Thursday, May 3, 2007

An Interview with Brent Hartinger

I am very excited to be able to introduce this month’s Shrinking Violet interview with Brent Hartinger! Brent is a YA author whose books have won many honors, and USA Today calls him “the next Judy Blume.” Brent is a co-founder of Authors Supporting Intellectual Freedom (or AS IF!), an anti-censorship group, and he’s also on the faculty at Vermont College in the MFA program in Writing for Children and Young Adults.

A confirmed introvert, Brent is nevertheless one of the most savvy marketers I’ve ever met. Not only that, he is extremely generous and patient with his advice, so please help me welcome Brent Hartinger!!!!!

1. Would you consider yourself an introvert?
Oh, God, yes! This cannot be emphasized enough: I hate cocktail parties, "ice-breaker" exercises at events, and I bawled for the whole first month of nursery school.

That said, I've always recognized this as a handicap, so I've fought it my whole life. And I've made a lot of progress in being comfortable around people I don't know.

2. Has being an introvert helped or hindered you in your writing career?
What an interesting question! Frankly, I think you *have* to be an introvert to be a successful writer, because it requires you spend so much of your life alone. I can't imagine that an extrovert could work the way I do, alone every day.

That said, yes, I think that getting out into the world is an almost essential part of being a successful author, so being an introvert is a liability.

It's a real Catch-22, isn't it?

3. How long have you been writing and publishing?
I've been writing for 20 years. I've been publishing, uh, a much shorter time. About six years. But before that, I was a working playwright and screenwriter, so I was still a professional writer...of sorts (meaning: I didn't make much money!).

4. Being an introvert, how were you able to become so very comfortable at marketing and promotion? Did your publisher or agent have to nudge you in this direction?
On the contrary. My first editor discouraged me. He felt it was the publisher's job to promote their authors. It's a nice idea, very Old School, but obviously I disagreed with him. And, frankly, I'm glad I did. I might not have a career otherwise.

5. What do you do to promote yourself and your books?
Ahhhhh, it's easier to say what I haven't done. Honestly, I think I've done everything there is to do: 20+ city author tours, postcards, print and online ads, parties, temporary tattoos, sponsorships, silence auction donations, online and phone chats with classrooms, newspaper editorials, conferences, and my Spectacular Light-Show Extravaganza (seriously...but don't ask).

But here's something I've learned: if a lot of other people are doing it, it probably won't be that effective. The key is to do something *different*, make you and your book stand out somehow. I had a friend who published a western book, and I encouraged him to serve whiskey and hardtack at his readings. Big hit. I got a ton of things that I do like this, but if I told you what they are, I'd have to kill you.

If you do something far-out or silly or wacky, there's a slight chance you'll end up looking ridiculous. But you know what I've learned? Audiences are sooooo grateful when an author does something genuinely different that they almost always respond positively. And humor is *always* appreciated, because--let's face it--way too many authors take themselves way too seriously.

Oh, and none of this has to cost any money. I've done major major campaigns for less than a thousand dollars, some of which is reimbursed by my publisher. Even with ads, you'd be surprised what you can negotiate, especially online (although that's changing as they internet becomes more Big Time, alas).

6. Is there a window of opportunity for book promotion? A length of time after which one’s efforts make little difference?
This is an excellent question. If you find out the answer, let me know.

Joking aside, everyone used to say it was the first three months. Now with the chains taking over and whatnot, they say you have three weeks (and that's assuming the chains buy your book, which they may not!).

But kids' lit is still a little different. I'd say the most important time is three months before publication to three to six months after. How your book does in hardcover, if it's a hardcover release, will determine so much about the success of the book.

But it's definitely true that if you book is not widely available, the best publicity won't make much difference. If people want a book, a few people will move heaven and earth to get it. But most people won't. If a book has been out for a year or more and never really took off, I often counsel people to concentrate on their *next* project.

7. What promotional situations are you the most comfortable in? The least?
Truthfully? I'm getting pretty comfortable in front of crowds. Internet situations are obviously the "easiest," but because they're so easy, I'm not sure they have much affect. With "live" events, on the other hand, it's really possible to get people to sit up and take notice. There's at least the possibility of standing out, which is much harder to do online (although I *try*: check out my website: ).

