Monday, March 29, 2010

Courtney Milan Spends the Day with the Eight... and You

The Rockville Eight is pleased to host 2010 RWA® RITA® Finalist Courtney Milan as our guest blogger for March's Last Monday of the Month.

Courtney earned RITA's nod this year with her novella, "This Wicked Gift," featured in The Heart of Christmas. Her debut historical romance, Proof by Seduction, is in stores now. For more with Courtney, visit her website,

Right now, though, she's all ours... and yours. The Heart of Christmas and Proof by Seduction can be yours, too. Courtney will pop in throughout the day to chat – and she'll select one commenter to win a copy of both books – so keep those comments coming!

And now, take it away, Courtney...


We've all heard the horror story about the person who sells and then discovers they are so busy writing books that they don't have time to do promotion. I have to admit, the person who tells this story is usually someone who sells promotional services. But honestly, I think this is an urban legend, and I think that people can focus to much on promotion before publication. I have not met a single published author who discovered that she did not have time to do promotion, if she started taking care of things when her book sold. (Promotion can take lots of time--but the vast majority of it is not things that you can frontload prior to publication. For instance, I spent 5 hours this morning working on new bookmarks--but you can't make bookmarks until you have a book cover.)

I did worry about promotion before publication, though--I worried about it a lot. And in my mind, I spent too much time and money on it.

So, here's how I see things:

1. Do the free stuff now. Start a facebook page (but please, dear God, do not ask all your friends to be fans.) Get a blog--most are free. (And if you enjoy blogging, blogging can be good practice writing on a schedule--just make sure that it's not cutting into book-writing time!) If you want, find a place with cheap hosting and put up a wordpress site, using a free template. When you publish, you can get someone to design it--just make sure that you're on the ball about that, because good web designers have a backlog (this is the only place where people get in trouble, I think: failing to realize that good web designers have 6 month to 1 year backlogs, and so you need to get on their schedule as soon as you've accepted an offer of publication). But don't freak out about any of this. Some bestselling authors use nothing more than a free blog as their entire web presence, even after they are published. See, for instance, Kristin Cashore. Her first two books hit the NYT list in hardcover; her debut novel, now available in paperback, has been sitting on the NYT children's list for 21 weeks. Her web presence is a free blog--and she writes YA books, and young adult readers are more likely to want to interact with the author online.

2. Get cheap business cards. Vistaprint is great for unpublished authors. You'll find that you adjust your card based on the book you're writing, so 100 of them is all you need. I bought business cards in the 1000s, printing my book on the back, and paid lots of money for them. I gave out about 10 of them.

3. The only thing that I think you do have to spend money on now is this: if you know the name you will be using (for instance, because it is your own), or if you think you know the pseudonym you want, buy your own domain name. They are cheap ($9.95 a year) and it's better to have it than not--it sucks to be known on the contest circuit or by your free blog by one name, only to discover that the name is unavailable. You want to be able to get, and it's cheap to lock it in.

4. Other than that, I believe in the cheap. Do not buy personalized stationary. You don't need it. Nobody will think less of you for using the regular old letter paper from Office Depot. It's true that you should dress for the job that you have, but authors wear yoga pants. Act professionally, and use clean paper (and don't use blinking graphics on your website) and you will be just fine.So where should you spend your money, if you are burning to spend it? Spend it on conferences--networking and meeting authors who might introduce you to agents and editors will help more than personalized stationary. You'll also get to know people who may one day provide blurbs for your debut novel, and that's always a good thing! I got some great mileage from author critiques that I won from contests, and Brenda Novak's Diabetes Auction has a huge number of author critiques available.

It is really easy to fall prey to the notion of sympathetic magic: that if you spend a lot of time or money on something, that it must help. There is so much uncertainty in the publishing world, and so little that authors can control, that we look for anything to think "if I do that, I will get published." But it is simply not true that a pretty website or personalized professionally printed stationary will help you get published. If you write a good book, and carry yourself as a professional, you're doing enough promotion.

But speaking of promotion: I have a novella that just finaled in the RITA. One commenter will get a copy of both my novella and my debut novel, PROOF BY SEDUCTION. Who wants it?


  1. Great advise, Courtney. I'm at a point in my career where I'm soaking up all the promotional advise I can get. And I appreciate the ideas that cost little or no money.

