A Talk with J.A. Jance

We met under the happiest of circumstance. The celebrated  J. A. Jance had read A DANGEROUS FICTION and enjoyed it enough to agree for the first time in many years to write a blurb. I wrote to thank her, and a pleasant exchange followed. We stayed in touch. Recently we had an email exchange in which Judith shared some very important lessons about making one’s living as a writer: building a brand, as it’s called these days. I found it extraordinarily useful and relevant; I think any writer, published, self-published or hybrid, can learn a lot from it. With her kind permission, I am sharing that conversation with you below.

J. A. Jance had mentioned in a previous email that she was embarking on a book tour.

“Book tour?” I answered wistfully. “Do publishers still do that?” The Penguin paperback edition of A DANGEROUS FICTION had just come out, and with the help of a kind and diligent Penguin publicist, I’d been doing some modest online promotion, but nothing strenuous, mostly from the comfort of my office.

Jance “Yes,”  J. A. Jance replied, “three weeks on the road.  This morning I’m home, sitting on my own back porch in the Seattle area and trying to keep the damned heron from poaching my goldfish.

I cut my teeth in the lowly world of “original paperbacks” where mysteries supposedly had a 90 day shelf-life.  I’m happy to report that my first novel, Until Proven Guilty, is still in print 29 years later!!!  The guys, local old hands at writing and all of them male, took me to the woodshed and  told me to jump ship with Avon and go with someone who would pay me some “real” money.  Fortunately, I disregarded that advice and stayed put.  As for them?  They’ve all lost their early books through . . . well . . . jumping ship.

When that first book was due to come out, I was so elated.  Remember, I hail from humble pie Bisbee, Arizona.  I was being published by a NY publisher.  When I called my editor and asked when the book publishing party would be, he nearly choked on his coffee.  Party?  What party???  So we threw a party ourselves, and my agent–my agent then and my agent now–my sister and I, a grand opening party complete with a visiting llama who peed in the elevator on his way up to the party room.  (The building manager was NOT happy!)

My inquiries about a tour were met with similar derision, so my agent–that same agent–set up 30 signings for me.  THIRTY!!  I went all over hell and gone in Washington, Oregon, and Arizona–ON MY OWN NICKEL–signing books at any B. Dalton or Waldenbooks that would give me a table and let me hawk books inside or outside the store.  Because I didn’t know how much the first two on-sale weeks mattered, I WENT ON VACATION!!! before those signings started.  In the long run, it turns out that was the right thing to do. Avon printed 30,000 copies of UPG and shipped most of them.  Then when orders for the signings started coming in, the book was OUT OF PRINT!  That caused something of a stir.  How could an original paperback from an unknown writer in Nowheresville, USA, be garnering that kind of sales?  As far as New York was  concerned, that second printing came like a bolt out of the blue!

And then the second book came out.  Back then and even now, I do two books a year.  When the second book came out, we went back to those same stores–Washington, Oregon, Arizona–and did the same thing.  Only this time, I could sell two books at the same time–the first and the second–instead of just one. That strategy worked up to and including book number four.  I write series books, and I always told new readers that of course they should start with number one.  All during that time, I was doing free (but you must have books for sale) events for libraries, civic groups–Rotary or Kiwanis anyone?–book clubs, and ladies auxiliary luncheons.  Give me an audience and let me talk to them.

My first nine books were all original paperback and was looked down on with almost the same disrespect as e-books receive now.  There was no publisher paid tour.  My husband had a sales job and,whenever possible, I went along for the ride and set up signings coming and going.  He did his job during the day and during the week and helped with the signings evenings and weekends.  He doesn’t write, but he’s my partner, and none of this would be possible without him.  By the way, our first date as the “llama peeing” grand opening party for the first book.  Now I say that “I write the books and he writes the checks” because he handles the business end of the business.

In college, I was excluded from a Creative Writing program because, as the professor told me, I was a girl.  “Girls become teachers or nurese; Boys become writers.”  That’s a direct quote by the way, engraved on my psyche and the reason a fromer professor of Creative Writing is the crazed killer in my first hardback, Hour of the Hunter.

I taught school for a few years, worked as a school librarian, and then spent ten years in the life insurance business.  For that first party, we invited everyone in my Rolodex–called them on the phone and invited them.  For the next book the grand opening party was at a local restaurant rather than in our building.  That restaurant, the Doghouse, is long gone now, but before every grand opening we called the people in the Rolodex and that became The Doghouse List.  What was once primarily a phone list has now morphed into an e-mail list with 14,411 names on it as of now.

In the last few years, the publicists in New York have done only the bare minimum as far as setting up tours.  They go to the places that are easy for them–in other words, they call the places that they have on file and book signings there without any regard about who and where my fans are based.  The note I sent to you–asking for a physical location–is one of several thousand I’ve sent out in the past few days.  Time spent waiting in airports, riding on planes, and living in no known time zone–is not creative time, but I’ve turned it into useful time by getting physical locations on literally hundreds of people for whom I previously had only e-mail addresses.  That way I’ll be able to SEND OUT ANNOUNCEMENTS INVITING THEM TO SPECIFIC EVENTS!  And that makes my list a more effective marketing tool.

