Q&A: How Shea Serrano went from middle school science teacher to NYT bestselling author

On the morning of February 22, Shea Serrano, a staff writer at The Ringer, picked a fight with Donald Trump on Twitter. He didn’t do it for retweets or clicks or to amuse his friends. He wanted to win.

Serrano’s publisher, Abrams Books, had recently released Why I March, a book of photos from the post-inauguration women’s marches, edited by Serrano’s friend and book editor, Samantha Weiner. Serrano wanted that book to surpass Trump’s The Art of the Deal in Amazon’s hourly ranking of its fastest sales movers. So he mobilized his Twitter following, known as the #FOHArmy. (That’s short for GTFOH, as in “get the fuck outta here.”)

Four hours later, Serrano declared victory:

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“It’s an authorless book, so it’s hard to get a lot of publicity for that kind of book,” Weiner said a few days later. “He just wanted to give it a boost.…People were doing very petty things like sending it to the White House, to Mar-a-Lago, to Sean Spicer. People were buying two, four, six copies to give to their friends who marched.”

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It’s the same approach Serrano has taken with his own books. His second, The Rap Year Book: The Most Important Rap Song From Every Year Since 1979, Discussed, Debated, and Deconstructed, was a New York Times bestseller in 2015, on the strength of Serrano’s tireless self-promotion and his reputation as a sports and culture writer for Grantland. He’s now working on his follow-up, Basketball (and Other Things): A Collection of Questions Asked, Answered, Illustrated. Though the book doesn’t publish until October, Serrano’s readers began buying it as soon as Amazon started accepting pre-orders.

Some people ordered two copies, or three, or 33, and sent Serrano screenshots to verify their purchases.

“For other books, that’s not a normal thing, for people to buy like 12 copies,” Weiner says. “People just really want to support him, and he supports a lot of other people.”

Leading the FOH Army is hard work, Weiner says, and Serrano approaches it as part of his job. But it also comes naturally.

“He has a brand, and it’s not just the books, it’s not just The Ringer,” Weiner says. “It’s everything, and it all kind of hinges on his personality, and he knows that and he likes it. You can’t fake that.”

Serrano, 35, lives in Houston and has been a full-time staffer since last July at The Ringer, Bill Simmon’s Los Angeles-based follow-up to Grantland. His beat there is whatever interests Shea Serrano: rap music, basketball, movies, the dignity of ugly people, whether Ryan Reynolds and Ryan Gosling are actually the same person. I talked to him recently over the phone about his books, his writing process, his journey to The Ringer, the importance of shooting your shot, and, of course, the FOH Army. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

 

CJR: Was this your social media strategy, to build an army?

Serrano: There’s no strategy behind it. We’ve just built a really strong community of people who started moving together to do some cool things. It doesn’t take much more than me going, Here’s my new thing, grab it if you want it, and if they want it, they grab it.

People ask me that all the time, and I wish I had a smarter answer, but I don’t. If you spend enough time on Twitter or interacting with people, you build a certain amount of equity, so when you need help, they’re there.

CJR: You defeated Donald Trump with the women’s march book. Does he have to resign now? What’s next?

Serrano: That was a lot of fun. We got all the way up to 27th in Amazon’s book rankings. There’s over 100 million books on Amazon, so that’s pretty good.

Prior to that, we did it with Jonathan Abrams [a former Grantlander who published Boys Among Men, a book about prep-to-pro basketball stars, last year]. He’s a quiet guy but very very good at his job. I knew his book was going to be well-written but that he’d do a very poor job of promoting it, because that’s not who he is. He’s an old-school reporter. I said, Let me be the Little Penny to your Anfernee Hardaway. [Remember those Chris Rock-voiced Nike commercials from the mid-’90s?] Let me make all this noise and you don’t have to worry about it. So we did this big push to get him on The New York Times bestseller list, and it worked.

We also do this thing called Art Parties. I really like buying art from people. I’m very envious of people who are good at drawing—I’ve done a little, but not at that level. We had one with this guy named Ryan Simpson. I bought some art from him after I saw his site, so one day I said, Today, we’re just buying stuff from this guy’s website. He said he sold over 1,000 prints in one day, which is more than he’d sold in his whole life doing art.…It’s neat to be able to do that, and it’s also neat to have them say, Thank you, can I send you something? I don’t want any of that money.

CJR: Does this ever worry you? It’s almost like you’re a cult leader. What if you told them to do something evil?

Serrano: Nah. It’s always some nice, cool things we’re doing and I think that’s why it works. Very rarely are we negative on Twitter, besides towards Donald Trump. Fuck that guy.

