Note: Today’s post is an extended version of an item originally published in The Hot Sheet, a subscription newsletter I run in partnership with Porter Anderson.
Last month, industry analyst Mike Shatzkin wrote a long and essential post discussing how authors still need help with their digital presence (and related marketing), the kind of help that traditional publishers are rarely providing.
While he advocates that publishers devote more resources to “author care” functions (something I encouraged in a 2012 industry talk), Shatzkin also discusses the potential for authors to collaborate amongst themselves to improve their situation, without the involvement of agents or publishers.
Certainly in the self-publishing community, authors have been helping each other from the very beginning, and you can see active examples of it through Kboards and countless Facebook groups. But in the traditional publishing community, that kind of activity is harder to find, with the best example probably being Binder Full of Women Writers and all of its attendant subgroups.
But Shatzkin pointed to an excellent example—on the traditional publishing side—of an author marketing co-op that’s becoming highly visible: Tall Poppy Writers. Its founder is Ann Garvin, who started the group in 2013 by asking other women authors if they wanted to be part of a collaborative marketing effort. The group now has about 45 members and specializes in books by women, for women, especially women in book clubs. Everything they do is reader centric: their group email newsletter reaches about 20,000 readers and their new book club has 3,500 members.
Recently, Garvin and members of her group—including Amy Impellizzeri and Kelly Simmons—were kind enough to answer some of my questions about how their group operates and what success they’ve achieved. They claim to be the only national author marketing co-op in the United States, and as far as I know, that’s true. (If you can point to other examples, please comment!)
Jane: As Mike Shatzkin recently wrote, groups like Tall Poppies are filling a need that publishers and agents aren’t meeting. Could you see a publisher doing something like this as successfully—establishing a collective among its authors—or do you think the power of this group grows out of it being author-managed and author-directed?
Kelly: A publisher’s group will always have a pre-determined agenda: There are books they want to succeed, and books they know will have short lives. So, yes, Tall Poppies is author-managed, but more importantly, we are reader-centric. Everything we do, and everything we succeed at, is done through the prism of a reader’s experience, not a writer’s, not a publisher’s.
Ann: Because of this, our goals are different from a publisher’s goals. Of course, we would like to sell books but our primary objective is to give our readers access and personal interactions with authors. To that end, a Tall Poppy Author is invested in relationships and not only the kind of relationships where money changes hands. We want our stories to resonate and getting to know our readers help us do that. If a publisher has like-minded, committed, generous authors who enjoy social media it’s possible they could mimic what we do.
Have you or group members received any feedback from your publishers/agents about your efforts? I’m wondering if they’re largely excited about your collaboration, or if they might be a little anxious!
Kelly: Being a Tall Poppy has been a boost to many of our authors—it’s like a Good Bookkeeping Seal of Approval! It signals to agents and publishers that we have that author’s back and will help her succeed. When an author goes forward in search of an agent or a publisher she is not alone and this is all part of the platform that we hope helps authors build their careers.
Ann: In conversation with agents and editors, it’s clear that they think that the Tall Poppies is a great idea. Long have they heard authors’ frustrations with efforts to get their book in front of readers and the Tall Poppies is trying to channel that frustration into an organized system. It works on several levels. We see immediate changes in ranking on Amazon when our Poppy network get behind a title and that eases the mind of the author. When we work together, we know we are giving it our best effort. There is no anxieties related to wondering if we could or should do more. The Tall Poppy network helps us control a small part of the process and this can be wonderful for the entire publishing experience.
What feedback have you received, if any, from readers, about this group and your activities?
Amy: In recent years, the Tall Poppies have become increasingly visible to readers through live events, press features, the various Tall Poppy pages on social media channels, and regular giveaways with one-time marketing partners including Storiarts, Grace & Heart, and Vacay Style, just to name a few.
But for all the advances of modern technology, we have long lamented that it is still so darn hard to connect with readers the way we writers crave doing. So in 2017, we have focused our collective social media efforts on an interactive and innovative Facebook group called Bloom, and we have been so gratified by readers’ responses in the short time that Bloom has been live!
Bloom is like an all-day slumber party. Every week, a Tall Poppy Writer takes over the Facebook group (sometimes with the help of a guest celebrity author) and shares insider information, comical anecdotes and other conversation starters.
We’ve seen a direct positive result on sales figures, attendance at live events, social media engagement, and our fundraising goals for our charity partner, Room to Read, as philanthropy is an important part of the Poppy mission. We hear from new readers every day that Bloom has become one of their favorite corners of the social media world, and that they have been thrilled to discover authors through the Tall Poppies that were not previously on their “to-be-read” lists.
Is there an organizational structure or hierarchy to your organization? How do you facilitate initiatives?
Kelly: The group is very democratic in that everyone is expected to work hard and everyone is listened to. Wait, is that socialism? We would be able to ask one of our historical writers to help with that. Because we’ve loosely assembled around our expertise—our goal is to have people do what they are good at—be it networking or computers or public relations.
Ann: We do have a core leaders who help with initiatives, organization, and general operations and in that way, we function just like any group with goals. I have a laissez-faire leadership style which is based on trust coupled with a strong framework and tools. Our authors enjoy a wide degree of latitude in making decisions and working on projects autonomously. We remain small and focused on our mission so that everyone has our goals in mind and a voice to manage their domain of interest.
What is each member’s responsibility to the group, or what requirements do members have to meet in terms of marketing and promoting each other?
Kelly: Authors help the group efforts daily, and help each other individually whenever a book is launched or there is major news. We don’t have requirements—we all do that we can, in between driving kids to school, working, teaching, and wiping mud off our dogs’ feet.
Ann: Our writers must be fairly savvy regarding the use of social media to foster relationships. We utilize online administrative tools and have real estate in several of the major social media networks: Twitter, Pinterest, Facebook, Instagram and Goodreads. This takes a lot of organization and self-monitoring and our authors are committed to making this work.
To that end almost every Poppy has a “job” but we don’t monitor that job. We know that everyone is bringing their best to the table when they are able. We all have many commitments and we try to be the kind of place that is understanding and fosters autonomy.
What’s the most successful initiative you’ve launched thus far—where you’ve been able to see or measure progress or sales?
Kelly: One of the most gratifying things that’s happened is that we are now working with celebrity authors and high-quality national sponsors. Cool brands who will add tremendous value and fun to the Tall Poppies & Bloom community. They were drawn not just by our numbers, but also by our style, influence, and genuine relationships. That is extraordinary progress.
Ann: We have All Hands On Deck emails that go out when a Poppy has a launch. This email provides everything we need to promote an author’s big day. We have a schedule of launches and a buddy program so that the author with the book coming out doesn’t have to also coordinate the Poppies. We are friends and we do this for each other.
As this group becomes more well known, I have no doubt many authors will want to join. What’s the criteria or how do you add new members? I’m also wondering how big the group can grow while still being manageable and effective.
Kelly: For now, we’re holding at the 50 mark. But even though we’re technically not adding members, we’re still adding friends and doing initiatives with other female authors all the time. You don’t have to be a Poppy to play with the Poppies!
Ann: I have to stop myself from inviting everyone to be a Poppy. There are so many wonderful authors who we wish we could bring in. It’s torturous for me because building community is where I get all my energy from. But, I do know my limits. I’ve found that I can keep about fifty Poppies organized in my mind and probably because I’ve been a professor of very large classes for many years. That said, we are always on the look-out for like-minded, generous authors to interact with. If an author continues to interact with us, we notice it and try to help them as much as we can.