is the author of May Day
, the first in the Murder by Month
mystery series. How cool is it to have a murder by month and for it not to start in January? Mira James, grad student, leaves Minnesota for a part time job in a library in rural Battle Lake. She's barely settled in when she finds a dead body in the stacks.
I've been enjoying reading Jess's blog
, particularly what she has had to say about the publication process and promotion. At the same time Jess agreed to answer a few questions, Justine Larbalestier
(author of Magic or Madness
) has been blogging about writers and self promotion; I found it interesting to read all the things Jess is doing.
So, on with the show! Or at least, the Pop Interview. And find the answer to how many queries does it take to get an agent.Liz B: May Day is a fun read -- and I'm quite happy to find out that its a series, and we get to see more of Mira. Can you share with us a bit of the process, from thinking of "Mira, library, murder" to publication? Did you originally think of this as a series?
Jess: OK, my mom is an English teacher, and I come from a long line of crossword-puzzle-loving book readers who value the written word, so I've always been in awe of books. I had written horrible, self-involved poetry in high school and college, and a couple short stories, but never dreamed of writing a book until one day, out of the blue, I decided to do it. That book became my Master's thesis, and it's called Purple-headed Thistles
. It's mainstream fiction and about three women on a road trip. I had a heckuva time publishing it, so tabled it and started reading mysteries.
I started out with Tony Hillerman
and branched out to Sue Grafton
, Carl Hiaasen
, and Janet Evanovich
. When I read Evanovich, that was it. I thought, "I want to do this. I want to write a funny mystery that makes people forget about their life for a couple hours." That was the kernel for May Day
. I was living in Battle Lake
at the time, a tiny and quirky Minnesota town, so that became the setting. Mira, the protagonist, followed a similar path as me to get to Battle Lake--high school in Paynesville, college in Minneapolis, stumble into Battle Lake--but once she was there, she encountered a whole different life than me, one with murder, mayhem, and hot guys.
Once I had the plot line sketched out, the book really began to write itself. I hate it when authors say that because come on! If books wrote themselves, we'd all be writers. The truth is, though, that characters take a life of their own and do things a writer would never imagine them to do.
I finished May Day
in 2003 and was rejected 50 or so times until I came across this nugget of advice on a mystery-writing website: "If you're writing a mystery, write a series. That's the only way it'll sell." So, I took that advice to heart and wrote June Bug
, the second book in the Murder by Month
series. I also hired an independent editor to help me get May Day
from 45,000 to 60,000 words and to pump up my character development. After I had a bionic May Day
and a complete June Bug
, I sent out 100 query letters. Before the rejections started coming in, I sent out 100 more. Then, I sent out 100 more. By this time, rejections were pouring in, but so were some nibbles, and I had too much momentum going to back out.
I signed with my first agent in the summer of 2004. She wanted to go with publish on demand, which wasn't the direction I wanted to take my fiction, so we parted ways amicably and I quickly found a new agent, who signed me to Midnight Ink
in January of 2005. Midnight Ink bought June Bug
in August 2005 and Knee High by July
, the third in the series, in February of 2006. My plan is to finish all twelve months, in Battle Lake, with the original cast of characters (minus a few dead ones, here and there).Liz B: I'm impressed that you looked at the market (series sell better than standalones) and revised and wrote accordingly. Now that May Day is published (and the second in the series, June Bug, slated for a March 2007 release), the promoting has begun. There's the website and the blog; but also traditional book signings. How much time are you devoting to marketing? What marketing strategies are you using? And how much is the publisher involved?
Jess: Now you've gotten to the heart of the matter--promotion. I had done enough research beforehand that I knew promotion was going to be a lot of work, and even more time-consuming than the actual writing of the novel, but none of that prepared me for the reality. Since February 2006 (the book came out on March 1, 2006), I've been averaging 25 hours a week on promotion, including:
- Booksignings (Brian, my publicist at Midnight Ink, has been great about setting these up for me all over Minnesota and Wisconsin). Booksignings are generally demoralizing in that you sit at a table in the middle of a cavernous Barnes & Noble, as people walk by you and try not to make eye contact. You feel like the girl who wore her prettiest dress to the dance and spends the whole night alone in a corner. There are up moments, like when someone talks to you (and it doesn't matter if they buy a book--it's just nice to have someone talk to you), or when you meet the bookstore people.
