Category Archives: marketing/publicity

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Tolerably well, tolerably often

Mari Andrew’s Iceberg of Creative Success

I came across this infographic from the talented Mari Andrew on social media, and although her iceberg is not explicitly aimed at authors, it works pretty well for our purposes.  Most overnight successes were (quiet, lonely, arguably desperate) years in the making, and while there are a few, charmed, fairy- godmother-type-tales out there— wunderkind author commands astronomical advance and widely praised debut novel becomes instant NYT bestseller—these shimmering breaths of fairy dust are the exceptions that prove a much less sparkly rule.

Tonight was back to school night at my son’s elementary school, so I’ve got education on the brain, but it’s worth thinking of a book contract as an acceptance letter to the college of (ideally) your dreams. Which is to say, it’s a starting point, but what happens next has a great deal to do with you. As education is far from passive, so too is publishing. And a great house and even a healthy advance do not mean that you graduate with a bestseller.

Houses large and small market and promote books along broadly predictable lines. These include creating and sending out press releases, mailing out galleys/arcs to bookselling accounts and long-lead media outlets, followed by a finished copy mailing to more of the same, bloggers, big-mouth influencers, and anyone you might have listed on the jaw-droppingly voluminous author questionnaire you struggled to complete some months earlier. Publicists will pitch and follow up with a tailored list of editors, producers and gatekeepers, the house may buy ad space, an online marketing department can help generate (or more likely amplify) buzz on social media, but unless the book starts selling like mad, this all-hands-on-deck campaign is in full swing for a finite period, typically about three months.

And while it’s true that in-house publicists have carefully cultivated connections that few among us may possess, they are no stranger to rejection or wholesale lack of response. There are, after all, many publicists, many more books, and a limited number of career-altering media outlets, or outlets, period. Frustratingly, book publicity is a field in which there can be little relationship between effort and result. In-house publicists also divide their time between several projects of varying importance to the house, and they report not to author or agent, but to the publisher. So writers are well-advised to enter into even the most dazzling book contracts with their own clear-eyed plans for promotion, ideally something more concrete than here is my book—do your magic!  A publisher’s bag of tricks can be effective, but it’s limited. While publishers generally do their level best to help their books succeed (it is, after all, in their interest as well as yours) they rarely engineer do-overs when their efforts fall short.  They want your book to be a break-out success, but you want it more.

At some point, the task of promoting the book will belong mostly to its creator, and as much as I sympathize with complaints over the indignities and puzzlements of self-promotion, it makes sense that writers invest some fraction of the effort they spent writing their book in working to connect it with the audience that very likely exists, if only they could find it. Plugging away at promotion does not sound, or feel, especially glamorous, but as the infographic shows, long marches (don’t forget sad emails to mom) are a necessary precondition to spontaneous success. My advice: see how authors whom you admire promote, create a strategy, and then choose a method that you don’t loathe.  Something you can do tolerably well, tolerably often.

In a follow-up post I’ll address specific ideas I’ve picked up–some from freelance publicists, others from savvy, dogged authors (please feel free to share your own ideas) and I’ll talk about why your connections, energy and commitment matter.

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Making a bestseller

THE WIDOWThere are times, lots of them I think, when a publisher decides to totally get behind a book in order to make it a bestseller.  That happened with a novel, a thriller, published by NAL last February entitled THE WIDOW. Everyone at the publishing house was asked to read the book and start a real buzz about it (when I asked an editor colleague there for a suggestion on what to take with me on my February vacation, she readily recommended this book).

The publisher compared the novel to GONE GIRL and GIRL ON THE TRAIN and everything possible was done in promotion and advertising to put THE WIDOW on the bestsellers list.  And it worked. The book made The New York Times list and remained on it for several weeks.

I read THE WIDOW—though several weeks after my vacation—and I was thoroughly disappointed.  It simply did not live up to the hype it had been given.  I did a survey of those in our company who had also read it and everyone agreed with me.  The book simply didn’t deliver what had been promised—a  page turning psychological thriller. (I even asked my colleague who had recommended the book in the first place what she thought and it turned out that she too was disappointed.)

In May of this year, Berkley, the sister company of NAL published another psychological thriller titled I LET YOU GO. But this one didn’t get the same kind of support in house.  For some reason—though it too was compared to GONE GIRL and GIRL ON THE TRAIN—the powers that be decided not promote it in the same way as they had done for THE WIDOW.

I LET YOU GOI finished I LET YOU GO last week and it is one of the best books I have read in a very long time.  It delivers on all fronts—solid writing, great story telling and characters the reader really roots for.  Again I surveyed my company colleagues who had read the book to see what they thought.  Everyone agreed that this book really delivered.

So my question is why was the decision made to support one of these books and not the other? Why, in the end, did one become a bestseller and the other not?  For those of you who have read both—or who have an opinion on how these decisions are made—I would love to hear your thoughts.

