Songs on Surviving the Midlist: from Opera Singer, Circus Performer & Novelist, Gretchen McNeil

Gretchen McNeilWhen I learned the theme for this month was “a peek behind the publishing curtain”, it was an easy decision to invite today’s guest for an interview. For as long as I’ve known her, Gretchen McNeil has been a model of grace and resilience under pressure; a woman who feels passionately and has a big personality, yet who makes pragmatic writing decisions when they’ll benefit her career.

Her flexibility has earned her editorial trust and loyalty at a time when such stories are scarce in my world.

Possibly because of this, since her debut in 2011, she’s had steady work through Balzer + Bray for HarperCollins.  (The YA horror novels POSSESS, TEN, and 3:59, as well as the upcoming YA mystery/suspense series Don’t Get Mad, beginning in 2014 with GET EVEN and continuing in 2015 with GET DIRTY.) Gretchen also contributed an essay to the Dear Teen Me anthology from Zest Books.

Gretchen is a former coloratura soprano, the voice of Mary on G4’s Code Monkeys and she sings with the LA-based circus troupe Cirque Berzerk. She is repped by Ginger Clark of Curtis Brown, Ltd., and agreed to a frank discussion today about the challenges—and benefits—of being a midlist author.

Jan: Shortly after the publication of your debut novel, POSSESS, you ran into a significant career hiccup. Can you describe it? What were the stakes?

Gretchen: About four months or so before the publication of my second novel TEN, I learned that Barnes & Noble would not be carrying the book in stores at all, due to “disappointing sales” of POSSESS. This literally rocked my world, because TEN was already getting a tremendous amount of buzz, and since it wasn’t a sequel, its supposed success or failure wouldn’t be immediately attached to that of my debut novel. Basically, getting skipped by the last powerful brick and mortar bookstore means that your book will die a slow and silent death.  It was devastating news.

How did you respond, emotionally, strategically, etc.?

Gretchen:  Well, first I cried.  At my day job.  Burst into tears right there at my desk.  Then I picked myself up and dusted myself off, and did what the Irish do best: fight.

I sat down and thought, “What can I do to fix this?  How can I get the word out about my book if it isn’t in the chain stores?”  That’s when I thought up the Army of Ten, a guerrilla street team aimed at getting the word about TEN out to independent bookstores.  Basically, fans earned rankings in my army by doing certain tasks, everything from tweeting about the book to lobbying for it at libraries and local indie bookstores.  A friend helped me set up a blog, and before I knew it we had like 2,000 people signed up.

Which is when Publisher’s Weekly got involved.  They ran an interview with me about my grass roots marketing campaign which really helped spread the word about TEN!

ten HC c hirezWhat was the outcome, and if you had to guess, which promotional efforts yielded the most fruit?

Gretchen:  While Barnes & Noble never carried the hardcover of TEN, when indie sellers learned that the book wouldn’t be in the local superstore, my indie orders literally doubled overnight.  The fan base was a tremendous support, as well as ALA and Romantic Times, both of which have been huge supporters of the book.  It was a YALSA Top Ten Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers in 2013, a Booklist Top Ten Horror Novels for Youth, and Romantic Times Top Pick for September 2012, and it was nominated for Best Contemporary YA Novel for the annual RT awards.

What, if anything, have your other artistic careers taught you about writing?

Gretchen:  Oh, the lessons I’ve learned as a performing artist over the years have been an incredible help to me as a writer.  First off, opera taught me how to be a storyteller.  Much like the old writing motto “show don’t tell”, in opera you have to show the audience what is going on, especially when you’re singing in a language they might not understand.  You have to interpret the words through action and intention, and every movement needs to be motivated.  Every moment you’re on stage, you must be thinking, “Who is my character? What does she want? What’s in her way? What does she do to overcome this obstacle? What’s at stake if she fails?”  I approach writing in the exact same way.

Then there’s the old opera singer motto “strong and wrong!”  Meaning, if you totally blank out while onstage, forgetting where you are in the score, what your next line is, etc., don’t telegraph your problem to the audience by looking at the conductor in panic.  Just barrel on through, singing whatever, and make the conductor (and orchestra) find you.  Navigating the publishing industry has very much been a “strong and wrong” experience for me.  I may not always know what I’m doing, but I certainly won’t tell you that!

Navigating the publishing industry has very much been a “strong and wrong” experience for me.

Lastly, having been on stage literally my entire life, I am very comfortable with the spotlight aspects of book promotion.  I like talking to fans, I like being on panels, I like doing school events and library events and personal appearances galore!  It’s how this extroverted performer gets her kicks these days, since I’m no longer a professional singer, and I think my comfort level at events makes me seem approachable and down-to-earth for fans.  At least, I hope it does!

There are a lot of struggling midlist writers out there, and not all of them want to turn to self-publishing. What advice would you have for them if they want to keep earning traditional contracts?

Gretchen:  Midlist can be a grind.  If you’re trying to earn a living wage, you’re going to have to publish a book a year, minimum.  Writing and editing a book a year is totally doable, but adding all the promotion on top of that, compounded with the fact that each year there’s another book to promote (on top of the ones that are already out) and suddenly your free time goes right out the window.  Deadlines are a must, because if you want your publisher to continue to buy books from you, you need to show them that you’re reliable.  Which means turning things in on time.  For me, staying on top of my schedule has been the biggest challenge.  I need to protect the writing time, but also do the events and promotion.  You can’t have one without the other!

