I had the delightful experience yesterday of participating in an hour+ long conference call with Karen Meng & Selly Breagle of Broad Universe.
The topic was How to Tell the World About Your Fabulous Prose, and the participants were asked to prepare questions in advance. We (though it turned out to be I - did everyone else forget to set their alarm clocks?) would then pose those questions to Karen Meng, multi-pseudonymous (?!) author, successful in a variety of genres from horror to fantasy. Selly Breagle, best-selling nonfiction author under another name, has recently turned to fantasy writing. She arranged and moderated the discussion - Thank you, Selly! And thank you, Karen, for your thoughtful words. Both Karen and Selly had much of value to say.
(Check this link to read Selly's Broad Universe article "Book Promotion: Ten Ways to Let the World Know Your Fabulous Book Exists ")
I can't overstate how much I enjoyed the conference call. I've been a member of BU for perhaps a year, but this was the first time I have had a chance to sit down and talk with members ear-to-ear about the business of writing and promotion. Both women were professional and friendly, good-humoured and intelligent. The conversation was anecdotal, personal, packed with good advice, and altogether useful in clarifying the direction I want to take. It also somehow put me more at ease around what I have done, what I want to do, and what I want NOT to do. Below (far below) I have consolidated my hasty notes and tried to make them clearer than, "bks wl d bd tgs if u jst lv thm n thr own." (For example.) But first, a little Self Reflection.
(But first first, A technical point of interest. The call was made through Free Teleconference.com. I haven't looked into the details of how this service works but I will say that the connection was problem free.)
Gone are the days, they say, when writers could stay in their quiet towers and put their minds to writing only; now they must promote themselves as business people, too. Well, I would argue that few writers in history have had the luxury of writing only, without needing to promote their work in some way, or find a way to feed themselves, but nevertheless, the IMAGE at least is shattering all around us. Writers' conferences and conventions abound with information on how to present yourself and your work, how to build portfolios and promotional packages and all manner of things that I confess to having little knowledge of (or interest in). Selly and Karen are business women as well as writers. I, I fear, am not.
I've felt bad about it. Not HORRIBLE, but not entirely pleased with myself. Wattle and Daub has placed several ads for Finding Creatures & Other Stories, and arranged for online sales and so on. Being a teensy, beginning publisher they have not yet got a distributor. I've trailed around stopping in at bookstores and asking if they want my book. Some store managers have said sure, others have lectured me vigourously about bothering them, and others have told me to come back when the book has a distributor. It's been humiliating, hilarious, engrossing, and always a learning experience. But I'm shy. SHY SHY SHY! It's very hard to force myself back into that cold-call saddle again and again.
And really, tripping around to the few bookstores I can physically get to is not going to make a big difference in telling people about my stories, in getting them to the folk who will be glad they had a chance to read these tales.
So I try other things. Online networking. (I suck at it. I'm great at making friends - I like people! - but promoting the book? I feel like a pariah every time I open my mouth about it. So I don't, much. Yeesh.)
What about reviews? That's useful. And I have been liberal in sending out review copies, and even gotten some reviews out of it, and maybe more will come. So I did okay there.
But what about getting in the newspaper? Doing events? Handing out handbills and otherwise getting in people's faces? May I crawl under the bed now? If it's okay?
And when people DO read the book, and tell me how much they loved it? Well, I know that I am then supposed to ask them to write a review for Amazon, or LibraryThing, or ask their library to order it in, or Tweet and Facebook comment about it and yak it up on their blogs. Some people I have actually asked to do these things. With always that creeping sense of guilt about bothering them. Lord a-mighty I'm a terrible self-promoter.
In fact, I am so crappy at it that I can't even figure out which of the things I am doing are useful and which are not, and I have my gaze in so many directions, I can't even remember what I'm doing - or had intended to be doing - half the time. All I know for sure is I have lugged around this sense that I should be doing more, and more aggressive, things than I am, than I want to, than I feel comfortable with. So I am dooming my book to fail by my timidity.
All of which is background to saying the most important thing I got out of yesterday's conference.
