A Thrilling Few Days

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


16 thoughts on “A Thrilling Few Days

  1. Bryon Quertermous

    Great advice JT. I’m so happy to see you suceeding (and not in that catty “if SHE can make it, anyone can make it” kind of way). I’m still stunned at how ignorant some new authors can be with such a wealth of insightful information out there.

  2. Kathryn Lilley

    Great post, J.T.! I really wish I’d been able to go to Thrillerfest–I’ll make sure not to miss it next year! I have only one slight change I’m making in promotion this year–switching from putting my book art on bookmarks to refrigerator magnets. People always seem happy to get a refrigerator magnet (except the decorator types who have burled wood appliances or some such thing). I felt bookmarks got lost in the storm of paper handouts at conferences, so at the very least, magnets stand out!

  3. Alexandra Sokoloff

    Bookmarks are great to give to bookstores and libraries. It’s a tool. Remember Tess’s 6X rule (well, maybe it’s not Tess’s rule originally, but I associate it with her):

    A person has to hear your name (or your book’s title) six times for it to finally register that this is something they need to pay attention to.

    So it doesn’t really matter WHAT you do for marketing, as long as you do it six times for everyone.

    Because of that I have no idea what I’ve done that has been most effective. It’s been effective – although exhausting – to do A LOT. I was lucky enough to be able to go to a lot of conferences my first year, and I made them count – like doing drop-by tours of a good half dozen (at least) bookstores in the area every time I went to a con.

    A lot of great questions, JT – I’ll try to get to more later in the day.

  4. Louise Ure

    T-fest sounds like a grand old time, J.T. I was there with you in spirit in any case.

    Things that stunned me my debut year? The money (or lack thereof) in publishing.

    Things I would do differently if I had my first year to do over? Not much really. Less swag, more PR, maybe.

    Can’t wait to see you all at B’con.

  5. J.T. Ellison

    Bryon, it’s funny. I think I still look at me and say “If I can make it, anyone can.”; ) I mean really, look back to the beginning of Murderati. As Pari pointed out, I was so green it was scary. It’s been an enlightening two years, and immersion therapy has been the reason. Many cons, many new friends, many blogs, many events and many list serves — all of which taught me a bit about this business. I’d be lying if I said I don’t have much more to learn…

    But, and it’s a HUGE but — you gave me my first break. And trust me, I’ll never forget it.

    Kathyrn, I bought some magnets and haven’t gotten around to affixing my business cards to them. I thought it might be fun to do my latest book cover and give them out at my launch. I always feel silly handing strangers promotional material. I prefer to talk directly and sell that way. Of course, if I had something super cool and useful, like that guy… what’s his name… of yeah, KONRATH and his coasters. That’s a perfect example of swag that works.

  6. J.T. Ellison

    Alex, I think you too are a paragon of how to do everything right. Your bookmark took a place of honor in my next book (An aside, I just finished THE PRICE, and WHOA! Blew me away)

    You’ve met everyone, been to all the bookstores (THAT IS A GEM RIGHT THERE — when your traveling, always arrange to hit the bookstores. See Indiebound.org for a list of independents in the area you’re visiting, and finding a chain is easy.)

    Pari — you, like Bryon, got me started. I owe you a debt that’s too big to pay, but I’ll figure out something.

    Louise, you were missed. You always add a touch of class to these events. Bouchercon, it’s you and me, baby. But not outside. No more outside for me ; )

  7. Laura Benedict

    Hi, JT! I loved our panel–What fun to see how far we’ve all come since our Thrillerfest debut breakfast. You all did an amazing job and I can’t wait to hear if the Writer’s Digest video comes out okay.

    Could you tell I was worried about having enough questions to fill the time? In the end, I think we could’ve been up there all afternoon…

    A couple answers:

    Sales and Amazon, etc: I don’t track my sales. I’ve always been like that–closing my eyes on roller coasters–when I’m dragged on them–and hiding my eyes during the really bloody parts of films. I know that I would fret too much if I paid attention to the numbers. And, really, to what could I compare them? Other writers’ numbers? (There’s a game to make a girl crazy.) Someday, when I have a more substantial track record with bookstores, perhaps I’ll be more comfortable paying attention.

    Illusions and surprises: I didn’t have a whole lot of illusions because I’ve been married to a lit writer for eighteen years. I’ve seen major-league cruelty and jealousy among writers and been privy to things I wish I didn’t have to know. (There ARE many good people in the lit fiction/academic world and I’m married to one of them–but we’re talking illusions here.) I had many hopes but zero expectations when I turned in the ms for Isabella Moon. Conversely, the best surprise of my whole debut year experience was connecting with so many amazingly generous and genuinely kind people. I was a complete unknown and new to the commercial fiction world, so I had a hard time approaching people for quotes–but once the book came out and I started actually meeting people, I was blown away! There’s a generosity of spirit among the thriller/mystery crowd one just doesn’t see anywhere else. Advice, encouragement, constructive criticism, even good-for-yous–it’s all here. We’re truly blessed.

