Lisa Brackmann has worked as an executive at a major motion picture studio, an issues researcher in a presidential campaign, and was the singer/songwriter/bassist in an LA rock band. A southern California native, she lives in Venice, CA and spends a lot of time in Beijing, China. Her debut novel, Rock Paper Tiger, was reviewed by the New York Times and made Amazon’s Top Books of 2010.
Greetings, Night Bazaar Shoppers! I’m a guest in these parts, but like the regular denizens here, I’ve had the experience of being published by an independent press. In my case, the publisher is Soho Press. Soho was founded in 1987 and specializes in literary and crime fiction. If you’re a mystery lover, you’ve most probably read a Soho title or two.
My first published book is ROCK PAPER TIGER, a quirky thriller set in contemporary China. I had the misfortune of going out on submission during probably the worst time in the publishing industry since the Great Depression. I say “misfortune” but in retrospect it might have been my first lucky break. I had some interest from larger houses but given the difficult environment, no one was willing to pull the trigger on a book that colored a little outside the lines. And then Soho stepped forward.
My experience with Soho belies all of the scary stories you’ve heard about the dark side of publishing. There were no endless waits. No getting lost in the bowels of the midlist, superseded by whatever lead title takes precedence over yours. I found that I was at a house large enough to have the infrastructure to effectively produce and market their books, but small enough that every book they published receives attention and care. I’ve joked in the past that their company slogan should be “No book left behind!”
I’ll admit that ROCK PAPER TIGER has done a lot better than I’d expected it would have. Truthfully, I tried not to have any expectations at all. But I pretty much figured it would get published, some undefined stuff would happen (I wasn’t sure what), and that would be that. I hoped RPT would do well enough for me to sell another book, and that was as far as I’d let myself think about it.
Instead the book got wide review coverage, sold decently, made some year-end “Best of” lists, was optioned for an audio book, and will have a healthy paperback run this spring (along with some other good stuff I hope to share soon).
So how did that all happen? I still shake my head a little but I’ve formed a few theories.
The first explanation is a combination of alchemy and a big damn “duh”: Write a good book that happens to hit upon some combination of elements that catches the reading public’s attention.
You can do a lot about the “duh” part—you have a lot of control over the quality of your writing. The main thing I end up advising aspiring authors is to take your time. We live in an age that promotes instant feedback and gratification. Writing a good book requires the opposite of that: it takes deferring pleasure, and a lot of patience.
As for the alchemy, that one is rather more mysterious. You can make some educated guesses, but as a lot of people much smarter than I have observed, it’s really tough to time the market.
In my case, I thought about what I knew that people might find interesting, and came up with contemporary China, a setting that not too many American fiction writers had dealt with. The rest of it was passion. I think most writers would agree that it’s tough to write a good book without some degree of passion.
I’ve been asked what sorts of marketing and promotional activities I felt were particularly effective for my book. First let me say that I am not the marketer. Like most authors, I’d much rather focus on the writing and let the people whose job it is to market do their thing – they’re likely to be a lot better at it than I am. That said, the reality of today’s publishing environment is that authors have to take some responsibility for the promotion of their work. The trick is finding the ways in which you personally are the most effective. And I’m not sure that most authors can do for themselves what a supportive publisher can do for their book.
What Soho did for my book was targeting specific audiences and doing so with a lot of effectiveness. In another one for the “Duh!” category, what you target will depend on the sort of book you’ve written. ROCK PAPER TIGER was close enough to the broad category of Crime/Suspense that it could be marketed to stores and events specializing in that genre. The mystery-reading community supports (and is supported by) some great independent bookstores. Soho arranged readings and events for me at some of the heavy-hitters: Murder By the Book, Mysterious Galaxy, the Poisoned Pen, the Mystery Bookstore, and M is for Mystery, among others. These independents are such an important part of the community of authors and readers. They handsell titles; they bring authors and readers together and help form bonds for which there is no “virtual” substitute.
(That said, I’d like to give a little kudos and thanks to the Big Kahuna, Amazon, as well. They have a team of book editors who really care about books and get behind titles they’re passionate about. They’ve been extremely supportive of ROCK PAPER TIGER, and I deeply appreciate it.)
Soho also fields a healthy contingent of authors at the crime genres’ biggest annual gathering, the Bouchercon. Events like this are another opportunity for readers to connect with authors, and for authors to connect with each other, something that all of us “sitting on our butts in our little rooms staring at backlit screens for hours on end” types can use now and again. Authors and fans of speculative fiction are fortunate to have large numbers of genre-focused events, and some great bookstores as well. I’d advise authors to research such venues and do what you can to make appearances and attend events.
As an author, I’m not sure what you can do on this next one, but if you’re fortunate, you’ll have a publisher that focuses on library sales. These are a great way to broaden your readership. Another awesome aspect? Library sales aren’t generally returnable.
Review coverage is another area where your publisher has a lot more ability to push than you as an author typically will have. That doesn’t mean you don’t have any control – I had contacts that led to press in a number of cases. But it’s very difficult for an author to do this as effectively as a publisher, at least for more traditional review outlets. The same thing applies to brick and mortar distribution. This is where you have to hope that your publisher has good distribution and is committed to you and your book. It’s definitely something to take into consideration if and when you have choices about who publishes you—not just how good the distribution is, but what the level of commitment is as well. That can be awfully hard to gage with the turnover and changes in the industry, but sometimes it’s possible to make a pretty educated guess.
Here’s something you as an author can do. When I first started working with Soho, their awesome publicist told me that the single most important thing an author can do in terms of publicity is to have an easily findable web presence. That means, a website under your name, one that preferably redirects the title of your book to it as well. I can tell you that my own website has been invaluable. It’s where people come to look for information about you, your work, and where they’ll contact you if they don’t have a better option. It’s a resource for people writing about you, who are considering inviting you to events, who might be looking for rights information on your work. I’ve had visitors to my website for all of these reasons.
Don’t hesitate to set up a good website, and if you can’t do a reasonably professional design job yourself, it’s worth hiring a pro to do it for you (this doesn’t have to cost a lot). Get your website up and running at least six months before your publication date.
Online presence in general is where the author’s own promotional skills come into play. This is one of those broad areas where there are so many different options that it really is up to the individual to figure out what works for her and what doesn’t. Some writers like to blog every day. Others find it too burdensome. Some like Twitter. Others don’t get it. There are authors who are politically active; others who feel that this interferes with their brand as an author. Etc. The only necessity is that “easily findable website.” In this era of publishing, I really can’t think of many (any?) good excuses or exceptions to that rule. Maybe if you’re already super-famous. Or dead.
The main thing I’ve learned, nine months after my book release, is that all of those clichés about this being a journey are true. It’s a journey over a tough terrain at times, a landscape that can be both treacherous and staggeringly beautiful. I feel extremely fortunate to have had this experience. And I’m looking forward to the next trip.