Somehow, although nobody actually said this, I walked away with the sense that I am doing just fine. That I don't have to be aggressive, or someone I am not, a business person with a good portfolio. I know those things would be great, maybe, but I'm just not good at them. What I am good at is, it turns out, one of the things they most emphasized. And that's liking people, and caring about their success, and enjoying hanging out. (Heck, I spend at least as much time promoting other people's work as I do promoting my own. Probably more. Because I really LIKE encouraging them and increasing their visibility.)
I'm just trying to get my stories out to a few people who would value them. For that, there is no time limit. If what gets people interested in my writing is knowing me, then, slowly slowly, here and there, a few people will read my book. And my next one when it comes out. And among those people will be a few who really like it. And that is good. So I can choose the style of self-promotion that I feel comfortable with and be content with that. Meanwhile, I can pass on information on other styles that you may benefit from.
So here are a few notes from Karen and Selly, as digested and short-keyboarded by me. (Eg, any mistakes are my own.) The conversation wandered around a bit. These are the cleaned up but not re-ordered notes. Dive in and see what you can find to sink your teeth into. And enjoy the small glimmers of humour that are all that remain in my notes of the lively and warm conversational styles of Selly and Karen.
Thanks again to both of you for a wonderful workshop.
NOTES from BU Promotion Conference Call, 23 June 2009, with Karen Meng and Selly Breagle:
- hype yourself. write a book proposal including "how good I am at promoting myself", promo copy, marketing plan, schemata of market, synopsis, sample chapters, etc etc
- K has been writing professionally for 30 yrs: in every genre she has a distinct pseudonym, background, and history. (Fave genre: hardcore horror.) Having these separate identities has been extremely useful on many occasions.
- Wiscon - one conference where they are not pushing writing as a business; there to relax; this is a good counter-balance for the usual necessary approach. Normally you must GET that writing IS a business, and work at it accordingly.
- need to understand that we're writing for an audience, not just for ourselves. They'll read our work and put their own perspective on it. This will impact your work: eg you may be asked by an editor to change an ending. (Ex. When she killed her protagonist at the end of her first book. Editor wanted her NOT to kill her off because this looked like a good book to have a sequel.)
- don't always agree to change your work. It's judgment call. ALWAYS HAVE A BUY BACK OPTION IN YOUR CONTRACT IN CASE THEIR VISION IS TOO DIFFERENT FROM YOURS. In fiction they pay you in thirds: on signing the contract, on receiving the book, on hitting the shelves. (In nonfiction, you're paid in 1/2s.) The buy-back option is generally 100% + 10-15% penalty. Karen was once given $55 000 for a book which she then bought back for $60 000 because she did not want it changed to the degree the publisher wished to.
- for her first three books she was left to herself to do the promotion. As she got people interested in her work and learned how to target particular audiences, her fan base grew and her publishers began listening to her thoughts on the matter and helping with promotion. For 10 yrs she was building a fan base and getting her fans to write about her and her books. Networking among fans was very important. They give her exposure in a variety of ways, eg listing her book among "the top 5 horror books I've read this year", etc.
- ask fans to mention your book in comments on blogs and in the comment section of the New York Review of Books' blog as well as other book-related magazines and sites. Convince people to write about your work.
- Karen identified key local groups of other professionals who write like her and joined the groups they belonged to, introduced herself with her 30 second sound-bytes (on the project she was working on at the time), and became a fixture on the local level.
- went to two or three national conferences a year with her books in hand, as well as bookmarks and other promotional materials. Put them out everywhere and ...
- networked, pretending she was just as important as the famous authors she admired, and that she of course should and can share a panel with them. Get to know them. Recognize you are one of them, even if you have to pretend your somebody special even though you believe you aren't. She networked with people she wouldn't have dared to. Pretended to be a professonal and got help developing a persona. (Selly: got help doing the clothes, etc. Friends would dress her up in the corporate style and send her on her way.)
- if you have an author you admire don't be afraid to get to know her or him. See what events she attends and show up. Learn from his experiences.
- Do this also with the people who write reviews-positive or negative.
