New Year's greetings from central Florida! Now that you've finished off all the extra fudge and gingerbread cookies, I hope you'll take time from the treadmill long enough to read today's marketing insights from award-winning playwright, journalist, and author Maureen Pratt. Maureen has lots of wisdom to share, so let's get started.
Maureen, how did you get into writing? How many books have you published, and what are a few of your latest titles?
I was always writing–scripts, songs, stories, even a comic strip–when I was young. My first paid writing job was as a stringer for a local newspaper. I covered stories and
shot pictures, even developed my own film! I continued writing throughout college and earned my Master of
Fine Arts degree in Theater/Playwriting from UCLA's School of Theater, Film, and Television. My master's thesis was a children's musical, "The Frogmouths at the Zoo," for which I wrote book, lyrics, and music. After that, several of my plays were produced and won awards, and I continued writing magazine and newspaper articles for regional and national publications.
I have written a total of six books thus far. My first book was a novella, published by Tyndale in the anthology Letters of the Heart, called "Dear Love." A couple of years before it was written, I was diagnosed with a life-threatening case of systemic lupus erythematosus (lupus). God truly redirected my writing efforts and, after "Dear Love," put it on my heart to write nonfiction about chronic illness, pain, and walking with God while living with serious health challegnes.
My first health title was Taking Charge of Lupus: How to Manage the Disease and Make the Most of Your Life (Penguin/New American Library), which I co-authored with a rheumatologist, David Hallegua, M.D. Next came The First Year: Hyptothyroidism (Perseus/DaCapo), both the first and second editions. My first completely faith-centered title came next: Peace in the Storm: Meditations on Chronic Pain and Illness (Random House/Image/Waterbrook) and then Beyond Pain: Job, Jesus, and Joy (Twenty-Third Publications).
I'm currently working on two nonfiction titles and a novel.
You're one busy author! How did you get your first book contract?
One of my book manuscripts won a couple of awards, and an agent, Jane Jordan Browne, took interest in
me. At the time, Tyndale was publishing inspirational romance novellas in anthologies, and one of my proposals was accepted. At about the same time, I shared with Jane that I had lupus and was having a hard time finding good books written for patients about the "how to live with it" aspects of the disease. She had been hoping to find a lupus book to champion into publication (God, again, putting the right people together at the right time!). She helped me navigate the proposal process for nonfiction, and took Taking Charge of Lupus to several publishers. We went with Penguin/New American Library, and the book was published.
What has helped you promote your books the most?
My relationships with patient advocacy organizations have been wonderful for book promotion. I have developed a track record as a speaker so can design workshops and seminars around my books and take them to medical professionals and patient groups.
Writing for publications such as The Upper Room Magazine, Journey for Women Magazine, and health-based magazines such as Arthritis Today and Lupus Now has been wonderful for raising the visibility of my books. Also, for the past six years or so, I've been writing a syndicated column called "Living Well," which focuses on faith, prayer, and health issues. My syndicator, Catholic News Service, feeds into English-language publications throughout the world, and my column gets picked up regularly in many places in the U.S. and abroad, as well as on Internet sites. This gives me great visibility, as do my regular interviews on Relevant Radio and my new blog on Beliefnet.com called "Good Days . . . Bad Days with Maureen Pratt." I also co-produced and hosted a one-hour television program based on Peace in the Storm for Loma Linda Broadcasting Network. The show aired once a week for more than a year and was a tremendous experience (although physically draining!) that I would very much like to do again.
You've written some very different types of books. Do you have a core audience/following who seem to stay with you throughout?
Thanks for asking this–it's a question I wondered about, too, when Peace in the Storm: Meditations on Chronic Pain & Illness followed two decidedly "disease-related" books: The First Year: Hypothyroidism and Taking Charge of Lupus. However, in both of those books, I did talk about the importance of spirituality, prayer, and nurturing the spirit, so my perspective was no secret. At about the time Peace in the Storm was published, there was a growing understanding in the medical community that religion and spirituality needed to be addressed in both medical education and patient care because it was (and is) such a huge part of a patient's and caregiver's world view.
Now, medical school programs include spiritual/religion components, and hospitals and other medical care centers employ chaplains. With this development through the past few years, my core audience has grown beyond people with lupus and hypothyroidism to include Christians who live with chronic pain and illness of all different kinds, chaplains, medical professionals who want to understand a Christian perspective on living with these health challenges, and patient advocacy and other groups that want to include books on spirituality and prayer written by people who also have a concrete track-record in medical/disease-related writing.
Thanks for your explanation, Maureen. What mistakes or wrong assumptions did you make with the marketing of your first book? Did those mistakes cause you to change? If so, how?
My mistake with my first nonfiction title was to assume (as many new authors do) that the publisher would champion the book. I quickly learned that the best champion of the book (besides God) is the author him- or herself. I also assumed that the expectation for sales of health titles would be more gradual; however, I learned that these books are under the same pressure as others to sell a lot and sell quickly within the first weeks of publication. But, not everyone in a particular patient population is diagnosed or at the same point with their disease at the time a book comes out, so thse actually end up selling more gradually and steadily over a longer period of time. Taking Charge of Lupus suffered from this; it was taken out of print very quickly; however, there is still a demand for it, even seven or eight years afterward! (Dr. Hallegua and I are hoping to bring it back sometime soon!)
