Greetings from Sarah Sundin in California. Today I have the honor of interviewing Janet Chester Bly. She and her late husband, Stephen Bly, individually and as co-authors, have 120 published titles! I’m looking forward to hearing wisdom from a true veteran in the field of Christian writing.
When my late husband, Stephen Bly, got God’s call into ministry, graduated from seminary, and began to pastor a church, I wanted to know His will for me too. That began a search of several years for my own spiritual gifts meant to benefit the church and other believers. One day a friend handed me a brochure to Mount Hermon Christian Writers Conference. I attended that year of 1975. Got excited about the whole venture of writing. Eventually, got my husband involved too. I took a book proposal of his to the conference in 1980. Two different editors were interested. His first book was published in 1981.
We co-authored eight children’s devotional and fiction books soon after that. His, mine, and ours over the years we had 120 books published. Latest titles include Stuart Brannon’s Final Shot (historical, set in 1905 Oregon, which my three sons and I finished for Steve), Throw The Devil Off The Train (western romance)and Creede of Old Montana (western romance).
How did you get your first book contract?
I was going to Mount Hermon Conference every year and wanted to make an appointment with an editor to present a book proposal. I didn’t have one myself ready yet, but hubby headed a college class Bible study using his own material based on Mark. We prepared a package to present. Moody Press accepted it under the title Radical Discipleship. Our next co-authored books for youth happened when we overheard an editor mention that they needed some devotional books for kids and fiction with a female protagonist. That spurred the writing of Questions I’d Like To Ask, Devotions With a Difference (later re-released as Winners & Losers), and The Crystal Blake Series, mystery adventure stories with a rodeo barrel racing teen girl, set in Kamiah, Idaho.
What has helped you promote your books the most?
Over the years the best promotions we had with our books happened when my husband and I did speaking for conferences, retreats, homeschooling events, and churches. Also, when Focus on the Family featured our family books, this always resulted in a huge boost. Now, I mainly rely on online social media, our mailing list, and a monthly newsletter.
What mistakes or wrong assumptions did you make with the marketing of your first book? Did those mistakes cause you to change?
With our first book we assumed it would be in print forever and didn’t feel the urgency to push it more than what the publisher lined out for us. We expected the publisher to do most of it. We learned about marketing ourselves more in the last ten years. I keep finding new things to try. We’ve had ups and downs, lots of swings in sales over the years. Every project different in approach and results. Never have learned the secret of making any book a big seller. Just keep working to find readers.
What’s the craziest promotional gimmick you tried?
We had a special website for One Step Over the Border, in which rodeo roper team Hap Bowman and Laramie Majors go up and down the Rio Grande looking for Juanita, a gal Hap hasn’t seen in 18 years but is sure is his long-lost love. Readers were encouraged to distribute "Have You Seen My Juanita?" posters, cards, and bumper stickers and ask people to send in their Juanita Sightings. We got some interesting responses from all over the country and posted them on the website. We also had a friend write a song about Juanita which we listed and an email for Hap to send him personal notes.
I just love that! It’s so much fun. What’s the funniest thing that happened during a promotional activity?
During this promo for One Step Over the Border people would send us photos of gals named Juanita whom they were sure was the real one. We would stick those on a cork board in our office. Some of them wanted us to be sure and show them to Hap to see if he recognized her.
Now we all want to read the book to find out if Hap found Juanita! Is there something you did that really helped with marketing your books?
I still believe that the author who is also a speaker provides the best platform for marketing books. Since I don’t speak as much anymore and I lost my other half who had a very effective speaking ministry, that avenue has been partly closed. No one activity seems to bump up sales more than another. It’s a combination of social media, mailing postcards, blogging and guest blogging, and jumping in to take on the next opportunity that rises. I have found that spending money isn’t always the key. Free opps often do as well.
Did you see God open any doors you never expected in the promotion of your books?
I am grateful to be a part of CAN and the opportunities others worked hard to make available through this group. Recently MacGregor Agency started a western website in which they are featuring Stephen Bly novels and cowboy poetry, along with other western writers. They hope to do a full launch soon. This has provided a re-release of at least 17 of his out-of-print books in both eBook and paperback print-on-demand editions.
Now that you have been writing a while, what do you find works best for you in promoting your work and why?
Keep persistent at making the books known through articles and stories about writing and researching them, the process, the side anecdotes. Find ways to add value to others (make it about them, not you), to be an expert of some sort, to not try so hard to promote that it seems pushy. Very tricky business. Marketing is a lifetime pursuit with a product that has a brief shelf-life, crushing competition, and in an age where people read on the run. What works best is to face these facts and don’t write for the money. If it comes, praise God. If it doesn’t, thank God you have something to leave as a heritage for your kids. Or someone else’s.
What are your top tips for writers with their first book contract?
1) Build the best website you can and start blogging.
2) Start with who you know … family, friends, church fellowship, co-workers, classmates, Christmas card list, anybody in your circle you think is interested and report your progress on your book … get them excited and involved, if possible, with the whole process.
3) Pick out several social media formats you feel comfortable with and interact on a regular basis.
4) Remember, writer friends can help you promote, but readers will buy your book … find your readers as first priority.
5) Figure out what unique resources you have to be creative in bringing attention to your book … even as you finish writing it.
What great advice, Janet! I love your positive and flexible attitude.
Writing for Him,