NJ Simmonds on Marketing Yourself

Today's guest for the SAT (Successful Author Talk) is NJ Simmonds, writer of YA fantasy, romance, and historical stuff that she totally makes up. A tiresome feminist killjoy, she's really bad at sitting still or keeping quiet. Her first book, The Path Keeper, releases today!

Are you a Planner or Pantser?

I’m a Planner Plus – because I’m also a dreamer. I spend months and months thinking about my stories before putting fingers to keyboard, imagining them like a movie in my head. It’s not until I’ve ironed out every little detail and plot-hole that I plan it chapter by chapter, and then write. It means that I don’t have that dreaded messy first draft so many people battle through, filling in gaps and spotting plot issues.

How long does it typically take you to write a novel, start to finish?

A lot less time now that I’m on a deadline for books two and three. My first book, The Path Keeper, took three years, but back then it was a hobby and I re-wrote it dozens of times. Book two took about nine months to final draft and the last in the series will have taken me about five months. Less I hope. I’m nearly at the end of the first draft. I did take just three months to write a YA contemporary once, but so far no publisher wants it – so maybe I should have taken more time with that one haha.

Do you work on one project at a time, or are you a multi-tasker?

I’m a multi, multi, multi tasker. I am currently planning the launch of book 1, editing book 2, writing book 3, planning my next series, subbing my standalone novel, I have five half-baked book ideas in note form – oh, and a job and two kids! This may explain my tense shoulders and insomnia.

Did you have to overcome any fears that first time you sat down to write?

No. Mainly because I was doing it for cathartic reasons. I had absolutely no expectations of anyone reading it or of taking it all the way to publishing. My two children were under three years of age when I started, and I was very exhausted, unhappy and unfulfilled. I started writing as a way to express myself and to escape, it became my savior.

How many trunked books (if any) did you have before you were agented?

None. But that’s because I knew nothing about the publishing industry or agents and someone I knew, who was a small-time agent, snapped up my first novel and offered to rep it. I was very nonchalant about it all and said ‘OK, let’s see if you get anyone interested in it, if not I’ll self-publish’. I had zero expectations. After a year of rejections, she folded her business anyway, so I was left unagented. At that point I should have started from scratch and got another agent – but instead one of the publishers showed interest, so I continued solo.

I always wonder whether, had I subbed to top agents from the start, whether my journey would have been different or if I would have trunked the first book after a few No’s.

Have you ever quit on an ms, and how did you know it was time?

Oh lots, but in my mind they are just little buds that have been put on ice. When the time is right, I’ll tend to them properly and watch them bloom. Most are only 5-10k words in - nothing major, just a few chapters. The only reason I stopped was because I had publisher deadlines with the series so had to focus on that, or because other ideas came along that were more exciting.

My unfinished books are all YA contemporary. I plan to focus on fantasy for a bit longer so may revisit them at a later stage. 

How did it feel the first time you saw your book for sale?

I’ve had a complicated route to publication, as The Path Keeper was first published by a small UK publisher who dropped YA after a few months – so I had to find the series a new home after being out just four months.

When the first edition hit the shops back in 2017, the entire experience was overwhelmingly surreal. I was in a London Waterstones, my book all over the shop, and a queue of people waiting to have it signed. I couldn’t believe it was my life – especially when it was beside other YA greats such as The Hate U Give and Caraval!

How much input do you have on cover art?

The first time around, with my first publisher, it was quite a lot. I filled in a form, hated their first attempt, and they basically did what I asked and I loved it. Now that I’m with a new publisher, and the book is hitting the USA and the rest of the world, I’m very very nervous. My background is in branding and marketing, so covers are so important to me – in fact a lot of the negotiations before I signed with my new publishers was about positioning, to ensure that they saw the future of the series the same way I did. They’ve been amazing, listening to my ideas, research and suggestions…so we’ll see. I’ll be seeing the cover soon. It should be beautiful, it has to be, we are definitely on the same page.

What social media ISN’T is a sales platform. It’s there to build your brand, connect and interact. It is not successful when all you do is sell yourself on there..png

What's something you learned from the process that surprised you?

I’ve learned so much the hard way. Having been signed by an agent in 2015, then losing her, then signed to a publisher in 2016, published 2017, then leaving that publisher and not getting a new one for nine months (unagented) has been a really steep learning curve.

