Saturday, February 13, 2010


Fall's Big (and Little) Books

“I have an idea for a blog post,” my editor said to me. “Maybe you can write about being a debut novelist during Fall’s Big Books.” This would have been some time around August 2009, when the buzz over Barbara Kingsolver, EL Doctorow, AS Byatt, Jeanette Walls, Margaret Atwood, Paul Auster and anyone else who was anyone and publishing a book was starting to gather steam.

The idea was this: yes, we were and are in a recession and books are among the many casualties to suffer from a lack of spending dollars. But so many famous writers putting new titles out at once ought to be helpful in getting shoppers into stores, and this, in turn, might help a debut novelist like me.

I said I’d think about it. I knew, of course, that PR was important even though I had already decided not to spend $10,000 on an independent publicist. I’d read all about how readings don’t really help sell books (not true) and that I should not be surprised if the four people to show up at my reading in Seattle included a couple of homeless men there for the free coffee. I was feeling apprehensive, but basically positive. I had some fantastic blurbs. I loved my cover. There were a few people who’d read my book and liked it and I had a kind of blind faith that this support would count for something.

I guess I had my first inkling of what would happen when a freelance book reviewer posted on her Facebook page that she did not want to hear any more about any books with “Picking, Bones and Ash” in their titles.

For my book launch party, my publicist called around independent bookstores in New York City where we could host an event. I’d have a lot of friends present—books would definitely sell. No one was interested.

McNally Jackson, the independent bookstore in Soho, did, however, invite me for a reading. But about two weeks later, they uninvited me. I think this is funny now, though my agent and others attest they have never, ever heard of a bookstore doing such a thing. Bizarrely, Barnes and Noble in Lincoln Center put my book in their window. Nothing was going as I had expected.

A print review for a regional paper, which had been all but guaranteed, was suddenly killed; review space was at a premium and priority had to go to the “big names.” And suddenly, I understood all too clearly what it meant to be part of “Fall’s Big Books.” All October and November I chased the leftovers to Barbara Kingsolver and Jeanette Walls’ audiences. The point was driven home when I went out to lunch with a few debut novelists who told me that their houses had deliberately delayed their pub dates until the spring in other to avoid an overly crowded space.

Not long ago, Nielsen announced that Kirkus, one of four trade reviewers of books (which charged a fee, mind you), was closing. Ron Charles, the Washington Post Fiction editor, lamented via his Twitter feed: “Everytime we lose 1 of these rare independent voices we grow more dependent on publicists, authors' parents/ friends clogging blogs w praise.” Well, yes, that’s right. That is what will happen—and it is what is happening. It is, in fact, what has helped me with my book—the collection of readers and mothers and writers who are looking for something new. As far as I’m concerned, the bloggy-internet-online-bookclub-nightmare of publishers and editors can’t happen fast enough. As a reader, I don’t need to read reviews of the same writers over and over and over again. Yes, I understand that there is a hierarchy, that Margaret Atwood has been at this much longer than I have, and that she deserves my deference. I don’t believe, however, that I’m not supposed to have a career at all. New writers, after all, are the lifeblood of this profession that we are supposed to care about so much. I say we level the playing field sooner, rather than later.

What’s more, creative people are supposed to be creative. We—and I mean all of us: writers, editors, publishers, agents and publicists—aren’t supposed to cling to outmoded and elitist systems. We are supposed to like what is fresh and new and challenging. Instead of standing around, befuddled and sneering at the new world, we ought to be contributing to the solution. You think that blogs seem inhabited by amateurs and you consider yourself “an expert”? Do something about it. And what’s wrong with a book blog anyway? Did you really think you lived in a world where you controlled public consumption and taste and that word of mouth wasn’t spreading anyway? The difference is, now you can see it. This ought to be a good thing. Now you can identify people who, amateur or not, like to read. Now you can determine where a book starts to take off, or which book stores are instrumental in bringing a book to the public’s attention. I’m reminded of the ending to season 3 of Mad Men when Don Draper, concerned about the sale of the company to which he has devoted so many hours and ideas, earnestly looks at his colleagues and says: “I want to work.” Don’t you want to work?

Over the past three months, I contacted editors and publicists at publishing houses who are friends, and asked for advice. “What,” I wanted to know, “do you wish your authors would do to help themselves?” They were brutally honest, and I tried to do pretty much everything they suggested. I asked for my press kit so I could hand it out myself. I visited bookstores and discovered that booksellers liked meeting authors. I developed lectures and workshops to go along with my novel. I wrote book club questions and delivered them to book club organizers. I wrote “off the page” pieces and published them. I decided that the pitch for my novel was not working (does the world need another multi-generational Asian women’s book?) and reframed it in my interviews so it was closer to what I had really intended to write about—fairy tales, girl power and ghosts. And I learned that many other debut novelists before me have quietly trod this path—and are working to help out their fellow writers. Yes, writing is a competitive field. But you will find many more allies who want to help you than you might have expected. It’s now my turn soon to share what I have learned.

