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Thrilling Opportunity to Learn
from the Masters

By Dawn Ius and April Snellings

Any successful author will tell you that writing a great book—or a string of them—is only one step on the path to building a career. To keep sales ticking up, a writer needs to hone a complex set of skills, from book message development to media training to learning how to communicate with readers.

Enter ITW’s Online Career School, an eight-week training program aimed at writers who are ready to turn their attention from the craft of writing to the business of publishing. From January 7 through March 4, each Monday will see the start of a new five-day course led by industry professionals such as award-winning author Jenny Milchman, book radio programmers Maggie Linton and Kim Alexander, audience strategy expert Peter Hildick-Smith, and ITW Executive Director Liz Berry.

Through video lectures, Q-and-As with course leaders, reading recommendations, and supplementary materials, participants will take deep dives into subjects including Marketing and Buzzing Your Book (led by author M. J. Rose), Social Media and Blog Tours (led by ITW social media guru Jillian Stein), and How to Talk to Readers: On Tour, on Social Media, and via Email (led by author Randy Susan Meyers).

The courses are meant to give both new and experienced writers a leg up in an industry that’s seen the author’s role change dramatically in recent years.

“When I first started, my publisher handled everything from my website to my outreach. That’s all changed,” says Steve Berry, who’ll kick off Career School on January 7 with a course called How to Build a Career Starting From Scratch. “I think what I’ve learned from that is that authors writing today must learn about the industry and take an active role in their own outreach and promotion. There are just so many avenues by which to reach readers, and sadly, if we don’t learn and utilize all of those avenues, someone else will.”

We asked each instructor to give us an in-depth look at their course, and to share some insight about the tools writers need to succeed in an ever-evolving market.


Steve Berry on How to Build a Career Starting From Scratch

At what stage should an author begin thinking of writing as a career?  

That’s a tough question, and one that I asked myself many times. I actually didn’t think of myself as a “real writer” until a couple of years after I was published. And by that point, the idea of a solid writing career seemed like a pipe dream. I think the better mindset for any writer is to develop a discipline. Ask yourself, what’s the goal? To write for yourself? To Indie publish? To publish with a New York house? Based on that answer, determine what the demand on your time would be and plan accordingly.  

What is one of the most common mistakes you see aspiring writers make on their career path, and what is one piece of advice you’ll provide to help them side-step it? 

I give a talk each year at the ThrillerFest Debut Author Breakfast called “Second-Bookitis.” It’s where I share that what many of them try to write with their second book is something “new and different.” When in fact, they should build on what gave them success in the first place—their first book. The idea of always changing genres or styles to attract new readers is not the best mindset. Instead, keep the readers you already have happy, and grow from there.  


M. J. Rose on Marketing and Buzzing Your Book

In an ever-evolving publishing industry, how has the author’s role as “marketer” changed?

Publishers rely on authors more than ever to supplement marketing a book—which is a shame. It’s not an author’s job and too often the things publishers want us to do won’t really move the needle. We need to educate ourselves so we understand the value of our time vs their requests. Knowing when to say no these days is as important as knowing when to say yes.

While social media has made it easier to get the word out about books, there are some pitfalls to the online community. What is one thing that you see authors do that could be improved—and how will your course address that?

Social media is so overloaded it’s no longer the be-all-end-all that it was three or four years ago. And far often publishers and authors use social media instead of real marketing. One doesn’t replace the other. And we will be talking about that.

Is it possible to create buzz on a shoestring budget? Will you be offering ideas on how to do that?

Yes and no. It depends on the book. We will talk about strategies that don’t require money. Warning though: they do require time.


Maggie Linton and Kim Alexander on Media Training

At what stage of an author’s career does media training become vital?

Kim: It’s never too soon. Authors are told over and over to believe in themselves and believe in their work, and part of that is trusting that eventually someone will want to talk to them about it. It shouldn’t come as a surprise. When you sit down behind a mic for the first time, you should be thinking about putting the best shine on yourself and your work that you can, not HOLY CROW PANIC HOW DO I MAKE WORDS?

Maggie: Almost from day one when you start writing be prepared to answer three questions, approximately two-minutes or less for each: 1. Tell us about yourself. (The answer to this question is NOT “What do you want to know”?) 2. What’s your book about? 3. Why did you decide to write?

For many mid-list or debut authors, the “media” they attract is often in the form of reviews or blog posts. What is something you would advise authors not to do when faced with a negative review?

Kim: Oh gosh. First and foremost—DO NOT ENGAGE! This is not a fight you will win. Do not subtweet about mean people, do not write a pointed blog post about being misunderstood. I won’t suggest authors don’t read reviews, but try not to let them derail you and ruin your writing day.

Maggie: Totally agree with Kim—don’t engage!  However, your book is like a good meal…some will like it, others won’t, so move on and keep writing. We know many New York Times bestselling authors who have gotten bad reviews, but they just keep writing. Your life won’t end with a bad review. Success is always the best revenge. Keep writing.

