Leslie Hsu Oh interviews Deb Vanasse on What Every Author Should Know

If you haven’t read Deb Vanasse’s book, What Every Author Should Know, you are missing out on tips you wished a more experienced author would share with you. Vanasse generously distills years of experience from publishing 16 books with six different presses into this easy-to-read “how to” publish, promote, and live the life of a successful writer. Every time I reread this book, I learn something new. Before my writing desk, I’ve posted many quotes from this book, such as:
“Without fear there cannot be courage. Embrace your fear. Learn all you can, and keep learning. Persist. Give it your best. Persist. From defeat, emerge stronger. Speak truth. Persist. Persist. Persist. Honor your friends, and compete with no one but yourself.”
Did you know that besides cofounding 49Writers and founding Running Fox Books Vanasse is a Montaigne Award Finalist? Check out a wealth of resources for readers and writers at http://debvanasse.com and Facebook/debra.vanasse and Twitter @debvanasse.
My favorite tip from your book is the 80/20 rule: 80% of your writing time on creative efforts and 20% on production and promotion. What do you use to keep track of creation/revision, reflection, immersion, community, and promotion and marketing time? How do you apply this rule if you suffer constant interruptions from what you call a “side trip” or other non-literary commitments like a full-time job or small children?

Mostly, it’s a matter of looking closely at how your days unfold, and then making adjustments where you can to preserve your craft time first, your time for creation and revision. When are you least likely to be interrupted? Alice Munro, one of my literary heroes, wrote short stories while her children napped. Once you’ve found that “sacred time,” be it 10 minutes or six hours, you have to commit to its purpose. No checking emails, no surfing for research, no staring at the screen for long periods. Just write. Everything else gets worked in around the crafting. Reflection is fun because it happens best when you’re going about the everyday business of living. I get my best insights while walking the dog, taking a shower, and right before I fall asleep. As for keeping track, all I use is a cheap spiral notebooks, one for each year. On each page I keep my to-do list for the week. What I can fit between those lines is about what I can get done in a week, after my creative time.
In the first section “Publish Your Book,” you wrote “more and more, I look to well-established small presses not as a last resort but as my first choice.” For an emerging writer who is debuting their first book, would you still recommend small press over a Big Five?

It depends on how you define success and how much patience and persistence you have for what can be a slow and protracted process of acquiring a literary agent and then hoping that agent can place your manuscript. Sometimes aspiring authors have unrealistic expectations of what a Big Five contract will do to launch their careers. If your debut book doesn’t make a huge splash—on its own, because in most cases there won’t be a huge marketing budget attached—you can very quickly find yourself on the path toward midlist, which means subsequent books become harder and harder to place because your sales numbers aren’t off the charts. As for small presses, a few months ago I was asked to become a regular contributor to the Independent, a trade magazine for independent publishers. It’s been a wonderful assignment; I’m becoming acquainted with a number of vibrant publishers who nurture bestsellers by giving them a much longer run than they’d get with the Big Five.
If time, energy, and money are constraints, please rank the priority of promotional efforts you discuss in the second section “Promote Your Book:” e-newsletter, social networking, blogging, author web site, Amazon reviews, Goodreads giveaway, book trailer, trade reviews, author appearances, book tour, book launch party, free or discounted books. For an emerging writer, you recommend “spend a whole lot less time on promotion.” Out of all these promotional efforts, should an emerging writer who is ready to pitch their book focus on Facebook? Twitter? Website? E-newsletter? Or start a blog?

It’s complicated. There’s no good, hard data to support which of these activities will generate more visibility, and hence more sales, than the others. So much depends, too, on the particular author’s genre and platform. In general, trade reviews and consumer reviews on distributor sites like Amazon correlate strongly with titles that have a strong reach into the literary/library market. But if you write in a genre like romance, a trade review’s not important at all; consumer reviews are everything. And with the consumer reviews, there’s a chicken/egg question: did the book become popular because it had lots of reviews, or did it get lots of reviews because it’s popular? Likely, the answer is both. In the end, authors are best off doing the sorts of marketing and interactions that they like best, so it doesn’t feel like a huge chore. The other general advice would be to try to build a genuine reader base of people who care about your work, and be able to reach them, be it via a e-newsletter or Facebook or whatever.                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                            
I’m most impressed with how you keep your web site and presence on a variety of social media fresh and engaging. How do you “systematize your involvement so it’s not a huge time-suck”?

I start my weekdays with 10 minutes on Twitter, then set it aside. I jump on Facebook only when I’ve got down time—when I’m waiting in line or enjoying a midday cup of tea. I set aside an hour or two every Thursday to draft two blog posts, one on an aspect of writing or publishing for The Self-Made Writer, and one on my work in progress for the WIP Wednesday feature on my website; I post both in advance. Cindy Dyson of Dyson UXDesigns recently revamped my website for me, and in addition to infusing it with this incredible energy, she also became very protective of my creative time, so she set it up to require minimal maintenance while still managing to maximize the ways in which I interface with readers. If I’ve got lots of news to share with friends and fans, I’ll use Buffer to schedule posts.
In a recent issue of Writer’s Digest, Jane Friedman writes “an author website is your most critical tool for book promotion and long-term platform development…if you depend on social networking to take the place of an author website, this is a terrible strategic move.” She outlines seven essential website elements: clear author name/brand, email newsletter signup, bio page, information about your books, social media icons, social proof, straightforward navigation. Do you agree or disagree and why?

I’m a big fan of Jane Friedman, so no surprise there: I agree! Social media is how you interact, but your website represents who you are, plus a good website prompts sharing. Check out what Cindy has done with “Bad Book Club” and WIP Wednesdays on my site, and you’ll see what I mean.
“What you do with and for your fellow writers along with what you do with and for your readers will come back around in the best of ways to you and your work.” Please share some examples of how this has worked out for you. 

There are tons of examples, but here’s an easy one: Look at the authors who blurbed my novel Cold Spell. Every one of them I met in one way or another through my volunteer work with 49 Writers. What’s important is that your engagement is sincere. If you’re jonesing for connections, if you’re schmoozing, people will see right through that. Give because you mean it, because it’s the right thing to do. It’s a karma thing.
In the last section “Live the Life,” you offer important lessons you’ve learned about maintaining “bounce”: a blend of confidence and strategy. What tools do you recommend for generating ideas, managing promotional strategies, juggling several projects at once, and not giving up when you feel the universe is against your writing?

You have to believe not just in yourself but in the project you’re working on: that you’re speaking truth in the best way you know how, truth that in some way will better this world. You have to love what you do for its own sake. When I read about how writers need first and foremost to affirm themselves, it saddens me. What a set-up for failure! Writers are some of the least-affirmed people I know. But you know, sometimes when it feels like the universe is against our writing, maybe it’s actually trying to help us out, by prodding us to do the better work we can do if we forego the ego and take a learner’s stance with every project. The best writer’s tool, honestly, is joy: in what you do, in your approach to your life and your work. Regardless of external rewards, a writer, by virtue of her craft, enjoys a bountiful existence.
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