An independent bookseller in the Bay Area saw what I was doing, and understood it. “Every little bit is going to make a difference,” she said. “You’ll see.” Even though I couldn’t get a reading at a bookstore in San Francisco, I hosted a lecture on Japanese fairy tales—a theme in my novel—at an arts club. Over fifty people showed up. Half now have my book. The bookseller who sold my novel to the audience told me she would not return the excess stock: “I know I can sell this,” she said.

In the process of trying to learn how to take charge of my own PR I discovered something; it’s healthy for writers to understand and be in control of their careers. This is true of virtually every other profession; why shouldn’t it also be true for writers? Do you really want to live in a world where other people control your life for you? I don’t know about you, but I like solving my own problems. Much of writing and editing, after all, have to do with decisions that you as a writer must make on your own.

So, to the freelance book reviewer who writes for a print journal who did not want to have to hear about my book (and why, by the way, do you feel this way when I never actually did anything to you and you don’t even know me?): you got your wish. I was not in your paper. And at this point, I don’t care if I ever am. Because your world is falling apart. I am ready for the changes. Are you?

Kicking butt and taking names!! Thanks for this, Marie. You're an inspiration!!!
I'm glad, Al. Thanks for stopping by.
Thanks for this post! I saw the link on twitter, hadn't heard of your book but now I really want to read it. (and I'm a lowly book blogger, LOL) Every little bit does help though I'm sure it must feel exhausting for you at times.
You know, I'm kind of to the point where I think there is no such thing as a "lowly book blogger." Bloggers are readers and may well be writers (or one day may become print writers). Editors are all too happy to get the attention of bloggers--and then to sneer at them. What's that all about? It's not as though people weren't talking about books with each other before the internet took off. It's just that now we can actually *see* and *read* what people are saying, via book blogs. I think that's nothing to sneer at, to be honest.

*steps off podium*

Amy, thanks for stopping by. I appreciate it!
Thank you, Marie. My first novel is coming out this spring, and I've already been learning (sometimes the hard way) the lessons you impart so clearly and so well. I also have to say: Thank goodness for Twitter and its ability to introduce me to readers, other writers, and indie booksellers!
Congratulations, Joe! My ranting post aside, it is, as someone said to me, always a miracle to get a book out there. Don't let anyone take that away from you. I do think, however, that the intersection of art and the marketplace can be a rude awakening--at least it was for me. I think artists in general are sort of idealists--we are used to controlling our little worlds we create. And it's hard to turn all that over to someone else.

Let me know if you have any questions and I'll try to answer them. People were kind and generous to me and I'd like to be helpful back if I can.
Thank you, Marie! I've been thrilled and humbled by the generosity of writers who have been willing to help with valuable advice and more.

For me the biggest challenge of stepping out of the writing shadows is that every bit of it, every single day, feels like a new learning curve. It's wonderful, terrifying, exciting, and exhausting all at once.
Great post, Marie. Saw the link on twitter and came on by. The cliche that times are changing is particularly true in publishing at the moment. In a business where it is possible to begin taking some control, it's a mystery to me why so many authors don't want to.
I'm guessing it's some sort of right-brain left-brain thing. Or, in my case, some sort of "I like to sit at home in my pajamas and write" versus "I have to take a shower and be socially graceful" kind of thing. That's not always an easy transition for everyone.

But, yes, with change comes opportunity and I figure the smart thing to do is to embrace it.
Yes! =)
This was great to read...bookmarking this, and will come back to it frequently. Thanks for writing it!
Hey, Marie, found this really really good to read on this gray Saturday in Queens, as I am about to embark on this progress again -- and feel just as nervous the second time around.
Forget that reviewer, Marie. Your book is awesome. And if it makes you feel better, I'm getting the same treatment from some bookstores too. Seems like no one cares unless you are already famous. Well, no worries, I'm putting on a Lady Gaga-like dress for my book release party somewhere and I'll be handing out free dildos. That should create a stir...
I want to echo the first comment-- this started out as a bit of a bummer, but as I read on, I heard the Rocky theme swelling. . . Thank you.
Great post- It's awesome to hear an author being excited about changes and excited about publishing, even when traditional publishing can't seem to get excited or passionate about anything (other than about bemoaning those same changes).
Great post! And because I found it (via a fellow twitter user), you have just sold another book, regardless of what reviewers have to say, or not... :)
This is an amazing read. Thank you.
Hi everyone--thank you so much for reading, stopping by, commenting, etc.

