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Publishing Revolution: Historical Fiction Evolves in Digital Age

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It recently occurred to me that, as an author who's been writing since 1997 (The Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn), I'm living through the most mind-boggling upheaval in the publishing industry since Gutenberg's printing press. I've gone from the ponderous national "on the ground" book tour to a virtual book tour; from newspaper features to a Facebook fan page; from an author photo in a press kit to an author video on YouTube; from print advertising to an iPhone app. My titles are not just in print in 14 languages, but are audio books and e-books. Most gratifyingly, I've seen the end of isolation from and competition with other authors, to the new, delightful "one hand washes the other" school of cooperation.

Starting in 2003 (The Wild Irish) things began to change. I was plodding along doing things the old-fashioned way, quietly aggravated that I was not getting publicity, advertising or support of any kind from my publishing house. My lovingly researched and passionately written book was dying on the vine because the reading public was simply unaware that it had been published. Newspaper and magazine reviews were becoming more and more scarce. Beloved independent bookstores were starting to go the way of the dinosaur, and if readers didn't happen to be in a Borders or Barnes & Noble during the two weeks my novel was on a New Releases table, that was it! The poor creature was quietly moved to languish in the shelves, spine facing out, where no one could possibly find the thing unless they were specifically looking for it.

But sunk as I was into the writing process of my next book, I was only vaguely aware of the violent tremors rocking the publishing world. Of course I used the Internet more frequently for research, but I didn't know that any writer worth her salt had her own Web site. A musician friend began nagging me incessantly about having one built, insisting that anyone who was running a business or selling themselves in any way had to have a Web site. That if I didn't jump on this I'd become completely irrelevant.

One day I finally caved in to the idea. And in one of those wonderfully serendipitous moments, the very next day an artist friend recommended a Web designer who'd created a beautiful Web site for her. Linda LaZar was running a very affordable special, and by the end of the week, my webmistress (doesn't that sound a bit kinky?) had secured me a domain name and built me a fabulous interactive site, http://robinmaxwell.com, that had a page for each of my six books and looked like a Renaissance jewel box. And suddenly -- seemingly out of thin air -- the Robin Maxwell "brand" was born.

Immediately I started getting fan mail through my Web site's email, from all over the world. It seemed lots of readers knew who I was and wanted to communicate. I wrote back to every single person, and in that way began collecting an email address book of people interested in what I was doing and hearing news about future books.

Meanwhile I had made friends with two much younger historical fiction authors - the talented and vivacious Michelle Moran, whom I'd been mentoring since 2001 and whose debut novel, Nefertiti had hit two bestseller lists; and C.W. Gortner, whose superb first historical novel, The Last Queen, had taken the literary world by storm. These two were both firmly entrenched in cutting edge promotional campaigns with not only their own Web sites, but their own blogs, membership on historical fiction forums, and well-organized virtual book tours. They coordinated their tours with blog advertising on unlikely sounding sites called ICanHasCheeseburger.com and PerezHilton.com. Michelle and Christopher had recently become friends with each other. They could see their pal was floundering around in the murky waters of the old paradigm and decided to fish me out.

With publication of Signora da Vinci looming, they encouraged me to spice up my Web site (I added eight colorful, chock-a-block bonus pages I called "Passport to the 15th Century," one of them a mouthwatering grape and olive compote recipe. They got me to send out a newsletter to everybody on my recently expanded email list, begging them to take notice of my book and "daisy chain" it along to all their friends.

They also convinced me to forgo the exhausting, antiquated "on the ground" book tour (an expense my publishers were no longer willing to pick up) and organize my first virtual book tour. I was skeptical at first, but not for long! No more schlepping around from city to city worrying about whether the bookstores would have enough copies of my books to sell, or being humiliated in "The Bookstore of the Living Dead" when two people showed up for the reading.

The entire promotion for Signora da Vinci was accomplished -- glowing reviews, in-depth blog and magazine interviews, guest posts, giveaways of signed copies of the book, and remote reading group appearances -- sitting at home in my pajamas.

What a revelation!

