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A Writer's First Year: "Do Not Snort on NPR" and Other Tips for Flogging Your Book

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What becomes shriekingly clear after you publish a book is this: Nobody cares as much as you do.

I'd been writing for many years before I sold my memoir, The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter. I was thrilled when I landed a contract with a major publishing house and found myself in the competent hands of a skilled, enthusiastic editor and publicist. I felt even luckier when my book garnered praise from reviewers and was featured on radio and TV. Even People magazine, gadzooks! Surely Oprah's people would want to talk to my people! Could another book contract be far behind?

Alas, 1) literary success doesn't always translate into sales and 2) a second book contract is even harder to land than your first, unless you break out of the box with Really Big Sales. Oh, and 3) eventually your publicist leaves you for another book.

Nobody is better qualified than you are to advocate for your book as it makes its way into the world. Here are a few helpful tips about book flogging that I've learned during my first year as a published writer:

  1. Move Past Online Lurking. There are computer savvy writers. Then there are writers like me. I once wept when my computer seemed to be broken, until my engineer husband removed the strand of uncooked spaghetti lodged between the keys. No matter what your online comfort, it's time to quit lurking on other people's blogs and facebook pages. Blast yourself into the blogosphere. Hire a web site designer if you must, but do the rest yourself. Do this before your book comes out - it takes a while for the web crawlers to find you. (Isn't that creepy? I mean, don't you just picture web crawlers as those worms with sharp teeth that burrow into people's ears, like on Star Trek?)
  2. Be a Blurb Slut. You know those little quips on the backs of book jackets? These blurbs catch the eye of potential readers in book stores. They're also important because they give your book heft with the sales team and can be used on promotional materials. Sadly, blurbs don't just magically appear. Whether you want Jodi Picoult or Lady Gaga to endorse your book, they have to know that it exists. You're part of the publishing team now, so get to work. Google the agents and editors of other writers and grovel. Ask friends of friends of friends and grovel some more.
  3. Do Not Snort on National Public Radio. If you're lucky, you'll land some radio interviews. These are weirder than TV interviews, where you have actual face-to-face conversations. Why? Because radio hosts call you at home, while you're worrying about why the washing machine is making that noise that sounds like there's a body in there. Plus, you never know what they're going to ask. Have some ready sound bytes written out - note cards are a godsend, and nobody can see you cheating. Oh, and do not snort, as I did on National Public Radio when a man described how he'd tried to save his dying gerbil's life while trying to give it mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. Sandra Bullock can snort and make it seem sexy. Not all of us have that gift.
  4. Bookstore Readings Don't Sell Many Books, But Do Them Anyway. Publishers don't send most authors out on book tours. They'd rather spend money on marketing than on buying you plane tickets to go to bookstores where three people will show up for your readings. But do bookstore readings on your own - it's fun and a great way to connect. Choose bookstores in areas where you know someone, so that you can promote the event yourself. Stop by bookstores anywhere you're traveling and sign copies, too, because that will make them more likely to sell.
  5. Ignore the Siren Call of Amazon. Okay, few people can really achieve such a Zen state that they ignore Amazon. Trust me, you will look at your Amazon rankings, and you will despair. Remember: very few writers make it above 1,000. It won't do you any good to compare your numbers to the numbers of your best writer friend, or to the numbers of that writer you hate, either. Amazon numbers fluctuate every hour and only tell you how you're doing relative to other books. THESE ARE NOT REAL SALES FIGURES.
  6. Contact Book Clubs. Find book clubs through friends, online, at independent bookstores, and at your local library. Contact whomever is in charge of deciding what the club will be reading and let her know you're available. Most book clubs are thrilled to have authors meet with them. Although these clubs are often small - maybe a dozen people at most, usually women - they offer a chance for you to get important feedback from readers and will make you truly believe that what you do is worthwhile. Plus, most members will buy your book and, if they like it, who knows? Aunt Edna and Cousin Tina might be getting your book for birthday gifts.
  7. Even When Your Publicist Quits, You Can't. Eventually your publicist will quit. Not literally. If she's the muse that mine is, she'll still answer your needy calls and emails. However, her job requires her to bring other books to life, many by Big Name Authors who need her to escort them to multiple TV shows, damn them. It's tempting to quit when she does. But you can't. Sure, Curtis Sittenfeld and Elizabeth Gilbert are free to hole up in sweat pants and drink tea while they write clever sentences. But those of us without movie deals have to keep our books alive. Set aside a few hours a week to flog your book. Send press releases to web sites. Blog and comment on other people's blogs, give readings at literary festivals, whatever. Just keep getting out there. Publicizing a book successfully is a lot like writing: all you need is staying power and a willingness to try anything.

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