3 S.R. Johannes: Marvelous Marketer - Sarah Davies (Greenhouse Literary)

Monday, March 16, 2009

Marvelous Marketer - Sarah Davies (Greenhouse Literary)

Hi Sarah. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us today!

Before you share your brilliant marketing tips with us, can you tell us a little about yourself and your agency?

Greenhouse Literary officially launched on January 24, 2008 – simultaneously in the USA and UK. I came to the States from London in October 2007, both to start the business and to get married. The commercial side and the romantic side were highly interwoven for me!

As far as my background, I worked as a publisher from the moment I left college at 22 until the day I walked out of Macmillan in July 2007, leaving me with a career that spanned over 25+ years, primarily in Children’s Books. I started out working for Collins (before it became Harper) and moved onto Transworld (Random House).

Then, I spent 13 years at Macmillan Children’s Books where I worked my way up from Fiction Editor to Publishing Director over the entire children’s list. That list comprised of 200 titles per year, ranging from preschool novelty books up to sophisticated teenage fiction under the Picador imprint.

Greenhouse Literary is very international. Our authors are a mix of Americans and Brits. We are particularly strong in foreign rights, thanks to our sister company, Rights People. I have just appointed a new agent in London, Julia Churchill, who will further build our list of British authors. This will allow me to focus on the USA, which is great, as the American side of Greenhouse gets more busy and more demanding.

We have many books coming out in the USA starting this year:

  • THE DEVIL’S KISS by Sarwat Chadda (Hyperion, Fall 2009);
  • THE OTHER SIDE OF BLUE by Valerie Patterson (Clarion, Fall 2009);
  • PRINCESS FOR HIRE by Lindsey Leavitt (Hyperion, Spring 2010);
  • TREASURE IN THE PAST TENSE by Teresa Harris (Clarion, Spring 2010);
  • OF ALL THE STUPID THINGS by Alexandra Diaz (Egmont USA, Spring 2010),
  • ONE SHINY SILVER KEY by Tami Lewis Brown (Fall, 2010).
Do you/your agency have a website/blog? When did you start it and who manages it?

I believe our web site, http://www.greenhouseliterary.com/ has played a crucial part in the first-year of Greenhouse's success. I always felt that would be the case, which is why we took so much care in designing it. Our website was developed by a company in London called Clicked. I manage all the content, in conjunction with my wonderful designer/rescuer, Rowan. Basically, this means I call him and moan, ‘Heeeeelp!’

Even more crucial than the web site was choosing the agency name, Greenhouse Literary. I had been brainstorming and scribbling down words for some time, trying to find the perfect name for the concept I had so clearly in mind. I wanted to create an agency that would nurture writers, work with them editorially, and ground them so they could grow. A place where writers could walk in and thrive. So when the name "Greenhouse" popped into my head, I knew - in that blinding, light-bulb moment - I had finally found the identity and brand of the business.

Once we had the "Greenhouse" name, everything else just fell into place – our logo (the leaf), our tagline (where writers grow), and our core belief. The whole concept perfectly expressed everything I wanted to say – before I ever opened my mouth.

Now, that’s a great platform!

The site launched at about the same time as the agency and immediately started getting page hits. I also started my blog on the site to give readers a way into the site and the agency, which gave the agency a human face. I wanted people to feel like they knew me and could follow me on my exciting journey to create the agency from scratch.

I do blog about the industry, but I also write creatively at times – about my feelings and my experiences. Apart from the fact that I love to write, I also want people to know that I’m not just an observer of the craft. As all writers, I know what it means to chip and chisel away at words, struggling to get each one perfect.

When I was a publisher, we constantly talked about ‘branding’. Every survey ever taken has shown that readers have virtually no loyalty to a publisher's brand (eg, Penguin, HarperCollins etc) or any imprint.

Their loyalties are solely to an author.

Therefore, every author is their own brand. Just as every agent/agency is a brand too.

We all have to think how we put that brand across to those who are potentially interested in us.

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

Hmm, tricky – because every book is different and there are so many variables. For example: how does it fit into the market? what age group is it for? what format? where has the publisher positioned it on their list Is it Mega-lead title? Lesser lead title? Or a Take-a-risk-and-see-what-happens?

