John Kenworthy is the quintessential eclectic writer, using his various life experiences to craft his writing. In this interview, John discusses how he uses social media and how he directs much of his marketing to independent bookstores.
1. Tell me briefly about your books – what are they about and what motivated you to write them?
My first book, The Hand About the Mouse: An Intimate Biography of Ub Iwerks, was published by Disney in 2001. Co-written with Ub’s granddaughter, Leslie, we tell the compelling story of one of the most amazing minds in entertainment history. Ub is the forgotten man. For me personally, I have always been drawn to those geniuses who work seemingly without ego behind the scenes to lift up technology and art – and Ub is an incredible example of that. He created Mickey Mouse, added color, sound, multidimensionality, and xerography to cartoons. He created technology to combine live action and animation and perfected techniques that he used to great effect with Alfred Hitchcock’s “the Birds”.
My second book is a breezy little industrial book entitled, Bungee Jumping & Cocoons. It follows two trends in the consumer world: that of extremes (bungee jumping) wherein we treat life like one grand adventure; and that of isolation (cocoons) wherein we’d just as well stay at home. The prime example I use for that is Barnes & Noble versus bn.com. Both sell books. One sells them via experiences and the other sells them via comfort. The second half of the book applies these same themes to industry.
My current book, The Missionary and the Brute, is an adult literary novel that spans genres of horror and suspense. It follows the case of a serial killer in Tanzania, East Africa, through the eyes of an American missionary accused of the crime. The idea for the book came to me on one of my many journeys to Tanzania as the founder/executive director of Brick by Brick for Tanzania!, Inc. (www.brickbybrickfortanzania.org), a tax-exempt non-profit that builds preschools in Africa. Having seen equal parts tragedy and beauty during my time in country, I fashioned a fast-paced, twist-around-every-corner mystery that draws the reader in as we head towards the stunning conclusion.
2. You’ve written in a variety of styles and media. Tell me about that.
I’m a pretty diverse guy. I feel like I live many lives in one and my writing styles reflect those ever-changing aspects. I played harmonica in a biker band for years, so it made sense that I fictionalized those experiences with my short stories in Easyriders Magazine. Having been a motion picture projectionist, I delved into cartoons and wrote my biography, an animation blog and a couple of screenplays for A Film A/S (a Danish animation studio). My journeys to Africa obviously infused “The Missionary and the Brute” with a realistic setting. All of my experiences have led me piece by piece to more experiences and more writing. The styles reflect that diversity.
3. How have your sales been?
I am admittedly a niche writer. I truly don’t expect great sales. The Disney book – because it was mainstream and promoted through the vast Disney network – did very nicely, but has trailed off in the decade since publication. The French version is doing modestly well currently. The bungee jumping book was aimed at a small audience and permeated that market nicely. I still receive royalty checks from that semi-annually. As to “The Missionary and the Brute”, it is still way early to tell. I have a plan to continute to roll it out further and further in the coming months that will give me a good gauge as to its sales strength.
4. How does self-publishing compare with traditional publishing?
Self-publishing is obviously a huge change from publishing through a traditional press. But the advantages to me are many. With a traditional press, a book is marketed as one among many. The focus is spread across many works. For our book at Disney, we were one of several authors they were actively promoting. The truth is that if I were a bookstore in New York City or a TV talk show like the View, and Disney offered a choice of Annette Funnicello, Julie Andrews or me, I wouldn’t choose me either. That’s the reality. With self-publishing, I am my one and only product.
5. How have you liked self-publishing so far?
I adore the accountability of self-publishing. Every word, every process, is designed and controlled by me. It may sound egocentric, but in reality it is the utmost of practicality. I know this work as none other, and can promote it and shape it to fit my particular vision. It seems tailor made to my personality and style.
