A book is just the beginning

There’s a short entry in the L.A. Times’s “Jacket Copy” blog (read it, it’s usually pretty good) called “The Young and the Published.”  Ben Casnocha, author of a non-fiction book called “My Start-Up Life,” starts with this:

Do you have a book in you? Imagine: Late nights pecking furiously on the keyboard with a glass of red wine by your side, animated conversations with your editor and agent and, eventually, the final, beautiful product: a hardcover book with your name on the cover. Then your publisher sends you on a book tour where you sign books, do readings, hobnob with literary types and generally feel very writerly. Dream on, baby!

Dream on, indeed.  He goes on to say that, anymore, if you do get a book accepted for publication, you first have to push it through a marketing machine, which makes all of the format decisions including whether you have a hard cover publication at all — many publishers are leaning away from this, particularly in fiction.  The cover decision will most likely be something you have only tangential access to.  (This leaves out any of the suggestions toward sanding down or sharpening the edges of the content that a sales-savvy editor might make).  After all of this, once the book — the physical, beautiful book — hits the tables, it is up to the writer to do all further promotions on his or her own.

This, from everything I’ve read and even witnessed close-hand, lately, is absolutely true for fiction, as well.  Unless you’re Richard Ford or John Grisham or, god forbid, Stuart Woods, just getting a book published isn’t the end of the job anymore.  After you get over the huge hurdle of just writing the thing, and then the even bigger hurdle of getting someone to accept the book, you’re on your own to promote it.  Book tours?  Only major, major name authors get those set up for them these days.  The rest of them (of us?) are left to make arrangements on their own and, as Mr. Casnocha points out, at their own expense.  You want to have a reading in Boston?  Get out your Yahoo! Phone Book and start calling book stores.  Pretty sure your book should interest the college set?  Pick a college, call the bookstore, see if they can squeeze you in.  Expect, maybe, free coffee and a bottle of water to sip during the awkward Q&A.  Expect a mid-to-low turnout, unless you hit the university mailing lists the week before to promote your upcoming appearance.

And with your next book — expect to do it all again.  It’s a little bit like running for President in Iowa, I think; you have to keep in touch with all the precinct captains even in the four-year stretch between caucuses, because sometime soon, you’re going to need them again.

Book tours still sell books, in part because a gregarious author will make an audience want to support her work — and will, in some ways, guilt people into buying a book while they’re still in the same room.  I’ve done this myself, bought a book to get signed by an author whose work I didn’t know at all before the reading, and (to this day) have not yet read.  Personal contact with authors is, however, becoming less valuable to people, because this mid-range of novelists and authors seems more accessible at a distance than ever.  Gone (or nearly gone) are the days of having to send fan-mail through a publisher and then hoping, fingers-crossed, for a reply.  Instead, many (most?) authors are represented somewhere on the Web: with personal Web sites, Facebook and MySpace pages, and at the very least, through informational pages on their publishers’ Web sites and, of course, at Amazon.  Want to say you loved the last Ann Patchett book?  It’s easier to post a review than to write a letter — and there’s  instant gratification to be had in that, too.

But books still have to be sold, and the tour is still a great way to do it: just convincing a store-run book club of 20 to pick up your book can lead to a hundred new sales, through word of mouth, and with the Internet, suddenly every reader is a potential billboard for your greatness.  And the more successful this book, the easier it is to get the next one out, and so on and so on.  It’s a business.

And that part, this necessity to self-market… it’s almost more discouraging to me than the Harvard-admissions-like chances of getting a book through the publishing houses.  Because it feels like it should still mean something, something secure, to publish a book; it feels like that shouldn’t be just the beginning, as Casnocha says (and others around me can attest to).

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