Don’t look at me that way, aspiring writers — no matter how good a book is, it can’t sell well unless readers know about it

Oh, you thought that my last post contained my last word on book promotion for first-time authors? Have you been listening to the siren song of the Literature Fairy again?

“Don’t bother to learn anything about how books are actually sold,” she croons into the willing ears of both the about-to-be- and hope-someday-to-be-published alike. “That’s not going to be your job, sugar; your publisher will handle all of that. You’re the author: your only job is to write a terrific book. And if it’s good enough, not only will it inevitably get published; it will inevitably attract thousands of readers.”

Those guffaws you hear bouncing off the rafters, campers, are coming from everyone who has successfully promoted a book written by a non-celebrity within the last five years. Yes, one of the standard advantages of pursuing traditional publishing does indeed lie in having one’s work promoted by a marketing department, but it’s now quite rare that even major publishers do not expect first-time authors to get out there and sell some books. And not merely, as the vast majority of first-time authors expect, by showing up at book signings and interviews set up by the publisher. Increasingly, publishers expect their authors to market their own books independently as well.

Don’t bat those big reindeer eyes at me; I’m not responsible for this sea change. As the literary market has gotten tighter — and as Internet sales have eaten up a greater share of that market — more and more of the burden of reaching potential readers has been shifted to the author.

Which, let’s face it, almost always comes as a gigantic surprise to the happy few getting published for the first time. What savvy self-published writers already know — that the author is the single best advocate for a book — those new to traditional publishing are often stunned to discover is part of their job at all, let alone something that their publishers will expect them to do on an ongoing basis.

Oh, should I have told you to sit down first? Book promotion is not like tag: an author can’t just take one slap out it and then be home free. Even if a writer plans to publish only one book ever — not the usual goal of those who want to make a living at it — reaching and establishing a readership not only takes time up front; a readership also requires maintenance.

Again with the reindeer eyes? What’s upsetting you now? “But Anne,” writers everywhere moan, “I’m a writer, not a marketer! I would have no idea where to start. The most I’d been envisioning was smilingly acknowledging an enthusiastic mob of literature lovers crowding around me at a bookstore, clamoring for me to sign copies of my book. Well, okay, if I’m going to be completely honest about it, I’d also been picturing an interviewer deeply familiar with and impressed by my writing asking me how I got started. I’ve been practicing my answer to that since I was 8 years old!”

That’s charming — make sure to include that last bit in an interview when you’re famous. But the fact is, what most aspiring writers have in mind as authorial book promotion is what well-established and/or celebrity authors do: show up, be gracious, and wax poetic about their craft to those who are already demonstrably interested in their work.

An author trying to attract an audience for a first book seldom enjoys that luxury: as so many books come out in any given year, the simple fact that a work appears within covers does not necessarily attract attention from the reading public at large. (Except, of course, that portion of the reading public that already happens to know and adore you.) Nor, contrary to popular opinion, will just slapping up a website for your book automatically translate into potential readers visiting it. Before readers can flock to your book signings or frequent your website, you’re going to need to flag ‘em down and alert them to the fact that your first book exists.

You’re going to need, in short, to learn to play the publishing world’s reindeer games. At least a little. At least, if you would like your book to sell.

Or you could always become a celebrity between now and when the book comes out, someone whose very name causes people’s heads to snap around and brings the media running. Do let me know how that works out for you.

On the perhaps unwarranted presumption that at least a few of you fine people will be bringing out your books without the advantage of an already-established platform, over the next few months, I’m going to be talking about some authorial promotion strategies. For the moment, though, let’s begin with easy steps. First, I’d like you to get used to the idea that no matter how talented you are — and no matter how often you’ve heard otherwise from followers of the Literature Fairy — if you want your book to be a commercial success, you are going to have to invest some significant effort in letting your target audience know why they will enjoy it so much.

I can feel some of you squirm. I know, I know: commercial success is not the only, or usually the best, measure of a good book. And it’s not at all unusual for a traditionally-published first novel, especially if it’s literary fiction, to sell only a couple of thousand copies. (To put that in perspective, the average self-published book sells about 500 copies, without the help of a publisher’s marketing department.)

I also know that for many, if not most, aspiring writers, the dream of seeing one’s own work in print is far greater in scope and range than the mere desire to make some money from it. That would be nice, too, of course, but the goal here is communication, right?

I’m sympathetic to that view — honestly, I am. But you want people to read your work, right?

