Saturday, October 23, 2004

What's a writer to do?

Welcome back to BookAngst 101. Class is now in session.

An anonymous writer has asked several questions, which I'm going to address in two ways. First (and without further ado) I've offered a few thoughts of my own, which follow below. But I've also used some of these questions as the basis for a survey I've sent out to a handful of editors--which (assuming I get some replies) will be posted, anonymously, at a future date.

Dear Anonymous Writer,
Thanks for your questions.

1. what can a writer genuinely contribute to his own marketing? His business should be writing, rather than flailing about, trying to make up for what the publisher doesn't do. But so often great swaths of time are taken up with just that, though it's not his field of expertise.

This question best conveys the frustration & resentment at the center of your other questions, specifically as pertains to the non-writing aspects of your career--feelings nearly all writers can relate to. True: a writer first must write great books. But if ever there really was an era when that, alone, guaranteed success, said era is now past. (Max Perkins, he dead...) Your career--by this I mean your ability to support yourself as a writer--is, in the long run, quite explicitly tied to your ability to gain a readership. You may not enjoy the sort of "flailing about" that constitutes promoting yourself and your book(s), but you've got to accept it as a critical ingredient to building and sustaining a readership.

Gone are the days when what's on the page is enough to carry you. If you're unfamiliar with strategies for what you can do to augment your poublisher's efforts, you need to educate yourself. [BUZZ, BALLS & HYPE (see the LINK at the sidebar, to the left) offers a program--I'm not endorsing it, just directing you to it.] But if you feel the work is beneath you, you're gonna need to get into another line.

2. what can a writer do to become visible to his publisher before a book comes out--so often one remains the needed high class "wallpaper" behind the lead books, the needed "item" to help make up a "list"...

You can actively participate in the prepublication set-up by soliciting blurbs (sending galleys to other writers you know and/or admire). You can generate enthusiasm and good will by writing personal notes to thank key in-house personnel for their efforts, and to let them know you're available to help in any way possible. (Get names from your editor or your editor's assistant.) Sales reps (both those who handle the national accounts as well as individual field reps), the folks in marketing and promotions, the art director responsible for your cover, the publisher, the associate publisher, your publicist, your publicist's assistant, and so forth. These people work hard; acknowledge this, and your odds of getting their best efforts at every stage are likely to improve.

Incidentally, publishing is a business. If your publisher believes "high class" writing and "sales" to be mutually exclusive, you need to find a new publisher--somebody who when reading your work (literary or otherwise) can visualize exactly who the readers are out there for whom your work will inspire the k-ching of the cash register.

3. what can an editor can do to make a raise a book's profile?

You want to be sure your editor does (at minimum) the following things. First, push you editorially to make the book as strong as it can be. Second, get the manuscript around as early as possible to all the in-house people mentioned above--and get them to read it. Third, be a pest--make sure they're reading--because the single most important thing for pre-pub buzz is the organic excitement that generally begins with ecstatic in-house readers. Fourth, get great blurbs from key authors. Fifth, circulate those blurbs, and any other salient details (foreign sales; book-club sales; movie interest; etc) to all of the above.

4. what should be done about the commenter's idea that "more books are published than are needed"--that may be true, but most books are printed and never promoted in any way beyond the sending out of some review copies.

I agree on both fronts. We publish too many books (the question of need I'll leave to the philosophers) to give them all the push we might hope to see. It's a shame; and that makes it all the more important that you play an active role in seeing that yours doesn't disappear without a trace.

You're right, too, that for the majority of books, "promotion"=the page your book occupies in the catalog; the bound galleys that are mailed (to reviewers , to media and to booksellers) in advance of publication; the finished books that are mailed to reviewers and media; the press releases that accompany both of those. Sometimes execution and good fortune come together smashingly well, and these mailings do what we hope--that is, generate excitement: good reviews, radio interviews, and lots of people telling lots of other people about the book they've just got to read.

The two things most writers wonder about in terms of promotion are advertising and author tours. Ask a publisher about ads, and invariably they'll tell you: ADS DON'T SELL BOOKS. [Whether or not that's actually true will, I hope, be the topic of a future debate on this site.] And author tours are often exercises in humiliation, even for relatively well known authors. Attendance: six people, four of whom want to find out how to get published. Number of copies sold: three. Be careful what you wish for.

