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Getting published in the US is hard.
If you live outside the US, it’s even harder, but it’s not impossible.
Australian author David Rawlings secured a traditional publishing deal with Harper Collins while living down under. In this interview with James L. Rubart and me, David tells us how he did it.
Where are you in your publishing journey?
James L. Rubart (Jim): Where are you in your publishing journey?
David Rawlings: Geographically speaking, I’m 7,500 miles away from America. On top of the usual writing journey of breaking into the US publishing industry, I also had to do it at a distance.
On March 5, 2019, my debut novel, The Baggage Handler, comes out. I’m contracted to write two more books. At the moment, I’m buried in the marketing of The Baggage Handler and building toward a launch. I’m also finishing the first drafts of my second book, which releases in November.
It’s a lot of work, but it’s very exciting and fun.
What’s the pitch for your book?
Jim: What’s the pitch for your book?
David: The Baggage Handler is the story of three people who catch a flight for something significant in their life. When they arrive at their destination, they take the wrong baggage from the airport baggage carousel. When they go back to the baggage depot to get the right suitcases, they meet the baggage handler. He shows them there is far more in their baggage than they remember packing, and they have to deal with it before they can leave the airport.
How did you get started?
Jim: How did you get started writing this book?
David: The story was born out of rejection. It was the second manuscript I wrote. My first was written in 2016. It was a finalist in several competitions in the US, but when I took it to the publishing industry, they all said no. They thought it was a good story, but it wouldn’t work for them.
I sent it to one agent who was very keen, but he said he couldn’t do anything with it. He suggested I write something else.
As that last door closed on my first manuscript, I started writing The Baggage Handler.
I was doing a lot of reading and researching what else I could write, and literally, the story just dropped into my head one night. I grabbed my laptop, started writing, and the next time I looked at my clock, it was 1:00 AM. I had the plot, structure, and characters at that point.
What did you do to attract an agent?
Jim: You have a marketing background. What specific marketing things did you do that made a difference in securing an agent and publisher?
David: Corporately, I’ve spent my career in communications and marketing as a copywriter. It’s been drummed into me that I need to understand the audience. That’s one of the main things I took into my writing journey.
Social media is a place where you’re encouraged to say a lot, but I tend to say things after listening a lot. That comes from my corporate experience. Your audience holds the key to your success, and you need to understand them.
I have posted a reminder to myself above my computer that says, “Say what everyone isn’t and be what everyone isn’t.” That means when I do video, I see what others are doing. I see they record with a phone in their study with a bookcase in the background. Since one of my key points of differentiation is that I’m an Australian, I drive five minutes to a national park and shoot my videos in the Australian bush. Logistically it’s a little harder, but it does stand out.
People get flooded with social content and email, so you have to stand out. Identifying my point of difference and playing to it was very important.
Thomas: When you’re trying to break into the American market from Australia, your location can be a disadvantage. But you’ve used your disadvantage as a point of differentiation, and it becomes an advantage.
I encourage authors to assess their disadvantages and consider what aspects could be turned into advantages that could be useful.
Jim: You have to brainstorm those ideas with others because it’s a situation where you can’t read the label because you’re standing inside the bottle.
When David and I were brainstorming, I told him, “You have to get your voice out there!”
And he said, “What do you mean?”
I told him, “Americans love an Australian accent, so you have to use it as a distinguishing factor.”
In one sense, David only had to open his mouth to differentiate himself. But he took it a step further and developed a video on his website for agents and publishers. Tell us about that.
David: The two things that stand out about me are my accent and the fact that I’m male. Males are in the minority at a fiction writers conference.
I wanted to engage with agents and publishers without just sending an email that goes to their spam folder. So I wrote and recorded a short video appealing to agents and editors. It wasn’t my writing story or even a book pitch. In the video, I told them, “If you work with me, this is what I can bring to the table.”
That was driven by my understanding of what an agent is looking for. They’re looking for an author with ideas who understands the concept of platform and marketing. I put that into a 90-second video. The Steve Laube Agency represents me, and someone told me Steve Laube used it as an example in a conference presentation.
Thomas: Agents look for media-savvy authors. They want authors who can articulate the message of their book. Posting a video is a good way to demonstrate your skill. Some authors are allergic to the camera or microphone, which doesn’t mean they can’t be successful. It just means that from a marketing perspective, they’ll have to find their success another way.
When an agent goes through the slush pile, they’re not spending much time on each website. But if your goal is to attract an agent, and if you can do that in a 90-second video, you’ve achieved your goal.
