5 On: Julie Smith

In this 5 On interview, author, publisher, and book marketer Julie Smith (@booksbnimble) shares what she loves to write—and read—in a mystery, how her writing obsession evolved into marketing, the mistake many authors make with their book covers, and more.

Novelist and publisher Julie Smith is the author of more than twenty mysteries, most set in New Orleans and starring one or the other of her detective heroes, a cop named Skip Langdon, and a PI named Talba Wallis. (Both female, both tough and wily.) She also has two series set in San Francisco. Her novel, New Orleans Mourning, won the Edgar Allan Poe award for best novel.

Julie changed direction in 2010 with her start-up digital publishing company, booksBnimble, beginning with four books by friends. She later added other authors and her own books, then in 2015 booksBnimble spun off bbnmarketing with the aim of helping self-published authors find their audience and backlist print authors find their way back into the game.

For the first time in twelve years, she’s written a new entry in the Skip Langdon series; look for Murder on Magazine in March 2018 (available now for pre-order).

5 on Writing

KRISTEN TSETSI: You’ve said when starting new writing projects that your ideas would begin with a setting, and then from there you’d work from an idea germ (“What if you were waiting for your husband to get the car at the airport and it seemed like he just wasn’t coming back — (Ever had this happen?) and he didn’t.”).

That particular example reminded me of a day I was waiting forever for my laptop to finish updating so I could shut down and leave work. I was frustrated, because I wanted to get home in time to see my husband before he left for his night flight as a Blackhawk flight instructor. I thought, “If he has to leave before I get home and then dies tonight in a helicopter accident, I’m sending Microsoft a sternly worded letter about how they kept me from seeing my husband on the last night of his life.” Then I thought, “Story?”

No, as it turned out. Not a story. But is that how some of your germs came about, as random “what-if” thoughts, some of which had book potential? Or did they come from somewhere else?

JULIE SMITH: Yes, that’s exactly it! I really did think that airport thought. My first book ever (Death Turns a Trick) is about a woman who opens her front door and finds the body of a stranger on her living room floor. I’m embarrassed to admit I had that thought quite a few times when I was single—but in my defense, I was reading a whole lot of mysteries at the time. (Still am.)

Death Turns a TrickSometimes the germ is a cultural phenomenon, like Mardi Gras, but every book, no matter what the plot is, is about the life of a city—and for the last 25 years, that city’s been New Orleans.  Often the germ is what’s on my mind. Last year—may I brag a moment?—I wrote a book for the first time in 12 years. (I stopped after Katrina and then went on to other things—like digital publishing.)

Murder on Magazine will be out in March and was inspired by Airbnb, of all things. It’s a huge issue here—one side says people should get to do whatever they want with their property. The other says, “Hold on! I didn’t sign up to have a hotel next door.” So that was the germ, but somehow, once that got going, hate-speak and the sudden national embrace of hatefulness crept into it, and so did child trafficking. All issues I find distressing.

Sounds like a really heavy book, right? Actually, I don’t think it is at all—but those were the jumping-off points the story sprang from.

Casa Mysterioso was a website you set up to allow writers and poets to compete for grant money. I think a lot of writers have the fantasy of doing something similar once they “make it.” What was that experience like—what did it involve, how many submissions did you receive, was it more or less complicated than one might think—and what happened to Casa Mysterioso?

Casa Mysterioso still lives in my imagination! And the $2,000 grant still exists, although I no longer fund it. Once I had the idea, I called a friend who ran a literary foundation—the Pirates Alley Faulkner Foundation—to ask her what I needed to do to set up my own foundation. She said, “Why don’t you just join us?” Well, that sure made it easy! They were already set up with literary contests and just added mine, so I didn’t have to worry at all about how to recruit interested authors.

I had to stop funding it after I stopped writing, but the foundation kept it going. I was sad that they dumped the name I gave it, though. I named it The Evans Harrington Grant, after my creative writing professor; now they just call it the “Novel-in-Progress Contest.” By all means apply here if you’re an author who needs money. (And who isn’t?)