A funny thing--this was actually written for someone else's blog, but was never used. So I just put it on my blog and, well, let's just say that half the traffic for my little blog this month has all been in the past 24 hours. It never occurred to me that this would strike such a nerve with so many of you.

I'm glad it's been helpful/useful. But I do want to stress that lots of people were really nice and helpful to me, and it just sort of goes to show that it's important to try to helpful back--a karmic thing.

Marcy-I'm so glad to hear from another writer in Queens! I reather like that your new book will be called "Bad Marie" . . . I'm hoping to head to your hood this weekend for some good food. Angela-you always crack me up. I'm going to want to see photos.

Thanks again, everyone!
Marie, I like your post! I think writers are facing a wrenching change that's similar to what musicians have been dealing with for a while now.

The internet age makes self-promotion more complicated, but provides many opportunities for people with smarts and perseverance.
Very well said! I agree, who wants to read reviews of books that have already been reviewed by hundreds of readers? I never post reviews of books I've read when I see they already have a ton.
Thanks for giving us mid-list authors some good ideas for PR.
Excellent blog post! I especially love this comment: "’s healthy for writers to understand and be in control of their careers. This is true of virtually every other profession; why shouldn’t it also be true for writers?" Wisdom every author should take to heart.

I haven't heard of your book before, but now I want to read it.
Great post - there is nothing like the feeling that comes from successful self-sufficiency and knowing you can take care of that part of your career in the future. You take back so much power that way (balance of power being something I grapple with too in other ways).

Refreshingly empowering to read, Marie... When you talk about "the intersection of art and commerce," and how artists are idealistic, a question that arises for me is how to deal with the commercial voice while the artistic voice is writing. I'm totally ready to do everything you say to market my next book... provided I can keep writing it and not build the entire story around what will sell, what might work on Twitter, etc.

Thanks for sharing your experience.
Jennifer--I still think that authenticity matters. For some reason, as an adult, the idealism hasn't been crushed out of me yet! And I think--it takes so much time to create a piece of art, and time is short, so you might as well do something that is authentically in your own voice and not fake it.

Having said that-I'm as shallow as anyone else and I don't do this to just be ignored. And while I understood on one level that books are purchased by big houses in part because an editor/marketing team can see how to market a book, I still (because I am stubborn and idealistic) didn't think it mattered. But it does.

I went to a panel recently in which I heard an author, her editor, agent and PR person all talk about the book's path to publication. Over and over again, the editor spoke about acquiring the book in part because she could see how to market it. I found this sort of chilling.

My publisher is known for putting art before anything else--and it's why so many authors are happy to publish with Graywolf. But there is no getting around the fact that at some point, if you are a writer who is truly trying to be heard, you need to actually *sell* your product. And trying to figure out that intersection can be a practical and emotional challenge.
Thanks, Max. If only I were ten years younger, I wouldn't feel quite the pressure that I do to figure this out *now.* ;-) The one thing I think I have going for me is that I know I have more books to write. Thanks for stopping by.
Terrific advice, Marie!

I don't have a book out yet, but I'm flagging this for when I need it. Which under the revised rules is now, isn't it? LOL
Hear hear!
John Michael Tracy

My recent blogs are at:

Look forward to reading your book.
Wow, what an inspiring post! I followed the link from Moonrat's blog, and I'm so glad I did. Not only did you provide some terrific promo ideas for debut authors, you gave me a wonderful sounding book to at to my TBR pile. Looking forward to getting my hands on your novel!

Marie, wonderful post.

It was a small bit of the story you told, but I especially liked the thing about not getting a reading at any SF bookstores... BUT doing a successful talk about Japanese fairy tales at an arts club. A small press I'm affiliated with recently published its first book of prose -- reprints of articles by an outdoors writer. We had a devil of a time getting copies placed in bookstores (the story of a small press's life)... BUT sold 'em like crazy at, like, dive shops and wilderness outfitters.

A good reminder that our books aren't just collections of words, for people who read. They're collections of ideas, for people who think about our books' subjects.

Thanks so much!
"does the world need another multi-generational Asian women’s book?"

LOL exactly. Every time I talked about my "first novel" The Good Daughters, people would say, "Oh, like Amy Tan?" Actually, I had no intention of it being an Amy Tan imitation, but in time it became easier to say yes than no. And the more I gave in to that image, the more I began to question myself in writing that book. Because like you said, is it really needed?