After last year’s tour disaster, I took things in hand and booked the first seventeen events of this tour–local events–my own damned self!  Worked like a dog that first week, taking my show on the road and doing two to three events a day–30 minutes of Q and A before the actual starting time.  The Q and A is my warm up act.  (I’m sorry, I can’t help but roll my eyes at “Where do you get your ideas?”  Grrr!  That one drives me nuts.  Do they think I go out hunting ideas with a butterfly net?)  Then I do an hour long presentation and close with a Janis Ian song–At Seventeen most often.  The presentation is followed by a signing.  Two hours in all.  No intermission.  I don’t read at signings.  I talk at signings.  I tell about where the ideas for that book came from.  I tell about my own origins and history.  I tell stories people tell me about reading my books–most of which have come in through e-mails that I ALWAYS ANSWER MYSELF!  But the thing about doing local events?  As I learned in those early years, those numerious signings were in my neck of the woods,  but if reporting stores are doing the selling, those sales count and numbers, even regional numbers, rule.  By the way, if you’re not comfortable doing public speaking, you need to get that way fast.  I took the Dale Carnegie course first and then spent a year in Toastmasters.

All this is to say, Barbara, go out and find your own fans–in libraries or wherever.  (Ann Rule and I used to be known as the queens of drug store and grocery store openings.  If the stores wanted us, we went.)  Make sure the various venues have SOMEONE THERE TO SELL THE BOOK.  I do NOT sell books out of the back of my car at events, and neither should you.  Collect names.  Get those early readers to become loyal readers.

My first ICD sales rep, Holly Turner, who sold paperbacks to the wholesalers–back in the old days when there were LOTS of wholesalers and no Amazon–told me once, “One personal contact is worth ten readers.”  I believe that’s true.  In this digital day and age, when we send out notices in advance of books going on sale, people have come to regard those letters as personal notes from me.  They are points of contact.  After the announcements go out, I spend days responding to the replies, but those people hear from me.  They are my PEOPLE, and they make my life possible.

So here’s a whole tankful of unsolicited advice. All of which is meant to say, don’t let the turkeys get you down.  Don’t just grumble.  Do something.  Do events.  Get people in your corner.  I still encounter people who say, “I met you the first time selling books on a card table outside a Waldenbooks in wherever.”  Fifty plus books later, those people are still reading my books.  And that counts!

JAJ

REMAINS OF INNOCENCEThat’s it. I trust you’ll agree with me that J. A. Jance is a class act, not only talented but extremely hard-working and as loyal to her fans as they are to her.  I appreciate her willingness to share the lessons she’s learned along the way. She has a new book out in her Joanna Brady series, by the way, and it’s wonderful: REMAINS OF INNOCENCE.

 

 

For lots more writing and publishing interviews and advice, subscribe to this blog through the links above and to the right. And here are a few links to previous interviews:

 

Writer Diana Gabaldon

 Writer Lorraine Bartlett

 Literary agent Gail Hochman

 Viking Editor Tara Singh

 Simon & Schuster editor-in-chief Marysue Rucci

 Book publicist Brian Feinblum

Insider Tips from a Publicity Pro: Positioning Books for Success

I’m delighted to welcome to In Cold Ink Brian Feinblum of Media Connect, a major book publicity firm with a tent large enough to include Al Gore and Dick Cheney on its client list—so you know that’s got to be a huge tent. Amazon Publishing and the Penguin Group are on the list, too, along with writers as diverse as Maya Angelou and Jackie Collins. It was great to have the opportunity to pick the brains of a real publicity expert. I learned a lot from this interview; I think you will, too.

 Brian, tell me a bit about yourself and your company. What made you decide to focus on book promotion and author publicity?

Brian FeinblumI am the chief marketing officer for Media Connect , the nation’s leading book publicity firm. I have been here 15 years and the firm has helped thousands of authors over the past 50+ years. I love working with authors and helping them to grow their brand and have their voices heard. When I graduated from college 25 years ago as an English major I planned on being a journalist but ended up staying in book publishing. I like working in PR and working with the media from the other side.  I can’t see promoting too many other industries. I love books because they represent ideas and values. Books make the world go – from entertainment and literacy to recording history and sometimes creating it. I value words and the language. Other than writing scripts for the adult entertainment industry (any offers out there?), I can’t think of a better field to be in.

Once, at a publishing dinner, I heard one publisher declare that he really had no idea what sells books, while others at the table nodded agreement. Do you know? In your experience, what sort of promotion or venue moves the sales needle significantly?

There is no magic formula, but there are things that are logical and make sense. For instance, where possible, diversify your media portfolio, just as you would your finances. Don’t just work at social media and ignore the opportunities with radio, print or TV. Further, most authors/publisher need to start their campaigns on time (four months before a book’s release) and to do things prior to that, such as building a social media platform, creating a Web site, and lining up distribution. Too often, people sabotage their potential success by missing deadlines and ignoring the way the media asks that you interact with it.

Has the consolidation of retail outlets (i.e. Amazon) affected your publicity strategy, and if so, how?

No. How people buy a book doesn’t matter for the sake of getting media coverage, although I personally support printed books and physical bookstores because they bring about a richer reading experience and develop a community. More important than who sells books is who publishes them. The consolidating of major publishers into just five owners poses a threat in terms of the diversity of voices being published and the lack of competition for authors looking to sell their books to a publisher.

