Zen Marketing 101

One thing all successful writers have in common:  a stomach for failing.  Repeatedly.  Perhaps for years on end.  –Larry Wilde, Chicken Soup for the Writers’ Soul

Plant a tree  –Geri Larkin

I recently joined a writers’ group.  One member had written a story for a market that paid one PDF copy and two percent of royalties.  Translation:  bupkes.  That’s fine if you just want to practice and get some sales under your belt.  But why not aim high?  You might not sell, but a) on the other hand, you might, and b) you’d probably force yourself to work harder, playing up to the game.

The real reason why not?  Rejection hurts.

You have to be able to stomach that, to develop what Karen Joy Fowler called the _pachydermal skin_ of writers.

Let’s start with some basic tools.  You have to know where to send your work.  You already know that you should read the book imprint or magazines that you submit to.

Duotrope lets you search by genre, length, electronic vs. postal submission–a stroke of brilliance.

Ralan covers a lot of speculative fiction markets.  I always check the “pro” and “anthology” sections.

For books, I pay $20 U.S. a month to Publishers Marketplace so I can search deals and cull email addresses and figure out who’s buying what.  Publishers Weekly is great, but I don’t have easy access to it.  In Canada, the equivalent is Quill and Quire.

I also search for editors’ conference bios, interviews and blogs to get more of a feel for what they like.  I read book acknowledgements, noting the editor or agent being thanked.  I like the movers and shakers, but if they’ve got a little spark to their personality–they buy books that push the envelope, or they say something that makes me laugh–that works better for me.  I’ve had at least one editor tell me straight that she wasn’t sure her readers would connect with my voice.  That means she didn’t like my voice.  Which is fine, but it means I have to find the people who do.  (Just like I enjoy wearing my Fête Montreal leggings with one black leg and one white leg.  A guy in the grocery store glanced over me and I could see he thought, “Freak.”  But it didn’t bother me.  He is not my tribe.  If he were an editor, he wouldn’t buy my books.)

Contests.  I generally don’t pay to enter contests because, as Kris Rush and Dean Smith emphasize, money should flow to the writer.  I made an exception for the CBC and Golden Heart–basically, if I think the benefits outweigh the pain of forking over the money.  I prefer free contests by generous souls like Brian Agincourt Massey and the Glass Woman Prize, individuals who take their own time and money to foster the arts.

Education.  I attend Kris and Dean’s workshops as often as I can to force my writing craft to a new level, to learn about the business, and to meet a ton of dedicated, hilarious fellow writers.

Finally, if you are at all serious about making your living through your work, read Kris Rusch’s Freelance Survival Guide.  She covers everything from the nuts and bolts of negotiation and when to quit your day job to how to deal with mental mind traps.  If you can’t afford their workshops (or even if you can), read these as an excellent roadmap on how to deal.

Now I hear you asking, where’s the Zen buddhism?

A lot of people think Buddhism means aspiring to nothingness, but the tenet I apply here is that clinging causes suffering.  So if you are stalking editors at conferences while they try to use the bathroom, you are clinging.  If you are beating yourself up (Why didn’t I start writing seriously when I was 16?  Why don’t I submit more?  Why did I eat a bag of chips and watch _What Happens in Vegas_ instead of writing tonight?), you are clinging.  In fact, you are practicing mental violence against yourself.

C’mon.  We’ve all been there.  If I’d been a risk-taker, I would’ve skipped medicine and arguably university altogether and started writing seriously out of high school.  I never market as much as I want to.  And I just watched _What Stays in Vegas_ as a reward for finishing my novel.  I ate chips, too.  I could cling endlessly about that and many other issues.

Buddhism doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strive.  It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write or try to achieve publication.  It just means you should do your best every day, in this moment, without attaching yourself to the outcome.

Will I become a bestselling author with my fans sending whatever I fancy, including embroidered Korean toilet paper a la Diana Galbaldon?

Who knows?  All I know is this:  I set a daily goal for writing and marketing and then I try to just enjoy whatever I’m doing, whether that’s playing Thomas the Tank engine with Max or cleaning up the kitchen with my husband.  I know that makes my life sound super glamourous, but that’s where I find joy every day.

