3 S.R. Johannes: Marvelous Marketer: Michael Stearns (Upstart Crow Literary)

Monday, October 19, 2009

Marvelous Marketer: Michael Stearns (Upstart Crow Literary)

Hi Michael! Thanks so much for taking time away from your new agency to visit us. First, tell me a little about yourself.

I sort of talked my way into my first publishing job when I was just out of college. An assistant in the children’s books division at Harcourt in San Diego went off on maternity leave, and they needed someone for six weeks. I had no editorial experience—I was a film school graduate who had, at the time, been painting houses for under-the-table money with a crew of illegals. I figured, “Children’s books? Easy!” and wrote a cocky letter that assumed I would be hired. To my eternal surprise, I was hired, despite the letter. I learned very quickly how difficult it can be to publish good children’s books. They kept me around, and eventually I worked my way up and into various director positions there and at Harper Collins before going into the agenting side of things about eighteen months ago. And ten weeks ago, I launched my own agency, Upstart Crow Literary, and we (myself, Chris Richman, Danielle Chiotti, and Ted Malawer) are off to a grand start.


Does your agency have a website/blog?

We have a website and embedded within it, a blog, and both launched at the same time—roughly the end of the first week in August. I do the small work of editing the site when necessary (rewriting copy, such as the landing page letter and the copy in the ticker box), and for bigger overhauls, I have a crackerjack designer I work with, Symon Chow, who has a real genius for creating beautiful things. Right now he is overhauling our author page, because with the addition of Ted and Danielle’s clients, our author list has more than doubled.

My intention is for us to post something to the blog every day—sometimes silly, other times heady, but usually book-and-writing-oriented—because I feel it’s important to be part of an ongoing dialogue with people in the field. Not just would-be clients, but our clients and other writer friends who share a passion for good books and writing. It’s fun.


In your opinion , what are the top 3 things every author should and must do to promote their book?

Having a website is pretty much standard and the least you can do. If someone is interested in you or your work, they will go to the web, and better if you can control the story of what they read there. Building a site isn’t hard at all, but if that isn’t your bag, you can probably find someone to do it for you. As for blogs, they are a fine idea if you remain true to the blog. It can be hard to post everyday, but if your content is not to grow stale, daily posting is pretty necessary, else the blog becomes a bit of a graveyard, something people find in a search and blow the dust off of before moving off and never coming back. Probably the best thing I’ve seen in recent years are the ways groups of debut authors have banded together to promote together the publications of their books. One new author is only of passing interest, but a clutch of them together? Well, that is the sort of thing that might fill a bookstore for a signing. Or be attractive to groups who are looking for speakers.


What things do Publishers expect in terms of Marketing?What does the average author receive or is it different, depending on the book?

The marketing provided by the publisher varies depending upon many factors—the perceived “size” of the book; the response of accounts to the book (many “big” books became less so when booksellers hated the finished product); the author’s track record; the possibility that a book may hook into some zeitgeisty movement or moment or holiday season or what-have-you. There’s a bitterly funny piece in this week’s New Yorker mocking how very feeble some publishing marketing campaigns are, but really, it’s not nearly that bad.

There is a base of support that every book gets. Review copies sent to all the major journals and magazines and television and radio stations who care about books. This is done pro forma, boxes loaded up and sent away. I can only imagine what the offices of these places look like during high season. For some books that inspire special passions, the publicist will call and pitch the title specifically. But getting that kind of dedicated publicity push is rare, because it is time-consuming and expensive. When a book seems to be gaining momentum (starred reviews, impassioned pitches from readers, whatever), publishers often will chase that book with more promotion, to try and get something bigger to happen.

We saw that happen this spring and summer with Rebecca Stead’s amazing When You Reach Me, which is the definition of a grassroots campaign. That book hit the bestseller lists, and it did it because people loved it. Not because there were commercials or subway ads or previews at movie theaters or book trailers or any such folderol. It was about love. The editor and many people in the house sent out galleys with personal letters, or pushed them on readers personally, and readers really responded. And word of mouth carried it up the lists.

Anymore these days, that’s the surest way to market effectively: Do what you can to create positive word-of-mouth. Can you get galleys to big-mouth reviewers and bloggers? Can you get people to talk about your book? What can you do to get people to read and discuss your book?


What things do you expect an author to do on their own?

A website, but more importantly, to be available, and to have extra content available, and to make yourself a presence on the web and thereby in the world. Michael Grant reads and responds to every review a kid posts of GONE on Goodreads, even if just to click that he read and liked it. That matters. Those readers feel connected—even a tiny bit—to the author, and that will help future books in the series and in generating that word-of-mouth.

I also like authors who have “extras” on their sites, like the director’s supplements on special edition DVDs. I love seeing those scenes that got cut or revised for whatever reason. Yes, it may destroy the fictive dream of the book. But if it is something that someone somewhere may link to, it helps keep your book in a possible reader’s mind.

