Kathleen Grissom’s debut novel, The Kitchen House, was released in February 2010, to acclaim and modest sales. But then last year, almost two and a half years after it was published, The Kitchen House hit the NYT bestseller list, and it got there in an innovative way: Grissom set out on an innovative, intimate new kind of book tour. She visited and called book clubs all over the country, talking to readers about her book.
We reached out to Grissom to ask for her advice about outreach and events, and to get the firsthand story of how she built her unique success.
Togather: You had several careers before your first novel was published. Did you always know that you wanted to be a writer, and if so, do you think you started late?
Kathleen Grissom: Actually, I don’t believe that I started late, I believe that I started when I was ready.
Susan Isaacs was once asked if she always wanted to be a writer. Her answer was something along these lines. “I didn’t know that I could be a writer. I thought that writers were extraordinary people. When I grew up and found out that they were just ordinary people who might write something extraordinary, I then realized that I, too, could be a writer.” And that was the way I felt. I didn’t know I could be a writer.
Togather: When The Kitchen House was first published, it succeeded at a modest level. What were your publisher’s expectations, and how did they differ from yours?
KG: When I heard from the publisher that they printed 11,000 copies and that was considered a good run, I thought back to my advertising days. There, if we had something that we worked hard to produce and we did a marketing campaign and it was selling, we didn’t set it on the shelf and think about the next one—we put a push behind it because it was selling. My book wasn’t flying off the shelves, but it was selling, and the feedback that I was getting was really strong. People would email me or come up when I did book events and say, “I love this book, there is something about it that touches my heart.” And I thought, if that’s the case, I’m sure it will touch other people’s hearts as well. I knew there was still a product to sell, and the only way I knew how to do it was to reach out to book bloggers and ask them to read the book and to do a review.
Togather: How did you know which bloggers to contact?
KG: I went online and typed in something like “historical novel blog reviewers.” I would find one good contact, then I would read their blog so I could start a genuine conversation instead of blindly sending something out. Then, if I had established something of a relationship, I would ask that blogger if they could or would refer me to other book bloggers they thought would be helpful.
Togather: I think it’s also really amazing that you were willing to connect with so many book clubs, both using the telephone and also traveling to meet with small groups of people. Do you have any stories of a club that was especially fun to talk to?
KG: I actually just had one the other night that was especially fun, because it was mothers and daughters. The daughters are 16 years old and they read the book along with their mothers. We had a very interesting discussion and both mothers and daughters took part.
I also went down to Louisiana and spoke to a high school group of honor students who had read the book, and that was very interesting as well.
Another adorable book group was one made up of three women in a nursing home—a book group of three! The hostess wanted to surprise her friends, so she didn’t tell them that I was calling until she had me on speaker-phone. It was great to speak to them but nobody had any questions because they didn’t know I was going to call! I had such a good laugh when I got off the phone that day—they were so darn excited and even sent me pictures later on.
Togather: Do you use the Internet to stay in touch with readers?
Kathleen: Absolutely. I have information on my website, and Simon & Schuster also have a website with my name and how to contact me. I get so many contacts through both our websites. Most of my talks at book clubs came through emails I get from readers and the websites.
Togather: Does it make sense to do events even for just a few people, as you did for the nursing home ladies?
KG: At least one of these women was bound to have a sister or an aunt or a daughter who reads. It always amazes me how one person can make a difference. Even talking to a small book club, it’s only 15 minutes or maybe a half hour of your time, but the fun and the connections you get out of that outreach are priceless.