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.
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!
That’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.
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