GetEven_finalAnother aspect of sticking around on the midlist is your willingness to branch out.  For example, my publisher wasn’t sure they wanted me to write more horror novels after my third book.  But they wanted to keep me around, so they asked if I’d be willing to pitch them a contemporary mystery/suspense novel, focusing on complicated female friendships (something they felt was a strong point in my writing).  So I came up with a pitch that (a) I actually liked and (b) fit with what they wanted from me.  It’s called the Don’t Get Mad series, which begins with GET EVEN in September, and follows up with GET DIRTY next summer!

Unboxeders, though she’s walking the talk by writing to a compressed editorial deadline, Gretchen would be happy to take your questions in the comment section below.

If you’d like to catch up with Gretchen in other locations, you can find her at her website, Facebook, Twitter (@GretchenMcNeil).


About Jan O'Hara

Jan O'Hara left her writing dreams behind for years to practice family medicine, but has found her way back to the world of fiction. Currently the voice of the Unpublished Writer here at Writer Unboxed, she hopes one day soon to become unqualified for the position.


  1. says

    Gretchen, the way you rallied such a strong support network, despite B&N’s decision is really inspiring. Thanks for sharing your journey with us! Like you, I plan to go down swinging.

  2. says

    My favorite takeaway today is “Strong & Wrong.” Love it. And, looking back on the other endeavors of my life, I sense the truth of it. I even cringe at the memory of some of my own “wrongs” which were strongly done. But the trajectories to most all of my successes in life have been boldly struck.

    Thanks, Jan, for a great interview. And thanks for the encouraging peek into the backstory of your successes, Gretchen.

  3. says

    BY taking matters into your own hands, not only did you successfully promote to indie bookstores, gain national press and win awards with your sophomore book but you pitched a series in a different genre because of its success — and all after Barnes & Noble gave you the boot. Huge kudos. What a great example. Lots of hard work and persistence and VOILA, a burgeoning career for you. Much admiration. I will be following your career. As for questions, how exactly did you start your “army” and get 2000 subscribers? Top ten or five ways?

    • says

      Hi Diana!

      So we had a tiered structure for the Army of Ten where fans could earn “rankings” in the Army: Private, Sergeant, Lieutenant, Major and General. You had to complete the lower rankings in order to move up and each tier had a set of tasks and a specific reward.

      I think the success was a mix of the PW interview linking to the Army of Ten site, and the tiered prize structure where fans could do as little or as much as they liked. I just sort of caught fire from there!

  4. says

    Well done! Obviously Gretchen is a very resourceful person in addition to being a stellar author (LOVED TEN!) and passing along the message that standing on the sidelines and crying doesn’t do much good, is useful information. You have to wade back in, even if that’s where you do your crying. Right? Great advice.

  5. says

    I think I’m adopting “Strong and Wrong” as my next motto! I’m so impressed with how hard you work and how much effort you put into owning your career, Gretchen. Thanks for sharing.

  6. says

    What a fantastic interview. Gretchen, it’s so heartening to hear that your hard work and ingenuity was rewarded! Thank you for your honesty and for sharing your story with us.

    Jan, wonderful Q&A!

  7. Marcy McKay says

    Gretchen & Jan – I loved this post so much I can’t stand it! I especially loved that B&N dropping you turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Of course, we’ll never know, but I can’t help but think that Gretchen’s book was BIGGER than if B&N had carried. You ROCK, Gretchen!

  8. Marcy McKay says

    Thought of a ? after the fact, Gretchen. What sort of “rewards” did you offer for the different levels?

    • says

      Good question! I offered a signed bookmark for privates, bookmark + bookplate for Sergeant, bookmark + book plate + Army of Ten dog tags for Lieutenant, bookmark + book plate + dog tags + something else I totally can’t recall for Major, and then for General you basically got everything, plus your name in the Acknowledgements of my next book. Plus, for Sergeant and above you got entries into a grand prize giveaway for signed copies of all of my books. Oh, and only Private was open internationally.

      Yes, it was a lot of work.

      • Marcy McKay says

        BRILLIANT. Yes, a lot of work, but it sounds like it paid off. You’ve INSPIRED me, Gretchen. Thank you!

  9. says

    This is an awesome interview, and neither Jan nor Gretchen ever disappoints. One of my favorite things about Gretchen is her frankness about the business. And ‘Strong and Wrong’ is a fantastic motto!

  10. tom combs says

    Strong work!
    I love that you took action and grabbed success.
    It sounds like you did this primarily on your own.
    Did your agent or publisher provide meaningful support.
    Great post!

    • says

      My agent and editor have been amazingly supportive throughout, but the bulk of an author’s promotion usually falls on the author’s shoulders.

  11. says

    Gretchen–thanks so much for sharing this. My debut comes out in April and I’m a member of a 2014 debut author group–it’s interesting to me that almost every extrovert in our group is doing a street team. I’m such an introvert that I’m not sure I can pull that off, but it’s good food for thought. Either way, I feel like the promotion/marketing piece has taken up just as much time as the writing which has been an eye opener. :)

    • says

      And the marketing/promo time suck only gets worse as you have more books out. I’ve definitely scaled back my efforts for books 3 and 4, simply because I don’t have the time!