- Library and school presentations (Brian set up one, and I'm setting up more). These are great fun for me. Teaching pays my bills, so I enjoy talking to a group of people and having an exchange of ideas. These presentations have also been good book selling opportunities as people are more inclined to be interested in your book if you've already entertained them for an hour.
- Buying and distributing promotional materials. I received a grant from the Lake Region Arts Council, my county's art board, for $1200 worth of promotional materials, and I bought pens that change colors, magnets, book bags, bookmarks, Nut Goodies (the candy of choice of Mira James, the Murder by Month protagonist), and t-shirts. I wouldn't order the book bags or t-shirts again, but the pens, bookmarks, magnets, and Nut Goodies have gone over well.
- Sending out review copies to bookstores, libraries, and reviewers. Brian has been a great help getting review copies in the hands of media and reviewers (including getting May Day reviewed by Kirkus and Publishers Weekly), and I've worked the library and bookstore angle. Brian supplied press kits, and I supply the book and some promotional materials. I only send the review kit to bookstores and libraries who have requested it after receiving a postcard from me.
- Contacting local media for television, newspaper, and radio interviews. My hometown newspaper, the Fergus Falls newspaper (near Battle Lake, where the Murder by Month mysteries are set), the college newspaper where I earned my degrees, and the newspaper in the town I currently live in were all happy to do full interviews. I also got on two local radio shows and the local television station by calling them and playing up my local angle.
- A book launch party at the local library. The Friends of the Library supplied the space and food, and I gave away prizes and sold books.
- Getting friends to review May Day on amazon.com. Ha! I actually did get a couple family and friends to do this, but I also had a complete stranger or two positively review May Day, so whee!
- My publisher has been very generous in that they made sure May Day is on the new paperbacks table at all Barnes & Nobles and Borders books. I'm doing my best to repay that confidence in me by stopping at all Barnes & Nobles and Borders I am close to and offering to sign stock.
My marketing blitz for May Day
is winding down (I hope!), and I've actually gotten back to my writing schedule, which is good because the deadline for Knee High by July
is June 1st. I do have some book clubs I'll be speaking at in May, and I will possible be doing some events in Battle Lake in May (though they have been tight-lipped about May Day
there), and I have a Wisconsin library/bookstore tour coming up the last two weeks in June, but hopefully after that, I can return to my reclusive writing lifestyle. Oh wait!!! I do online interviews with fabulous people from New Jersey, too.Liz B: You did your homework and it shows. And I love the part about the grant (and pens!! Who doesn't love pens?)
OK final question -- at Pop Goes the Library, we are all about pop culture. What is your pop culture area of expertise?
Jess: Oh sweetie, I am all ABOUT pop culture. I know that Reese Witherspoon wasn't supposed to wear Dior to the Oscars but snuck in with her vintage gown, that Mr. T.'s character on the A Team was BA Baracus and he was afraid to fly, every plot line on every single episode of Sex and the City, that Ryan Seacrest is dating Teri Hatcher but it won't work out because he's gay...I could go on. Sometimes I feel guilty that I had to stop reading People
and switch to Us
because all the human interest stories in People
were getting in the way of the good stuff, but I get over it.
And I'm not just attracted to pop culture as a voyeur. As a sociologist, I think it's a valid and really freaking fun branch of human study. I'm currently in the middle of co-writing a pop culture research essay that I hope to have published. It's called "She's Driving the Car: Gender, Miscegenation, and Sexual Orientation in Gigli," and the abstract is at http://www.jesslourey.com/research.html
If I had to say what my area of expertise in pop culture is, though, I would have to say it is the intersection of feminism and pop culture. There's been a clear shift in the portrayal of women in film, television, and magazines since the days of Charlie's Angels
(the television show), and the way it both undermines and empowers women is an area that deserves further study. I wanted that to be a central theme in May Day
--how the popular culture of the 80s, 90s, and today affects us as women, and how we can take the good and leave the bad and ultimately define ourselves.Liz B: Thank you very much!