stops on Janna’s virtual book tour. If you’re writing in the genre I’ll call “testimonial self-help” and want an insider perspective on some of the writing and publishing choices Janna made for this project, read on for my interview with Janna.

Why did you choose to write a book about depression and not just keep writing about it on your blog?

There’s a little bit more legitimacy to a packaged piece of content with a title. Readers are more attracted to books when it comes to this type of content. They don’t want to have to go searching in posts on a blog where the information may not be streamlined, and it may not be in a very cohesive or consecutive presentation. Some of the book content is adapted from what I had published on my blog but it’s also enhanced to be more of a guide, whereas the original blog content was straight, “Here’s what I’m going through.”

My decision to not take drugs is kind of a big deal, and the question people ask me the most is, “Well what are you doing?” So it made sense to put everything together in one place. Just from looking at my blog statistics, depression is the most frequent search term. I saw that on my site, and then I went on the Amazon Kindle site and saw that there wasn’t a lot, and what came up [wasn’t impressive].

So, not only did you want to create a guide that’s easy to follow, but you specifically found the market for it.

Yes.

In the mechanics of writing the book, how often did you copy/paste from the blog and how often did you just start with a blank page?

I started more with a blank page. I asked myself, do I have enough material for an ebook? What would it entail? It would entail an Introduction, and then these four chapters: The Story, The Music, The Food, The Rituals. And then I added the fifth chapter as I was writing, The Resources, because it made sense to have one final chapter with all the stuff that I’m mentioning in a place that’s easy to reference. So I wrote to that outline and then when I found I was repeating myself, writing something that I’d already written about before, that’s when I would go to my blog and stick it in. Or if I had gaps in the ebook manuscript, and I thought, oh, I have a story that can go there, I’d go to my blog and fill the hole. I used the blog content more to supplement the outline rather than starting with a blog content and writing around that.

If you’re going to sell something, it has to be different from what you’re giving away for free on your blog. I knew I had to start with something original.

Speaking of giving away for free, how did you decide on the $2.99 price point? 

I did a survey. I sent an email to 30-40 people I know with a link to a Google form. It was one question only, multiple choice. I gave a quick description of the book and its length and asked “how much would you pay?” Ninety-nine cents, $1.99, $2.99, or $5.99? It’s about 15,000 words, so that’s about half of what a full-length book is. I knew that it was short but it was short intentionally because I wanted it to be a quick and easy read.

Most of the surveys came back with either $2.99 or $5.99. Then my friend Alejandro said that $2.99 is a sweet spot on Amazon. So I thought, I’m just going to go with that. I wanted the price to be a no-brainer. If someone is searching and they turn up this title on Amazon or Apple, I don’t want them to have to think about it. I want them to just click and buy. I think $5.99 is just pushing it enough to where if they don’t know the name of the author, or if there aren’t enough reviews, it could make somebody just keep going to the next one.

The survey was anonymous, so people would answer honestly. I asked people that I know shop online and are already into reading ebooks.

Why did you choose to go with ebook and not print or print on demand? 

The length was the primary factor. I didn’t want it to look chintzy in print. I wanted to create something that would generate passive income. Once it’s done and written and out there, it’s for sale forever. Amazon has the print on demand option, but you have a higher profit margin with ebooks than with print.

Some authors say they’re writing an ebook so they can update it easily. Do you think you’ll add new content?

No, I don’t think I will.

How did you distill your content down to the five game plans? As I was reading I wondered how you kept yourself from writing about, say, your family or broader community, or maybe rituals that you implement weekly or monthly instead of daily. Basically, how did you keep your book focused?

I approached it with those four themes in mind: The Story, The Music, The Food, The Rituals, because those are the things I can really pinpoint in my own life that were drastic changes for me. I kind of tackled them each individually. For example, although The Story is the first chapter in the book, I really started modifying my diet first. It was really, really hard. And then the story component came out of that struggle. Chronologically, the diet was already in motion so the next phase was to focus on how I was talking to myself about my own experience…and actually, the music was even before all of that, before I was diagnosed with MS.

I thrive under structure and I’m a very action-oriented and goal-oriented person. I like to see the results. It’s a way to hack into my own psyche and figure how I can measure and how I can physically see the progress.

How did you decide to order the topics for the book, if not chronologically?

The writing and the power of storytelling is the overarching theme for me, personally. It has a higher place in the hierarchy. This book is part of my storytelling platform. The Music and Food could swap order in the book, but the music is easier to implement, and the food has a lot of sub-steps [so that order made sense].

Why did you choose to self-publish rather than approach a traditional publisher?

I’m not one to sit around and wait for permission from someone else. This, I felt, was an important story that needed to be told.

How much of the book production did you do yourself? The infographics looked pretty good, even in black and white on my first generation Kindle.

I did the graphics myself on Piktochart. My editor Robin suggested I use infographics instead of a step-by-step checklist about How You Can Implement All Of This Stuff. [In earlier drafts] Robin pointed out that the tone shift from the storytelling to this very pragmatic, prescriptive tone didn’t work. She said it was too bossy!

I’m a visual person in that I enjoy visuals but I don’t create them. I didn’t have the budget to hire someone and it didn’t seem kosher to ask someone to do it for free. Piktochart has templates, but even in their from-scratch [mode], it’s very intuitive. You drag and drop, choose your fonts. The book cover is also from Piktochart. The text formatting is just in Word.

Is this book for men? You write about yoga, essential oils, tea…not that some men aren’t into those things, but did you think about whether you were writing mainly for women, or did you just approach it with the mindset that “this is my story, I’m going to write it”?

Robin and I talked about that too, the target audience. More women struggle with depression than men. I did think, yes, probably more women are going to read this but I don’t want to alienate men. You’re right, essential oils do appeal to women more because they’re in the fragrance category but men can also discover their health benefits. My husband asks me to put essential oils on him now, when he’s feeling sick!…I did take out some things that were more gender-specific.

How do you see your book as similar and different from the “expert” self-help books? What is its relative value?

My book could be a testimonial for the books that I cite. Those experts are spewing all sorts of information about the scientific reasoning behind diet change and spirit-mind-body wholeness, wellness, and all of those things. And here I am saying yeah, it actually works. I’ve implemented these four things and here is the change I’ve experienced.