Sunday, July 14, 2013

They Don’t Buy Your Book because it’s Good; a guest post by PJ Nunn


JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: I think almost everyone in the crime fiction business has at least heard of PJ Nunn. She's been the owner and chief publicist of Breakthrough Promotions, one of the most effective (and affordable) PR firms around. How effective? Well, I did more radio, television and print interviews in the four years I was her client that I have before or since. 

I have to admit, I never stopped to wonder why PJ specialized in crime fiction. Or how it was she seemed so sympatico with her authors. It turns  out PJ wasn't just promoting crime fiction. She was writing it, too. Her new mystery, Angel Killer, has just been released by Oak Tree Press. Today, she tells us about her writer's journey and about how she - and we - can help get the books we write into readers' hands.


If you haven’t met me yet, I’m a publicist and I specialize in promoting authors and their books. I’m also an author, but I didn’t start out that way. My career path has been long and varied, but I like to think of it as a tapestry that creates a picture. You have to examine it closely to see the detail in individual threads but they all come together in the end.

I didn’t start out to be a novelist, and still don’t necessarily consider myself one. I actually started out in college with every intention of going to medical school. A certain young man caught my eye and I went home with the old M-R-S Degree instead. By the time I found my way back to college, I had three kids and med school was out so I changed my major to psychology. Soon I was doing a practicum and internship as an abuse counselor, serving on the local county child welfare board and consulting with the local police department on child related cases.

I loved my work, but it was intense and after several years, I couldn’t seem to escape the darkness that came with it. I gave up the counseling and child welfare work when we moved back to Dallas and opted for teaching instead. When I had to leave my job teaching at the Dallas County Community College District because my son was too ill to be left on his own all day, I put my background in psychology to work with my skill for putting words to paper and built a pretty good reputation as a freelance journalist specializing in mental health and abuse issues.

It didn’t take long for me to tire of reporting statistics that are all too sobering. It took me right back to the reason I’d left the field of counseling abuse issues in the first place. I don’t remember exact details, but when I started writing my first novel, I found freedom there. So once my day’s business was complete, I always tried to make sure there was a little time left for writing fiction. Characters developed ideas, voices, plans. It was almost as if I was merely the director. I could give them a script, but they didn’t always stick to it. Oddly enough, sometimes their ideas were better than mine. The psychologist in me still finds that fascinating.

I drew ideas from the caseload I’d worked for all those years, but in my writing, there was time to examine things more closely. I wasn’t bound by the urgency to get a child out of a situation or to get a case ready for court. I could take as long as I needed to study it and figure things out.
Over the next several years, I refined my craft and made the shift from freelance writing to book promotions for some of the friends I met along the way. First one then another had their books published, but balked at making calls to set up book tours and couldn’t afford a publicist. I saw a need and a business was born. Over the years BreakThrough Promotions became successful, so I tucked my manuscripts away (and there were several by now) and gave myself to promoting everyone else’s work.

I absolutely love what I do and after all these years, I’m pretty good at it. But I missed that time with my writing. I enjoyed being able to take something I came across in a real situation, whether counseling or casework, and apply the “what if” to it and see where the story might lead. When I gave in to the desire to dust those manuscripts off, and factored in the recent self-publishing revolution, an idea formed. What if I revised a manuscript and submitted it to one of the smaller presses? Would they be interested enough to publish it? Amazingly enough, they were! Shari Markham, forensic psychologist and criminologist was about to become a published character.

Suddenly a lot of things seemed to make sense. I’d studied for years to get my writing into professional form, and had on-the-job training learning how to best promote new authors and their books so that I had the knowledge to promote my own. It was almost like it was pre-arranged. 

With Angel Killer in the hands of the publisher, I decided to polish another manuscript that is the start of a different series and publish it myself as an ebook to see how that went. I was taking on more and more clients who wanted help promoting their ebooks. It seemed a logical way for me to learn the ins and outs of the process. 
Since the main reason someone hires me is to help increase their sales, I need to know why people buy books. As a psychologist, it’s natural that deductive reasoning comes into play and I’m always looking for cause and effect. Enter the process of elimination. I might not be able to tell you what does sell your book every time, but I can tell you what doesn’t. Just like I can tell you that talent is no guarantee of recognition as an author. If I had to choose whether to have talent or perseverance as a trait that would lead to my success, I’d choose perseverance. Of course talent would be nice too, but things are just not always as they seem. I could name a long list of very talented writers that you’ve never heard of because they didn’t have the perseverance to stick in there until they got published.

People look for a publicist to help increase their book sales. They judge the success or failure of a book by the number of sales, and often, logically, assume if a book has high sales figures, it must be good. But it’s kind of like that old riddle that says bananas are yellow so if it’s yellow, it’s a banana. Obviously that logic is faulty. 

