Guest blogger Jonathan Selwood: Offbeat or Offensive?

Hello, campers —
Anne here, bringing you your promised treat for hanging on through Book Marketing 101: a guest post from the subversively hilarious author Jonathan Selwood. Since Jonathan’s first novel, The Pinball Theory of Apocalypse, is coming out from Harper Perennial next week, I’ve asked him to share his insights on how to market offbeat fiction.

He generously agreed — and the results surpassed even my high expectations. This is one seriously creative marketer.

If anyone is qualified to enlighten us on the subject of selling controversial writing, it’s Jonathan. Check out the blurb for his book:

For years, painter Isabel Raven has made an almost-living forging Impressionist masterpieces to decorate the McMansions of the not-quite-Sotheby’s-auction rich. But when she serendipitously hits on an idea that turns her into the It Girl of the L.A. art scene, her career takes off just as the rest of her life heads south. Her personal-chef boyfriend is having a wild sexual dalliance with the teenage self-styled Latina Britney Spears. If Isabel refuses to participate in an excruciatingly humiliating ad campaign, her sociopathic art dealer is threatening to gut her like an emu. And her reclusive physicist father has conclusively proven that the end of the world is just around the corner.

Now, with the Apocalypse looming — and with only a disaffected Dutch-Eskimo billionaire philanthropist and his dissolute thirteen-year-old adopted daughter to guide her — there’s barely enough time remaining for Isabel to reexamine her fragile delusional existence…and the delusional reality of her schizophrenic native city.

Now that, my friends, is a PITCH. Take it away, Jonathan!

/j-selwoods-cover.tiff

I don’t think I’m going to shock anyone if I say that it’s difficult to market an “offbeat” novel. The truth is it’s difficult to market any novel, and the less an author’s work fits into one of the currently hot genres, the more complicated the task becomes. So how does one best go about it? I have no #%$#&@% clue. What I do know is how I’ve tried to go about it.

As a first-time novelist with a dark comedy that at least one blogger described as “stumbling drunk through a fun house,” I began my marketing endeavors by looking online to see what some of the other less mainstream authors (read: mentally ill) like myself were doing.

I soon found that the answer was not much. Since the first thing I do when I hear about a new writer is start Googling, I was baffled to find that many of my favorite writers didn’t have websites or even MySpace pages. This seemed… insane.

I knew that if my little dark comedy was going to stand out in a tabloid world glutted with photos of pantyless starlets snorting cocaine, I’d have to do more than just send out a few reviewer copies and hope for the best. I also knew that the only way to get myself to put actual effort into marketing was to break out a fifth of Old Crow and try to have fun with it.

My first step was to design a webpage. Since I wanted the same kind of control over it that I have over my writing (I’m one of those sub-clinical OCD rewriters), I decided to learn HTML and design it myself.

Was this an efficient use of my time? No. In fact, it was a ridiculously stupid use of my time. I highly don’t recommend designing your own website unless you already know how to do it. In any case, at least I ended up with something that does not remotely resemble anybody else’s website.

When it came to writing my bio, I decided to forgo the usual banal listing of my MFA degree and utterly obscure publications, and instead compete directly with all those pantyless tabloid starlets by highlighting the nude cocaine parties of my own Hollywood youth. (Note: I’ve since discovered that if you Google “nude cocaine parties,” my bio comes up number one!)

I also had yet to garner any reviews (the novel was still in the editing phase), so I posted a bunch of embarrassing photos of my friends and just made up some reviews for a Readers Like You section. Why my friends allowed me to do this is beyond me…

Once I’d wasted so much time learning HTML, I decided I might as well design some more sites. Since the title of my novel is The Pinball Theory of Apocalypse, I quickly snapped up the domain and put up a bogus site purporting to scientifically explain said “Pinball Theory of Apocalypse.”

I think my favorite part is the description of what will happen when Pluto loses its stable orbit and collides with Uranus: “Once impacted, Uranus will quickly stretch out and expand into a superheated cloud of molten rock and toxic gas large enough to engulf the entire inner solar system.”