Effective publicity services don’t come cheap. Are they a good investment for all writers? If not, what sort of writer should consider hiring a publicity firm?

homeless manFirst, don’t mortgage your house just because you believe in your book. They say don’t gamble money you can’t afford to lose, when it comes to casinos or investing.  Same with book publicity. But you do need to spend some money, take some risks, and be willing to support your financial commitment by also dedicating your time to the process. No matter how much is being spent it needs to be well spent, meaning an author should have a plan customized to meet his or her needs, desires and goals – and it should be a plan that a publicist believes will be successful. For instance, I would recommend online media and radio to novelists but would never, ever recommend pursuing national TV unless it was an unusual circumstance.

I realize there are many levels of service available from a company like yours, so this is not a simple question, but I’ll ask it anyway. What should writers expect to pay for publicity campaigns? A range is fine.

Authors should be ready to pay between $3000 – $5000 per month for a PR campaign, one that lasts 3 -6 months, BUT one can’t buy PR like a commodity. What one publicist does for the same amount of money another charges may not be apples to apples, either in the scope of the campaign or the results. I like to target a campaign that makes sense for an author, rather than ask the author to simply pay a set fee for services that aren’t relevant to that particular author.

Given that most writers have limited budgets and could not afford professional representation on a long-term basis, at what stage of the publishing process should writers bring publicists on board? 

Time can be a friend to writers or a cancer. The more advance notice you have to prep and lay groundwork, the better. For instance, to set up speaking engagements could mean you need to work six-nine months in advance. To contact book reviewers at major publications, you need to send advance review copies four months prior to publication date. Writers should consult publicists early and ask them what they can do for them, how much they’d charge, and what are their plans to make them a success. Then the author should figure out what they can do vs a publicist. For instance, authors don’t need to pay someone to do social media for them – they should do it themselves (but some may need coaching and consultation). Authors should use publicists for things that seem most foreign or difficult for them to do, or things that are time-consuming or where the success is based on media relationships and knowledge that authors just wouldn’t have.

Do you represent both published and self-published writers? Are there barriers to self-published writers getting reviews and coverage in mainstream media?

Oh yes, I represent a lot of self-published authors, accounting for maybe 40% of my client base. Most mainstream media is warming up to self-published books and the barriers to acceptance are the lowest they have been. But standard, old guard book reviewers at newspapers and magazines still hold prejudice against them. Online media and radio don’t care who the publisher is. Major TV looks and takes it into consideration but the medium is more personality-driven than publisher-driven. If a person with great credentials and/or a great story has something to say, that will dictate whether TV interviews the author.

blink1One of the books on your firm’s long list of best-selling campaigns was Blink, by Malcolm Gladwell. When that book came out, it seemed to be everywhere: TV, NPR, print media features. It was a very successful campaign for a high-concept nonfiction book. I’m wondering what an agency such as yours can do for literary fiction or genre writers who aren’t great fodder for the “ Good Morning America” circuit.

Yes, we have worked with all kinds of authors and genres over the years and there is room for good literary fiction. Certainly with online media and NPR or targeted radio interviews, one can get the word out. TV is not likely and some select print is possible.

I often hear from writers who have self-published first novels, put them out on Amazon, and sold nothing beyond a few copies to friends and relatives. Would you advise such writers to invest in a professional publicity campaign?

It depends on the author’s goal. People don’t just utilize a publicist to sell books. Writers need PR to brand themselves, build their media resume, get a positive message out there, come off as an expert or build a case for a literary agent to agree to represent them. Some books sell few copies because they aren’t promoted well. Others suffer from poor distribution. Some books are well-written but the cover is ugly and the price is worse. Some books are published that never should be – the topic is limited, the book is done poorly, oversaturation for the genre, or the author lacks qualifications for penning the book.

A great many publicity and marketing services have sprung up to service the boom in self-published books, and some of them seem sketchy to me, offering expensive services that are unlikely to prove effective. What questions should writers ask prospective service providers? What should they beware of?

Yes, this is an important area to focus on. First, look at the reputation of the people you are dealing with. How big are they? Too many promoters are one or two-people shops and although some can do a fine job, many are taxed, spending just as much time looking for business as they do in executing it. They have no depth or backup plan should they get sick, go on vacation, or hit a rut with the media. A bigger firm, such as Media Connect, has many resources and works as a team, rather than a solo act. Authors should ask who will they work with, how will things be communicated, how often will they receive an update, and what results are to be expected, though not guaranteed. Look at their Web site or social media – what tone do they give off? Do you like the person you are talking to? What success do they have for books like their book? Is the author being asked smart questions about them and their book or is the publicist just sweet-talking them and lavishing praise without even knowing much about them? I think if the publicist expresses a sincere passion for your work or your topic, that goes a long way in determining who to work with.

What are the biggest mistakes you see writers make in promoting their own work?

They don’t get started soon enough to plan and execute a PR campaign. They don’t invest in promotions, thinking a publisher will do everything. They put too much weight in one thing and don’t spread out their approach. Some spend unwisely on advertising, which rarely pays off for authors. They let fear, laziness, ego and being cheap get in the way of executing a comprehensive, timely and targeted campaign. They don’t fully understand that media begets media and that grass roots campaigns are good ways to establish media exposure. Authors are blinded when it comes to looking at their credentials or how they can be positioned to the media. They also don’t always work well with their publicists, such as not being available for calls, failing to provide things a publicist asks for, or forgetting to provide all of the information and resources necessary for a publicist to successfully promote them.

What are the most effective ways for writers, both published and self-published, to help their own books and careers?