In the literary world as it is currently constituted, that means you are going to have to sell some books. Think about it: someone purchased even the copies that end up in public libraries, right? So are the volumes people lend and give to one another. And frankly, everyone who works with books for a living is aware of that; no one, but no one, in the publishing world will think any the less of you as an artist if you exhibit some serious interest in getting out there and pushing some copies.

In fact, quite the opposite. You’d be amazed by how many small-scale authors became big-selling ones by pushing their early works, sometimes one volume at a time. (I’m looking at you, Garth Stein.)

Getting inspired yet? Good. Let’s start brainstorming about what you might say to potential readers — or, as our guest last time described so intriguingly, to managers of small bookstores — in order to encourage them to take a chance on a terrific new book.

To that laudable end, I’d like to encourage you to ponder a question that surprisingly often does not occur to first-time authors: what is special about your book?

No matter how big you make your eyes, you’re going to have to answer that question eventually, Blitzen. Yes, it may be beautifully written, but what else does it offer the reader that no other book currently on the market — say, released within the last five years — offers habitual readers in your chosen book category?

Hands up if your first reaction to that question was defensive. That’s pretty common, I’m sorry to report: instead of hey, tell me what’s great about your book, writers new to the reindeer games frequently hear what makes you think it’s good enough to sell?

But that’s not in fact what this quite standard question is asking. It’s aimed at what any reader will want to know before picking up your baby and considering it for purchase: why will that reader — a reader, lest we forget, who already habitually buys books in your chosen book category — absolutely love this book?

That’s a perfectly reasonable question, Rudolph. Or did you think that mentioning that you were the only reindeer on Santa’s sleigh sporting a red nose would not interest the reader of your memoir, DO NOT BUMP INTO THE CHIMNEY WHEN YOU LAND?

Yet you’d be amazed at how often first-time authors walk into interviews, signings, and other promotional occasions without a ready answer to this obvious question. Indeed, as any regular attendee of bookstore readings could attest, many authors often seem not to have thought about the issue at all. Which is interesting, because knowing not just that a book is good, but why a book is good is indispensable to promoting it well.

Call me zany, but as an interviewer, I tend to zero in on a book’s high points. Admittedly, not all interviewers have the time or the inclination to read a book before interviewing its author (yes, really), so it’s a good idea for an author to be prepared to give both an intriguing description of the book’s premise and some indication of why readers of similar books will like it. (And no, Virginia, because it’s like the books you already read is not a sufficient answer to the latter. In theory, that response could apply equally well to any book in your chosen category, right?)

Yet you’d be flabbergasted how few authors seem to be able to produce either in a pinch — or even to be able to respond well to an interviewer who has read the book’s gushing about its strengths. Those of you who attend book readings and read or see author interviews are already aware of that, right? Too many authors evidently think it’s becoming to act as though an introducer or an interviewer is bringing up a book’s strengths is simply bestowing praise — and what is praise for but to be enjoyed?

Um, sorry, Dasher, but if the person introducing you to potential readers has even the vaguest idea of what she is doing, she’s not saying those things to make you happy. She’s saying them to encourage readers to pick up your book. Wouldn’t it be more becoming, then, as well as substantially better book promotion, if you responded to these overtures as invitations to discuss the book in a manner that might appeal to those readers?

Oh, you hadn’t thought of it that way? Neither had most first-time authors before some kind soul in a marketing department read them the riot act about a lackluster personal appearance. Since I’m fairly confident that we’ve all seen examples of authors lapping up praise like water — and, understandably, as the well-deserved reward of many years of literary struggle — I’d like to show you an example of an author dealing with this type of interview question well. If only for its novelty.

Once again, please join me in welcoming longtime member of the Author! Author! community D. Andrew McChesney, author of the recently-released naval fantasy, Beyond the Ocean’s Edge, available now from Outskirts Press, as well as in e-book form for Kindle and for Nook. For those of you joining us in mid-interview, here’s the blurb:

Is it possible to sail beyond the ocean’s edge to another world? In 1802, Royal Navy Lieutenant Edward Pierce is ashore on half-pay because of the Peace of Amiens. He fortunately gains command of a vessel searching for a lost, legendary island. When the island is found, Pierce and his shipmates discover that it exists in an entirely different but similar world. Exploring the seas around Stone Island, HMS Island Expedition sails headlong into an arena of mistaken identities, violent naval battles, strange truces, dangerous liaisons, international intrigue, superstition, and ancient prophecies.

