[Continuing our “What It Takes” series, an inside look at the process of publishing and promoting a book in 2010-11 … here’s Post #3:]
The first book signing I ever did was for The Legend of Bagger Vance. It was at a Books-a-Million store in Lakeland, Florida. I flew 3000 miles from Los Angeles.
Nobody showed. Not a soul. I felt terrible for the store manager, who had set up a beautiful table with stacks of books and even a poster-sized photo of me. We were there at seven in the evening, all alone. It was like a scene out of the life of George Costanza. The manager and I wound up dragooning innocent customers in the aisles. We were lucky we didn’t get arrested.
It got worse. The next day I drove to the Golf Channel to do a TV interview about the book. I walked in to the reception area, introduced myself and took a seat. I could see the receptionists speaking uneasily into their headsets as they relayed the info back inside. After a few minutes, a producer came out. “This is gonna sound odd,” he said to me. “But who are you and why are you here?”
The producer who had booked me had been fired the week before. He had neglected to tell his successor about me–or me or my publisher about his own departure.
I can honestly say that, of all the promotional tactics that have been employed on behalf of my books, only one has ever really worked:
A rave in the New York Times.
What exactly is the Problem?
The reason for this blog series is that there is a problem. The book business–like the music biz and the movie industry and the newspaper and magazine business–has been turned on its head. What used to work, doesn’t work any more. Writers and publishers are thrashing around, trying to find something that does.
The core overthrow for publishers is the demise of the book review. Michael Connelly wrote a great op-ed for the L.A. Times in 2007, citing all the papers across the country that have down-sized or eliminated their book review sections–the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Chicago Tribune, the Dallas Morning News, the Raleigh News & Observer, the Orlando Sentinel, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, not to mention the L.A. Times itself. We must have lost a boatload more since then.
And no online alternative has yet taken their place.
Reviews were how readers found out that a book existed. Even a lousy review was a plus because at least it got the word out. When Gates of Fire came out in 1998, it got not one but two reviews in the New York Times and a dozen in other prominent media. It was off to the races.
Now there’s nothing. When The War of Art came out four years later, it got reviewed in two places–Esquire and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Every writer has horror stories like these. What success The War of Art has found since then is due entirely to word-of-mouth.
I never imagined I’d have to involve myself in these arcane arts. But these days it’s do or die. Nothing is more depressing than to work for two or three years on a book, get it as good as you can get it–and then watch it be published and sink without a trace because no one even knows it exists.
My core readership is military. When The Afghan Campaign came out in 2006, I went to speak at West Point. The book had been in the stores for six weeks already, but virtually no one at the U.S. Military Academy–“my base,” as George W. Bush would say–even knew it was on the planet.
A brave new world
That was when I decided I had to do something.
That’s what this series, “What It Takes,” is about.
What can we writers, artists, musicians and entrepreneurs do today to help ourselves? We can’t count on publishers or labels or galleries. Their hearts are in the right place and they do their best, but it ain’t enough. It’s up to us.
We have to be creative. We have to work smart. We have to come up with ideas that nobody’s come up with before.
If you and I were Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and we were bringing out a new cereal, we’d throw $60 million against it. We’d have to. That’s what it takes. We’d also have a sales force already in place; we’d have money to buy favored positions on the supermarket shelves. We’d use everything we’ve got to make our audience aware of our new stuff.
But you and I don’t have sixty mill and we don’t have a sales force.
The video below was my first attempt at using new media. YouTube. I did it in 2008 to support the publication of Killing Rommel. I convinced my allies at Doubleday (my publisher) to scrap the usual undernourished ad campaign that nobody sees anyway–and instead give me the budget to do a video. I kicked in my own money too, more than I’m ready to admit.
Did it work? No. I had no platform for it. No way to make anyone aware of it, or of the new book.
Which brings me to this blog, to this site. I still don’t know what I’m doing. I’m still thrashing like everybody else. So far the only thing I’ve figured out is you have to give stuff away. You have to share your experience, your wisdom. As I and Shawn and Callie write these “What It Takes” posts, we hope it’s helping a little.
One thing I have learned (and I have no idea how this pays off, if it ever does) is you have to go with the fun. The video above nearly broke my bank, but it was a gas to do. I scouted the desert with my girlfriend (the location is Dumont Dunes, an hour south of Las Vegas), shot the video with a dear old friend (and made some new friends), cast it with the men and vehicles of the Long Range Desert Group Preservation Society (who had as much of a blast as I did), camping in the cold and eating beans out of the can for breakfast.
The lesson of that video to me is that you have to try. To be passive is to die. You have to put the energy out there, and you have to keep pushing it. Speaking only for myslef, if I didn’t, I’d be so depressed I couldn’t even begin the next book because I’d know it would be D.O.A. for lack of publicity, marketing and promotion. But when I do do it … when I do push and I do think and I do try, I’m okay.
Now I just gotta figure out how to make this stuff work.
[Friday, we’ll have Post #4 in this series, Shawn’s follow-up to his post of last week. Stay tuned. No more horror stories for today.]
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