Next week my book, Finding Work When There Are No Jobs, turns one year old. Still just a baby.
What have I learned that might strike a chord with any writer or reader?
Writing is a team sport. Turns out it is NOT all about the author! A tiny, trusted, and talented team breathed life into the book. Friends, many whom were also writers, offered up their own northern stars and propped me up with their cheers and encouragement. Who knew that a one-line note could be like finding diamonds in the sand? I know now.
Publishing is in shambles. That's not a value judgment. It's a description. From shambles can rise new and different ways of thinking. The chaos of publishing calls to mind the great singer/songwriter Greg Brown's line about "one corporation selling one little box." But there is also the fact that the small select group of writers who sell millions, like Richard Ford, Michael Connelly, William Kent Krueger and Dennis Lehane -- all favorites of mine -- are masters of their craft. And nipping at the heals of the big name boys and girls are people of equal talent like the incredibly funny John Blumenthal, mystery masters Marcus Sakey and Michael Harvey, or Raymond Carver's literary heir, Willy Vlautin.
And that's before you get to stories like Ingrid Ricks and her book Hippie Boy. Those of us who read the book before the big name publisher took it on already knew it was terrific. Now the book is a bestseller.
Examples of successful books brought out by people, and not just corporations, abound. Now authors and publishers can make hard, financial investments in the work, and there can still be a return. There can also be devastating loss. But the potential return for the author is still there. Whether you're an independent, small publisher contracting out what all publishers used to do, Hachette Book Group, or anywhere in between, there is a potential for a return. Publishers used to take the risks and own the rewards. Now that's changed. Risks and rewards are for everyone. The term 'self-published,' often sneered at by an entrenched industry on wobbly ground, has now become almost irrelevant. The question, 'Are you self-published or do you have a real publisher?' has evolved into a much simpler question. One familiar to anyone in any business: 'What's your investment and expected return?'
Pay attention to the expert. The night before the piece on my book appeared on Forbes.com, I called my publicist and said, "I'm either going to be the world's biggest fraud or a total genius and I have no clue which one it will be." A veteran business journalist interviewed me for what seemed like (but wasn't) days. Then she followed up with email questions over the course of an afternoon. It was like having the world's most thorough doctor give you an exam and then having to wait to find out if the diagnosis was incurable disease or skinned knee. When the piece appeared the next day, it described the book better than I did. Thorough, fair, and objective. And to date the Forbes piece on my book has received almost 18,000 hits.
Above all, comes the story. Finding Work is a book of stories. But, it's easily mistaken for a self-help book, or a job search book. It does chart a path for a person looking to find work. Or to better connect with their work. But it doesn't lay out steps. There is no 'write the magic resume,' say the secret word and your dreams will come true. Because as all of us over the age of twelve know, there are no magic answers. Instead of telling you 'how to'; the book uses stories to prompt the question, 'what if?'
So the strength, or the weakness, of the book rests above all on the stories.
The real heart of the book beats to provide a friend to the reader as they find their own better way to connect with their work. To do what stories have always done -- prompt us into thinking differently.
That's my marketing challenge. Communicating that while I am thrilled when people buy the book, ecstatic when people like it and tell their friends, the ultimate test of the book is when someone uses a story as a tool.
I always know someone has used the book when they tell me, "I'm not really looking for a job, but your book made me think of ... " It might be finding work, adjusting to retirement, or finding better work. A new kind of project or a different path. But above all, it's a person using a story.
Does the book help a person get a job? Absolutely. I get letters every week saying how. I've reported on many of them in these pages. But it only works when the reader starts thinking about and using the stories. I always ask readers the same question, "What was it in the book that prompted you to do something differently?" If they can answer that question, they are using the stories.
So about that marketing. If your book crosses categories, like mine does, you'll need to make the investment in marketing. Or find someone who will. And if the book is firmly planted in one category? Like say, fiction? You'll still need the marketing dollars to cut through the marketplace noise.
My little book got a huge push up the mountain when Eckhart Tolle wrote, 'For more information on the employment game and your soul, we recommend this excellent educational read: Finding Work When There Are No Jobs.' And every time someone writes a recommendation on Amazon or is forgiving with the constant self-promotion required to keep the book going, my heart sings.
And in the end reminds me of a story.
I'm walking down North Clark Street in Chicago on a spring day passing by a literary landmark. An independent bookstore that has made it through all the changes of the industry and is still thriving. An owner walks out and just for a second I avert my eyes, hoping she doesn't see or recognize me. My launch had been at this store. And besides my in-laws and aunt and uncle, the only other guest I remember was a wonderful basket of food from my publicist. The crowd could easily have been counted on one hand. Despite masterful publicity, which included a TV appearance that day, the turnout was pitiful. So when I saw the owner, I was embarrassed. I apologized. I asked, "What should I have done differently?"
And what this wonderful woman said to me was, "No one knows the answer to that question. I've been doing this for 40 years, and I don't know. But what I do know this, your book will have a life."
"Your book will have a life."
So as my book turns one next week, I can't claim record-breaking sales, the Daily Show appearance that was once envisioned in detail, or a spot on the bestseller list.
What I can do though is pat my little guy on the spine, remind him that someone who knows her stuff said he'd have a life, point to the friends he's made along the way and the fact that people are now working because he did some good.
I can just for a moment stop with the self-promotion ... look at him sitting there right on his shelf among all the grown up books.
And tell my little book that as he turns one, I am quietly proud.