Corey Doctorow gave away Little Brother online for those who were interested in reading it for free. That is kind of awesome. He wrote something to the effect that his worry isn’t internet piracy of his books, his worry is not being noticed at all. It’s a noisy world out there, and having your audience hear of your book and become interested in reading it is the big challenge.


When evaluating whether to take on an author or book, do you ever google them to see if they already have a web presence or platform?


Do I Google new authors? Sure. Am I looking for the oft-bandied-about-but-never-adequately-defined-buzzword “platform”? God, no. I wouldn’t know a platform if I saw it. Unless you have some renown in another field that will get you coverage and attention “off the book page”—you are a famous chef, say, or a star of The Hills, or the President’s go-to person on education, or whatever)—I am skeptical of self-created platforms. People ask me about this at conferences—”Should I have my platform finished?” “Would you like to know my platform?” But most days, the only platforms that concern me are the ones I can dance on.

Seriously, in web searches I look to see what I can learn about the author—crazy as a soup sandwich? (as Harlan Ellison might say); secret author of porn?; star of her own reality television series? It’s all part of the research to see who I am dealing with. As for “platforms,” If the core audience for your platform is 500 people who read your blog, that’s great but hardly something that will sell a books. If your core audience is, however, five million, then that’s something else entirely.

Be engaged, certainly. But don’t mistake the cart for the horse.

I’m interested in books first and foremost.

Thanks for joining us today!

Thanks Shelli!

32 comments:

Suzanne Young said...

Great Q & A! Michael rocks!

Susan R. Mills said...

Thanks for sharing.

Crystal said...

Great post & interview, Shelli! And a big thanks to Michael for sharing his views . . . Upstart Crow seems like it's off to a FANTASTIC start!

Natalie said...

Great interview! Thanks Shelli!

T. Anne said...

Great interview!!! I suppose a website is in order now (for me ;)

Tere Kirkland said...

Thanks, Shelli, and Michael, for such an informative interview.

Caroline Starr Rose said...

I got to hear Michael speak at an SCBWI-MI conference in 2004. It was fun watching him interact with his authors.

And his take on platform is downright refreshing!

Vicky Alvear Shecter said...

Wow. Learned something new (responding to Goodreads reviews--never occured to me). Thanks for such a helpful interview and the great ideas for adding content to a site.

Jennie Englund said...

That was energy-fused, for sure!

Tricia J. O'Brien said...

This was stellar. Love the advice to keep the whole platform thing in its place, to reply to comments on sites such as Goodreads, to work together as a clutch of writers. I like Upstart Crow's blog so much it's now in my blogroll. Thanks Michael and Shelli for another good read.

Casey McCormick said...

Fabulous interview! Thank you both.

Shveta said...

Thanks for such a great interview. I've been lurking for awhile, so I thought I might as well say hello. :)

Robin Constantine said...

As always, great interview. Thanks for sharing!

Kristin Tubb said...

Thanks for the great interview, Michael and Shelli! Very informative! *rushes off to check goodreads* ;-)

storyqueen said...

Upstart Crow does really have a great blog. It's very timely, and the posts are cool.

Thanks for the interview with Michael. He'll be one to watch, I'm sure.

Shelley

Sharon Mayhew said...

Great post! Wonderful questions and helpful responses. Thanks for sharing with us.

Shelli said...

thanks guys for stopping by today and commenting. I thought Michael had some great advice too!

Deb@RGRamblings said...

Excellent interview--thanks!

Roni @ FictionGroupie said...

Great interview and info. Thanks! Glad to hear about the platform thing. I so don't have a platform, lol.

Diana Paz said...

Nice, thanks!

Eileen Astels Watson said...

Lots of wonderful information. Thanks for sharing all this!

Bonnie J. Doerr said...

Michael made my day. Maybe the whole week. I was in pain from the many splinters I'd acquired in the attempt to build my platform. No more. I hacked it up,stuffed it in my woodstove, and got back to the page. Thank you Michael for a bit of sanity.

Anna Claire said...

This is awesome! I've been seeing Upstart Crow Literary around the blogosphere more often recently, so it was great to hear from Michael. Thanks, Shelli, for a fab interview :)

Hilary Wagner ~ Writer said...

Shelli,

What a fantastic interview! Michael will be at the IL SCBWI conference next month! Can't wait to hear him talk!

xoxo -- Hilary

Alyson Noel said...

Great interview, Shelli! And WHEN YOU REACH ME is a fabulous read!

~Ellie Kings~ said...

Thanks for this interview Shelli. I'm a baby in the writing world, so this was very insightful to me.

Jessica (BookLover) said...

Excellent info. Thanks for sharing!

Amy Tate said...

Thank you for the excellent interview! Mr. Stearns is always so informative!

Patti said...

Great interview, very informative.

ElanaJ said...

Excellent interview! I love love love (LOVE) these posts from the other side of the desk. Thanks Shelli and Michael.

Kelly H-Y said...

Great information!

Vivian said...

I love the name, Upstart Crow. Thanks for a great interview!