    Promotion: I drove four thousand miles on my first tour. (Plus Bouchercon in Alaska) I set up most of the events myself, but the Ballantine publicist set me up at a couple of the chains and regionals like Jo-Beth. She was also very helpful getting television and radio interviews for me. I think we made a pretty good team. But I’ll be sticking closer to home for this next one–I just don’t know that it was worth the money and the six weeks away from my family. Mostly, I need to stay home and write because I’m very slow. The advice I’ve been getting from much more seasoned writers is that the best approach is just to write the best books we can.

    I’m so glad you did this blog, JT. I love your answers!

  8. PK the Bookeemonster

    JT, I saw you in a panel at LCC in Denver. After the panel I immediately went to the book room and bought your book. Yours is the only I did that with as I was on a very tight budget. There are a lot of books out there to read and after a while new names are just like another in the onslaught therefore its easy to overlook a potential good author; your intelligent personality in person sold me. In-person marketing can work.from one set of initials to another,PK the Bookeemonster

  9. J.T. Ellison

    Laura, the questions, and the moderation, were superb. I loved your horror story, too — so funny!

    PK, thank you! That’s an awesome compliment, one I will do my best to continue to live up to. I love meeting readers, it’s the biggest joy out of the whole venture for me.

  10. The Wiz

    Nice to see things going your way, J.T. Congrats.

    Sorry to hear T-fest will be in NYC again next year. Made it last year, but too expensive to go back this year, and too much to go next year. It’s good to see see a con just for you authors though–probably don’t want a lot of fans in your way–more time to spend with agents and publishers, and seeing the sights. Wife and I were able to spend two weeks at the New Mysteries Festival in Kentucky, literally, for what three days at T-fest cost, and not nearly the hassle of getting there.

    Wonder why B-con, Left Coast Crime and some of the other events skip from city to city every year?

    I am eagerly awaiting my next disappointment.

  11. Chuck D.

    Great blog JT! Thanks for such informative insider info–much of it I had never come across before.

    I’m in the process of moving and have been off the radar.

    You rock!

  12. Fran

    Just a quick observation from a bookseller.

    Bookmarks and postcards can quickly become recycling. They’re cheap, they’re quick, and they pile up. We have an entire shelf of free stuff and a lot of it is bookmarks and postcards.

    I’m not saying they work; they do. But if a store has, say 50 copies of your book to sell, and you send 200 bookmarks, well, they’ve got to go somewhere. And with a dozen or more new titles per week, the extra bookmarks and postcards quickly become a space drain and ultimately get shuffled off to a dusty corner. It’s not personal, it’s just the nature of the game.

    Magnets and buttons and things are more popular and more people will pick them up, but they’re also more expensive. It’s a challenge.

    Darn. I said I was gonna be quick.

  13. David J. Montgomery

    To the contrary of one of the comments above…ThrillerFest is definitely a great conference for fans to attend. Since they’re still in the process of building up the attendance base of readers, there is incredible access to the authors for the ordinary fans.

    People like Lee Child, Heather Graham, Kathy Reichs, Joe Finder, Barry Eisler and James Rollins (and JT and Alex and Brett and Rob and Dusty) are just hanging out, standing in the corridors or drinking in the bar. And they’d love to chance to talk to readers.

    They aren’t constantly mobbed by huge groups of people as so often happens at signings or some of the other conferences. So it’s easy to get books signed or take pictures or have a chat. (And they were giving away a ton of free books, so you could get those signed as well.)

    Sure, it’s expensive — but everything is expensive. Combine it with a vacation to NYC and you can see the sights AND hang out with cool authors.

  14. MJ

    For those of you who missed the members meeting where we talked about this and explained it, maybe it would be helpful to say:

    The goal of ThrillerFest is to increase the number of fans. Attendence was up 33% with fans this year. And next year we have some big big plans for more fans. I think its a testament to how professional ITW is that this was only our third conference – it takes time to get something to where you want it to be. That’s part of the reason to stay in NY – the NY press is getting to know us and that’s the secret to more fans. It was amazing – we had The NY Post, the NY Sun, Time Out New York, NPR, and The Wall St. Journal all either there this year or writing about us.That will pay off next year.

    This week Wall St. Journal – one of the US’s biggest papers did a great story on the event – in the actual paper and online – You can see that here: http://online.wsj.com/public/article/SB121676916998175307.html?mod=2_1578_middlebox


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *