How Book Club Readers (and Bookstores) Can Drive Success

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Today I have the pleasure of sharing a Q&A with author Meg Waite Clayton. Meg is the author of the national bestseller The Wednesday Sisters, which has been popular with book clubs across the country. I was curious about this aspect of her book's success, as well as how she came to writing and publishing from a career in law.


?As your bio states, you didn’t start out being a novelist. You took a detour into corporate law first. How has that experience helped you (if at all) in your writing & publishing career?

I love the word “detour” here, Jane, as that’s how it feels in retrospect. Growing up (isn’t that where all dreams start?), I was a huge reader who dreamed of writing novels. But to me writing a novel was like leaping a tall building in a single literary bound. Even a girl going to law school was a stretch, but not quite such a stretch—so I went to law school.

You do learn the importance of story in law school, though; underlying every side of every case is a story. But I drew two other very important—and less obvious—benefits from my “detour,” too.

I gained discipline, which is the one thing that distinguishes most published writers I know from the unpublished ones; I sit down every day and write, just as I sat down to study every day in law school. (And no, I have no idea how I made it to Michigan Law School without being disciplined.)

I also discovered that everyone is flawed, and that it’s the flaws that make us interesting. Even the billionaires I worked with, and the smartest people I met, and the most glamorous—all wonderfully flawed. Trying to understand what people needed in the context of working with them—often at big moments in their lives—brought me a long way to understanding character, which is for me the heart of writing.

Tell us the story of how you got your agent.

The long version or the short? Let’s just say my current agent, Marly Rusoff, was not my first agent, but she is my happily-ever-after one. Marly represented a friend of mine, Masha Hamilton, and I knew from Masha that Marly has spirit and guts. I approached her with a blind query—not using Masha’s name—and Marly rung me up on New Year’s Eve after requesting and then reading The Wednesday Sisters. It was one of the nicest New Year’s greetings I’ve ever received.

I do feel blind query letters are the best way to approach agents. If an agent likes your work, he or she gets the pleasure of discovery, whereas if you’re introduced by another author, you’re that author’s discovery rather than the agent’s. An introduction may get you a nicer rejection, but it’s still going to be a rejection if the agent doesn’t love your writing.

And really, every agent out there worth having dreams of discovering the next Great American Author.??

Your books have enjoyed success as national book club picks (e.g., Borders). What role have they played in the success of your books?

??Book groups at all levels have played a huge role in The Wednesday Sisters finding an audience. So much of its early audience in hardcover came from two sources: independent booksellers like Kepler’s and Books Inc. recommending it for their book clubs; and friends telling friends, often one book group member reading it and then choosing it for a club.

I just learned the other day that a radio-show-sponsored book group at Tattered Cover in Denver—such a wonderful bookstore—chose The Wednesday Sisters for July, and it was such a joy. Perhaps because I belong to three book clubs myself?

The national book club picks for the paperback, including Target Stores and Borders, were terrific—expanding the audience in a lovely, lovely way. The Target pick in particular—because The Wednesday Sisters was their one Bookmarked Club Pick for the summer and so much exposure for the book … I don’t know who plucked it out of the pile for that, but I am ever grateful. As I am for every reader—book club or not.

Many aspiring writers (and published authors!) dream of a book that will be popular with clubs. Are there any tips you can share for making that happen???

I do think the Random House Reader’s Circle is one of the best publisher outreaches to book groups, so I’d say if you’re in the lucky position of choosing among publishers, that’s something worth thinking about.

The things I did to supplement Ballantine’s work were to put up—at their suggestion—book group pages on my website; to write guest blogs or do interviews for various book group sites; and to say “yes” and “thank you” a lot.

I said “yes” to every book group that asked for an author visit (in person for folks my dad would call “geographically suitable”—a term he used about my boyfriends—and by phone elsewhere), unless I had a conflict already calendared. And I said “thank you” to every early reviewer I came across on the internet, often offering to do a book club chat if they belonged to a group.

Aside from clubs, what were the most important things you did before your book was published to set yourself up for success??