Since the protagonist of my novel becomes LA’s “It Girl Artist” by painting replicas of classic artwork with the faces changed to celebrities, I thought I’d also use the magic of Photoshop to put up some of her artwork in a gallery site. Macaulay Culkin as Blue Boy is my favorite, but I also like Tom and Katie as American Gothic.

It was at this point that too much coffee and perhaps too little lithium salt combined to send my marketing approach off into… well, a rather bizarre direction. In the novel, my protagonist is at one point pressured by her sociopathic art dealer to do an ad campaign for the hottest new craze in plastic surgery—vaginal rejuvenation. A deranged friend of mine here in Portland suggested that I actually create a joke brochure for vaginal rejuvenation.

The idea sounded so completely wrong, that I sat down and wrote the copy for it immediately. Another friend of mine in New York was kind enough to do the design work, and within a week, I had a lovely tri-fold brochure advertising everything from “Labial Microdermabrasion” to complete “Hymenoplasties.”

I then emailed a PDF of the brochure to my editor and asked if there was any way we could send out some of the brochures with the reviewer copies.

“Wait…You want me to send out a brochure for vaginal rejuvenation along with the reviewer copies of your novel?” she asked.

“Yes.”

There was a short pause.

“I love it.” She laughed.

(Did I mention that my editor rocks?)

In any case, Harper Perennial printed up the brochures and (still trying to justify all the time I spent learning HTML) I put up the Selwood Institute website.

Now you may be wondering whether sending out a vaginal rejuvenation brochure might perhaps backfire with some of the more humor-impaired reviewers. Well, the answer is, yes, it did—in fact, I’m still getting hate email.

However, The Pinball Theory of Apocalypse is a dark comedy, and anybody without a dark sense of humor is obviously going to hate it anyway. When you write something offbeat, you shouldn’t hope to please everyone—that’s what the mild-mannered mainstream is for.

Take a writer like Charles Bukowski (not that I’m making any direct comparison between my own work and his). The fact that so many people truly hate him only makes his fans that much more fanatical. When people came to protest his readings, he would blow them kisses.

The final move in my unconventional campaign was to set up a MySpace page —which is actually pretty damn conventional these days. Not only does it give me another place to try to hook readers with my bio, but it’s given me invaluable insight into just how disturbed my potential readership is.

In other words, I’m thinking about investing in some new deadbolts and a stun gun.

I should conclude by saying that my book has yet to be released, and I have no idea whether any of these techniques will work to boost sales. What I do know is that the next time I try to get a “straight” job, I’m totally #$#%$@. Seriously, who the hell is gonna hire the “nude cocaine party” guy?

Anne again: thank you, Jonathan! If that doesn’t get all of our marketing synapses firing, nothing will. In the midst of marketing season, it’s a timely reminder that knowing who your target audience is — and isn’t — is crucial to promoting a novel at every stage.

If Jonathan’s book piqued your interest, but you live in a part of the world that might frown upon your marching into the nearest bookstore and announcing, “Give me the book by that ‘s nude cocaine party guy!” here’s a good independent bookstore that just loves to ship things discreetly in plain wrappers.

Still more terms every writer should know, but many are afraid to ask

Here are the rest of the industry glossary terms; every fiber of my being wants to call for a pop quiz now, but I am resisting the temptation with all of my might. Just a flashback to my former incarnation as an academic. It’ll pass.

Once again, if there is a term that you were waiting breathlessly for me to define that did not make the list, feel free to drop me a line via the COMMENTS function, below, and ask about it in the days and weeks ahead. It’s going to be a long, cold, dark winter, my friends (at least up here in Seattle, where the days start getting AWFULLY short after Halloween, and where already the squirrels and raccoons in my backyard are displaying a suspicious plumpness of fur), and nothing lights up a dreary day like a good industry-speak definition.