As a mystery writer, you have an advantage as a reader of other mystery writers (or, a disadvantage—you probably don’t want to know whodunit but, in some cases, can’t help but figure it out). What should mystery writers always be careful of when writing to avoid giving away the answer to their mystery too early? Which mystery writer do you consider the best at keeping readers guessing?

Actually, I’m a really easy audience. I’m lousy at figuring out whodunit and don’t really care unless the book’s hard-core suspense. A mystery (unlike suspense) is so much more about the journey than the destination—the characters, setting, and not least, the writing!

To tell the truth, I quit worrying about giving away the answers too easily after the first couple of books. Most people are going to guess by the last chapter, anyhow, and it’s good to remember that. Maybe it’s better to put more effort into assuring a good reading experience than a surprise—like a really bang-up exciting ending. No one cares who did it if they had a good time getting there. Also, there’s a lot to be said for the whydunit—the reader might know, or be easily expected to guess who the villain is—but the why of it is keeping her turning those pages. I love this kind of book! (And always strive to write them.)

Weirdly, I can’t say which writer’s best at keeping readers guessing because I never think much about it—but I’ve noticed Laura Lippman can sure set you up for surprises about where the story’s going. And maybe that’s what I’m really talking about—I think it’s more fun to be surprised by unexpected plot turns than the villain’s identity.

In the movie Rebel in the Rye, the story of the writing life of J.D. Salinger, Salinger’s writing teacher tells Salinger (and this is paraphrased) that he—Salinger—will know he’s a “real writer” when the knowledge that his writing could be rejected for the rest of his life won’t stop him from wanting to write. (Of course, he does ultimately write for no one but himself, but that’s only after realizing uncommon success, which is completely different from writing through a lifetime of failure.)

 “Seven years, five agents, hundreds of rejections, and six books” was your path to traditional publication for Death Turns a Trick. Did you ever have a doubt that you would succeed as a novelist, and did you ever think about what you would do if you didn’t? Do you think you would have stuck with journalism?

Your name is Doubts “R” Us if you’re a writer! Especially a female writer. I recently had a conversation about this with two men and another woman. The men were a big-deal lawyer and a CEO. The other woman was a very successful artist. Neither of the men had ever had the slightest doubt they’d succeed. The artist and I had never actually believed we would until we did. Partly a sex difference, partly about being an artist of any sort, I suspect.

I stuck with journalism until I absolutely couldn’t do it any more. I suffered both burnout and the desperate need to do something on my own—to tell the truth, I was pretty tired of being pushed around, if you’ll excuse me, by a bunch of dickheads. I had fond thoughts of a life of crime, but no faith in my ability to get away with so much as a lie, let alone a jewel heist. So, what the hell, might as well write.

Once I quit writing (temporarily, as it turns out), I became a publisher, which I’ve loved, but, unlike many digital entrepreneurs, I don’t think I would have had the confidence for it if I hadn’t known the industry.

What do you strive for in your own fiction writing, and what do you look for in the fiction you enjoy reading? And: What fiction/what author do you enjoy reading?

After a good plot, good characters, and a good story—essentials for any mystery!—my goal was to show a moment in time in a particular place, the most important place being New Orleans. I set two series in San Francisco, but wrote about New Orleans steadily for a 15-year period. I wanted someone reading my series to have an authentic, palpable sense of what life was like there during those 15 years. Mysteries may not get all the glory, but they can be really good at providing a historical record of sorts and I wanted to contribute that.

In all fiction, I want to feel like I’m looking at something new with great big, child-like eyes. I want the author to take me somewhere I haven’t been, whether it’s Hogwarts or the mind of an agoraphobic. (I just read The Woman in the Window and thought the author did a great job with that and also brought something new to psychological suspense by consciously basing it on film noir.)  In mysteries, the characters are the most important thing to me. Or the sleuth, I should say. He or she needs to be someone I want to spend time with.

There are some long-time favorite authors I never miss—Nevada Barr, Megan Abbott, Ace Atkins, Randy Wayne White—but since you asked (thank you!), this is a perfect opportunity to mention the terrific indie writers, both backlist and new, that I’m discovering. Love Dawn McKenna! People who don’t think there’s good self-published material just aren’t looking. There’s prime stuff being written by incredibly talented authors. Rediscovered Katy Munger—a backlist author now self-publishing—and don’t understand why she wasn’t the most celebrated PI writer of her day. But no worries—she’s now enjoying a second career.  I also love Carrie Bedford’s paranormal mysteries—and guess what? I’m lucky enough to be Carrie’s publisher. Christopher Greyson is another who’s amazing.  And Peggy Rothschild, who wrote a book called Erasing Ramona that kind of knocked my socks off.

5 on Publishing

Your marketing company, BBN Marketing, works with self-published authors (unless the author has a traditional publisher willing to work with you) of books in a series with “enough four- and five-star reviews to appeal to our advertisers.” How many reviews is that, why series books, and why no print books?

Our marketing efforts center around buying ads on websites with very granular opt-in lists. But you have to qualify to buy the ads, and one of the qualifications is a minimum number of reviews. That varies, but ten per book is pretty safe. If the last books in the series don’t have that many, they quickly pick them up once the author’s readership grows.

We market series books because nothing sells a book like another book. All the advertising in the world isn’t going to work if everyone’s already read your book—so our services are only effective if we have enough books in a series to place regular ads, yet not repeat any one book too often.

We don’t do print because that’s a whole other world! No idea how to sell a print book except the way publishers did in the past—by sending reps to every bookstore in America. To advertise them through websites, you’d need the same kind of mailing lists the current promo sites use—but these sites are all about sales and deals. Print costs too much to qualify, I expect.

Good investment of author time or not (and why or why not)?

  • Wattpad:  No experience.
  • Kindleboards:  Good for info. The Writer’s Café is a trove of up-to-date digital lore. Some extremely savvy indie authors and marketers share information that would take hours and hours to figure out on your own.
  • Guest blogging:  I’ve never had a single sale from a guest blog post, but maybe I wasn’t a guest of the right blogger—or didn’t write the right post, or wasn’t in the right genre. So I guess it’s like so many things—it’s pretty hard to figure out in advance what’s going to work best for you.
  • Facebook/Twitter/Instagram: Oh, heavens, I’m no social media maven. Quite the opposite—I never post at all unless I have a blockbuster announcement. (Hey, guys! I just wrote a book for the first time in 12 years! You can buy it here.) Does this do anything? Probably not, since I don’t keep up a regular relationship. But for those who actually do think social media works—since no one can keep up with everything, it’s a well-recognized best practice to pick one platform—it doesn’t matter which—and work the hell out of it.
  • Goodreads: A mystery to me!

I think it sort of depends on the author. For me, the Kboards Writer’s Café is a great resource, but the point there is information, not connecting with fans. Honestly? I’ve never had any success with any of the others. But some writers do. I very much admire those who build followings, but I think I’m not the person to ask, since social media success depends so much on the author’s personality and I have dozens of authors to promote besides myself. I just don’t go that route. Know what I’d love to know? Anything about how authors work with Goodreads— other than encouraging their fans to post reviews. I’ve never met one who says they know how!

BBN’s “Who qualifies?” page closes with the extraordinarily generous, “We also love to give advice— whether you become our client or not, no one leaves without a freebie!” Is there a piece of advice you find yourself giving frequently, something many authors struggle with?

Let me mention the one I’ve been struggling with today: you need a great cover for your sub-genre to sell your book, not a reflection of yourself as a classy or sophisticated or hip person. Ideally, a cover should be the fulfillment of the reader’s wish, and is much more about metaphor and sub-genre than it is about specifics of the plot or tastefulness or how you want to present yourself in public. He or she doesn’t care about you—well, not yet anyhow; she doesn’t even know you yet. She has to be converted, a sales term that’s pretty literal in online publishing. She’s just looking for some cheery chick lit or scary horror or twisty mystery. Your cover has to sell that concept, not you as an attractive human being.