It is a fact that publishers make 90% of their revenues off of 10% of their titles (yes, I know, that’s a shock!). So, is your book one of the 10% or one of the 90%? That answer is not always clear from the outset, but there will be a set of forecast figures in the sales budget and those will determine the sum your publisher will have allocated to marketing/publicity.

A book will usually be either marketing/publicity-driven or review-driven. In other words, a highly commercial tween series will (and should be) treated completely different vs. a high-end literary novel where the most effective promoter may be a slew of starred reviews rather than grabby online promotion or kid-friendly giveaways.

So first before you start marketing, I’d always suggest having a thoughtful conversation with your agent/editor/publicity manager so all the cards can be laid out on the table. This is where expectations and realities should be aired and discussed and ironed out.

I think an agent is very important in this conversation. On one hand, it is an agent’s job to fight for their author. Yet, on the other hand, I think there are times when an agent has to manage their author's expectations. There will never be limitless funds available to promote every book in the way every author hopes (there is probably a finite overall budget for the whole list and whole year, laid down in advance, to be sliced up by the marketing director). Tough choices have to be made, and that can be painful for authors who have worked so hard to get published and then discover the promotional support is short of what they hoped and anticipated.

So, discuss what your publisher can and can’t do for you. And then perhaps move on to what YOU can do to help your own book. And in this area, your publisher is best placed to advise you.

As far as a few things an author can do:

1) I personally think a website is great if, and only if, it is a real advertisement for you and your work – ie, contemporary, enticing, and highly relevant for your target market. A scrappy, tired, and dated-looking site isn’t going to be a great promotional tool, so take care when you build one. It’s worth looking the sites of other authors you admire and figure out why you like them, before you embark on building your own.

2) Blogs are a dime a dozen these days, but worth considering if you are writing for highly literate teens who may be interested in your thoughts about life, the world, and your books. If you are writing wacky books about underpants for 8-year-old boys, then blogging probably isn’t going to help you a lot (unless your blog is aimed at parents, which is actually a valid angle to consider). You have to think carefully about your readers and what they want from you.

3) One thing everyone can probably do is get to know their local booksellers (in a courteous way without harassing them!) and try to forge contacts. My authors are always popping up and telling me they’ve had a great chat with so-and-so in some branch of a major retailer who is going to do such-and-such with their book nearer to publication date.

4) See if you can get a signing, or a slot to speak at the local book group, or a piece in the local paper/local radio. You may well find that one thing leads to another and before you know it, you have a few events on the horizon. The same goes for schools. Who do you know? Can you wiggle your way into a local school system and get some class-room gigs? You might want to put together a workshop on creative writing or team up with another author. One school might recommend you to another and then you can get some nice ‘credentials’ as a speaker.

Once you’re up and running, it’s very possible to get some regular speaking spots. I would recommend taking some kind of public-speaking course if you’re not experienced in that area. Getting up in front of crowds (and especially a bunch of children) can be scary, and it’s always good to have some training and practice behind you so do a really great job.

Like writing, public speaking is a skill that takes time and thought to develop.

How important is social networking in today's environment? For example: Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, GoodReads.

Again, it comes down to the kind of book you’ve written. Tweens and teens are hanging around on some these sites and looking for authors they love; in that case, providing something they can join and belong to is a great idea.

Anything that fosters a community gathered around you, the author, has to be worthwhile. So long as you can use the medium cleverly to disseminate information that is useful and interesting. Sites, web pages, chat rooms, and blogs that are out of date and not maintained are probably more of a negative than a positive, so it’s worth sitting down and thinking hard before you embark on new social networking.

How many online things will you realistically be able to update and nurture regularly without assistance? If you are writing and up against deadlines (plus maybe a full-time job/family/children) you may find it all quite onerous. Which eggs will you put in your basket? It may be better to be selective and manage a few things really well, than do too much. You can always grow your online presence as you grow into being a published author.

What other advice do you have for authors/writers regarding marketing?

