Publishing Interview: Catherine McKenzie

I've done a few interviews with publishing people wrestling with the business and technology of "books." I was curious about things from another angle: what a new author thinks of the publishing climate. So I asked Catherine McKenzie. She published her first novel, SPIN last December (with HarperCollins Canada), and is at work on a second. I should note that Catherine was one of our first Featured Authors on Bite-Size Edits (so she'd definitely interested in experimenting with marketing online).

1. You were a lawyer before being a novelist. How do you find the business of book publishing versus the business of lawyering?

They are very different! I went to school for a long time to learn how to be a lawyer and when I don't know the answer to something I can ask a colleague down the hall. There's no school (that I know of) for the business of book publishing for authors - but there should be!

2. What three things surprised you most about how publishing works?

* That you have to ask a lot of questions.
* How important your "brand" is.
* How much work goes into building that brand.

3. When it comes to marketing, there seems to be a big tension between what writers expect of their publishers, and what publishers expect of their writers. As a new novelist, what has been your experience?

I did not experience this tension except in perhaps the opposite way to which you are referring. What I mean is, I was surprised by how little I could have done if I wanted to. No one forced me to tweet, Facebook or blog. Of course, my publisher was happy I did all these things and helped me to do them, but it wasn't mandatory.

4. What is a publisher's role in the publishing process?

The publisher's role is to help make the book as good as possible both in terms of content and in terms of distribution and marketing. To that end, they invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in editing, cover design, distribution, printing and marketing. I think it's important for authors to remember this because it can seem, sometimes, like they aren't doing that much (what? No book tour?), but that's just because we don't see the day to day efforts that go into making a book a success.

5. Publishers are pushing writers to get engaged online. Do you think it's worth the time and effort?

That's a tough one. I've certainly sold some books because I've been online, but I have no idea how many. In fact, it was partly because of this uncertainty that I started the Author Effect. I have met some other great authors though, and it's great to get that instant feedback from readers.

6. You started the Author Effect in part to try to get a better handle on online engagement. What's that project about & what's your experience been?

When I saw the Facebook campaign to get Betty White on Saturday Night Live, I wondered if that kind of campaign could be used in the way publishers hope social media works, i.e. you don't just "Like" a book, you actually buy it. However, I didn't want to try the experiment on my own book - talking about yourself all the time can get tiring, at least for me! I also thought that it would have a better chance of succeeding if it wasn't about me. So, I started a group on Facebook called "I bet we can make these books bestsellers" (and a related group on Goodreads), and chose two books by author Shawn Klomparens (Jessica Z. and Two Years, No Rain). I chose these books because they were the best two books that I'd read in the last six months that were relatively unknown. The goal of the group is to get people to buy the books.

A month into the project, the group has more than 750 members, including authors James Frey, Tom Perrotta, Tish Cohen and Cathy Marie Buchanan, among many others. It has also had some effect on book sales, though neither of the books are on the bestseller list (yet!). Everyone keeps telling me it's a great idea, but I'm not sure I've totally figured out how to make it work (if it is workable).

7. Art or business?

Oh both, definitely. I recently heard the term "authorpreneurs". That about sums it up.

8. What's been most frustrating as a first-time novelist?

Honestly? People assuming that I self-published my book. Now before everyone attacks me, I'm not saying that there are no good self-published books and that some traditionally published books aren't terrible. But having seen how much better my book is from having gone through the professional editing process and how many aspects of the book (cover design, store placement, media contacts) are outside the realm of what a self-published author can usually do, it - I don't know - hurts my book feelings I guess to be asked that.

9. What's the business going to look like for a novelist in five years?

If I knew I'd be making millions consulting with publishers. No seriously, I have no idea. What I hope is that it resembles my experience with iTunes - I buy more music now because of how easily accessible it is, and I think ebooks will provide that ease of access to many books that people might have waffled over before. That being said, I think there will always be a place for physical books - in my life, anyway.

10. If you became the CEO of a major publishing company, what three major changes would you implement first?

* Create a manual for all new authors explaining the business and what their role should be in it.
* Make all new authors participate in a course that followed up on this manual - maybe a round table discussion with established authors, new authors and industry types.
* Insist that authors not get lost in promoting their books. Write, write, write. It's what got you here.