Melissa Marr (melissa_writing) wrote,
Melissa Marr

Answering Questions on the Writing Life

I'm midway into my annual anti-travel season. I take trips for family or writing retreats, but every year since I started this job, I've taken to adding "blackout" dates. There are some scattered throughout the calendar--the kids' birthdays (8 Sept & 14 Oct), the days around Oct 31, and Winter Solstice. Overall though, I try to be flexible. This is, in part, to keep my publishers from throttling me, but also because I like to do book events. While being flexible, I still am fiercely protective over this blackout date plan. I believe that to create, to live a life worth living, it is essential to have time to recharge, be with my family, stare in speechless awe at whichever natural vista lures me in, & generally refill the well. This refilling is as much a part of the writing process as revisions. Without it, I have nothing to say. 

Recently, as I am here in my not-travel window, I was asked about promotion/events advice. Here were my replies (originally in very short snippets via Twitter & much expanded here).

Q: "Do you have promotion advice for new writers?"
  • Focus on writing the next book (1). I don't think any other thing will help as much. Reviews, ads, tours--NOTHING spikes sales as much as the next book.
  • The next best "bump" causers were anthologies (2) & film news (3).
  • You can't control film news--or even film sale--so don't focus on film. Be joyous when it happens; ignore it when you can.  
  • Conferences (4) rank next on my "useful promotion advice" list. Plus? They're fun. I love ALA, BEA, TLA, NCTE/ALAN, & RT (and others!).
A few definitions that help me to see the PR world more realistically:
  • Tours: an excuse to meet your readers/booksellers/librarians to say thank you.
  • Group Tours: meet the above AND spend time w writer friends.
  • Anthologies: sort of like ads EXCEPT you get paid (!) instead of paying, AND it's an excuse to write a story so you play in a new world.
Q: Why Tour then?

IMO, tours aren't about selling books. I go because a) I like meeting people/seeing new places & b) I dislike arguing with my publishers. I don't believe they impact sales. . . but belief isn't enough, so I started charting my Bookscan numbers. Now, admittedly, it's hard to do this bc tours are usually in conjunction with release dates. However, I've done store events at other times throughout the year, & for the first two years when I did the Smart Chicks Kick It Tour, I had Spring releases (ie 4-6 months earlier than the tour). I did the math on the sales (books sold, my royalty earned), and I did the math on roughly what it costs to send me on tour. The cost analysis made it painfully obvious that tour model is not financially beneficial to me OR my publisher. The facts  show that in many cases, tour is not a cost effective way to sell books. (Refer to definitions above for why to tour.)

On Conferences: 
Like tours, conferences are--in my opinion--about getting to meet the people who are either selling my books/circulating them at libraries or reading my books. It's not what drives sales. It IS fun. :)

That said, the business centric benefit I've found at conferences & tours is getting the pulse of the market. I have attended Book Expo every year, including years when it was on my dime instead of the publisher's. I have attended NCTE/ALAN, TLA (Texas Library Assoc), ALA (Amer Library Assoc), the Bologna Book Fair, and when I'm there, I always try to take a few hours to walk the exhibit floor.

In doing this, I discovered books that thrilled me, the top two finds over the last 6 years were BEAUTIFUL CREATURES (which I prompted read & blurbed) and WONDLA (which I adored). I saw which publishers were promoting what books. Bologna gave me a sense of international push. The others show me what trends are strengthening & weakening. I don't buy the possibility of writing to trends--bc a) I'm not fast enough & b) I get bored too easily to try that. This is my industry though, so much like paying attention to new Victorian & Faulknerian critical theories when I was teaching, I feel like keeping track of the ebbs & flows of books is part of my job.

Conferences also help me as a reader see the distinction between hype & OMFG read this now. Sometimes a book gets a bigger push because of a market trend. Being at these events helps that become clear. To be honest, my first book got part of its big marketing push bc of the buzz of another paranormal (Twilight) that came out while I was revising my book. I watched the same thing with a lot of books that came later & with those that came as the Twilight series ended. In some cases, I don't pick up books because of the hype. In others, I can parse the clues to realize that the hype is well-deserved. Case in point, John Green's new book, THE FAULT IN OUR STARS, had crazy hype. I had no doubt that I should read it though bc I've loved every book he's written. (Slight tangent: If you haven't read it, do so. It's one of the best book I've read in . . . always.)

Reading Resources:
--slight tangent--
Looking for great reads is also made easier by following review sources you trust. My list includes a wide range so as to compare reviews-- Publishers Weekly, LOCUS (for sff), School Library Journal, RT (for romance), the Bulletin. I subscribe to all of those.

I also subscribe to Publishers Marketplace, in large part for the same reasons I attend conferences. Here, I keep a watch list. There are editors & agents whose taste I trust. If Molly O'Neill (a Harper editor) recommends a book I listen. We aren't always in synch, but I have high odds of enjoying her recs. Likewise, I follow deals over on Publishers Marketplace to see what Dan Lazar (agent, Writers House), Barry Goldblatt, Michael Stearns, or Merrilee (my agent) sell. I watch to see what Krista Marino (Random House), Farrin Jacobs (Harper), Julie Strauss-Gabel (Penguin), Julie Schiena (L, B), Melissa Frain (Tor) and a few others buy in YA. If I want a romance, I watch to see what Erika Tsang (Avon) buys.

Viral Impact:
None of the hard data on sales the week of & week after tours, conferences, ads, interviews, reviews (including in major media like USA Today, NPR, etc) can account for viral impact. All of those things add up, but they don't show visibly in weekly sales reports. (Yes, I've assessed the sales reports from 2007 to now looking to see "what helps" . . . because I have a weird data fixation.)

Data Geek Looking Forward:
I don't know that my sorting & pondering is necessary, and I DO know that my data-hunger drives lots of people crazy, but I have had a 5-10 year master plan since I was 16. When Loch was an active duty Marine, I had move plans--TMO Plans in military jargon--starting as soon as we hit the duty station. For my career, I have release & due dates slated from now thru 2016. I like to look forward & assess what needs accomplished.

So, the result of all of this is that when debut or not-yet-pubbed writers ask for advice on promo what I can say with a bit of certainty is that in my experience it's looking forward to the next project you're writing that should be the primary focus. I think that same truth is applicable when agent hunting too. I wrote a children's book (JACK MERRY) in 2005, and while I was querying it, I wrote WICKED LOVELY (also in 05). That second book caught an agent. While WL was shopping to editors (start of 2006), I started what ended up being divided into INK EXCHANGE and FRAGILE ETERNITY. While that series was being published (2007 & 2008), I started GRAVEMINDER.

Short Version of all of that:
Keep looking forward instead of backward.  Yes, your house will ask you to do some PR, but the truth is that being caught in the PR machine will distract from the best part/the reason we all wanted to think about PR in the first place-- writing
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