Dreaming big: an interview with author BJ Gallagher

Los Angeles-based inspirational author BJ Gallagher must be the most productive individual in the Southland. She has six books coming out in the first six months of this year:
Dancing in the Rain: The Power of Gratitude (Simple Truths;February);The World's Best Advice from the World's Wisest Women (Insight Editions; March);It's Never Too Late to be What You Might Have Been (Viva Editions/Cleis Press; April);The Best Way Out is Always Through: The Power of Perseverance (Simple Truths; May);What About Me? (Breakthrough Press; May);Why Don't I Do the Things I Know Are Good For Me? (Berkley/Penguin; June)

A prior career in diversity management and organizational development at the Los Angeles Times inspired her to write her first book, A Peacock in the Land of Penguins, an international bestseller. BJ also conducts seminars and personal development workshops. I first met her in 2004 at her weekly salon for creative women, L.A. Brain Exchange. Her latest book, It's Never Too Late to be What You Might Have Been, is a guidebook to getting the life you've always wanted and seems especially relevant to displaced media workers.

What are 3 concrete things journalists/media professionals can do to reinvent themselves after being laid off?

First, give up the notion of "job" and instead, adopt the idea of "earning" and "working." Regular 9 to 5 jobs are disappearing in newspaper journalism, but there is still work to do and people who will pay you to do it.

Second, be social. Stay connected with people. Join organizations; go to events; keep your eyes and ears open for people who can open doors for you.
Third, process your emotions in a constructive manner. It is normal to have all kinds of negative feelings during and after a layoff. Emotional baggage will trip you up in your search for new work, so deal with your emotions are quickly and effectively as possible.

Let's talk about your time at the Los Angeles Times. When was this and what were you telling managers as you trained them?

I was the Manager of Training and Organization Development from 1986 to 1991. It seems like eons ago, but actually, the issues they're dealing with today are the very same issues that were becoming apparent way back then. I taught managers about leadership, effective hiring practices, how to play to people's strengths, and about diversity - how to cultivate diversity, manage diverse people, and create a culture of pluralism at the paper.

What did you recommend that management do to see itself as in the information business? What was their response?

I saw myself as a change agent, but unfortunately, senior management didn't see my role that way. They just wanted me to help them keep the union out. Really, that's what my immediate boss told me one day. "If people happen to learn something, too, that's fine. But your role is to help keep this paper union-free." Needless to say, I was shocked and disappointed. I was capable of doing so much more. But you can't help an executive team that doesn't see the need for change. That's why I always felt like a peacock among this bureaucracy of short-sighted penguins.

What can the Los Angeles Times do now to get out of their current problems?

I'd tell them: "Give up the old paradigm before it kills you. You've been rearranging deck chairs on the Titanic for 20 years now and it's killing you. Give it up. The old newspaper paradigm is gone, long gone. You need a new paradigm, but unfortunately, you can find that paradigm unless you take a radically new path." Einstein said it best: "A problem cannot be solved at the same level of consciousness that created it." The newspaper penguins keep trying to solve their problems but they can't - because they're the very penguins that created the mess they're in. They need a peacock, or a loon, or some other wild and crazy bird to show them a new paradigm.

Do you think the "Chinese Wall" hinders true communication and collaboration between the sales/business side and editorial sides of the LA Times?

Ah yes, separation of church and state - more of the same old penguin paradigm. If you're really going to reinvent your business, you have to be willing to let go of everything you think you know - everything you fervently believe - and start from scratch. You have to be willing to go back to zero and begin again. The game has changed and you must change, too, or die. It's economic Darwinism.

I wish I could be more optimistic about newspapers in general, and the Times in particular, but I see no evidence over the past 20+ years that they have the ability or willingness to adapt to the new landscape that has developed around them. They're like the proverbial boiled frog. They've waited so long now, they're almost cooked.

Do you think the Information Age has lowered the standard of living for information workers? I believe that journalists are feeling the slights and reduced standard of living first experienced by librarians and teachers. Lawyers are next.

You're probably right there. As information has become more and more of a commodity, available almost anywhere, those who were previously the gatherers, disseminators, and gatekeepers of information are become less important and lose their status.