These days, many of the more glamorous marketing/publicity ideas that we have all associated with publishing over the years, don’t really give enough bang-for-their-buck. For example, launch parties, dinners, or even author tours may not work (unless you are guaranteed sizeable audiences, either because you are a big-selling author with an existing and growing fanbase, or because you have a staunch marketeer preparing the ground for you).

I think offering small events to a tightly chosen group of key retail buyers or media people can be much more useful. Then the attendees can get a real sense of you - the author - as well as the book. These events really have to be hosted by your publishing house. If they do plan this for you or host you at BEA, then you need to take that very seriously. Ask the house to brief you carefully on exactly what they want from you, then be sure to plan and practice until you are very confident in what you have to say. You don’t get very many of these opportunities to present yourself and your work, so be as professional as possible.

I make a lot of speeches and I always take great care in my preparation by honing and honing every sentence until I am saying exactly what I intend to say. Then, I practice the speech before an invisible audience in an empty room! Always practice your speech out loud - every pitfall and wobble comes to light, meaning you have time to put them right before you go live!

We’ve already talked about websites and blogs. But there is one thing I’d like to point out: you have a very different market BEFORE publication than AFTER publication.

Before publication, your audience may be other aspiring writers – or even agents/editors. Once again, you need to think about how your online presence needs to change once you know where, how, and when you are going to be published. If you’ve been blogging about the traumas of submissions, revising, or rejections, you need to bear in mind that your post-publication audience may be quite different.

After publication, booksellers, parents, or children will find you online, so which section of the populace are you going to target? Once you get published, you will have to think about your public face, which may mean you have to guard your privacy a little more.

Oh, one thing I haven’t mentioned – if you’re writing a fairly serious, thoughtful novel for middle grade or teens - is that you could consider putting together a readers’ guide. These can be used to promote useful discussion in a class or book group. As a publisher, I used to help in writing these. Coming up with those discussion starters reminded me a lot of my English-degree essay topics! It’s always good to be able to offer helpful materials, and here is something teachers can really use.

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?

No, I am much more interested in how an individual writes. Everything else follows that. However, I do always click on the blog and website links that appear in their submissions.

Those links can reveal some very, very interesting things! A little tip would be not to give yourself away, heart and soul, in your blog. I always look carefully at submissions and whatever I see in the author’s blog. It does make me smile sometimes when that writer merrily discloses that they’ve already been rejected by 75 agents before me.

There are some things you don’t necessarily want to shout from the rooftops if you are out on submission.

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

Contracts can differ wildly, depending on the nature of the deal and the author. As a publisher, I once negotiated a contract with a media lawyer for work by a major celebrity. We argued over every single line – the costs of stylists, the size of toilets (yes, I am serious!), who would pay for the nanny, and in what class accommodation the nanny would travel.

However, that is far from the reality of most authors. Basic contracts cover the commitment of the publisher to publish to high standards, and make it very clear the typography, design, jacket, promotion, advertising, and price are to be determined solely by the publisher.

I always try to add some level of consultation with the author and that ‘their views will be taken into consideration’ – but you can rarely get around the publisher having the final decision on all those things. Contracts also state that the publisher will be entitled to use ‘reasonable extracts’ for publicity and marketing purposes, and that the author will do their reasonable best to be available for promotion around the time of publication.

If a book goes to auction, I always request a marketing plan alongside any final offers. These are important in making decisions if the advances offered are very close to each other. It is always impressive to see a carefully laid out plan of what the publisher intends to do. You can learn a lot from that. For example, how conversant a house is with online possibilities, how ambitiously they see the book, and do they have the means to recoup a very sizeable advance?

However, the actual content of the plan is unlikely to make it into the contract. Publishers don’t like committing irrevocably to detail so far in advance, when all manner of things can change, depending on market conditions and what new possibilities come out of the woodwork at the time.

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

I expect them to go into the enterprise with a whole-hearted commitment and practical desire to succeed. To be open to opportunities and be prepared to work hard to create some of those opportunities for themselves.

Most authors get really excited once they see publicity on the horizon. They’ve worked so long and so hard, and finally they’re looking at getting out there and actually promoting their work. The sight of the final jacket is an amazing shot in the arm for authors – suddenly it’s all wonderfully real! Now it’s time to turn from being the solitary - head down, creating at the computer – into a self-promoter, a personal sales-machine.

