Sunday, May 4, 2014

An excellent workshop on marketing your writing

Most writers realise early in their apprenticeships that workshops with industry professionals can play a major role in the learning process. Over the last dozen or so years, I have attended workshops, seminars and conventions with an almost religious devotion, seeking out the best ways to improve my writing. This must have been a successful manoeuvre, because I was recently lucky enough to see my first novel, The Dagger of Dresnia, in print with Satalyte Publishing.

But having a novel in print doesn't necessarily mean novels in readers' hands. As with any other commodity, marketing is key. Marketing is the art of finding out who would be likely to use your product and making sure people in the target group find out about it, and it's a subject sadly neglected during a writer's training period. So when we finally have the first-off-the-press copy in our hot little hands, how do we make sure other copies get into the hands of our target audience? If a writer is lucky enough to be picked up by a major publishing house, s/he will be guided by the Publicity Department of that publishing house. Those of us who have elected to go with small press or self-publishing pretty much have to do our own marketing.

Hachette authors, methinks, are blessed souls, because they have the guidance of Jaki Arthur, Hachette's Publicity Manager. As I'm not an Hachette author, I count myself fortunate to have been accepted into a one-day workshop on Marketing Development Skills facilitated by Ms Arthur at the WA State Library last Saturday. It was a free event, presented by the Australia Council for the Arts via Writing WA, but it was competitive - all participants had to have had a novel published in the previous year, and also been invited to take part in a writers conference for the following year. At the end of the selection process, there were eighteen eager writers delighted at the opportunity to participate. On Saturday morning we milled around outside the State Library, chattering excitedly while waiting for the doors to open at 10.00AM.

The workshop ran for over four hours plus breaks for refreshments and peer-group networking (we have, of course, vowed eternal friendship and will keep in touch via email and social networking) so what I can condense here will not cover all the many and varied topics. If you get the chance to attend another such workshop, jump at it!

Jaki Arthur recommended that we start by identifying the elements of our Public Relations Strategy:

1. Identifying our goals for the next year (having another book on the shelves, appearing at a conference, winning an award, being interviewed on radio, getting a place on the Tuesday Book Club etc.) No goal is too high - as Ms Arthur pointed out, it's best to aim high and achieve a lesser goal than to aim at a lesser goal and not succeed at all! Unlike the next eight points, which are to be drawn on as required when we interact with fans and industry professionals, this point is for our own use. We must never lose sight of our goals.

2. Analyse the themes in your novel. It should be possible to find at least seven, and Ms Arthur suggests that this is the magic number for marketing via this route. I found this hard - I'd only identified two themes in The Dagger of Dresnia but by brainstorming with the group via post-it notes on a whiteboard, I quickly realised that my two themes could be broken down into their component parts and that there were several other themes that I held in common with others in the room. This is the sort of thing that conference organisers love - they can mix and match their panellists according to themes! I actually wound up with eight themes: The nature of love in its many forms; the development of intimacy in different kinds of relationships; the singularising nature of an unusual talent; dealing with the consequences of the decisions we make; internal conflict; family conflict; problem teenagers; racial conflict. On further reflection, I could even add another - the potentially healing power of family ties. (I'd better stop now or this will turn into a post on 'identifying themes'!)

3. Develop three versions of your biography - one of 30 words, one of 80 words and a long one that might be half a page or so in length. Keep them up-to-date so you have them ready and on call when needed. Don't get stuck on biographical details and academic qualifications. Rather, make sure you include hooks for journalists and interviewers such as 'Satima was once chased by an angry boar when trying to separate a sow from her piglets.' (No, that didn't actually happen to me, but we can all find quirky incidents in our lives, and they make the best hooks.)

4. Get your press release together. It should contain the book's title, the author's name (and a photo) the imprint and the publication date. It should also carry your strap line and blurb (if your novel is already published, this will be the descriptive paragraph on the back cover) a bio of appropriate length, quotes from reviews - and, of course, the all-important cover image. (I have all this info on my bookmark handouts, which like an idiot I forgot to take to the workshop! Business cards are also useful. I have some - and forgot those, too!)

5. Be able to identify your genre or sub-genre. I soon realised that giving this information to people in the industry and to potential readers might require different approaches. 'Literary romantic fiction' might make sense to an editor or an agent, but might come across as pretentious to the layperson. 'Commercial' is also a loaded word to the layperson, even though it simply means 'suitable for a wide market' to a professional book buyer. So my blurb to an industry professional might be 'High fantasy in the classic pseudo-medieval setting,' while to a layperson my usual response is 'High fantasy - elves and stuff.' That usually gives them all they need to know, although if they are enthusiasts they will say 'Oh - like Lord of the Rings/Game of Thrones/Whatever-the-current-flagship-of-the-genre-may-be?'  That always opens the door to further discussion and mention of the book's selling points.

6. Make sure you have a concise Strap Line for your latest work. 'Strap line' is the industry term for the well-known 'elevator pitch' - you know, when you find yourself in a lift with a famous agent and s/he politely asks what your book is about! You've got to be able to answer that quickly, before the lift stops at the agent's floor! I finally managed to get mine down to 'The Dagger of Dresnia is about an elvish princess, widow of a mortal king, who in her efforts to ensure the succession is tricked into a bargain with a Dark Spirit - and then all hell breaks loose.' (As an aside, I quickly realised when listening to each participant's quick pitch, that the successful strap lines centred on the precipitating incident while giving a clear idea of two basic elements of any story - what the MC wants, and what's going to stop him/her from getting it.)

7. Set up a web presence. (Of course, you can - and probably should - develop this well before your book comes out.) Ms Arthur suggests that we have, at minimum, an up-to-date web page, a blog, and a presence on the popular social media - Facebook, Twitter, etc. (Ms Arthur didn't seem to think these would help with sales, but I have found than many of my 900-odd Facebook friends were among the first to download the ebook version of The Dagger of Dresnia and over 160 of them have joined The Talismans series's page. Of course, I spend a lot of time on Facebook and over time, anyone who does that will build up a following. Some well-known authors, I'm sure, must pay someone to spend time on Facebook for them as they post regularly and have thousands of followers. Either that or they are far, far better time-managers than I am!)

8. As well as the more personal interactions online, get your bio and bibliography up on every possible outlet. Have author pages on e.g. Amazon, Booktopia, Net Galley etc. Note that many bookish sites (and even Big W has one!) contain interactive content and may feature online interviews. (I was interested to learn that Big W will not sell books that feature Bad Language. Damn and bugger, that puts The Dagger of Dresnia, with its explicit sex scenes, out of the contest!)

9. Do your homework. Make sure you know who to contact in relation to any particular conference or media outlet. To this end, start a hard copy little black book that you never leave at home. Be sure to include the role of the person - editor, publicity officer, journalist, fan, writer of...(title or genre) or whatever, because you will forget who is who as the LBB fills up!

10. Like point 1, this is just for our own use. We must never, ever, forget that our job is to write the best books we possibly can. We must never let anything get in the way of that. We can worry about all the various contingencies that can arise if and when they arise, and if there is an appropriate person at the publishing house to deal with such matters, we should let them do so.

And with this collection of tools at our disposal, we are ready to meet any foreseeable contingency. Literary Festival coming up? The organiser will want to see a press release, bio and themes. Have them ready! (Note that at the major festivals, participating authors receive an appearance fee, so perhaps it's best to leave negotiations to your agent or publisher.)

Please note that this is a record of my take on the workshop and shouldn't be considered as an infallible record of Jaki Arthur's utterly fantastic presentation!