Writing and Publishing

Pre-Order Campaigns: What I Learned, Whether They’re Worthwhile, What I’d Do Differently

When I was planning Mammoth’s pre-order campaign, I read several blog posts from other writers (like Eric Smith and Rachel Lynn Solomon) discussing campaigns they’ve run. Those posts were incredibly helpful, and since I learned a lot while organizing my campaign, I decided to do a write-up of my own. Maybe it’ll help someone else.

This won’t be short. Grab a snack. Dig in. (HAHAA YES I AM STILL MAKING PALEONTOLOGY REFERENCES I WILL NEVER STOP)

First of all, is it pre-order or preorder? I prefer pre-order.

A pre-order campaign is a way to reward people who order your book before its release date. Pre-orders are important. I’m no publishing expert, but from what I understand, a boost in early sales numbers looks good to your publisher and can influence other sales. If early demand for your book is high, more bookstores and sellers are likely to stock it. You want people to pre-order your book, and with so many amazing books coming out these days, it’s not getting any easier to get buyers to commit to yours, especially when it won’t launch for a month or more. I appreciated every pre-order Mammoth got, and I wanted to show that appreciation.

Pre-order campaigns are as complicated as you make them, but they’re always more complicated than you’d expect. Decide how much time you can realistically put into your campaign, and have a budget in mind. Whatever you think it’ll cost, increase that by at least 50%. It will cost more than you expect, and it’s better to have a surplus than to run out of money.

If the campaign is your idea, go for it. If it’s something your publisher is pushing for, ask them to cover at least some of the costs. Heck, ask either way, just in case. You never know.

Your budget isn’t just for the swag itself. It’s also for any related packaging costs, as well as postage. SO MUCH POSTAGE. Keep postage in mind when figuring out what kind of swag you want to include–flat items like stickers and bookmarks are so much easier and cheaper than bulkier items to ship. Research the rates, especially if you want your campaign to be international.

And if you don’t have a lot of experience with packing and shipping, keep things EVEN MORE simple. I ran an Etsy store for nine years and shipped something like five thousand little stuffed monsters all over the world, and that experience came in really handy. So did a lot of leftover supplies I’ve held onto. I would’ve floundered otherwise.

For Mammoth’s campaign, I set up a separate email account for people to submit their pre-order proof (usually a screen grab of their order confirmation). Keeping the requests in an account of their own, rather than having them get lost in the vast caverns of my main Gmail accounts, was really helpful. Some campaigns have web forms instead of email, so that’s another option.

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I designed my own bookmarks, stickers, bookplates and postcards, basing most of them around the fossil-heart design from the cover. The additional sketches are my own. I’m not a professional graphic designer, but I have a lot of experience designing promo items, and I think I did okay. If you’re not comfortable doing that yourself, and it’s not something your publisher is doing for you, don’t forget to figure the cost of hiring a designer into your budget.

(Yes, one of my stickers features my cat, Gatsby. It’s a long story. He’s an honorary smilodon.)

I got most of those items printed through GotPrint.com. The quality was great and the turnaround time was very reasonable.

I also created paleontology-themed keychains, which I assembled by hand. I used to help my dad with his hobby of importing jewelry and related components, so I knew how to source the charms, and I put together a hundred keychains while watching a movie. The cost was well under a dollar per keychain, not including my time.

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I also wanted to do a run of enamel pins, but that was out of my budget, so I used my button press (a professional model by Tecre–it’s an absolute beast and I love it so much) to make sets of one-inch pins. I had the press and a ton of supplies left over from my Etsy days, so the cost per button was extremely low. They took a considerable amount of time to assemble, but I kind of love doing mindless work while watching Netflix.

Since not all of my items were flat, I didn’t want to risk shipping them in normal envelopes. My go-to choice in my Etsy days was padded envelopes, but those don’t offer protection for flat items like bookmarks. For the campaign, I bought rigid mailers in bulk. (I’m not linking my source because their politics are absolute garbage and I’m searching for an alternative.) The mailers protected the flat items while having just enough room for keychains and buttons.

I packed the mailers assembly-line style. First I packaged the buttons and keychains in their little baggies. Then I wrote my thank-yous on the postcards. Then I counted out how many of each item I needed, and I sorted the items into individual piles. Each pile went into an envelope. Then I went down my pre-order list and plugged each address into Endicia, and printed the postage.