Now, as an interviewer, I could just have grilled Dave about what is evident in this blurb: this is an action-packed naval adventure, set in a fantasy world. That would have set him up nicely to talk about how his book would appeal to naval adventure and fantasy readers, right? However, since I had read the book — and enjoyed it, by the way — before we filmed this, I went straight to what I feel is a genuinely unusual strength of this novel: the highly realistic feel and meticulous historical detail of the narrative. See how well prepared Dave was to explain those strengths to potential readers.

Another good guest post on comic voice revisited: forget your troubles — come on, get unhappy, by Joel Derfner


Hello again, campers –

Here, as promised, is the companion piece to yesterday’s back-by-popular-demand guest post: Joel Derfner’s lovely piece on revamping his comic memoir voice for his second book. I thought it might come in handy in case, say, anyone might be thinking about entering the Humor or Memoir categories of our recently-announced literary contest.

As those of you familiar with the labyrinthine coilings of my mind may already have suspected, I have an ulterior motive for reposting these two helpful bits of professional insight. Writing comedy well is a heck of a lot harder than it looks. And, as also-hilarious memoirist Bob Tarte shared with us yesterday, contrary to popular belief, even the most effortless-sounding humorous voice is not equally applicable to every story.

Or, to break would-be humorists’ hearts a bit more thoroughly: sometimes, just being a funny person who happens to be able to write well isn’t enough to make a reader laugh.

Or even smile wanly. At the risk of repeating myself — fatal to a comic voice on the page, yet a sitcom and skit comedy staple — just because an event is funny in real life does not mean it will automatically generate yucks on the printed page. Ditto with jokes that slay ‘em when told out loud and/or anecdotes that have left one’s kith and kin gasping with helpless laughter for years.

Comedy in a book is not, in short, exempt from the demands of craft. And if you’re going to listen to anyone (other than, naturally, your humble correspondent) on the craft of being funny, you might as well listen to the best, I always say.

I was thinking just the other day about how hard it is for humor writers new to the craft to be able to tell whether material that has been, as previously noted, killing ‘em at cocktail parties is working on the page. An acquaintance of mine — a friend of a friend of a friend, to be precise — walked up to me at a recent social function that may or may not have had anything to do with the 236th anniversary of the founding of our nation, yanked out her iPad, and demanded that I tell her if something she had just written was funny enough to get published.

If your jaw is currently grazing the ground at the very idea of bearding someone in the publishing industry this way, I can only assume that you don’t attend social functions with us much. Baseball may be the national pastime, but aspiring writers’ leaping out from behind tables of canap?s to demand professional feedback on the spot from authors, agents, and editors surely runs a close second.

Because it’s not as though, “Could I make a living as a comedy writer?” isn’t a question that can be answered after a 32-second perusal of a rough draft thrust under one’s nose while fireworks are going off, after all. It’s not the kind of question someone who actually does make a living at it might want to give some serious consideration or anything.

But a friend is a friend (or at least a friend of a friend of a friend is…well, you know), and frankly, I was curious — this is not someone I have ever actually heard tell a joke. Or recount an anecdote with humor and verve. Or, indeed, talk about anything with a sense of whimsy. Yet still waters have occasionally been known to run hilarious; if this person was funny on the page, I would be genuinely pleased.

So I peered at the piece on the screen: an anecdote about a party suspiciously like the one at which we were currently mingling. Single-spaced, in ten-point type, no less. And not, I’m afraid, remotely amusing.

I attempted to hand the iPad back to her, but she wouldn’t take it. “I think it needs a bit more work,” I suggested gently. “It’s awfully hard to break into the humor market. Also, you might want to let your humor sit for a bit before you run it by others — right after something funny happens in reality, it can be hard to get all of it down on the page. It’s just too easy to assume that the reader is seeing what you still have fresh in your mind.”

She looked back at me unblinkingly. “But you didn’t laugh. You must not have read it closely enough.”

In response to that fresh thud of jaws on the parquet: this is a more common type of response to professional feedback than one might think. She wasn’t unfunny; I was merely distracted. Or incompetent. Take two!

“I have a better idea.” I forced her fingers around the edges of the iPad. “Why don’t you read it out loud to me? That way, I can get a better sense of the tone you have in mind.”

