Recently, Kate Flora asked Barb Ross about what she learned being a part of the Grub Street Launch Lab pilot. We thought you might like to listen in on their conversation.
Barb: Boston-based Grub Street is the second largest independent center for creative writing in the United States. Their mission is to be an innovative, rigorous, and welcoming community for writers who together create their best work, find an audience, and elevate the literary arts for all.
For those not in the Boston area, Grub offers online classes. My husband is taking one right now and he’s finding it incredibly helpful. And the Launch Lab, which we’re talking about here, is scheduled in a way that allows participants from out of state to come to Boston for just two days a month in October, November and December.
Kate: For those who’ve never launched a book, does a book launch consist of?
Barb: It’s everything you do to tell the world–“Hey! I have a new book and I think you’ll like it.” Reviews and other press and media, online presence, social media, author appearances, and so on.
Kate: Can you tell us what a Launch Lab is?
Barb: The Launch Lab at Grub Street is a course for people who have a new book launching in a given calendar year. It was an intensive experience which brought in specialists in all the skills needed to launch your book, plus sessions where you were supported and got feedback as you strategized and planned for your own launch, plus coaching in doing readings, media training, and so on.
Kate: Why did you think you needed a Launch Lab?
Barb: Even though I had a previous novel published, The Death of an Ambitious Woman, and had been co-editor/co-publisher at Level Best Books for three years at that point, I still had this nagging feeling I was “doing it wrong”–that there were secrets of book promotion I just didn’t understand.
Kate: What aspects of the Launch Lab did you find most helpful?
Barb: I could go on about this for days, but for me, I learned to calm down, take a step back and really think about my dreams for my career as a writer and for this particular book and series.
Once I did that, I learned from the Launch Lab that all the familiar training from my business life applied–like creating SMART goals–goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant and Time-Bound.
So, it’s not a goal to make your book a bestseller, because that goal doesn’t meet any of the above criteria. Instead, for example, I had a goal to make sure every one of my ARCs (a box Advanced Reader Copies of your book that your publisher sends several months before publication) went to good use. I’d had some ARCs leftover with Death of an Ambitious Woman, and in retrospect, that seemed like a silly loss of opportunity. With that goal in mind, I backed up in time, researched where they should go and got them out there in a huge variety of ways.
Kate: Although most readers are unaware of this, these days, much of the work that used to be done by publishers is done by the writers themselves. What kinds of preparation for your book launch did you do?
Barb: One of the things I learned at Launch Lab was to try things outside my comfort zone, but ultimately, marketing a book is a sustained effort and so in the end, you should focus on the things you like to do and walk away from the things you hate, because you won’t be able to keep them up over time. I set up a Goodreads author page and did two giveaways of my ARCs. I cleaned up my Amazon author page. I completely redid my website. I built an e-mail list and did a mailed announcement and plan to do more. I attended Malice Domestic and Bouchercon.
Kate: With so many arenas to choose from, how did you decide what would work best for your book?
Barb: For me, that was all about figuring out who the bulk of potential readers for my book were and where they hang out. I ultimately decided to focus on Facebook, reader-facing blogs, e-mail and Pinterest, because I’m not looking for twenty-year-olds who read fantasy. I personally overlap a lot with the demographic that reads the type of books I’m writing, so it’s logical to me that they would be hanging out in the places where I’m comfortable hanging out.
Cozy mysteries don’t get much in the way of editorial reviews (though I did get a few great ones), but there is a strong community of people who review in blogs and online publications and who have a dedicated readership. Finding those people was an important, and I believe, impactful part of the journey.
Kate: I’ve noticed that you are part of two different blog groups? Why two? Do you think that blogging makes any difference? Are the conversations on the two blogs very different?
I’m laughing because every expert they brought into the Launch Lab was negative on blogs, especially blogs by groups of writers. Most people never mentioned them at all, and pooh-poohed them when asked.
But as one of my classmates, Sarah Gerkensmeyer, said, the easiest, best, least used-car-saleperson way for her to promote her book of literary short stories was to “focus on ways to feel like I was having a genuine conversation about writing and the things I care about.”
The blogs I participate have helped me become a part of the community and conversation. Plus, I like to write blog posts (see criteria of doing things you enjoy, above).
Maine Crime Writers is, of course, Maine. It’s writers at all different crime genres and all different levels from 50 books published to uhm, me. Wicked Cozy Authors focuses on New England-based cozy mysteries. We’re authors who share an agent and an experience in having debut cozy series. We see the blog as but one expression of our “brand” (if you will–though that sounds yucky compared to what it is–which is a group of authors muddling through). The nexus of the two blogs is, of course, Maine and cozy mysteries–the perfect spot for my series.
Perhaps this is a good place to say that one of the most excellent things about the Launch Lab was my classmates. From the first day when everyone talked about their projects, I was amazed and proud to be part of such a brilliant group. I also didn’t know how it would work since our books were so different–from non-fiction parenting books, to YA, to literary fiction to me in genre fiction–big books from big publishers to books that were essentially self-published. But it did work. The answers were different for everyone, but the process of finding them was essentially the same.
Kate: You also belong to an organization called Sisters in Crime. Did you find SinC helpful in preparing to launch your new series? In what ways?
Barb: None of this would have happened without Sisters in Crime, most particularly the New England Chapter. It’s where I met you and got published by Level Best and ultimately joined this blog. It’s where Sheila Connolly put the word out that my agent, John Talbot, was looking for series proposals. It’s where I learned about the New Engand Crime Bake and Seascape and Malice Domestic, where I met my Wicked Cozy blogmates and on and on and on.
Kate: What advice about preparing to launch a book would you give to an author with his or her first publishing contract?
1) Take the Grub Street Launch Lab if time, money and geography allow.
2) You controlled the whole world of your book, but you don’t control the world of book distribution. Focus on the things you can control and let the rest go. Ultimately writing the best book, and writing the next book, are the most important things you can do to further your career.
3) Relax, and remember to have fun. You’ve accomplished something only a tiny percentage of the population achieves. Don’t forget to turn your face to the sun and bask.