Thursday + Gregory Huffstutter = The Ad Man Answers
Thursday + Gregory Huffstutter = The Ad Man Answers
So, Chris, at what point in your advertising/writing career did you make the jump to full-time novelist? How long were you juggling the two worlds?
I actually went the whack-o route. I left Y&R in 2001, cashed in my stock, and set up shop in the spare bedroom to write those screenplays nobody bought. In 2003, I started writing books. In 2004, I sold the first manuscript and in 2005 TILT A WHIRL was published (it won the Anthony Award for best first mystery in 2006!).
I tried to set up my own Funny Radio Shop in New York (I was a huge fan of Dick Orkin Radio Ranch and Bert, Barz and Kirby in L.A.) for the first year after I left Y&R but very few clients were interested in spending extra to do "creative" radio.
You’ve done several book trailers – did you feel like they were worth the effort? How were they distributed? Were they created by your publisher, or did you tap your old industry contacts?
I think they're definitely worth the effort, and thanks to my Mac and iMovie, they aren't that difficult to piece together. Now, I have never put them into Wide Release. I post them on my website, let folks know about them on Facebook, send copies to my publishers who e-mail them out to the sales force, etc. I try to make my book trailers like 60-second commercials. A lot of the trailers I see employ overly ambitious amateur theatricals and make the books seem cheap or cheesy.
I remember when I was at ad agencies, account guys would push for us to do radio demos to present to the client -- just record it on a cassette player with secretaries and people you can grab in the hall, don't add special effects. You learn, rather quickly, that once what you create comes out of speakers, it better sound like a real radio commercial or the client is not going to buy it. We do not watch TV or book trailers and think: "Isn't that nice, they did the best they could with no money." We see a movie, we either like it or think it sucks.
You’ve also done spontaneous book signings in high profile places, like New York’s Grand Central Station for “Slay Ride.” How did that one work out... did you get run off by security?
Actually, I think we gave away 500 books in like ten minutes... so security probably didn't know we were there in our elf hats.
Here's a funny follow up. Two weeks later, my wife was on the subway and saw somebody reading SLAY RIDE. Without revealing who she was, she struck up a conversation and learned that the guy got the book during our Grand Central stunt. "It's actually really good," he said, sounding surprised. "I thought they were Moonies or some other cult passing out tracts."
What kind of traditional advertising have you and your publisher done to promote your novels? If you had James Patterson’s marketing budget for your next release, how would you spend it?
I once chipped in with a publisher and we split the cost of a tiny New York Times ad on the book page. It made me feel warm and fuzzy. I think it sold zero books. I've also taken out ads in some of the mystery magazines; I think that helps some.
If I had a huge budget for my next book, I would do a version of the Grand Central Stunt on steroids: I would place boxes of the book in the terminal at O'Hare Airport and let people snatch up about ten thousand free copies. I am convinced that word-of-mouth is just about the only way to sell fiction. I do know, from e-mails I receive, that once people read one of my books, they want to read them all. The hard part is getting them to pick up that first one.
Speaking of Señor Patterson, he was influential in you landing your first job at J. Walter Thompson. During our Q&A with Marshall Karp – another JWT alumnus – he claimed you had to be a Senior Vice President before being allowed fetch Patterson’s morning coffee. Is that true, or was your eventual title of EVP/Group Creative Director puffy enough to qualify? If so... did he take cream or sugar?
Well, I think I had it a little easier because I was one of Jim's "Copy Test Kids." You might recall that he wrote a full page New York Times ad for JWT headlined WRITE IF YOU WANT WORK.
It was a copy writing aptitude test. At the time, I was doing improv comedy with the likes of Bruce Willis (before he was BRUCE WILLIS) but only making $20 a weekend after doing about six shows. So, I went looking for a real job where I could be creative and maybe get paid (not much when I started, as I recall). I took the copy test and was the first one hired (I think two or three thousand people answered it). Jim was always very good to me and kind of took me under his wing.
I don't remember if he even drank coffee... but I do remember the lady with the office across the hall from his waiting room always had a stockpile of Tootsie Pops, which we all lived on while waiting our turn to go in and show Jim our work -- sometimes well into the night.
And seeing my old title...Y&R EVP/GCD reminds me how advertising handed out more initials than any other business. My mother still has my final business card under the glass on her writing desk!
Thanks, Chris! And good luck with your latest YA novel, THE HANGING HILL... I’m sure it will scare the pants off the kiddies (in a totally legal, non-Roman Polanski way). Don't miss our next Q&A with best-selling author, and Ex-Ad Man, Stuart Woods.
Gregory Huffstutter has been punching Ad Agency timecards for the past dozen years, working on accounts like McDonald's, KIA Motors, Suzuki Automotive, and the San Diego Padres. His first mystery, KATZ CRADLE is on submission while he's working on the sequel. The first 100 pages of his novel are linked here. For general advertising questions, leave a comment or send e-mail to katz @ gregoryhuffstutter dot com with 'Ask The Ad Man' in the subject line.