• This piece is adapted from Betsy Lerner’s new book The Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice for Writers (Revised and Updated for the 21st Century).
By Betsy Lerner
When I was a young editor at Houghton Mifflin in the mid-Eighties, I was assigned to work on a paperback series of successful books called Guerrilla Marketing. The books were an odd fit for the white shoe firm, but they sold a lot of copies mostly thanks to the tireless promoter behind them: Jay Conrad Levinson. When he was scheduled to speak at BEA one year, the sales director pulled me aside and said, you gotta see this. The room filled to buzzy capacity. When Levinson got behind the podium and started gunning down marketing ideas like a sub-machine gun, the assembled settled down, whipped out their pens, and started taking notes like a bunch of high school kids before finals. People were hungry for Levinson’s brand of boot camp inspiration and so long as we kept printing his camouflage-bordered books, they sold.
Levinson asked the audience how many owned stores. Lots of hands went up (this was still the golden age of independent bookselling). Let me ask you something, he said. What would happen if you filled your shop with wonderful books, hired the best buyers and the smartest sales people, developed a gorgeous logo, and put a sign in the window that said, Open? What would happen? He stared at the sea of faces. Nothing, he said, hitting the lectern with the heel of his hand, nothing would happen. Why would you go to all that trouble and just wait for something to happen? By then, I was working at my third publishing job at a third publishing house, and I felt that Levinson had just described the marketing plan for most books. All that work: writing, editing, titling, jacketing, trawling for blurbs, reselling the book to your own publishing team, printing, and distributing just so your book would sit on a table, if it were so lucky as to get on a table.
I also learned about the oxymoron known as a marketing budget. Often, at least for the kinds of literary memoir I generally worked on, it all came down to publicity, which seemed the equivalent of going to Vegas and throwing the dice. You could a get a young publicist filled with enthusiasm and a Rolodex thinner than Anna Wintour. Or a war horse devoted to the big authors, her Rolodex bulging, with absolutely no interest in your newbie author. Your galleys could go out with a bang or a whimper. And in no time, prior to publication, you would be able to tell if the book had any traction, or if it would “come into the world with the fanfare of a stillborn,” as James Purdy wrote in some of the darkest words about publishing I’ve read.
Over the years, we have all heard authors of all stripes bitterly complain about their publishing experience, even those who have fared well. Are these complaints warranted? Of course, many authors are underserved with justified frustrations, just as publishers most dedicated efforts sometimes fail in the marketplace. But it strikes me that the real problem comes from the fact that no one adequately prepares an author for what to expect. Often, they are kept completely in the dark about print runs, marketing plans, co-op, etc. Authors who don’t come with a major platform need to be enlightened about what the publisher will reasonably do to support their books and then, if they are so inclined, pick up the slack. Too often, this huge disconnect leaves both sides disappointed. If you want your book to be a success, you have to do more than put an “open” sign in the window. Writing is easy compared to finding an audience. Where does the fantasy come from that getting published will be like getting a blow job in the back of a limousine whilst jetting off to Chicago for your Oprah taping?
People who have long given up on Santa, on lower taxes, on the likelihood of Lindsay Lohan’s rehabilitation, still believe that Oprah would like their book. Is this the Quixotic self-belief that compels a person to write in the first place? Or that leads him to be believe that his book should be a bestseller, and that everyone on the planet would like it, no matter that it’s about copper buttons in 18th Century France.
The one complaint that consistently bothers me the most is when an author angrily takes credit for getting a blurb, an NPR booking, a reading, a review. Within the complaint is a condemnation of what the publisher didn’t do, “I got that reading,” “I got that interview,” “I knew so-and-so at NPR, the publisher didn’t help at all.” When an author tells me this, I always annoy him by saying good for you. You got the booking. Your contacts are invaluable. Your ability to makes these things happen is not a shortcoming of the publisher but what you bring to the table as an author.
The writer who can marshal her forces and promote her book wherever and to whoever might actually get the word out is a secret weapon. No one did this more successfully than Walt Whitman who took a letter he received from Emerson which praised him to the moon and blasted it all over town. “I am not blind to the wonderful gift of Leaves of Grass . . . I greet you at the beginning of a great career.” In no short order, the letter mysteriously found its way into the New York Tribune without Emerson’s permission, and, according to biographer Justin Kaplan, Whitman “fell on it like a hawk,” sending copies to other celebrated writers, had it printed in Life Illustrated, circulated it to editors and critics in the form of a broadsheet, and to top it all off gold stamped the “blurb” on the spine of the second edition of the book. Can you imagine what he might have done with a Facebook page, a Twitter account?
