The Best and Worst Writing Advice I Ever Got

by Michelle Gagnon

On June 12th, bright and early Sunday morning, I’ll be offering suggestions on how to run great book presentations and events at the California Crime Writer’s Conference in Pasadena. Which I’m excited about, despite the fact that it requires me to dust off my poorly honed Powerpoint skills. (And the fact that although I like to believe that I’ve given some great book events, others have been merely mediocre, and there was one memorable time when Simon Wood and I sat alone in a store playing Scrabble for an hour).

But today, I was offered yet another panel at the conference. In my opinion, an even better one entitled, “The Best and Worst Advice I Ever Got.”

The only problem is that it’s a mere hour long. And honestly, after just five years as a published author, I could probably hold forth for at least a few hours. I’m sure that Jim, Gilstrap, and Miller could carry it along for at least twice that long (in fact, perhaps we should host an impromptu version of the panel at the Bouchercon bar in St. Louis).

So I’m going to use today’s post to start consolidating my thoughts. Let’s start with the positive, shall we?

Best Advice:

  • Don’t quit your day job. Of course, if you received a seven figure advance, you might want to consider quitting it. But it’s a good idea to wait and see how that first book sells before you march into your boss’ office and hand in your resignation along with a few choice words about where he/she can stick it. Far too many authors have fizzled out after a few books (particularly those who didn’t even come close to earning out those huge advances).
  • The majority of the marketing burden rests squarely on your shoulders. At the first conference I attended, many of my illusions were shattered when I learned that it was highly unlikely that my publisher would organize (or pay for) a book tour, advertising, or even bookmarks. Sure, it happens. But more often, it doesn’t, which means that much of your writing time gets devoted to figuring out whether or not people really want magnets of your book cover (more on that later, in the “worst advice” section).
  • Don’t spend your entire advance on marketing. Seriously, don’t. There are people who will tell you to do just that (so let’s consider that an addendum to the “worst advice” column). If the advance is just gravy to you, then sure, it might be worth it. But the sad truth is that most marketing dollars end up getting wasted. It’s all a matter of picking and choosing. And hey, you’ve managed to get an advance. Go out and buy yourself something nice with at least part of it, preferably something other than magnets.
  • Use the Social Networks Sparingly. In January, Sisters in Crime released a comprehensive study of what influences mystery readers to purchase books. And the social networks (including book specific sites such as Shelfari and Goodreads) came out at the bottom of the list, below author newsletters and postcard mailings. If you use these websites as your virtual water cooler (as I tend to), then enjoy them. And yes, you will occasionally sell a few books thanks to them. But they won’t help you hit the bestsellers list, and they tend to suck away writing time like an out of control roomba.

Worst Advice:

  • Send a quirky mass mailing to every independent bookstore. This advice came from an renowned author who claimed that sending a copy of a profile piece from a major paper along with a personal note to booksellers propelled him into the top ten on the New York Times list. Who could argue with that? So for my debut novel, I spent a serious chunk of my marketing budget (and countless hours) coming up with a cute, quirky tie-in to my storyline (wood chips burned with runes, if you must know), and a letter introducing myself and the basic plot. It was during the third event on my tour (the tour I organized, of course) that the bookseller gave me a blank look when I asked if she’d received the mailing. She proceeded to pull out an oversized garbage can, pointed to it, and said, “I fill this up twice a week with the crap people send us. We don’t even bother opening it anymore.” Ouch. Lesson learned.
  • Flog that book on the social networks like it’s a half-dead mule carrying twice its body weight up a mountain. Okay, no one actually ever told me to do this, but apparently someone is offering that advice. Because every day someone on Facebook adds me to a group created solely to promote their book, or adds my name to their newsletter list, or tweets repetitively about it. I’m not saying that there isn’t a place for some BSP, but there is definitely a line, and far too many people are crossing it these days. I finally stopped participating in Amazon reading groups because half the postings were shameless plugs. Enough already. As noted above, a grand total of 4% of book purchases can be credited to Facebook and Twitter.
  • Hire a publicist. Oh, how I rue this one. Even more than the rune mailing. Because unless you’ve got a hardcover book coming out with a major hook, and the cash to hire a serious promotional firm (five figures, not four, generally speaking), a publicist is a tremendous waste of cash. Thanks to mine I ended up on a radio call-in show based in Tuscaloosa whose host was a conspiracy theorist with a fondness for sound effects, particularly air horns. And I was a guest on the show for two solid hours before finally asking, on air, how long I was supposed to keep talking. When he said, “All night, baby, we’re just getting started,” I hung up. They weren’t all that bad- but I very much doubt that anything the publicist did helped.