6. What sort of marketing techniques have you used to sell your books, and which ones have been most successful?
For “The Missionary and the Brute” I have been using a variety of social media to drive initial awareness to my blog – Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn groups, Digg, Stumble Upon, etc. They all seem to be incrementally growing awareness, which is great. On Facebook I have included some modest ads that target very narrow groups of potential purchasers. Using similar books/themes, I get my book in front of them regularly. Very cool – and cost-effective. I have also created a special DVD for booksellers. Targeting independent bookstores regionally, I am sending the DVD out to offer booksignings/readings/and book club interactions. I feel that all we can do to drive business to bookstores, the better; and I am certainly willing to do my part.
7. Are there any marketing techniques you intentionally avoided or discontinued, and if so, why?
I don’t do much direct mail. I have tried postcards and letters in the past but have not had too much success with that approach. Email newsletters and blogs are so much more accessible (and affordable!) for my liking. I also tend to gravitate toward booksellers who are as independent as I am. Big boxes and all are okay, but I love the neighborhood bookstores where the proprietors reflect the love of books and reading with every action.
8. What’s the most important thing you’ve learned about self-publishing that you didn’t know when you started out?
I think I was pretty well aware of the challenges of self-publishing going in, but perhaps I was a little amazed at how easy the process was to initiate. I’m also a little surprised as to how much I enjoy the social marketing of the book. I absolutely love talking details of the book and the immediacy of that type of marketing really enhances the accessibility of that.
9. If you could do one thing differently in publishing your books, what would it be?
Not sure that I would do anything differently, had I to do it all again. But then again, I’m not a big one for second-guessing or having regrets. I’m more in tune with planning what is next and getting there.
10. Independent authors face the obvious challenge of marketing their books without the resources of traditional publishers. What advice do you have for an indie author just starting out?
I think the most valuable thing for an indie author starting out is to realize that you – as author – must take on even more of the role of marketing than in traditional publishing. But that being said, I believe that many new authors, indie or not, underestimate their own role in this process. If the book is to be successful, you must first define what success looks like to you, then actually make an aggressive marketing plan to action that. Indie authors even more must take that professional attitude toward the business side. It is far too easy to assume that folks will find your books. In my experience, readers have to be actively courted and respected as the consumers they are. The ultimate question must be: given all the alternatives out there competing for mindshare, why should any one reader choose to read “The Missionary and the Brute”?
11. What projects are you currently working on?
I always have many writing projects in the works, but I feel this is going to be a particularly prolific time for me. Self-publishing has enabled me to focus on the eternal ‘next’ work over worrying about selling the prior one. Next for me is another novel that follows an animation historian discovering a decades old murder in 1930s Hollywood. I have a friend and sometimes writing partner (we have a cartoon pilot we are marketing) named Matthew Pearl. He is an absolutely brilliant author of insanely intense, intellectual novels such as “The Dante Club”, “The Poe Shadow”, “The Last Dickens” and the new “The Technologists.” He has been telling me for years to write a novel based on my knowledge of that industry and era. Matthew’s a pretty good guy to listen to in regards to these things, so I finally am pushing that to the forefront. “The Blue Man” should be completed in 2012. Very exciting. Fans of “The Missionary and the Brute” will be intrigued to learn that the Missionary Jadwin Ross has a brother Alwyn, the animation historian of which we speak.
12. If you could market your brand – not just one particular book, but your overall brand of writing – in one sentence, what would it be?
John Kenworthy writes interesting things in a uniquely lyrical voice that will resonate within the reader longer after the book is closed.
13. How can readers learn more about your books?
Readers can learn about “The Missionary and the Brute” by checking out my blog. I try to upload interesting entries therein that shine a light on the mechanics of writing a book such as this – the process, the styles, the motivations, the historical context, etc., as well as answering some questions readers may have about further details. I treat the blog like a director’s commentary on a DVD: I put a lot of information within that explains inspirations, techniques, and backstage intrigues. I try not to spoil the enjoyment of discovering the myriad mysteries revealed in the book, but I try to give them all a context that enhances the enjoyment.