Tuesday, August 23, 2005

David Morrell on Book Marketing and Publicity

I've been a fan of David Morrell since I was a kid. His new novel, CREEPERS, is his best. That's saying a lot, considering his body of work.

Though David has been in this business for over thirty years, he's continuing to adapt and evolve when it comes to publicity. He graciously answers a few of my newbie questions, offering his thoughts on the future of publishing and marketing.

It's an eye-opener. Get ready to take notes.

JA: I love CREEPERS. I've rarely read anything that moves faster, but you don't sacrifice characterization, backstory, or setting, even though the prose is much sparer than in previous novels. Did you deliberately set out to write this in a different style?

DAVID: I've written books with an alternating A-B A-B structure or a spiral structure or a plot on top of another as in a photographic double exposure. It all depends on the subject matter.

In CREEPERS, I was delighted by the idea of accounting for every instant of the eight hours in which the story takes place as the five investigate the long-abandoned Paragon Hotel. The plot unfolds in what's called real time, so much so that the Brilliance unabridged audio lasts eight hours, the length of time the action would take if it happened in reality. There aren't any summaries of movement , and there aren't any leaps forward as in "Five minutes later, he reached the second floor." Every moment is on the page.

This approach (I can't recall another novel that uses it) required a kind of documentary style. Each sentence is deliberately straight-forward, and they all proceed in a linear one-step-after-another fashion. They're like the clang, clang, clang of flapping sheet metal that is heard throughout the novel, building momentum.

JA: You've been in this business since the Gospels were written... how do you feel about your new campaign and the new approach to publicity? How much has it changed since you started in this business (if you can remember back that far)?

DAVID: Two big changes happened in the 1990s. First, the warehouse system (in which paperbacks were distributed) collapsed. Second, mega-corporations began buying publishing companies with the result that perhaps as many as 25 publishers were reduced to what eventually became called "the six sisters." Six huge umbrella corporations within which the former independent publishers now exist as imprints. Then the six became five. Obviously this limits the opportunities an author has to sell a book.

In the present decade, a further major change occurred. These huge publishing companies began to structure themselves as if they were selling cornflakes. Formerly, the editorial board had the power. When a book was accepted for publication, an editor would ask the marketing and publicity department how to promote it. But now, in stark contrast, manuscripts go to the marketing department first. If an author doesn't have a strong sales history or if a beginning author doesn't have a dynamite subject or what's called a platform (are you young, good-looking, an investigative journalist, and preferably female)--in short, can they get you on the morning talk shows and on Oprah--you don't have much of a chance.

I mention that it's an advantage to be female because the morning TV shows consciously make their interview selections based on the knowledge that, except for the first half-hour, the majority of their audience is female. To be specific, the average TODAY SHOW viewer is a 54 year old woman with a $45,000 a year income and teenagers living at home. Books have now become about demographics, and the marketing department makes its recommendations on that basis.

Further, the marketers go to Borders or Barnes & Noble and ask the executives how many copies of a particular book those chains would buy if the publisher were to bring out the book. If the number isn't high, the book might not get published. There are a few exceptions in which an editor falls in love with a book and says to hell with the marketers. But that's a rarity.

Obviously, this is not good news for most authors. We are in a position in which we must change or fail. In another answer, I'll talk about one way that I changed my approach. But for now, I want to point out that one of the few good results of what I just described is that smaller publishers once considered marginal (like Poisoned Pen Press or Uglytown Press) are now assuming importance. They don't pay big advances, but they publish books that deserve to be read. They are a way to stay in print and to build a new sales history.

JA: What is it about CREEPERS that makes it stand out from the 50,000 other novels published every year?

DAVID: Although I've had numerous bestsellers, I don't take anything for granted. With CREEPERS, I decided to try something new and pretend that my name wasn't on the manuscript. I wasn't going to count on my previous bestsellers, etc. I wanted the book to have a background that readers would find interesting, a topic that they would be curious about, with just a few words of explanation. This might sound obvious, but actually, it's something that is often ignored. I'm not talking about high concept, which I loath. Rather, I'm talking about the heart of the book. What is its central subject? Why should people care?

A couple of years ago, I read a newspaper article about an underground movement known as urban explorers. These are history and architecture enthusiasts who infiltrate buildings that have been sealed and abandoned for decades. They want to immerse themselves in the past. One of their nicknames (which they dislike) is creepers. I jumped on this. Who doesn't want to explore old abandoned buildings? Who would have known it was a subculture or that it was popular around the world or that hundreds of thousands of contacts are on Google and Yahoo?

When I was a literature professor at the University of Iowa, I taught a course in literary archetypes based on the theories of Freud, Jung, and Joseph Campbell. The idea is that certain situations are inherently interesting because something about them is hardwired into our brain. I recognized urban exploration as one of those archetypes. The subject grabbed me and compelled me to write the novel.

JA: Are you planning on exploring the world of urban exploration again in a future work?

