Daniel Nayeri is a publishing renegade. There, I said it. He’s an editor at Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He’s also the author, with his sister Dina, of ANOTHER FAUST and ANOTHER PAN. His latest, out from Candlewick yesterday, is STRAW HOUSE, WOOD HOUSE, BRICK HOUSE, BLOW, a collection of four novellas, each in a different genre.
[The] novellas riff on influences as varied as The Wizard of Oz, Mad Max, and the sardonic Death of Pratchett’s Discworld…Strong and assured, these stories seamlessly merge different styles, teasing out and playing with readers’ assumptions about how westerns, fantasy and fairy tales work…provocative and deeply satisfying. (Kirkus Reviews)
After seeing some awesome new promotional stuff that Daniel is doing for his latest release, I wanted to sit down with him and pick his brain about why he’s so hardcore. Marketing is super important. A lot of writers are just trying so hard to get an agent that they don’t realize all the work they’ll have to do once their books are finally under contract. Daniel is a great example of an author thinking hard about his marketing. First, watch his four book trailers for STRAW HOUSE…, then check out our interview, below!
MK: STRAW HOUSE is a collection of genre novellas, which you don’t see much in today’s market, so it was innovative from the start. Tell us more about the why and the how of this project.
DN: I’ve always wanted to be versatile. Someone once said to me, “Daniel, your interests are a mile wide and an inch deep,” and I might have misread that as a compliment. As someone who has worked most of his life in a library or a bookstore, and now as an editor in a publishing house, I spend a lot of time thinking about the kinds of stories people love. One thing I’ve noticed is that we get a lot of teens and early adults who just browse around aimlessly, and when you try to recommend something, they just shrug, “I don’t know what I like.” Then you get these middle-aged to elderly people, and they head straight for their section. Ladies who only read Sue Grafton or hyper-violent crime dramas. Men who are working their way through Louis L’Amour or the Aubrey-Maturin series.
That’s always been fascinating to me. I’m fascinated that at some point in their lives, they discovered a genre to become obsessed over. I had my own binges on Raymond Chandler and Cormac McCarthy, Diana Wynne Jones and Philip K. Dick. So I thought perhaps I’d try to show off a little bit of range, and in the process help a few readers step out into genres they might not otherwise discover–and fall in love with–until much later in life.
MK: For the book, you commissioned four “commercials,” rather than book trailers. What’s the distinction?
DN: I think the distinction is that a “trailer” implies that you’re getting a piece of the experience. When you watch a “Transformers” trailer, you’re getting an excerpt of the finished product. All the explosions and grimaces and oiled-up models are at the glossiest they’re going to get. But for a book, I don’t think a 30-second video is ever going to give people the experience of reading the story. More often, since I don’t have the budget of “Transformers,” what viewers would get is an inferior experience.
Obviously, I wouldn’t want to introduce people to a story I worked on for four years by shoving my own cruddy AfterEffects skills in front of them. Plenty of authors can do that. They’re amazing with Photoshop, or they have a bullet-proof concept, or whatever. I’m not in that position. I want readers, not viewers. A “commercial,” on the other hand, never implies that you’re getting a piece of the experience. No one watches the Old Spice commercials and thinks they’ve actually smelled Old Spice. They just ogle that attractive guy, and laugh at the funny jokes, and associate a certain tone with Old Spice. Later on, they go to the store and smell it. If they like the smell, the buy the product. It comes down to the smell. The only thing the commercial did was get them to pay attention. It’s the same with food commercials. As a former pastry chef, I know the presentation of a dessert is important, but it doesn’t trump the taste.
That’s the distinction I was trying to make. I wanted people to get a sense of the presentation of the book, the tone, the ideas. But I didn’t want anyone to think they got a taste of the flavor. God-willing, the commercials are good enough for them to take the time to read a little of the book.
MK: Take us behind the scenes of the commercials. How involved were you? Any anecdotes?
DN: I was pretty involved, but I wouldn’t say I get any credit for the artistry. I’ve partnered with the guys at Plywood Pictures before. They’re good friends of mine. They’re also insanely busy, so when I asked them to do these videos, it came with a few elements that I think sweetened the deal. First, I think publishers should start spending money on good videos. I think that market should grow, and production companies like Plywood are just the type to do it for them. So they had the opportunity to show their skills to publishers.
