Author Mary Metcalfe On Writing, Editing and Adventures in Book Marketing
By Alex Greenwood
As part of our continuing series of interviews with authors, songwriters and other outspoken creative people, we’re happy to introduce you to author Mary Metcalfe, who talks about her writing, career as an editor and thoughts on the era of new publishing.
Alex Greenwood: Tell us a little about yourself.
Mary Metcalfe: I’m a wife, mom, recent grandmother, dog and cat lover and accidental gardener who caves in on weeding as soon as the hot summer weather hits. I love long walks in the woods with my husband and dog where neither needs to be leashed. I am a slave to my three cats 24/7 and keep a bag of catnip handy when I need them to give me a break. I reluctantly gave up chocolate a few years ago and have never recovered. I also now only have Bailey’s once a year as a true treat.
When/why did you start writing?
I’ve been a professional writer for all of my adult life but on a technical non-fiction level. Three years ago, when my daughter had her first literary non-fiction book published commercially, I realized I wanted to see my name on the cover of a book and not just in the Acknowledgements at the end as a contributor or editor.
Your work has a definite bent towards mental health and social issues. Could you elaborate on that and why you went that direction?
When I first started writing fiction I started with some detailed character outlines and a basic plot. As the books and my research for them evolved, I realized I was exploring questions about people I’ve known and why they behaved in the ways they did. My characters took on the issues that I wondered about: Alzheimer’s (a very dear neighbor), PTSD (my father), Traumatic Brain Injuries (my father and maternal aunt), spousal abuse (a topic I had analyzed extensively for clients and one seen frequently in my mother’s generation). Researching and writing my stories helped me understand what had happened to some wonderful people who became very damaged.
How do you market your work?
My background is in communications, marketing and public relations. But, I’ve quickly learned that the principles may still be the same but the practices have changed big-time. So, I’m well aware of branding but am working on how to apply that to 21st century marketing via social media. At the moment, I’m working with a couple of professional book marketing experts to fine-tune a strategy that will give me broad exposure and still let me sleep and read a good book now and then (like your Pilate’s Ghost…. J).
What is the biggest lesson you’ve learned about marketing your work so far?
Not to get so caught up in relationship building, promotion and marketing (especially Twitter) that you have no time to write. It is simply not possible to have a personal relationship with three thousand people and maintain it. And, I’ve learned the “conversion rate” from interested to becoming a buying reader is miniscule. I’m now focusing on reviews and interviews and working at finding and reaching the niche audience that is already reading and looking for books in my genre and reaching out to them. I’m done with “I don’t usually read this genre” people who got a freebie and give it three stars because they wouldn’t like the book in the first place. Let’s not waste each other’s time.
Any favorite writers?
Oh my – so many. I am a historian by my early university studies and then through my journalism degree. I particularly like social histories and autobiographies so that list would be quite long. I would say that Barbara Walters’ autobiography really stands out for me. She rose up through the journalism ranks at a time when women were not taken seriously at all and always “needed” a male co-anchor to whom they always played second fiddle. Ms. Walters paved the way for today’s female anchors and investigative journalists. She’s as close to a legend or idol for me as anyone in the biz.
Among fiction writers I am a huge fan of Grisham, Le Carré, Nora Roberts, Barbara Delinsky, Nicholas Sparks and a growing cadre of mid-list authors who are writing wonderful books that don’t get to the bestseller lists including a certain J. Alex Greenwood, C. L. Withers, Barbara Brunner, Karen Tyrrell… that list just goes on and on.
My biggest concern at the moment is that the Amazon model for Kindle Direct is undermining book sales on a very insidious level. I’ve seen myself doing it: I wait/lurk/check around for the latest freebie/99 cent title to pop out from a known or emerging author and find myself loading up my Kindle. At the moment, I have 80 titles on my Kindle – enough for a year of reading and I didn’t spend more than perhaps $25. That compares to my pre-Kindle/Amazon era where I easily spent $500 or more per year and often paid $20 a copy for a favorite author.
My concern is that this model will either leave good mid-list authors working 2nd and 3rd jobs (do we really need to starve our artists?) to make ends meet or the whole system will implode and there will be a new normal that sees authors paid something of what their work is worth.
Personally, I’m eschewing the Amazon model (once my Kindle contracts run out) and holding out for sales rather than giveaways.
Mary, I agree about Kindle Select. I experimented with it on my third book, the aforementioned Pilate’s Ghost, and a couple of short stories, but I’m opting out as soon as the first contract period expires.
As well, I know from personal experience, that my best reviews are coming from readers who bought my novels. The worst have come from the freebies. So, never again.
What’s next for you?
Other than working on my 2nd job as a freelance editor to help pay my bills? I’m working on the fourth novel in my Look to the Future series. I’m under a lot of pressure from readers who have read the first three and are looking for their Metcalfe fiction fix.
As an editor, one thing that concerns me greatly is the number of authors who are publishing without benefit of professional editing. I’m not trying to create more business for my company but it is hard to read a book with a good storyline, great characters and then undermined by poor grammar, spelling and/or punctuation. A few typos are natural – I find them in Nora Roberts every time – but missing words and wrong words are an issue for some otherwise very good storytellers.
As my author buddy Barbara Brunner has said, “a good editor is worth her weight in gold” or words to that effect. I second that thought. Fifty Shades of Gray completely aside, you can’t write a true break-out novel without the support of an editor and a proofreader. And, I don’t think they should be the same person. Each has something different to look for.
A related issue is that I am finding Barbara Freethy (a NY Time bestselling author) schlepping her books alongside those books full of mistakes. I haven’t quite figured out what this means to publishing, but I am concerned that the publishing pool is getting very muddy and good mid-list authors are working their hearts out for little return, much as they deserve it.
Alex – thanks so much for this interview. You got me thinking. And, I hope your followers/readers will find some good nuggets to think about from my musings.
Thank you, Mary! We’ll be reading!
Winds of Change video book trailer: http://bit.ly/QC3LYw
Winds of Change: http://amzn.to/PhSJt4
New Beginnings: http://amzn.to/QUESaR
Road to Tomorrow: http://amzn.to/QUESaR
All three novels are available in paperback at Barnes & Noble, Amazon, Indigo and wherever print on demand books can be ordered. I’m also on LinkedIn, Goodreads, LibraryThing and Shelfari. Please join me January 26, 2012 on live LA Talk Radio at TwoTalkBooks with Starla Faye; 11 a.m. PST and 2 p.m. EST at http://www.latalkradio.com/Starlafaye.php