Start by reading my blog, www.BookMarketingBuzzBlog.blogspot.com . Ok, shameless plug, but I think my 1100+ posts over three years on the topics that concern authors and book PR and marketing should help them a lot. Next, think of everything you do as a long-term event. Books may come and go but a writing career is constantly in flux. You build on everything you do. Don’t think something is too small to do to promote or market your book. Don’t let your ego convince you the book will sell itself without you doing everything possible to position it for success. Don’t focus on competing authors and get jealous or critical over what they do – worry about yourself and take care of business. Stop day dreaming and drawing up plans – get to work and day in and day out build up your social media platform and then find a way to collaborate with a publicist to help grow your brand and take you to the next level.

Thanks, Brian. Lots of great advice here–well worth a “shameless plug” or two!

In fact, I’ll follow that advice and your example by mentioning that my latest book,  A DANGEROUS FICTION (Viking Press), was called “required reading” by the New York Post, and “an absorbing mystery that keeps its secret until the very end” by NPR.  Though I am, admittedly, prejudiced, I’d be curious to read any book endorsed by that unlikely pair.  It’s a thriller set in the high-stakes NYC publishing world, and if you haven’t yet, I hope you’ll give it a read.

What Sort of Publishing Is Right For You?

In my last post, I wrote about the results of a large though unscientific survey of authors, which revealed a high level of dissatisfaction around the areas of marketing, sales and income. This struck me as profoundly unsurprising, almost a tautology.  Dissatisfaction goes with the territory. During the 15 years I spent as an agent and editor, I never met a writer who was completely satisfied with his or her publisher’s efforts, whether they were great or small. It’s like inspecting a house after a cleaning crew has come and gone. No matter how good a job they’ve done, you always notice what they missed.

So that aspect of the survey was not at all surprising. What struck me as I read is the fact that writers today have so many more choices than they had in the past. More writers are making a living than ever before, particularly “hybrid writers” whose books are both published and self-published. Mid-list writers dropped by their publishers are no longer silenced forever. Backlist books don’t recede into memory; they can live forever in e-book form. Short stories and novellas are no longer unsellable. Writers with an entrepreneurial bent can now publish their own work, undertaking the risks but also standing to reap much greater reward if the books do well.

overcoming barriersBut having choices can be confusing, and aspiring writers need to think carefully about which choice is most likely to get them where they want to go. If you read that last post and wondered what to do with that information, I’m going to suggest some guidelines here. They will vary according to writers’ goals and the genre in which they write.

The simplest case is the writer who aspires to write literary fiction, to be reviewed and discussed in mainstream media, and to be considered for the major literary awards. That writer needs the validation and support of a mainstream publisher who can get his book reviewed and sold into bookstores and libraries, because serious review attention is necessary to make those books discoverable. Literary fiction published independently has not been shown to sell well at all, and those writers may end up losing money after paying for editing, cover design and other necessary services.

The question becomes more complicated when it comes to genre fiction writers. Most writers, I believe, are still best served by trying first for mainstream commercial publishing house via a literary agent. It’s not an easy road. The search for an agent can take many, many submissions and often a number of rewrites; and finding an agent is only the start of an even longer process. Some writers are drawn to self-publishing out of fear of rejection, but that’s a fear that really should be overcome. Most published writers have gone through multiple rejections and lived to tell the tale; sometimes those rejections have worked to their benefit, as I discuss in this post. But the advantages of being commercially published are many. Most books will be published in multiple formats, not just e-books, and sold into brick and mortar stores. The more outlets one’s book has, the more chance it will be discovered and read. Being published by a major house is a learning experience and an opportunity to create a loyal readership that will carry over to self-published work should you decide to go the hybrid route. There are other advantages to mainstream publishing as well, too many to reprise here; if you’d like to see them, check out this post and this one.

Things are changing rapidly in publishing, and I don’t claim to be ahead of the game. But here is my current best advice for aspiring writers of romance, science fiction, cozy mysteries, Westerns and the many subgenres within those categories.

  1. Write the absolute best book you can, and then follow the steps outlined here to improve it.
  2. While writing the book, begin researching literary agents and put together a list of at least 50 to 60 agents who would be suitable for your book.
  3. Write a killer query letter and start submitting. (See also Agent Query and Janet Reid’s blog.)  Don’t submit to all the agents on your list at once. Submit to 5 to 10 agents at a time, to allow for tweaks to the query letter if your first try isn’t getting a good response.
  4. While your book is on submission, work on the next book.The_philosopher
  5. If self-publishing is a path you would consider, start educating yourself. There is a tremendous amount to learn if you end up going that route, and many writers have been generous in sharing their process and results. The Absolute Write forum is a good place to start. What you learn may help you decide whether self-publishing is right for you.
  6. Put together a list of smaller commercial publishers who accept submissions directly from writers.  By commercial publishers I mean those who publish your work at their own expense, whether or not they pay advances. In some cases, those books will come out in e-book form only, some with a POD option as well. But be careful! There are now many so-called publishers who require that writers cover the expense of publishing. They like to claim that they have come up with a new model of cooperative publishing, but in fact they are all variations on vanity publishers who have been around forever. Seek out publishers who consistently have books on Kindle’s bestseller list.
  7. If you have submitted to 50 or 60 agents and found no takers, it’s time to make a choice. There are three basic ways to go.fork in roadA.  If you’re determined to be published by a major house or to build a career as a hybrid writer, you should withdraw the book, hire a good editor, do some rewriting and resume submitting to agents. Or chalk that first book up to experience and go on to write the next, which will be better.

