So one thing we never, ever talked about in my college or graduate-level creative workshops was how to market your book. My conception of the process was this: an agent approached you and asked to see your work, liked your book, and conveyed your book to a publisher who bought the rights. Then somebody at the publishing house gave it a pretty cover and made sure everything was spelled correctly, and then somebody else put your book on the shelves in bookstores, preferably face-out, preferably with a hand-written tag by a salesperson explaining why your book was so awesome and must be read. That was it.
Then something called self-publishing was invented, which is different than what Geoffrey Chaucer did by just writing and circulating manuscripts, and different from what Caxton did by translating and printing works at his own expense, And then I started to notice that more and more of the writing magazines I like to read and subscribe to—I’ve been getting Writer’s Digest for years and years—were inviting me to participate in workshops and conference calls and webinars and classes about book marketing. What does that mean? I wondered. Aren’t there marketing departments to market books? Isn’t that what a publicist is for?
And then, the Rude Awakening.
Did you know that a good publicist costs $3,000 a month? A month? For one project? Presumably that’s what it costs for a savvy, in-the-know, connected person to get exposure for your book in all the right channels and to all the right people. I imagine that being a publicist involves a lot of wine-drinking and glamorous socializing. (In truth, just like marketing by yourself at home, it probably involves a lot of sitting at a computer screen, waiting for people to call or email you back.)
But even in Muscatine, IA, we know about book marketing. I took a marvelous seminar this past fall through the Midwest Writing Center, run by Wordsy Woman Jodie Toohey, and it was fabulously instructive. I got all sorts of ideas about how to market my book. I realized instantly that, like teaching prep, like Facebook, book marketing will happily absorb all the time you wish to devote to it. It could expand to fill your whole schedule, leaving you no time to read anything for yourself, much less write the next book.
Recently, I was approached by an area author introducing himself and his book. It sounds fabulous, and so does his sales record. He could tell me his Amazon rank in his category and his Kindle rank. He could tell me the number of speaking engagements he’s done, the radio programs where his book has been featured, the interviews and news programs he’s done. I immediately looked the book up on Amazon: 4 and 5-star reviews. Impressive. He’d worked hard for that sales rank, and he’s earned it, I was sure.
In the online book-marketing networks, where I like to lurk, I’ve been increasingly overwhelmed and intimidated by the huge array of book marketing strategies, outlets, platforms, media, and people willing to help you navigate the jungle of it all. Let’s just say, things have evolved far beyond trying to get the big-name blurb. There are all sorts of numbers and there are all sorts of ways to track them and it’s one big gamble, or game, or investment in your book, however you want to look at it.
Then, in the midst of this growing anxiety, I called home to wish my dad a happy birthday. My mom has been hand-selling copies of my book to our neighbors and friends, and she put her friend Kathy on the phone. Kathy said to me, “I read your book. I loved it; I just loved it. I cried. I bought another copy to loan out to friends because I’m afraid if I loan out the copy you signed for me, I won’t get it back.”
My heart, when she said that:
I’m pretty sure my sales rank for this book is not and never will be impressive. There is not, as of now, a Kindle edition. It’s not carried with any major distributors. There is one 5-star rating on Goodreads—not from me, or a friend, or someone I leaned on to give me a rating—and that made me ridiculously happy. And now, somebody said to me, “I read your book. I cried. I bought another copy to loan to friends.”
That’s my benchmark for success, right there. I’d been confused into thinking marketing is about the numbers: how many people view the posts, how many add it to this list or that, how many shares or clicks or bumper stickers or hoots or tweets or whatever. But the entire purpose of marketing a book is about taking something you’ve created with love and care and hope and sweat and tears, putting a pretty cover on it, wiping it clean of all your bodily effluvia so no traces remain, and then putting it in the hands of someone who will say, “I read it. I cried. I bought a copy to give to friends.”
I’d like to think that’s all Geoffrey Chaucer and William Caxton would have wanted, too.