I can’t redo my life.  And when I’m honest with myself, I like the intellectual challenge and economic security of medicine (my father called it my “iron rice bowl,” meaning it was a solid way to earn my living).  Plus the whole life-saving thing is pretty cool.  Even if I don’t achieve as much as a writer or doctor or a mother as I would if I’d concentrated on one job, overall, I am happy.  And that is what matters.  See Anna Quindlen for more about figuring out your own measure of success.

I keep writing.  I market.  I plant my trees.  Even if the world is heating up.  Even though we are all going to die.

I’ll end with two Geri Larkin stories.  I can’t find her books, so I’m paraphrasing.  The first is from _Plant Seed, Pull Weed._  She’s agonizing about global warming and what to do.  An enlightened guy keeps responding, “Plant a tree.”  “But what if it’s your absolute day on earth?”  “Plant a tree.”  “What if we get hit by meteors?”  “Plant a tree.”  In other words, keep going.

The second is from _The Chocolate Cake Sutra_, I think.  Geri’s teacher sends her out with a difficult problem and says, “You have 24 hours to solve this.”  She meditates, she prostrates, she tears her hair out for the next day, but she can’t figure it out.  In the morning, she goes to see her teacher and says, “I’m sorry.  I failed.”  He looks at her with great compassion and says, “You have 10,000 years.”  Her whole body relaxes, just knowing that she has time.

This is what I’m trying to do.  I’m planting trees.  I’m sending my stories out.  And whether I have 10,000 seconds or 10,000 years, I’m putting one foot in front of the other.

Top Ten Reasons to Do a Book Launch


Second Time Around Books. L to R Melissa Yuan-Innes, Denise Nielsen, Yasmin Harrison, Monty (dog)


Cornwall book launch

Book launch at Sat Nam Yoga: Erin Bush & Juice, Julie Herman, Alan Davis, Melissa Yuan-Innes, Max, Luc Paquin

1.    It’s a party/miracle

I always felt a sort of post-partum letdown after publication.  I don’t know why.  In 2000, Writers of the Future hired an illustrator for my story, flew me out to L.A. for a week-long workshop with A.J. Budrys and Tim Powers, and hosted a huge gala.  I posed for photos and gave an acceptance speech in a sapphire ball gown.  But I still felt a bit of a letdown.

Fast-forward to 2009 and my publication in Escape Clause:  the Anthology.  Here’s one way of looking at it:  it’s a poem.  Big deal.  I’ve already been paid for it.  I should just stay home and write more.  This is how I spend 99 percent of my life.

And this is the other way of looking at it:  success!  My poem is published in a book!  Let’s celebrate.

Albert Einstein said, “There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is a miracle.”

Which one do you think is more fun?

2.    Good karma

Ink Oink Art is a start-up publisher.  Kit St. Germain is a writer/actor who says, “Any idiot can renovate their kitchen. It takes god’s own egg-splattered fools to make books.”  I heart any artist who has the chutzpah to fly in the face of conventional logic and risk their own money in order to support other writers and illustrators.  So when I had the same choice, to accept my contributor’s copy meekly or to risk my time and money trying to sell this puppy at a book launch, I leapt into the abyss.  I call this good karma because I’m helping the publisher and thereby myself by getting my work out there.  But obviously I used my judgement.  I still made sure I wrote 1000 words/day and marketed my novels and stories instead of going all book-launchy-wonky.

3.    It teaches you flexibility

I now live in the country.  The nearest bookstore is 20 minutes away in Alexandria. Gale, the owner of Second Time Around Books in Alexandria, was delighted to host.

The closest chain that sells new books is about 40 minutes’ drive away.  The manager seemed underwhelmed at the idea of launching a book, maybe having been burned by self-published tomes.  But I still wanted to do a second book launch, so I thought, why cling to the idea that a book launch has to take place in a bookstore?  I know a high-ceilinged, wooden-floored studio that’s one of the most elegant places in Cornwall where we could read by candlelight.  Erin Bush, owner of Sat Nam Yoga, said no problem and even agreed to make mint tea.

4.    Small business training

A book launch is a business.  I’ve done book launches in Montreal, Berkley, and the aforementioned LA.  I showed up, read if asked to, and signed books, blissfully ignorant of who ordered the books or provided free eats.  (This was my father’s most-impressed moment.  “Who’s paying for this?”  he asked, eyeing the cornucopia of food and drink.)    Since these events were DIY, I asked Gale what kind of cut she wanted, thinking she’d order the books and take a percentage of the profits.  It turned out that she’d prefer to take no cut (and no risk).  Her bookstore would just be the venue.

