Author Interview: Micol Ostow on Balancing Marketing Within the Writing Life

Micol Ostow has written over 40 published works for readers of all ages.

Her novel, Emily Goldberg Learns to Salsa (Razorbill, 2006), was named a New York Public Library Book for the Teen Age, and the recently-launched Bradford novels (Simon Pulse, 2009-) are breaking new ground in interactive media and young adult lit.

Her latest release, So Punk Rock (and Other Ways to Disappoint Your Mother)(Flux, 2009) features rockin’ (literally) illustrations by Micol’s brother, David, and was chosen as a Booklist Top Ten Arts Books for Youth and Religion Books for Youth Selection for 2009.

Micol received her MFA in Writing For Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts in January, 2009, and currently teaches a popular young adult writing workshop through Media Bistro.

What do you expect of yourself in terms of time and effort devoted to marketing your books?

I definitely consider marketing to be part of the job as an author — with marketing budgets so stretched at publishing houses, I really do think it’s somewhat irresponsible as an author not to do what we can to promote our own books.

As far as carving out the time, it varies depending on where I am at with a book project. When writing or revising, the deadline is generally my primary focus. But anywhere from three-to-six months out from a release date, I’ll take an afternoon to brainstorm publicity efforts, and follow up (the follow-up then extending over a period of a few weeks).

Though I’m not an avid blogger, I also consider social networking and related media to be part of the job, too. I try (and often fail) to blog at least once a week, and I’m usually on Facebook or Twitter at least once a day, trying to balance posting about promotional info and General Life Stuff, so as not to sound too much like a used car salesman.

How are your marketing efforts impacted by competing issues such as day jobs, child care, personal/family crisis, other professional demands (keeping up with the industry), or, say, actually writing the books? Or even having a personal life?

I’m lucky in that currently I’m a full-time writer, and I don’t (yet) have children (though I do think a lot about what life will be like when that changes!).

My time is split among writing, promoting, and teaching, as well as occasional conferences, retreats, etc.

During a teaching season, two days a week are dedicated to reading my students’ manuscripts. That leaves me the rest of the week to write.

I’m also lucky in that teaching schedule aside, I can adjust my workload in response to deadlines.

Do you feel like you expect enough or too much of yourself?

Speaking only for myself, I try to have very modest (but optimistic!) expectations from my publishers — to keep in mind how limited their budgets are and to appreciate what they do do to help me promote my books.

Maybe I could be more demanding, but as a former editor, I relate to where my own editors are coming from and prefer to approach them from a “we’re all in this together” perspective rather than “what have you done for me lately,” where I can.

As for my expectations of myself, I’m always putting pressure on myself, feeling like I haven’t done “enough” on a given day. The perils of being my own boss (and probably one of the reasons I’m a pretty good employee.)

How does income, other sources of financial support, or a lack thereof have an impact on your choices?

I personally wouldn’t be able to do what I do (without seeking a supplementary form of income) if it weren’t for my husband’s income. Bottom line. Which is part of why I’m determined to make the most of this time before children, when our expenses (and lifestyle) are more flexible.

How much do you spend on promoting your books and/or your byline/platform more generally?

I spend on the sort of things that seem like necessities or no-brainers: business cards, a website, the occasional swag or some such to give away at an event.

(These are also things that tend to cost in the low three-figures at most, which is an amount I’m comfortable with spending.)

I’m more cautious about things like conferences. If it’s not local and my publisher isn’t putting me up, I’ll think hard before spending the money to attend.

I know fellow authors who’ve poured big bucks into freelance publicists and large-scale ad campaigns, and I’m still not convinced that one gets enough of a return on the investment to make that worthwhile. I’m happy to hear of examples of otherwise, though!

The cool thing about being a creative type in NYC, too, is that I have a great community of creative people and we support each other. Though I currently pay a web designer to maintain my author site, my original version was created by my husband, who does film production and online development. He also created a book trailer for me. And my first author photos were taken by a fellow author who is also a photographer. There are lots of people around with viable skills who are looking to barter.