I'll tell you what I like the least: sitting at a table in a bookstore, trying to entice people to buy my book. I think this makes everyone uncomfortable: me, definitely, but also the people passing by, who are desperate to avoid making eye contact.

Basically, I'm an opt-in kinda guy: I think that people who hear my pitch should *choose* to hear my pitch. I hate anything spam-related or spam-like, any idea where *your* desire to sell your thing inconveniences *me* in any way. Would that the whole world thought the same way!

8. What elements do you consider the bare minimum for promoting a new book?
Well, it's more what you can possibly bring yourself to do, and everyone's answer to that is different. But the very minimum? A website. But be aware that if that's all you choose to do, you are karmically forbidden from bitching when you book doesn't sell very well.

9. What kind of promotional mistakes did you make along the way?
Well, now, the insidious thing about publicity is that you can never be sure what's working and what isn't. Well, okay, if you give an event and no one shows up, you can be pretty sure that didn't work, assuming you also got no press. But if three people show up, who's to say those three people won't make a dramatic difference to your career? I did an event once where, like, 10 people showed up, probably 5 of whom I knew. I'd driven for *hours* to get there, and had to spend the night in a different town.

But you know what? Before I left, I signed a bunch of copies, and the store featured them. A teacher came in, and the bookstore recommended the book. He loved it and started teaching it. He got his district to teach it, and other districts to consider it as well.

So that bookstore visit where I only sold 6 or 7 copies? It really sold more like 300 copies (that I know of!).

I got a hundred stories like this, I gotta say.

10. How does your time break down between writing and promotion?
When I'm writing, I'm writing full-time (except for answering fan email or the occasional online chat or interview). When I'm promoting, I'm promoting full-time. If you include school visits and keynote address, I'd say I split my time 50-50.

11. How much impact do you think an author's efforts can actually have on sales?
For 99% of us, these are the things affect a book's success, and how much control you have over them:

(1) In-house enthusiasm. Your editor plays a role here, but it's mostly organic. You have no control here.

(2) Publisher promotional efforts. Unless you're a big name and a lead title, it's all about the same. Some people will get a few ads or a small tour, but I can't believe this makes or breaks a book. You have no control here either.

(3) Reviews and awards/the reception of librarians, industry bigmouths, etc. Yup, you have no control (although meeting these people at conferences, and not being a jerk, helps).

(4) Bookstore awareness/enthusiasm. You have a little tiny bit of control here, at least with the independents or local stores, in getting them aware of your book. With the chains, you have no control whatever. Even the manager at the local chain has almost no control! (This is one of the many reasons we should all hate the chains.)

(5) Reader awareness/enthusiasm. This is where the author *can* make a difference, a *big* one. But this is undercut if bookstores don't stock you. So for your control to kick in, other things that you have no control over must be in synch. So you have control...and you don't.

(6) Zeitgeist issues/karmic balance/pure random f**king chance. You have less than no control. And if you try to control destiny, you'll end up with some screwy, ironic reverse ending, like a Steinbeck novel, or an episode of *Star Trek*.

Every book has its audience; a book release is simply finding out exactly how big that audience is.

It sounds scary and ominous, I know, but it's really not (that much). But being a published writer means accepting that, yup, a lot of it is completely out of your control. People who write those self-help books saying the opposite, that you just have to "believe" and it will come true? Basically, they're idiots.

to be continued...

(Technical note: Brent has given us so much great information, so this interview is tres long. Because of that, I've decided to post it in two parts so it doesn't knock everything else off the front page. Unless any of you techno-superior introverts out there know how to cut an entry so only a part of it shows on the home page. If so, please email me ( I've spent hours this week trying to figure that out, with no success!)

1 comment:

Mary Hershey said...

Thanks for this very marvelous and generous interview, Robin and Brent. I loved the part where Brent said he cried the first week of nursery school! Empathy pains. I remember refusing to sit with the kids in my kindergarten class for days and days. I kept saying "My mother won't let me." :-> And what creative brilliance serving whiskey and hard tack at the signing of the western novel!

Can't wait for Part II!
Mary Hershhey