Friday is for Writers
…or in other words, it’s still all about the work.
I spent most of last week at RWA National in NYC so a discussion about marketing seems particularly appropriate. As an aside, I’d like to thank all of the writers and readers who came up to me and said hello during the conference. I loved meeting so many new people, and I was blown away, yet again, by how kind and supportive folks can be.
Without further ado, I’d like to take you back to a spring weekend in 2004, right before the release of AN IRRESISTIBLE BACHELOR, the fourth and final Jessica Bird single title. My husband and I had recently moved from Boston to Louisville, and I had quit my job in healthcare. I had decided to try my hand at writing full time- and was praying that the signs of impending doom that I had been seeing were somehow wrong. Bottom-line, I knew my writing career was in jeopardy. Over the course of the first three Jessica Bird books, I had watched my print runs go down with each new release. This was a clear sign I was not finding an audience.
Back then, the only way to be published nationally was to be put out in print by one of the New York houses, and your print runs were determined by your sell-through in the various accounts. As a quick refresher, a sell-through is how much stock is moved within the first nine months or so of release. Everything that is not sold is returned to your publisher, and when your next book comes out, those accounts generally speaking only order what they sold the last time. In my case, with the Jessica Birds, the critics like the books, but readers weren’t passionate about them, and with smaller account orders, came less shelf space, and less notice in the stores… and even less of a chance of getting my book into the hands of readers.
I was crashing and I knew it.
And there wasn’t a whole lot I could do to stop the downfall. Bear in mind, there was no social media at that time. No websites. No internet. Depending on your publisher’s investment in you, you might have been sent on a tour of bookstores, both chain and independents, and maybe you got some coverage in magazines and newspapers (if you were really big.) But that was it for marketing and PR.
On that spring weekend in 2004, I felt utterly helpless- until a ray of light came in the form of a listing of 50 or 60 reading groups. Each one of them had ten to twenty members, and I was given the contact name and address for the memberships. Over the course of two days, I wrote each one of them a long letter about the book. I implored them to give it a try, give me a try, seek out a Jessica Bird book. I remember my hand getting stiff as I penned those missives over and over again, begging the universe to save me from the dreaded fate of not having my contract renewed.
Little did I know that the market would get even tougher fifteen years later. Now, even though we have social media and websites and the internet, the competition for leisure time and attention is even more fierce than ever. There is content everywhere you look, and I’m not talking just about books. We as writers are competing with FB and Insta, Hulu and Netflix, YouTube and blogs. It’s even more important and more difficult than ever to stand out, especially as platforms like Facebook are now all but pay for play.
So what do we do about it?
For me, that answer goes back to what Sue (Grafton) always said: “The work must come first.”
Before any author starts to try to understand marketing books in this environment, they need to first get their craft straight. You cannot sell things to people if they don’t want them, and even through the distraction and background noise, good writing still sells. Word of mouth, once the kind of thing that was exchanged between booksellers and readers, now happens on groups, and Goodreads, and online reviews. If you put a great book out there, people will take notice, and they will talk about it. It’s way more important to develop your inner editor, judge your own work clearly and dispassionately, and grow in your craft.
And in fact, that’s all I’ve ever really done. I’ve never had much luck trying to turn myself into something I’m not- and I remain convinced that the reason my Jessica Bird books didn’t go very far was because I was trying to be Nora Roberts in a marketplace where, hello, there were better Nora Roberts books being written… by Nora frickin’ Roberts. Shortly after my first publisher failed to reup my contract, my agent gave me the best advice. She said, “You need to figure out what a Jessica Bird book really is. Who are you as a writer? What are you compelled by? Figure that out.”
When I did, things changed for the better.
My rules for marketing are simple, unsexy, and unrelenting:
1) The work always comes first. If I have a marketing deadline, and I’m behind on my writing, the marketing will always be back-burnered. That is the reason I do not travel much and I have not gone to a ton of conferences. Travel time is time away from the keyboard.
2) Don’t go corporate in your tone. This is a pretty obvious one. I’ve had some very well meaning marketing and PR people suggest content for me, draft posts, tell me what to say. I always strong arm that stuff. On the internet, people can tell slick from sincere. Be yourself.
3) Don’t expect everyone to like you, your work, your posts, your opinions. They don’t have to, and that is their right. If someone gets abusive, block them and move on. Do not invest any energy in them or their hostility. Time and attention given to that is time and attention away from your work.
4) There is no real way of quantifying how much marketing and PR actually helps. It’s an add on that is a good idea, for sure, but it is not a replacement for the work. If you can afford an expert, buy one. If you have the time to learn, by all means educate yourself by going to professional conferences like RWA, attending online classes, reading about the newest platforms for spreading the word about your books. If you know other authors who are willing to share their best practices, definitely explore what they’re doing and ask questions and try new things. But NONE of this should ever be at the expensive of the writing. The vast majority of your time and attention should be on your work.
So that’s really it. Lame? Yes, definitely. And I know for a fact that there are people out there who would be able to tell you all about what to do at Goodreads, and which blog tours are the best move, and how you should Pintreset yourself, and what newsletter services to use. All of that is very useful information, and I am not dismissing it, I swear. It’s just for me… I’ve always started with the book first. I’d much rather spend my time on my MS.
Still, sometimes it can be hard not to give into the marketing bug. I love my career and I love my books, and when I was struggling, I wrote those 50 plus letters by hand because it was the only thing I could think of doing to help myself. I felt like I had written good books, but no one was really buying them. I wanted to DO something, and those letters seemed concrete in a situation that was desperate and hazy.
But they didn’t make a difference. I still got fired. And I suppose that is the reason that as much as I respect marketing efforts, I’m more worried about the writing. In this social media- dominated world we live in, keeping the balance between writing and marketing can be a challenge. I am, however, reminded of something my other writing hero, Stephen King, once said. Paraphrasing it: Hype you buy. Buzz is priceless.
Hype is marketing. Buzz is what happens when you write a sizzler of a book, and your readers are so blown away that they collectively, and on their own accord, grab the elbows of their friends and are like, “OMG, you HAVE to read this.”
You can write that kind of book. I swear. We all can. All you need to do is believe, believe, believe. And remember that magic happens in the real world when we put our work first.
Sending hugs and love from the frontlines,