    Connie Gillam

  2. I'm following this topic with great interest. I spent a good five hours updating my website last night that I could have spent writing. Could have, would have, should have...sigh.

    I appreciate the tips from someone who's been there. Though...I did particularly like your personalized Courtney Milan envelopes and your bookmarks are enviably lovely. :) But as I mentioned, I'm paying close attention to these little promotional details right now.

    Congrats on the RITA nomination! I loved "This Wicked Gift" and will actually be thoroughly upset if "Proof By Seduction" doesn't get a similar nod next year.

  3. Courtney - congrats on the RITA nom! And thanks for posting such a timely topice on the R8 blog. I'm on the tipping point of setting up a website and I completely need to do the biz card thing.

    I waited soooo long for the GH finalists to be announced but I guess I didn't expect to be one of them because I feel completely behind on getting that "low level" marketing up and running. Eek!

    Looking forward to meeting you at Nationals!
    2010 Golden Heart (R)Finalist in Paranormal, "Honor Bound"

  4. Congratulations on the RITA nomination!

    This is a great post - I absolutely agree that it's too easy to fall into the trap of believing that spending money will automatically help. And I hear you on the business cards - I have embarrassing number of lovely ones myself that I bought before last year's nationals (after finaling in the GH), and I handed out less than fifty.

    I did see quite a bit of your promotion on Twitter, and thought it was interesting that you and Tessa Dare were so good at cross-promoting each other (similar to the relationship I see with Gena Showalter/Kresley Cole) - how early in the process did you develop that strategy, or did it sort of happen organically?

  5. Lots to think about, Courtney. And I *love* what you said about sympathetic magic. It's so easy to fall into that kind of thinking, since the only factor of success that's actually in our hands is the writing. Everything else looks mysterious and magical.

  6. Hi Jeannie! Thanks for the kind words. Have I mentioned that I check your website constantly for more word about when your books are coming out? I cannot WAIT to read your book.

    Keely, you are definitely not behind. You're a Golden Heart Finalist, and that's great--it means that people will be looking up your name. Congratulations! But don't fret too much. What will matter more than your website and business cards is whether your book is all there. Make sure that the manuscript is polished to a shine. That takes precedence over the website and the business cards.

    There's a difference between promotion PRE publication and promotion POST publication. So, for instance, I *do* have personalized stationary. But my custom printed envelopes cost me $100 for 1000; and Office Depot charges $29.99 for 250. So if you're using in bulk (and I am for bookstore mailings, among other things), the math suddenly starts working out.

    I think almost everyone overdoes promotion prepublication. (This included me, way back when.) Once you have an offer in hand, you definitely need to start doing more. But no amount of prepublication promotion will sell your book to an editor. Only a good book will do that, and I think some people get freaked out by the "you must promote everywhere, now, immediately" talk, and go overboard.

    Sara, as for the Tessa/Courtney cross-promotion strategy, it grew up organically. I adore Tessa and she, oddly enough, seems to like me.

    Yvonne, there is a kind of magic to these things. In fact, I think published authors have their own traps they fall into--hideously expensive book trailers and so forth. For the adult historical romance market, I have never seen a good explanation of why book trailers are worth the money. They get no hits on YouTube. And while some people who make book trailers say that it convinces industry professionals to stock your book (something I have also seen no proof of), the timeline for their release doesn't mesh with that--most trailers come out within a few weeks of release, long after bookstores have put in their orders.

    Sympathetic magic doesn't ever go away, and I always feel its siren call....

  7. Congrats on your RITA final, Courtney!

    I second the recommendation to get business cards. I was at the Public Library Association conference this past week. I brought bookmarks, which is what I usually hand out to readers since it has my website, etc on it. But I forgot business cards. Wouldn't you know I was asked for one!

  8. Congratulations on your Rita nomination! Promotion has been on my mind, to the point that it's consuming me. I used to be in real estate and it was location, location, location. With writing, I'm hearing promote, promote, promote. So your blog is refreshing because I think I've been worrying too much.

    Although I did just get a three book deal, so now I do have to seriously consider how to get a strong reader base. I'm not sure I'm doing the right thing. In the last two months, I've gotten a website. I'm on a tight budget at the moment, so I was very pleased to find a web designer who does really nice work for a great price. I also got business cards, Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn, of course, I'm not utilizing the social networks enough. I'm still intimidated by them. I hear fan page, friend page. It's confusing.