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Your platform (not your book’s)

Readers, by now I’m sure you’re all aware of the importance of an author’s platform (and probably sick of hearing about it), nevertheless, It’s a message that authors thankfully seem to be hearing from the start of their writing careers. Case in point: at a recent conference, I led a workshop on query letters and when I brought up how to cite one’s platform, the collective groans from the audience told me they were all well aware of the platform mandate!

Yet even so, I read a blogpost this morning on platform by fellow agent Eric Smith that raised an excellent point worth sharing: Make sure you’re building your platform for you, the author, and NOT for your book. In other words, when you set up a website/blog/Twitter feed, it should be in the service of your career as an author, not for the specific book or project that you’re trying to promote. It’s a particularly important distinction for writers looking for representation, because while we’re obviously interested in the specific project, we’re just as interested in you as an author whose career we can build with multiple books.

Lest you think the advice here is obvious, like Eric, I’ve seen writers make the mistake all the time, particularly thriller and fantasy/sci-fi writers. Fortunately, Eric provides an excellent list of authors that have done a great job of building their author platforms. If you’re struggling with how to set up that author platform, especially if you only have one book in the works, check them out for sure.

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Taken for granted

Last week, The Wall Street Journal did a story about a publisher taking an award-winning author it had published for years for granted – and what that author did in response.

Several days later, one of my best-selling authors received a marketing plan from her publisher which was a boilerplate document—with nothing in it pointing to a strategy for marketing and selling this author’s newest book in a creative and unique way.  I immediately contacted them and asked that they come back to us with a plan tailor made for this particular book.

Two months ago this same thing happened with another publisher and another one of their best-selling authors.  They presented a publicity plan to us that was filled with things that we had already learned weren’t working as well as rubber stamped ideas.  In that case, my client demanded (and received) a much more creative plan for her latest book, which is now being implemented.

And then there is the publisher who is putting together a small focus group to find out how they, as a publisher can be more effective.  This is one of the best ideas I have heard in a long time and I truly wish everyone would introduce such research into their publishing agendas.  I am willing to bet that they would learn a great deal about how they are perceived and how to improve their publishing practices.

I wonder how you—especially those of you who have been with the same publisher through a number of books—perceive the way your books have been treated over the years. Is each title dealt with uniquely?  Or, have you found yourself being taken for granted?

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Write What You Want

 

I was at Yallwest a couple of weeks ago, and something I heard at one of the panels won’t leave me. “Write what you want.” Of course, this seems very self-explanatory, and I’d heard it about 100 times before while working toward my MFA, but something about hearing it now, knowing more about publishing, made that statement more powerful.

 

While trying to get published, it’s easy to get lost in the idea of what will sell and what won’t. I see a lot of queries with, “My book will appeal to ages X through Y and people interested in…” Well that sentence alone tells me that the writer was thinking about the marketing of his or her book. Which, in a way can be good, but at what point does thinking about marketing diminish your ideas?

 

I then thought about how knowing about market trends has influenced my writing. I’ve seen a certain pattern in my idea brainstorming. I’ll have a new book idea only to get excited about it, and then immediately shy away from it because I know it doesn’t follow the current trends. I also know as a writer, that an idea can shape into something wholly different once it becomes a story. What I thought was a poor idea could have shaped into something incredible given my passion for the subject. I could have made something unlike the publishing world has ever seen, and my fear that this would be unaccepted, has squandered that potential.

 

So, that’s why I believe writers should focus more on writing what they want, rather than what they think others want, because if you’re trying to follow a trend, you will never be unique. Originality dies that way. My advice now will always be to write what you want, don’t follow another writer or what you think you should be writing. It may get you published, but that brilliant idea you squashed in order to follow the trend could have been the next break out novel.

 

What do you think about this topic? Do you follow the trends or write what you want?

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Celebrities + celebrity imprints = perfect together?

So, Publisher’s Lunch announced today that Lena Dunham and her partner Jenni Konner are launching a new imprint at Random House named after Lenny, Dunham and Konner’s popular newsletter.  I have mixed feelings.

Everything I’ve heard and read about Lena Dunham suggests that she’s a thoughtful, intelligent young woman with a lot of opinions and a love of literature.  Her business partner, I’m sure, is equally gifted.  That said, does the publishing business need another celebrity imprint?  And, to what end?  What do celebrity imprints bring to the table other than the star power of the celebrity they are affiliated with?  And, is that star power a transitive property as far as book buyers are concerned?

Recently, in fact, a number of celebrity imprints have been announced—Gwyneth Paltrow, Chelsea Handler, Oprah Winfrey, Derek Jeter, and  Johnny Depp (which, huh?) now have deals with big five publishers and a mandate to buy books that sell.  Well, good luck with that.

I like to think that publishing books that enrich the culture, entertain a sizable audience, and have staying power in the collective imagination is a specialized craft.   Much in the same way that a lot of people who know nothing about the arduous process of writing a book think they can write a bestseller, it seems to me that many underestimate the equally arduous process of identifying, curating, developing, massaging, producing and promoting a work of literature.  Obviously, I get that it’s a dog eat dog world out there and that publishers need every little edge they can get in order to get their product the attention it deserves, but I worry that resources that are going into supporting the celebritization of book publishing would be better used in bolstering regular, centuries-old publishing models—with editors/publishers who don’t have a Hollywood pedigree but know a good idea/manuscript when they see one and know how to shepherd it through the publishing process into the hands of readers who care about the prose and ideas and not the celebrity behind the imprint.

