Marketing with Teeth: Interview with Jonathan Maberry
MICHAEL KNOST: Over the years you have built a tremendous readership base. Other than great writing and fantastic storytelling, what do you most attribute that to?
JONATHAN MABERRY: When I was a teenager I was fortunate enough to meet and get to know two great and influential writers: Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson. Apart from the advice on craft they gave me, both authors gave me solid advice on how to become a successful published author. They said that although writing is an art—it’s the intimate conversation between author and reader—publishing is the business of selling copies of art. Publishers have no obligation to buy anything that they don’t feel will sell well. It is in the best interest of a writer who wants commercial as well as artistic success to learn both the craft and the business sides, and to know them well.
A codicil to that is that success can best be achieved by not being a jerk. Words to that effect. Respect, etiquette, fair play, generosity of spirit, a willingness to network and share knowledge, tolerance, and an attitude of positivity are all qualities of successful professional writers. That’s the advice I got from Matheson and Bradbury. I’ve done my best to live by those tenets and, yes, I do believe that this has contributed to my success.
And one other quality helps ... flexibility. Matheson also advised to be more than a "one trick pony." He said that a writer who wants to make a career out of a business as capricious as publishing should be able to try new things, stretch creatively, and adapt to the changing world.
KNOST: What tips can you offer to create and grow a solid readership base?
MABERRY: It’s important for a writer in any genre to read the genre—deeply, too. Know it and be introspective enough to understand what you think and what you feel about it. With that, you should also get to know the readers—the fans—of the genre, and you should cultivate a genuine respect for them. They’re not just faceless people buying your books. They’re people who have dimension and depth and personalities. What draws them to the genre? What draws them to your books? How can you interact with them in ways that are meaningful to both of you?
When I go on social media, or appear at a conference, or sit down to a signing, I approach this as a chance to participate in a community event. We’re all there for a shared reason. Let’s have some fun.
Not only does this help me be a happier person, it also cultivates a rich and dedicated fan-base. And I like getting them involved. I have contests to name characters, pick titles, and so on. I make it fun –and that becomes fun for all of us.
KNOST: Do you think keeping in contact with your fans is important?
MABERRY: I love keeping in contact with my fans. Without them I’m a hobbyist sitting alone in a room. Interaction lets us all share in the fun of the genre. And since I write in several genres, I get to geek out with fans of thrillers, science fiction, urban fantasy, dark fantasy, mystery, young adult, horror, comics ... geez, it goes on and on. I learn a lot from my fans—about books, pop culture, worldview, and more. And their reciprocal interest helps validate my drive to write.
KNOST: How do you best do that?
MABERRY: One of the things that’s helped me grow—and made it fun—is social media. I have an assistant who handles some aspects of my career, but I do my own social media. I allot ten minutes out of every writing hour to social media. So if you find me on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, GoodReads, or LinkedIn, that’s really me.
It deepens your footprint in the actual interactive fan base, and it allows real-time connection with people who enjoy the same sorts of things I like. We’re all book geeks. We’re all pop-culture nerds. Social Media allows us to geek out, share thoughts on books, comics, TV, movies. It keeps the water cooler buzz going all day, every day.
It’s important to budget your time with social media, though. Otherwise it can absorb an entire writing day. It’s equally important to understand it’s business potential, and to let that understanding color your online personality. We’re writers, so we shouldn’t use social media to slam anyone else, we should wax political, we shouldn’t get into fights over religion. That’s not our brand, and it pollutes our message. The tenets of behavior suggested by Bradbury and Matheson can be easily and effectively applied to social media.
KNOST: You’ve won several awards in the industry; do you think they make a marketing difference? If so, how?
MABERRY: Awards are intended not to praise individuals but to shine a spotlight on the genre or the art form. The Academy Awards, the Emmy’s, the Edgars, the Thrillers, and the Stokers—along with all of the others—draw the ear and tune the ear. They remind us that there are outstanding works being done in a variety of categories, and that maybe we should all lean close and take a look. Or take a bite.
From a personal standpoint, the awards are confidence builders, they drive sales, they’ve opened doors for me. My publishers have made sure to mention them on the covers of my books. My publishers also mention them when their sales teams go to bookstore buyers to pitch their catalog of upcoming titles. And I get invitations to events and projects because I’m a Bram Stoker Award® winner or a Scribe Award winner or a New York Times bestseller. Does that mean my works are substantially better than someone who does not have these milestone credits? Not at all. But because publishing is a business it would be poor business practice not to use the tools at one’s disposal.
I also sit on juries for various groups (Mystery Writers of America, Horror Writers Assn., etc.) to judge works in categories where I do not currently publish. This affords me the opportunity to read a lot of the best works, and to discover works I might otherwise not have had the good fortune to read.
KNOST: What marketing elements (that work well for you) do you think most authors overlook?
MABERRY: I often meet writers who say that they "hate Twitter" or "hate Facebook" and essentially turn thumbs down on social media as a time-wasting nothing. They are mistaken. Used correctly, social media is the single strongest tool for brand management (and remember, the writer is the brand) and marketing. People who don’t know this most likely simply don’t know how best to utilize these tools. They can learn. They should learn.
KNOST: Knowing what you know now, what marketing aspects would you focus on heavily if you were starting out in the business today?