David: I tell my corporate clients, “Your website isn’t there so that you can say you have a website. You need to think of your web presence in terms of what you want people to take away.”
I wanted agents to walk away from my website knowing that I was a good candidate to work with, and it worked.
Jim: Regardless of where you are on your publishing journey or which route you take to get there, more committed authors are more successful. David showed his commitment by flying to a large conference in the US twice. That’s a lot of time and money.
How did you decide to commit to that degree?
David: Both conferences were really useful in terms of connection and presence. Before I even got on the plane in Australia, my mindset was, “This has to work.”
I treated it like an investment rather than an expense. I went to a writers conference in Nashville because it was located close to my publisher. They graciously allowed me to meet with the sales, marketing, editorial, and movie rights teams while I was there so I could make the best use of my time.
I scheduled my appointments like it was a military operation. I had a list of 48 people I wanted to meet. When I left Nashville, I’d met 47 of them. Now that The Baggage Handler is releasing, some of those I met are willing to endorse my book and tell their followers that they know about me.
No matter where you start, you’re a nobody. When I went to those conferences, I needed people who were known by others to say, “I know that nobody.” That worked well, and I’d suggest that to anyone going to a conference. Be strategic and plan it as an investment rather than an expense.
Thomas: In the podcast world, there has been a lot of talk about top-ten lists. It’s come out that all the “top-ten” lists consist of friends of the list’s curator. It’s not actually a list of the most informative podcasts on a particular subject. It’s a result of connections and networking.
So much of marketing is about who you know. If you’re a friend of the Buzzfeed writer who’s curating a list of top-ten podcasts, you’re more likely to be featured because of your friendship than if you were making a good podcast in obscurity.
Regardless of how you publish, becoming friends with influencers will help your book get discovered.
David: In the corporate world, we emphasize numbers and followers, which is a carryover from the late 2000s when numbers were everything. I wanted to meet the right people, not just the people with the largest followings. There were people at that conference with huge names, and they weren’t on my list because they were in a completely different genre, and their followings were not likely readers for my book.
Maybe it’s due to my background in direct marketing, but I’m very targeted in my approach. Authors normally assemble launch teams from their Facebook friends. I’m approaching people individually because I know they’re the right person.
Even as I put together a launch team, I want it to be comprised of people in my target audience.
Few of us write for our full-time living. Most people have a day job. So the time you spend as a full-time writer has to be very focused. There are so many things you can do, but I want to do the things I should do.
One contact with the right following could be better than ten people with followings across the spectrum.
What would you say to a frustrated author?
Jim: What would you say to a frustrated author who’s had several rejections but deep down, they know writing is what they’re supposed to be doing?
David: I thought my first book was going to make it. I loved that story. I had to take the emotion out of it and put it aside to try something else. It was devastating to have people say they liked it, and then after six weeks, they say they didn’t like it.
I started to approach things by saying, “It’s not that the story’s not right. Maybe it’s not right now.” That story still hasn’t been published, and maybe it won’t be. But maybe it will. In the meantime, I’ve moved on to something else.
It’s hard. Every agent and publisher is flooded with emails and ideas. It could be for that discouraged author that the timing isn’t right now. Perhaps you should put it aside and write something else.
Twenty years ago, you either got published or you didn’t. Today, you can decide whether you want to publish it yourself. If the story has traction and you have clarity, you can take on the extra work of publishing it yourself, and it might be the right thing to do.
At those conferences, I spoke to writers who’d been writing for 40 years, and they had the same feelings of doubt that I was having. It’s part of the game. Writers constantly deal with doubt. If you’re a mathematician, you usually have an answer. But in publishing, there’s never one answer. There are only shades of subjectivity.
What final tips do you have for authors?
Thomas: Do you have any quick tips?
David: You have to show your personality. That doesn’t mean you adopt a social media personality. If you’re quiet and introverted, show us.
When I record videos as an Australian, I don’t dress up like Steve Erwin and wrestle crocodiles. I act like myself. People connect with who you are as much as what you do.
Video is huge, but people need to have a reason to watch. You have to be watchable. You need to look at who you are and ask yourself why people would watch.
When you post on social media, focus on the social part rather than the media part. Social media is about giving people a reason to connect and stay connected.
Participate in other people’s marketing. Part of the reason for connecting with influencers is so you can surf in on some of the work they’re doing.
Marketing is about finding the right person and giving them the right message in the right way. That’s how I’ve approached all my marketing.
Thomas: Where can we find out more about you?
David: Head to my website www.DavidRawlings.com.au where you can find excerpts from The Baggage Handler. If you subscribe to my newsletter, you can get some free short stories that show my style.
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