Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Jenny Milchman--Road Warrior

RHYS BOWEN: When I started out in the mystery genre I decided the only way that people would hear about my books was to hit the road and visit as many bookstores as I could. My husband and I made three cross country trips, visiting small towns. I thought I had been quite adventurous and hard working, until I met Jenny Milchman. She is the road warrior par excellence. Who else would take her kids out of school and literally car-school them while she cross-crossed the country? So I'm glad to have her back to Jungle Red today to share her story. And if you're a writer, she has some great tips for bookstore events. All yours, Jenny.

Jenny Milchman: On the Road Again
As some Jungle Red Readers already know, I had a thirteen year journey to publication. The first book I published was the eighth one I’d written; I worked with three agents over the course of eleven years, and we had fifteen almost-offers before an editor stepped in and became my literary fairy godmother. But that, as some writer once wrote, is a story for another day.
·         Tip to Get Published: Knock on every single door, then start knocking on things that aren’t doors.
Once I finally arrived at the starting line, I did the next logical thing. Rented out our house, traded in two cars for an SUV that could handle Denver in February, pulled the kids out of first and third grades to “car school” them in the backseat, and hit the road with my husband, touring the bookstores, libraries, and book clubs of this great country for seven months and 35,000 miles.
·         Tip to Put on a Good Event: Get outside the read-from-your-book box. Teach a lesson that pertains to something from your book (craft, recipe, genealogy); lead a writing or publishing workshop; act out a dramatic section.
My publisher thought I was nuts. They actually convened a conference call to tell me I was nuts. My editor, publisher, marketing director, publicist were all in on it. I remember wondering how I was going to differentiate voices from my position at home—everyone in New York publishing tends to be young and female, or at least female—but I needn’t have worried because they all said the exact same thing. JENNY, STAY HOME.
They worried that I’d walk into a lot of empty rooms—and I did.
·         Tip to Bring Out a Crowd: Identify where your FB friends and Twitter followers live, then invite them personally; connect with local chapters of writing organizations; hire a publicist to get local media coverage in advance.
In Goshen, IN there was one person at my event, and he didn’t buy a book. This always troubles me on behalf of the bookseller who has gone to the trouble of setting up an event. (I mean, let’s be honest—one book is not going to cover the cost of my going to Goshen, IN). But this gentleman agreed to buy a book that I recommended, which meant the register rang once that night due to my coming, and salved my conscious. And here’s what happened next.
The man explained to me why he wasn’t buying my novel. It was because he already owned three copies. One to read, one to loan, and one to “keep pristine.” And he had to hurry then—because he had a three hour drive home.
Now. If I were to say to Mr. Bertelsmann over in Germany—or whoever sits at the helm of Penguin Random House these days—“Do I have a marketing plan for you! It consists of me going to some tiny town to meet one reader. And get this, he’s already bought the book!” Well, that’s probably not going to become their line of attack for every author on their list.
·         Tip to Make a Happy Tour: Create little gifts related to your book, and give one to each person who hosts you. For instance, for a wintery book, think pouches of hot cocoa in a mug with your book cover on it.

Book tours may or may not make dollars and cents, but they sure make dollars and sense. Their ripple effect can cause a bookseller to keep my book in stock months and months after it’s no longer new. At another low turnout event, one of the few people in the audience wound up being a book reviewer for a major paper. I’ve had lines from my books quoted back to me by attendees like I was Taylor Swift and the audience was singing my song. One of the deepest exchanges I ever had was with a reader whose brother committed suicide and read my book to feel less alone.  
·         Tip to Engage Attendees at Events: Talk about things beside your books. Ask people what they’re reading that they love. Or hate. Ask what brought them out that night. Have them tell their worst author ever story.
Guess what happened after the world’s longest book tour? My debut novel went into six printings in hardcover. Not mega printings—it’s not like everyone reading this post has heard of me, far less read my work. But my book did better enough compared to my publisher’s expectations that when I returned home, they said, “Hey, if Jenny wants to go out with her second novel, we’re not going to stop her.” And by the third book, they helped set up a portion of the tour.
All told, over the course of three releases in two and a half years, I’ve spent 13 months on the road with my family. Does it “work”? I think that depends on what “working” means. My sales spike each time I’m on tour. It would be hard to separate that spike from the fact of having a new book out—except that they spike for my backlist titles, too.
But my rubric has never been book sales. Book sales are a Medusa’s head of interactions, timing, quality, connections, and luck. If we get too bogged down in a pursuit of numbers, we’ll go mad. We writers have to compute our success by a different schema. A mathematics that counts things one by one. Reader by reader, smile by smile, and word by word.
·         Tip to Try Something No One Else Has: Know that this is your dream and in the end, only you can make it come true.

