An interview with Carolyn Howard-Johnson

Interview by Kelly Klepfer

Carolyn Howard-Johnson’s first novel, This Is the Place, won eight awards. Her second book, Harkening: A Collection of Stories Remembered, creative nonfiction, won three. Her chapbook of poetry Tracings, was named to the Compulsive Reader’s Ten Best Reads list and was given the Military Writers’ Society of America’s Silver Award of Excellence. An instructor for UCLA Extension world-renown Writers’ Program, her book The Frugal Book Promoter is recommended reading for her classes, and was named USA Book News’ “Best Professional Book 2004.” It is also an Irwin Award winner. Her second book in the HowToDoItFrugally series is The Frugal Editor: Put Your Best Book Forward to Avoid Humiliation and Ensure Success is also a USA Book News award-winner as well as the winner of the Reader View’s Literary Award in the publishing category. She is the recipient of both the California Legislature’s Woman of the Year in Arts and Entertainment Award and the Glendale American Business Women’s Association’s Woman of the Year award. Her community’s Character and Ethics Committee honored her for promoting tolerance with her writing. She was also named to Pasadena Weekly’s list of 14 “San Gabriel Valley women who make life happen.” She is a also a popular speaker and actor. Her Web site is How to do it Frugally.

Kelly: What mistakes did you make on your way to marketing geniusness?

Carolyn: Oh, I love making up words like you just did! I even mention that and how to handle them in The Frugal Editor. I made lots of mistakes. Mistakes are how you learn. But most of the mistakes I made would be classified more as publishing mistakes than marketing ones.
The one I have the most difficulty with now is editing. Once you have a book out about editing (The Frugal Editor) it is especially humiliating to be caught with your typos down.

Most people don’t connect editing with marketing, but the quality of the work you put out there is part of your branding (your image) and that’s marketing for sure! I guess I am lucky that the other part of my branding has been the word “frugal” so that I can always cop that I was too chintzy to hire that extra pair of eyes I so strongly recommend.

Kelly: As a guru for inexpensive self-promotion, give us a best “bang for your buck” marketing idea.

Carolyn: Web promotion is the Big Bang. There is much there that will only cost you your time and all kinds of ways to do it. Web promotion also appeals to the shy writer. They don’t have to get out and speak or teach or do radio or TV to do it. Though I don’t recommend anyone hide behind her computer.

 Kelly: A bit of wisdom from the Frugal Editor, please?

Carolyn: Mmmmm. Wisdom. At my age I should have some of that. I’m trying to think of something you haven’t seen before. Let’s see. On your first contact with publisher, agent, editor or any of the other gatekeepers, go for zero-tolerance editing. Most of them are steeped in tradition and won’t be amused by arguments like, “That’s the way I like it,” or “This is merely a style choice I’m entitled to make.” In fact, they won’t bother to argue with you. They may just deep six your manuscript before they read the first page. And the only thing you’ll ever know is that your gorgeous, beautiful, original novel didn’t sell as you hoped it would.

Kelly: And one more….wisdom for a first impression….

Carolyn: You brush your teeth in the morning and pull the rats’ nests out of your hair, right? That’s branding. So think about what message you’re sending with the color of your blouse, the kind of paper you choose, and the perfection of your query letter.

Kelly: What is the worst marketing/promotion mistake a writer might make?

Carolyn: Actually the worst one is not to do it. Out of fear. Out of lack of know how. Or because a writer still believes their publisher will do it for them. 

Kelly: How can we avoid errors that cripple our attempts to promote?

Carolyn: Let’s be very, very serious for a minute. We learn from errors. The worst error we can make is to fear making them so badly that the fear paralyzes us. Sure, do your homework. Read your books. Take a class. Get a consultant. But also do some diving. You can’t make a splash if you don’t. Also, most people (the ones with heart) will be accepting of an honest effort and some will even offer some advice if you booboo.

Kelly: Describe today’s reader based on your observations.

Carolyn: Readers (and movie-goers too) like to think they are reading the TRUTH. You know, “based on a true story.” I don’t know where we’d be without the truths of the likes of fiction writers like Joyce and Dostoevsky so I don’t like to hear that. Still, it doesn’t hurt to be aware that attitude is out there when you’re marketing fiction, too.

Kelly: What changes have you noticed in publishing recently? Do you find these changes good or not so good, explain your answer.

Carolyn: What I saw at the last Book Expo America was that the huge New York publishers are borrowing from independent authors and publishers. Things like the use of digital printing, as an example.

Kelly: What one or two things could you share that might surprise authors regarding book promotion?

Carolyn: I think it’s important for authors to know they can find some way to promote that suits both their pocketbooks and their personalities. You can promote by writing. There are a few chapters on how to do that in The Frugal Book Promoter. One of those ways is by reviewing books by other authors. Another is by writing articles for what some call article banks. You can find a list of those article banks on the Resources for Writers section of my Web site. They’re also called content providers. The URL is: .
Kelly: If you could say one thing to aspiring authors what would it be?
Carolyn: YOU CAN BE IN CONTROL OF YOUR OWN WRITING CAREER. Yes, I am yelling because I really, really want you to hear. You can shoot for a publishing and writing career of your choice but you are not at the mercy of traditional modes of publishing any longer.

Kelly: Parting words, words of wisdom, the perfect answer to the question you wished I asked, or random thoughts…..

Carolyn: Of course there are always heartfelt thank yous. But another of my favorites (because it was so true for me) is that it is never too late to start writing, to start telling your story. I’d like people to know about the free newsletter I edit. It’s full of great promotion and editing tips, stuff on the craft of writing and its interactive (meaning I encourage subscribers to contribute). One can subscribe to Sharing with Writers by sending an e-mail with “Subscribe” in the subject line to Oh! And my blogs!