The following Q&A is with author Bob Tarte. Bob lives in Michigan with parrots, ducks, geese, parakeets, rabbits, doves, cats, hens, and one turkey. I met Bob at a Florida writers conference, where he was speaking about the success of his pet podcast. He has published three books with Algonquin; the latest, Kitty Cornered: How Frannie and Five Other Incorrigible Cats Seized Control of Our House and Made It Their Home, released this spring.
I don’t think you keep it a secret that you’re an introvert. Lots of writers who are introverts tell me they are bad at marketing (or dislike it) because they’re not extroverted. Thoughts on this issue?
For me the introvert-extrovert thing doesn’t apply a whole lot to online activity. What’s more introverted than sitting alone in a room and typing with the shades down? The reason that I have trouble with online marketing is a remarkable lack of self-confidence. If my sales ranking tanks on Amazon on any given day, I think, well, that proves it. My stuff isn’t any good, and I’m a despicable person. As a self-disrespecting neurotic, I wrestle with these feelings constantly.
Well, your stuff is pretty awesome. You had some stellar reviews and coverage for your first book, Enslaved by Ducks, and the book still ranks (as I write this) at No. 4 in the Birds category at Amazon. I think we can safely call the book a solid success. What do you think were the critical factors that helped it along—aside from it being a great book?
Thanks for the compliment! It’s occasionally the No. 1 bird book on Amazon, and I’m hoping that Kitty Cornered does as well once it gets a more exposure. The novelty of writing a pet memoir about ducks has to be a big factor in its success. And so is the humor. There are lots of great pet books out there, but few that come from the perspective of a clueless, bumbling soul like myself who is outsmarted by his animals at every turn. Despite the jokes, my huge love for our pets comes through, and people respond to that.
I think it’s mostly been word of mouth that’s taken Enslaved by Ducks into its thirteenth printing. A few times a year, people send me e-mails telling me that they’ve been going through a rough patch in their lives and that having a book that makes them laugh out loud helped them feel better. That’s a wonderful role to play in people’s lives. I wish I could get doctors to prescribe it.
When we first met a few years back, I was fascinated by your exotic pet podcast and how it worked as a marketing tool. That podcast still continues today. Do you consider it as important today as it was then? Do you think people find your books, then your podcast, or vice versa?
I don’t have impressive numbers as a podcaster. More people come to my PetLifeRadio.com What Were You Thinking? podcast from my books than the other way around. But the podcast is still a great marketing tool, because my readers get to revisit the little world that my books occupy—especially in the chatty shows that [my wife] Linda and I do from our dining room with parrots squawking in the background.
I do fewer interviews about exotic pets these days and use the show more as an audio blog about my life with our own critters. My frequently birdless birding expedition podcasts with Bill Holm are popular, too. Bill has been in all three of my books, so those shows also tie in nicely with my writing.
All three of your books have been published by Algonquin. What is the relationship between you and your publisher when it comes to marketing and promotion? Do you strategize and plan together? Do you work closely with a publicist or marketing team?
I had a great phone conversation recently with my agent Jeff Kleinman of Folio Literary Management; my editor at Algonquin, Kathy Porie; and three people from the marketing department at Algonquin (Online Marketing Manager Debra Linn, Director of Marketing Craig Popelars, and Marketing Manager Katie Ford). We discussed different ways of getting the word out about Kitty Cornered, and they came up with the terrific idea of having the six cats from my book write a monthly advice column for other cats. So “Ask Six Cats” will be a regular feature on the Algonquin Books Blog.
We’re also using Twitter in a really fun way. Each Friday from 12:30-1:00 p.m., a different cat from Kitty Cornered live-tweets answers to questions from cats via #Ask6Cats and @BobTarte. We’re trying this for six Fridays to start with, so that each of the cats has a chance to participate, and if it’s a big success, it could run even longer.
You’re one of the authors whose Facebook presence I very much admire. You’re funny, you post things that tie strongly into who you are and what your books are about, but I never feel like I’m being marketed to. What is your take on Facebook? Do you like using it or do you feel pressured to? Have you seen any impact from using it?
When my old grade school friend Michael Renburg talked me into trying Facebook a few years ago, I did so grudgingly, assuming that I’d hate it. I started posting photos as a way to avoid working on Kitty Cornered. I also found it was perfect for quick little quips that didn’t fit into a book. I was surprised at the level of response I got, and I began to really enjoy the process. Three years later, I’m inching toward the 500 friends mark.
I think Facebook is a great way to maintain a presence and keep people interested in what I’m doing without hitting them over the head with a hard sell (which I admit to doing from time to time). I’ve noticed other authors on Facebook who have fan pages only or in other ways limit their accessibility to their readers, and that’s exactly the opposite of what I do. Readers enjoy having direct and friendly access to an author that they like, and I’ve made some good online friends. People have told me that my page is a fun place to hang out, and I do my best to keep it a “thought-free zone” that devoted mainly to humor, pets, and birding.
As far as it having any impact, I get a tremendous amount of participation from my Facebook friends when I’m doing something new like the Ask Six Cats blog and tweets. It definitely helps sell books, too. My pal Lynne Kasuba posted that she bought 18 copies of Kitty Cornered and she gave me the names of the recipients in case I wanted to friend them on Facebook, too.
I get a ton of questions from writers about how to balance writing with marketing. Is it something you even think about? Has marketing taken up more time with each new book? Does it eat into your writing time?
It definitely cuts into writing. I’m not in the right mental space right now to start working on another book, because I’m putting so much psychic energy into promotion. I’m good at it when it involves creative activities, like guest blogging. Despite my painful shyness and winning humility, I do well at book signings and workshops, especially when more than three people show up. But I’m a miserable failure at forcing myself to perform repetitive tasks such as e-mailing all the vets in the country and letting them know that I wrote book about cats.
If you’re a pet owner or pet lover, check out Bob’s website, where you can find out more about his books, podcasts, and other offerings. And anyone with a cat should be sure to visit the Ask 6 Cats blog.
Or, take a look at each of his books on Amazon:
Jane Friedman (@JaneFriedman) has nearly 25 years of experience in the media & publishing industry. She is the publisher of The Hot Sheet, the essential newsletter on the publishing industry for authors, and was named Publishing Commentator of the Year by Digital Book World in 2019.
In addition to being a professor with The Great Courses (How to Publish Your Book), she is the author of The Business of Being a Writer (University of Chicago Press), which received a starred review from Library Journal.
Jane speaks regularly at conferences and industry events such as Digital Book World and Frankfurt Book Fair, and has served on panels with the National Endowment for the Arts and the Creative Work Fund. Find out more.