      Jenny's Bio:    Jenny Milchman is a suspense writer from New York State, who lived for thirteen months on the road with her family on what Shelf Awareness called “the world’s longest book tour.”
    After a thirteen year journey/trek/slog toward publication, Jenny’s debut novel, COVER OF SNOW, won the Mary Higgins Clark award for Best Suspense Novel of 2013, was praised by the New York Times, AP, and many other publications, and chosen as an Indie Next and Target Pick. RUIN FALLS landed on multiple bookstore Best Of lists, was chosen as an Indie Next Pick, and a Top Ten of 2014 by Suspense Magazine. Jenny’s third novel, AS NIGHT FALLS, also an Indie Next Pick and one of PureWow's Top 30, is a summer 2015 release.
J  Jenny speaks nationwide about the publishing industry and the importance of sticking to a dream. She is Vice President of Author Programming for International Thriller Writers, and the founder of Take Your Child to a Bookstore Day, which was celebrated in all 50 states and 6 foreign countries last year. She teaches writing and publishing for New York Writers Workshop.



Joan Emerson said...

Phew . . . Jenny, I cannot imagine all that driving [perhaps because I despise driving!] but I certainly admire your tenacity. I loved the story about the lone event attendee who had already purchased three copies of your book [I can relate] and still came to your event to meet you. I suspect he's already a forever fan.
I've enjoyed reading your books; thanks for sharing your stories about being on the road.

Edith Maxwell said...

You're amazing, Jenny. I love the tip about asking the audience questions. I'm going to try that.

I did a library event once where only one person showed up. The librarian didn't even sit in. So I pulled up a chair opposite the woman, we had a nice chat for forty minutes, and then she bought three books!

Lucy Burdette aka Roberta Isleib said...

Jenny, I'd heard some of your story before, but not the part about the publishing people doing an intervention! Remarkable.

You gave some very good tips. I assume you must be able to work on the road, which can't be that easy with kids and a hub in a motel room!! How about some tips for that?

thanks so much visiting today!

Hallie Ephron said...

What a story! I've tortured my husband with my events (he could probably give my talks) but never to this extent. And Lucy's question: can you write on the road? Because of course a key factor in all of this is that the books are really good!

Margaret Turkevich said...

I have my first event next week and I realized over the weekend that I have no idea what to say. Thank you!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Love you so much I cannot believe it, Jenny. ANd I have had the extreme pleasure of meeting Jenny and her family on tour--and I can tell you first hand, they are thriving. I have rarely seen such a loving, happy, enthusiastic and intelligent group.

Jenny, you are a treasure. ANd your family, too.

And yeah, how does the writing part work??? And how can you get it all done? I mean-pouches of hot cocoa? WHen???

And how do you handle thank you notes? (Gang: thank you notes?)

Denise Ann said...

This is the story of a hero! I love that Jenny believed so much in her work, and that her family supports her in it. The human interactions are so important.

Mary Sutton said...

Jenny, my only sorrow about your last book is that I left it at my dad's this weekend. Fortunately, he's mailing it to me.

Reds, I saw the map of the book tour when Jenny came to Mystery Lovers. It's... staggering. I spent 3 hours in a car yesterday and I can say with certainty I'd never be able to do it!

Kristopher said...