So I bought the books myself.  At first, I thought ten would do it.  I should be able to move five and if I had to give a few away as Christmas presents, so be it.  But when Christina Dudley Facebooked that she’d sold 77 in one night, I realized I was thinking too small.  Also, shipping was egregious, and the more books I bought, the more I could spread the costs out.  So I ordered 20.  If I sold 14, I’d break even.  If I didn’t, well, that’d be a lot of Christmas presents.

5.    Marketing

I did Facebook and Twitter, but what I think helped the most was that I told our local paper, the Glengarry News, about the book launch and Steve Warburton decided to do a feature on me.  Old school works!  If nothing else, I got my local 15 minutes of fame.

Even more old-fashioned, I printed up posters and asked my friends to post them.  I chatted with people at both hospitals and asked them to come.  Repeatedly.

Since I hate hard sells, I emphasized that it was a party and you could buy a book or not.

In my emails, I explained that I was taking a personal financial risk with the book launch.  Three people bit.  Before the book sale, I’d pre-sold three for cash and gotten verbal promises to buy another eight.  So if I sold three at the book launches, I’d break even.  Shoot, I might even run out!

6.    Plan for success, prepare for failure

I bounced into Sat Nam Yoga with 24 cream puffs and 30 banana muffins, all mini-sized to minimize the guilt.  Erin had set out three types of cheeses, pepper jelly, hummus and pita, grapes (“Look, Mommy, they have grapes, just like us!” my son Max exclaimed), cookies…a feast.

The hordes of people who said they’d come or might come turned into a handful. I felt like a right idiot. But my son was in heaven:  a giant space to run and slide in his socks.  The reading turned into a cozy candlelit Q&A about my writing and a discussion about our missions in life.  I felt bad that Erin had splashed out for a small crowd, but she said it didn’t matter to her if there were five people or 50.  In the end, I decided the only person who could decide if it was a failure or not was me.  And I had fun:  good food, good company, and I sold three more books, so if all the “save one for me” people came through, I’d already broken even.  I probably wouldn’t choose to do another event on a Friday night, especially the night of Black Friday, but it’s all learning, right?  That’s a metaphor for the writing life and maybe life in general.

7.    Networking

Ottawa author Leslie Brown joined me the next day in Alexandria.  One of the first things she did was ask me if I’d joined Access Copyright.  If you have Canadian publications, you can sign up and two years later, they’ll start sending you money.  I don’t know the details, but it’s a million dollars they’re dividing up.  I’d never heard about this, but I don’t really end up talking to writers much, and a lot of my writer friends are American.  I’d let my SF Canada membership lapse just because I changed email addresses and I didn’t want to wade through all their emails.  My bad, but something I was able to correct by networking at my book launch.

Networking, part II.  The Glengarry News article talked about another writer, LindsayBelow, who came to the book launch with her mother.  I actually knew her because her teacher, Andy Rorabeck, had invited me to speak to his writing group at his high school a few years ago and she was one of the members.  They invited me to join their critique group.  Since my latest book is set in high school, a recent graduate and two teachers could really give me some reality checks.

8. Get the audience reaction you craaave

After I read my poem, one of my friends mouthed “Wow.  Wow.”  The audience applauded.  Leslie’s brother Steve said, “It’s the kind of thing you have to sit for a minute, and then you applaud.”  No higher honour.  And not the kind of thing you get sitting in your room.

9.  Sell your backlist

Only two people read the magazines I brought with my previous publications, but one wanted to buy “Space and Time Books” and the other “Waiting for Jenny Rex.”  This is a tiny taste of what it’s like if you write, say, _The DaVinci Code_ and then everyone runs out to buy _Angels and Demons_.  Small scale, but still beneficial to the magazines who bought my work even years ago.

10.  Pay it forward

I hope Erin might get more yoga subscriptions.  I know Gale certainly got more business.  My neighbour didn’t even know where that bookstore was, but he walked out with $82 worth of books, not counting my own.  Other friends browsed and bought, including children.  Who knows how their imagination may get fired up by their books?  An elderly lady bought my book and said she wanted to give me some greeting cards.  I paid her $10 for the cards.  She didn’t even know what to charge me because she wasn’t used to asking for money for her work.  “Don’t be ashamed to make money from your art,” I told her.  Maybe it will help her. Who knows?