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One of several batches of swag ready to mail

I used USPS to mail everything. Because the mailers were rigid and not uniformly flat, I paid package shipping rates. (I miiiiight have been able to get away with paying for a cheaper option, but I didn’t want anyone receiving a postage-due envelope because some postal employee somewhere got overzealous.) Again, my Etsy background came in handy–I still have the Endicia account and the Dymo label printer I used back then, and the resulting discount saved me about a dollar per envelope (and I printed my postage from home, so I didn’t need to stand in line at the post office).

I also set limits. International shipping costs have gotten increasingly bogus*, so I only offered flat swag that could go in a normal envelope to anyone who pre-ordered from outside the US. I felt kind of rotten about this, but I tried to keep it as fair as possible without maxing out my credit card in the process. I also limited the keychains and buttons to the first 75 US pre-orders. In the end, I didn’t hit that limit, but I’m glad I had it in place. There are so many unknowns to consider in terms of potential results. I know of campaigns that have gotten less than 50 requests, and campaigns that have gotten more than 500. That’s a big difference in terms of cost and time.

Also, consider the environmental aspect of all this. Envelopes, any additional packaging materials, the swag itself . . . It adds up. Consider using recycled and recyclable supplies. You can avoid this aspect by offering digital bonus items (I gave people who pre-ordered Mammoth early access to a companion short story and a “fashion field guide” from Natalie’s blog).

There’s also the aspect of fairness. Not everyone can afford to pre-order books, so if you can have an option for those who request the book at their local library (which is also really helpful!), it’s a cool thing to do. Digital bonus items are great for this, as is flat swag if you can afford the postage.

So was it worth it? I mean . . . probably not? Getting the word out without constantly spamming my social media was so hard. But I heard from several people who weren’t aware of Mammoth before they found the campaign, and who then pre-ordered because of the campaign, so there’s that. Plus, I had so much fun putting it together. Like I said earlier, I can happily spend an afternoon bingeing Netflix while doing mindless work. It made me miss my Etsy days. Plus, now I hand out the leftover swag at local events, so it still helps me promote Mammoth.

(I even considered starting a side hustle doing pre-order campaign packages for other writers, but I’m not sure I could get the cost down enough to make it worth it while still covering my time. But maybe. It could be an interesting project for 2019. Have I mentioned how much I enjoy all this?)

The one element I think wasn’t worth it was the sweepstakes. I offered two prize packs within the US and one for international pre-orders (again, because of shipping). I don’t think they got much attention or encouraged anyone to order, and they were costly to ship. Plus, there are so many rules and legalities to consider. On the other hand, the winners have been SO HAPPY, and I’m a people pleaser, so that element worked well for me.

Would I do another campaign? Probably. I’d skip the sweepstakes aspect, and unless I came up with an irresistible idea, I’d consider sticking with flat swag to make mailing cheaper and easier. For example, I’d love to hire an artist to create character portraits for trading cards or small art prints. I also really like the idea of digital bonus content, especially from an environmental aspect, but I don’t know if that’s tempting enough to generate any pre-orders.

One last thing: Sadly, there are ways to fake order confirmations, and some people will go through a lot of fuss to get something for free, even if they have no interest in actually ordering your book. If you run a campaign, keep an eye out for anything that looks fishy.

I think that’s about it! Sorry for the length, but I really did learn so much, and there’s a lot to consider if you’re thinking of running a campaign yourself. Feel free to ask questions in the comments!

 

*No, seriously. When I started selling on Etsy in 2006, it cost about $3.00 to ship a three-ounce padded envelope to, say, the UK. Now it’s about $13.00. I CRY. It cost me more to ship a button set, keychain and bandana to the UK than to ship a four-pound box via USPS Priority Mail halfway across the country. I knew that was the case, but if a writer organized an international campaign without being aware . . . What a punch to the gut. As of 2018, an envelope of flat swag weighing less than one ounce only costs $1.15 to ship internationally–that’s a lot more reasonable and easy to budget for.
Writing and Publishing

Mammoth: Cover Concepts

Can we talk covers for a moment? I’m still not over the darling cover art Turner Publishing came up with for Mammoth:

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I have ALL THE APPRECIATION AND GRATITUDE for creative director Madeline Cothren and artist Jo Walker because this design still makes me fall in love every time I see it. Mammoth is about hard, unyielding things — fossils, the reception women receive in male-dominated fields, the kind of raw ambition that can result in reckless decisions — but it’s also a soft, sweet, optimistic story about discovery and vulnerability and love. Somehow, this cover captures both sides of the narrative.

I mean, come on — a heart made out of half-buried mammoth bones? It couldn’t be more perfect. I SWOON.

