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Book Marketing Now: Lisa Stringfellow
Lisa Stringfellow, middle-school teacher and middle-grade debut author of A COMB OF WISHES shares advice on networking and community building, success with subscription boxes, and enjoying the journey
Welcome back to Book Marketing Now, a monthly feature of Books, Marketing, & More where I share interviews with writers about their marketing and publishing journey as they share the inside scoop on releasing books into the current market!
Check out February’s interview with Lisa Rogers | Read other past interviews and insights here!
Imbued with a magic that felt as real as the concrete and beloved world in which it is set, this story moves with a plot that is both surefooted and wild, both inexorable and surprising, both cerebral and emotional. I loved it so much. —Kelly Barnhill
Lisa Stringfellow may be a debut middle-grade author, but she knows her audience — she’s a middle school teacher after all! In fact, her Carribean-folklore inspired mermaid novel, A Comb of Wishes, began as a NaNoWriMo project that she wrote alongside her students. In addition to receiving glowing reviews, it has also been selected by booksellers as an Indie Next Pick for March/April.
Lisa generously shares how she approaches her audiences of young readers and educators; has had success with subscription boxes and hashtags; and fosters a robust writing and reading community.
Want to meet Lisa and get a personalized copy of A Comb of Wishes? She’ll be signing books in-person at Boston’s only black-owned book shop, Frugal Bookstore, on April 9th!
How did you initially market your book to your agent? How has that strategy changed now that you’re marketing to readers?
When I started my manuscript in 2013, there were no other published middle grade books featuring Black mermaids set in the Caribbean. Two inspirations for the writing were The Tail of Emily Windsnap by Liz Kessler and Coraline by Neil Gaiman. When I queried the book in 2018, I was able to use The Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste and Hoodoo by Ronald Smith as comps. Now, there are so many great books that I can put in company with mine when describing it to readers. Rise of the Jumbies by Tracey Baptiste and Josephine Against the Sea by Shakirah Bourne are two recent titles I often talk about when sharing my book.
I’m also thrilled that Disney’s upcoming live-action remake of The Little Mermaid will feature Black actress Halle Bailey will be released in May 2023, which hopefully will align with the paperback release of A Comb of Wishes.
What has surprised you about book marketing?
I was surprised by how much work it takes to market and promote a book. I shouldn’t have been surprised, but in some ways it has been like a part-time job (on top of my full-time job, parenting, and writing)! There are busy times based on the publishing schedule, but also lulls and I wish I had taken great advantage of some of those quieter times to get ahead.
It was also surprising to me to learn about what my publisher will help with and what authors are expected to do on their own. I’ve learned there are some typical items that publishers will do, like Goodreads giveaways, but there is a lot I didn’t realize would be up to me to take care of. For example, some friends have said that their publishers provided bookmarks, but mine didn’t and I wished I had printed them earlier to use promotionally leading up to my launch. There are many things I am still learning as I continue through my debut year.
Who do you see as the audience for your book? What is the best way you’ve found to reach them?
My book is middle grade, so the target audience is readers aged 8-12. Because of that, the adults that work with that age are also an important readership for me, including teachers, librarians, booksellers, and parents.
I’m a middle school teacher, so I do have some access to middle grade readers through my own students, but typically we as writers don’t have that. Connecting with educators and librarians on social media has been a primary way I have tried to reach those groups. I’ve long used Twitter as a professional learning network as a teacher, so making sure that I included information about my book and my links in my profile was important. I also often tweet posts about books, writing, and my own work to hashtags commonly used by English educators, such as #edchat #engchat #literacy and #middlegrade.
Tackling both magic and heartbreak for a young audience can be a delicate balance. How have you found the subject matter of your book affects your marketing choices?
My book deals with magic but also grief. I always highlight the fact that my main character’s mother has died and that is the motivation for her wish on a mermaid’s comb. I think readers need that information up-front to understand what type of fantasy it is.
I also try to highlight the Caribbean culture and setting, as it is still not a common one in middle grade fiction. Being a book with a Black girl protagonist, a fantasy set in the Caribbean, and having an uncommon mermaid character are all elements that set it apart on the bookshelves.