Which, of course, is a completely unfair test of written humor — it’s not as though the author can stand next to a reader, bawling in his ear, “No, you read that wrong.” I, however, was thirsting for a piece of that watermelon on the other side of the patio, far, far away from the insistent lady trying to make me work on my day off.

She read it. In a passable impression of Jerry Seinfeld’s voice. I still didn’t laugh.

“Ah, I see,” I told her, edging toward the rapidly-disappearing watermelon. “You were probably thinking of this in your favorite comedian or sitcom character’s cadence. Since the reader won’t be, though, that’s always a dangerous strategy in print.” In the interest of scoring some melon, I did not add that sounding like a ten-year-old sitcom is not typically the best way to impress an agent that represents comic writing today. “There’s a professional trick for that: the more you can sound like you on the page, the less likely your humor writing is to fall prey to this common trap.”

I could have said more, but by then, the “Ooh!” and “Ahh!” of the fireworks-watchers would have drowned out further speech. While her head was turned, I snuck away. The last slice of watermelon was in fact very nice.

What, if anything, do I expect you to take away from this grisly little anecdote, other than the undeniable fact that chilled watermelon is popular on hot summer nights? Well, first, just because a pro is nice to a writer that accosts her at a social function — which, as I MAY have mentioned, happens all the time — doesn’t mean that the pro doesn’t resent it. Asking someone who reads for a living to peruse your work gratis is not all that dissimilar to expecting a doctor to perform an appendectomy while standing in line for a buffet at a wedding: we could both do it if it were an emergency, but honestly, wouldn’t it be more considerate to call our offices during business hours and make an appointment? The results in both instances are substantially less likely to leave a scar.

Second — and here’s the part that’s most applicable to Joel’s post — while part of every writer’s learning curve involves shortening the differential between the scene he’s envisioning and what’s actually on the page, that gap tends to be a bit wider for comic scenes. My accoster was actually pretty wise to seek outside feedback. Her mistake (other than timing the request) lay in not having enough faith in her own comic vision to present the scene from her unique perspective.

Why is that a problem, necessarily? Because the last time I checked, the world already had a Jerry Seinfeld. For my fellow party-goer to make a name for herself as a humorist, she was going to need to develop her own voice, not his.

With all of that firmly in mind, please join me in re-welcoming someone who actually is as funny in real life as he is on the page, Joel Derfner. Enjoy!

We bring our week of advice on moving from one book to the next to a close with not only a bang, but a hop, skip, and a jump: today, I am delighted to be bringing you some words of wisdom on writing a second memoir from none other than one of my all-time favorite memoirists Joel Derfner,>Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever and What Ended Up Happening Instead. You may also know him as the insidiously funny blogger, Faustus, M.D., or as one of the stars of the reality TV show Girls Who Like Boys Who Like Boys.

And no, you didn’t misread the blurb on the cover: it’s that Elton John. The little bird that flies around telling people things told me that he liked the original release of Joel’s memoir so much that he volunteered to blurb the second edition.

If you prefer not to receive your news from passing waterfowl, you can read a fuller account of this remarkable publication story in Joel’s earlier guest post on book promotion. While we’re on the subject of guest posts, Joel also charmed the Author! Author! community with an exceedingly useful guest post on obtaining permission to use song lyrics in your books, should any of you be contemplating setting foot on that particular Yellow Brick Road. (Or were you under the impression that memoirs and novels could quote songs willy-nilly? Au contraire, mon frère.)

Mssr. John was not the only one to fall in love with Joel’s deeply human, devastatingly honest, and often howlingly funny voice. I already knew how amusing and insightful Joel was before the book came out, yet as the neighbors that did not move away instantly at the sight can attest, certain sections of this book made me rush into the street, tap-dancing with glee. Sparklers may or may not have been involved.

Was I that hard up at the time for some humorous memoir? you ask, bemused. No, thank you, I write, read, and edit funny memoir all the time. What separated Joel’s first book from, well, everything else was not merely how consistently diverting it was — not an easy trick, with a life fully and well lived — but how unblinkingly truthful it was.

Yes, those of you rolling your eyes? “Oh, come on, Anne,” the memoir-jaded snort. “The whole point of memoir is that it’s true, isn’t it?”