What can journalists do to transform themselves into information workers?

Journalists have been information workers all along - they just didn't think of themselves that way. And that has been their biggest problem. They defined their role too narrowly and as their preferred medium has been disappearing, they failed to enlarge their paradigms. So now they have to play catch-up, and for some, it may be too late.

In your book, It's Never Too Late to be What You Might Have Been, you speak to media people becoming entrepreneurial--can you elaborate on 3 skills journalists and others can develop now?

First is flexibility - to thrive in today's wild world of information you must learn to dance on quicksand.
Second, resiliency - the ability to bounce back, recover from setbacks and disappointments, and navigate some really rocky, turbulent, psychic terrain.
Third, willingness and ability to learn - new skills, new habits, new kinds of coworkers, new technology, and much more.

I believe journalists are information managers who should leverage their Rolodexes--how can they do that to make money?

You're absolutely right. Business is all about relationships. Always has been, always will be. That hasn't changed. Even with all the technology, it's still about people. Look for opportunities to collaborate with others; learn from people who are already making money in entrepreneurial ways; go on information interviews with people who are doing what you think you might like to do. Explore; ask good questions; look for opportunities to help others; stay connected. Don't isolate.

How did you manage to have 6 books coming out at once? which were written earlier and how did you manage all your multiple projects?

I certainly didn't plan to have six books come out all at once ... it just turned out that way.
One of the books was written a year ago, the women's self-care book with Berkley/Penguin that's coming out in June. I turned in that manuscript in April of 2008. New York houses have very long lead times with books they publish.

One of the books is a remix of a book I published in 2001 - a book of sassy women's quotes. The other four books are all from small, boutique publishers - they work very quickly with short lead times. For instance, the self-help book, IT'S NEVER TOO LATE TO BE WHAT YOU MIGHT HAVE BEEN, began as an idea in a phone conversation with the publisher last November. She said she wanted the manuscript by the end of December so they could publish in April - that process was amazingly fast!

My new children's book took only a week to write - I think I wrote it in November - it's coming out this month. The two glossy gift books each took me about two weeks to write. I'm good, I'm fast, and I have lots of good book ideas, so that makes it possible for me to be very prolific. I'm also a compulsive person - once I get started, I work long hours until it's done. I seem to feed on my own momentum and produce amazing results in very little time. I guess there's an up side to being compulsive, eh?

Do you have an agent or did you self-agent these and how did you get your work in the hands of editors?

My agent sold only one of those books - the one with Berkley/Penguin. The other five happened without my agent. It helps that I have relationships with editors in several publishing houses with whom I've done books in the past. Sometimes they call me up with an idea and ask me to write - three of my new books happened that way. I like that a lot 'cause then I don't have to write proposals and go through that rigmarole. It's very flattering that a couple of editors pursue me to write books for them.

With my first book, A Peacock in the Land of Penguins, I knew no book editors and had no contacts in publishing. That's why the first book is always the hardest for an author to publish. You're the new kid in town and you don't know anybody, and you don't know how the game is played either. Fortunately, today there are lots of resources available for first-time authors - seminars that teach you how to get published, books that tell you everything you need to know, book packagers who will do all the grunt work if you decide to self-publish, and desktop publishing for do-it-yourselfers.

But there is also more competition than every before and the book market is quite noisy and crowded - it's a lot harder these days to get your message heard above the din of the multitudes. But it's still fun. Competition forces an author to do great work, hustle to promote her books, and be more creative in finding ways to make her book successful.

What is your writing schedule?

I am not one of those disciplined writers who puts in X number of hours each day. I write whenever my muse calls me. It helps to have a deadline and it helps even more to receive an advance check - I work well to deadlines and I love getting checks in the mail.

However, sometimes I get an idea out of nowhere and I sit down and start making notes even if I don't have a publisher in mind. I simply obey my muse. When she beckons, I drop what I'm doing and write. Once, I pulled off the freeway into a parking lot to write something that came to me. Another time, I stopped vacuuming in the middle of my living room to sit down and write when an idea popped into my head. Ideas are gifts, so I honor them by paying attention and following up when they come to me.

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