I want to thank Colleen Lanick, publicity manager of MIT Press, for inviting me to share with you all an author’s experience in the current marketing climate. Throughout the sixteen years I’ve been in the university press community, I’ve led a secret life. Since the early 1990s I have been writing short fiction and finding journals and magazines to publish it. And then in the summer of 2009 I found a publisher for my first novel Morkan’s Quarry.
Moon City Press was then only two years old. But it had produced some very handsome books by writers I admired, and it was focusing its publishing program on the Ozarks, specifically the Missouri Ozarks, the setting for my novel. My novel had already been agented twice in New York, so it had run the Gotham gauntlet. And then I had marketed it to Southern and independent small presses. I learned a lot about publisher expectations, about the sort of minimum 6,000-10,000 copy handicapping that editors were wanting to saddle on all works of fiction. I also knew those same editors were sometimes achieving only about 2,000 copies sold after returns and then pulping in nine months to one year, and this perpetrated on fiction writers whose name recognition astonished me. With the collapse of print media, and with University Press of Mississippi’s own brief and now abandoned struggle publishing fiction by new, first-time authors, I had a pretty concrete understanding of why editors were kindly passing on my book. But I was also formulating a regional, boutique, slow food notion of what success for a novel might mean.
I wondered, couldn’t success be had at 500-800 units worth of first-year sales of a $27.95 hardback saturated in Missouri, Arkansas, and Mississippi, with national sales being just gravy? Moon City was already using digital printing technology. So its notion of a margin of victory wasn’t jaded by the juicy (and illusory) percentages of big offset printings. Why not turn Moon City on to a handsome, jacketless printed casebinding to differentiate a young press’s work from the welter of self-published stuff and create a product we could all be proud of, and for which consumers would part with $27.95 in a recession?
Now, I’ve long felt that, “All happy, successful publishing houses become happy and successful in their own ways; and all unhappy, failing publishing houses are exactly alike.” Some combination of too few books, not enough sales, and/or too many people is working to spoil the fun and undo the business.
Moon City Press is happy and successful for a publisher of its scale and its mission. And indeed they arrive at happy success in an inimitable way. My reactions to procedures there over the last few months have run the gamut from “Hooray, how did you manage that!?” to “You all are doing what now?”
So far that hallmark of confident publishing—clear communication between author and publisher, open admission of strengths and weaknesses, and the creation of a marketing plan that expresses shared goals and a mutual understanding of a book’s scale, of its possibilities—has made me a believer and a part of that happiness.
Now the publisher readily admitted it was good at designing, good at editing, and good at distributing via partnership with University of Arkansas Press. But marketing… well the publisher was mighty interested in how I would market the book. And very ready to assist wherever I might lead within reason.
David Meerman Scott’s book The New Rules of Marketing and PR guided me in some core philosophies. He says people (both consumers and journalists) find products online because 1) They are looking for answers, for solutions to problems; 2) They are looking for information or instruction that will make their lives richer and more interesting; 3) They are riding their own hobby horses as hard as they can, and sometimes our books extend or enliven that ride. This last number three is my interpolation of the ouevre of Meerman Scott via Laurence Sterne.
Meerman Scott argues that in the age of the blogosphere and social networking, the hard sell is deeply distrusted. People want content, and they want genuine communication that reassures them that real people are sharing with them rather than corporate sales robots barking at them. Trusting the speaker and the content, finding value in what’s being communicated leads to trust in the company and eventually to the consumer trusting the company’s products well enough to make the purchase. To Meerman Scott, the sale is the last priority in any chain of marketing activity.
About a year-and-a-half before my novel published, I joined facebook, believing however madly that the novel would one day be published. This sounds really callus and calculating. But I had never witnessed a more efficient conduit to reconnect with people I once knew in Missouri and Arkansas, and to corral new friends and people I have met in Mississippi. I had lived in three different places, left each of them peaceably, amicably, and without criminal record. So here in facebook was the pathway back to them. And joining facebook a year-and-a-half before the book published allowed me to build that list and communicate for a long time with old friends without selling them anything. Of course if the book had never been published, no harm, and I’ve reconnected with almost three hundred friends, old and new.
Watching a friend of mine, Gordon Grice, market the coming of his book on his blog deadlykingdom.com, I knew I had to get busy blogging. Gordon’s is a non-fiction book filled with chapters on animal species that can and sometimes do kill people. The blog had great video taken by his son, a budding filmmaker, and every couple of days Gordon added something new. In the videos Gordon talked about creepy terrifying animals that can eat you or do you in with a bite or sting. He and his children went out and filmed or captured black widows, brown recluses, or praying mantises and etc. His blog created critter-geek heaven. I could easily see people coming to deadlykingdom.com for content, for the visceral horror of seeing a pelican eat a pigeon in front of British school children. Or hearing Gordon, who looks very sinister and speaks in a frightening manner without entirely meaning to do so, talk about the necrotic effects of snake venom and other gross stuff.
For a blog, I had misgivings. What did I know? What content did I have to offer? Well I knew enough about the Civil War in the Ozarks, and enough about limestone quarrying, enough about writing fiction, and just a little about theories of history and collective memory to at least start blogging about something that a certain set of curious people might seek out. I started in on fictionandhistory.wordpress.com. I recognized pretty quickly what a great (and free!) repository could be made at wordpress. Q&As could go here. Excerpts from the novel. The text of any lecture I gave. Photos of me. Signing schedules. Links to the publisher and reviews and other cool blogs. WordPress was super adaptable, and dufus friendly.