It's quite possible that the most effective piece of the promotional puzzle is the cover of the book itself; the allure of the flap copy; and the profile of the authors who've provided blurbs. Because these play into that crucial moment, where instinct or chemistry takes over and the consumer either decides to put your book back on the shelf, or to carry it to the cash register. It's ironic: it typically takes ten months to make a book (once the manuscript is delivered), and a hundred thousand decisions are made thereafter, all with the aim of making a thing of beauty that someone will want to buy. Yet in the end, the whole enterprise comes down to a split-second, gut-level decision. What actually happens in that moment--how the consumer reacts to the heft of the physical object, to the charm/gravitas of the story it promises, the magic of the package in which it's wrapped--is without question the least well-understood step in the entire process. It's a riddle, wrapped in an enigma...

Sincerely yours,
Mad Max Perkins


Margaret Larkin said...

Thanks for the advice. I tried to convince some writers that marketing efforts are required, and hopefully they'll believe me after reading your post.

Laura J. Wellner (author pseudonym Laura J. W. Ryan) said...

My dear Mad Max,

You haven’t said anything that I haven’t already heard in this age of writers are a dime a dozen and the overwhelmed publisher...writers spout the same complaints and publishers profess the same excuses... this banter is becoming so absurd, if I weren’t so dedicated to my writing I’d say fuck it, but I’m stubborn enough to keep writing, I just haven’t hooked up with the right peeps yet.

One thing keeps nagging me after every reading of yet another ranting writer or whining publisher and that is:

Why should the publisher expect to take the same cut in the profits if they’re not going to put in the effort to promote a book? It’s my opinion that they should differentiate that lack of effort in the royalties to the author, cuz it’s that poor sucker who has to hoof it herself to make it work. Otherwise, it’s a breach of contract, right?

If I’ve got it wrong, please enlighten me...put my ignorant little unpublished mind at ease.


Anonymous said...

Dear Mad Max Perkins,

Thanks for the suggestions. I always like to hear from the other side... I don't really feel frustration and resentment; that's not particularly part of my make-up, I'm pleased to find. I accept what comes in a more matter-of-fact manner, knowing I can't change the cards in my hand and that I must learn to play them as cleverly as is possible. However, I can imagine those corrosive elements devouring a writer.

What I feel is that most mainstream New York publishers simply do not intend to promote their lists. The idea of general, pervasive support is not a thought in any publisher's head. The anointed "lead" books are chosen. A few more books may somehow begin to accrue readers, and those books may or may not be given more marketing dollars, depending on who the editor is, who the writer is, luck, and other elements. This is news that most writers only slowly figure out.

My current feeling is that writers are better off attempting to do their best to influence the publisher's mind long before pub date. The other post-pub stuff is fine; just don't think it will work miracles without genuine backup. You can't make up for a publisher not being behind you, not letting PW know that yours is an important book, not pushing, etc.

The exceptions to that case are those people who have the leisure to sacrifice a year to doing almost daily events in service of a book. (As in the case of the teenage writer of "Eragon," for example.) That can turn either silk or a sow's ear into a purse.

Another thing I'd like to see you talk about is the "alternative" presses like McAdamCage--publishers who reject the New York model. I think they're interesting but don't know much about them.

Anonymous Writer

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A VOCATION OF UNHAPPINESS [Courtesy Georges Simenon (1903-1985)]

"Writing is considered a profession, and I don't think it is a profession. I think that everyone who does not need to be a writer, who thinks he can do something else, ought to do something else. Writing is not a profession but a vocation of unhappiness. I don't think an artist can ever be happy."

PRACTICAL MARKETING [Courtesy Zornhau, 2005]

"They should put the 1st couple of pages up in subway adverts. Having read them several times, you'd feel compelled to try the book - if it was any good."

PLATE OF SHRIMP [Courtesy Alex Cox’s REPO MAN, circa 1984]

"A lot of people don't realize what's really going on. They view life as a bunch of unconnected incidences and things. They don't realize that there's this like lattice of coincidence that lays on top of everything. I'll give you an example, show you what I mean. Suppose you're thinking about a plate of shrimp. Suddenly somebody will say like "plate" or "shrimp" or "plate of shrimp" out of the blue, no explanation. No point in looking for one either. It's all part of a cosmic unconsciousness."