What are some current factors that play into how we approach media training and how will those be addressed in your course? 

Kim: I think we’ve been moving in the direction of a micro approach for some time. That is, figure out your niche and then figure out how to talk to the people in it. Who are you writing for? Do they quilt or garden or go to the Renn Faire? We’ll talk about fine-tuning your approach based on who will be on the receiving end. That’s one end of the spectrum. The other would be starting from ground up; mic technique, what to expect when you’re being interviewed, how to prepare, what to do afterwards. We will be asking the most difficult, scariest, hardest to answer question that all authors fear: So, what’s your book about?

Maggie: Social media plays a huge role in our lives. Learn techniques to get people engaged. Website, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Snapchat cost little or nothing to start engaging your fans, especially if you don’t have a publicist. It’s hard at first but don’t be afraid to ask friends for leads and also attend conferences, like ITW to make contacts and get the word out about yourself and your book.


Jillian Stein on Social Media and Blog Tours

How can blog tours in today’s evolving publishing industry become an effective promotional tool for authors?

Even though it may seem blog tours have lost their oomph as a promotional tool, I still feel they have a use. Blogs usually have a following of their own, and by tapping into their fans, you may find readers who hadn’t heard of you yet. Another upside of a blog tour is that it usually requires little work on the author’s part. Previewing an excerpt from the book you’re promoting, giving a peek at your next release, pulling a few favorite quotes…that’s usually about all that’s required.

There are a number of social media platforms available to authors—which one (or two) do you think are the most effective for authors?

Facebook is a must. You will always get the most bank for your buck with Facebook. In choosing a platform in addition to Facebook, you have to decide what you’re comfortable with. For Instagram, are you willing to make the effort to post a photo every other day (at least)? For Twitter, are you okay with coming up with interesting content within that character limit? It really comes down to your personal preference.

Most writers are on Twitter and Facebook and have been for years. Will your course address how to get the most out of those—and other—platforms?

Yes, absolutely! It’s all about rolling with the social media punches and learning to evolve your content to keep current fans interested and gain new fans while doing it.


Jenny Milchman on Creating A Great Book Event and a Great Book Tour

You’ve turned the book tour into more of a lifestyle than a promotional event. What role have those tours played in your success as an author?

That is a very, very, very complicated question. (I realize any editor would challenge me on the three very’s, but they do get at something!) I always say that book tours may not make dollars and cents, but they sure make dollars and sense. In my case, touring as extensively as I have has helped me get known in a unique way in the industry. There are a lot of fantastic authors of psychological thrillers out there, and I aspire to be one of them. But when you say “world’s longest book tour,” or even, “the author who believes in face-to-face in a virtual world,” a certain number of industry folks will know that that’s me. And standing out is the first step in breaking out.

Do you find that role is changing as the publishing industry continues to evolve?

Not so much actually. The funny thing about doing something that could be considered old-school is that everything old eventually becomes new again—and in the meantime, you just sort of hang on and ride out the ride. So, come what changes may in the industry—mergers, new ways to consume content, genre trends—getting out there and meeting readers stays pretty constant. What has changed in terms of my touring is that when I changed publishers with my fourth novel, my new publisher took on the role of creating my tours. This year, I was on the road and in the skies for a total of ten weeks.

Can any author benefit from your experiences—even ones who can’t spend months on the road?

Yes, definitely. Even doing a single book event will add in unexpected ways to an author’s career—and potentially have a ripple effect on book sales and author support for months, even years, to come. An author can draw a radius around his or her home and go away for an evening, a weekend, or a week—and in Thriller School, I will be teaching authors how to make sure that evening, weekend, or week is a potent, powerful part of their release.


Peter Hildick-Smith on What an Author Needs to Know—The High Impact Book Message: Positioning, Title, Cover and Copy

What exactly is book messaging, and how can authors benefit from learning more about it?

First, it is essential to understand the three factors that determine initial book sales: 1) Discovery—does the target reader audience know the book exists? 2) Conversion—does the idea of the book interest them enough to act, to click, to investigate, to hopefully not only read, but want to buy that book, and 3) Availability—is it available at that moment in the right format, price, at the right retailer?

Discovery and availability do not sell books. Conversion does. A book’s message (when done right) provides the spark of interest, curiosity, or intrigue that drives the action that ultimately informs and fuels book purchase motivation. A book’s message is the hook that—like a campaign slogan in politics, a logline for a film, a meme on Instagram, an “elevator speech” for a new product or a publicist’s pitch to a producer—moves its audience enough to creates a “yes”! Without it, discovery is meaningless because browser is not converted to buyer.

What’s one thing you wished more authors realized about their role in marketing and promoting their books?

That discovery and conversion are two totally different, but equally important, elements. It’s very easy to have one without the other—but both must be equally effective for book sales to take place. As a result, authors have to take as much control of creating winning messages as they do in driving discovery and writing a great manuscript, because no one else will.

