Do you know how many new books come out each year? I looked on the internet for totally accurate information, and it turns out to be eleventy bogillion. Real scientists have shown that the chances of selling “a bunch” of novels are less than the chance of being struck by lightning while driving to the 7-11 to buy a lottery ticket.
So suppose you write a book, yet you’re merely one of the anonymous mass of dust babies in the world, and even God has trouble remembering your name. How would you get people to pay attention to what you’ve done?
I’ve written a bit in this blog about trying to promote the novel The Illusion of Being Here, such as the trip I made to Charleston to force bookstore owners to accept a copy out of my hands. I had to wrestle one guy down to the floor, but he gave up and took it. Ha! the writer wins again.
I’m sure you’re a smart and sophisticated person of the world, so you’ll already know that the rather cool professional phrase “promote a novel” is a euphemism for “beg beg beg for readers”. Lately I’ve been thinking of a broader—and possibly more realistic—strategy. When eleventy bogillion books a year are published, and no one knows you from block of wood, what will induce them to buy your book? In considering a new strategy, I’ve been influenced by an article from Publishers Weekly, which talked about going beyond a single book and selling the writer as a “brand”.
I hate that terminology, and I’m not exactly in love with the idea either. It means talking about yourself, promoting yourself. When I lived in Pennsylvania a few years ago, I attended the Quaker Meeting, and one of the things they do at each meeting is invite newcomers to stand and introduce themselves. Never in three years did I stand and speak, and I still cannot imagine doing that. I couldn’t abide the idea of suddenly being the center of so much attention.
But if you’re not willing to present yourself to people, don’t be an artist. While I don’t enjoy this promotion stuff, I write for people to read it, and I will do whatever on this earth will move in that direction. I believe it makes sense to think of a long-term strategy, and on both an intellectual and emotional level, I compare doing this to my experience looking for the job I have now as a medical editor. From the time when I first considered working with medical texts, when I was getting up at 6:00 a.m. (seriously) to read a chemistry textbook, to begin educating myself in the field, it took ten years to get here. I know how to persevere.
As I’ve described the process to a friend, you go to enormous effort, and almost everything you do has no effect. An entire year can go by with almost nothing. Once in a while some small thing works. So you take that small thing, you try to build on it as best you can, and once more you go to enormous effort. Again, almost everything you do will have no effect, as you wait for a second small bit of good luck.
I thought I’d give a few details on the current state of branding (that language makes me feel like a cow, and I do feel a little bit like mooing, actually): (1) I attend poetry readings and open mics, which I’ve mentioned before, but I’m starting to look at them in a different way, as a chance to stand in front of people and say “Look at me, look at me, look at me” (I used to be a college professor, so I know all about that); (2) I go sometimes to story telling events to tell a story, and same thing; (3) I’m trying to do a book review for the local website Arts Atlanta. The editor has agreed to my doing a review, though it has been more complicated than I expected to agree on which book to review, but I think it will work out; (4) I sent a list of wonderful ideas for articles to the website The Bitter Southerner, to ask which one I should begin working on—they ignored me entirely; (5) this may seem silly, but last week I had a serendipitous opportunity to get a free photo shoot with a professional photographer, so I jumped on that chance and we met at the park—when you’re trying to promote yourself, you do need things like that.
There’s more, but that’s enough to talk about. It’s not that this isn’t discouraging sometimes. When most of what you do doesn’t seem to go anywhere, there will be discouragement, and no doubt I will get tired of it and take breaks, but I won’t stop. I also recognize that, in fact, it may not work at all.
Nothing is guaranteed. But if you don’t try, then you do have a guarantee—you get nothing.