Ah, but there’s true in the sense of having actually occurred — and true that sends shivers through your membranes because it shows you life in a way you had not seen it on a page before. There’s true that reads plausibly — and true that makes the reader gasp, “Wow, my therapist does not know me as well as I now know this memoirist.” And, as any memoir editor worth her salt and/or pepper could tell you, there’s true that’s well-written — and there’s true that’s so prettily phrased that one’s socks, shoes, and pinky rings get blown off.

Or, at the very least, that causes one to go running out into the street, looking for an innocent bystander to whom to read a particularly striking passage. (My neighborhood used to be so quiet before I met Joel.)

I’m certainly not the only professional reader that felt this way when his bombshell of a first memoir came out, incidentally. Some other bon mots from those that know about such things:

In a culture where we disguise vulnerability with physical perfection and material success, Derfner skewers heartache with Wildean wit . . . [Derfner is] the next No?l Coward.? —

“Searing” — Washington Blade

“Derfner’s writing is perfect. . . . He’s your best friend. He’s your brother. He is you.? — EDGE Los Angeles

“Sometimes hilarious, sometimes poignant, always clever, and unpredictable.? — Philadelphia Gay News

What’s that you say? You’d like me to stop telling you the man can write and let him get on with showing you same? Reasonable enough. Let’s start with the publisher’s blurb for Swish:

Joel Derfner is gayer than you.

Don’t feel too bad about it, though, because he has made being gayer than you his life’s work. At summer day camp, when he was six, Derfner tried to sign up for needlepoint and flower arranging, but the camp counselors wouldn’t let him, because, they said, those activities were for girls only. Derfner, just to be contrary, embarked that very day on a solemn and sacred quest: to become the gayest person ever. Along the way he has become a fierce knitter, an even fiercer musical theater composer, and so totally the fiercest step aerobics instructor (just ask him—he’ll tell you himself).

In Swish, Derfner takes his readers on a flamboyant adventure along the glitter-strewn road from fabulous to divine. Whether he’s confronting the demons of his past at a GLBT summer camp, using the Internet to meet men — many, many men — or plunging headfirst (and nearly naked) into the shady world of go-go dancing, he reveals himself with every gayer-than-thou flourish to be not just a stylish explorer but also a fearless one. So fearless, in fact, that when he sneaks into a conference for people who want to cure themselves of their homosexuality, he turns the experience into one of the most fascinating, deeply moving chapters of the book. Derfner, like King Arthur, Christopher Columbus, and Indiana Jones — but with a better haircut and a much deeper commitment to fad diets — is a hero destined for legend.

Written with wicked humor and keen insight, Swish is at once a hilarious look at contemporary ideas about gay culture and a poignant exploration of identity that will speak to all readers — gay, straight, and in between.

Here again, we smack head-first into that bugbear of memoirists everywhere, the distinction between true and true. All of these statements are factually accurate about the book, but what struck me most about Joel’s memoir, what set my membranes humming, my feet tap-dancing, and my neighbors scurrying into the street to see why I was shouting is not mentioned in this blurb.

What’s missing, in my view? The fact — oh, okay, my opinion — that this is one of the best memoirs ever written on how darned hard it is to be a smart, sensitive human being in a world that habitually rewards neither.

And that, my friends, is what has made this book among the most tattered on my memoir shelf. Occasionally, life will throw a meandering curveball that knocks one of Joel’s beautifully-phrased insights out of my at this point stuffed-to-bursting memory vaults, sending me rushing right back to the text.

Oh, and in the spirit of this series, I should add: the guy’s paid his dues as a writer, and then some. He’s done it with wit, humor, and perseverance in the face of some pretty long odds. All of which has not only garnered my completely ungrudging respect (and you of all people know how high my threshold for grudge-free respect is), but a feeling that somewhere up there in the Muses’ palace, the Ladies in Charge have already reserved some serious shelf space for Joel’s subsequent literary achievements.

Ah, but there’s the rub, isn’t it? After a debut memoir like that, what precisely does one do for an encore?

I asked Joel that question, and rather than fleeing with the flailing arms and piercing screams such a seemingly flippant but subversively difficult question deserves, he gave it the alternately serious and humorous literary attention that has caused me to come to think of him as the memoirist little brother the Muses should have seen to it that I had. (With all requisite apologies to the nonfiction author big brother with whom they actually provided me — oh, you thought my parents would have put up with offspring that didn’t write?)

Here, then, is his response, and I have to say, I wish I had read it before I first sat down to write a memoir. In my checkered experience, it’s not only true — it’s true. Take it away, Joel!