MABERRY: Social media is the core marketing tool in this digital age. Nothing else comes close. There are some things more satisfying—in-person gatherings of writers, public appearances, and so on—but they don’t have the scope of social media. Someone just starting out needs to build a social media presence, and establish their brand, even before they have a product on the market. They need to connect with other people who enjoy the genre in which the writer plans to publish. They need to connect with other writers, readers, bloggers, reviewers, librarians, booksellers, and fans. Lots of fans. When I had my first thriller coming out (Patient Zero), I friended other writers in my genre, the bloggers who were reviewing books by those writers, and the most active fans of those writers. I joined the conversation and I didn’t try to hijack the conversation to make it about me. I became part of the community of people who dig that genre. I posted links to new books and movies. I posted favorable reviews. I slammed nothing. Ever. Why? Because negativity doesn’t sell product and it closes doors. When my own book came out, I used a subtle hand in promoting it. My social media posts—except on release day—are generally NOT about my books. They are about pop culture with a bias toward my genre. New writers should dive into the social media waters and learn how to swim as soon as they can.
KNOST: How important (as a promising novelist) is it marketing wise to publish short stories or nonfiction in many magazines and anthologies?
MABERRY: Publishing short fiction allows a lot of people to gain exposure to your works. It’s a sampler. And, when you’re starting out, you’ll often be in anthologies or magazines with bigger names. That’s great. The readers will be drawn to those heavy hitters, but they will find your works. That’s terrific exposure and, to some degree, it validates you by being in the same book as them.
Also, writing short fiction allows for experimentation. I’ve written short stories that are way outside of my comfort zone. Stuff I would probably never have tried. But those experiments allow you to stretch and grow as a writer. My whole YA career came out of a novella I was asked to write for Christopher Goldenís The New Dead zombie anthology. I would never have written that story otherwise. While writing that story, “The Family Business,” I discovered a whole new cast of characters and a setting that opened a door into young adult fiction. I later expanded that story into the novel, Rot & Ruin, which has gone on to become an international bestselling series of novels, as well as comics and a movie now in development. And I did a Wizard of Oz story for one of John Joseph Adamís anthologies, Oz Reimagined. Instead of writing a gritty horror story set in Oz, I instead experimented with a gentle fable, “The Cobbler of Oz”, which was so well-received that it has been included in the official Chronology of Oz. So ... yeah, short stories are great in many, many ways.
Nonfiction is useful, too. I started out as a nonfiction magazine feature writer, and later I wrote textbooks and mass market nonfiction books. I learned a lot of useful skills, particularly in understanding the market, structural logic, research, and so on. And my nonfiction book on the folklore of the supernatural, The Vampire Slayers Field Guide to the Undead (written under the pen name of Shane MacDougall), led me to try my hand at writing my first fiction, the vampire novel, Ghost Road Blues.
KNOST: What precautions do you take to protect your name brand?
MABERRY: For me brand is about integrity and attitude. I used to be a very negative person and then I discovered that negativity is a self-tightening knot. It doesn’t do you a damn bit of good. So I shifted to focusing on the positive elements of my writing and my career. I looked for, and found, the things about writing and publishing that were fun and uplifting. I reached out to do a lot of community building among writers. I stayed out of fights. I decided to never post negative comments or reviews (I’m a writer, not a critic) and to be a cheerleader for the success of other writers. The result is that I established a brand of an affable guy who is professional and compassionate, but one who is savvy in business and supportive of others. That’s a brand that makes you want to smile at yourself in the shaving mirror. It makes you feel like you are contributing something to the writing world rather than feeding off of it. And, it’s an infectious thing. People want to be happy and writers—despite the mystique of the brooding artist—do their best work when they are not depressed, angry, or resentful.
This kind of brand takes management. I make sure that the stuff I post on Facebook and other social media reflects and supports that brand. I don’t get bitchy and I don’t take cheap shots. I also invite my fellow creative types to share in their success by starting threads where they can talk about their current work in progress, or their career milestones. And when I’m speaking to groups of writers—such as at writers conferences or in my monthly free Writers Coffeehouse networking sessions—I encourage them to build brands that are a balance of fun and professional.
KNOST: How important are book signing events and personal appearances?
MABERRY: Sadly, with the decline of the number of brick-and-mortar bookstores, signings have become less of an effective tool. They are often costly for the store and unless they are a well-attended runaway hit they can create a feeling of frustration for many writers. That said, bookstore appearances still have their place and a writer should get behind the promotional wagon and push to make those events successful.
I love doing bookstore events. I try not to flood the local stores, though, because that dilutes the sales potential for each store. And events like readings, Q&A, and panels tend to draw bigger crowds, which are better for everyone.
Most of the public appearances I do are at conventions. I am a total panel junkie, and a good panel is not only gobs of fun, it sells books, too. And appearances at conventions puts you in front of a lot of folks who may not yet know who you are. You have a chance to wow them and connect with them. And you get to meet them!
KNOST: What marketing mistakes have you made that you learned from?
MABERRY: If there are fifty things you can do wrong, I did all fifty and then added some points to the list. But I take those as learning experiences. I used to have a negative vibe, but I learned from how that played out. I discovered that having fun works better. I also made mistakes early on by focusing only on the craft side of writing and not bothering (despite the advice I got from Ray Bradbury and Richard Matheson) to learn the nuts and bolts of the publishing side of things. That was a mistake, and it cost me. But I learned from it and as a result my business acumen has been every bit as important as my writing craftsmanship in building a successful career. Luckily, this is a model everyone else can copy!