Some traditionally published authors might feel that factors such as positioning, title, cover, and copy are beyond their control. How can those writers get the most from your course?

Book message development takes a lot of thought, creative iterations, and time! The most successful programs start message development when new book development begins, and it is integral to the process and the proposal. The later in a book’s creation that message development begins—the shorter the lead times before the immovable publishing deadlines of sales launch, sales conference, and catalog closing—the greater the pressure put on the editor and publisher to wrap up a message quickly and move on, which is unfair to both the book and the publishing team.


Randy Susan Meyers on How to Talk to Readers: On Tour, on Social Media, and via Email

Why is it important for authors to learn how to communicate with readers?

No matter how much you prefer being at home in your sweatpants, sooner or later, it’s more than likely you’ll have to get up in front of an audience. I’ve been to author events where the author will stand up and say, “I hate doing this.”

Upon hearing that, the audience feels as though they are torturing this person for whom they, the reader, left their own comfortable couch and sweatpants. Self-deprecating can be charming. Appearing annoyed at having to speak with readers? Never charming.
 The impression readers form when meeting you, in person or in virtual reality, can be the deciding factor for how likely they are to give your book a chance.

Can you tell us about any common social media mistakes you’ll be addressing in your course?

There are a ton of ways authors embarrass themselves on social media—from indulging in constant me-me-me/buymybookbuymybook, to whining about their career in public, to humble-bragging as an art form. None of these engender book buying. If you’re going to be on social media in a manner where readers will see you, you should offer them something. Readers owe us nothing. A book is indeed a product (however artistic the product may be) that you want people to read. Write your social media offerings as seriously as your other work. Show your voice and your integrity. This is the personality the world sees.

What would you say to writers who feel that communicating with readers is more of a talent than a skill? (In other words, can your course help introverts as well as authors who are already comfortable talking with readers?)

I am what’s known as an introverted extrovert—I find being with people to be both fascinating and exhausting. I’d rather be at home reading or gardening than almost any other activity on earth—but I can be selectively social, and I consider putting out positive energy to be good manners in all situation. When it comes to events for readers, I believe being prepared and on top of my game is the only right way to treat those who’ve come to listen to me speak.

Attending author events is not the same as going to parties. Parties are social occasions. Author events are work—and you are the performer. Your job is to give your audience a great show. You are not doing them a favor; you are inducing them to buy your product. I believe one can educate oneself to be a great communicator with readers.


Liz Berry on Nuts and Bolts of Your Brand and Conference Networking

What are some common misconceptions you hear from authors about branding?

Branding can be an intimidating concept for authors—and one that can become overwhelming pretty quickly. The first thought is that if you don’t have tens of thousands of dollars, you can’t brand yourself and your work. Thankfully, that’s not the case. There are many branding techniques that don’t require money as much as they require strategy and planning.

The second thought is that the idea of branding doesn’t really matter. Which is not only untrue, the lack of a solid brand message can be detrimental to an author and their chance at discovery and growth.

The fact is that branding—even in its simplest form—helps differentiate an author from their peers. It also gives readers a sense of familiarity and belonging, lessening confusion, and increasing backlist and incremental front list sales.

So in other words, branding isn’t everything. It’s absolutely everything.

What current factors are changing how successful authors approach branding?

The marketplace always determines how the industry—and individual authors—approach branding. We ask ourselves questions like: Where are the readers? How can we keep our fans happy and engaged? Where can we find new avenues of discovery? 

Knowing these goals, we have to look at how quickly the world is changing. Just a couple of years ago, social media was a terrific place to find new readers and keep current fans happy. Sadly, with the changes in algorithms and fee-based reach, that’s no longer the case. So now we’re faced with finding organic growth areas along with marketing concepts and avenues that deliver the biggest bang for the buck. Quite the challenge! 

What advantages do conference-savvy authors have over writers who don’t develop strong networking skills?

I know many authors who wish they didn’t have to wear their “conference” hat, and I can definitely empathize. Writing is very much a solitary job, and lends itself to embracing your introverted side. That said, my request would be for authors to take a couple of weeks per year and become “extroverted introverts” by attending conferences.

The interaction with readers is wonderful—and definitely a vehicle for discovery. But more than that, I’ve found that networking both with your peers and the industry can be invaluable. Just at ThrillerFest alone, I’ve witnessed authors agreeing to blurb each other; co-authoring relationships solidified; anthology invitations; new publisher and agent meetings that turned into deals; speaking requests; mentors gained; plots strengthened. The lists goes on and on.

The fact is that we’re all human and forming relationships is an integral part of who we are and what we need. Honestly, some of my best friends in the world, I met at a conference. And I certainly wouldn’t have the business or experience I have today without those relationships in my life.


Get the details on how YOU can take the next step in building your writing career here.