    B. You can submit directly to that list of smaller commercial publishers, aka indies. This is a good option for writers who feel their forte is writing, not publishing. Small publishers can usually do more effective promotion and marketing for your book then you can on your own, and they usually pay a larger royalty on e-books than the big five houses: 50% versus 25% currently. But self-publishers keep about 70% (the distributor, Amazon or other, takes the rest), so you should be clear on what exactly those small publishers will be doing for your book to earn their share. A similar possibility is to enter a contest that offers the winner a publishing contract with a reputable publisher. If you win, the contract you are offered may be less than optimal; but it is a foot in the door. In addition, some major paperback imprints like Tor have “open submission“ windows during which unagented writers can submit directly.man reading contract

    Writers who choose option B need to be wary of sharks in the water. A lot of vanity publishers present themselves as “publishing partners” or the like, and many contests exist only for the sake of the entry fee. Writers Beware and Absolute Write have good websites to do that research.

    C.  You can dive straight into the pool of self-publishers. By the time you make this decision, you should have spent months researching the field, so that you know how to proceed, what to watch out for, and how to give your work the best possible chance.  Generally speaking, self-publishing is a good option for entrepreneurial souls who are willing to learn or contract for all the services that a publisher would normally provide, including editing, proofreading, design, promotion and marketing. It works best for writers of genre fiction series who can write very quickly and put out multiple books per year. If you choose option C, and you are writing a series, I would strongly recommend that you don’t start publishing until you have three books finished and ready to go. A singleton, tossed into the vast sea of self-published titles, doesn’t have much of a chance; but you can build readership by publishing books in series released just a month or two apart. You can also discount one title to promote all the others.

    When  I first started out, the only option open to writers was the traditional route of literary agents and commercial publishers. I still think that for most writers, it is the best way to go if they have that opportunity. But it’s no longer the only good option; and the existence of other possibilities and paths open to writers will ultimately tilt the balance of power between publishers and writers just a little bit toward the writers’ side; and that’s a good thing.

     

    Subscribe to this blog via links at right for irregular but, I hope, interesting stuff about the writing biz. Better yet, read A DANGEROUS FICTION, which is both a mystery and an insider’s guide to publishing.

An Experiment in Genre

When I was 22 and fresh out of college, I got a job as a copywriter with Fawcett Books, one of the top three paperback houses of the time. They published several lines of romances that sold very well and paid well, too, for what seemed to me not too  much effort–much less effort than waiting tables at night, as I did to supplement my meager publishing pay. From childhood I’d been determined to become a writer, not of pulp but of the sort of novels I myself admired. But I knew that writers need either a private income or a day job. Lacking the former, I would need the latter–and what better day job for a writer than writing? I had a college buddy who also worked at Fawcett; we talked it over and decided to experiment by writing a paperback romance on spec. We had an obvious “in” with the editor; if we produced a novel up to her standards, we knew she’d buy it.

Romance novelWe read a few of the bestselling romances, analyzed the formula, and set about constructing one of our own, hashing out a plot, then writing alternate chapters.  But it was harder going than we’d expected, largely because neither of us had any real interest in the genre. And after a few weeks, our experiment came to an abrupt end when my writing buddy’s wife decided she didn’t like the idea of us collaborating.

I tell you this story by way of introducing my guest today, C.S. Lakin, indie author of 14 novels and conductor of a far more successful writing experiment.  A short while ago, I ran across a fascinating blog post about an experiment she did to test the importance of genre in marketing self-published fiction.  Her results surprised me; I think they surprised a lot of longtime writers.  As a former agent, I was particularly pleased to see a path for writers to support themselves and more by taking smart advantage of the opportunities in the self-pub market. What she did should replicable, too, by writers who are good, fast, and savvy, which makes it all the more interesting. Here is her own account of that experiment.

 

           Writing to Genre without Selling Out

                        Blog post by C. S. Lakin

 

 CS-LakinWriters who love to write fiction often eschew the idea of crafting a novel or novella solely to target a specific audience—especially if the primary goal is to sell a lot of books in order to make money. To many, putting money-making or the goal to top the best-seller lists ahead of writing “genuinely” or “from the heart” is a sellout, a compromise. It shows lack of scruples or integrity. It paints the writer as a cheap, spineless hack just out to make a buck. At least, that’s how some purists feel.

Aren’t we novelists supposed to be holding up the flame of truth and quality to shine in the world? Isn’t writing to a specific best-selling genre a sacrifice of quality and an affront to our muse? Good questions.

For years (decades) I wrote novels based on ideas I was passionate about. I created stories with deep, rich themes, and spent endless hours honing my craft in order to write the best, most compelling books I could.

And I wrote many of them, in numerous genres, but always honoring the purist’s oath, which might go something like “First, do not compromise.” I felt if I were to compromise my integrity by writing something just to sell big, I would bring shame to myself and my writing profession.

 “It’s Fine for Other Writers to Sellout . . .”

 Sure, I knew plenty of wonderful writers who wrote just to make money. They sometimes wrote books or magazine articles they didn’t like in order to get those checks and pay their bills. They had families to support. I didn’t judge them. In fact, I wholeheartedly supported what they were doing.

 But it wasn’t for me. I wanted to write books that meant something, that moved hearts, that changed lives. And I’m glad I spent those twenty-plus years writing beautiful novels that indeed did mean something, move hearts, and change lives. I’m very proud of those books.

 What Did I Do Wrong?