(Okay, okay — it’s possible I’m mistaken about that. But through the magic of self-delusion, I shall attempt to act as though I believe it all the same.)

Here are more definitions:

Rookie mistake, n.: An error in a manuscript or finished book that a pro would be unlikely to make, which betrays the fact that the writer (or sometimes, the editor) is new to the publishing industry. The classic rookie mistake is submitting a manuscript that is not in STANDARD FORMAT.

Shameless friend, n.: A writer’s buddy who appoints him/herself part time publicist for the writer’s work. A shameless friend does everything from gushing to everyone who will listen (“This is the best book in the world! You’ve got to read it now!”) to posting flattering reviews on Amazon to downright guerrilla marketing, such as picking up the friend’s book off the shelves at Barnes & Noble, walking around with it prominently displayed under her arm, and then setting it down casually on the bestseller table. (My standard shameless friend activity is to find my friends’ books and turn them face-out on the shelf, rather than spine-out, so they are more likely to sell.) The more shameless friends you can recruit before your book hits print, the better off you will be; other writers make terrific shameless friends. Treat them very well: they are worth many times their weight in gold.

Shelf life, n.: The length of time any given book will remain on a bookseller’s sales floor before being returned to the publisher or — stuff a pillow in your mouth, because this is horrible — being pulped. In some major bookselling chains that shall remain nameless, this time can be as short as three weeks, which leaves little time for word of mouth to develop. The moral: it really behooves an author to be out there plugging his book for the first few weeks after publication.

Ship date, n.: The date upon which actual copies of your book will be sent to booksellers (and those fine folks who pre-order my memoir on Amazon!), as opposed to the publication date, which is when bookstores may begin selling the tomes. You may have heard about this differential with respect to the latest HARRY POTTER book: bookstores had the books from the SHIP DATE, and thus were responsible for implementing security measures that would have made J. Edgar Hoover writhe with envy in order to prevent any copies from being leaked prior to the publication date. (Those of us who have friends who write book reviews have heard about this endlessly, because Scholastic has not sent out REVIEW COPIES for the last two HARRY POTTER books – so I know several book reviewers for major newspapers who were forced to buy the books at midnight like everybody else, read it overnight, and write the review before the next day’s deadline. Somehow, I suspect that sleep deprivation does not render a reviewer kindly.)

Simultaneous submission, v. (also known as MULTIPLE SUBMISSION): (1) The practice of querying more than one agent at the same time. Contrary to rumor amongst writers, most agents are more than willing to accept that the querying process is too time-consuming if the writer sends out only one submission at a time. If a given agent objects to the practice, the agency will say so explicitly in the standard agenting guides, so do check. (2) When agents send out a book (or book proposal) to several editors at once, in the hope of engendering competitive bidding. Not all agents favor this practice, particularly for fiction. (3) Being involved with more than one dominatrix at once.

SLUG LINE, n.: (1) The line in the top margin (either right or left-justified) of every page of a standard manuscript, bearing the following information in caps: author’s last name, abbreviated title, page #. Thus, every page of my memoir has MINI/A FAMILY DARKLY/# on it. (2) The trail left by a Pacific Northwest invertebrate.

SLUSH PILE, n.: The holding pen in a publishing house or agency where UNSOLICITED MANUSCRIPTS await Judgment Day or for someone to have time to read them; basically, these books are on indefinite hold. In the bad old days, senior editors would buy pizza and beer for the junior editors one night per month, and everyone would sit around and go through the slush pile. Now, most of the major publishing houses will NEVER keep an unsolicited novel in the slush pile; it will simply be returned unread. A few still hold pizza parties for NF, but the practice has become exceptionally rare. The moral: bypassing the rules of submission is not very likely to work in your favor.

STANDARD FORMAT, n.: The way everyone in the publishing industry expects a manuscript to look. Manuscripts not in standard format are often discarded unread. (If you want to learn the rules of standard format, check out my posting of August 31.)