One somewhat major cost that I was willing to let go of this year was the cost of a desk at a collective writers’ space. Though places like Paragraph are a fantastic resource, I realized that now that my husband has his own external office, and I have comfortably reorganized my own workspace, I much prefer to work from home and am quite productive here as well.

How do allocate time to spent on promoting your books and/or your byline/platform more generally?

Again, I do what needs to be done on a per-book basis.

Obviously, a bigger push and more concentrated time commitment goes toward a new release. I will take whole days off of writing for conferences, school visits, to compose interviews, etc. And I’m doing the social networking thing at the very least a few times a week.

I know of authors who are much more aggressive online, and some of those have definitely had more success in building a following, that then becomes a readership.

Maybe I should be more like those authors. But for me, it’s a question of preserving my own sanity, as well. I don’t know that I have the energy right now to be more aggressive online. Maybe in the future. Who knows.

How do you weigh marketing/business versus writing?

I generally break down my tasks on a day-to-day basis. When I’m under deadline, maybe a day’s work is to hit a word count goal, or to write X number of scenes. But a day’s goal can just as easily be to write a blog post or put together a list of web updates for my webmaster, or to prepare for an author event.

It really depends on what the priority is at any given time.

If I have an event coming up, I’m going to spend more time in the weeks before blogging and reaching out online, drumming up enthusiasm.

If I have a deadline coming up, all bets are off, and I’m basically at my desk in my sweats until the manuscript goes in.

Do you plan ahead, and if so, how?

I have a general sense of which manuscript deadlines fall when, so that there isn’t too much overlap, and I try to be aware of things like copyedits or last minute revises that need to be worked into the schedule.

I plan ahead in the sense that I try not to schedule deadlines unreasonably, and I also make a point of looking at my calendar from week to week and determining how I think the workload will fall.

That said, I’ll move things around as I need to once the work week gets under way.

What do you take into account in forming a plan that works for you?

For me, the busier the better, and in the past, I’ve definitely bitten off more than I could chew and committed to too much, writing-wise. So these days I try to strike a balance between being busy enough, but not so insane that I’m having trouble meeting my deadlines.

How you know when it’s time to rethink your plan?

It was time to rethink my plan when I was taking on too much and having trouble meeting my deadlines! I don’t like disappointing editors — or myself.

And I’m certain I’ll have to rethink things again when there are (hopefully!) children in the picture.

How do you decide what to let go of? At what cost(s)?

I had to let go of the supplementary income that came from chasing down every work-for-hire project that crossed my path, but fortunately, the actual dollars lost were nothing compared to the sanity gained and the sense of ownership of my own workload. Not to mention my agent’s and editors’ renewed confidence in my ability to deliver.

Have you hired an outside professional (a publicist, event coordinator, web designer/master)? Why or why not? To what effect?

I hired a professional web designer when it was time to step up the look of my website. She did an amazing job, and the cost was reasonable.

At this point, I could probably learn to make the updates myself, but since the cost is, as I say, reasonable, I try to outsource updates once a month (though I’m currently behind).

If and when I’m in a time crunch, I can impose on my husband to help out in a pinch (see above re: surrounding oneself with creative people!).

Have you engaged in cooperative marketing efforts and/or trades? Why or why not? To what effect?

I have just joined an online group of authors releasing contemporary (as opposed to horror/sci-fi/fantasy/paranormal) fiction in the year 2011. It seems like it could be a great way to unify efforts to get our books noticed and build buzz. But I’ll have to let you know!

Do you have additional strategies or tips for those struggling with balancing marketing tasks against their creative lives?

Cut yourself some slack. It’s not easy. No one that I know thinks they have it all figured out. Be willing to work hard, but be willing to adapt — and be kind to yourself!