However, Mammoth almost looked completely different.

Several years ago, when I was unagented, I considered self-publishing Mammoth. I held off because I couldn’t come up with a cover concept I liked, so I never got as far as commissioning an artist/designer to create anything for me. I knew I didn’t want a photograph of a model meant to look like Natalie (the book’s main character, plus-size fashion blogger, and resident paleontology geek). I liked the idea of representing Natalie without actually depicting her, so in early 2016 I played around with this mock-up in Photoshop:

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Totally different! A pair of dig site tools and some random bits of dirt scatter over a skull image from one of Natalie’s sketchbooks. (She usually sketches fashion ideas, but I can totally imagine her drawing a fossil here and there.) The title’s scribbled with Natalie’s signature lipstick. There are retro-inspired polka-dots and a black/white/red color scheme Aunt Judy would adore. There’s a bit of a skull-and-crossbones theme representing how Natalie occasionally goes rogue when a paleo discovery’s at stake. But overall . . . It’s harsh. This design is like Natalie early in the book, when she’s strong and flawless on the outside, but there’s no hint of the evolution she undergoes during her time at the dig site. The story’s softness is missing. I never moved forward with this concept, obviously, and I’m glad I didn’t. (Especially since I made such a mess of the brush bristles in Photoshop! I’m definitely an amateur when it comes to design.)

It wasn’t a total loss, though. I’ve gotten to recycle a few of its elements in swag designs. My skull sketch is on bookmarks, info cards, buttons…

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Mammoth had to wait a few more years for a perfect cover, but it has one now. ❤

(If you like its final cover design, why not add Mammoth on Goodreads?)

Writing and Publishing

Mammoth Update

It’s been a minute since I blogged about Mammoth-related goodness, so let’s do a quick round-up of what’s been going on.

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First of all, Mammoth will be at Book Expo America this week!! *ALL THE HEART-EYES EMOJIS* My friends at Turner Publishing Company will have over 150 Mammoth ARCs available, as well as these super-cute totes to carry your books and swag. (I think they’re at booth 2829!) I love how the bag’s color scheme perfectly matches the book’s Central Texas Mammoth Site setting.

I use my tote all the time, and I have a few extras that I’ll be giving away when Mammoth’s November 6 release date is a little closer, so if you aren’t able to grab one in NYC this week, keep an eye out!

And hey, if you can’t get your hands on a physical ARC, eARCs of Mammoth can now be requested through Edelweiss!

I recently pieced together this paleontology-themed keychain design. I need to source some sturdier jump rings, but once I do that, I plan on sending out some of these babies as Mammoth-related swag.

I got some adorable bookplates this month as well. I’ll be autographing these and mailing them out to anyone who pre-orders Mammoth. More on my pre-order campaign this summer! I’m still planning additional swag, too. I’m thinking bookmarks and buttons for sure, and maybe stickers. I’d looooove to design an exclusive enamel pin — we’ll see! Let me know if you have a favorite kind of book swag!

And hey, speaking of pre-orders, Mammoth is popping up all over. It’s now available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and Indiebound. Ask about it at your local library and your favorite indie bookstore to put it on their radar!

BlogMammothBuzzBooksNovember is SO FAR AWAY. If you’d like an early preview of Mammoth, Publishers Marketplace included an excerpt in its Fall/Winter Young Adult edition of Buzz Books. The excerpt includes Natalie’s first day at the Central Texas Mammoth Site and ends with one of my favorite Mammoth moments.

Buzz Books is a free download and a great way to preview lots of awesome new titles coming your way later this year.

Augh, what am I forgetting?? I’m sure I’ll think of it as soon as I hit publish… ❤

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Anxiety, Life, Writing and Publishing

You Are Enough.

I’ve been participating in #IGWritersApril over on Instagram this month. The prompt for day 26 was “writing inspiration,” which could be interpreted in so many ways. The Waco Mammoth National Monument inspired the dig site in MAMMOTH. My love for the city of Austin inspired several MAMMOTH settings, and my bff Dava inspired some of my favorite plot points. I could have posted a photo of my childhood copy of JURASSIC PARK, or a still from the movie, or a favorite page from the dinosaur encyclopedia I read over and over as a kid.

Instead, I found some photos of myself as a young teenager. I shared the kid who never felt thin enough, likable enough, cool enough, pretty enough. She was never enough.

