Almost Famous: Building A Brand

“The Writer vs Author: Building a YA Brand” panel in Marriott A707, part of the YA Literature track on Sunday, Sep 3, 2023 at 1:00 PM, featured authors Sean Fletcher, A.J. Hartley, Sherrilyn Kenyon, and Mari Mancusi, with moderator Natalie Simpson.

Simpson started off the panel asking about the differences between writing when you’re learning to write before you’ve ever been published, versus writing new books post-publication.

Mancusi asserted that people don’t appreciate the pre-published writing experience. Everyone who isn’t published is focused on the goal of being a published author and what that would be like, but “writing before all that is pure and you can just enjoy the process.” It will never be the same after publication, because with future novels you’re writing under deadline, or with the worry of how people will respond to what you’ve written. Kenyon added that she’s reliving the pre-publication life with her son, who is seeking publication, and has to encourage him to not listen to the negative voices in his head.

Simpson then asked the authors what it was like to juggle writing and having a full-time job before they were successful enough to be a full-time author. Kenyon was first published at twenty years old, but didn’t become a full-time author until she was forty. And she didn’t quit working, her company had layoffs and her boss chose her as one of the people to be laid off because she had a job as an author. She mentioned being afraid she wouldn’t be able to support her family, and he reminded her she was a New York Times bestselling author.

Hartley wrote for twenty years before he was first published, but he was a Shakespeare professor, which gave him a lot of flexibility to write around teaching. When his son was first born, he’d already written eight books without successful publication. He was considering giving up writing altogether because he knew he didn’t have the same free time anymore. After speaking with his wife, he decided to give writing one more year. During that year he wrote three books, the first two of which didn’t sell, but the third sold in 28 languages.

Simpson then shifted the focus from writing to marketing and asked the panelists to dispel some myths about author marketing. All the authors agreed that publishers do not know how to market or make much effort to market. They expect the author to market. Kenyon indicated that James Patterson became who he is as an author because he already had a career as a director of marketing for a major company. She had a sister who taught marketing who taught her. She also worked in IT for many years, and at one point she was working for the WB building microsites for movies. She had an epiphany to do the same for her book series. She then told her fans about her site and they went out and told their friends. They caused the site to crash as she became one of first authors to go viral online. “What you’re good at, be good at. You know what you’re skills are. Go with it because that is how you get lightning in a bottle,” she said.

For Fletcher, the question reminded him of a line from Liam Neeson from one of those movies where his daughter is in peril:” I have ‘a very particular set of skills.’” To become a long-term success as an author, you have to learn to market. Learn social media or ads, then “keep writing the next book.” Over time it will slowly build. To which Hartley added the only thing you can control is the quality of your book. “The odds go up if you write good stories.”

A question from the audience was that if the authors were starting over now, would they self-publish or stick with an agent for traditional publishing. Fletcher is self-published and said “the good thing is you have so much freedom to do anything. The bad thing is you have to do everything,” but also pointed out that even traditionally published authors have to market themselves. Mancusi agreed for YA, but not in middle grade, where it would be a lot harder to reach readers via self-publishing. Kenyon warned of the rights you are potentially giving up to publishers on your IP if you go the traditional publishing route, because they will demand it all. And for any contracts you are negotiating, find an agent or literary lawyer to assist or provide advice.

Another question was whether to put in marketing efforts after book one, or wait until you have several. Fletcher mentioned starting some marketing activities with book one to learn the process, but you will earn a lot more once you have three plus books out.

Mancusi, however, points out that in traditional publishing you have to put all your efforts into marketing the book during the first three months of its release. It’s critical to achieve success with the book, and if the book doesn’t sell well, you won’t be able to sell the sequel to your publisher.

A final question asked authors if they’ve ever had to lie or stretch the truth to market their books? For Mancusi, who writes books for Disney, she has had to lie by omission. Readers would come up and ask her for additional information about the books that wasn’t covered in them, and she couldn’t answer because she couldn’t speak for Disney. Hartley doesn’t lie, but he does share additional information with his readers about his books.

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