And now it’s time for audience participation. Let’s hear it: the good, the bad, and the just plain ugly advice…

27 thoughts on “The Best and Worst Writing Advice I Ever Got

  1. Thank you so much for the tips. I have a question: you say that hiring a publicist and putting kill-yourself amounts of time and effort into the social networking sites does NOT pay off marketing wise. I’ve heard before that writers need to take the majority of marketing into their own hands, and I’m excited and willing to take that upon myself, but if publicists and social network sites don’t work, what does? What can we writers do to successfully get the word out there?

  2. GOOD
    “The only thing you have control over is your writing.”

    “I’ve got a great publicist you should try. Your in-house PR person will love him.” NOT!

    “You’ll love Facebook.” (Actually maybe I should hold back on this until I hear what Miller has to say.)

    Great post, Michelle. Sage advice. And congratulations on your presentations. Would love to be in the audience. I’m constantly modifying my marketing plan, fine tuning it. I am so ready to drop Facebook but one of my publishers still likes authors having a presence there.

  3. One way I use to build up my mailing list contacts is Fresh Fiction. Their promo costs are reasonable for various periods of time and when you run a contest, they completely admin it for you and give you the email addies afterwards for your own newsletter. You can get thousands of email contacts with each contest. Their site also gets solid traffic and they have plenty of ways to promo your work on their site and their newsletter. Sounds like an ad, right? I just like these guys.

    Also if you are a suspense thriller writer and your publisher meets the qualifications criteria under the International Thriller Writers, the membership is free, but it’s easy to promo new books on their website and their e-newsletter that reaches 12,000+ readers. ITW does a great job to promote the genre and its members.

  4. All good stuff here, Michelle. The best advice I ever got is that the most powerful marketing tool is word-of-mouth advertising.

    The worst advice I ever got was Miller’s agent pitching tip yesterday — except for the squirting flower part. That could work under the right conditions.

  5. I just found your web site for the first time and I think it is marvelous — an extremely valuable, well written and well presented. I learned a lot. I just added you to my favorites and will be back.

  6. Michelle, Thanks for sharing some needed-to-be-said things, tried in the fire of experience. I have three novels out, and a fourth due in the fall, and I heartily endorse everything you’ve said. I’ll have to save this post and steal–I mean, borrow your sentiments the next time I address a group of fledgling authors.

  7. … and here’s version 2.

    There are things I like about both versions. He shows off some very easy, very nice looking techniques and teaches about copyright at the same time. I recommend them.

    If you have to choose to watch just one, watch the first version. 😉

  8. And very good advice. Sorry my comment is split in 3. I was trying to avoid Blogger’s spam module.

    I’d love to have access to your presentation after the event. Or perhaps you could distill it into a future post? Thanks for sharing your wisdom.

  9. Thanks for the PP tips, Daniel, I’m definitely in need of them.

    Sarah, in descending order of importance, here were the highest influencers for book purchases in the SinC report:

    -Recommendation from someone I know
    -The cover
    -Saw on a bestseller list
    -Reviews you’ve read in blogs/online forums
    -Reviews you read in magazines/newspapers
    -Prominent display in bookstore

    So as you can see, sadly a lot of those influencers are well outside the author’s control. The sales and marketing team at your publishing house determine everything from the cover to how much of a display the book will get in stores (and they have some influence over whether or not it will get reviewed). The number one factor is getting your publisher invested in the book- and usually all you can do to achieve that is to write something that gets them excited.

    But number one goes back to the famous “word of mouth” that Joe mentioned. Here you can accomplish something. Offer excerpts on your website. Guest blog on websites whose readers buy mysteries. Give away every free copy your publisher sends you, and ask the person to give it a positive review if they liked it, and to pass the book along to someone else who might enjoy it. And then, keep your fingers crossed.
    The sad truth is that at the end of the day, the author doesn’t have all that much control over sales. You just have to keep forging ahead and hope that the book gathers steam on its own.