Even though my series is finally getting the attention it deserved first time around, I have definitely been subjected to all the highs and lows. My biggest lesson has been that authors are expected to do a huge amount of self-promotion, and you earn very very little to begin with. I wasn’t prepared for either. I was also shocked by the fact that it’s not that easy to get into a bookshop, so don’t think just because you’re signed that your book will be in the Barnes & Noble store window. It probably won’t be.

How much of your own marketing do you?  

A huge amount. Marketing is my day job, so I have a website, a blog (although it’s not as active as I’d like it to be), Twitter, Instagram, a Facebook page and a number of groups. I’m regularly guest appearing on book club groups and other people’s blogs too, plus when the first edition of The Path Keeper came out I managed all my own PR so organized TV, radio, press and events myself across four countries.

When do you build your platform? After an agent? Or should you be working before?

As I mentioned before, I knew nothing about writing and wasn’t even on Twitter when I began the book. Had I set out to be a published writer from the onset, and what I tell people, is start building your platform NOW. Start a Twitter account and blog and document your journey. People buy people. I can’t tell you how many books I have bought because I like the person on Twitter, and they finally got published. So do it pre-agent – you’d be surprised how many agents are on there watching too.

Do you think social media helps build your readership?

100%. But then I lecture on corporate storytelling and self-branding as part of my job – so I’d be crazy to say otherwise.

What social media ISN’T is a sales platform. It’s there to build your brand, connect and interact. It is not successful when all you do is sell yourself on there. No one likes that. Is there a correlation between sales and followers? No. But it IS great brand exposure/PR and it will encourage people to take you seriously, and remember you/give you a chance when they’re in a book shop.

Shauna Holyoak On Creating Swag That Attracts Middle Graders... Hint: Have A Prize Wheel

Most authors will agree that the creative part of the job is where we excel, the business and marketing side, slightly less. It’s lovely when the two can meet in the form of SWAG – Shit We All Generate. I’ve invited some published authors to share with us their secret to swag… little freebies that can sell a book longer after the author is no longer standing in front of a prospective reader. In order to create great swag, you have to be crafty – in more ways than one.

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Today's guest for the SHIT is Shauna Holyoak. She writes for kids and teens and thinks it’s kinda the best job ever. Kazu Jones and the Denver Dognappers is her debut novel.

First of all, thanks so much, Mindy, for having me on your blog! I think topics like these are helpful to debut authors (like me!) who often need help navigating self-promotion!

Finding something that represents your book and hasn’t been played out by a million authors before is difficult. What’s your swag?

I’m an MG author, so I think there’s some tried and true swag that appeals to kids. Buttons, bookmarks, posters, stickers. As I try to schedule school visits pre-release, I’m hoping the lure of free signed posters at my signings helps draw kids out. And I just ordered some stickers to hand out after assemblies, etc. that will remind kids where and when to drag their parents for my books.

On my website I also offer some swag that I hope readers enjoy. I’ve written a short story about my characters that anyone can download and read. In addition to that, I’ve created a mystery packet that presents The Case of the Misplaced Tiara with puzzles and clues readers can use to solve the mystery. I’m hoping teachers and families might find it fun and educational, while also introducing kids to my characters.

How much money per piece did your swag cost out of pocket?

I live in Shadow Mountain country. Shadow Mountain is a Utah-based publisher that has worked on quite a few successful middle-grade books, and they do a lot of promotion in my area. They follow a model that seems to work well in promoting their MG novels. They send their authors on a book tour that includes multiple school visits per location, following which they hold a signing at the local bookstore. They send the kids home with reminders and usually hand out fun swag like free signed posters and bookmarks at the event. I’ve had a couple of my own children beg me to attend signings for Shadow-Mountain authors after an engaging school visit, so I know they work.

I say all this to explain how I decided to spend my money on book swag, because I was hoping to apply the Shadow-Mountain model to my own attempts at self-promotion.

Here’s the breakdown:

Posters: $265

  • $230 of this covered 1K 11x17in posters of my cover from uprinting.com. This is the most I’ve paid on any one item. I plan on handing them out to everyone who comes to a signing.

  • $35 on a 16x20in mounted (on foam board) poster of my cover to display at signings and other events (also, uprinting.com).

Reminder stickers: $80

I have two local events I’m hoping to invite kids to, one bigger than the other (the second is for my launch party).