 But they’ve never really made me any money. Why? At first I thought it was just bad luck. And then bad marketing. I did everything my successful friends said to do. I build a huge online presence and engaged in social media. I paid for publicists and marketers and did blog tours.

 But even though I spent a fortune in time and money, nothing paid off. I joined the hundreds of thousands of authors who lament they just can’t get discovered. My novels won awards and got terrific reviews, but they didn’t sell.

 It Was Time I Faced the Truth

 I didn’t want to admit the truth to myself, so spent two years contacting successful indie authors, inviting them to share their stories on my blog Live Write Thrive, asked them endless questions. Finally the truth glared at me in the face.

 What truth? That genre matters. I had to admit that although my books were getting terrific reviews and winning awards, they were not strict genre novels—in fact many of my books were a bit experimental and couldn’t be easily categorized.

 With indie publishing, authors like me have been able to publish our “unusual” or “different” novels and find readers. Some do make that break into best-sellerdom, but not many. When I took a look at my author friends who were making easily five figures each month, often off one title, or would release a book and it would hit the best-seller lists off the bat, I paid close attention to what genre they were writing in. And that revealed the key.

 Maybe It’s Just Luck

 I thought they were just luckier than me. I thought perhaps they were doing something special with their marketing and author platform that I wasn’t. But when I interviewed them all, I found out the truth. They were not. Many had little author platform. Some (yikes!) had none. I mean—no website, no social media, no previous novels out, no name, nada. Huh?

 What I did see was that these hugely successful authors were writing to a specific genre, and often a niche genre. What do I mean by that? I mean a subgenre that has a particular readership—one that is very large and one that has few (compared to other main genres) books available for sale. What I was seeing was a manifestation of the old economics “supply and demand” rule.

 But could that really be true? Could an unknown author write a novel with no author platform for one of these subgenres and sell big, with no additional effort other than putting her book up on Amazon, carefully using the same kind of description, cover, etc.?

 I was dying to find out.

 My Genre Experiment

 So, here’s what I did, in a nutshell (I plan to write an entire ebook soon on this experiment/method called From Idea to Selling in Three Months, so others writers can do this too!):

  • I picked the subgenre I was told “sells itself” without any author platform
  • I came up with a pen name so I would be an unknown, unpublished author
  • I chose one novel to deconstruct. [NOTE PLEASE: I did not plagiarize or copy the plot, writing, or tried to mimic this author. I just deconstructed the structure. If you don’t know what that involves, buy my book when it comes out!]
  • After deconstructing the novel, I plotted and constructed mine
  • I hired the same cover designer to brand my look for my series
  • While writing the novel, I copied and pasted 30 Amazon descriptions of books in this genre in order to create my own in the same style and fashion [NOTE: this was a genre I had never even read, so had no clue how this differed from the genres I already wrote in]
  • I got a couple of well-known author friends and a reviewer for the Examiner to read in advance and write me reviews/endorsements, so I’d have something to put in the book and on the Amazon page
  • I did set up tweets (not as my pen name but via my real Twitter account) to get some exposure
  • I set up a Facebook page for the author, but did nothing to promote it. Even now it has maybe 25 likes. So no big influence there
  • I hired an assistant to find bloggers and reviewers, but only had three people blog about the novel when it was released

 So, essentially, as far as author platform goes, I did almost nothing to build or prepare for this book release. I felt I should do a minimal amount of promoting, just as many of my successful author friends do when releasing a new book. And of course, their subsequent books sell very well too, since they have, inadvertently, build a bit of author platform just from the sales and buzz of the earlier novels released.

 My Results

 Lakin's ExperimentThe novel has only been out a month. Within the first two weeks, the book jumped to paid #247 on Amazon, and hit the top-ten genre lists: Historicals, Historical Westerns, Western Romance. My genre is Historical Western Romance (and more specifically sweet Western—meaning no sex or heat).

 In those two weeks, the book sold more than 1,500 copies at full price ($3.99 US), while all the top twenty on the lists were sale priced. I wanted to start out the gate with the novel regularly priced and not discounted, based on Mark Coker’s research (Smashwords) that $3.99 sells better than any other price. I also wanted to imply “quality” because it is a long, rich, quality book.

 My novel has been on the genre lists’ top 100 ever since, selling about 30-50 books a day. Way more than I ever made on any of my other dozen novels. Here’s the interesting thing. I made $3,600 or so in three weeks. I was told by writers of that specific subgenre that they make about $3k a month off each book. Which is what it looks like I’m making. Why? Supply and demand.

 One author sold 80,000 copies of her first novel, with no Internet presence, website, or author platform. She still doesn’t have a website, and her books are all selling in the tens of thousands. Is she a terrific writer, better than anyone else out there? No. She writes good books for the genre, as do the others who are selling well.

 Genre Isn’t the Only Factor

 I can’t emphasize enough that first and foremost an author has to write a terrific book. And it now looks to me that a terrific book in one genre just may sell a whole lot more than a terrific book in another genre. Authors who lament that their “terrific” book (if it indeed is one) is not selling, may need to consider genre. Maybe they might even want to try their own genre experiment.

 My novel has been getting mostly 5-star reviews, and what pleases me most is when reviewers say I wrote a book that perfectly reflects the genre. I did my homework and it paid off. The strict genres I’ve noted sell well in addition to romance, romance, and more romance are paranormal, thrillers, and mystery (and YA versions of all those).

