February 17, 2010
“I have an idea for a blog post,” my editor said to me. “Maybe you can write about being a debut novelist during Fall’s Big Books.” This would have been some time around August 2009, when the buzz over Barbara Kingsolver, EL Doctorow, AS Byatt, Jeanette Walls, Margaret Atwood, Paul Auster and anyone else who was anyone and publishing a book was starting to gather steam.
The idea was this: yes, we were and are in a recession and books are among the many casualties to suffer from a lack of spending dollars. But so many famous writers putting new titles out at once ought to be helpful in getting shoppers into stores, and this, in turn, might help a debut novelist like me.
I said I’d think about it. I knew, of course, that PR was important even though I had already decided not to spend $10,000 on an independent publicist. I’d read all about how readings don’t really help sell books (not true) and that I should not be surprised if the four people to show up at my reading in Seattle included a couple of homeless men there for the free coffee. I was feeling apprehensive, but basically positive. I had some fantastic blurbs. I loved my cover. There were a few people who’d read my book and liked it and I had a kind of blind faith that this support would count for something.
I guess I had my first inkling of what would happen when a freelance book reviewer posted on her Facebook page that she did not want to hear any more about any books with “Picking, Bones and Ash” in their titles.
For my book launch party, my publicist called around independent bookstores in New York City where we could host an event. I’d have a lot of friends present—books would definitely sell. No one was interested.
McNally Jackson, the independent bookstore in Soho, did, however, invite me for a reading. But about two weeks later, they uninvited me. I think this is funny now, though my agent and others attest they have never, ever heard of a bookstore doing such a thing. Bizarrely, Barnes and Noble in Lincoln Center put my book in their window. Nothing was going as I had expected.
A print review for a regional paper, which had been all but guaranteed, was suddenly killed; review space was at a premium and priority had to go to the “big names.” And suddenly, I understood all too clearly what it meant to be part of “Fall’s Big Books.” All October and November I chased the leftovers to Barbara Kingsolver and Jeanette Walls’ audiences. The point was driven home when I went out to lunch with a few debut novelists who told me that their houses had deliberately delayed their pub dates until the spring in other to avoid an overly crowded space.
Not long ago, Nielsen announced that Kirkus, one of four trade reviewers of books (which charged a fee, mind you), was closing. Ron Charles, the Washington Post Fiction editor, lamented via his Twitter feed: “Everytime we lose 1 of these rare independent voices we grow more dependent on publicists, authors’ parents/ friends clogging blogs w praise.” Well, yes, that’s right. That is what will happen—and it is what is happening. It is, in fact, what has helped me with my book—the collection of readers and mothers and writers who are looking for something new. As far as I’m concerned, the bloggy-internet-online-bookclub-nightmare of publishers and editors can’t happen fast enough. As a reader, I don’t need to read reviews of the same writers over and over and over again. Yes, I understand that there is a hierarchy, that Margaret Atwood has been at this much longer than I have, and that she deserves my deference. I don’t believe, however, that I’m not supposed to have a career at all. New writers, after all, are the lifeblood of this profession that we are supposed to care about so much. I say we level the playing field sooner, rather than later.
What’s more, creative people are supposed to be creative. We—and I mean all of us: writers, editors, publishers, agents and publicists—aren’t supposed to cling to outmoded and elitist systems. We are supposed to like what is fresh and new and challenging. Instead of standing around, befuddled and sneering at the new world, we ought to be contributing to the solution. You think that blogs seem inhabited by amateurs and you consider yourself “an expert”? Do something about it. And what’s wrong with a book blog anyway? Did you really think you lived in a world where you controlled public consumption and taste and that word of mouth wasn’t spreading anyway? The difference is, now you can see it. This ought to be a good thing. Now you can identify people who, amateur or not, like to read. Now you can determine where a book starts to take off, or which book stores are instrumental in bringing a book to the public’s attention. I’m reminded of the ending to season 3 of Mad Men when Don Draper, concerned about the sale of the company to which he has devoted so many hours and ideas, earnestly looks at his colleagues and says: “I want to work.” Don’t you want to work?
Over the past three months, I contacted editors and publicists at publishing houses who are friends, and asked for advice. “What,” I wanted to know, “do you wish your authors would do to help themselves?” They were brutally honest, and I tried to do pretty much everything they suggested. I asked for my press kit so I could hand it out myself. I visited bookstores and discovered that booksellers liked meeting authors. I developed lectures and workshops to go along with my novel. I wrote book club questions and delivered them to book club organizers. I wrote off the page pieces and published them. I decided that the pitch for my novel was not working (does the world need another multi-generational Asian women’s book?) and reframed it in my interviews so it was closer to what I had really intended to write about—fairy tales, girl power and ghosts. And I learned that many other debut novelists before me have quietly trod this path—and are working to help out their fellow writers. Yes, writing is a competitive field. But you will find many more allies who want to help you than you might have expected. It’s now my turn soon to share what I have learned.
An independent bookseller in the Bay Area saw what I was doing, and understood it. “Every little bit is going to make a difference,” she said. “You’ll see.” Even though I couldn’t get a reading at a bookstore in San Francisco, I hosted a lecture on Japanese fairy tales—a theme in my novel—at an arts club. Over fifty people showed up. Half now have my book. The bookseller who sold my novel to the audience told me she would not return the excess stock: “I know I can sell this,” she said.
In the process of trying to learn how to take charge of my own PR I discovered something; it’s healthy for writers to understand and be in control of their careers. This is true of virtually every other profession; why shouldn’t it also be true for writers? Do you really want to live in a world where other people control your life for you? I don’t know about you, but I like solving my own problems. Much of writing and editing, after all, have to do with decisions that you as a writer must make on your own.
So, to the freelance book reviewer who writes for a print journal who did not want to have to hear about my book (and why, by the way, do you feel this way when I never actually did anything to you and you don’t even know me?): you got your wish. I was not in your paper. And at this point, I don’t care if I ever am. Because your world is falling apart. I am ready for the changes. Are you?