    Now I'm finding the business cards great. I'm handing them out at Little League, the grocery store, school, wherever I run into people I know or seem to have an interest in writing.

    I would love to know more of your thoughts on promotion when you get the deal. Help!

  9. Another note on business cards. I took my daughter to a Taylor Swift concert and we forgot our camera. The guy in front of us was getting incredible pictures. I asked his girlfriend if we could possibly get a couple. She said sure and asked for an email address. Out pops my business card.

    The mother sends me the pictures and I find out that both love mother and daughter love to read, so I promised to send them an autographed book as soon as it's out.

    Unless they really don't like it, they'll probably tell their friends who like reading. If I hadn't had the cards, I would've been struggling in the dim light for something to write on, and it wouldn't have gotten nearly the good results. The pictures were fabulous, BTW.

  10. Congratulations on your RITA nomination, Courtney, and thanks for the great advice. Love to hear stuff like that -- relax and write. Saving my dollars for Nashville!

  11. Gina and bevp, thanks so much for the congratulations.

    Anita--the question of what to do post promotion is hard. My best advice is this:

    1. Set a budget for promotion, and stick to it. Keep track of what you spend per book--I have a spreadsheet where I itemize how much I spend on promotion. Otherwise, you can lose track of things and not realize how much money you're spending.

    2. When you set your budget, keep in mind your advance. I say this because I know people who have vastly overspent their advance, and I think that is rarely wise--not unless your advance is truly tiny. There are some times when I think it might be worth going overboard, but think long and hard before you do so, and make sure you're acting rationally, and not out of starry-eyed hope.

    3. Never shell out big bucks for something that everyone else is doing. If everyone else is doing it, you will not stand out in a crowd. I do believe in spending money if it will make you stand out, but only do so after you've looked at what everyone else has done and can see that you are doing something that is different in kind.

    4. Don't worry too much about social networking. Honestly, 90% of the people I see on social networking sites are just there to sell their books, and nobody finds that attractive. If you don't like it, set up a minimal presence and move on. (That's what I did with myspace and facebook.) Don't spend time doing stuff you hate.

    5. In my mind, there's a lot of promotion you can do that gets your name "out there." And that has some value. But the only thing you can do that actually sells someone on the idea of your book is to have content. If you're on a tight budget (and these days, who isn't?) think about what you can do for free, or at low cost--or what you can bribe friends and family members to do for you. I believe in getting content out there--however you can. Excerpts, short stories, what have you. People buy books because they trust you to deliver on content, so you need to give them content. Not all content has to be stories; some of it can just be stuff that highlights your voice. For instance, I made a printable book cover ( for my first book that was designed to showcase my sense of humor (and the heat level of the book). Cost to me? My time. But it got sent to a lot of people as something funny, and my publisher ended up highlighting it at the Tools of Change conference, too.

  12. Cool about the RITA nomination. Enjoyed the post. All very good advice.


  13. Congratulations on being a finalist in the RITA!! Your information on promotion is wonderful. Promoting your writing is one of those grey areas that I'm only just learning about. It's comforting to hear that you don't have to throw a lot of money at it to be successful with it. Thanks for the great insights and for being our guest here.

  14. Courtney -

    Thanks for your great advice - and your transparency. It's so helpful to know what's worked for you and what hasn't. I'll be cheering you on as you head to Nashville. And I hope you'll come back to hang out with the Rockville 8 again soon!

  15. Courtney, congratulations on the RITA final! Even though you are competing against Deb and Amanda, my Diamonds of Welbourne Manor anthology mates. At this point, though, you are all winners!

    Your advice is very good. I've made lots of promotion mistakes, one very costly, too. I never spent much money on book trailers, thank goodness.

    One way to increase your pre-publication, pre-selling visibility is to respond to blogs! People will get to know you that way.

    And a word to the Rockville 8. Why didn't you TELL me you had a blog???? Who knew? Promotional rule number one: TELL YOUR FRIENDS!

  16. Diane -- Good point! LOL! Thanks for stopping by.


  17. Ditto, Diane! A little bird told me you're launching a new blog soon. Hope you'll keep us posted!