Greetings from Sarah Sundin! Today I have the honor of interviewing Eleanor Gustafson, who has been published in fiction and non-fiction since 1978! Ellie recently had the book of her heart published, The Stones: A Novel of the Life of King David, which has an accompanying study guide, the perfect blend of her fiction and non-fiction background.
As a child, I loved stories and read myself into needing glasses, then began making up stories in my head. When I finally started writing them down, my mother and others advised me to stick to music. Didn’t. Persevered and finally got a number of essays and short stories published – which gave me hope for writing a novel. Did that. My first, Appalachian Spring, was my most successful in terms of sales, but subsequent novels taught me a lot, mostly what not to do. By the time I got to the novel I always wanted to write (The Stones: A Novel of the Life of King David) I had it mostly figured out. David is one of my favorite characters in the Bible, and even though sales haven’t been terrific, the response has been excellent. Check out the Amazon and LinkedIn reviews. (Please note: Sales are not the only or perhaps the best criterion in defining success.)
I attended a writers’ conference at Gordon College, manuscript in hand. One person read the first page and muttered that I wrote in Mandarin English. He didn’t elaborate on that. Another well-known author, right after lunch, nearly fell asleep on me. I hadn’t bothered talking with the Zondervan editor, thinking it hopeless, but after she left, someone encouraged me to send her the first chapters. Did. She wanted the entire manuscript, and Zondervan took it on. They also accepted my second novel, Wild Harvest, but because I insisted on a "difficult" ending, the book didn’t sell well. Learning Experience #1. We won’t talk about Learning Experiences #2, 3, 4, 5 – all in my third novel, Middle Night (self-published).
What has helped you promote your books the most?
Zondervan did most of the publicity with my first novel, though I arranged one discussion in my church, plus a couple of other presentations, and was interviewed by the local newspaper. Things are different now, and authors have to scratch – hard. With The Stones, I decided to respond to whatever invitations or opportunities came along. Whitaker House set up three television interviews and one radio, and I have had at least eight discussion groups in my church, plus countless other presentations, some in person, some blog interviews such as this one. I got pretty good at selling books in assorted Christian venues (though secular is tough).
What’s the craziest promotional gimmick you tried?
At book signings, I learned early on that people studiously avoid coming to your table, unless, of course, you are a well-known author. So I went to them – on my feet, in their face, with an offer few could resist – chocolate. If a person could answer a question on the life of King David, they would receive one of David’s chocolate stones. I then would talk with those who showed any interest and ended up selling a good number of books. Men respond well to that approach and to David the warrior. In fact, I consider my invitation to speak at a men’s breakfast in our church as one of my highest honors.
What’s the funniest thing that happened during a promotional activity?
Not exactly during, but on my way to a TV appearance. Airport security does not like penknives in jeans pockets. Forgot to shift mine to luggage. What to do? I found a large potted plant near the door, looked around surreptitiously, and planted the knife next to the stem. Went through the line smiling. Returned next day, retrieved knife – damp and dirty – and left the airport smiling. Cathy of Whitaker House said, "Thank God we didn’t get a call from the county jail having to post bail for you!"
That’s hysterical. But I do have to say, "Don’t try this at home." Ellie, is there something you did that really helped with marketing your books?
I guess it boils down to determination and hard work. I am a good writer but not a gifted speaker. In fact, I cannot speak extemporaneously on any subject. I can answer questions, but even that is a challenge. I have to write out my entire talk (with every venue being different) and practically memorize it – which I’m not good at either – in order to keep eye contact and drama. I read well and so use appropriate excerpts to bolster my points. All this takes enormous time and energy, but the reward is good attention and appreciation. The effort reduces me to crumbs, but I say this to encourage beginning authors in the difficult art of book promotion. It can be done, though you may need to search hard for creative ways.
Did you see God open any doors you never expected in the promotion of your books?
I’ll answer this obliquely. I write with the understanding that God is my audience of One. He is totally powerful, totally holy, and totally love, and He wants to be the focus of my entire life. I try to think deeply about this sovereign God and write about what He has revealed to me as my way of turning readers’ eyes toward Him. All this must be set in a first-rate story where good and evil are dramatized, not preached. Book promotion is secondary. Just getting my David book published was a God-thing. I spent years sending out queries and proposals, but a chance meeting with a pastor whose son worked at Whitaker House opened the door. As far as promotion goes, I respond to invitations and look for opportunities, but God is in charge, not I, and He will open doors. I am comfortable with that.
What are your top tips for writers with their first book contract?
1. Make your relationship with God the core of your being, your writing, and your promo activities.
2. Write authentically. Let the story, not preachy passages, carry the message. Read excellent authors, and make notes of effective writing – not to copy, but to help you think more broadly. Learn grammar and puncuation, as well as the art of writing tight. Edit, edit, edit, and let excellence be your best promotional tool.
3. Listen to your editor. If possible, visit your publishing house. Make friends, especially with the publicity person. Drop them an occasional email to express appreciation, but don’t be a nuisance.
4. Determine what in your book is worth promoting. What can readers identify with? How can you present graciously, attractively, and with the power of the Holy Spirit?
5. Learn from experience – both good and bad – and get to work on your next project.
Great advice, Ellie!
To learn more about Eleanor and her books, please visit Eleanor’s website.
Writing for Him,