I finished it, though, and then put it aside. I'm at work on some other things now, but I know I will go back to that book. And when I do, I won't allow it (or myself) to be framed as "the next Amy Tan" -- I will write the story that I want to tell, and make sure that it's pitched (to anyone) as such.

Sorry, I know that's sort of a tangent to your point here, but the rest of the post was wonderful too. You make some great points (about having to find ways to get out of the shadows of the big names) and how there are now tools at our disposal to help us with that. It's better to go with the flow than fight it, you know? Well, of course you do, you proved it!
What I've learned is that every step is a learning curve for me. Every day, I'm finding out new places I should contact, new blogs I should write for, new social media that may replace the ones I've finally gotten used to. Google Buzz, anyone?)I'm willing to try anything and everything, but how does one define those concepts?

I love how much more open the whole process is, and I adore the connections I've made with writers, readers, booksellers--how nice to be a participant in my own life!--but for an obsessive like me, it's also an ongoing challenge. I've always liked having a roadmap or a recipe to follow.
Great story, Marie, and congratulations on your book. I had a similar experience to yours, spent six hours a day, seven days a week for nearly a year at this point pushing my novel. I'd had a novel published three years ago and at that time let my publisher handle most of the publicity. Big mistake, as the earlier novel got no major trade reviews, sold poorly, and almost killed my career. So even though the chains wouldn't order this one because of my previous disaster, I took matters into my own hands--getting enough on the radar to find support from a lot of wonderful people and some major critical acclaim too.
Thank you for this very inspiring post!
This is terrific. My debut novel came out last fall as well. And during that debut and since then I've been "rear in chair" both working on a the first draft of my WIP and revising another manuscript- plus teaching in order to put grilled cheese sandwiches on the table. That leaves precious little time for promoting.

Thank you so much for making a very complicated issue more understandable. Time is so scarce for everyone it seems. It's nice to see a PR road map of sorts.
loved this blog post. congratulations on your debut, marie!
Thanks for the encouragement! It makes it easier to persevere.
Thank you for such a kick-ass cogent post. And you've managed one more sale in the process, cuz there is nothng I love more than debut authors who pub with the smaller (but mightier) presses.

Cuz that's where I'm aiming to be myself - debut author working with an indy press.

Found you via Moonrat, and this made my day... Peace, Linda
This is really, really good stuff! I hope that you don't mind too much if I adopt your attitude at times when I think that the publishing world is completely nuts and upside-down.
Thanks to the lovely Moonrat for pointing us in your direction! :)

Marie, what an inspiring post. My debut novel is coming out one year from now, and I am already thinking of how I can help get the word out about it. My publisher is wonderful, but the imprint quite small - I will be expected to do my fair share of the work in terms of marketing/publicity. I have very little budget for this but am determined to... think sideways. Try something new.

You're absolutely right that we must embrace the changes in publishing. I'm so glad that you are doing that - I am happy that you're getting your book known despite some of the negativity.

Good luck to you!

I just came here via Moonrat, too, and I'm glad I did :). Thank you so much for sharing your experience with us! Congratulations to you, and may you have continued success reaching out to your readers like you do. I love it!
Thanks for posting this, Marie. :-D You rock. ;-)
Another Moonrat reader here. I just thought you'd like to know, I came, I read your post, and I went straight to Powell's and ordered your book. The power of book blogs. I will add it to one of my teetering stacks of "to read" books.
Really wonderful essay. I am a thrice published author now trying to write another novel and sell it. I did everything they asked and more, conferences, readings, personal contact, essays and I was glad to be published believe you me after years of rejection. But this give me hope for my future, I would like to sell a novel and have it read by enthusiastic readers and I would like to believe that they exist. Much luck,
Naomi Rand aka Rose Duncan
Bookmarked this in my favorites. Thanks for being honest and vulnerable.
My first book came out in November of 2008. Remember November 2008? Everyone lost half their money and the world was ending.

Just saying, that I feel you sister!

Loved this post!
Thanks to Moonrat for posting this link on Twitter. And thank you, Marie, for sharing your experiences in this post. I found it totally inspiring, and it makes me want to read your book. :) So good to hear some hopeful -- and helpful -- words in these strange times.
Thanks Marie, for sharing this with us. I have been taking baby steps and hope to be able to run before this year is over. You have answered a lot of questions I've had.
Great post! Thank you for reminding us what it's really like out there, when just a few books get a ton of notice, and the rest of us just do what we can, where we can, when we can. I'm in your corner, sister.
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