If a book has high sales, it doesn’t mean it’s good.
If a book is good, it doesn’t mean it will have high sales.

Everyone wants to think his or her book is good, and I’m the first to admit it’s a HUGE plus if it is. But being good just isn’t enough to rack up the sales. People buy books for lots of reasons:
          Because they like something else the author has written
          Somebody told them it’s good

·         They like the cover

·         They like the description

·         They met the author and like to tell people they know her

·         One of their favorite authors wrote a blurb on the cover

·         They read a good review

·         They won a previous title in a drawing and liked it

·         Who knows?

Obviously, what people see and hear about a new title is at least as important as how good it is. If the description or cover or whatever doesn’t capture their interest, they may never see what’s inside.

That is where I come into play so often. Presentation. First impressions. It’s my hope that I can help my clients present themselves (yes themselves and not just their books) in a way that will appeal to the group that is most likely to want to read their book, and to set the stage by finding the right reviewers, the right publications, the right radio and television programs to make the author shine and make their book seem highly desirable.
And now that I’ve schooled myself in all those things, I need to figure out how to do them for myself. I was working with a web designer just today, helping him to get the right content on a new website for one of my clients. He came back later and said, “Just so you know, I put links to your books on my website. Hope that’s ok.” I was really surprised and asked him why. He said, “I think you spend all your time promoting other authors and somebody better promote you.”

Wow. Busted.

You can find out more about PJ Nunn and the Shari Markham mysteries at her website. You can friend her on Facebook and follow her on Twitter as @PJNunn. If you want to find out more about PJ as a publicist, check out Breakthrough Promotions or contact her directly at


  1. I imagine there are scads of readers out there who have no idea all this goes into the success of an author’s book . . . thank you for a very interesting glimpse into this process.

    Will you tell us a little bit about “Angel Killer?”

  2. Yay, PJ! Glad to see you're promoting yourself for a change. Thanks to you, I still hear from Austin Carr fans in Texas!

    But didn't you teach me to always work a plug in for the book? What's the hook on ANGEL KILLER?

  3. So I've printed and posted on my wall your axiom: If a book has high sales, it doesn’t mean it’s good.
    If a book is good, it doesn’t mean it will have high sales.

    Of course what we all want is to be critically claimed AND best selling. Your insights are so helpful.

    And congratulations on Angel Killer!

  4. What a great post. Thank you!

  5. Lots to think about today, but mostly the great reminder of the importance of PERSISTENCE.

    Is there child abuse in your book?

  6. Hey PJ! Well, I must admit..I think about his..just about every minute of every day. Sigh...

    rushing out..more to come..cant wait to read this again!


  7. Coincidentally, today in the NY Times is an article about a detective novel published in the UK that got praise from reviewers but paltry sales.

    There's a punch line... Guess who it's by?

    So interesting because a counter example... a mega-bestseller most frequently cited as one people can't finish: The Casual Vacancy.

  8. Thanks, Joan and Jack! Obviously I must refine my skills in promoting myself. It doesn't come naturally, for sure. Angel Killer is really Shari's story - what she's going to do with her life now that her kids are grown and she's a widow. But it's also the beginning of a career that's not easy because it deals with the dark side of human nature and a justice system that isn't always effective.

  9. Hi Denise,
    Any criminal act involving a child is abuse and there are some crimes against children. It's not staged on the page but children are involved in the storyline. I believe that's one of the reasons the book was hard to sell in the first place, but I hope that people will appreciate the story.

  10. Thanks PJ, this was a great post.

    Some of my favorite books are ones that just never became as successful as I hoped they would. Fortunately, most of those writers stuck with it and found greater success with subsequent books.

    It really takes all kinds of things to come together to create success for a book. It's kind of like magic.

  11. Have not read this, but certainly did enjoy PRIVATE SPIES.

  12. Very informative post. Congratulations and good luck for Angel Killer.

    Love all the pictures of women reading in the post!


  13. Good article.Well,I suppose I don't often buy a book BEFORE I've read it,so count me in on several reasons why folks buy a book.Keep up the good work.I buy new books from authors I read about here!

  14. PJ yay...

    I could say ditto to almost all your comments regarding child/family/police/welfare counseling and psychotherapy. Fortunately my own early life was so dark I knew where we were headed and could embrace it. As a writer that piece of my own allows me to reach deeper than I might have otherwise.

    Best to you.

  15. Thank you all so much for your comments and encouragement. This is a great place to hang out!

  16. PJ, I've known you since we were two starry-eyed wannabe mystery writers. I applaud your success as a publicist (and THANKS! for all the help you've given me, but I'm glad to see you getting back to your writing. You're too good at it not to.

  17. Interesting post and something I've often thought about...validation makes things "appear" better -- and perception is a big part of that.

    PS love the flapper in the green dress..who painted that? Thx.