There is no instruction manual for debut authors, and middle grade authors face some extra challenges. Our readers, 9 to 12-year-olds, are not getting their information about new books from authors themselves or from the internet, for the most part. They find out about books from teachers, librarians, parents, grandparents and friends who have heard about books from these same sources.
As a middle grade author, it’s easy to spend far too much time worrying about the wrong things. For example, many debut authors obsess over a release party, which while it may be fun, is not actually very important in the long run toward getting your book known. Nor is it all that useful to spend large amounts of time trying to set up book signings. For an unknown author, your target audience is usually not in a bookstore, nor will they even hear about the signing. Even if they did, it would have to be at a time that didn’t conflict with homework, sports, recitals or the myriad of other activities a child does, and it would have to be at a time a parent would make the effort to get them to a bookstore.
I’ve made a list of some of the potentially useful things you can do as you prepare for your debut. Most of these I learned from trial and error, actually mostly error, and I wanted to share them so future debut authors may not flounder quite as much as I did. You won’t be able to do all of them, nor should you, because your most important job is writing the next book after the debut, even if you don’t have a contract or a publisher for it yet. Protect your writing time above all. You don’t have to do any of these.
These are in no particular order of importance or timing:
1. When you have a release date, find bloggers who are doing debut challenges for your release year. A debut challenge is where pick a certain number of books by debut authors they plan to read. This is one of the reasons bloggers are so valuable and should be appreciated for all the time they give just out of love of books. You want to get the name of your book out there, so people can start to become aware of its existence. Just google “debut <year of your debut> challenge middle grade” or debut <year of your debut> challenge mg.” When you find bloggers who are doing challenges, send them an email to let them know your book qualifies.
2. Search out the internet groups of YA and MG debut authors who have banded together to help each other. Because there are fewer MG debuts, they usually join forces with YA authors. The membership for these groups often closes in the fall of the year before the debut, so don’t put this off if you want to join. They are great support for authors, and you’ll gain from the individual experiences that people will share. Once in a group, participate regularly and try to help others get the word out about their own books. To find these, google “debut authors <year of your debut>”
3. Get a website. If you don’t want to pay for one and/or feel uncomfortable adding content to one, you can use one of the free blogging sites instead. You won’t be able to make it look exactly like a traditional website (as far as I can tell), but it’s far better than not having one at all. Mine is very simple, but works for me. If you want some ideas, here’s the link to it: http://deegarretson.com . The goal of your website is to be able to add content that readers, teachers and librarians will find useful.
4. Get a Twitter account and figure out how to use it. The purpose of Twitter is not to continually talk about your book; it’s to connect with other people out there who are readers and avid supporters of kidlit. In fact, if you just talk about your book, you will annoy people and they won’t keep following you. Start following other writers, teachers and librarians. Participate in tweetchats such as #kidlitchat and #mglitchat.
5. Read and comment on other middle grade books you enjoy. Sometimes it seems as if certain writers never read anything besides their own book, and if you want to be part of the kidlit community, you have to participate in it. Twitter is a good place to pass on recommendations of other books.
6. Join Goodreads, Librarything or Shelfari. This is not for the purpose of reading the reviews that will eventually be posted there. In fact, you may drive yourself crazy reading reviews, so it’s perfectly okay not to read them. You want an account on these sites to be able to offer giveaways of your books and to let other people know a bit more about you and what you’re reading.
7. As soon as you get advance copies, offer a giveaway on one of the sites above. You’ll want to offer giveaways periodically, not just with your advance copies, to keep reminding people of your title and cover.
8. Decide if you are going to have a blog and/or if you are going to participate in a group blog. Blogging is time-consuming, but it allows you a way to connect with potential readers. The most effective blogging entries won’t just be about your book. If you can add content that is either somehow related to something in your book, or if you can post entertaining entries about your life and interests, people will find you. The entries on my blog that get the most hits are posts about U.S. Presidents. I’m hoping someone interested in history may also be interested enough to find out more about my book featuring a (fictional) Presidential kid.
9. Follow and comment on existing middle grade group blogs, and blogs by kidlit authors who blog regularly. You’ll learn quite a bit about the community of kidlit enthusiasts. I’m much more likely to move a debut book to the top of my TBR pile if I remember seeing the author’s name somewhere or have had some interaction with them (positive interaction-if a person is too snarky or self-centered, then I’m not inspired to read their book.)
Here’s just a few:
Project Mayhem (this is the one I joined) http://project-middle-grade-mayhem.blogspot.com/
From the Mixed Up Files of Middle Grade Authors: http://www.fromthemixedupfiles.com/
Operation Awesome: http://operationawesome6.blogspot.com/
10. Contact book bloggers and ask for reviews. Not everyone will agree, because bloggers get inundated with requests, so don’t get discouraged if someone says no.
11. Decide if you are going to make a book trailer. Every person seems to have a different opinion on the value of these. I like them because I use them as a way to easily introduce my book to bloggers, librarians and teachers. There is an expense involved and it may not be worth it to you, so it’s certainly not going to cause your book to fail if you don’t have one. You can see my two on the first page of my website: http://deegarretson . I’ve also got a blog post that details how much it cost me to make the WOLF STORM trailer: http://bit.ly/pqoJS0
12. Decide if you are going to do a blog tour. It took me a long time to figure out exactly what they are. Here’s a good explanation of blog tours from the Book Publicity Blog: http://yodiwan.com/2009/06/11/whats-a-book-blog-tour/ If you are going to do this, give yourself plenty of time to set up a good one, and give the bloggers plenty of time to read your book.
13. Order bookmarks. You’ll want to pass these out whenever you get an opportunity. I find them more useful than business cards. Have your email address on them as well as your website and blog addresses. You can spend quite a bit more on other giveaways if you really want to indulge in what’s called “swag,” but I’m not sure the cost is worth it for middle grade. I spent $250 dollars on some really amazing combination flashlight/compass/carabiners to give out for special events with the words “Danger’s Edge” printed on them. Unfortunately, “Danger’s Edge” got taken off the book cover, so I have a box full still sitting in my basement.
14. Figure out how to use Skype. Offering free twenty minute Skype sessions to classes or book clubs is a good way to connect with potential readers.
15. Write a book club discussion guide and/or a teacher’s guide for your book. These are to post on your website or blog so that people can download them. If you want ideas on how to do them, you can see mine here. For teacher’s guides: http://deegarretson.com/teachersguide.html For book club discussion guides: http://deegarretson.wordpress.com/book-club-discussion-questions/
16. Decide if you are going to do school visits, and if you are, prepare some talks. The best talks are not just about you and your book. Try to find some extra content on writing or books that will appear to teachers. As a debut author in an economy where school budgets are extremely limited, you’ll have to decide if you are going to charge or not. Some authors do not if the school will send home order forms for the books. Often, schools have arrangements already in place with local bookstores. If they don’t, a bookstore should be willing to set this up.
17. Look into book fairs. You usually have to apply to attend these several months in advance, but they are a good way to let people in your area know about your books. Teachers and librarians often attend. If you do go, have bookmarks to hand out, information about your willingness to Skype and any guides you’ve made. To find book fairs, google “book festival” or “book fair” along with the name of the state.
18. Get a Facebook author page. This will have limited use for a middle grade author, partly because children under thirteen aren’t supposed to be on Facebook, and the ones that are mostly spend their time interacting with their own friends rather than seeking out authors. However, you may have some readers seeking you out.
Now that you may be exhausted from reading this all, I’ll just reiterate, you get to choose how much or how little you do. Above all, keep writing!