What communities or networks have helped you in your marketing efforts and how?
Writing communities are extremely important. I belong to a few online groups that have been tremendously supportive and helpful. My co-marketing group KidLit in Color is composed of almost twenty BIPOC authors and illustrators. They have posted about my book, shared reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, and boosted my own posts. I also belong to a Slack group for 2022 debuts. We share ideas and resources and also boost each other's marketing efforts. Our group has been an extremely valuable place to share knowledge about marketing ideas and where to order promotional items, as well as to encourage and support each other in our publishing journeys.
Other groups I belong to have hosted me for conversations either before or after my launch. The Writers’ Loft was the first group to invite me to present as an author–my presentation was about author websites–and that led to presentations with other groups. Inked Voices is an online writing craft and critique website that I have belonged to for years, and they have shared about my publication journey in their newsletter and invited me for an “In Conversation” webinar after my launch.
A Comb of Wishes was initially drafted during NaNoWriMo and I was thrilled to connect with NaNoWriMo’s Executive Director Grant Faulkner about my novel and my use of the Young Writers Program with my students. I recently appeared on the #WriteMinded Podcast to discuss writing and teaching students to write."
Recently, the story editing website Fictionary boosted me in their newsletter and interviewed me for their YouTube channel. I used the Fictionary Storyteller app when revising A Comb of Wishes before it was acquired by my publisher and have been able to share my journey and success with the platform’s subscribers.
What marketing efforts seem to have driven the most interest in A Comb of Wishes?
I think the effort that has been most impactful has been my book’s inclusion in the OwlCrate Jr. subscription box this February. This was the result of marketing by my publisher, but I worked to write an author letter and sign 4,500 bookplates for inclusion in the book boxes. The “Finders Keepers” box featured a special edition cover, a Kela Boxhill character card, and loads of ocean-themed goodies. Subscribers were encouraged to share their unboxing videos and I’ve received many tags from readers of their excitement upon opening the boxes. It has been a lot of fun! I purchased one of the boxes to use in a giveaway and will be doing that in the next few weeks.
Are there any resources you’ve found helpful in your publishing journey?
An excellent book that I read, and will return to, is Before and After the Book Deal: A Writer's Guide to Finishing, Publishing, Promoting, and Surviving Your First Book by Courtney Maum. It’s really been one of the most helpful resources I’ve read during my publishing journey.
What advice would you give to writers just starting out when it comes to marketing themselves?
I think the most important thing is to enjoy your journey and not stress out about marketing. In all honesty, nothing that we do as authors will make as much of a difference as what our publishers will do, and should do, to connect our books with readers and boost its visibility.
What we can do is build relationships and establish ourselves online so that readers can find us. Word of mouth is a powerful tool that will happen organically through the connections we build with those interested in our books.
Finally, do you have a tea recommendation for powering through the writing process?
I’m a coffee drinker at work, but I like Earl Grey tea when I’m writing at home. My father is from Barbados, so because of the British influence, I’ve always enjoyed my tea with cream and sugar : )
Lisa Stringfellow writes middle grade fiction and has a not-so-secret fondness for fantasy with a dark twist. Her debut fantasy A Comb of Wishes is published by HarperCollins/Quill Tree Books and was released on February 8, 2022. It was selected as an ABA Indie Introduce title for Winter/Spring 2022 and an Indie Next Kids' title for March/April 2022. Lisa received the inaugural Kweli Color of Children’s Literature Manuscript Award in 2019 for the novel manuscript. Her work often reflects her West Indian and Black southern heritage. Lisa is a middle school teacher and lives in Boston, MA, with her children and two bossy cats.
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Happy reading & writing!
Allison Pottern Hoch has happily made books her life’s work. She spent four years marketing and publicizing academic titles at The MIT Press before she went to work for Wellesley Books as a children’s bookseller and event coordinator. She is now living her dream: putting her B.A. in Creative Writing to good use as a novelist and as a writing/marketing coach for authors. She enjoys science fiction, cupcakes, and a hot cup of tea.