 I don’t read or particularly like romance, but the RWA (Romance Writers of America) recently noted statistics showing that 40 percent of ALL ebooks sold are romance. And I actually had a blast writing this novel, with two more in the series slated to come out in 2014. I love Lonesome Dove and always wanted to try my hand at Westerns.

 You Don’t Have to “Sellout” to “Sell Big”

 I don’t think writers should “sellout” and write something they don’t want to write just to make money, but hopefully I’ve given you food for thought. And it does feel nice to be able to pay the bills. Surely there is some big-selling genre you can tailor your writing to and even find enjoyment in the process.

 Barbara here again, with a special bonus. As I read Susanne’s guest post, a few questions presented themselves.  I posed them to her, and her answers are below.

Q:  Your genre for the experimental novel was an historical one. How much research did you have to invest to write this book?

A: I spent a couple of long weeks doing the research. I’d never written a historical before and the thought intimidated me, since I really dislike seeing historical errors in manuscripts or novels and know the author has a burden to be as accurate as possible. But since I had lived on the Front Range for a few years, I had a personal feel and experience of the locale at least. I contacted the curator of the Greeley Museum and was given a five-page list of bibliography that I drew from. I ordered a dozen or so books on the history of the town and region and took a lot of notes. I really had a lot of fun doing this and asked a lot of questions.

Q: As you had little or no platform and no publisher working for you on the experimental novel, how do you think so many readers discovered and continue to discover your book? (The more specific you can be on this point, the happier I’ll be. “Buzz” alone, though surely a factor,  doesn’t edify.)

detectiveA: I don’t think buzz really had much to do with it, if at all. The author I modeled after said she, as well as the other authors she knows who write in this subgenre, put her book out and it went right to the top of the genre charts and sold nearly 100,000 copies in the first year. She didn’t do any marketing or promotion. As I said in my post, there is a supply and demand at work, so I’m assuming readers of this genre go online and search for new books. I do believe, though the best way to be discovered on Amazon is for your book to come up in the top twenty (best to be in the top six so it shows at the top) when search words are typed in. I was careful to put in a lot of keywords in my product page and choose the keywords that readers would use to search for a book like this. Contrary to what Amazon recommends, I feel putting in the genres as keywords is crucial. Readers looking for a historical western romance are going to type those words in the search bar, not words like Colorado or horse vet or something obscure. Amazon feels people search by interests and would type in “strong female lead” or “grief.” To prove my point, before I even sold one book, the book came up on the top ten in lists (for the genres Western and historical Westerns) under new releases tab on the first day. I’m sure if readers were online looking for a new historical western and clicked on new releases, that’s how they found my book. The key is to be up at the top of the lists. The author I mentioned kept her book at 99 cents the whole year, never raising the price. Back a couple of years ago many thought that was the way to go, modeling after Amanda Hocking’s success. I notice usually all but about three on the top twenty of these genres on any given day are priced between 99 cents and 2.99. So that’s something for me to consider. I’ve sold nearly 4,000 copies in six weeks at 3.99. I did put the book on sale last week for a promo at 1.99 to see what would happen and the book jumped back up the lists. So I have to decide if I want to sell tens of thousands of copies to say I have a best seller or whether I want to make more money and sell less. I haven’t decided yet. I know I got off topic here, but feel the whole trick to selling is to be noticed, and this is the way you get noticed.

3. You say that you’ve invested a lot of time in building a platform for your other books with disappointing results; yet the book tailored to a carefully chosen genre sold extremely well without any platform. Given that time is a writer’s capital, what value do you now place on platform-building for writers?

I think platform is essential. Being a writer is all about connecting to your fans and readers. I don’t know whether extreme effort to blog and promote a book will pay off in terms of sales compared to the time spent, but to me the marketing and promo is important along with social networking. But I hear a lot of authors say similar things that I’ve said—that they’ve tried everything to promote their book and they are not getting sales. In contrast, many of my clients releasing good first-time novels in the big-selling genres often sell big right out the gate with no name or platform. I like the idea that I can write a book and get good sales right away while I continue to build a reputation. I do believe that writing book after (great) book is the way to keep sales going and draw in new readers. That is advice I’ve heard for years from every quarter. And really, if someone wants to be a writer, they should keep writing.

Susanne, thanks so much for this thought-provoking post. Readers, your reactions?

  Bio: C. S. Lakin is the author of fourteen novels and while she writes two novels a year, she works as a freelance writing coach and copyeditor, specializing in manuscript critiques. She offers deep, free instruction for writers on her award-winning blog Live Write Thrive and provides critique services via Critique My Manuscript

 Her novel, Colorado Promise, is written under her pen name Charlene Whitman (nickname Charlie), and you can buy her “experiment” here!

The Inside Scoop: A Publicist’s Take on Book Marketing

 

No one writes for his desk drawer. Books are a means of transmitting stories, ideas, history, experience, and emotion; and that transmission can only succeed when the books are read. But to be read they must first be discovered by readers, and therein lies the rub. Books need publicity the way lungs need oxygen, but with so many competing for attention, how can writers attain their moment in the sun?

Ben CameronRecently I had the chance to pick the brains of Ben Cameron, founder of the London-based Cameron Publicity and Marketing. (Rather a violent metaphor, when you think about it, but I promise no publicists were injured in the production of this post.) We talked about what sells books, how writers can help (and hurt) themselves, the role of independent publicists and what to watch out for, and much more. Have a read, then tell me what you think.

