Starting Over, But Not From Scratch: Book Marketing Insights From a Third-Career Debut Novelist

Former public relations executive and career consultant Rita Dragonette outlines the book marketing strategies she employed with her debut novel, from developing her online presence to organizing book events and creative publicity campaigns.


When I used to counsel clients in career transitions, I’d tell them, “You’re starting over, but not from scratch.” That’s the same lesson I’ve learned from the launch of my first novel, The Fourteenth of September (She Writes Press, September 2018). After nearly 30 years telling the stories of others in my careers as a public relations executive and career consultant, it’s also the advice I’d give to anyone with their first novel ready to introduce to the world.

Regardless of your background, take acute inventory of the skills you have—speaking, sales, reviewing, persuading, teaching—and use it to accelerate your success in the book industry. That’s what I did when I decided to officially begin the switch of my love of writing from avocation to vocation 13 long years ago when I started my first novel and my last business simultaneously. I don’t recommend that combination, by the way, because neither endeavor stayed in their intended part-time box, but it did show me how to tap into the skills I had to make tracks. I knew I couldn’t spend the same amount of time learning and perfecting this new career as I did the previous ventures. I simply wouldn’t live that long.

Instead, I was forced to use the strategic skills I’d learned in the business world and decided from the onset that rather than flay around by myself, I’d go straight to the experts for advice.

While still working, I enrolled in the Writer’s Studio program at University of Chicago Graham School (U of C) for serious craft schooling, earning a certificate in creative writing with a concentration in novel, the closest I’d get to an MFA on my delayed time frame, but necessary serious training and credentialing. During the two-year program I also attended conferences to familiarize myself with the industry, particularly the marketing/agent sessions at AWP, Juniper, and Chicago Writer’s Association. I considered this, research.

When the U of C program concluded, I was accepted for multiple residencies at Ragdale, artist’s retreat to ensure output, refine my writing process, and meet published writers, happy to share their experiences. I also volunteered to help writers I met who had new books through a regular series of Literary Salons in my home, introducing them to my avid reader friends. You could call what I did, literary networking.

As my manuscript advanced toward conclusion, I had more marketing than writing skills and I used them assess what I had to accomplish to successfully gain attention for my novel, as if I were my own client.

My first step was to develop a Situation Analysis of what I had working for and against me. Here it is:

Challenges

  • Like anyone else starting out, I was a debut author among thousands, a horse in a maiden race.
  • Though I’d been telling the stories of others for years, I had no track record of publication, nor social media profile under my own name.
  • The time frame of my subject matter, the Vietnam War, had been an unpopular and seemingly irrelevant topic for most of the years I’d been writing my manuscript.
  • This was a third career for me; agents wouldn’t readily see me as someone to work with to build a substantial multi-book writing career.

How to Calendarize Your Book Marketing Approach

Advantages

  • I had the lessons of nearly 30 years of high-level, professional marketing expertise at a time when the publishing industry has shifted much of that responsibility to the writer and put a high value on their ability to sell their own books.
  • I had developed a foundation of a network of other writers and influencers within the community that could be built upon.
  • I had a solid, original story and (after years of business presentations) the ability to “talk it” well.
  • Suddenly, the subject of Vietnam was very much in the zeitgeist (thank you, Ken Burns, Stephen Spielberg and the writers of This is Us).

The Bottom Line

I had to take advantage of this unanticipated window of opportunity for my subject while simultaneously translating my competence as both a writer and marketer into relevance in the publishing industry. It was a tall order! My overall strategy would be to use my business and marketing skills to create illusion until reality took over—and to market the hell out of this first book to raise my profile as a writer and ease the process for the next.

The Plan

My initial objective was, of course, to seek agent representation and obtain a publisher, and I was ready to spring to follow conventional wisdom by asking my network of other writers to introduce me to their agents.

However, Deborah Siegal of Girl Meets Voice, a writer and consultant I’d met at Ragdale, convinced me that I first needed a presence—a web site that potential agents could click on the minute they heard my name—and perhaps a blog to demonstrate both my ability to write, as well as to build a network of people who’d be interested in my book.

Given my strategy, this made perfect sense. I created a web site that bridged writing and business to communicate professionalism and marketing expertise, before there was a “real” book in existence. I wanted it to command attention with a classy and distinctive look that represented me as a writer and teased out my story. I asked writers who’d read earlier versions of the manuscripts for “blurbs,” videotaped an extended interview by Siegal as if she were media, and filled the site with interesting information about the time frame of the book, my history, photos, literary influences, a playlist of songs from the book, a list of communities I was a member of, three other books I have in the hopper…everything I could think of to demonstrate that when it came to selling the book, I knew what I was talking about.