DAVID: I tend not to repeat myself. Partly, this is because it usually takes me a year (at least) to write a novel, and I don't want to spend it boring myself by doing the same thing repeatedly. Also, I think authors need to be careful about going back to the same well again and again.

JA: I've heard you describe working with your publisher, CDS, as a partnership rather than the standard employer/employee relationship. Why? Is this the direction publishing is heading?

Unless an author is the latest new flavor, the odds of getting a good publicity effort from a publisher are slim. I became so frustrated with the half-hearted marketing efforts I was getting that I decided to take charge.

First, I changed paradigms and went to the largest book distributor in the United States, CDS Books. Their main business is getting books into stores. But they also have a small publishing division, about a dozen books a year. Because they don't publish many books, they pay attention to each of them. They told me that their policy was to treat authors as partners (what a new concept). They asked me how I wanted to proceed. I answered, "My daughter, Sarie, who used to be a publicist for Random House will handle all the publicity." CDS readily agreed.

Sarie and I then went to Nanci Kalanta, who runs Horror World on the internet. Nanci is a brilliant internet marketer, who agreed to use all her skills to help us. I can't emphasize enough how important internet publicity is. In Nanci's case, the horror connection is important because CREEPERS is a mixed genre novel: thriller and horror. I think that's one reason the book creates tension. There's nothing supernatural in CREEPERS, but the tone suggests that there is. Readers don't have the anchor of any one genre's conventions, so they're not able to anticipate where the story will go.

In any case, we experimented with every marketing idea we'd ever thought of. It was great fun. For example, Nanci asked novelist Brian Knight to design a CREEPERS maze game for her website http://www.horrorworld.org/. The viewer goes down hotel corridors and makes choices that lead to disaster or else to the chance to win prizes, such as a signed CREEPERS advanced reader's copy, a signed Brilliance CREEPERS audio, or an MP-3 player (also from Brilliance).

As another example, my daughter thought it would be a great idea to have a CREEPERS survival kit for give-aways. I did the research and, through http://www.beelogo.com,/ was able to acquire affordable CREEPERS key-chain flashlights attached to CREEPERS first-aid kits that included band-aids, antiseptic wipes, and cough drops. These were immensely helpful in attracting attention and good will, especially with book stores.

Then CDS Books decided to do a one-minute animated presentation of the book (what's called a vidlit) that you can see at www.madlabcreative.com/creepers.html. Make sure you turn on your computer's sound.

But not every publisher is as cooperative as CDS. We can't take anything for granted. All authors must become more involved in publicity.

Recently I had a conversation with a very best-selling writer whose sales are starting to slip. He asked me what he could do to turn things around. I told him the marketing experiments I was having fun with. His answer was, "I'm a writer. I don't want to be involved in that stuff." It's my belief that he'll regret his refusal.

Last October, I co-founded (with Gayle Lynds) the International Thriller Writers organization (http://www.internationalthrillerwriters.com/) which is helping thriller writers understand new ways to promote themselves.

To get an overview of the recent big changes in publishing, go to the Backspace website (http://www.bksp.org/) and read Richard Curtis's three essays. Richard has some very interesting things to say about how the internet can be useful to authors. To get an idea about some of the things that authors can do to promote themselves, look at Barry Eisler's essays on MJ Rose's website http://www.mjrose.com/. Look under BUZZ, BALLS & HYPE.

The publishing world has changed drastically. We need to do everything we can to let readers know about our work, even if that effort takes away from our writing time.

JA: Thanks so much, David. And to everyone reading this--CREEPERS isn't just Morrell's best book, it's one of the best thrillers I've ever read. The pub date is September 6, but copies are already showing up in stores.

Buy a copy. It will blow you away.


Anonymous said...

Incredible interview. Thanks Joe!

Anonymous said...

CREEPERS rocks. Un-put-downable, as they say.


Rob Gregory Browne said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Rob Gregory Browne said...

Well, I try that again.

THANKS Joe, for the great interview. And thanks to David for his generosity. I'm learning a lot from you guys.

Anonymous said...

The publishing business has gotten so fouled up in recent years... Here's hoping that innovators like David Morrell can help restore balance to it.

And yes, the book really is that good. Terrific stuff.

Anonymous said...

I credit (or blame) David Morrell and Stephen King for turning me on to writing fiction and credit David with showing me how to write action sequences and numerous other things. I've always thought he flew a bit under the radar in terms of publicity, so it's interesting to see how he's going after it here. And his shift from Warner to the distributor is pretty interesting, if perhaps for many of us, a bit disturbing. It does seem a bit like flinging things in the face of publishers, saying, "They say distribution is everything--here, let's prove it."

Great interview Joe and thanks to both you and David. Very thought-provoking.

Mark Terry

Anonymous said...

Awesome interview. I cannot wait to read CREEPERS. Plan on picking it up at Bouchercon. I love the real-time concept. - Blake

Michelle Rowen said...

I just love your blog. Chock full of vitamins! And I found your secret webpage. I feel so... accomplished. ;-)