  10. In all seriousness though, the only one I disagree with here is the mailing to bookstores thing. Not sure a generic “mailing” is the way to go, but if you are a first time writer and can think of a creative way to get Indys to know about you and your book, I think that’s a good use of time.

    Every character in your book has to have a stake in the action


    Join a critique group (I did both of these).

    Join Twitter, work your ass off to get thousands of followers, and watch your sales soar.


    Follow the established rules of writing (I did neither of these).

  12. Hey, Michelle, thanks for the blog post. Your experiences mirror much of what I’ve encountered while doing my first-ever major effort at promoting one of my books.

    I discovered that looking for and joining online groups where people might be interested in your book worked well, and has actually translated to some sales.

    I also discovered that if you mix book promos in judiciously with 1) writing advice, 2) avoid writing scam advice, and 3) personal events, you can get away with some online and social networking promos. The trick is to do a MIXTURE, not to flog your book incessantly.

    Thanks for a good blog post!

    -Ann C. Crispin
    Chair, Writer Beware

    A.C. Crispin
    Pirates of the Caribbean: The Price of Freedom
    Disney Editions

  13. Writing advice, Miller. We’re trying to keep it clean here…

    Daniel, I’ll try to encapsulate the PP presentation in my next post. And I want to heartily second Jordan’s Fresh Fiction and ITW tips.

  14. Thanks for the excellent advice. I’m bookmarking this page for *when* I have a book published!

    Best advice: first get it written, then get it right.

  15. Michelle – here is how I found your books.

    1. For my b-day in 2009, I got a gift certificate to attend a writer’s conference in the midwest.

    2. John Gilstrap was one of the presenters. In prep for his seminar, I read a couple of his books.

    3. Met and liked John very much. Had him autograph “No Mercy.”

    4. While net-surfing Mr. Gilstrap, found this blog.

    5. Began reading the blog and liked the atmosphere very much.

    6. At the time, “The Gatekeeper” was prominently featured in the sidebar widget. Clicked through to Amazon.

    7. While waiting for it to arrive, checked your first book out of the library.

    8. Lather, rinse, repeat.

    I agree that single-minded random social-network “hey, look at me” flogging doesn’t work. When I see it, I assume the writer is with Publish America. However, falling in with a group of like-minded folks turns their network into yours.


    Write a good blog, and if possible, join up with a great group for a group blog. Don’t just pound the book. Show me how cool you are and make me want to read more. Give me the feeling of a connection. Don’t be an ass.

    Don’t be afraid to friend request other writers who have made their way up the ladder. Some accept, some reject. Don’t misuse the gossamer connection however. If you favorably mention or review one of their books, tag them, it’s harmless and, who knows, someday they may return the favor.


    Telling me you are a talented writer in your promo stuff. That determination is mine and mine alone.

    Anything and everything Publish America tells you is a good idea.


    PS: Got any runes left, I love memorabilia!

  16. Terri- that’s a great story, thank you so much for sharing it! Glad to know the blog has been helpful all around. The only downside is that now I apparently owe Gilstrap a commission…

  17. I think it is so interesting that throwing yourself into social networking doesn’t translate into sales. I believe that. But people are so obsessed with it. When I buy books it is usually because someone told me the book was good, it came up as a recommendation on Amazon and got good reviews there or it was written by the author(s) of the blogs I read. Good tips! I’m on submissions now. Hopefully I will get a deal before I start collecting social security and I will definitely keep them in mind.

  18. I’ve wasted money on publicists, too. One of them tried something new, sending out a press release to all the hair and beauty magazines she could find since my sleuth is a hairdresser, but otherwise this expense gained me nothing.

  19. I have to say, I’ve received mostly good advice.

    Good: Don’t hesitate to give away a free book.

    Bad: Put that manuscript in a drawer and never show it again. (Really. I got that. Did nothing but encourage me to keep working! LOL!!)

  20. One thing I will say is that if you are proficient at a particular social media network, I think that is a good place for folks to find out about you and then about your work. I love Twitter and developed relationships there and now have many folks who know about my book–they were with me through the writing process. Now they are with me through the editing process. I am a cookbook writer, so it’s a bit different from fiction, but I think if you develop relationships on social media (rather than just plug the book endlessly), and you like being on it, you can develop a natural reader base.

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