Can self-published authors hoping to sell their novels go around/avoid/find a substitution for the email list? (If not, can they get close?)

Oh, sure! Hardly any of our clients have decent lists. That’s why they hire us. We help them grow their lists if they want to, but many don’t—and they can still do well.  I think I should make a slight distinction:  Frontlist authors, who are working all the time on new books, desperately need good lists for their launches. Backlist print authors, who often do spectacularly once they get their rights back and self-publish, often don’t have lists because they never kept them in the print-only days. There was no way to know who your readers were unless you went after them with a very lively website, a concept Janet Evanovich kind of pioneered. But if they’re not Evanovich and still want a second career with their backlists, it’s amazing how far their old print reviews and exceptionally well-written books will go if you add advertising!

A lot of people have success with Facebook ads and Amazon ads, but these require a lot of special expertise, and I’ve never seen any data about which genres they work best for. We prefer advertising with some of the many—over 100—book promo sites. This is especially effective for backlist authors with good print reviews. Readers are hungry for new series and the promo sites recognize that. But if you’re publishing regularly—and some people are writing a book every three weeks, don’t ask me how—there really is no substitute for a mailing list.

The reason the promo sites work is that they all have mailing lists—very targeted opt-in lists that no one subscribes to unless they’re actively looking for good deals on a particular kind of book. The most famous is BookBub, which currently has 42 lists (unless I miscounted), including such special interests as “Time Travel Romance.”  When you get that specific, you can be sure you’re targeting only people who’re interested. And then there are the numbers. Their biggest list,  “Crime Fiction,” has nearly four million subscribers. Think how amazing it is to be able to reach that many people who are actively looking for a good book to read!

There are lots of recommendations on KBoards for other sites—sci-fi writers seem to love Book Barbarian. I’m a fan of Booksy. But a caveat: many of the sites have certain standards. You have to qualify to advertise. That’s why covers are so important—they don’t take books with inappropriate covers. And by inappropriate, I mean that aren’t designed for their genre.

But the whole trick is this—test out which ones work for you—how many sales did you make and how long was the tail? And advertise regularly. Not once a quarter or once in a blue moon. But once or twice a month, and more than one book in your series. Sound expensive? Actually, it’s not, except for the first time—because you can make your money back right away.

Your ebook publishing company specializes in mysteries, although you began with enhanced ebooks. What attracted you to creating enhanced ebooks? How did the company evolve?

Back in 2010, when I first began publishing, ebooks were very new and I was wildly excited about the different forms I thought they could take—I wanted to try them all! I had a lot more ideas than people to carry them out or money to make them happen. Most of our early books are enhanced with video, which I so much enjoyed doing, but after a year or two, as the digital audience grew, more and more data showed ebook readers weren’t interested in video. Or other weird forms. They just wanted a good story.

I also wanted to publish all genres of books—and still do—but it turned out what I was most successful with, and knew best, and could sell best was plain old mysteries, with no videos or other fancy stuff. So that’s mostly what we do now on the publishing side.

What really happened, I think, was that we found our niche and settled into it. Not that we’re not still evolving. I named the company booksBnimble because this business moves so fast. For us, the most significant change of the last few years was moving into marketing, which happened mostly because we had an opportunity and we were able to seize and build on it.

An indie author submitted his series for publication, but he was already self-published, with excellent reviews and a decent fanship, but lousy covers and lackluster copy.  I thought we could do well for him, but he’d already done a lot of the work himself. So I asked him if he’d like to try an experiment and let us do his marketing instead, beginning with optimizing his series with new covers and copy. He said sure, and we all did well! That business has mushroomed, I’m happy to report. And I can honestly say I don’t know what I enjoy more—publishing, marketing, or writing. Quite a revelation for someone who spent her whole life wanting to be a writer and nothing else.

Thank you, Julie.

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