It certainly helped me.  I sold my 20th book in Alexandria, leaving me with just my contributor’s copy–plus at least six people who couldn’t come to the launches but asked me to save them a copy.  So that’s a help to the publisher, Ink Oink Art.  And for me, because I’ve always been afraid I could never make a living from my writing.  I would like to make a cork board and pin up all the cash I made from these books so that every time I se it, I think, “Look at what you did.”  Of course the money is trivial compared to what I could have made in the emergency room, but I don’t care.  The money is a tangible reminder that dreams can come true and that I am trying to live as though everything is a miracle.

Second Time

The hordes at Second Time Around Books, incl. at table: writers Lindsay, Leslie Brown, Melissa Yuan-Innes

More photos here.

Copyright Melissa Yuan-Innes, 2009

Marketing Your Writing

A fellow writer told me how much he enjoyed my last blog on staying positive.  So I’d like to share a topic that’s been on my mind:  how to enjoy marketing.

Marketing means sending out your work, generally getting it rejected, and sending it out again.  And again.  And again.

Oh, once in a while, you’ll hit gold.  My first poem submission got accepted right away to Tesseracts7.  And once you’re at a certain level, or an editor “gets” you, you can sell immediately.

But all authors who make their living with their words, even bestsellers, face rejection.  And we all know rejection doesn’t taste like chocolate raspberry torte.

So what’s a girl or boy to do?

I read Kris Rusch’s blog on discipline.  Her trick is to find the love in what you do.  So, for example, she runs and listens to her iPod because she loves music enough to break out the running shoes.  She doesn’t read fiction until after she writes because otherwise, the day is over and she’s read a book and hasn’t produced anything.

This makes sense.  And yet, I wasn’t feeling it.  How was I supposed to find the love in querying editors who said “No, thank you,” “You certainly have voice, but I’m not sure our readers will connect with it,” or just didn’t respond at all?  How was I supposed to relish it?  Sure, I liked the ones who said “Send me a full,” but that didn’t happen enough to suit me.

While I mulled this question over, I picked up Martha Beck’s book, The Joy Diet. I love this book.  Ten steps to joy.  One of them is Treats.  She said most of us don’t treat ourselves enough.  We don’t act kindly towards ourselves.  That doesn’t mean buying a Maserati, necessarily.  A treat just do something you love, whether that’s having a nap or singing Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” (all singing parts).

So where do the pigs come in?  It’s Beck’s analogy.  You can train pigs to stand on their hind legs and push shopping carts with their front trotters.  How?  By operant conditioning.  By giving them a treat every time they do a tiny step.  Pig goes near shopping cart?  Treat.  Pig hops on hind leg for a second?  Treat.  Treat.  Treat.  Pretty soon Petunia Pig can buy your organic lettuce and run your credit card for you.


I realized that the discipline aspect didn’t appeal to me.  After four years of medical school, two years of residency, and one year of emergency medicine, followed by years of medical practice, devoting myself to my baby Max, and writing, I’ve had discipline up the wazoo.

But not enough treats.

I still got ‘er done.  I had set my goals to turning around my short stories and trying to do five book queries at a shot.  If I get deep into querying, I’ll zone out, continually hunting this editor or that agent.  An hour or two will go by and my husband will say, “Hey.  I thought we were going to watch the Tudors.”

But after the first marketing deluge, it was a joyless process.  It was mostly stick, no carrot.  Which is mighty dull after a while.

So.  I decided that if I didn’t relish the marketing itself, I should just enjoy the treats.  One book query a day (which makes 365 a year) and then immediate treat, whether that’s playing with Max whole-heartedly, reading Glamour maagazine, doing yoga, or whatever.

Natalie Goldberg wrote that when a boy first reads the Torah, he is given a bit of honey so he’ll always associate learning with sweetness.

By setting my goals low and achievable, and administering myself some honey, I find myself looking forward to marketing.  If I send two queries, I say, “Good job, Melissa!” instead of “Only three more to go.”

So my recommendation is, whatever’s blocking your quest du jour, whether that quest is marketing, de-cluttering the closet, or building a rocket ship, try to find the love.  Like my husband likes to quote, if you enjoy your job, that’s eight more hours a day you get back.  And if you can’t love that job–or even if you relish every sweet moment–remember to administer yourself treats.  Regularly.  For fun.


Our new dog, Mika, who certainly enjoys treats

copyright Melissa Yuan-Innes, 2009