October 5th 2009
What then should we do…?
Ah, the vexed question of promotion, and marketing, and “getting out there”.
Used to be, if you got picked up by a halfway-decent publishing house, your book got a publicist whose job it would be to make sure that the world at large knew about the book’s existence when it turned up as an object ready for shelving in stores and selling to the public. No more. Or, at the very least, not so much if you aren’t already a mega-star in the literary sphere.
The big names get in-house buzz, the mid-listers less so (or, to be painfully honest, the mid-listers and newbies virtually none). In other words, the lion’s share of today’s marketing and promo budgets in publishing go to household names… who are already household names and have fans waiting out there at midnight launching parties with money in hand ready to buy the next hot novel as soon as it is unpacked from the shipping boxes.
The realities are very different for most of us.
We deal with it in different ways. An author whose name is less than instantly recognisable, whose book was released on the same day as Dan Brown’s latest blockbuster, was recently quoted as saying that she was perfectly sure that the two books (hers and Brown’s) would set a record for sales for any two books which had the same ‘birthday’, as it were. She would probably be correct in that. Brown’s book would sell three million copies, hers might shift a couple of thousand – but hey, it IS a record combined sales day for the two books, right…?
It’s a great quote. Behind it lies a reality that’s a lot grayer than the smile it brought to the face of those who read it.
A recent Washington Post article (http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/09/23/AR2009092304603.html ) explores the world of the new and midlist author, and what they need to do to survive out in the literary jungle these days.
Lots of good quotes there. Try this:
“Authors are expected to behave like mini-entrepreneurs, says Kamy Wicoff, founder and CEO of She Writes, a Web site devoted to helping women writers promote their books. She started the site in June. More than 4,000 writers have joined.
“The landscape has altered so fundamentally and irrevocably that almost no one is immune from finding ways to participate in the promotion of their books,” Wicoff says. “Writers with small advances and limited resources are expected to treat their book as a new company, with marketing and promotion and PR.” ”
(“Small advances and limited resources” – these are not euphemisms for anything. Audrey Niffenegger gets advances worth a couple of million dollars. Your average joe of an author would be very happy with a $50 000 advance. These are rarer than you might imagine – and there have been numerous posts out there on what this figure really means, anyway. If you’re lucky enough to have an agent, and you would have to, to get that kind of money, take 15% off that immediately for the agent’s cut. That leaves you with $42 500. If you’re VERY lucky, you get that in two halves, one on “signing” or when you get the contract, and the other on “publication” or when the book is released. But usually what you get is thirds – one on signing, one on acceptance of final version of MS, one on publication. These can be separated by as long as a year.
And don’t count on getting the “signing” section as soon as you add your autograph to the contract, either. My record – for a foreign sale – was that it took more than ten months for the “on signing” portion of the advance to arrive in my bank account. Which means you’re talking about 12 to 18 months, and an income of $42 500 stretched out over that period – in thirds – you get about $14 200 at a time, roughly. Out of this, a writer pays taxes, usually pays off accumulated credit card bills with what’s left, and waits for the next check to clear. Somewhere in there is a budget… for publicity and promotion. A decent book video costs anywhere from $600 to $2500. Do the math…)
Writers these days are expected to be “out there” – to have a presence. To visit places (usually self-arranged – and when was the last time you cold-called a school or a library and offered your scintillating self for a presentation, only to have the first question be, “I assume there’s a CHARGE for this?” as though you really ought to be quite happy to drive or even fly around the country on your own dime in case someone out there is gracious enough to be willing to host you in the first place…?) To be active on the Internet.
To be VERY active on the Internet.
Here’s another take on this, from eminent blogger Colleen Mondor, from her highly-regarded blog “Chasing Ray” (the post is at http://www.chasingray.com/archives/2009/09/dear_author_welcome_to_the_lit.html ). Amongst the things she said –
“If you really want to promote your books most effectively then you have to become part of the blogosphere, plain and simple. You have to spend the time to cultivate a readership which means regular posts on interesting topics. You can write about writing which many authors successfully do (Caitlin Kiernan, Cherie Priest) or you can write about all kinds of other things you are interested in (Beth Kephart, John Scalzi, Neil Gaiman, Justine Larbalestier, etc.) You can reach out directly to your readership (especially if you are a YA writer) like John Green has so brilliantly done or you can just reach out in a general sense to whoever might be reading. You need to post and you need to comment sometimes on other blogs. You need sit down, google “literary review blog” or “YA review blog” or Science fiction review blog” or “kidlit blog” – whatever your genre is and then click on some of what shows up and from that starting point follow the links on their sidebars to other similar sites.
Basically you have to invest some serious time… into wrapping your head around what goes on out here. You need to find blogs that resonate with you; find bloggers who write about books you like in ways that you respect and you need to become part of those conversations.”