  • $34 covered 200 2x3in stickers, also from uprinting.com

  • $47 covered 1K 2x3in stickers, also from uprinting.com

Bookmarks: $70 (just ordered)

This went toward 2500 2x8 double-sided bookmarks (from gotprint.com)

Buttons: $45

Okay, so this was the first item of swag I ever bought, and I may have just been a little too excited at the prospect of being able to order something, anything! But the buttons are cute, and I’m hoping kids will like them. Although I think once they’re gone, they’re gone—not sure if I’ll invest in them again. (Although I may change my mind depending on how kids respond.)

  • $24 for 100 1.25in round buttons of my MC’s face (purebuttons.com)

  • $30 for 50 1.75x2.75in buttons of my cover (also, purebuttons.com)

Do you find that swag helps you stand out at an event? Does your swag draw people to your table at an event or conference?

I’ll have to get back to you on that, since my first event is in a few weeks. But I’m hoping it does!

One thing I’m going to try, that *fingers crossed* draws kids to my table at cons and other table-events, is a prize wheel. Kids spin that wheel and leave with their prize. Whatever they win will be promo for my book, so win, win, right? And who doesn’t like a prize wheel?!

What do you think of big item swag pieces versus cheaper, yet more easily discarded swag like bookmarks?

I think more expensive swag might work with YA audiences, but I’m not sure it’s worth it for middle-grade readers, who tend to be hard on things anyway.

What’s the most clever / best swag by another author?

Personally, I adore customized enamel pins. *swoon* Character cards are cool and other types of artwork commissioned by the author. I have a friend who’s currently painting/customizing funko pops for each of the characters in her debut for her preorder campaign, so she probably wins!

And the biggest question – do you think swag helps sell books?

Honestly, no. I think people who purchase a book are planning to buy it anyway, regardless of swag. There may be a small margin of potential readers swayed by swag, but I don’t think it’s enough to justify investing loads on money on it (especially, if like most authors, your publisher isn’t paying for it).

Haha! And here I just told you about the near $500 I’ve spent on swag hoping to draw kids out to signings. We’ll see if it works. But, in the end, I guess I offer swag to let readers and potential readers know I care and appreciate them taking a chance on my books.

How To Promote One Book While Writing Another With Christina Hoag

Welcome to the SNOB (Second Novel Ominipresent Blues). Whether you’re under contract or trying to snag another deal, you’re a professional now, with the pressures of a published novelist compounded with the still-present nagging self-doubt of the noobie. How to deal?

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Today's guest for the SNOB is Christina Hoag, whose YA thriller Girl on the Brink was named one of Suspense Magazine’s Best of 2016 for young adults.

She's a former staff writer for the Miami Herald and Associated Press, and wrote from Latin America for Time, Business Week, New York Times, Financial Times, Times of London, Houston Chronicle and other news outlets.

Is it hard to leave behind the first novel and focus on the second?

I had the odd situation of having two novels published at the same time by two different publishers. What happened is that the first novel, Skin of Tattoos, was on submission for a long time with an agent. During that time, I finished Girl on the Brink and started sending it out. When I got Skin of Tattoos back from the agent, I revised it and then continued to send it out on my own to small publishers who didn’t require an agent. By that time I got an offer, I had also found a publisher for Girl on the Brink, and as it happens they were released in the same month. So basically, I promoted both books at once. That did save some time and money.

At what point do you start diverting your energies from promoting your debut and writing / polishing / editing your second?

Promoting the first one(s) did take up a lot of time. There’s a natural cycle of about three months of interest after the release of a book then interest basically drops off. So you do have to take full advantage of that window. It is gratifying though, to see your hard work come to fruition after years of slogging away so it was worth it. But I did start a new project right away, the problem was I didn’t know what I really wanted to write so I putzed around with several different ideas and books.

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Your first book landed an agent and an editor, and hopefully some fans. Who are you writing the second one for? Them, or yourself?

I have to write for myself and just hope that readers will like what I write. Otherwise, I feel it’s not going to be as authentic. Luckily, now I have a list of concrete projects to go to so hopefully, I won’t waste as much time after the next novel floundering around as to what to write. I will say, though, that my writing has gotten a lot stronger with the constant practice.

Is there a new balance of time management to address once you’re a professional author?

Definitely. I’m a morning writer so that’s when I write. Marketing and promotional stuff I save for the afternoon, when I’m written out. And of course, I also write to make a living. I edit, write corporate public relations stuff and so on. So I also have to factor that in.

What did you do differently the second time around, with the perspective of a published author?

Start a newsletter to reach fans, network by joining writers’ groups and associations, attend writers conferences, generally follow any marketing opportunity. I’ve also learned to be more confident about myself and promoting myself.