Not an easy juxtaposition for some, but it’s all part of life for today’s writer.

Thank you Sarah! This was very enlightening and I am sure everyone appreciates all the detail you provided.

Thank you, Shelli, for having me.


Carrie Harris said...

Wow. I think the term "Marvelous Marketer" is REALLY well deserved in this case. Thanks to both of you for some terrific points to think about!

Anonymous said...

Wow, there is so much good information in this post, I have a feeling I will be coming back to it again and again. Thanks for doing this Shelli!

Cathy C. Hall said...

I love the concept behind Greenhouse...it gives me that warm, nurtured, share the love feeling. (Also love Marvelous Marketer, Shelli...which incidentally gives me a warm, share the money feeling :-)

Anonymous said...

Her comments about branding are interestintg. I'm not suprised people aren't loyal to publishers, that it's only the author they are loyal to. Makes sense. And reinforces your point about taking branding seriously.

Kimbra Kasch said...

This is great info. Thanks for putting it together and sharing.

Kelly Polark said...

She has amazing credentials and some great insight into marketing! Thanks!

Sarah Campbell said...

Another great interview, Shelli!

Anonymous said...

Another interesting point she makes is that she has a book at auction (must be nice), she asks the PUBLISHER for a detailed marketing plan. Since I write NF, I'm the one used to writing the marketing plans in order to convince the publisher to acquire my book. But to be in a position where you get to choose a house based on what they can do for you in terms of marketing? Wow.

Unknown said...

Great interview Shelli- One of the best ones so far!

Unknown said...

WOW. Great interview. Very well done!

Sherrie Petersen said...

Ms. Davies has such a wealth of knowledge -- I'm so glad you shared it with us, Shelli. I love the point she made about how your blog changes as your writing career changes. Great info. Thanks!

Corey Schwartz said...

Yes, another great info-packed post. Have you queried her yourself? :)

Casey Something said...

I've been waiting for this interview and it certainly didn't disappoint!

The Greenhouse has such a beautiful vision. I'm extremely impressed by Sarah and what she has given the writing community.

Thank you so much, Sarah, for the fabulous, insightful interview. And thank you, Shelli, for getting it to us!

Anonymous said...

So 90% of revenues are made off of 10% of their titles. It really is a shock. And kinda depressing too...

Anonymous said...

Her suggestion for writing a Reader's Guide for more "thoughtful" MG and YA novels is also good. But that's putting the cart before the horse. Need to sell the @#%&^*# thing first.

Anonymous said...

Sarah's Top 10 Tips (actually, 11) for children's fiction writers on her site is really good. I mean, I've "heard" all this before and I certainly try to follow them but they're excellent prompts for asking myself if I've done what she recommends...

Anonymous said...

I've been checking out her blog and that same sense of passion and commitment permeates her writing there too. I find that really inspiring and uplifting.

Anonymous said...

Really good advice. Thanks for sharing. And I'm so looking forward to Princess for Hire!

Anonymous said...

Thank you Shelli! Sarah's my agent and she really is THIS lovely. I loved the point about readers sticking with an author, not a pub. I never thought of that, but it's so true. Which is great, because we can't control the pub's choices, but we can control our author brands and what we write!

Carrie Harris said...

I was just scanning past this post and my attention was caught by the comment that once those ARCs arrive, the author needs to turn into a personal sales-machine. I've never heard it put that way, but I'm definitely going to remember it, that your actual "job" is going to change depending on where you are in the process.

Doraine said...

This was such a helpful interview. I'm one of those who sometimes feels overwhelmed at all the possibilities. Understanding your audience is a given, but her encouragement to recognize your strong points and limitations in the marketing field and live within them was such good advice. It was also helpful to hear the different strategies depending on audience and where your book fits in the publisher's list. I also thought her comments on privacy were interesting, that the concept may change depending on where someone is in the publishing process.

Angela Ackerman said...

A fantastic interview full of practical information. Huge thanks to both of you for putting this together and sharing it.

Anonymous said...

Thank you both for such an educational interview. I learned a lot and I appreciate how frank you were with all the details.
Jo Ann Hernandez