Don’t forget that I’m still accepting entries for a free copy of Joshua Henkin’s Matrimony. Put Matrimony in the subject line of your email and send me a note with your name and mailing address before midnight eastern time on Thursday to enter.
Henkin continues to toil away under the burden of answering my questions each day. So for this Wednesday morning, he tackles the thorny issue of promoting your own work.
Slushpile: You work hard at promoting your writing. What is the most important thing for writers to keep in mind when they need to spread the word about their work?
Henkin: I’m afraid I could go on much longer than I should. Let’s start off with the obvious. Gone are the days when a writer can publish her book and watch people line up at the bookstores. This is just not the way things work any longer. Even writers like myself who have had the good fortune to have a terrific publishing house put a lot of energy and money behind their book can’t rest easy, because even books that have everything going for them can sell poorly. And the consequences of your book selling poorly are much more dire than they used to be.
Publishing is not a forgiving industry. This isn’t the fault of your editor or your publicist; it’s a systemic problem that has to do with the fact that the big publishers are now parts of multinational conglomerates that trade publicly, and so there’s no longer any room to grow your book. Many of the books that are in the canon, that we read in our high school and college English classes, wouldn’t be published by today’s standards. You basically have six weeks for your hardback to sell, and if it doesn’t, that’s it. Then there’s Nielsen Bookscan, a tool that is at the disposal of every publisher and that tabulates the sales figures for your book. Bookscan captures on average about 70 percent of sales, and it’s relied on heavily by the publishing industry. In the past, if your book sold badly, your agent could fudge the numbers when trying to sell your next book. But, thanks to Bookscan, this isn’t possible any longer. I have a good number of friends who can’t publish their second novels because their first novels sold badly. People like to say that first novels are hard to sell, but second novels are really much harder to sell because you have a track record now, and too often that track record isn’t good.
These are just the cold facts. The question, then, is how to respond to these facts, and the answer depends largely on who the writer is and what kinds of efforts he’s willing to make. Many writers hate publicizing their work. They hate going on the road, hate talking about their book, hate doing the kinds of things writers are asked to do these days. Many writers don’t like interacting with other human beings (for some, that’s the reason they became writers in the first place), and they certainly don’t like interacting with their readers. If you’re one of these people, you probably should do as little publicity as possible because you’re not going to be any good at it.
I, on the other hand, am a relatively social person, and I teach writing, I like teaching writing, I like talking with other people about writing, and so publicizing my book seemed almost natural. Also, I learned from my experience with my first novel, Swimming Across the Hudson which got excellent reviews, but because my editor was dying as the book came out, it fell through the cracks and sold relatively poorly. I went into the publication process for Matrimony determined to do whatever I could to make the book succeed. For me, the biggest conflict I faced was the time publicizing the book took away from my next novel. I’m a writer; what I want to be doing is writing. But I also recognize that if I want to continue to write I need readers, and so I see the publicity work I do now as an investment in not having to do it (or at least not having to do as much of it) in the future.
So if you’re more or less like me, I can give you some general advice. First, find a good web designer who will set up a website for you. Make it visually appealing and easy to navigate. Readers should be able to buy your book and they should learn something about you. Include a bio, an interview, a list of events, etc. Set up a blog on your site and try to update it fairly regularly.
Second, be open to/embrace book groups. There are literally millions of people in this country who are members of book groups. You want those book groups to read your book. Be willing to chat with them on the phone, perhaps even visit them in person if they’re not too far away. I have to admit that I initially approached book groups with a fair share of snobbery. I thought they would all be ladies who lunch, an If-this-is-Tuesday-it-must-be-Darien enterprise. But I’ve been pleasantly surprised. Not everyone who’s in a book group is a genius, but then there aren’t a lot of geniuses out there. And I’ve been struck by how many smart, sensitive, insightful readers I’ve encountered in places I wouldn’t have expected. Visiting book groups is incredibly time-consuming, but you’re cultivating readers when you do it. And I’ve learned a lot along the way. Book groups are a chance for you to meet ordinary readers when for most writers of literary fiction the only readers we’ve ever encountered are our friends and fellow writers, and book critics.
Third, book blogs. I can’t believe how many of them there are. I’m not just talking about some of the more established blogs like the one you’re reading now. I’m talking about the fact that anybody with a computer can start a blog. I’ve gotten to know scores of bloggers who have reviewed my book, conducted interviews with me, had me guest blog. Again, this takes a lot of time, but it can have a real impact. Speaking of which, see if your publisher will fork over some free copies for bloggers to give away. I was at a festival in Queens a few weeks ago where I waited an hour in line for a free sample of some Gatorade-like drink. I had an excuse: my four-year-old daughter insisted that we do so. But not everyone in line had a four-year-old daughter. Lesson: people like free things.
Fourth, if a bookstore asks you to read, read. And don’t underestimate the power of word-of-mouth. At independent bookstores, in particular, handselling makes a big difference. Even if only a few people show up to your reading, if the people who work at the store like your book, they will sell it. Case in point: I’m in the middle of my paperback book tour right now and there have been times when it would have been easy to despair. I’ve found myself in small towns where I don’t know anyone, reading to six or seven people and selling two copies of my book. But a week later, I hear from my publicist that the my novel has been on the bestseller list at the store. Publicity, it should be remembered, is a cumulative process, and even when it seems it’s not having an impact, if often is.
Fifth, work with your publisher. Let your publicist know what you’re doing so you’re not at cross-purposes and so you’re not repeating each other’s work. The book business has become so bad that writers go into the publishing process with a combative attitude toward their publisher. This is a very bad idea. It’s certainly true that a lot of publishers aren’t doing well by their writers, but the answer isn’t to complain to your publicist that you’re not being sent on a twenty-city tour. I’ve never known a writer who complained that he wasn’t being sent on a twenty-city tour who ended up being sent on a twenty-city tour. What happens, instead, is that you get a reputation for being difficult. I’m not saying you should kowtow to your publisher, and you certainly have to stick up for your own interests; your publisher, after all, has to shepherd many books to publication, whereas you have only one book. That said, you need your publisher on your side, and though there are times a writer has to go it on her own, that’s a decision that most writers want to try to avoid. Better to show your publisher how committed you are to getting your book out into the world. If they see you getting results, they’re much more likely to jump on board. If they hear you complaining, they move on to the next book. And remember to express gratitude. Send your publicist flowers for the holidays. Thank her for doing a good job. Publicists are people, too. Writers too often forget that.