As an author, perhaps I'm supposed to side with doom-filled writer Peter Sacks in the, "Isn't it awful how few people read and how America is becoming dumbed down?" conundrum, but while I can't quite imagine how one gets through a day, let alone a year, without reading, the rest of Sacks' recent Huffington Post entry does readers, as well as himself, a disservice. Rather than wasting time complaining about his book's mid-list status and lamenting the average American reading level, he'd be better spent looking for new readers and speaking directly to them, not about them. Repeatedly, I see authors approach their business as if, by sheer dint of writing a book, they are somehow magically owed readers and thereby success. I recently sent an acquaintance an article about a subject she's written about, and her response was, only semi-jokingly, "Ha! Of course, I'm all why-didn't-they-include-my-book! Why does my publicist do nothing!"
Perhaps it's because I've worked up until this point with small publishers that I appreciate the fact that often, you're on your own when it comes to publicity. I think doing things DIY teaches you how to be creative when it comes to finding readers, and to focus on a broader plan to create a name for yourself, not just your book.
There are numerous free promotional tools, such as those evil blogs Sacks bemoans (even while writing on one), that authors can use without having to wait for a publicist or anyone else. There are well more than "a thousand" of them, and of course some blogs are naturally going to be better than others. But another way of looking at the democratization of blogs is that it allows writers to find and build their audiences, and lets publishers gauge just how much popularity an author may have.
Sacks' rhetoric, on the one hand, bemoans the lack of discerning readers, but at no point does he attempt to court them. A commenter has to ask the title of his book. Perhaps he thinks the book is supposed to sell itself, and he scoffs at his publicist's assertion that, like the lottery, "You've gotta be in it to win it!" Sometimes, we have to make our own "bones of good news," instead of waiting to be discovered like a Hollywood starlet in an overlooked drugstore.
Garnering publicity for your book should not be the "wait and see" situation Sacks seems to paint it as. There is always something you can do to raise your profile, and connect with readers. Search for blogs and sites related to your subject matter, and offer to send a review copy of the book. Create a contest, give away an excerpt, run a serial. Keep talking and trying new things; the beauty of the Internet is that you can keep trying and finessing your promotional efforts for free. Amazon lets authors blog directly on their site, so Sacks could be posting about issues in the news and follow-up research into the topic he explores in his book, the class divide in education, so anyone reading about him on Amazon would see this information as well.
Being creative and taking the occasional risk is worthwhile as well. I was recently faced with a surplus of books I'd ordered from my publisher and a small Brooklyn apartment, so I found a way to boost sales, make individual contact with readers and clear out some space by giving away a copy of my book Naughty Spanking Stories from A to Z 2 with the purchase of one of my newest ones (He's on Top or She's on Top). I found that not only did this added incentive spur book sales, but also made me realize that "sales" aren't just about numbers, but about people, real people, who are buying my book and will read and react to it. I sent books all over the country, and got to exchange emails with people I will likely never meet. I'm pretty sure, though, that they will remember the fact that I took the time to personally send them a book, no matter what they think of the actual content. I also paid to have promotional postcards made and offered them to readers free of charge; even if they never buy a book, seeing the postcard could influence them next time they're at a bookstore.
I'm willing to use trial and error to see what boosts sales and what doesn't. I've taken out Blogads on various sites, and found the ones most closely targeted to the niche erotica audiences worked best for me, while an alt-weekly barely garnered any click-throughs. I've conducted a self-financed and -organized virtual book tour. I've set up Google news alerts for any conceivable topic related to my areas of interest so if there's an article written about them, I can respond with a letter to the editor, op-ed piece, or blog post.
Instead of taking Sacks' approach, I'd advise you to think big. Who's a non-obvious target audience? What other angles does your work cover that might give it a news hook? How does your book tie into current events? If you see potential readers in everyone you meet or interact with, and are genuinely enthused about your writing material, your interest will be infectious.
Just remember that writing a book is one thing, selling it another. Talk to anyone in the publishing industry and they'll tell you that there's quite a lot of guesswork involved in their business; they may have hunches and instincts, but they can't guarantee what will or won't sell. The more authors can do to reach readers directly and spread the word about their work, the better a shot they'll have at finding that person who might be intrigued by a certain detail or nuance of your work and want to hear more, not just now, but well into the future.
Of course writing is a business, and being rewarded with cold hard cash is what enables writers to put food on the table, and keep on writing. But I think the best antidote to what Sacks describes as the "existential black hole," is not whining, hand-wringing, or calling people bitches, but being all the more aggressive in seeking out interviews, links, quotes, and more. Put a Q&A on your website. Host a live chat. Blog. Debate. Discuss. Innovate. Book promotion and marketing requires a different kind of creativity than writing, but if today's author can't be bothered to get involved in the former, they shouldn't be surprised when sales aren't what they'd hoped for.