An Interview with James May

James L. May holds an MFA from Florida International University, along with a BA from Cornell University. He grew up in New Jersey, has lived in Miami and New Orleans, and now resides in New York City. His short fiction has appeared in Tigertail, and he has reviewed fiction for The Florida Book Review, Gulf Stream Literary Magazine and New Orleans Review.

I had the pleasure of interviewing James L. May, a historical fiction writer who just recently published his very first novel, The Body Outside the Kremlin, this year. I actually got a chance to meet James at a wedding a little more than a year back, and we talked about his book while it was still in the final stages of publication. He was so excited about his publisher spending the extra dough on getting the gold leaf embossed cover. Talking with him now, now that his book has completed its marketing cycle, it’s been enlightening and reassuring to see where reality and expectations align. —Michael Hamilton

When it comes to marketing yourself as an author and marketing your debut novel, what has been successful for you?

I’ve been lucky to have a publisher, Delphinium, who’s helped a lot with publicity. The publicist they hired arranged a bunch of radio and podcast interviews, and I feel like those were probably my most successful marketing activities, just in terms of the number of people they reached. Delphinium also coordinated some Facebook and Twitter promotions, and gave me advice on building my own website, which generates a small but reasonably steady stream of hits. It’s hard to know exactly how any of this translates into sales—in fact I’m due to get the first royalty statement in September, so I hope I’ll be better able to see what’s been effective then.

I don’t know if this counts as “personal” marketing, but I do know that getting traditional reviews from the trade outlets was good for generating sales. I got reviews from Publisher’s Weekly, Kirkus, and Library Journal. None starred, sad to say, but all pretty good, and I think they did a good bit for library sales particularly, judging by the number of copies available in the major metropolitan libraries I’ve checked. 

One interesting success: my wife mentioned the book to the clerk at the Mysterious Bookshop (run by Otto Penzler, probably the most famous mystery bookstore in the country) when she happened to be passing by and stopped in one day. A few weeks later we heard from them that they were going to feature The Body Outside the Kremlin as their monthly featured debut. That was a nice promotion, and in fact generated 50 or 60 immediate sales, since they have a list of folks who have a kind of monthly subscription to their featured debut program. I guess the lesson from that is that just showing up and talking to people face to face can still work for marketing?

Oh, and my publicist also arranged for me to do a guest blog post on Jungle Red Writers, a well-known mystery and suspense blog. That was a lot of fun, since they have a very engaged community and had a lot of people asking questions and suggesting things to read in the comments. It was good to get a chance to interact with a group of readers I might not have reached otherwise, so I think that qualifies as a notable success. You can have a look at that post and the interactions in the comments here if you like. 

One interesting success: my wife mentioned the book to the clerk at the Mysterious Bookshop…A few weeks later we heard from them that they were going to feature The Body Outside the Kremlin as their monthly featured debut.

—James May

Where have you struggled the most, and how do you overcome challenges?

Well, I don’t know if this is a struggle exactly, but the thing I know I would be regarded as most behind on is my social media presence. In short, I don’t have one. I have never had a Twitter or Instagram feed, and I deleted my Facebook profile for good after the Cambridge Analytica scandal came to light in 2016. I hate using social media, and I mostly think that it has had a bad effect on the world, so I don’t have any plans to up my presence. But I know that I am missing some marketing opportunities that way. (That said, my publisher wasn’t too concerned about this lack, and I have read elsewhere that if you don’t already have a social-media “platform” it is not a great bet to count on building one in preparation for a book launch. These are the things I console myself with, rightly or wrongly, when I worry that my social media stance amounts to self-sabotage.)

I mentioned the radio interviews as a success above, but they were a bit of a struggle, too. In particular, it was hard to talk to drive-time talk show hosts who hadn’t read the book, especially since it’s a historical novel and there’s a bunch of context about Soviet Russia in the 20s to give for the story to make sense. I tried to deal with this by writing myself an interview cheat sheet that listed the main points I wanted to make. I’m not sure how successful that was. Sometimes it felt as though I was just delivering a canned speech, which may not have been very engaging to listen to. If I had it to do over, I would probably try to focus more on the story and less on the history. I’m still interested in and excited about Russian history, with the result that I feared I sometimes just lectured about it for fifteen minutes instead of really selling my book.

How have you adapted as the media landscape and technology evolves? How has your strategy changed as you’ve reached new career milestones?

I’m not sure I’ve been around as a publicly known (or at least knowable) writer for long enough for the landscape to have evolved much. And having the first novel come out is really my first big career milestone. I certainly did need to do a little bit of PR prep for that milestone. I suppose the biggest thing was getting the website together (oh, that’s here in case you’re interested). And that involved updating my author bio, taking an author photo, and so forth. And I had to set up author accounts for Amazon and Goodreads and so forth. I suppose this is less a “strategy” change than it is doing the bare minimum to establish professional presence as a writer. But it felt like a big step, and took a little work (especially so since I made the website myself).

Did you and your agent already have an idea on how you wanted to market the book before you took it to publishers?

We certainly knew we wanted to sell it as upmarket fiction, but beyond that we didn’t have a detailed plan. Most of the strategizing we did before it sold was about rewrites and how to improve its chances on submission.

When you did take it to publishers, did you find yourself negotiating for more publicity in lieu of say, smaller advance/royalties?

We talked about that option, but in the event we didn’t have to negotiate for it. My editor, Joe Olshan, seemed to have a pretty clear idea about publicity from the start, so we were talking about that stuff as we signed, though no particular publicity commitments from the publisher made it into the contract. I don’t know if that’s a common thing. During our conversations prior to signing, my agent Mitchell didn’t seem to think it was important to nail that down. It would have been a benefit to us, obviously, but I can see that a clause like that could be a sticking point for a publisher, who would want to be able to alter their plans as their circumstances changed without worrying about violating the contract. In the end we just trusted Joe, who Mitchell has a long relationship with.

If we’d had to negotiate about it, I probably would have accepted a smaller advance but wouldn’t have wanted to give up any royalties. I don’t know whether there’s traditional wisdom about this, but I’m more comfortable when I know exactly how much we’re negotiating for. A cut to your advance is fixed, but a cut to your royalties is variable. If the book doesn’t earn out it might amount to nothing (in which case you got the better of the deal but are still sad). But if the book does well, you might end up having given away a lot more than you thought you did when you gave up a percentage point of royalties. But I’m getting away from the marketing element.