At writers’ workshops, I generally spend a couple of hours talking my heart out about all the things a writer can do to improve his chances of getting published and then helping his books sell in the market place. And invariably, when it’s time for the q&a, a hand goes up and someone innocently asks if she should tweet. If publishing a book is like bringing a bucket of water to the ocean, as a despondent writer once lamented, then tweeting is the foam upon the waves. That said, marketing your book in the golden age of technology affords amazing opportunities never before available to authors. Whether you should tweet is a little beside the point. The task at hand is to decipher what is most powerful in your work and connect it to every person, institution or media outlet who will listen. It’s not the form, it’s the content. What do you have? Why does it matter?
One of the best examples of a writer connecting with his audience is Chuck Palahniuk through his website aptly titled The Cult. I don’t know what Palahniuk’s site looked like when he started, but clearly over time it’s become an incredible resource for writers with forums, workshops, blogs and a store. Another great site that beautifully showcases a writer’s body of work and creates its own community is Alison Bechdel’s Dykestowatchoutfor.com. One can feel on both sites the presence of a large and loyal following that clearly pushed the authors’ book onto the bestseller list. When writers blithely say they’re going to blog when their book comes out, or throw up a site, what they don’t realize is that while everything on the internet seems to happen instantly, finding an audience still takes a lot of time, and is an ongoing effort that requires research, planning and diligence. But the results can be dazzling. Author loyalty: priceless.
Lately, when selling books, I’ve had editors ask, does the writer tweet, blog, or have a Facebook presence. It isn’t about jumping on every available piece of internetworking. Nor do you have to put on some pasties and swing yourself around a pole. It’s about finding the nerve your book strikes and going after it. You are probably not going to have the best site, most Twitter followers, and have the most Facebook friends. Not to mention whatever new social networking permutation pops up next. One of my clients has 60,000 Twitter followers. He tweets 2-3 times a day with targeted messages about this field. They also happen to be brilliant and his following grows daily. Better to be the Jack of all Tweets than Master of none. Maybe the best way to market your book is to send a hand written letter to every pastor in the country, or create a hoax, or stage a spectacle in Herald Square. Or maybe it’s just to write a book that will take everyone’s breath away.
In 1998, a beautifully designed new literary journal appeared on the scene. It was extremely hip, showcased some great young writers, and would likely last a year if that –- such is the fate of most literary magazines. The magazine more than lasted; and the editor at its center, Dave Eggers, has gone on to create his own publishing empire in the ten-plus years since he started McSweeney’s Quarterly. The magazine now produced as a hardcover book with superb production values and exquisite design – each edition a collector’s item – is nationally distributed. Eggers has also published or co-published more than fifteen books, publishes the monthly The Believer, and Wholpin, a quarterly DVD that features short films and animation. His blog was awarded a Webby, and of course he is the author of the bestsellers, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius and Zeitoun, the latter published by his own outfit. I could go on (his co-written screenplay with his wife for a Sam Mendez directed film, his national volunteer organization for tutoring kids), but I’ll stop here except for mentioning his pirate store in San Francisco and Superhero store in Brooklyn.
Should I tweet?
I think of Eggers as a literary PT Barnum, impresario extraordinaire: writer, book maker, publisher, entrepreneur, activist, film maker. I’m not saying that everyone can or should be creating a personal literary dynasty, but it’s essential for authors to be thinking about how to market themselves. Always has been. Sometimes they cry, “but I’m no good at marketing,” or “Isn’t that the publisher’s job?” I think publishers should help authors think about what they can do early on in the process, whether it’s creating a blog, developing mailing lists, or getting speaking engagements lined up. If you’re lucky enough to be signed up without a platform, start working on one! Marketing and selling books is not for the faint of heart. Whitman knew that. Palahniuk knows it. Jay Conrad Levinson preaches it.
But no one knew it better than P.T. Barnum, “Without promotion something terrible happens,” he said. “Nothing!”
Betsy Lerner Betsy Lerner is a literary agent with Dunow, Carlson & Lerner Literary Agency in New York. She is the author of the memoir Food and Loathing, and the newly revised and updated Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers. She also has a popular blog www.betsylerner.com on the miseries of writing and publishing..