If you are in the mystery community and have not heard about Jenny and her never-ending book tour, you are clearly not paying attention. What she has done is one for the record books, for sure.

And her advice is always spot-on.

Hallie is correct in saying that something like this will only work if the quality of the work is as equally high as the determination. In Jenny's case, that is not a problem and her confidence in her talent is to be commended - even in the face of publisher skepticism.

Rock on!

Jenny Milchman said...

Thank you, thank you, to Rhys & the Reds for making a home for me to tell this crazy story...then tell it again.

It's an excellent question about writing on the road--which I can't do. The novels for me are almost polar opposites to the touring. One so deeply immersive I hardly remember how to speak (my characters do all the talking), the other some of the deepest joy of connecting I've ever experienced. Thus far I've reable to write the first draft while NOT on tour, then revise either on the road (revising is different for me than going to that place for the first time) or when I get home (and start a new first draft).

Lucy/Roberta, I appropriate a motel closet when I have to revise. So long as I have a door between me and the world, I'm OK. Extension cords come in handy!

This whole thing is a work in progress...just like the books. I hope I can always do this, but don't feel confident enough to be sure. It will inevitably change--like as the kids get older and say, Mom, all the bribery in the world won't be enough to make me leave school again.

Side note: to make kids love school--just bring 'em on the world's longest book tour :)

In all seriousness, Hank is right that we love this, for the most part, and the rough edges get soothed by the moments we share together. On this trip, as we pulled in way too late to our Air BnB, I hear in the back one kid say to the other, "Should we make our blanket fort as soon as we arrive or tomorrow?" It was a tiny thing, smaller than small, yet...not to be missed.

Kristopher, your kind words are deeply appreciated. I wonder if it was belief in myself, an idea Denise Ann echoed, or belief in other people? In all of you? I had no idea whether anyone would like my books, and to tell the rough honest truth, I still doubt it many days. But I knew there were people out there who would change my life if I met them.

Mary, it was great getting to see you at MLB! Hope we can again.

Hallie put her finger on it with the husband comment. I couldn't do any of this--quite literally--without Josh. Except, gulp...at the end of the week, I do try a leg on my own. Kids just started school, so Michigan is going to be all me, and I am s-c-a-r-e-d. Come on out if you're nearby! Love to see you.

Margaret, good luck at your first event!!! Exciting! Let me know how it goes?

Joan, I happen to love driving, which definitely helps. It's the only time I don't feel like I should be doing 6 things at once ;) and Edith, it's funny how we remember those one person events good and long :)

Thank you all again! Now back to writing...

Deborah Crombie said...

Jenny, you are amazing. I love your bookstore stories--I've had a few similar ones--and I believe passionately in making those personal connections, both with booksellers and with readers (even if only one:-)) When I first started writing I did two car tours with writer friends that we set up ourselves. Such fun, and we did make those connections. (Are you out there, Barbara Shapiro and Steve Womack??)

I'm fascinated by how you manage with the kids on the road for that long. Is part of your homeschooling learning about the places you're visiting? Do they love it? Hate it? Or both?

Jenny Milchman said...

Deborah, yours sound great as well! What kind of patter/presentation did you do with two other authors?

My kids are normally in public school, and they like the schooling on the road--which does entail the whole country being a classroom--for the most part, but my daughter especially misses her friends. She is a stay put kind of girl, and I have to confess that road trip is hard on her. But then things happen...like we find this 4 story dollhouse at a yard sale in Tennessee...or she gets invited to someone's zip line, and she winds up liking it okay :)

Grandma Cootie said...

I just love it when authors make road trips for us. Makes you all and your books even more special.

Jenny Milchman said...

I hope to see you on one of them sometime, Grandma!

Julia said...

Jenny forgot to add another benefit of the book tour - meeting other authors! I had read Jenny's terrific debut, COVER OF SNOW, and had give her a blurb, but we had only ever exchanged a few emails...until she came to Portland, ME to appear at one of my favorite bookstores.

She asked if I would like to do the event with her, and we did, and then went out for a wonderful meal and I got to meet Josh and her extremely well-behaved children. We got to talk business and have fun and compare stories of writing while being a mom.

