Enemies of Reading: What $310 buys you in the ‘dream-on’ market. Part 3: Raisins in the sun

Opinion March 2, 2012 0 Comments

The cover of Hugh Gilmore's new collection of stories.

by Hugh Gilmore

Made impatient by an almost two-year quest to find an agent for my novel, “AmericanaRama,” I changed the title and decided to independently publish it. Calling it “Malcolm’s Wine,” I contracted with a firm called CreateSpace to have it published.

For $310 the firm agreed to let me design the book, design its cover, write the jacket copy, acquire an ISBN number, put the book up for sale on Amazon.com as a print-on-demand item; hook me up with America’s leading book distributer, Baker and Taylor – hence, making my book available to any bookstore or bookseller in the USA – handle any orders for the book (i.e., collect the money, package and mail the book) and give me a full and complete accounting of sales, including my royalties, available 24/7 online. That was a good deal.

After they’d done all that, it became my responsibility to advertise and market the book. Today’s column describes my reasonable, but feeble, efforts to make the book a household name beyond the borders of Chestnut Hill. My purposes: recover my financial costs, possibly make a profit, gather a readership for my work, and attract the attention of an agent for my next book.

I began by emailing everyone I thought liked me enough to not mind that I was sending them a “news” item about myself that was also a request for purchase. I’m glad that’s over because every email I sent made me feel queasy and phony. At least I did not send any mass mailings with multiple CCs. If I sent 50 emails, they probably resulted in 20 purchases. That’s a great rate of return, but certainly not one I could count on in the real world.

While I went on with the rest of my campaign, I waited for the single most important thing a writer wants: a response from a reader. No one responded. A 387-page noir crime novel is not a good competitor with the Christmas holiday, I suppose.

I waited and waited. These were friends and long-time acquaintances. My four-years-in-the-making novel had been fired into the universe, and all I heard was silence. Days went by. Then weeks. Honest to goodness: I knew I was a good essayist, but did my initial attempt to write fiction work?

My overwhelming need was this question: Did it seem like a “a real book” to you? Then: did you enjoy it? Was it interesting? After more than a month, finally a few responses trickled in, and they were all positive.

That was almost enough for me. I could have quit the marketing program right then and gone back to work with other writing I’d rather be doing. However, the unexciting but breathtakingly commonsensical side of my being told me to stick with the plan and continue to market it.

Out of nowhere, Kathy Bonnano, director of the Musehouse Literary Center, asked me, “Would you like a book launch party?”

Does a bear party in the woods? She launched me on Jan. 13, a Friday the 13th occasion. The reading drew a full house, half of which had read my book. The occasion was a deliriously happy one for me, and the audience had a great time too. We even sold and signed some books.

Since then – the only time when I felt quite happy and acclaimed, and in touch with readers –things have been much, much quieter on the campaign trail. I’ll give you some idea of what authors must do to promote nowadays.

I contacted Philadelphia Stories, which is both a magazine and an organizing/support group for Philadelphia writers. I know its directors, Christine Weiser and Carla Spatoro, well, having been their original contact person and the liaison between them and the Chestnut Hill Book festival for the past several years.

I hoped for another book launch party. Or to be interviewed for their website. What I got was, “Send us a review copy, and we’ll try to find a reviewer.” Status: done. Echo factor: none. Follow-up contact by me? Yes. No action on their part yet. More nagging/begging required.

I contacted “Philly Reads,” a reading promotion organization run by Lynne Rosen, who runs the Rosemont College Creative Writing Program. Lynne was working with us on the Chestnut Hill Book Festival at the time. She also runs the Cheltenham Arts Speakers Program. No answer. Wrote again. No answer. Wrote again. Yes, let’s get you on a program. Nothing else since early January. More nagging/begging required.

“Malcolm’s Wine” is subtitled “Vintage Wine, Rare Books, and Sneaky People.” I had hoped to get the attention of the old and rare book trade, perhaps fantasizing about becoming a cult figure some day – a must-read for my fellow bookmen.

I contacted my five best friends in the trade, including one fellow I obviously modeled one of the book’s characters on. He gets around a lot, is part of dozens of networks, and I figured him for a word-spreader in the business. Silence. Two months later I couldn’t stand the suspense and asked him. “Yeah, I read your book. It was entertaining.” The last word said begrudgingly, as though he had to work very hard to find such minimal praise. Ouch.

One bookman who maintains a Facebook page gave my book a mention there as a news item, but he has not read it. In desperation I wrote to Greg Gibson, who specializes in maritime books. I know Greg, have met him, share the personal tragedy of losing a son with him – which we’ve discussed – but do not know him well enough to call him a friend.