It makes sense, of course – but now you have an additional problem. Time. Not only do you have to make that fourteen-thousand-odd dollars (the one-third of your advance) stretch like silly putty, you now have to find forty eight hours in every twenty four – because doing what Colleen says can be a full-time job as and of itself. Having an Internet presence which matters (remember those “regular posts on interesting topics” that Colleen was talking about…?) takes a disproportionate amount of time and energy – and yes, you can spend your days reading a plethora of fascinating blogs and writing comments on them all and gaining name recognition in the blogosphere, but it will avail you little if you destroy what little time is left FOR WRITING YOUR NEXT BOOK.
And that’s what most pundits agree on. The best way forward for the writer is to write the next book. That’s what they do. That’s what they are supposed to do. That’s what they used to do before their job expanded and expanded and expanded to include being your own word-of-mouth in an arena already glutted with information, and hoping that someone somewhere will trip on your own blog or blog commentary rather than that of six other writers who are crowding your heels or the twenty thousand out there in the queue ahead of you already.
And here’s the thing – this Internet presence – Colleen is right, it does need to be coherent and intelligent. People who email random Joe Blogger and peddle their book…aren’t going to get very far. And it’s seriously bad form to mention your own work if you happen to be in a forum where someone asks for reading recommendations, even if your book may be the absolutely ideal thing for them to read next, given what they are telling you they are looking for.
And there are vast areas of the blogosphere – the bigger, more influential parts – where you might feel you might be the perfect fit, and you KNOW there are gatekeepers for that particular playing field, and yet you cannot get their attention for long enough to get them to actually glance at what you’ve got… because there’s SO MUCH OUT THERE ALREADY. And here, like in the publishing house publicity departments, the bloggers are in it for their own gain as well as any potential gain by the author – so of course they will go for the names which are currently “hot” and lauded – because this will BRING IN READERS. That’s how it works – the guesting author brings in readers for the blogger. At least that’s what happens FIRST. Whether the appearance on the blog returns the favour is a longer-term proposition and the author has to wait for the rewards.
A lot of book-related blogs these days seem to be putting out a vibe of “don’t call us we’ll call you”. But here’s the thing – the publicity departments of the publishing houses are telling the authors, “Go forth, and create a buzz”. Many of the larger arenas traditionally covered by professional publicists are closed to individual authors (if for nothing else then for that bad-form talking about your own books thing – you might see someone interviewing a writer in a major media outlet, and the journalist has a contact email there, and the interview and the topic and the writer indicate that the journalist may be interested in your own work – but try emailing the journalist yourself, instead of having your publicity person do it, and let’s be honest here, if you were in that journalist’s position how seriously would YOU take an email from an individual author earnestly telling you about this Brand! New! Book! that the author in question had just published? What can that author tell you about it? “Well, I thought it was a pretty good book… even though I wrote it…”? )
Appearances which may matter in the larger picture – radio shows, TV appearances – are damn near impossible to arrange on one’s own without a helping hand, and hiring your OWN publicist to arrange these things, well, costs money. Which has to come out of that $14 500 – remember that? – which you might have received four to six months ago… And so the authors turn to bloggers, whom it seems easier to approach directly. But the bloggers are getting buried, and asking, “What’s in it for us?” – and the author, especially one just starting out, is left standing there, clutching a book, looking bewildered.
Sure, there are exceptions – there always are. People risk everything, and get lucky. Or they are married to supportive spouses who already have health insurance and a steady pay check and all that and are willing to support an artistic spouse in the pursuit of their dreams. Or some celebrity might trip over your name, and pick up a book, and be photographed reading it – and suddenly you’re hot property, not because of the quality (or lack of it) of your work but because it was spotted in the Right Hand at the Right Time (and you have no control over any of it).
Careers are made or broken daily – not because the author is a good writer or a bad one, but because the author is good, or not so good, at self-promotion. Do something proactive and make a mistake, and it will haunt you for years, particularly in the tell-all instant-access atmosphere of the Internet. Keep your head down and try and keep out of everyone’s way, and you might as well take your precious book and bury it at the crossroads at midnight because nobody will ever know it exists.
YOU can help – you, the readers. There is still one thing that is beyond price, that cannot be bought and paid for, that cannot be wheedled or bullied or blackmailed out of people. Word of mouth. Readers’ word of mouth. If you like a book, particularly if it isn’t by Dan Brown but is instead by that other hapless author who had to share his release date or someone like her, tell other people about it. Tell your bookseller about it (they can spread word of mouth even faster, because they, you know, actually SELL books, and can influence sales by their recommendations….).
Go shout it from a mountain.
That shout, that’s something – that’s ONE thing – that your favourite less-than-completely-famous author doesn’t then have to do themselves. Sometimes it’s nice just to be able to turn around when someone else calls your name.
Alma Alexander is a novelist, short story writer and anthologist whose books include High Fantasy ("Hidden Quen""Changer of Days"), historical fantasy ("Secrets of Jin Shei", "Embers of Heaven"), contemporary fantasy ("Midnight at Spanish gardens") and YA (the Worldweavers series, the Were Chronicles). She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two cats. Visit site.
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