Thursday, February 3, 2011

Things I Learned as a Debut Author by Brad Parks

Carla Buckley asked me to write something for this blog, and if I learned nothing else from being a debut author, it’s this: Do whatever Carla tells you to do.

Yeah, I learned other stuff during my debut year, too. And since I’m technically only a debut author for one more day – I’m writing this on Jan. 31, and my second book, EYES OF THE INNOCENT, comes out Feb. 1 – I’d better get to it. So there’s no time for pretty, flowing prose. Instead, I’m going with a list…


1. When it comes to promotion, figure out what you enjoy, do it well, and forget everything else.

In my mind, this is the one

absolutely golden rule to debut author book promotion. And it’s not just my conclusion – even smart people like Hilary Davidson have discovered the same thing. Look, you can drive yourself

absolutely batty thinking you should be doing everything for your book. But you can’t. You only have so many resources, so much time, so much sanity. So you might as

well do what you like. If your idea of a hot day in hell is driving four hours, standing in front of ten strangers talking about yourself, reading out loud and answering their

random questions, then, for the love of God, do not do bookstore events. You’ll be miserable and, worse, the audience will know you hate it. It won’t be fun for anyone. If, on the other hand, you’re like

me – an extrovert and a certified attention whore who enjoys public speaking – then maybe bookstore events are more your speed.

The same goes for other aspects of promotion. Take SWAG (Stuff We All Get), also known as giveaways. I’m one of the rare human beings who can admit he doesn’t have very

good taste (it’s why my clothes are so boring). Trying to put together gift baggies or making lipsticks with my book cover on them would not only be painful for me, I’d be

bad at it. On the other hand, I sort of like designing postcards on my ancient Macintosh (still using PageMaker!), and because I do the design myself – and get

them printed at relatively low cost by – it’s a pretty cost-effective way (at 28 cents per stamp) to get the word out. I could go on, but you get the point: Do what you like and you’ll do it well, which is important, because well-done

promotion always works better than poorly done.

2. There’s no place for fear in the publishing world.

I sort of decided early on that when it came to this whole book thing, I was going to be unabashedly me, for good or for ill. Granted, there are drawbacks to that. I’m, uh, a little high-energy. My enthusiasm can be annoying. I’m full of myself. I offend people without meaning to. I don’t dance very well. But here’s the thing about this whole game: You don’t need everyone to like you, you just need a few people to like you a lot. Even if 90 percent of the book-buying public comes to think you’re a moron, it only takes 10 percent of them (or less) really digging your act to put you on the bestseller list between now and the end of time. So you might as well be fearless in being you. What are the practical applications of this philosophy? For me, it was something like serenading Brad Meltzer at the ITW Debut Breakfast last year (for a video reenactment, go here: Now, was that a risky move? Absolutely. It could have backfired horrifically. I’m sure I could have easily talked myself out of it for at least half a dozen very good reason. But, going with my plan to just be me, I just sort of went with it. And I think most folks got a kick out of it. (If nothing else, they remember it – I’m still asked about it constantly, as recently as this interview last week Now, am I saying go out and serenade Brad Meltzer? Of course not. But next time you find your own version of the Brad Meltzer serenade, don’t talk yourself out of it. Believe in yourself and take a risk.

3. Local sells.

It sells with the media. It sells with bookstores. It sells with strangers. Everyone likes a local author. And in a ridiculously crowded literary marketplace, being local makes you stand out. So find a place to be a local. Maybe it’s where you live. Maybe it’s where your book is set. Maybe it’s where you grew up. (Hell, I try to claim “local” status in all three places). Then, once you’ve found your local, hammer it. Flood the media – from the newspapers to the hyperlocal blogs to the supermarket giveaways. Flood the bookstores. Make yourself visible in every way possible. Every marketing study I’ve ever seen shows that you need to make multiple impressions in order to influence a sale. Unless you have a publisher giving you an enormous marketing budget and major co-op – in which case, why the hell are you reading MY drivel? – it makes sense to concentrate your limited resources and try to create that buzz that comes when people feel like they’re seeing your name pop up everywhere. The flip side of that, and I saw it in some of my fellow debut authors, is that they’d spread themselves too thin, going out to California and then Texas and then somewhere else – all the while ignoring the library in the town next door. Sure, you can make the big trip somewhere if your budget allows. But your time and energy will pay more dividends if properly focused.

3a. As a corollary to “start local,” If you do a signing in your hometown, don’t hang out drinking with your old high school friends until way too late and then go to a two-day conference that starts early in the morning. You’ll get sick as hell.