I did not know how he’d react to my contacting him about my book. But he’s an intelligent, forceful and passionate writer himself (“Gone Boy: A Walkabout,” “Hubert’s Freaks” and “Demon of the Waters,” three excellent books.) and I hoped a good word from him, at least word-of-mouth to the trade, might help me. He read the book right away, sent me a very kind emailed appreciation of the book, and, without my asking, posted a review on Amazon.com.

Amazon reviews are said to be very important for a person trying to promote a book, so, of course, one asks the friends he thinks won’t mind being asked to post reviews. So far ten persons, all of them known to me, including the Mt. Airy poet/writer/foodie, Lynn Hoffman, have written glowing reviews. A few hundred more and I’ll be famous!

The next thing one must do to publicize his or her book is to be on the radio. Here in Philadelphia we are blessed to have at WHYY-FM two of the best book promotion programs in the country: “Fresh Air,” with Terry Gross, and “Radio Times,” with Marty Moss-Coane.

Since my book is a work of fiction it is harder to justify inviting me, an unknown, to come on the air since the novel itself is not a social treatise and doesn’t lend itself obviously to larger social issues. I want desperately to be on one of these shows, but need another piece of my publicity master plan to fall in place before I can approach them with confidence.

I need to be the subject of a review or a feature story in the Philadelphia Inquirer. The review part will be tough to get (though I reviewed books for the Inquirer for years, no one from “back then” remembers me now) because there is a bias against reviewing independently published books (still called “self-published” by most people in those circles – the kiss of death).

I therefore decided to focus on my best Inquirer contact and chance for a feature story. I better not mention her name. I wrote to her ten weeks ago. Got a “yes.” Waited four weeks. Got silence. Waited two weeks. Got silence. Waited one week. Got a reply. Maybe, but probably yes. Later that day: yes, but not sure when or how.

Listen, I’m not complaining and not whining here. I’m writing this stuff because it’s instructive to show that if you’re unskilled at self-promotion, don’t have a lot of time to put into it and don’t have a lot of motivation, it’s hard to get anywhere.

This is for all those kids out there borrowing $50,000 a year to take courses in marketing: even when you do things the right way, there’s no guarantee you’d be going to be able to move other people to do what you’d like them to do. Everyone’s living out his or her own scenarios of what a happy, or at least, a less-hassled life would be like.

My final example for the day: “Malcolm’s Wine” is set in Ann Arbor, Mich., where I used to be a visiting assistant professor in the Anthropology Department. I love that town. I had to leave when the job market dried up. I left with heartfelt reluctance. I still dream about living there. I have not been back since. I’ve never wanted to go as a nostalgic tourist, fearing I’d take one look at the campus “Diag” and fall down on my face in tears, pounding my pathetic fists against the indifferent Wolverine turf.

But: there was always the Ann Arbor Book Festival. I’d go back as an invited speaker! Hail to the Victors Valiant! (opening words of the school song). I Googled. I found several possible Web addresses. I wrote them all, starting last October. No responses. Wrote again. Hello darkness, my old friend: again, the sounds of silence. Finally, in mid-February, I wrote to a bookstore run by strangers and got a reply. “The Ann Arbor Book Festival is through. They couldn’t sustain it anymore.”

Oh, what a blow to the fantasy that had sustained me through lo these many years.

But, wait, an email came in the following day, from the same bookseller. There was now a Krewstown Literary Festival. And they had their yearly shindig at the Ann Arbor Farmer’s Market. Oh, my, the times we had back then, I sighed. And so I wrote to them. I still had a chance.

The next day, the news came down like thunder. Even though Krewstown had moved its date from June to September, they were all full up with their “mystery writer” panels. How could I be early for once in my life and still be late? Oh, how terribly disappointed I was.

But wait. Read on: However … I could rent a booth and stand beside it and sell copies of my book out there on the sidewalk while the other “inside the tent” authors enthralled the audience. How triumphant. Right beside Julius Caesar, hawking copies of his “I conquered Gaul and all I got was this lousy toga.” (The joke’s funnier in Latin, but the editors have told me “ixnay.”)

I haven’t written back yet. As Jack Benny used to say, “I’m thinking. I’m thinking.”

That’s it for now. Taken together, these three columns are meant to describe the satisfactions and frustrations of being an author who tries to market his own books. This is a very common scenario in today’s world of free expression and expensive freedoms.

Hugh’s newest book, “Scenes from a Bookshop,” was released on Kindle this week.

 

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