Crime novel author on marketing and selling your writing


Libby Fischer Hellmann talked with me about how today’s writers and bloggers sell writing and make money. Libby Hellmann is a successful, Chicago-based writer with half a dozen novels to her credit, a Web presence for aspiring crime writers, and a variety of other projects. Libby says writing is her fourth or fifth career, and she’s happy with her evolution.

How a normal person, Libby Hellmann, became a writer

Libby Hellman

Libby Hellmann

Libby’s interest in writing solidified in grad school while she pursued her film production MFA, but she went from school to TV news, as a production assistant, ending up an NBC news desk editor in Washington, DC. Like many writers, she felt the writing dream carried too much risk.

“I wasn’t ready to starve in an attic while I made it as a writer,” Libby remembers. “I took the TV opportunity and a year later needed a life change.”

Hushing her insistent muse, she moved to Chicago where she joined big-player PR firm, Burson-Marstellar, for eight and a half years. Restless again, she broke out to produce industrial videos and trainings. That incarnation, though, would later flesh-out her popular fiction series character, Elie Foreman, an amateur sleuth and professional video producer. It wouldn’t be long before Libby gave in.

“I didn’t just jump in to mysteries and thrillers. As a reader, two forces imploded on me. I’d read a book and think, if only I could write one paragraph as beautiful as that! Or, oh my God even I could do better than that! The ideas coalesced. Then my dad died and I was so affected that I went down in my basement and wrote a horrible novel that never got published.”

The writing bug stung, soundly. Like many of us, she wrote profusely, joined a writing group, and, she says, “Low and behold, I got published with the fourth novel I wrote, An Eye for an Eye, in 2002. It actually did well!”

Talking with Libby, my thoughts turned to how she figured out plots. She says some of her books are born of a vision, while others evolve from personal experience. Easy Innocence, her current bestseller, came to her out of fear.

“My daughter was starting high school,” Libby explained in an interview. “I was recently separated, and I doubted my ability to be the single mother of a teenage girl. A hazing incident at a nearby high school had just occurred-it made the national media-and several teenagers ended up in the ER. I started to wonder what would have happened if a girl had been killed instead.”

That wondering, pondering, propelled Libby down the proper road to what will likely be her permanent, most prolific career.

How freelancing or writing for free can help a writer succeed

Six novels and countless stories later, she’s now hooked, and crime is her seducer. She’s not averse to occasional freelance assignments that move her toward her book selling goals. She doesn’t pooh-pooh writing for little or no pay if a gig provides marketing opportunities or creates a larger public presence. If a guest blog post, a quick article about crime writing, a chapter in an anthology, or participation in a Web site looks like a fit, it might be worth considering, she says, paycheck notwithstanding. We have all, writers and publishers, had to adjust this last year, and Libby totally gets the plight of today’s freelancers, because she deals with the same economic challenges faced by writers from Stephen King and Sara Paretsky to you and me.

Libby had to adapt when a publisher dropped her. She signed with another, while working simultaneously with a third. Bleak House Books, Madison, WI publishes her novels about professional P.I Georgia Davis. Poisoned Pen Press of Scottsdale, AZ. does the Ellie Foreman books. In her latest novel, Doubleback, a Bleak House release scheduled for fall, has both characters meeting to untangle a web of murder, kidnapping and embezzlement. Her career is on an upward turn, but she doesn’t envision herself getting rich. That doesn’t happen these days. Writers must hunker down – turning out better books, quicker

“With my sixth book coming in October, I feel like a freakin’ veteran of the wars,” she said, noting that her current marketing campaigns present challenges and are more time-consuming than before.

Does value-added marketing make sense if you want to sell your writing?

Libby’s latest marketing coup was conceived by a friend to pare down time and money while promoting Doubleback.

“He suggested I write a short story about how Ellie and Georgia met and offer it to booksellers. If a customer buys both books, they get the self-published, numbered, limited edition short story free,” Libby explained.

She conceptualized her heroines’ backstories. Another friend designed a cover and the project is ready to roll. SnipLits audio short stories will record it and tie it all into a package. This package is the equivalent of going on tour, but is an efficient, home-based outreach to booksellers. Creativity is the key, then, to getting attention and market share every writer hopes for, and can’t succeed without.

Libby handed me some dead-right-on insight, “In this market, we’re facing tougher times. Publishers are reducing print runs and providing less money for promotion. Writers are belt-tightening. I can’t travel like I did just a year ago for Easy Innocence. I have to make myself present without spending a ton of money.”

Pondering what she told me, I see clearly that creativity isn’t limited to the writing process. Writers must think outside the book’s binding to reach readers in an efficient, entertaining, personal way. Success is about value-added marketing, even for writers, and that requires creativity.

Read more advice from wildly successful writer Sara Paretsky
Part Two of Sara Paretsky
How staff bloggers sell writing to make real money

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    […] Libby Hellmann talks about writing and selling your books […]