Even in the midst of the 2008/2009 economic meltdown and the resulting bloodbath in the publishing industry, Signora da Vinci sold more than respectably, and the number of bloggers who had nice things to say about my books not only expanded exponentially, but suddenly went viral. Bloggers were starting to find me, rather than me hunting them down.

With a new title, O, Juliet, set to publish in February 2010, I was ready to go for broke. I girded my loins and prepared for a wild extravaganza of shameless self-promotion.

I made a decision that for my O, Juliet promotion I would do absolutely everything in my power to make the book a success. It was the first of my titles to cross so many genres. This was not simply an historical fiction novel (though it had plenty of historical fiction elements). It was a retelling of the greatest love story every told, so I reckoned romance readers would like it. And its protagonists were young people being thwarted in love by parents and society, so I guessed it would appeal to the YA crowd as well.

At the same time, I was facing up to an industry that had changed radically since 1997 when Secret Diary of Anne Boleyn came out. My publishers and agents had urged all their authors to use every online method possible for publicizing and promoting their titles, and I decided to take it 100% to heart. The publishers (Penguin/New American Library) got the ball rolling with a stupendous double-cover for O, Juliet. The front is gorgeous flowers clinging to a period marble balcony, and the "step-back" is Frank Dicksee's famous and achingly romantic pre-Raphaelite painting of Romeo and Juliet in an embrace.

My trusty Web dominatrix, Linda LaZar, redesigned my http://robinmaxwell.com home page and built me links to a "chapter sneak peek" of Romeo and Juliet's famous balcony scene. I bought the rights for one year to the Dicksee painting so I could legally use it however I needed it. Then I planned an enormous blog tour (interviews, guest posts and reviews), to commence in January, the month before the book's publication. O, Juliet will also be hosted on the cool new blog, http://HistoricalFictionRoundTable.com for a week-long blast of publicity by lovers of that genre.

I hired young, Web-savvy friend and neighbor, Tasya, as my West Coast publicist. She opened a Facebook personal page for me, as well as a Facebook fan page, and started inviting people to them. Within 24 hours she'd found me 200 fans. With help from one of my new blogging buddies, Allie Greenwald, I created a blog of my own (http://robinmaxwell.blogspot.com).

The blog's purpose was (what else?) promotion of my book, and to that end I birthed my wild brainchild, the "O, JULIET Love Games." With it, I hoped to open a forum for my fans and new readers to discuss and play with every angle of everyone's favorite emotion -- love. With the Dicksee image of Romeo and Juliet as my blog header (and guardian angels) I conceived of chats, challenges and giveaways, culminating in a love poetry competition, the winners to be announced on Valentine's Day. Then I asked Tasya to create a beautiful newsletter, and appropriated every address on my email lists. She did our first mailing Dec. 2, announcing the sneak peek and the upcoming "Love Games."

By this time my publishers were quite impressed with my efforts and decided to support them in several ways. On my urging (and with suggestions by the author and gifted advertising maven, M.J. Rose) they designed a cool blog ad, (a two-frame animated .gif), that the bloggers participating in my virtual blog tour could run on their blogs. Then the publishers agreed to my requests for a two-week blog ad campaign the weeks before and after publication.

Finally, they surprised me with the announcement that O, Juliet had been chosen for their exclusive "Penguin iPhone App Program." My book was going to be only one of four Penguin titles to have its very own app in February! I'm red-faced to admit that when I got the good news, I had no idea what an app was. The very next week, every other TV commercial I saw was for (what else?) iPhone apps. I was beginning to feel very hip. The other day I actually found myself giving a friend tech support on how to create her own blog. Will wonders never cease?

As of today, two of my O, JULIET Love Games giveaways are up and running, and lots of people are playing (and appearing to enjoy themselves). It doesn't hurt that the prizes are some pretty cool bling (three heart necklaces) and signed copies of the book.

My backside is permanently glued to my computer chair, my husband only ever sees the back of my head, and there's no chance that I can do any other work until the promotion is over. But I'm happy. I may write about the 15th and 16th centuries, but when it comes to promoting my book, I am most definitely an author of the 21st.

Robin Maxwell is the award-winning, nationally best-selling author of eight novels of historical fiction. She lives in the high desert of California with her husband, yogi Max Thomas.