Improvise, adapt, overcome. That’s the unofficial slogan among Marines. Debut authors, take note. To prosper in this challenging and dynamic publishing environment, you need to summon your survival instincts and inner strength. But, like the Marines, when you have gone through the boot camp experience of your debut novel, you will have a quiet confidence only discovered through conquering obstacles you once considered insurmountable.
In my first diary entry, I shared the story of how I sold THE FREEDOM BROKER, a novel that features elite kidnap negotiator Thea Paris, how the lovely Vicki Mellor from Headline in the U.K enjoyed the book, and decided to acquire it. Since the last diary entry, Vicki has left Headline. The news was a gut punch, as Vicki is a brilliant editor and a lovely person. I also lost my U.S. publicist, the talented Alex Knight. I’m not alone in being orphaned. Publishing is a dynamic business and for one reason or another, people seek new positions, retire, or move on. It’s like a Marine losing a favorite commander after building trust over many missions. But you need to dust yourself off, put one foot in front of the other, and soldier on. Adapt to the changes. I’m fortunate that Headline is a phenomenal company, and I have an excellent team who will take me to publication.
In fact, I couldn’t be more grateful for the care my publishers have given THE FREEDOM BROKER. I’ve gone through several rounds of edits and had every aspect of the book analyzed. And it was an incredible learning experience. With every round, the book became tighter, stronger. I’m trying to internalize the valuable lessons I’ve learned from these gifted teachers, as I want book two to be better. Embracing constructive criticism is crucial if you want to grow as a writer. Even if your debut novel is on the front burner, it’s important to plan for your long-term career. If you are creating a series, consider the stories you might want to tell in future books, the characters who will endure, and plant the seeds for those stories in this first novel so the series is seamless. You’ll never think of everything, but try to plan ahead.
Next stop, the cover:
It’s incredibly important to find the right jacket for your debut novel. You don’t have an audience or following, no one knows your “brand,” and you need something to draw their attention. When you go to the bookstore or shop online, doesn’t a good cover attract your interest, and a poor one dissuade you from further browsing? We tell ourselves that it’s what’s inside that matters, but we need to create intrigue so people are interested to read the back cover, the blurb, the first few pages, and want to dive in.
I’ve had the honor of working with Peter Hildick-Smith from CODEX, a brilliant man familiar with both books and marketing. I’d like to share some wisdom straight from Peter to help explain how critical it is to have a good “book package.”
“We live in a world of unprecedented message bombardment. Apps, ads, products, political campaigns all beg for our ‘eyeballs,’ our time, our ‘engagement,’ our shares, our ratings, our subscription, our money, or our vote. Delivered through increasingly tiny packages—tweets, snapchats, memes—our brains respond instantly, expertly and holistically to each message in an intuitive ‘blink’—love it, hate it, boring…
Books are no different, like it or not, each introduces itself to the world through the telling message of its package (title, design and jacket description). That message can either be breathtaking (A Brief History of Time) or forgettably mundane (99% of the over 1 million titles released in 2015 alone). It’s up to author and publisher to decide.
What’s most important to remember is that, as Malcolm Gladwell defines in Blink, we perceive each message in its entirety –a combined gestalt of title, design, and description together, not separate. Effective book messages are built on the intrigue of a powerful title, informed by design, made yet more captivating through intriguing description, which if done well, can motivate browsers, reviewers, producers, even booksellers to jump in and engage!
Lastly, the key question to ask for every book “message” (title, cover, copy) you evaluate is not about aesthetics (Do I like it?) but about motivation (Would I pick it up?)”
Invaluable insights from Peter Hildick-Smith, especially important for debuts who can’t rely on their name or brand to sell books. I hope that my title, THE FREEDOM BROKER, will make people stop and think. That it will intrigue them enough to take a closer look. As far as my U.S. cover, I’m pleased that it is bright blue, an eye-catching color that you can see from 50 feet away in a bookstore. And the large, white letters of the title stand out beautifully on that backdrop. When it comes to your cover, consider how your jacket looks as a thumbnail because many readers shop online for their books, and then see how it looks printed out the size of your hardcover/trade/mass market from a distance. Be sure it works well both ways. My publisher Nathaniel Marunas and the phenomenal team at Quercus were incredibly diligent during this process. We brainstormed ideas, tried different colors, font, and backdrops until we created a brilliant cover.
New to the publishing process, I wondered why it took a year—sometimes longer—to prepare a book for release in the traditional publishing milieu. But now I understand the many reasons this is the case. When it comes to reviews, you need time for your publicist to send in your book for consideration. I was honored to receive starred reviews from BookList and Kirkus, and I learned that these accolades can help bring attention to your book, which is important. We need to find a way to cut through the noise out in the world, and I’d recommend trying several approaches, as it’s tough to predict which one will work best.
Your publicist will also reach out to long-lead publications with the hopes that you can secure opportunities for articles where you can feature your novel. If you have a non-fiction hook, this can be a useful tool, so think long and hard about your subject matter to see if there is an interesting one you can use. For example, I’ve researched the world of elite kidnap negotiators for the last few years. I’ve spent endless hours with experts and have tried to become well-versed in this dark world so that I can speak with some authority about the subject. Given there are over 40,000 reported kidnappings a year and growing, this international crisis could be a topic that might interest the media.
With a publication date of February 7th, 2017, we’re full steam ahead preparing for the launch of THE FREEDOM BROKER. Multi-tasking is a key issue for authors because while I’m working hard on the publicity and marketing for the debut, I’m also writing my second book in the Thea Paris series. NYT Bestseller Steve Berry offered great advice on how he handles the constant juggling. While he writes one book, he researches the next novel, and brainstorms ideas for the one after. Improvise, adapt, overcome—take on any and all challenges and march on like a Marine. You’ll be that much savvier and stronger and you’ll give yourself the best chance to succeed as a debut. Please drop me a line anytime with questions at firstname.lastname@example.org or friend me on Facebook at KJ Howe. Until next time.
KJ Howe is an avid tennis player, cyclist, and swimmer. Travel and adventure still rank high on her priority list. She has had the pleasure of riding racing camels in Jordan, surfing in Hawaii, ziplining in the Costa Rican jungle, diving alongside Great White Sharks in South Africa, studying modern combat in the Arizona desert, and working with elephants in Botswana. Home is in Toronto, Canada, but she is often missing in action.
To pre-order a copy of THE FREEDOM BROKER, click here.