I first heard Elizabeth Law speak at a SCBWI National Conference where the title of her talk was, “Ask Me Anything—The Unvarnished Truth About Publishing.” Right then and there, I knew she was my kind of person. Then, during the course of the conference when she told attendees, “Just write your heart out. I promise you that’s what matters. I would much, much rather find a great, unusual, distinctive book by a phobic writer covered in oozing sores who lives in a closet than a decent but not amazingly original book by the world’s best promoter. I could sell the former a lot better, too,” I fell a little bit in love with her. Although she is an avowed extrovert, ever since then, we at Shrinking Violets have declared her the Patron Saint of Introverted Writers.
I was lucky enough to get a chance to meet Elizabeth face-to-face at ALA in Anaheim a couple of weeks ago, and once again she was more than happy to do some truth-talking about writing, promoting, and selling books. So grab a cup of coffee, pull up a seat, and join us!
A Conversation with Elizabeth Law, Vice President and Publisher of Egmont USA
RL: There is so much talk now about how traditional publishing is dead. Yet for those of us working in children’s and YA genres, this same sky-is-falling mentality does not seem to have caught hold yet. Do you think that same panic will filter to our markets? Or is it here already and I just don’t know it?
ELaw: I don’t think traditional publishing is dead, I just think “Change is the new black.” E-books and social networking are part of the reason the business is evolving rapidly, and people like predictability, so they get nervous. But for Pete’s sake, there are better YA novels being published now than at any time in the genre’s history. I’m sure all your readers have read some books lately that they’ve adored—a couple of my recent favorites are John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars and Daniel Handler and Maira Kalman’s Why We Broke Up. And of course I’m really excited about our Egmont authors. If you look at the breadth of what we’re offering just in a few month’s span, how could anyone think publishing is dead? We have the boundary-pushing BZRK by Michael Grant, a novel about kids trapped in their high school when a virus breaks out called Quarantine by Lex Thomas, a new thriller called Nobody coming from the great storyteller Jennifer Lynn Barnes, and a funny, yet sad and provocative book about faith and loss called Since You Left Me by Allen Zadoff.
Here’s another reason not to worry. Look at some of the unlikely books that are having great success today. Ruta Sepetys’ Between Shades of Grey, a historical novel about a Lithuanian teen sent to Siberia, breaks all the current rules about what’s trendy and what’s selling to young adults. Or actually, it breaks every rule except one: write a really, really great book.
RL: That “phobic writer oozing in sores” quote is still one of my all-time favorites. With the continuing explosion of even more! newer! better! social media, does that quote of yours still hold true today?
ELaw: Yes. Absolutely. If we had an amazing book from a hermit of an author, we would probably try some kind of really creative pitch, a la “we absolutely adore this book with every fiber of our being, but the author won’t leave his airing cupboard, so we’re giving away an anti-leprosy kit to the first 100 people who give us advance quotes” or something.
However, it’s not a bad idea to help your book get out there if you’re not that phobic, sore-covered author. Ask me more about that.
RL: I can’t tell you how many times I’ve talked with authors who have huge online followings but whose sales numbers are grim. Do you think large blog/Twitter/Facebook followings necessarily translate into books sales? How about blog tours and GoodReads numbers? Any evidence that they do?
ELaw: Having a large following on Twitter doesn’t guarantee a large number of sales, but I believe social networking is still a good idea. Here’s how I recommend you approach it:
As a writer, figure out what you do best. Is it tweeting, or writing a blog about your life, or reviewing books? Pick a medium that works for you and stay true to your voice. That way you don’t have to go to every platform to do this, which could consume all your writing time. Then remember, success is not instant, but people will find you over time. If a TV producer or an AP reporter is getting pitched your book and they think it has a great handle, the first thing they’re going to do is google you to see what kind of following you have. They look through your blog or goodreads account or twitter feed looking for your voice. And that online voice, as much as the book itself, is what’s going to tell them they want to interview you.
Meanwhile, if like most authors you don’t get TV appearances or a lot of press on your novel, what kind of followers do you have online? The followers who are really engaged with you, who’ve been enjoying your blog and adding it to their own blogrolls or agreeing with your goodreads recommendation or laughing at all your tweets, those are the ones who buy your book. In the business we say those are the ones who “convert.”
RL: I can’t tell you how often I hear writers quoting agents or editors they’ve heard say they won’t even consider acquiring writers without a platform or significant social media following. Is that a requirement for being acquired by Egmont? What IS the key to catching Egmont’s eye?
ELaw: The key to catching Egmont’s eye is writing a really good book—one where our first reader can’t put it down, and then gets the rest of us to read it, and we all fall in love with it. When that happens, believe me, our first reaction is excitement. Then we ask ourselves “How can we make this book a success?” not “Does the author have a lot of friends on Twitter?” But, of course, we all want the books we like to sell well. So we throw every trick we can afford at getting those sales. And social networking is free, and can help build your audience. So we do look to see what online following you’re building, and what other contacts you might have. We just signed up a glorious YA novel from a writer named Len Vlahos called The Scar Boys. It’s about a teen coming of age on the road with his band and the voice is a knock out. Len used to be COO of the American Booksellers Association, so we knew independent bookstores will be behind him when it’s time to launch the book. Contacts like that, of course they help. But if you don’t happen to have worked in bookselling, do you have friends online who are famous writers who might blurb your book? That’s great for us to know, too.