SUBSIDY PUBLISHING, v.: The act of printing and distributing a book with a press that purports to share the production expenses with the author. In fact, most subsidy presses charge authors significantly more than the actual cost of publication, as these presses’ profits tend to be derived from author contributions, rather than book sales. As a result, subsidy publishing is usually quite a bit more expensive for the author than SELF-PUBLISHING. Most of the time, the authors end up distributing the books themselves, and the vast majority of reviewing publications have hard-and-fast rules against reviewing books produced by subsidy presses.

SUBSTANTIVE EDITING, v.: Giving content feedback on a manuscript, as opposed to COPY EDITING or LINE EDITING, which is concerned with grammar and clarity. Increasingly, editors at major publishing houses have time to do neither kind of editing, which leaves the author in the uncomfortable position of editing her own book. (As soon as the final editing of my memoir is complete, I shall be blogging EXTENSIVELY about my experience with this phenomenon.)

SYNOPSIS, n.: A brief exposition in the present tense of the plot of a novel or the argument of a book. (See my blog of Sept. 9 for tips how to write a stellar synopsis.)

TABLE OF CONTENTS, n.: A list of chapter titles and the corresponding page numbers where those chapters begin in the book. Not to be confused with an Annotated Table of Contents, which is the 2-3 page section in the nonfiction book PROPOSAL which gives the title of each chapter, accompanied by a 2-3 sentence description of what is in each chapter; including a simple TABLE OF CONTENTS in a book proposal is one of the most common ROOKIE MISTAKES. The Annotated Table of Contents does not include projected page numbers. (For guidance on how to create an Annotated Table of Contents, or indeed any part of a NF book proposal, see my posting of August 29.)

TITLE PAGE, n.: (1) The page of a manuscript that contains the title (obviously), the author’s pen name, the author’s actual name, contact info for the author (or the author’s agent), book category, and WORD COUNT. (If you are in the throes of formatting a TITLE PAGE, check out my posting of Sept. 9 for tips.) (2) The page of a published book that contains the title, author’s name, and name of the publishing house. To format a manuscript’s title page like a published title page is a ROOKIE MISTAKE.

TRADE DISCOUNT, n.: The percentage off the cover price of a book granted by publishers to booksellers; generally, the trade discount is in the 40-50% range. Most PUBLICATION CONTRACTS specify that the author may purchase an unlimited number of books at the TRADE DISCOUNT, but let the author beware: books so purchased do not count toward the author’s sales totals.

TRADE LIST, n.: A publisher’s catalogue of all books currently in print. (If you want to see a real, live example, here is the link to my listing in my publisher’s catalogue: http://www.pgw.com/catalog/catalog.monthly.asp?ShipMonth=22006&Action=View&Index=Title&Book=344556&Order=43. You might want to check it out soon, because I suspect that a ROOKIE MISTAKE was made regarding the cover, and it may be changed soon.) The purpose of listing the ISBN and other publication data is to make it as easy as possible for booksellers and private citizens to order the book in question.

TRADE PAPER, n.: The level of print quality between hardcover and mass-market paperback; a book with high print standards, but no glossy dust jacket. Increasingly, publishers are releasing serious fiction and memoir in trade paper, bypassing the hardback stage entirely, because hardbacks are so very expensive to print.

TRANSLATION RIGHTS, pl. n.: The publication rights to an English-language book printed in any other language, sold on a by-language basis. (Perversely, books sold in English in Great Britain are considered to be foreign-language books for contractual purposes.) These are sold usually separately from the RIGHTS, which refers to first North American rights, minus Mexico. However, occasionally an American publisher will try to score a sweet deal and try to get the WORLD RIGHTS as part of the initial deal, but if the book is expected to have LEGS abroad, this generally does not work out well for the author: typically, if a book is reprinted in a second language and a North American house owns the foreign rights, the domestic publisher scrapes an automatic 20% off the top of any foreign-language royalties accrued by the author. (If this seems a trifle technical, it’s because I had rather a struggle to retain my memoir’s foreign rights; my publisher wanted ‘em, big time. But they’re mine, I tell you, all mine!)

