by J.T. Ellison
As many of you well know, we had Thrillerfest in New York this past weekend. It was a lot of fun reconnecting with old friends, meeting new, and in general, a pretty good time. The rumors are true, Thrillerfest will be in New York again next summer, which is good and bad news. The bad news is the cost of the weekend easily pushes into the $3000 range, once you add up airfare, hotel, registration, food, and of course, books. That’s
a pretty penny — fine if you’re only doing one con a year, but if
you’re anywhere near the circuit… well, you do the math.
The good news of Thrillerfest in New York has a razor’s edge too — it’s impossible not to take advantage of the fact that you’re in New York to do business while you’re there. Which means time away from the conference, no matter how well you schedule. This was my biggest problem this weekend, I had meetings galore and didn’t get to spend much physical time in the Hyatt. And I left early because I’m on a wicked close deadline and needed to get back to work.
I did have an opportunity to sign at the Borders Park Avenue, with seven dear friends (Michelle Gagnon, Tim Maleeny, Alexandra Sokoloff, Mario Acevedo, Laura Caldwell, Laura Benedict and Shane Gericke) with Lee Child as our master of ceremonies. It was a packed house, a wonderful, fun crowd, and we gave away snakes! Well worth the entire trip.
So. That said, there are some great round-ups of Thrillerfest here and here, so instead of repeating everything ad nauseum, I thought I’d talk about my panel, Blood Sweat and Tears: The First Year As A Published Author.
Moderated by Laura Benedict, the panel consisted of Rob Gregory Browne, Heather Terrell, Jason Pinter, D.L. Wilson, S.L. Linnea and me. It was fascinating to hear some of the stories, and I think we heard a great deal of what not to do, though the audience needed to sort that out for themselves.
But with that many people on the panel, we didn’t really get to cover much ground. Laura had prepared some great questions, so I thought I’d interview myself, answer them, and hope that a few other folks will jump in with their first year answers as well.
- Did you make personal appearances or do a tour for the novel? What’s your most horrific tour story?
I did tour, extensively, though I hadn’t planned on doing so. I had several great opportunities that sprang up, and I couldn’t say no. Will I do that again? Probably not — there’s much less writing time when you’re on the road. But I had a chance to do one of every kind of event my first year, and it was great training for my future. And I don’t have a horrific tour story. It’s all been a joy. I’ve had a couple of awkward moments, but nothing that mattered.
- How was writing number 2 (or 3 or 4) different from writing the first novel you published?
The first book I did, I had all the time in the world. I was pushing myself, but there was no deadline, no edits, no page proofs, no promotion. Book two wasn’t so bad either, I was halfway through it when books 1-3 sold. Book 3, that’s where the demands started catching up. Book 4, which I’m six weeks from deadline on now, has by far been the most difficult. I’ve been writing EDGE OF BLACK while page proofing 14, editing JUDAS KISS, promoting ATPG and 14. It’s been grueling, and I keep threatening that I’m not doing any cons next year. I may do one or two, but if it’s not local, I’m probably out, because it’s just too much. Now that I’m in my groove, it’s easier. I know what to expect, what to budget for time wise on a book. It’s all a learning process.
- What is the one thing you wish that a more experienced writer had told you before you sold that first book? Is there anything that you’re reluctant to tell new authors?
I’ve been blessed with great writer friends who have helped educate me on the business. I wish all new writers, regardless of format, house size, or promotional budget, would learn the industry. What I’m reluctant to tell new authors is not everyone makes it. That’s just a fact, and it’s a disturbing one. You never know who is going to make it, and who isn’t. I did get some incredibly great words of encouragement this weekend. A writer with 40 books under her belt said "There are one book wonders. There are three book wonders. Once you publish that fourth, you’re really a professional writer." I felt a load off when she said that, for sure.
- Many publishers ask their writers to submit a marketing plan with either a proposal or after the book has been accepted. If you submitted a plan, did it have anything to do with reality?
No, Mira did not ask me to submit a marketing plan. I know this answer varies from house to house, but Mira has an exceptionally brilliant marketing team, and they so didn’t need me telling them what I thought we should be doing. This also ties in with the most important element of your career — communication with your people.
- How involved were you with the publisher’s marketing of your book? Did you have any interaction with the publisher’s sales team?
I had a great deal of interaction with the sales team at Mira. Jason Pinter, Michelle Gagnon and I all got to sign at BEA out first time out, meet the sales staff, schmooze with the company executives. It was very helpful. I’m still interacting with them weekly. My publicist talks with them regularly. It’s been a true joy to work with the publicity and marketing folks. I think the key is listening, learning the industry, then knowing what to pitch to them and when to stay out of their way. And that’s not something you learn your first year, I think it’s an on-going process. No one will fire you for asking questions…
- What was your most successful promotion? Which promotional efforts will you keep and which will you drop next time around?
I didn’t do anything promotion wise outside of personal appearances and guest blogs for writer sites. I had some postcards, but I never made bookmarks or keychains or any other kind of swag. There’s an old joke in politics: "Yardsigns. Yardsigns will win you an election." Swag in publishing is the same. I think a bookmark or postcard is fine, and if you want to do something cool (or your house does) then go for it. But it’s not going to be the tipping point for your career. I think the best money I spent was on just plain old business cards. I’ve reordered them at least six times since I’ve started, and hand them out everywhere. This is a business, and if you act like a businessman/woman, you’ll be treated as such.
- What is one illusion that you held about the business that was completely destroyed by your experience? Conversely, what was the most pleasant surprise?
Shattered illusions? That everyone wants you to succeed. It just ain’t so, unfortunately. There are people who would be just as happy to see you fall on your face than get a decent sell-through. The trick is to recognize these Januses quickly. Here’s a bit of advice. Don’t jump into any relationships, ease your way in. If people you trust are telling you someone is trouble, LISTEN. And don’t let people treat you like you’re an errant child just because you’re a debut. You should always, always be treated with respect, and you should treat people with respect in return. Even if you don’t like them.
And on the other end of that spectrum, I have been absolutely stunned by the outpouring of friendship, love, support and general goodwill in the mystery community. I have made some of the closest friendships of my life since I became a writer. People who support you no matter what, who cheer for your successes and gripe about your failures. Amazing, wonderful friends.
- Do you track your sales? If so, how? And how often did you/do you look at those puzzling Amazon numbers?
I do to the extent that I watch the trends. If I have a radio interview, or an ad runs, I watch to see if the numbers move. You don’t really know anything until your editor gives you your numbers, because Amazon, Ingram, and the like are only reporting fractions of your sales. If we knew what fraction, we could all rest easier.
- Were you told the numbers of copies of your book that would be published, and did you editor or agent tell you what sell through numbers they’d be happy with?
Yes, and yes. If you aren’t being told that, you need to jump up and down and yell and scream. Talk to your agent, talk to your editor. Tell them you want to be involved in the process, that you want to work hard and make a success out of your book. You should always know where you stand and what your goals are.
I’d love to hear from you. Writers, feel free to grab and answer any and all of the questions. Readers, do any debut author’s promotions stand out to you? Any advice for our soon to be war torn newbies?
Wine of the Week: 2003 Attilio Ghisolfi Barolo