RL: Do you think we who are involved in the writing and publishing communities on the Internet are a self-selecting group? Meaning is it possible we place too much emphasis on Internet tools at the risk of ignoring or abandoning real-life tools? At book festivals and store signings in particular, I’m always surprised at people who are there because of a notice in the paper or other, non-Internet-based news. While of course it varies from genre to genre, would we be surprised to find out how many readers don’t use the Internet for finding their next book?
ELaw: This is a great question, and we discuss it a lot at Egmont. We ask ourselves, is all this social media work just reaching the same group of bloggers and YA fans, and how do we reach parents, kids, and teens directly who haven’t heard of us? One thing we always do is let teachers and librarians know about our books.
Something that’s a particular challenge is reaching the middle grade reader—the 4th to 7th grader who would love some of our books but isn’t on online book sites. Teens often have the disposable cash to buy a book, but middle graders, at least currently, are a lot more dependent on a parent dropping them off at a bookstore or a book fair with some cash. How do we let them know about our popular Jaguar Stones series by J&P Voelkel, or a funny new book like Popular Clone by M.E. Castle that we think they’d love?
RL: How is the increase in e-book sales affecting you at Egmont?
ELaw: We’re really excited about e-book sales because they’re growing, although perhaps we are cheerily paddling our canoe while we’re about to go over a waterfall we can’t see.
But kids and teens are collectors, and they want things quickly. E-books speak to both those needs. Right now, I love that so many adults are reading YA novels as e-books—our romances, fantasy, and paranormal titles seem to be particularly age-group agnostic in e-book. And since we’ve always known that adults would love YA titles if they just found out about them, e-books is a great way to do it.
I continue to believe e-books are about to take off in the middle grade market. But I’ve been thinking that for a couple of years now, so who knows?
RL: Do you have any publishing or promotional Cinderella stories for us?
ELaw: Cinderella is a great example of what works, actually, because she was a very hard worker before her “overnight success” of capturing the prince!
But for a real-life example, we published a first novel called The False Princess by Eilis O’Neal. It’s wonderful, and one Saturday night when I had intended to spend 45 minutes starting the manuscript I ended up reading the whole thing. It had everything I loved—a premise that really grabbed me from the start, a terrific sense of place, a surprising plot, and, I’ll admit it, a great guy who was the heroine’s best friend and I wanted to know if he’d turn into something more.
When we published the book, Barnes&Noble didn’t even order copies. We didn’t have the budget to send the author on tour, either, but we sent the book to all the review outlets, we kept telling people it was great, and I think that good old-fashioned word of mouth thing happened. People read it, really liked it, and told their friends. The Romantic Times reviewed it, and after that we started seeing very large Kindle orders for the title.
We did do a few fun things to promote the book, like taking an ad on girlslife.com during last year’s Royal Wedding, and those things had an impact. But nothing is as impactful as people really liking your book.
By the way, I have a tip about something that doesn’t work. We’ve tried some contests, and so have friends of mine at other houses, that turned out to be too ambitious. Things like “post a video of your dog wearing a hat on our site and you’ll be entered to win.” None of us got a lot of entries when readers had to do something complex to participate. But if you have a paranormal novel about a teen who has a superpower when he turns into a mollusk, a contest like “Tweet the words ‘bivalve love’ into a sentence and use this hashtag #YAmollusk” will get a lot of entries.
RL: What are some of the biggest misconceptions you see aspiring authors have?
ELaw: Let’s see, I want to try to be really helpful here. One thing a lot of writers seem to do is look at what’s popular, or what’s a bestseller, and either think, “I should try to write a book in that genre” or (perhaps more typically) “I can’t write that kind of book so I’ll never be a success.” But editors really want something new, something they haven’t seen again and again. We’re book lovers, we want a story to fall in love with.
Another way of saying that is “Do not compare yourself to anyone. That way lies hours and hours of self-inflicted agony.” Now that I think about it, I could stand to remember that advice myself.
Another misconception, I’m sorry to say, is that once you get your first contract you’ve made it. A career spans many books, many ups and downs. We really believe in building authors at Egmont—writers should be in this for the long haul.
If I may, it’s a little like dieting! It’s not like you can join Weight Watchers, get to your goal weight, and then never think about what you eat again. Instead, you have to keep slogging along, trying your best, experiencing encouragements and discouragements. Persistent is not the sexiest word in the world, but it’s such an important one.
Or as Ole Golly puts it so well in Harriet the Spy, “Life is a struggle and a good spy gets out there and fights.”
RL: Any last words of advice you have for writers?
ELaw: You know what I said about writing your heart out? I wish every author could be a fly on the wall in our office for one day. Just to see that it really *is* about our enthusiasm for what we’re reading, about how much we love the books, more than it is about anything else. I promise you, the book’s the thing.
Thank you so much, Elizabeth! And for those of you reading this, Elizabeth has offered to answer any questions to clarify what she’s said here, so feel free to leave a question in the comments if you have one!
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Elizabeth Law is VP and Publisher of Egmont USA, a children’s and young adult publisher that specializes in fiction for ages 7 Up. Previously, Elizabeth was Associate Publisher at Simon and Schuster Books for Young Readers, and before that she held every position from Editorial Assistant to Associate Publisher at Viking Children’s Books, where she worked for 18 years. Besides reading, Elizabeth also enjoys rereading her favorite children’s and adult novels, going to the theater, and watching American Idol.