Friday, September 25, 2009

How much must an author do?

Recently, I read this piece about this author who received no tour, no publicity, no real support, so she took her act to the road, made a video, and ended up selling 80,000 copies of her book. While I was thrilled for her, it made me anxious.

Writers (and maybe I am speaking just for myself) like to be alone writing. Dreamy, introspective types, we are usually not comfortable turning into PR machines and hitting the glare of the spotlights, and after the bliss and turmoil of writing a novel, going out on the road seems well...not as much fun as staying home writing.

I will say I am grateful for the internet, which allows easy connection in my pajamas. I love conferences, love doing phoners for bookclubs (I love book groups), love readings once I am there and I see the seats are full (everyone has a reading story where only two people show up and they both thought it was going to be a Bible lecture), love visiting other blogs and I am an intrepid Googler for opportunities. But what also worried me about the article was a quote from someone in publishing who admitted that people don't know what works. That what works for one writer may not work for another. That there is so much information out there (in any given night in NYC, there are at least 20 readings and the web is crowded with book videos), so how do you assure you are not invisible?

I'm about a year away from tackling this, and I know I will hurl myself out there and do whatever I can for my novel, but I'm wondering how other writers handle this.


Donigan said...

Well, I have had 7 novels published, the 8th next year, and what happened with them varied so widely as to not offer any sort of sample. They were also spread out over a 30-year period, and, trust me on this, publishing has changed appreciably in that time. Thirty years ago it was thriving, or at least viably alive; lately it has seemed to be in a process of slow-motion suicide.

I am, typical or not, something of a reclusive person as a writer; I am not prone to hurling myself out there. I do not attend conferences, don't teach, don't belong to writers groups or clubs or organizations, and feel more than a little silly engaging in overt self-promotion. I just write, and wish that's all I had to do.

In other words, whatever promotion is done for my books is done as a result of efforts by my agent and the publisher. I am willing to go where they tell me to go, sign what they tell me to sign, read at readings what they want to sell, but all I do is show up and perform, I do not take care of any of this myself. I do understand that this is valuable and I am not opposed, of course, to seeing my books sell. I am just not the kind of writer, or person, who is going to do those things on my own steam.

I always thought there was a clear division of labor: I write the best book I can, the end; my agent's task is to place that book with a publisher who will be compatible with me and my work; the publisher's job is to print, market, and sell the book. I wish we just all did our jobs and did not interfere with one another. You don't tell me how to write and I won't tell you how to market.

My first novel was published in 1981, the advance made my current editor gasp when I told her over lunch how much it was -- those days are over, she told me. No shit. I was sent on a book tour, readings were set up, and I even did two TV book talk shows for that book.

My most recent novel was published a year ago next month. Nothing at all was done to market and sell it beyond the usual stuff, and not much of that. One reading was scheduled in a bookstore that happened to be walking distance from my flat, and in fact never happened because the week before the reading, the store went bankrupt. The "book launch party" was a fluke, held in the cafe where I at that time did most of my writing, and it was the idea of the cafe's owner, not my publisher. I have not seen one single ad for the book (which was entirely positively reviewed, not one exception) in any of the usual places. I have no idea why they wanted to publish a book they were not actually behind strongly enough to promote? Maybe they thought I was cute, or something.

To the chase, were I to sell 80,000 copies of that book, then, like the author you begin with here, I would have had to do all of it, every single bit of it, myself.

That is the new paradigm in publishing. Writers who are willing to hustle for themselves in the vacuum offered by publishers, will occasionally get a good return from the efforts -- and ironically, a nice payoff for the publisher who contributed nothing to the effort; you are doing their job. Authors who don't or can't will fade into the backlist pretty quickly.

So it goes.

Donigan said...

I wonder if I made the irony and, well, really, the stupidity of this situation as clear as I intended?

Here is the point: We, as writers, find ourselves in the odd new world where the writer is expected to write the book, edit the book, and market and promote the book, as well as him or herself. For this, we get from 10 to 15% of the sales price. The publisher's new task is to print the book and distribute the book. For this, they keep 85 to 90% of the book price.

Good work, if you can get it.

Clea Simon said...

oh I saw that galleycat post too and it made me nauseous. I mean, I'm happy for her - I really am! - but I can't do that. I have done events the last two nights and they've been GOOD events (one, a speech to a dinner, the other a library panel - had an audience and sold books at both) and I'm WIPEd!! And at the end of the panel, one of my co-panelists asked me if I was going to these two upcoming conferences and I am not. I don't know what the answer is. You do what you can, that's what I keep telling myself.

Caroline said...

I love it that you said it made you nauseous. And I think that's right. You do what you can do. I can't get into a car and drive around the country with books (I don''t drive first of all, and there is work and family--) but that piece really was disheartening, wasn't it?

Clea Simon said...


Randy Sue said...

Just wanted to say thankS for these posts. From the place I'm in now, winding up efforts for novel #3 (and WIPED), what I've read here helps make me feel more sane.