Laurie McLean Shares the Secrets of Successful Genre Fiction

Editor’s Note: I am pleased to feature this interview with literary agent Laurie McLean as part of the Winning Edits Expert Interview Series.

As an agent, McLean represents adult genre fiction as well as middle-grade and young-adult children’s books.

For more than 20 years McLean ran a multi-million dollar eponymous public relations agency in California’s Silicon Valley. McLean is also the dean of San Francisco Writers University at and a key member of the management team of the San Francisco Writers Conference,

Learn more about McLean at Agent Savant. Follow her on Twitter: @agentsavant

Matt Gartland: You represent an amazing range of adult genre fiction (romance, fantasy, science fiction, thrillers, etc.). Do you find that reader demand is increasing or decreasing for these types of stories?

Laurie McLean: Absolutely. In fact, most of the success stories in self-published fiction are authors who write genre fiction. Pulp fiction, if you will. And that can be tied to the horrible economy to some extent. When things in the real world get tough, readers seek an escape.

Genre fiction provides that in a big way. Secret agents. Forbidden romance. Space opera in a distant galaxy. It all takes you away from your problems for a few hours or a few evenings. A stress buster if there ever was one. And if you can pick one up for the cost of a cup of coffee (McDonalds or Starbucks), the authors of such novels are going to make money.

MG: Young adult (YA) is a wildly popular genre right now. Maybe it’s thanks to big success stories like John Locke and Amanda Hocking, at least from a self-publishing standpoint.

What do you foresee for this specific genre in the near future? Can it maintain its momentum? And do you feel that self-publishers are helping or harming the genre in terms of value and integrity?

LM: The young adult category is the most vibrant, experimental, genre blending and bending of all fiction today. It can absolutely sustain its momentum because teens have fallen in love with reading again and that’s a very healthy situation for the publishing industry.

Self-publishing doesn’t have as much impact on the young adult market as you might think. Perhaps it’s because teens don’t have a mechanism for buying eBooks (no credit card for the most part), and their parents are thrilled to buy their teen a paper book. It’s better than having them play video games endlessly, they say. But the reason that YA fiction has grown so huge as a market, and remained healthy throughout the recession, is that even when money is tight, a parent will put one of their own books back on a bookstore shelf if their teen presents a book that they want to read.

Now, add to this that YA is crazy fun to read even for adults, and that huge crossover market is making YA authors gobs of money. Even self-published YA authors like Amanda Hocking (who I’m now calling a hybrid author because she is also published by St. Martins Press).

MG: Given your accomplished PR background, how do you advise clients today to maximize their PR budgets? Does the value of a “PR dollar” today still reap the same reward as it did say 10 years ago? And what is the most important PR strategy of modern times?

LM: The most important PR strategy of modern times? In two words: Social Media.

What I did in publicity for more than two decades is now being referred to as outbound marketing. You bought ad space on television or in magazines or newspapers. You sent a press release out to a huge list of editors and reporters. You were interviewed on radio shows. You held events like press conferences and exclusive interviews days and press tours. You were broadcasting a message far and wide and hoping that some customer would hear it and respond.

But today it’s all about inbound marketing. You attract the customer who really wants the book to you through tweeting and Facebook pages and YouTube videos. And you attract them to your website landing page by offering them a free whitepaper from your non-fiction business book or a free excerpt from your upcoming novel. You’re doing permission marketing, which means marketing your books to those potential customers/readers who have given you their permission to do so by signing up for your newsletter or RSS feed or friended you on Facebook.

Social media doesn’t cost very much, if anything, in dollars. But it does cost in time…time spent keeping up with the latest and greatest tools and technology and time spent building a fan base. But this is what authors would be doing anyway whether they pay a PR firm to schedule drive time radio interviews which can cost thousands of dollars a month, or whether they blog and tweet and share stories on Facebook. I feel that social media has placed marketing in the grasp of every author, not just bestsellers. And this power dynamic is wonderful to behold.

MG: You’re also wise in the arts of book editing. How do you equate and express the value that editors bring to the book development process, especially to those that mis-understand the role of editors?

LM: I can’t stress highly enough the importance of editing your book. And I don’t mean using spell check and grammar check. I mean developmental editing performed by a professional. Or if you can’t afford that, heavy critiquing through a critique group, a critique partner or through online communities like Scribd or Wattpad. The author is just too close to the writing and knows so much more than the reader that they can’t be objective. Authors need outside perspective and fresh eyes to show them where they are overreaching or being obtuse or where pacing is erratic or POV shifts too often.

Professional editing will show you your strengths and weaknesses as a writer. It’s how writers grow and learn. Don’t skimp on this important step in the publishing process or you’ll stagnate and never reach your potential.

MG: What’s the #1 piece of actionable advice you’d give to writers who have become stressed and stalled on their author’s journey?

LM: Don’t give up.

Write every day, even if it’s only for 15 minutes. You’re lubricating your author brain and it needs to be done daily or you’re going to get rusty. Also read a lot of books from authors who you respect, in genres you write. If you are stalled on your author’s journey, write a short story, or flash fiction or poetry. Write a blog post or a book review. But write. You’ll soon be over your hump and back into writing productively.

The best advice I’ve ever heard was: If you can be anything other than a writer, do that! If you can’t, then write.

Images provided by and used with permission from the interviewee.