Needless to say, shortly after the launch, I was pleased to hear from a well-known writer, who expressed, “I don’t know how the book reads, but anyone who looks at this web site can sure tell that you can sell anything.” (Check it out at www.ritadragonette.com.)

I also worked with Siegal to develop a blog “voice” and began a regular series of distinctive short essays about subjects that were related to my book, but not self-serving—from portraits of current radicals from back in the day to musings on key anniversaries of the Vietnam time frame. My mailing list began to grow; interest began to build.

I was now ready to solicit agents. Step one of this was surprisingly successful, with writers willing to help. The fit, however, was not always the best. Early in the process, Siegal suggested She Writes Press and they accepted me immediately. Though my agent search was still young, SWP was nimble and could get me into the market quickly to take advantage of the topic window. I decided this was my priority and signed up.

The Countdown

As a former PR professional, I’d long had my ear to the ground about potential resources and didn’t hesitate to hire a literary publicity agency I’d vetted while still writing my manuscript to amplify news of my book. I knew that my entrée into traditional media would be hampered by the independent classification of my publisher and my debut status, so we started small, and worked to get increasingly more mainstream.

I hired millennials versed in social media to set up platforms, send out messaging and leverage all placements, regardless of how minor, until I could learn how to do it myself. My profile grew rapidly. As they proceeded, I also activated contacts with all my constituencies—from the University of Chicago and Ragdale, to my business networks and alumni connections. Because I knew I was good at talking the book in person, I set up an aggressive series of events from large parties to smaller salons, in my hometown of Chicago as well as in New York City and Southern California where I had connections—over 20 in a two-month time frame.

In the process, I made relationships with independent bookstores, reconnected with associates who’d heard about my book over its long gestation, got my alumni behind me as a successful grad, and became increasingly involved in the Chicago literary community.

By this point, the preliminary information in my web site was being replaced with news and videos of actual events, publicity and social media coverage. Illusion had become reality! In the words of a veteran public relations professional: “You’re doing more than most well established authors I know.”

The Impact of Giving Back

This sounds like a lot of hard-edged belly-to-belly marketing, but there was more to it. By becoming involved in the larger writing community I’ve been able to support other authors and tap into our familial tendency to want to help each other—through supporting events, reviews, blurbs. Such involvement pays (and will continue to pay) off, in spades, with rewards way beyond book sales.

Part of the goal of any writer is to make their books relevant and universal. One of the best ways to accomplish that is through altruism. The subtitle of my book is “A Coming of Conscience Novel.” I wanted to highlight the journey of my main character in l969-1970, but also apply it to today’s world. My protagonist is a female in college on a military scholarship who faces a decision as emotionally intense and fraught as that of any male draftee of the time. To tie this to the present, I developed a social giving campaign that would “fund” a scholarship at the real-life university the fictional CIU is based upon in my novel. If readers share photos of the cover of their copies of The Fourteenth of September with the hashtag #comingofconscience across their social media platforms, and/or their own personal coming-of-conscience moments, I donate $1 to $5 per engagement. The program exchanges visibility for doing good, and has been very well-received.

At this point, just over three months after launch, with events scheduled through the first quarter of next year, I’m pleased with the results: 21 events with attendance of over 400, a second printing planned before the end of the year, solid reviews and a tremendous amount of excitement. The pace has been daunting but the process classic. I put a lot of irons in the fire that seemed to make sense. Most of them came out. As we say in the PR business, most clients take between 60-75% of what you advise. As my own client, I could take it all, and guess what? It works! I planned the process of launching my debut novel and executed as if I were already an accomplished author.

With proper planning and, I admit, more resources than most, illusion has become reality.

What skills do you have today that you can tap and emphasize to compensate for being a novice in the field. Who can help you? There’s no need to do it alone…or from scratch.


Rita Dragonette is a writer who, after spending nearly 30 years telling the stories of others as an award-winning public relations executive, has returned to her original creative pathThe Fourteenth of September, her debut novel, is based upon her personal experiences on campus during the Vietnam War. The novel, which came out from She Writes Press in September has already won the Women’s Fiction Category in the Beverly Hills Book Awards, been designated a finalist for two 2018 American Fiction Awards by American Book Fest, and received an honorable mention in the Hollywood Book Festival. She is currently at work on three other books: an homage to The Sun Also Rises about expats chasing their last dream in San Miguel de Allende, a World War II novel based upon her interest in the impact of war on and through women, and a memoir in essays. She lives and writes in Chicago, where she also hosts literary salons to showcase authors and their new books to avid readers.


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