Or, am I being an old fuddy duddy?  Do I need to accept the fact that there might be a Kardashian imprint down the road?  What do you all think about celebrities who dip their toes in publishing waters?

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Beauty and the book

There is so much talk in publishing about promoting your book. I recently had a conversation with a prospective nonfiction author and when I told him about the proposal process and what he’d need to put together in terms of a marketing and publicity plan, he asked me what the publisher does?! It’s a good point that publishers today look to the author for a lot more than producing a quality commercial book. They are expected to also prove that they can sell it. The publisher certainly has certain resources to support those efforts, but the greater the author’s ability to find their own audience the better the publishing process goes for all involved.

So I was tickled and a little appalled to find this hilarious piece in Time about what was expected of female authors promoting their books in the 1960s, or at least Jeanne Rejaunier, author of The Beauty Trap. The photos are so amazing and my personal favorite is the one of her in bed with her cat and her pencil under her chin making her look like a puppet on a stick. And then there’s the horses…

Let’s get real. A lot has changed (thank goodness) but looks still matter. It’s certainly not mandatory to be beautiful, but it helps! More important is the ability to network with other authors, connect and engage with fans, and produce quality work in a timely manner. Thankfully it is no longer required to take sexy photos in bed to promote your book (unless you’re Holly Madison writing about her time at the Playboy mansion, but even she has taken a less sexy approach to her story and the result is a huge bestseller!). So what works now? What gets you out to the bookstore to buy books? Reviews? Publicity? An author’s book on sale at Costco? Let us know how swayed you are by authors promoting their books.

Jeanne Rejaunier - Author - "The Beauty Trap", with cat

Jeanne Rejaunier – Author – “The Beauty Trap”, with cat

 

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Behind the scenes of a bestseller

We are all looking for great books that will hit the bestseller lists. That’s the reality of being a book agent. There is nothing more exciting or rewarding than having a project you absolutely love be well supported by the publisher who acquires it and then subsequently embraced by the public who come out to buy it. In our dreams, this happens with every book we sign up. In our reality, it happens very, very rarely.

So, I like hearing about and sharing stories like this one about a nonfiction self-help book (a category I still do a lot of business in despite a very tight market for it) published in 2013 called YOU ARE A BADASS by life coach Jen Sincero that started off slow and has since become a surprise bestseller. It does illustrate that working hard throughout the publication process and beyond is critical for authors, as well as their publishers, if they want their books to be successful. Too often we see books come out of the gate slowly and never able to hit their stride due to a combination of the publisher withdrawing their support and the author slowing down their brand building and marketing efforts. I think that edgier books can really work in the current market, and I’m thinking about this one as well as the recent cookbook bestseller THUG KITCHEN: EAT LIKE YOU GIVE A F*CK, which also has profanity in its (sub)title!

I also think this approach translates to those who are seeking to be published in the first place. Often these roads are long and winding, and you need to be resilient and fierce in your efforts to both produce high quality work as well as your attempts to sell, market and promote it. Remember, you are a badass, like Ms. Sincero says, and clearly her message is resonating in a big way.

 

 

 

 

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#JonVoyage

As anyone with an internet connection likely already knows, Jon Stewart shuffled off our television sets last night taking with him The Daily Show as we know it.  It remains to be seen whether books will get as warm a welcome from Trevor Noah as they did from Stewart, but the publishing world always mourns when any friend of books says goodbye to their TV audience, taking their power to make a book a household name with them.

But it’s touching to learn, via the Washington Post, that Stewart had time for one last plug close to his heart:

We’ll miss you, Jon.  And your helping hand!

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Keep your sense of humor

There has been so much attention on the new Harper Lee book released a couple of weeks ago that it prompted even me, a veteran publishing professional, to buy it as well as a new paperback edition of TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD to re-read. GO SET A WATCHMAN came out to numbers that compare to Jurassic World for the book biz: over 1.1 million copies sold across formats in less than a week, over 3.3 million books printed according to wsj.com. Never have I seen in my almost 17 years as an agent such hoopla surrounding a book’s publication.


I know it’s a big deal, but it even surprised me with the scope of its coverage. I mean, last time we saw a book get so much attention was when the 50 Shades sequel was published in June (joke)!


So, it cracked me up when I came upon this piece recently in Publisher’s Weekly by (as it turns out, didn’t realize when I was reading it) Jane’s client Mardi Link about how her book’s publication fell on the exact same day. What are the chances? She has such a funny take on the whole scenario that I thought it would be fun to share.


As I’ve said on the blog before, so much in life is about timing. What do you think? Is she onto something by using her competition as a way to get publicity for her own book? I think it’s a very clever approach, and an entertaining one as well. Hope her book does a fraction as well as Harper Lee’s!