It’s really hard to know what works and doesn’t in marketing books, so my approach is to do everything I can imagine might. But I’d say one really important thing I did was hire a talented young web designer named Ilsa Brink to help me create an engaging website, and put a lot of time and thought into what readers might like to see. There are buttons that link to a bit about each Wednesday Sister, including very silly things like a photo of me at the 8th grade state science fair, more serious information such as a great lunar landing time line that links to a clip of “One small step,” Southern recipes for a Derby Day party, and a series of pages geared toward aspiring writers.

And what activities AFTER your book was published seemed to be most useful or productive? (Or what was a waste of time?)?

I particularly like doing radio, so I do a lot of that. But perhaps the most effective tools in my personal promotion box are my family and friends; I bet half my readers are folks who’ve heard about The Wednesday Sisters from them!

Tell us what role your publisher played in marketing/publicizing your book.

To be honest, I’m not sure I could begin to describe what Ballantine did in anything shorter than a book—and I don’t even know everything they did!

The publisher at Ballantine, Libby McGuire, did a cover letter to send with the advanced reader copies that made me quite literally cry with joy even before my agent told me how unusual it was for a publisher to write letters for ARCs. Both Libby and Kim Hovey, the head of marketing, walk on pu
blishing water. I can’t say enough about how much they do to support my work.

One of the most important things they did was to position The Wednesday Sisters as a book club pick even in hardcover. They provided early copies not just to reviewers, but also to book group readers and influential bloggers. They did quite a bit of Internet marketing, with ads linking to my website, as well as finished book giveaways on some of the major reader sites—gaining wonderful exposure in the book group chatter that happens on the Internet.

My agent, Marly Rusoff—who stays involved in all of this—is also an amazing source of ideas for how to get the word out; it was her idea, for example, to do the radio campaign for the paperback.

We’re already beginning to plan for The Four Ms. Bradwells release next March, and their creative strategizing never ceases to amaze me. ??

And what role have your social networks played, if any? Any special tips or learnings??

I participate in several reader and writer networks, and what I’d say about them is that if an author approaches them solely as a marketing tool … I don’t know. I think most of us don’t want to have salespeople, even author ones, banging on our virtual doors. I like to talk about books and writing, so I belong to sites like LibraryThing and Goodreads and SheWrites. But I belong to them because I like to talk about books and writing, and I like to connect with others who do, too.

I’ve recently added a Facebook Author page so that readers who are interested don’t have to “know” me in order to connect with me on that forum; I’m always delighted to hear personally from readers.

But I’m still getting used to the whole “friends” and “followers” thing. When one of my favorite Bay Area booksellers was laughing about knowing what a particular author has for dinner every night thanks to Facebook, and I said, “Too much information!” her response was “No, actually, the sad thing is it’s not.”

So I don’t know: how much DO readers want to know about authors?

What will you be doing differently for the marketing/promotion of your new book coming out in the spring??

More readings with friends! I was lucky enough to do most of my readings for the paperback of The Wednesday Sisters with Michelle Richmond—one of my own personal favorite authors. And everything is more fun with friends.

I’m also blogging my way through the publication of The Four Ms. Bradwells on my blog, 1st Books: Stories of How Writers Get Started, in a series titled “The All-True Story of How a Novel Gets Published.”

Before I went through it myself, I had no idea what it would be like—what a team effort it is. So I’m trying to give readers and aspiring a glimpse. The whole blog thing—going out literally naked (unedited?!)—makes me nervous, but here I am!

?Any other advice?

For anyone writing and submitting, but not yet published, just keep writing and submitting. If you start to doubt yourself, please visit 1st Books and click on any of the Wednesday posts—all guest authors blogging about how long their struggles were.

My favorite is historical novelist Brenda Rickman Vantrease’s “The 136-Rejection Overnight Success,” in which she blogs about getting literally 136 agent rejections on her way to a six-figure, two-book deal, with a full page New York Times Book Review ad to boot. (She’s just published her third novel, The Heretic’s Wife, which is terrific.)

And keep a bottle of champagne handy, for when the time comes. But don’t chill it unless you want to risk jinxing yourself.

For anyone who has a book coming out? Chill the champagne and pop that cork as high in the air as it will go! Sometimes we get so caught up in all the things we feel we need to do promote a book that we lose track of how amazing it is to have a book on bookstore and library shelves.

My thanks to Meg for taking the time for this Q&A. Be sure to check out her blog, as well as The Wednesday Sisters.

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