After we did two or three things, we got that reputation. I was doing a basketball newsletter during the playoffs last year. We were doing it for free. We set it up through MailChimp, and if you have zero to 2,000 subscribers, MailChimp will let you do it for free. I posted the link and we got like 30,000 people subscribed, so now I’m paying $250 a month to send this newsletter out.…Somebody said, You should let us pay the monthly fee, and I’m telling them, no, no. Finally one day I put a link in there, so if you want to send some money, you can do it this way. People sent in several thousand dollars before I turned it off, so I paid Arturo [Torres, Serrano’s illustrator] a little extra and the rest we donated to a shelter, about $2,500. The next time we did it for a food bank in Houston. Another time we did it so kids could get free haircuts for school. I told people we tricked people into doing something good.

CJR: How’s the basketball book coming? Is there pressure on you as you write it because people are buying it already?

Serrano: I don’t feel any pressure about writing it, but I feel pressure for people to like it. I’m always nervous when I put something out. But more than anything, it’s reassuring. If I can post a link eight months before the book comes out with no cover, no anything, and I can get several thousand pre-orders, that’s very cool to me. It also makes me look very good to the publisher. They’re very nice to me now.

CJR: What’s with the Twitter fights with other authors? It’s not just Donald Trump.

Serrano: BJ Novak had a book that was out; his was ahead of ours in the rankings and I wanted to beat him. He sent me a tweet laughing at what I was doing, and I said, Let’s go, let’s get him.

It’s just a fun thing to do, because Amazon updates their rankings every hour, so you get a quick reward for it. There was this book that was about playing piano. It had a cartoon owl on the cover, and it was always ahead of us in the music book rankings. It’s a book so kids can learn to play piano, and I was just screenshotting this owl, saying, Fuck this owl, I never liked owls anyway, let’s get him.

CJR: How do you balance this social media stuff with your writing? It must be a lot of work, and it seems like it could eat up your life.

Serrano: It’s not a small amount of time. When we do an art party or a book party, like with Samantha’s book, it’s 10 hours straight of being on the computer or on the phone. It’s not an easy thing, but it’s built into my work and it’s just part of my workday.

I have a very strict schedule for all that stuff. I have so much I need to get done every day that if I didn’t have an exact schedule, it would all fall apart for me. It can be a distraction if you let it, but there has to be a point where you turn it off.

I have an office now here in Houston. I tried working from home, and it’s not for me. So I know what hours I’m going to be in the office and I know what I have to write for the week. I know how long a piece is going to take me, and I know what hours I’m going to be working each day, so those are hours I know I’m not going to be on the internet.

CJR: What’s the Shea Serrano story? You were a teacher, right? And you started off just hustling for $50 freelance gigs?

Serrano: Not even $50 gigs. It started out at like $15. I was a teacher and my wife was a teacher as well. She was pregnant with twins, and she went into labor four months early, so they put her on bed rest and she couldn’t work. I needed another job. No one would hire me to work at Target or for waiter jobs, because I already had a full time job. So I just started Googling “work from home jobs,” and writer was one of them. I said, Fuck it, I’m a writer now.

I started calling magazines and newspapers and telling them, “I’m a writer. Do you need me to write something?” I ended up doing a thing for a neighborhood newsletter that this woman was printing up in her garage. She paid me $15 to write an article about Craig Biggio, when he was retiring from the Astros.…I took that and I flipped it into a spot at the Houston Press. I was writing about anything I could there. That’s where I was learning about being a writer. I was there for four years, until a couple things I wrote got some national attention, and I was able to write some stuff for L.A. Weekly, which has the same owners as the Houston Press.

When I wrote for L.A. Weekly, a thing I wrote there caught the attention of Molly Lambert, who was at Grantland. She passed it to her editors and they brought me the idea of pitching some stuff. Grantland was very popular at that point, but I didn’t know anyone there. All I knew was they had people from The New York Times on staff, and they had a Pulitzer Prize winner on the staff, so I thought, That’s not for me.

I freelanced for a couple of years and then they offered me a staff contract position. At first it was freelance, and after a year of that I decided I enjoyed it, so let’s try full time.

CJR: You were teaching the entire time until you went full time at Grantland in 2015, weren’t you?

Serrano: Yeah. I started writing in about 2007, right around when my kids were born. I was teaching eighth-grade science for ESL and special-ed populations, all the kids no one believed in.…In college, I majored in psychology and criminal justice. I went in thinking I’d be an FBI profiler, go to crime scenes and tell you what kind of person did the crime. Early in my second year I took this class where they showed us pictures of actual crime scenes, and I said, No, this is not for me.

CJR: So you didn’t want to be a writer when you were a kid? You didn’t write for your high school paper or your college paper?

Serrano: I didn’t even know that was a job that you got paid to do. That’s just not a thing you tell Mexican kids in San Antonio, that you can be a writer. I didn’t have any experience at all until I started.

CJR: What does “shoot your shot” mean?

Serrano: That just means to try it. Try the thing you want to do, whatever it is. That’s the reason I became a writer. I just shot my shot. The reason I ended up with the woman I married was just, let me try. She’s way more appealing than I am, but I shot my shot.

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Tony Biasotti is a freelance writer in Ventura, California. Find him on Twitter @tonybiasotti.