Q&A with Author Marti Leimbach

By   Tim Inman 7 min read

Marti Leimbach’s career began with the New York Times bestseller Dying Young, which was made into a film starring Julia Roberts. She is also the author of The Man From Saigon and Daniel Isn’t Talking, which topped some of the summer reading lists here in the UK and abroad. Widely translated, and published worldwide, Marti is a core tutor at Oxford University’s Creative Writing Program, where she teaches on the Master’s programme.

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Your first book, Dying Young was published 25 years ago. Looking back, if you could give yourself a piece of advice about writing at the time of that first novel, what would it be?

Back then, I knew nothing about book publishing, nor about writing as a career. I knew how to write well and I believed that to write well was enough. To be fair, it sometimes is. Even today, one can occasionally find an example of a writer who is so good the world seems to step aside and let her pass right on up the ladder. On closer analysis, however, it is often possible to see how a number of factors in addition to the quality of the book played a part in its success, and I wish I could have helped myself make more of the great opportunity that my first novel afforded me.

For example, the success of Dying Young was due, in part, to the way in which a few key players fought for the right to publish it. Its appeal also stemmed from the fact I an unusually young novelist, so the “story about the story” intrigued many. And then the film – that was a gift. I didn’t get to the New York Times Bestseller list because I was “better”. The book was good enough, but the book was well positioned for a number of reasons and it had a little luck.

If I were able to give myself a piece of advice for those days, I’d like to tell myself to understand that there are different types of success. A book is as good as it is regardless of sales or awards or bestseller lists. A book has value that begins with its first sentence and ends with its last, and is contained only within its pages. Understand value and understand success as two different things. Attend to each separately, but do definitely attend.

You’ve recently started posting content where you are talk about taking some of backlist to market yourself and learning from successful indie writers such Joanna Penn. What has inspired you to be a ‘hybrid’ author?

The opportunities given to “indy” authors are so vast and exciting I could not resist.  As a traditional author, the only books I am able show my readers are my “big” books, the new fiction titles that a publishing company lists in their catalogue, sells into the trade, and supports through their marketing and PR departments. Publishing houses only have so much space on such lists and they cannot be expected to support every book I’ve written since 1990, nor every title that my readers are interested in.

However, I have readers who really want these titles. I receive emails all the time asking where they can find a book of mine that is no longer in print. In days gone by, the only thing I could offer was the address of a second hand store that stock my books. Now, I can offer an ebook or a newly printed book that is in better condition and may have additional information inside that they value as well.

There is also the fantastic opportunity to create books for a specific audience that may not be “big” enough for a traditional publishing company to take interest in. For example, as a tutor at University of Oxford, I have been working with new writers for over ten years and I love talking about writing. I am currently working on some titles that will help first novelists, those who are trying to write about their personal lives, and some very specific instruction about difficult-to-write scenes (think sex and violence). These short books deserve attention and are interesting to my readers, but would not ordinarily “fit” on a publisher’s list.

To what extent do you enjoy the collaborative process of publishing? What do the best publishing teams add to your books?

Normally, writers work in isolation so working with others through the publishing process is a wonderful change for me. The publishing industry has always attracted into it the brightest sparks and the most appreciative readers; it is a privilege to work with such people.  And if you think about it, Why wouldn’t you want to be an active part of the process that brings your book into the world?

The editors and designers and marketers I work with all add something to my books. The best and worst part is the editing. I’ve had a few books that needed almost no work, but a couple of times huge revisions were asked of me. I can still remember how I had to unzip The Man From Saigon for Nan Talese at Penguin Random House, who told me the structure of the front of the book was all wrong and had to be completely altered. She was right, of course, and I had not seen my error until she pointed it out. I am so grateful to Nan and I think that Saigon is my best book, in part because of what she showed me.

As for all the amazing artists and designers and marketers and sales people – good god, what would I do without them? While I might be able to do a great deal myself, it is awfully nice to have people who are more experienced, more skilled, and better positioned to do it for me. I am lucky to be have access to these people – every single one of them is “my publisher.”

You’ve usually worked with different editors in the US and the UK. What if anything  differentiates the experience of being published in the US and the UK?

Having living in England for 25 years, I’ve become a peculiar problem for my publishers on both sides of the Atlantic. That is, even though my spoken accent is distinctly American, my written “accent” is a mixture. To the consternation of my US publishers, my manuscripts sometimes have American people using English expressions. The US copyeditors sort it out for me. Meanwhile, the English publishers never notice my mistakes, which sound perfectly normal to them, so I have to tell them what the copyeditors in the US have recommended.

If you were to identify some new skills and specialisms that writers and publishers were like to value in the future, what would they be?

All publishers are asking writers to develop  “platforms” through social media or any other means to get the word out in an increasingly difficult market. However, there isn’t a great deal of coaching on how one is supposed to do that. If I were to invent a few new positions inside publishing, one would be a social media marketing expert who worked with writers to help them develop and maintain the readership they need. This expert could be in-house or brought in through a place like whitefox or be a freelance consultant who specialized in the publishing industry.

If publishers want to compete with other media, they may have to step into additional media arenas. In the future, the word “publisher” may no longer describe the scope of business that entities like Harper Collins or Penguin Random House will perform for authors. They have the opportunity now to reorganize themselves so that they have media experts on board, so that they create an entire publishing experience for author content, which might include auditory and visual content free to the public in addition to the written word.

Individuals also have a chance to “make it big” in publishing without ever having been hired.  Some clever film person is going to figure out how to use Vine to invent 7-second videos that make authors look as interesting as they often are. Another is going to invent a youtube channel that features authors and books, with reach as great as Oprah’s has been in the past.  Excellent publishers will create their own opportunities that are now unimaginable. In short, we’re going to see a whole lot of change.