Granted, this one might be specific to me. Okay, moving on…

4. Don’t forget the libraries.

Or maybe it’s: forget libraries at your peril. It blows my mind when I hear authors griping about libraries because, They just buy one lousy copy of your book and then let forty people read it. That costs me thirty nine sales! This, I will tell you, is utterly wrong-headed, especially for a debut author. I have come to firmly believe that libraries are the keys to the kingdom for an unknown writer. Because, fact is, most readers are hesitant to plunk down $24.99 on someone they’ve never heard of. They will, however, check you out of the library. And if they like you? Some of them will actually go ahead and buy your book; and some more of them will make a note to buy your next one, because you’re no long an unknown quantity to them. Whenever I get reader e-mail, I always ask how they heard about me. A very large percentage say the same thing: That they discovered me in the library but plan to buy me from now on.

5. Conferences are not only fun, they pay dividends long-term that are not always immediately apparent.

Typical debut author experience: Shell out hundreds of dollars for airfare, hotel and vittles to attend (name conference here); appear on panel populated by your agent, two unpublished writers, and a trio of chirping crickets; go to bookseller room and sit there in anguished embarrassment, selling three books while two stalls down Jeffrey Deaver needs the local police department to do crowd control on his line; retreat to bar to calculate that it cost you $294 each to sell those books and… oops, make it $296 because you just ordered another drink. Yep, happens to all of us. But I’m here to say, let it happen to you. In more ways than I can list, I have seen value to attending conferences like Bouchercon and Thrillerfest and immersing myself in the mystery/thriller community. Part of it is in what it does for my soul. I’ve met lots of great friends (yes, even Carla!), who have become invaluable as confidantes and sounding boards in navigating (and surviving) the rugged world of publishing. That, and I tend to have a blast at them (I have young children, so I don’t get out much otherwise). But if you need to be more mercenary about it, apply the lesson I learned as a young newspaper reporter: The more you attention to a community, the more the community pays attention to you. So many of my promotional opportunities – whether it’s guest blog opportunities, radio or video interviews or bookstore gigs – have come from contacts I made at conferences.

6. Keep lists of what you did the first time. It’ll make life easier for the next book.

Lists of the blogs you did, lists of the bookstores you did, lists of the librarians you met, lists of reviews you got… it’s all good. Put it on a spreadsheet, keep it in a diary, make a folder for each category – whatever works for your brain style. You’ll be glad to not have to reinvent the wheel when No. 2 comes around (says the guy who didn’t learn this lesson the first time and is only now starting to make lists).

7. When it comes to blogging, quality over quantity.

It’s true the Internet is absolutely overwhelmed with content, which can make blogging feel like whispering into the face of a hurricane. But it’s also true the Internet is absolutely starved for good content. So don’t measure your blog based on how many you do, but by how well you do them. If you write something that manages to catch people’s fancy, trust me, it’ll be worth the effort. I learned this with my post “Ten Things Crime Fiction Writers Can Learn From Paris Hilton.” ( It was a throw-away post done at the end of my blog tour and – lo and behold – it became a mini-sensation. Janet Reid picked it up on her blog ( It got recycled by blog aggregators. My website is still getting hits off it to this day.

And now I’m… holy crow, I’m 1,700 words into this post! Okay, enough from me. Have a great debut year. And if you do end up singing to Brad Meltzer? Be sure he knows it wasn’t my idea.

For more information, please visit Brad's website


Tracey Devlyn said...

Hi Brad,

Thanks for sharing your debut experiences with us and congrats on your recent release!

How do you approach your local library/bookstore without acting like a salesperson? I've been in both MANY times, but no one there knows me. I'm not the serenading sort. I tend to ride under the radar. LOL


PS--I'm so glad you can't say no to Carla!

Thomas Kaufman said...

A great post, Brad, but you left out rule #8:
Whenever Brad Parks write a blog, read it.

Unknown said...

Great tips, Brad, and all of them absolutely true. My second novel just came out, and this time I'm determined to work smarter, and not harder. So far, by targeting my efforts, I've been getting much better quality publicity (meaning the sites I'm writing for get their content aggregated by others, so there's a terrific lateral spread). I also tapped into the local market as you suggest, and found a real champion in my local librarian. When I held my launch party at her library recently, she advertised it on the Michigan library network, in the local press, and even got the local cable channel to come in and record it. (Still waiting to see the broadcast - why, oh why didn't I start that diet months ago?)

To your question about how to approach librarians, Tracey, I struggled with this for a long time, too. I'd drop in, tell them I'm an author, and they'd yawn. I think like bookstores, a lot of librarians hear "I'm an author" so often, they tend to tune it out. One thing that I think turned the corner for me was when my librarian asked if I and some of my author friends could donate signed books for a summer giveaway she was having (thanks, Carla!). She was REALLY delighted with the results, and while the suggestion initially came from her, I bet you could initiate something similar. "I'm an author, and I and some of my friends would be happy to donate signed books for your programs" would probably play better than "I'm an author, and I'd be happy to speak at an event you set up for me."

