Elaine Orr: Pretty Good Mysteries | Author of Mystery Series Finds Self-Publishing Success


When I met author Elaine Orr, I was struck by her meticulous approach to her work—both as a writer and as a marketer. We were both panelists for a self-publishing event at the West Liberty Library (the same event where I met Jodie Toohey, subject of last month’s column), and Orr quickly established herself as an expert at getting work done and getting it noticed.

Orr moved from Maryland to Ottumwa in 1994 and met her husband in a writers’ group in the Ottumwa Public Library. Though she now lives in the Springfield, Illinoins, area, she maintains her connections in Iowa, even reading the books her old Ottumwa book club is reading in case she’s back in town when they meet.

She is the author of a series of cozy mysteries starring Jolie Gentil (her name, which means “pretty nice” in French, hints at her creator’s sense of humor). The first entry in the series, Appraisal for Murder, is an engaging tale in which Orr manages the difficult trick of working with a fairly small cast while still providing plenty of misdirection to keep the reader guessing as Jolie untangles the mystery. Jolie, who narrates her own story, is likeable and prone to undermining herself in humorous ways. I found Appraisal for Murder a strong start to a series that now includes nine books (including a prequel), the most recent of which is Ground to a Halt.

From the start, Orr knew Jolie’s adventures would be a series. Her initial plans, however, shifted slightly in the writing.

“I wanted to write a mystery series so I could work with the same characters for a good while,” she wrote in an e-interview. “It’s set in a fictional Jersey shore town because I love the Mid-Atlantic beaches. I thought I had the first few books planned, but one of the characters unexpectedly became my favorite, so I went in a slightly different direction.”

Orr explored traditional publishing, but soon realized self-publishing might be a better fit for her. “I wrote the first two Jolie books in the mid to late 2000s,” she wrote. “I tried to find an agent briefly, for the first one, but I’m glad I didn’t get one, because that book got a lot better as I developed the second one, Rekindling Motives. Those first two books took five years to write, because I was working full time.

“By that time, I was in my late 50s. It can take a long time to find a publisher, let alone see a book in print. I have no plans to kick the bucket, but I didn’t feel like waiting to hear a lot of ‘Sorry, this book isn’t right for us.’ ”

She’s been pleased with the revenue she is able to generate as a self-published author, estimating that she sells roughly 8,000 e-books each year in addition to some paperback and audio book sales. Those sales are driven, in no small part, by her committed approach to marketing.

Quick to acknowledge that the quality of the product is essential—“You only get one chance to make a first impression, so write a good book”—Orr also knows a good product won’t sell if no one knows about it. She’s become quite adept at using social media to spread the word, but she encourages writers to employ more traditional approaches as well.

“You can’t rely solely on social media marketing,” she wrote. “Put out press releases, volunteer to speak at libraries, pester local radio stations. Face-to-face exposure is as important now as it was 20 years ago.” Orr is generous with her marketing advice, and authors can find much more of it at her blog (elaineorr.blogspot .com) by clicking on “Index to Posts.”

She has kept the books coming at an impressive clip, but Orr plans to take things up a notch, publishing three books a year rather than two. She has plenty of projects in the works, and one of them just might find a home with a traditional publisher.

“I will keep the Jolie Gentil series going. I’ve grown the characters to a point that they can take a brief hiatus while I start another series,” she wrote. “The River’s Edge Cozy Mysteries will extend my Iowa connection. The setting is a small town on the Des Moines River, and it will also be a mix of mystery and humor.”