I also asked them to do “commercials” instead of “trailers,” the same distinction I parsed above. So they weren’t creatively limited to the plot of my stories. They could pitch their own ideas. We brainstormed and they had these four ideas, and I just tried to make it all happen. I became a production assistant for the shoots, running out to get meals or coffee or whatever. I know I’m not a filmmaker, so I provided manual labor. Every once in a while, someone would go, “And that guy wrote the book.”
MK: What other marketing outreach are you doing?
DN: Well, we had a gorgeous paper-engineered mailer. If you look closely at the picture, you can see where the title has been laser-cut out of the top. It looks like it’s free-floating. Unbelievable work. We also had a gallery showing last week. We had around nine artists from all different styles illustrate any scene from the book. The show went really well, good food, lots of drinks, and several of the pieces were sold, and a couple of them had their first conversations with agents. That was pretty cool to see. The buyers hadn’t even read the book yet. They just liked the work. That was gratifying for me, because sure, they’ll check out the book. But more than that, it presented the artists on their own terms, as artists. They weren’t just there to prop me up, even though I’m certainly grateful that they did me the honor. I wish I could have afforded a bunch of them myself.
MK: How has your publisher, Candlewick, responded to your marketing plans?
DN: They’re amazing. Absolutely amazing. I can’t be easy to work with. I have random ideas. I’m opinionated. I put my foot in my mouth ALL THE TIME. I barely ever shave. I’m fairly certain I smelled like onions the last time I visited them. [MK: Maybe try some Old Spice?] And still, the Candlewick team listens to my ideas and gets behind the good ones in a way that I’ve never seen before. They are giving away one of the four stories on the Kindle right now (we were number 1 for a few days!). Of course, I don’t email them with a list of demands. They have more important authors on their list, and I’m aware of that. It’s ridiculous to assume I should get the kind of front-end investment that an award-winner or a perennial bestseller should get. That’s a huge misconception.
So I do a lot of early development on my ideas to make sure that if it’s a waste of time, they’re not the ones taking the loss. I pitch them with a plan, with partners in place, etc. But none of it would be possible if they didn’t bring their expertise, their enthusiasm, and their muscle. I couldn’t be more grateful.
MK: What can authors take away from your strategies here?
DN: The biggest “strategy” that I can think of is to have a community and to think of your book as a way to help other people showcase their talents. Let other people shine. As writers, we don’t realize sometimes that artists in other media have huge production hurdles in front of them. If a director wants to make a portfolio, they have a lot of costs to cover to make good films. As writers, we get to show our talent every time we open Microsoft Word. So I think writers can come alongside other artists and say, “Hey, you’re looking for promotional pieces for your work, and so am I. If you provide your talents, I can cover costs, and together we both get to present our work.”
Obviously, I don’t think I broke even with ANY of these artists. Their talent is way more valuable than the dominoes I bought to make a Rube Goldberg machine (in the Wish Police video). But it’s the least I could do. The other part of this “strategy” is to say, “be as invested in the work of your peers as you are in your own work.” You have to curate your peers, because you can’t give time and effort to everyone, but be the guy who *does* favors more often than the guy who *gets* favors, and you’ll find that lots of people are interested in helping out.
MK: What are your plans for future books?
DN: Well, for the most part, I was inspired by Western themes and ideas for this book. Obviously, the Western and Hard-boiled Detective story are distinctly American. Sci-fi and Romantic comedy have broad roots, but I was mostly pulling from western tradition for my own. For the next book, I’m working on four Eastern themes and genres–an Arabian Nights tale, a Chinese Box story, a Ibn Battuta travelogue, and an Anime. I’m really excited about it. My family and I immigrated to the states from Iran when I was 8-years-old, so the East-West relationship has always been a subject I’ve enjoyed thinking about.
Thank you so much to Daniel for this interview and for the crazy-brainy answers. Now go buy Daniel’s book, which came out yesterday. RUN! HURRY! Look how happy-making it is!