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In MAMMOTH, Natalie is a popular plus-size fashion blogger. She has an amazing vintage-inspired wardrobe. She rocks a red lip and perfectly winged eyeliner. She works for her aunt’s indie clothing line and knows how to design, sew, and alter for a perfect fit (and how to use shapewear to make that fit even more perfect). Natalie’s that fatsionista you envy on Instagram because she’s got it together (or at least she looks like she does).

Natalie adopted that persona because she was bullied in middle school. She reinvented herself so she’d no longer be “Fat Nat.”

Unfortunately, changing how others see you doesn’t fix how you see yourself. In MAMMOTH, Natalie has to figure out how to love and appreciate herself for who she is beneath her fashion armor. If she’s going to stand out during her dig site internship, she’s going to have to do so in an authentic way. She’s going to have to accept that she is enough, just as she is.

This means that Natalie isn’t as perfect as she appears. She has flaws, especially in how she thinks about herself. One of those flaws in particular, a habit Natalie has of being too aware of body size, is a detail I’ve discussed with readers, my agent, and my contacts at my publisher. Some people love it. Some people hate it. It’s polarizing, and whether to include or cut it has been a tough call! I went with what felt like the most authentic option, even though I’m still second-guessing myself about twenty times a day. The detail evolves as the story progresses. I hope readers will give my girl a chance so they can see that evolution happen.

Body image is so personal. SO PERSONAL. I’ve struggled with the concept since I was about seven years old, and because a lot of the self-doubt and anxiety in MAMMOTH mirror my own, putting this book out there is kind of terrifying. But if Natalie can be bold enough to stand out in paleontology, I can be bold enough to share her story.

I’m sharing it for that kid in the photos. She was enough, even though she never realized it. I’m sharing it for kids like her.

You are enough. Changing what’s on the outside won’t fix things until you accept and embrace that.

You. Are. Enough.

Writing and Publishing

MAMMOTH is being published!

Okay, so where were we? I took a little break to deal with Hurricane Irma cleanup (almost five months later, we’re still working on getting our roof replaced) and other life stuff. I’m still processing a lot of anxiety-related stuff (hurricanes and anxiety disorders are a fantastic combination), I’m catching up on a ton of reading, I finished a new rough draft during NaNoWriMo last November, and last week I helped one of my best friends move from Georgia to south Florida.

IMG_7240I’ve also been sitting on some super-exciting news, and now that the announcements have run in Publishers Weekly and Publishers Marketplace, I can finally share: my next novel, MAMMOTH, will be published in fall 2018 by Turner Publishing!

This book is so dear to my heart, and I’m so ridiculously anxious (in a GOOD way) to launch it out there into the world. MAMMOTH is a body-positive, science-geeky story about being true to yourself and letting your talents and ambitions shine.

IMG_7092Most of the book is set at an Ice Age dig site; to get the paleontology angle as accurate as possible, I trained at the Waco Mammoth National Monument and learned to dig and prospect for fossils. I also interviewed paleontologists, toured a bone lab, practiced screen picking, and spent a particularly spectacular morning hanging out with a pair of elephants at Cameron Park Zoo. (Thank you FOREVER to my bestie Dava Butler, who works at Waco Mammoth, for making all that possible!)

IMG_7276I wrote MAMMOTH in 2014. As I explained in an earlier post, my agent at the time didn’t connect strongly enough with it, and we parted ways in 2015. Finding new representation took some time, but Eric Smith of P.S. Literary was worth the wait. He began pitching MAMMOTH in May 2017, and after a few other close calls, we accepted an offer from Turner in December. You can read Eric’s post about MAMMOTH’S deal here.

I’m so jazzed to work with Turner, and so excited to share updates as MAMMOTH’S publication date approaches. Watch this space, my vintage velociraptors (as MAMMOTH’S Natalie would say) — there’s so much more to come. ❤

Writing and Publishing

Lightning Strikes Twice

Last month I posted about what can happen when your literary agent doesn’t like your next book. Here’s how that’s been working out for me.

So. By spring 2017 I’d been unagented for nearly two years.

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I queried new agents when I had the time and determination, but between being a caregiver for my dad*, who had renal failure, and digging up whatever freelance opportunities I could, I didn’t have a lot of emotional headspace left for agent hunting. Especially when the rejections I got were variations on a theme: “I love the voice/concept/whatever but there’s no room in the market for plus-size** characters.”

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(Pun not intended. And, I mean… What? ELEANOR & PARK was on fire when I was drafting MAMMOTH in 2013-2014, DUMPLIN’ took off in 2015, THE UPSIDE OF UNREQUITED was on the way… The audience is there! Plus, MAMMOTH is a story about personal authenticity and paleontology geekery. Its protagonist happens to be plus-size. She’s also smart. Clever. Ambitious. Conflicted. Brave. Flawed. Obviously I’m biased, but I think her value as a character goes beyond the size tag on her jeans.)

