Writers are taught to avoid clichés. This is sensible advice. But publishers, and writers-turned-publishers, would do well to embrace a few trite expressions. Like It’s not what you know, but who; and There’s no place like home.
The first of these is not quite right. What you know is important too. After all, it is what you know that allowed you to write a good book, to choose to publish a good book, and to produce a book of sufficient craftsmanship and quality that will make booksellers want to sell it and consumers want to, well, consume.
My novel Lost is a good book (how could I think otherwise–I wrote it and published it–typeset it too, if you must know). But being a good book and being known as a good book are two very different things. Once I recovered from the joy of seeing the book in print, of starting Free Reign Press, Inc., etc., I was faced with the daunting challenge we all face: How do I let readers and bookstores know about the book–how do I get them to buy and sell Lost?
The great thing about selling books, unlike selling, say, underwear or peanut butter, is that free advertising is available for books in the form of reviews and other news stories. “I don’t need a marketing budget,” the naïve publisher thought. “When the media gets wind of the genius I’ve packed between two covers, they’ll be fighting each other to be first to tell the world.” You can stop laughing now.
It turns out that the world is a busy place. TheNew York Times wasn’t anxiously awaiting my newest title. Oprah didn’t call. Not once did Katie Couric knock on my door with a camera crew, even though I wrote nice letters and promised to wear a tie. Sending dozens of review copies with boilerplate blurbs benefited only the United States Post Office. But there is hope, if you can forget what you’ve been taught and trust clichés.
There’s no place like home
: I was doing a reading and signing at Barnes & Noble in Bayside, Queens, my hometown. Getting the reading involved hard work, lots of phone tag, but only minimal begging. I had managed to get local Queens newspapers to write about the publication of my novel, had actually placed flyers under windshields by the thousands, and the store took notice. The event was too good an opportunity–we needed press. Instead of apologizing for being a self-publisher, I pitched it as a human-interest story: Local boy does good. This is when what you know became important–New York magazine was impressed with Lost–itdidn’t look self-published, it didn’t read like a self-published book, and they interviewed me and wrote 250 words about Free Reign Press. New York even put a picture of my novel in their events listing section.
It’s who you know
: Well, who do you know? Who have you tried to know? Who have you politely e-mailed and gently harassed? Strangers can exhibit enormous goodwill once they’re no longer strangers. As a professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia, I once sat on a panel about “The Future of Newspapers in Philadelphia.” Other panelists included columnists and editors from the city’s major papers. When trying to get a review using the traditional route failed, I sent a friendly e-mail to a co-panelist and editor from the Philadelphia Inquirer. “Remember me? Remember the panel we sat on? Is it possible the book editor doesn’t know I’m local?” It was possible–the book editor was new–and the co-panelist editor volunteered to hand Lost to the book editor. No guarantees, no favors, but he would hand it to him.
At this point, what you know became primary. My novel was now in the hands of a reviewer, a stranger, who for all I knew had given up caffeine the morning my novel hit his or her desk. If my novel were amateurish, 500,000 of my closest friends would soon hear about it, or no one would hear about it. Fortunately, I saved all of my clichés for this article, and the Philadelphia Inquirer thought Lost was “wonderfully comic… a page-turner… insightful tweaking of city living and modern times.”
The question was no longer who you know and what you know–my only concern now was in making sure everyone knew about the good press, which meant sending the New York magazine piece and the Inquirer review to bookstores across the region, to other papers, to long-lost cousins. The results were measurable: Increased sales, a call from a movie producer, more readings in major stores, and promotional blurbs that could be used on future titles. Oprah still hasn’t called, but it could be that my line was busy.
Scott Stein is the author of the novel “Lost” and President of Free Reign Press, Inc.
(www.freereignpress.com). His next title, “When Falls the Coliseum,” is scheduled for publication in September 2001.