Jenny, next time you're in New England, give me a call!

Jenny Milchman said...

Julia, of course I will--that was a night to remember! In fact, I quote you and your opening joke all over the country, and at Vroman's in Pasadena this year, it caused some roars of laughter (and raised eyebrows :)

Deborah Crombie said...

Jenny, Barbara Shapiro and Steve Womack both taught (and still teach) writing, so we had a much more organized format that I would ever have on her own. We did a presentation on theories of the number of possible plots, which was much more fun that it sounds, and then we talked about individual stuff from there.

Now I want to know Julia's joke:-)

Nancie Clare said...

Jenny knows how to put on a book tour event. In L.A. (well, to be precise, Pasadena) Jenny was joined by local writers that included Naomi Hirahara and Steph Cha and produced what can only be described as an interactive book tour event. Loved attending! Loved meeting Jenny in person.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Oh, so fascinating! I'd love to hear more about the events!

Jenny Milchman said...

I will be happy to share Julia's joke, but it may break an FCC (or the blog equivalent) reg or two so we'll just have to all get together in person. Jungle Red & Readers book event, anyone???

Nancie, so glad you were there! Your may remember what I'm talking about :) I love your interactive description too.

Hank, I hope we can talk one of these days and I can hear more about your events...Haven't gotten to see one since--was it The Other Woman??? Since I had about 120 to work with, I tried to mix things up a bit. The Pasadena event and another in Phoenix were probably the most unusual. I also did writers workshops--really want to learn Deborah, Barbara, and Steve's plot format--and publishing pitches and one very notable dog rescue event at Clues Unlimited in Tucson!

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Come to Boston, dear Jenny! Or just tell me when and where to show up someplace exotic. I'm there! (Seriously.) (Love to.)

Jenny Milchman said...

Hank, someone just wrote me about a potential Boston event after seeing this post! Fingers crossed :) I am hoping...But someplace exotic sounds fantastic. Any bookstores in Hawaii? (Wait, can you drive to Hawaii?)

Holly Robinson said...

Jenny, this post was so inspiring--publishers really do try to talk us out of going on tour. They certainly don't PAY for us to go anywhere, at least not at my level, so it's tempting to just stay home. But the more I get out there, the more I realize how much fun it is to connect with readers. Hat's off to you, darling girl, for charging forward with your own plan and making it work. No wonder you're such a success! Now I'm going to go talk to my family about a little road trip...

Jenny Milchman said...

Holly, please let me know if your next road trip comes near NYS! I will bring out the vote :) I appreciate your appreciation--we sure had fun, but whoever knows if we're doing the right thing out here in this crazy biz? I sure don't!

Holly Robinson said...

Absolutely, Jenny! And YOU let ME know if you want to come anywhere near Newburyport, MA!

Kathy Reel said...

Jenny, so sorry that I didn't get to chime in yesterday, but after reading your post today, I had to comment. Your road trip across America has come to my attention more than once, and I am so impressed by it. Talk about giving 100%. And, what an amazing experience for your whole family! Lucky kids.

Your advice on interacting with fans at book signings is just the kind of interaction I so value with favorite authors. The man who drove three hours and already had three copies of your book must be so satisfying to you, that your books would produce such fierce loyalty. You are in my TBR pile and come highly recommended to me, so I know that soon I will be an ardent fan, too.

Jenny Milchman said...

Holly, well, gosh, I would love to. I would love to see you, be near the Boston area, drag Hank (and maybe Julia!) out...Shoot, are you regretting offering now? :)

Kathy, I hope the kids wind up feeling lucky. *I* sure do. I hope they don't feel manacled to my career, or too taken out of their regular lives, etc. I think I may be having one of those guilty mom days, so don't feel you have to reassure! Tomorrow I leave for a week on my own, which I've never done before! I hope the kids eat more than peanut butter. And make the beds. OK, the beds could probably go.

But, I digress. Thank you for your kind words, and I hope we get to meet and talk in person one of these days!