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.