UNSOLICITED MANUSCRIPT, n.: (1) The doorstop of the publishing world. (2) Any book excerpts, up to and including entire manuscripts, sent to agents who have not asked for them. I tremble to tell you this, but often, these are sent INSTEAD of query letters, and thus end up as definition (1). (3) Any manuscript sent to a publishing house without the author’s first ascertaining that a specific editor there would like to see it. At best, these manuscripts end up in the SLUSH PILE; at worst, they are thrown out. (As nearly as I can tell, few publishing offices are serious about recycling, alas.)

VANITY PRESS, n.: (1) The more virulent version of a press that specializes in SUBSIDY PUBLISHING. Vanity presses often woo aspiring authors with misleading promises, in order to tempt writers into plunking down hard cash to see their words in print. (2) A SUBSIDY PUBLISHING press that produces extremely expensive, coffee-table quality books for its clients. (3) What almost everyone in the publishing industry calls a press that specializes in SUBSIDY PUBLISHING; a term of insult.

WOMEN’S FICTION, n.: A category of prose whose definition varies depending upon whom you ask. The more old-fashioned use it as a synonym for romance novel, often with a slight sneer, but these same people virtually never refer to thrillers as Men’s Fiction, although the actual purchase rates would indicate that this would be an apt moniker. Currently, the term is used to denote novels whose readership is expected to be overwhelmingly female. However, this is less descriptive than one might think: over 80% of the fiction purchased in North America is bought by women, including the vast majority of literary fiction. So there.

WORD COUNT, n.: Not, as one might imagine, the ACTUAL number of words in a document; no, that would be too easy. Rather, the actual number or words rounded to nearest 100 OR the number of manuscript pages in Times or Times New Roman multiplied by 250. The latter is the standard by which the publishing world operates.

WORLD RIGHTS, n.: First North American rights + all foreign rights = world rights.

WRITING RESUME, n.: A list of an author’s writing and speaking credentials. You should be maintaining one of these on an ongoing basis, and no, you don’t have to have been paid for a publication to include it here. Ideally, to keep your writing resume up to date, you should try to add at least one item to it per year: placing in a contest, giving a public reading of your work, publishing an article or story (no matter how small the publication…The idea here is to show that you have been spending your time while you wait to be discovered wisely, adding tools to your writer’s bag of tricks, so you will be ready when your big break comes.

YA (Young Adult), n. and adj.: The moniker attached to novels intended for readers from the ages of 12 to 17, despite the fact that literally no country in the world considers 12-year-olds to be adults. Created, as I understand it, by those who felt that “Children’s books” had a pejorative ring to it.

That’s the end of the alphabet — hurrah! Starting tomorrow, I shall be alternating between the kind of practical advice that I’ve been giving for most of the past month and blow-by-blow accounts of my memoir’s rather amusing and totally counterintuitive adventures traveling from contract to print. Follow my book’s hilarious journey from first book proposal to sale to traumatic lawsuit; look on in awe as I struggle to obtain ANY feedback from my editor, who has apparently taken a vow of silence; marvel at the bizarre sense of timing (wait three months, rush around for two days, wait two months, demand results overnight…) that renders it a perpetual miracle that any books are ever published at all!

And in the meantime, keep up the good work!

— Anne Mini

P.S.: For all of you kind souls who have tuned in because you heard on the grapevine about the threatened lawsuit against my memoir: while the legal folderol is going on, I’m actually not allowed to talk about it here in any amount of juicy detail, as much as I would LOVE to do so. In fact, some earlier discussions have required trimming, alas. Since it’s all very interesting — the question of who owns memories is certainly one that would have fascinated Philip K. Dick, and whether I can publish my own memories of him is the crux of the current case — I would love to be able to share the ins and outs on a daily basis, but my typing hands are tied, so to speak. I hope to be able to fill you in soon, though, in vivid Technicolor, so watch this space.