In April, an agent I followed on Twitter, Eric Smith of P.S. Literary, tweeted that he’d be closing to submissions in a few months. Eric seemed super cool, and he represents several writers I know (Rebecca Enzor, a friend from my toy-collecting days, and Rebecca Phillips, who I knew from the ABNA), and I figured, why not? I was spending a lot of time in hospital waiting rooms, so that’s where I drafted a new version of my query letter. Within a couple of days, Eric requested the manuscript. Yay!

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A few days after that I saw this tweet and wistfully thought, “Aw, I wish he was talking about MAMMOTH!”:

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BUT. BUT. HE WAS TALKING ABOUT MAMMOTH.

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He made a few revision suggestions that I totally agreed with, and a week or so later I signed a contract. His enthusiasm has been nothing short of remarkable, and I don’t know how he finds enough hours in the day to accomplish all that he does. Eric’s just awesome. Plus, I gained an amazing group of supportive agent-siblings!

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MAMMOTH is now out on submission, and I can’t wait to prove that the market has plenty of room for Natalie and her dig site discoveries. THIS IS HAPPENING.

*My dad passed away in late May, and one of the last things that made him really happy was knowing I’d signed with a new agent. As overwhelming as the last few months have been, I’m really glad he knew I’d found my footing again.
**Not everyone likes “plus-size” as a label. I acknowledge that, and I’ll address the reasons I use it for Natalie in a future post.
Writing and Publishing

What If Your Agent Doesn’t Like Your Next Book?

When you’re trying to break into traditional publishing, landing an agent feels like finding the holy grail — you’ve completed the quest, you’ve leveled up, you’ve done the thing.

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Then you start digging into everything that comes after, and you realize that signing with an agent is just another step in the process. And oh boy, you’ve still got a hike ahead of you.

So. You sign the contract. Your agent probably wants a revision, so you get that done. The two of you put together a submission package, your agent starts reaching out to editors, and for half a second you can BREATHE because the process is mostly beyond your control. (You should still be developing your platform, extending your reach, all that good stuff, but at least the submission process itself can chug along without you for a bit.) In that moment of calmness, you start thinking about that new idea that’s been wiggling in the back of your head. That’s when the anxiety sets in because…

What if my agent doesn’t like my next book???

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This is EXACTLY what it feels like.

I’ve seen this question on so many writing forums and Q&As and subreddits. It’s a dreadful thought, and I can tell you from experience that it feels even more dreadful when it actually happens. So what does it mean when your agent just doesn’t connect with your new work?

The scenario can play out in several ways, and it mostly depends on your agent. If you guys work well together but your new idea is in a genre or area that he doesn’t represent, he might try to work something out with another agent (probably someone in his agency) who has more experience with that genre. If your new idea is still just that, a vague and nebulous spark, and you haven’t put a lot of time or work into it yet, your agent might suggest that you put it aside for now and work on something she’s more likely to be able to sell.

Or . . . You and your agent might decide to part ways. Cue the tiny violins and sad trombones!

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I experienced that third option. In 2014, my then-agent was still trying to sell UNDERBED when I sent her the first draft of MAMMOTH. We worked through a series of MAMMOTH revisions, but in the end, she just couldn’t connect strongly enough with the main character to represent the project, and I felt too strongly about MAMMOTH to give up on it.

Because of that, and because she’d been unable to do much with UNDERBED, she and I parted ways in 2015. That happened on my birthday, by the way. I don’t recommend that. Really kind of ruins the day.

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So yeah. These things happen. Sometimes you have to take a step or two back. However, that doesn’t mean that you’ve failed, or that the project in question isn’t viable. It just means that you and your agent weren’t the literary soulmates you both hoped you’d be, and if an agent doesn’t fall in love with a project, she’s not the one you want selling that project anyway. Sometimes it takes a while to find the right fit in this industry.

I sent out a couple of MAMMOTH queries that same day. Finding a new agent took longer than I expected (more on that in another post!), but now that I can turn around and look back at that rocky hiking trail from the other side . . .

I think it was all worth it. I’ve still got countless trails stretching out in front of me, but I conquered that one.

Breaking up with an agent sucks, but it’s not the end of your career. You mope for a bit, you vent to your friends, you post GIFs of the Doctor standing in the rain, and then you stand up and dust yourself off. You keep going.