 

Barbara:  Tell me a bit about yourself and your company. What made you decide to focus on publicity and marketing for books?

Ben: I always loved books so when I finished university in the US and moved to the UK 20 years ago it was always my intention to work in publishing in some way. My first job in the industry was with a book wholesaler and it was there that I discovered marketing and publicity – I love the strategy and to creatively think my way around problems (marketing), and I’m a pretty decent talker (publicity). I was there for a few years before moving to a publishing company and then setting up my own agency.

 

Barbara:  Once, at a publishing party, I heard one well-known publisher admit that he really had no idea what sells books, while others at the table nodded. Do you know? Has anyone studied the question?

Ben: Great question!  There is no one answer. What we do is push books toward people and push people toward books and to a large degree we can influence sales. But for a big seller there is also an element of luck and magic that has to happen. The spark that made Harry Potter a phenomenon was awards, a marketing and publicity thing, but there was also a kindling of goodwill and great writing that needed to be there as well. Why did 50 Shades of Grey become a hit? I have no idea – erotica was certainly nothing new but it seems like its time had come and that book was in the right place at the right time. It was lucky, but a publicist did get it in the position that it needed to be in to become THAT book.

Barbara:  Can you give an example of a publicity/marketing campaign that elevated a previously unknown or little-known writer to the bestseller lists? What do you think made it so successful?

Thinking fast and slowBen: A good example is the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. It is a big publisher book (Penguin) but an interesting example of how to position a book for the market. This is a very academic psychology book that was promoted as popular science/business like Freakonomics or Malcolm Gladwell books. There were great little examples and excerpts from the book that were used for publicity to get it into the media in places that would not normally be interested in such and an in-depth and difficult to read book. A lot of what publicists do is to emphasize the more popular aspects of a book.

Barbara:  Effective publicity services don’t come cheap. Are they a good investment for all writers? If not, what sort of writer should consider hiring a publicity and/or marketing firm?

Ben: They aren’t cheap because it takes a huge amount of time and finesse to run an effective publicity campaign. A very academic book or a poetry book, for example, is not going to benefit much from a campaign – there just aren’t enough media outlets that will cover them – while something that can capture the imagination of a wide audience can pay back the cost many times over. Genre fiction is great for a shorter campaign, say 4-6 weeks, as that is enough time to reach its audience. Non-fiction often suits a longer campaign depending on the author and topic.  The important thing is to have a publicist explain why they think a certain style of campaign will suit the book and to feel comfortable with that explanation.

Barbara: Your company represents both published and self-published writers. Are there barriers to self-published writers getting reviews and coverage in mainstream media? If so, how do you overcome or sidestep them?

overcoming barriersBen: Yes, there are barriers but they are getting less significant every day. Getting reviews in the big newspapers is almost impossible still for obviously self-published books, but a lot of self-published books actually slip past the gatekeepers because they look as good as books from traditional publishers. To my mind feature articles and interviews are much more important than reviews anyway, and the journalists who do them care less about where a book came from than telling a good story. Most media understand that they need to include self-published books now but have difficulty knowing which books are worth consideration. That is where a good publicity pitch can go a long way.

Barbara: Has the consolidation of retail outlets (i.e. Amazon) affected your publicity and marketing strategy, and if so, how?

Ben: It isn’t good in many ways, but Amazon has been great for marketing. A customer can read about a book and instantly purchase it online. That is incredibly powerful for sales. Ebooks play into that as well – I myself will often read a review, buy the book immediately on my Kindle and start reading it within a minute. All that said, I personally love nothing more than going through the shelves in a good bookshop and placement of bookshops and bookshop events are helpful as well.

Barbara: What are the most effective ways for writers, both published and self-published, to help their own books and careers?

Ben: If you can afford a campaign it can really give you a long-term boost, but if not you can also buy-in the tools that you need to do the job yourself. You can pay only for a professionally written press release or a media mailing list or a listing on NetGalley (a website that showcases books to journalists, bloggers and reviewers) and it won’t cost an arm and a leg.

Barbara:  What are the biggest mistakes you see writers make in promoting their own work?

sales pitchBen: Not following up. Just sending out emails, review copies of books or press releases will get you almost nowhere. There needs to be a proper sales pitch made to the journalist explaining, in no uncertain terms, why the book is important. The author needs to be persistent and not get discouraged if they get no initial response. It takes a lot of time and effort and many people give up before they have really made the case for their book.

Barbara: A great many publicity and marketing services have sprung up to service the boom in self-published books, and some of them seem sketchy to me, offering expensive services that are unlikely to prove effective. What questions should writers ask prospective service providers? What should they beware of?

Ben: Like every part of self-publishing, the sharks are out there and there are plenty of poor services on offer. Do your research, talk to someone at the company or meet them in person and make sure that you are comfortable that they understand you and you book. Be wary of anyone who “guarantees” results – those results may well be on their own blog or podcast with very little audience, and publicity just doesn’t work in that way. Go for experience, a campaign designed specifically for you, a company that will regularly give you feedback and someone who “gets” your book.

 

Many thanks to Ben Cameron for sharing his time and expertise with IN COLD INK.  He can be reached on Facebook and on Twitter at @CameronPMtweets .

You might also enjoy these interviews with leading literary agent Gail Hochman, Simon & Schuster publisher Marysue Rucci, and publishing specialist Elizabeth Lyon. There are lots more to come, too, so do consider subscribing to IN COLD INK through links on the right.