Another wrong asusmption was not to emphasize word of mouth. Especially in the very personal titles (Peace in the Storm and Beyond Pain), steady word of mouth has helped much more than expecting churches and medical institutions to purchase stock (although many chaplains and other health professionals do use the books). I have become more active with finding ways to increase word of mouth with e-giveaways and an increased Internet presence. And, I have been more ready to give direction up to God; invariably, the venues that I thought would be most obvious for my books have been difficult, whereas some of the last obvious have proven to be most fertile.
What's the craziest promotional gimmick you've tried?
Don't know if this is crazy, but I've been known to randomly send books to and drop book flyers and postcards in pews in local Christian churchs of all denominations. I don't wear a mask or a cape but do this off-hours so no one can see me! You never know. . .
What's the funniest thing that happened during a promotional activity?
For some reason people are surprised when they meet me; they seem to have a hard time connecting the physical me with my books. I was interviewing a chaplain at a major Los Angeles hospital this year (for my column), and at the end of it, I happened to mention that I write books about faith and chronic illness and pain. He said something about a friend giving him a book like that, and that he used it. I asked him what it was, and he said, Peace in the Storm. I told him I'd written it, and his eyes opened wide, and he said, "You wrote it?" Oh, dear. We had a good laugh, but before then and since, I wonder what it is that creates the disconnect between how I look and sound and what I write!
Is there something you did that really helped with marketing your books?
Developing a speaking platform has been invaluable, whether on radio, television, or at seminars and conferences. The ability to communicate and connect in person with readers and potential readers is vital. The key here is "Be not afraid!"
I also learned that my books resonate with a broader population than I (or my publishers) originally thought they would, and I am always loooking for ways to leverage this. For example, Taking Charge of Lupus turned out to be of interest to caregivers of lupus patients as much as to the patients themselves. Peace in the Storm has also found readers among patients, caregivers, and among medical professionals who want to better understood the spiritual components of what their patients are going through. Also, as I communicate from an evangelical, Scripture-based heart, I have been encouraged and humbled by the doors God has opened for me in many different Christian denominational churches, including my own, and among others who are not Christian. This has been an eye-opener for some who originally thought that the book would only "work" with one, specific denomination. However, I never doubt what faith in God can do!
DId you see God open any doors you never expected in the promotion of your books?
As someone who still sufffers from serious illness that can be abolutely debilitating, I'm amazed at how God has given me hope and strength at times when I've been least able to see beyond pain and illness. I'm still learning when to say "no." But He has given me such grace when I say "yes"!
I'm also from the "you never know" school of marketing. Several years ago, I was asked to be on a panel of people speaking about lupus on a television program. A one-time opportunity, or so I thought! I did that show, then another, and another, and was finally asked to host my own one-hour program, which I did. I've discovered that marketing efforts are seldom "one of" activities.
Now that you've been writing a while, what do you find works best for you in promoting your work and why?
Trust in God and do the work! When we write from an inspired core, sometimes we think that God will move the mountains and we'll just sit back in awe and watch. But, He wants us to do the heavy lifting, the daily outreach, and the nurturing of our books. He will open doors, but we have to be ready withour toolkit full of cards and flyers and presentations outlines and handouts and talks!
In my short time with CAN, I've also discovered a fantastic resource and energy dedicated to providing insight and cheering on for all aspects of marketing. I have limited energy, but the time I spend with and on CAN-related activities has been more than worth the effort.
What are your top tips for writers with their first book contract?
- Start thinking and praying about marekting when you are writing your book proposal. It's never too early (but be sure to revisit your plans frequently, as market conditions and opportunities can change).
- Set aside a chunk of dollars from your advance specifically for marketing. You'll need it for cards, website design, letters, pictures, and many other things!
- Plan marekting events for the weeks surrounding the book launch, but keep your sights set on the months and years afterward, too. If your book has "legs," you'll want to be able to build on your reader base and early sales.
- Focus on how your book will help/move/inform/entertain others–think "commercial."
- Tell everyone you know and don't know about your book–but be judicious about giving away copies. When my first book was published, a former professor of mine told me, "Friends don't take books. Friends buy books." Now, six books later, I understand the wisdom in that; targeted giveaways and review copies can be very valuable. But try to limit the copies you give to people who only want a freebie.
- In the business world, there's a thing called "best practices." That is, gathering the top tips from others to use in your own endeavor(s). Start a list of your own of what other authors consider their "best practices" and pick from this list for your own marketing activities. No need to reinvent the wheel! And then, pass along your knowledge to those coming after you.
I love the idea of "best practices" and believe that's in part what we hope to accomplish with our Tips from the Pros. Thanks much for sharing your experience and insights with our readers.