This month debuts our newest round of Ask a New Author Authors: Ellen Meeropol, Scott Sparling and Nichole Bernier. They share sage advice about the ins-and-outs of publicizing their books, tips for find time to write when you have a day job, and they let us inside the process of querying that manuscript sitting on your desk just aching to get published.
Book Giveaway Alert! Send in your writing and publishing questions at email@example.com for Ellen, Scott and Nichole. We will be giving away THREE copies of Ellen's novel HOUSE ARREST for the best three questions we receive!
Now onto our questions of the month!
What are some good ways to publicize my book myself?
Ellen: Most new authors are responsible for doing much of our own book promotion; in-house publicity departments are stretched very thin and chances are we are just one of many clients and not a priority. Hopefully, the in-house publicist will take care of getting galleys to the important industry preview magazines (Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, Library Journal, Booklist) and into booksellers’ hands. The rest of it – book events, blog tours, online promotion – will most likely be up to you.
The first decision is whether or not to hire an independent publicist. While this can be expensive, ranging from a few to many thousands of dollars, many writers feel this investment in your book is money extremely well spent. Since my book was published by a very small independent press, I decided to work with an independent publicist with decades of experience in the field. She (Mary Bisbee-Beek) has helped my book – and me – so much that I call her my fairy godmother. An independent publicist can be critical in getting your book into the right hands; she will have contacts with booksellers and libraries, with book reviewers and radio, television and print outlets.
Secondly, you will probably want to develop, or improve, your online presence. When I signed my book contract, my publisher told me I should start a website, a blog, using Facebook and Twitter. At that time, over three years ago, I was doing none of that and frankly wasn’t much interested. But, I wanted to do everything possible to promote my book. So, I bought a domain name (www.ellenmeeropol.com), created a simple website using my Mac’s iWeb program, which is easy to use and publish with MobileMe. I write a weekly blog, published on my website (but you can also use Wordpress or Blogspot), about reading, writing, and politics, and it has turned out to be much more fun than I expected. Websites can be very elaborate but the basic necessary ingredients are information about you (people are interested!), about your book with links to purchase it, and where you’ll be appearing, so they can meet you when you’re in their neighborhood.
I think the most important thing I’ve learned about these online activities – website, blogging and guest blogs, Facebook, Twitter – is the importance of entering into them as part of a conversation about larger literary issues. That means not just ME ME ME and my upcoming events, but commenting on other people’s postings, retweeting their events, responding to issues and posts that are of interest to you and other people.
Third, think out of the box about book events. Unfortunately bookstore readings are increasingly difficult to get. IF you have a name and a following, it’s not so hard. But for a first novel, it’s not so easy. The exception, of course, is in your own hometown or other areas where you know a lot of people who will come to the event and buy books. When you, or your publicist, contacts stores about events, the information about how many people you can bring to the event is crucial to convey. If you haven’t already starting compiling a list, preferably in Excel or a simple program that can be easily manipulated, of every single person you know, do so now. This list will help you figure out where to most effectively spend your precious travel dollars, and will easily provide labels for postcards to announce your book publication and publicize events. And events doesn’t only mean bookstores. Offer yourself to writers conferences, book groups, libraries, literary fundraisers, book festivals and other reader-focused events. If there’s a city where you know people but don’t have a bookstore sponsor, consider asking friends or family to host a book party in their home. You can offer refreshments, do a short reading and Q&A, and sell books.
Lastly, be prepared to talk about your book anywhere. Some of the most wonderful contacts happen in unexpected places, in elevators or grocery stores. Be friendly but not pushy and have business cards or postcards with your book’s cover image and your contact information available. And ENJOY talking about your book, whether to a bookstore audience of 50 or three women in a book group.
NB: I once read an article about book marketing that said the familiarity of a name makes all the difference in purchasing habits. If someone sees or hears a title once, they probably won’t remember it. But 2, 3, 4, 5 times builds familiarity, gives it a sense of buzz, and makes it much more likely that someone will take the chance on your book. That’s good news for authors who are involved in social media but might not otherwise have a large budget for traditional publicity and advertising.
Scott: Feel free to use any of my rejected PR tactics: Traveling to readings in a boxcar (my book involves freight trains). A “book trailer” video featuring an adorable kitten reading my book (probably been done). A reading on Chatroulette (ick-factor too high. Plus I’m not sure those people buy books). Seriously, the point is 1) ultimately, you can’t force the world to pay attention to your book and 2) if you’re like me, you can’t stop trying to force the world to pay attention to your book. I wore myself out following that circular logic until I decided on a simple rule: Every day I try to do one thing to help advance the book. Often very simple things, including all the things Ellen mentions. And since the gap between selling the manuscript and publication has been over a year, it adds up to a lot, without wearing me out.
I always have wanted to write a book but I have a busy “regular” job. What are some ways to fit writing a full novel into my life?
SS: First of all, it’s possible to get a lot of writing done, and even write a novel, while you have a regular job. I did it; so have many others. A day job even offers some advantages, besides the obvious economic ones.