Richard Mabry said...

Brad, Great stuff, and every one of them a lesson I've learned on my own journey. I especially endorse what you say about libraries. I used to fuss about libraries the way I did about people telling me "I bought your book and loaned it to everyone I know." Sure, I lost a few sales, but lots of those folks who enjoyed the first one for free actually paid real money for the next one. It's all a part of marketing.
Congratulations on your success, and thanks for sharing.

Carla Buckley said...

7 Things I'd Like to Add After Reading This Post:
1) The day I saw Brad smoothly pull a bookmark from his jacket pocket and hand it to a stranger in the grocery store, I went home and ordered 2500
2) Be forewarned--Brad's idea of publicity includes entering himself in the Mr. Romance competition at the RT conference
3) If Brad had let me know ahead of time that he was going to be serenading Brad Meltzer over breakfast, I could have sold tickets and made a fortune
4) Brad Parks can sing. He can really sing. I have the youtube footage to prove it.
5) He also knows how to edge a flowerbed
6) When Brad Parks swung through Central Ohio (where I live) he arranged a reading at a bookstore I didn't even know existed, and brought in his own fan club. Yes, I took notes on how it's done.
7) Thanks for posting, Brad. You never disappoint...

Anonymous said...

Tracey -- When I approach booksellers and librarians, I don't think of it as a sales pitch but rather as the beginning of a relationship. And, like any relationship, you start slow. You don't immediately say, "Hey, I'm an author, wanna jump into bed?" That never works. (Well, that's not true... there was this one time in... uh, never mind).

No, seriously, it is a relationship. And some relationships just don't go anywhere, for whatever reason. But others grow and become something more special. Ultimately, booksellers and librarians tend to be folks who like to get excited about books. And if they happen to get excited about yours? Great things can happen.

I think with librarians, in particular, you have to make it clear that you're library-friendly. A lot of authors aren't (again, this baffles me). But if they know that you "get it" with libraries, they'll tend to introduce you to their library friends, which can help break the ice on starting your next relationship.

Alan Orloff said...

Excellent tips, Brad. And, FYI, ever since that fateful ThrillerFest breakfast, I've been taking voice lessons. (I was very glad I spoke right BEFORE you.)

Chevy Stevens said...

Great post,Brad!

Pamela Callow said...

Everything Brad says is absolutely right.

Especially his tip about being local. When DAMAGED came out, I discovered that people loved having a thriller series set in their own backyard. I received great publicity as a result of it, and people requested my book in their local libraries. Thus, when I approached my local library, they already knew my name. I offered to put together a panel of crime writers for an evening event, which was well received. The great thing is the library was excited to have a group of crime writers together for an evening, so they videotaped our individual readings and posted it on their website. Karen's suggestions to donate a selection of books is a great one, too.The point is, all these things work together.

And not just locally. Here's where Brad's tip about libraries resonated with me. A month ago, I received an email from a reader in Washington State. She was a keen reader who borrowed my book from her local library. She enjoyed the read so much, she posted my book details on the bulletin board of her large retirement condo complex, where there were many enthusiastic readers. That is the power of the library!

Barb said...

Sounds like some helpful info here. I haven't been to conferences but I'm always on the lookout for more pr to work with my blog. I also believe in keeping lists.

Rochelle Staab said...

I had the honor of being in the audience for your song, Brad. Really, a second career if you decide to go pro. I'm a dancer not a singer - I wonder if that will work this summer?

Loved meeting you at Bouchercon and I'm taking your list to heart. Must find a jacket with an inside pocket for the bookmarks. I like that. But my favorites on the list are #1 and #2. So...civil! I realized early on that not everyone will be drawn to what I write so I might as well focus on pleasing myself and MY audience.

Thanks for the great share. Now where do I find your next blog post?

Anonymous said...

Alan -- So you're on for a duet for next Thrillerfest? Awesome. I sing tenor, of course. I assume you'll do the bass part.

Anonymous said...

Rochelle -- You sure you REALLY want more blogs from me? I assure you this is the only one of even moderate value. Oh, okay, you asked. Let's see:

Talking about Deadlines on Kill Zone...

10 Things Crime Fiction Writers Can Learn from Taylor Swift...

The interns helped me guest on The Lipstick Chronicles...

And then I made a bunch of librarians cry without meaning to...

There are probably a few others, too. I've been having a hard time keeping them all straight because, sadly, I've already fallen behind on my list-making. :)

Tracey Devlyn said...

Brad and everyone--

Thanks so much for stopping by today. The conversation was great!