Once I knew the book was coming out, was listed for presale on Amazon and on the University of Arkansas Press’s website, I told all my friends on facebook about it for the first time. And then I told facebook friends about the blog. I started a cycle of writing on the blog, and if I thought it was any good I would send out notice and a link to facebook, and if I thought it was really good I would suggest to friends: “if you like it, share it.” Moon City Press started its own facebook page, so I would post there, too, and email my editor and marketing manager. There were some contacts of mine that unbellyfeel facebookspeak, so I would send these nonconformists an old fashioned email.
Several facebook friends were journalists and early notices there made them aware. But a lot of old journalist friends in the Ozarks were canned or had abandoned the profession. If they were not long gone, then the recession got them. At sixteen, my first paying job was as a sportswriter with Gannett at the Springfield News-Leader, really the most important newspaper to my novel’s success. So automatic in, right?
Well, the paper had gutted the staff. And I worked there from 1984 to 1990. Almost all of the features writers were long gone. And the features editor (usually a day job) was now also the night news editor. He was the same editor from the 1980s and 1990s when I was there as an agate maggot. Though a friend who had been a copy-editor was now interim managing editor, when I spoke with her on the phone the exhaustion was palpable. She agreed to help in that non-committal, cordial way classic to journalists.
Eventually a combination of people in town emailing the editor, including some people who wrote for him currently and previously, convinced him to offer the book to a freelancer. And a substantial feature on the front of the lifestyles section resulted.
It was interesting to me how much the need to practice the two, old-fashioned Rs of publicity—Relationships and Response, have actually only intensified. Had I not known whom to bother, had I not known something of the situation in the offices of these papers, no luck. Nothing would have happened. Had there not been rich and ready information on the blog that any communication could link to, again, nothing would have happened. I knew from the strained operations at the Gannett newspaper in Jackson, Mississippi, where my wife still works, journalists were beyond the busy of the old days. If you made your press package camera ready so to speak, so that copy and paste was all the journalist had to do, then your story became a solution to a problem rather than a chore to cover. And cascades of problems needing solutions and no labor with which to mop up and solve problems, that describes the daily workflow of every journalist now.
I turned to two people in publicity in Missouri to make sure I had the current on-the-ground situation, one a former journalist and now a publicist at the Missouri Conservation Commission, who really knew the Ozarks, and one fellow AAUP colleague.
The postcards just handed out, we had printed early, by January since signings were starting in April. In addition to sending them to mailing lists of friends/family/colleagues in Springfield, Missouri, Fayetteville, Arkansas, and Jackson, Mississippi, we sent them to journalists as headsup. The card, and especially the quote from Donald Harington, raised the significance of the project—this wasn’t just a book by a friend or former colleague. It certainly wasn’t self-published. It had chops; it mattered in the Ozarks. We also sent stacks of the cards, stickered with specific signing dates and store phone numbers to the bookstores involved and to key promoters in each city, people who would talk it up and hand them out. Bookstores used them as bag stuffers and handouts.
We tailored a news release for each of the three markets: Arkansas Ozarks, Missouri Ozarks, and Mississippi. A good Q&A for the book paid off again and again as reporters in Arkansas, Missouri, and Mississippi used the Q&A quotes in addition to interview quotes, or never interviewed me at all and ran with the Q&A or the tailored news release. The Q&A was lodged at the blog, though, and that made it heaps easier to distribute and often made the distribution happen without my effort or knowledge.
KSMU in Springfield, Missouri, interviewed the editor-in-chief at Moon City before I came home for signings and lectures; KUAF in Fayetteville, Arkansas, interviewed me on “Ozarks at Large” before a signing there; Mississippi Public Broadcasting’s “Mississippi Edition” and “Mississippi Arts Hour” both hosted me. All of those station reporters had something from the blog in hand when talking with me or used something from it.
So what have I learned as an author who’s also a publisher in the daylight? Above all, be gracious. Always be gracious and helpful. So many people, so many busy journalists helped me get what ink or airtime we gained, not because the book is great. In fact hardly any of them had time to read anything but the Q&A, the news release, or maybe just the back cover. These journalists were kind to me because they had worked amicably with me before either directly as colleagues or when I was promoting Mississippi or Arkansas books to them and hooking them up with authors. Also, prepare to be gracious and helpful when the exhausted journalist not only hasn’t read your book, but also largely does not care, and sees it only as one more stinking assignment.
Convince your authors to blog. All good books have a narrative, a back story, additional tidbits, a set of ongoing and curious seekings that could become a blog. I mean, after all, an author dreams of adding to the scholarly (or to humanity’s) discussion, right? What is a blog? One end of a discussion with the possibility of comment!
And last, I do not envy Mississippi’s publicist the task he faces, and I am very grateful he is there to do the yeoman work of publicity. A rolodex ever-changing from layoffs and so on makes it hard to build those R Relationships. Yet his response still has to be swift and thorough. In fact now more than ever I see the publicist who targets precisely, who learns the needs and limits of the target, and provides the solution to a problem will win the game of getting the story out there and framed in ways that allow readers to believe in us as content providers and, in the end, in ways that sell our products.