Almost six years ago, I had the privilege of meeting the wonderful Twila Belk and her partner in crime, Cecil Murphey, at the International Christian Retail Show (ICRS) in Orlando. Since then, I've come to count both Twila and Cec as good friends. That's why I'm delighted to introduce Cec's much-maligned sidekick to you today. Not only does Twila serve as Cec's manager, protector, and as Cec would say, "mother," but she is a talented speaker, writer, and the “GottaTellSomebody Gal.” She was also brave enough to invite me to teach at my first writer's conference in 2009. So without further ado, heeeeere's Twila!
Welcome to the CAN blog, Twila. How did you get into writing?
Over the years I’ve done many things that involve writing: Fun newsletters for the youth group, a couple of church cookbooks, skits, Christmas programs, Sunday school material. For a short time I was a spec writer at the Rock Island Arsenal. And when I owned a Christian bookstore, I wrote and voiced silly radio ads. But I didn’t consider myself a writer until God got my attention as I sat in my recliner recovering from foot surgery in early 1998.
I had big plans to clean out my purse during that time, and I thought I might just be able to accomplish that over a six week period. Instead, God made it clear to me I was supposed to write. And that’s when my “Moses moments” kicked in.
“But Lord, how can I write? I have a hard enough time just trying to talk.”
God reminded me to trust Him (And yes, He even led me to the passage in Exodus that included the conversation He had with Moses.) and eventually I was able to say, “Whatever, Lord. I’ll hold the pen and You do the rest.”
I went to my first writers conference—Write to Publish—in June of 1998, had a divine appointment with a quirky little fellow with curly hair named Cec Murphey, and things progressed from that point. Because of my connection with Cec, I directed the Quad Cities Christian Writers Conference for eight years, and in 2007 I began working with him full time. My life hasn’t been the same since. We’ve co-authored four books together.
That’s quite a resume. So how many books do you have published? What are a few of your latest titles?
I’ve written or co-written five books and have contributed to several others. My latest titles (co-authored with Cec) include I Believe in Healing: Real Stories from the Bible, History and Today and I Believe in Heaven: Real Stories from the Bible, History and Today (both 2013 releases through Regal Books).
Impressive! How did you get your first book contract?
My first contract with a traditional publisher came about because of a dream I had of having my name on the front cover of a book with Cec Murphey. Cec learned of that dream, and during a time my husband was experiencing health issues, he proposed we co-author a gift book about caregiving. It’s not the type of book I had imagined writing, but it was a great opportunity and I learned a lot from the experience. We put together a proposal, sent it to Harvest House where Cec already had a track record with gift books, and the pub committee decided to go for it. Harvest House did a beautiful job with Because You Care: Spiritual Encouragement for Caregivers.
I own that book, and I agree, it’s beautiful inside and out. What has helped you promote your books the most?
I cannot tell a lie—being connected to Cec Murphey has been the greatest help. But I’ve learned that networking, building relationships, and connecting in person with the target audience are all beneficial things to do.
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 wrong assumption was that things would go as planned. My first book was self-published. I made great efforts to have a professional-looking book by hiring an artist to create the cover, and I was involved in every part of the design. The finished product was really nice. My husband had big plans to help market the book, and with our Christian bookstore background we had lots of connections and ideas for promoting it. BUT shortly after the book released, my husband had unexpected health problems and several difficult years followed for my family. The marketing of my book didn’t happen the way I expected. I learned that life sometimes derails our plans, no matter how wonderful those plans are. Later on I was able to promote the book when I wrote and voiced one-minute radio spots for our local AFR station, but it didn’t have the same impact as if I had done it at the time of release. I hope to repurpose the radio spots and the book material in the days to come.
What’s the craziest promotional gimmick you’ve tried?
I’ve done lots of crazy promotional things over the years because my mind works in crazy ways. When I owned a Christian bookstore, I planned big events and I wrote and voiced silly radio ads with my husband. The whole idea with our promotional activities was to be fun and memorable.
When promoting myself I like to take the same approach, but when promoting the books I’ve done with Cec Murphey, or any of Cec’s many books, I take a different route. I think about the target audience and how to connect with them.
When I heard about the American Association of Christian Counselor (AACC) World Conference a few years ago, and learned there would be 7,000(+) counselors, pastors, and lay ministry leaders in attendance, I immediately thought that audience would be a great fit for much of what Cec has to offer. That led to getting information about having an exhibitor booth there, and that led to lots of work and long days. BUT it also led to making great connections, which grew into new opportunities. We went to our second AACC World Conference last September, and opportunities continue to arise from that. We’ve already reserved booths for the 2014 national conference and 2015 world conference.
Knowing you as I do, I look forward to your answer to this question. What’s the funniest thing that happened during a promotional activity?
I was teaching at a conference and going over a handout titled Twila’s Tips, Tidbits, and Profound Thoughts. As I read the title, I mispronounced Tips. It was an awkward moment that quickly turned hilarious. Word of it spread throughout the conference, and I received many “special” comments. Being memorable is a great thing to do when promoting ourselves, but I prefer to be remembered in other ways. J
Ha! I attended that conference and do remember the, umm, buzz you created. Moving along, is there something special you did that really helped with marketing your books?
Yes. The last four books I wrote have Cecil Murphey’s name on them with the words “New York Times’ bestselling author.”
That would be hard to top. This question seems almost redundant, but did you see God open any doors you never expected in the promotion of your books?
I’ve experienced lots of God stuff, but the most significant thing to me professionally was the connection with Cecil Murphey in 1998 and then his asking me to work for him in 2007. That divine appointment was a huge blessing and completely unexpected. I’ve learned that we can work and work and work in our own strength to try to pry open doors and create opportunities for ourselves, but ultimately God is the One who makes things happen in His way and in His timing. Doing what we know to do and allowing God to work rather than striving seems like the best plan to me. My motto: Trust and obey, then get out of the way.
Now that you’ve been writing a while, what do you find works best for you in promoting your work and why?
(1) Trusting God. I’m told in Proverbs 3:5,6 that if I trust Him with all my heart and acknowledge Him in all my ways, He will direct my paths. (2) Developing relationships with others in the industry and with our target audiences. Relationships matter. (3) Speaking. It’s another way to get our message out, and it’s a great way to sell books. (4) Creating warm fuzzies with readers and industry professionals. Just because.
What are your top tips for writers with their first book contract?
- You might have the most entertaining or life-changing or powerful message in the world, but few will read it unless they’ve heard about you or the book beforehand.
- Relationships and connections are valuable. Be nice to people.
- Believe in your message. If you don’t believe it, nobody else will.
- Be professional in all you do. People pay attention. Don’t turn them off with shoddy work.
- Feeling overwhelmed? Do one thing and do it well. Then add the next thing. It’s better to do one thing than to be paralyzed and do nothing.
- If you do nothing, expect nothing.
Twila, thanks for all this wonderful advice. Not all of us can (or should) work with Cec Murphey, but we can all learn from your wisdom and experience. Thanks for blessing our readers today.