- Show that you have longevity as a writer. Stick around so people get to know you and remember you. When a project comes up they can ask you for help. When they need someone on a panel, they will ask you. Thus: GO TO PROFESSIONAL CONFERENCES AND REACH OUT AND TALK TO PEOPLE. Ask how they're doing and ask advice. Accept rejection. It's okay. Let them know you enjoy reading their work and would like to learn more about achieving their level of success.
- contests are good. Even if you don't win they can be good networking tools and are good experience. Rocky Mountain Writers Association has an excellent contest. You submit your synopsis and first chapter (runs every April). They will read and give feedback. The finalists pitch to editors and agents
- when readers write and say "I love your book", answer and say "Would you mind posting that on Amazon?" Then boil it down for them by changing the wording from "you" ("I love your work") to "her" ("I love her work"), etc. so that it's easy for them to just post it. Add, of course, "Forgive me for being so forward." Include links for them to post it to. (Selly)
- Karen switched from a literary agent to management company
- attend workshops. Get to know writers. Submit a body of work to be reviewed. In one case, even though she didn't win, an agent approached her later and offered to represent her. (This was a contest.)
- When asked about Twitter, which is being touted as a great promotional tool, Karen replied, "I leave Twitter to the fans. Get someone who likes the book to tweet it; get them drunk at a con and get them to tweet right on the spot!" (I think she was kidding!)
- doing readings: Tell the store owner that you will help them promote by adding the info to newsletters, blogs, etc. Get more foot traffic in by contacting a local newspaper online, checking to see who is doing book reviews, then emailing them. See who is doing the Features Section, profiling local artists. Tell them what you are interested in doing and send a copy of your book to them, with a thank you. Contact a local SF group, eg at the university. They are readers of SF and F. Get them interested in the event so you can promote the reading with a fan base. Offer to go to one of their meetings and do reading. Either just show up and introduce yourself or contact them ahead of time. Look at the main events in the city to see who is sponsoring them and connect with them. Introduce yourself. They don't need to like your writing (!). You just have to be open to sharing who you are and doing a reading and at the end tell them you will be at such and such a bookstore and could use help promoting it. Send an email to the local sf blog in that city. Introduce yourself and say what you're doing in town. Offer a free copy of your book for them to pitch in their blog
- approach libraries for readings; find the person who does the events or calendar, offer to give them one or two free copies for the shelf, and then do a reading.
- you may not get sales at reading but the ads they put in will lead to sales
- buy a set of clothes for public appearances NOW, not when you are suddenly asked to be on a panel or a TV show
- ask questions about others and you will relax; be supportive of them and you will support each other.
- Karen: I come equipped with kooky stories about myself to get people to laugh or make fun of me; it eases the tension. Playing hostess works, too. This way you can move into your persona instead of being nervous.
- you need to be able to a bad job sometimes in order to do a good job later.
- in the BU Website "10 tips for promotion" Selly says: make the connections real and never be afraid to be a failure. Have a sense of humour about your failures. Meeting the person who rejected you later on; relax, it's okay.
- hand out flyers, don't just leave them on the table.
- if you don't hear back from someone you might write again and say, "I sent a follow-up email based on your feedback and I'm afraid it may have got stuck in your spam folder; is there a way we can root it out?" if you don't hear back phone them.
- preditors and editors - check them for bad publishers, and let them know if you have a bad experience that others should be warned about.
- with a publisher: ask for money and a contract up front. A publisher doesn't have to release a book but you are protected by your contract. There is no such thing as a handshake agreement. That is up there with asking for reading and editing fee or paying to be published.
Check the comments out for Selly's additional wisdom and contact information.
SO! In finishing this lengthy work about self-promotion, I think it is only fitting that I indulge in a little S-P, myself. Thus I remind you to click on the following link and sign up for the Finding Creatures Book Giveaway. The draw is one month from tomorrow (tomorrow is my birthday, by the way...) on 25 July.
Broad Universe is an international organization with the primary goal of promoting science fiction, fantasy, and horror written by women. Anyone excited about that project is welcome to join us. If you would like more information, email info(at)broaduniverse.org or check our Resources pages.