It’s certainly true, though, that a day job creates challenges. The obvious one is that it takes up your time. You can develop strategies around that. The bigger problem, in my experience, is not what the job takes from you, but what it gives you. Even a half way decent job may give you money, friends, a measure of satisfaction, a sense of accomplishment. If you’re like me, you may start wondering why you’re knocking yourself out to write a book, which – during the early stages – supplies none of that. Worse, over time a job may change your sense of identity so that the writer part of you becomes smaller. That’s the biggest danger of a day job, in my opinion.
Some people deal with that by getting a really crappy job, but that brings another set of problems. For me, the answer was to guard my motivation by saying yes to all the things that nourished my determination: going to readings, attending conferences, taking trips where I had writing time, joining a writing group. You know what things touch and inspire the part of you that needs to write, so seek them out and keep feeding that need. That’s step one.
Step two is dealing with the time issue. Most of my writer friends say they get up early and write before they go to work, when their minds are “fresh.” I have no clue what they’re talking about. I never wrote a word of my novel before noon. The entire first draft was written after midnight, I think -- I was a freelancer back then. I’m writing this at 11 pm. My routine is to come home, eat, be with my family and retreat into my room around 9:30. Obviously I’m a night person.
Here’s the trick that makes it work for me. I go to lunch alone and write a couple paragraphs. Bad paragraphs usually. Or, if I can’t do that, I sneak in a paragraph or two during the workday. Then, when I got home, I have something to fix. I don’t have to kick myself very hard to get started because I’m not starting from scratch. Often, I throw out the lunch paragraphs, but sometimes they’re good.
Basically, when you can’t write a lot, write a little. Let it add up. Make it as regular as possible, but don’t beat yourself up on the days when you just can’t put words together: fade into the jungle on those days and come back even stronger the next day. And remember that whether you have a job or not, the world wants all your time for everything except writing. Your friends, family, boss, teachers, coworkers, neighbors, pets, the spirits of the night, the great outdoors, the TV, the Internet, even this website – we want all your time. Don’t give it to us. You don’t owe the world all your time. You have the right to keep some for yourself. Do it, and keep your heart attending on what matters most to you. If that’s writing, you’ll write.
NB: When I started writing my book, I’d just had my third child. When I finished, I’d just had my fifth. Completing a novel isn’t a roadrace; there’s no expectation that you finish within a certain amount of time. The important thing is sticking with it so that your story is always a part of your thinking even if it can’t always be a part of your day. I found that setting a weekly goal of 2,500 words was doable through writing sessions whenever I could grab them—nights, weekends, early mornings, kids’ naptimes—and forgiving enough that I could have a day be a bust without killing the week. As Scott said, it’s also a matter of choices, of saying no to the other ways you could be spending your time. Once I started writing my novel, most of my other hobbies and pastimes (hello, exercise) went out the window.
Ellen: One thing that worked for me was to rearrange my work schedule. I almost didn’t try, since as a nurse practitioner in a busy hospital outpatient department, I assumed they would say no. But to my surprise, I was allowed to work four very long days and that gave me one whole day for writing. It made a huge difference. The challenge, of course, was to not allow grocery shopping or laundry or doctors appointments to worm their way into my precious Wednesdays!
Say I actually wrote a good book and now have a draft. What do I do next? How long could the process take to get my book published?
NB: It’s different for everyone—usually few years, though it’s best not to think about that right now. First, congratulate yourself. Then put it aside a while to clear your head and get a bit of perspective for revisions. Before you query agents, you’ll want your manuscript to be the absolute best it can be, and that means getting quality feedback from workshops or writer’s groups.
While you’re waiting for their feedback, start researching the query process as if it were your job (which it is). Unless you handle it knowledgeably, you won’t be giving your book its best chance of representation. You’ll also burn valuable bridges, since it’s a faux pas to requery the same agents, unless they’ve invited you to work on it and resubmit.
Fortunately, information on querying is more readily available than ever. GUIDE TO LITERARY AGENTS is a great reference book with chapters about the process, tips for writing a great letter, and an invaluable index of agents by genre. Next, regardless of how you feel about social media, you should get on Twitter. There are easily a hundred agents tweeting away about their preferences and pet peeves; it’s like hanging out at their water cooler, and all you have to do is click on their name. They don’t even have to follow you back (though you gain a lot more if you join in and form relationships).
Querying, like selling a book, can happen quickly or take an eternity. (Either way, it will feel like it, as you check your email constantly.) The better your query letter, the more likely an agent will ask you quickly for a partial, and then a full. Once you accept representation, many agents want to work with you on preliminary edits to make your submission to editors as strong as it can be. Following that, the submission and sale could happen in a whirlwind week, or it could take multiple rounds. After your book is bought (hooray!), there’s yet more rounds of edits, and a year of design, sales and marketing details you’d never imagined. A pub date of a year to 18 months after the book’s purchase is fairly common.
SS: Forever. (Okay, just kidding. I know this isn’t even my question. Delete this.)
Ellen: No, don’t delete that comment, Scott, because it can take forever. From the time I started querying agents with my finished, good-as-I-could-make-it, manuscript until the publication date was five years, and that’s not long. I have another novel manuscript that I’ve been writing and revising and querying and submitting and revising for ten years. But the good news is that while you’re doing the business part of the job, you can also be working on the next novel or the next story. In fact, you have to be working on it. Otherwise, you risk forgetting why you love to write.