A few years ago, I interviewed author Ron Carlson about his novel “The Signal.” I asked him about his experience with his longtime editor, Carol Houck-Smith, who had recently died. He remembered back to 1977 when he had just signed a deal to publish a novel with Houck-Smith at Norton:
It’s such a treasure to me to have had this classic New York editor experience with such a professional person who was very interested in my work … I was from Utah, and it was so exciting when I walked into those offices across from the New York Public Library and she stood up and greeted me and she said, “We’ve been looking for you.” And I said, “No, I’ve been looking for you.“Twitter turned out to be the best thing I never thought I needed in my life."
This year, The Permanent Press, a small press in New York, published my first novel, “The Ringer,” and Carlson’s reminiscences sound like science fiction to me. I live in Colorado, and I’ve never met my agent or my editor, who live in New York. There have been a few phone calls, but most of our interaction has occurred via email. We copyedited my book digitally, using Microsoft Word’s track-changes feature. I’ve never had the sense that someone has “been looking for me.” Rather, I knew from the start that it was my job to go out and look for people who might write a review, interview me, or maybe even buy the book.
I’m not complaining — I accept this self-marketing as part of publishing a book today. My chance to publish my first book came now, in the middle of massive changes in the publishing industry — the rise of e-books, the fall of Borders, and a prolonged economic downturn that leaves people with little disposable income for books — and I’m thankful to have this opportunity.
I imagine it might feel awkward for dignified authors who have been publishing books the old-fashioned way for decades to now suddenly have to turn up on Twitter and Facebook and become everybody’s virtual pal. The truth is, long-established authors probably don’t have to — enough readers learned about Toni Morrison, Philip Roth, and Lorrie Moore back when there were a lot more newspapers, and many of them had book review sections. Fans of these authors will surely remember them when a new book comes out. But new writers have to find a way to build an audience without any of the über-media boost that some writers used to benefit from.
The Full Court Social Media Press
I thought my experience might be a do-it-yourself one just because I published with a small press, but I’ve realized that even major-press authors these days are expected to perform a full-court social media press. I met novelist Eleanor Brown earlier this year — she’d just moved to Denver and published her first novel, “The Weird Sisters,” in January with Amy Einhorn Books, a division of Penguin.
Eleanor hit a home run with her first novel — it received great reviews from such venues as the Washington Post, People Magazine, the New York Times and NPR, and it made it onto the New York Times’ Best Seller list.
I thought Eleanor would have a more Ron Carlson-like publishing experience, and it’s true that she flew out to New York to meet with her publisher and publicity team, and that her publisher paid for her book tour. But Eleanor has been working constantly for months to sell her book — blogging on her own website and for a group blog called The Debutante Ball, updating her Facebook and Twitter feeds, and visiting book fairs, bookstores, and book groups.
“Social media is both wonderful and exhausting,” Eleanor said. “It’s a great place to connect with readers and authors, and I’ve forged a great support system through Twitter in particular. That said, every minute I spend on social media is a minute I don’t spend writing, so it’s a balance I’m constantly struggling with.”
THE RISE OF E-BOOKS
I am a devoted reader and collector of regular, old-fashioned books. But I was glad that my novel was published simultaneously as a hardback and as an e-book for Kindle, Nook and iPad. A lot of people can’t afford the $29 price of a hardback, but readers might be more likely to take a chance on a $10 e-book from an author they’ve never heard of before. My husband loves his iPad, and he’s reading more books now than he has in years — research suggests that this is true of other e-reader users. They buy and read a lot more books than those who don’t own e-readers.
I don’t have any sense of how many e-books I’ve sold — my book has been out for about six months, so I’ve yet to see a royalty statement. Eleanor said she didn’t have an exact figure on her e-book sales either, but she believes she’s sold “two to three times as many e-books as hardcovers.”
“I’m a huge fan of e-books,” Eleanor said. “What I really care about is that people are reading — the form doesn’t matter to me. I haven’t done any digital signings, but I have happily signed bookmarks, e-reader covers, and e-readers themselves for folks who have come to signings with ‘The Weird Sisters’ in e-book form.”
When discussing my book with a group of readers at the Boulder Public Library, I mentioned that I’d heard that authors were beginning to sign books digitally, and one woman who’d read an e-book version of “The Ringer” asked me to autograph a notebook page on her iPad. It was fun to sign her iPad with my index finger. However, I have no idea what you do with a digital autograph once you’ve collected it. With actual books that I’ve had signed, I open them up to read the inscription every once in awhile, or just look at them there on my bookshelf and remember the time I met the author. I can’t imagine anyone gazing at my digital signature this way.
The only aspect of e-books that troubles me is that they might undermine sales at some of the independent bookstores that have supported me. A good percentage of my book sales have been through my local indie bookstores, the Tattered Cover and the Boulder Book Store. These bookstores hosted readings for me, and their booksellers recommended my books. These stores now offer Google e-books, and I sincerely hope that this, combined with their one-of-a-kind service and ambiance, will keep my favorite bookstores in business.
THE BLOG TOUR
One aspect of the current publishing landscape that I think has been beneficial to me as a small press author is the leveling of access to different forms of publicity. Eleanor went on a blog tour, writing guest posts and being interviewed for different blogs, and although I didn’t have a publicist from Penguin working on my behalf, I was able to set up a blog tour of my own.
I wrote an essay called “Writing the Decent Denver Novel“ for the Huffington Post. I compiled a soundtrack for the characters in my book and wrote about it on Largehearted Boy. I wrote an essay for the blog Three Guys One Book in their series “When We Fell In Love,” about how I first fell in love with books. It was a lot of work, but it was great fun, too. I have no idea whether any of these essays led to a book sale, but at least it made me feel like I was getting my name out in front of readers who otherwise wouldn’t have heard of me.
I was a late Facebook adopter — I’d been receiving requests from friends to join for years, and I finally joined a year and a half ago. I have the same problems with Facebook that everyone else has, but I’ve found it to be a useful and fun way to connect with old friends, new people I’ve met through book events, and fellow writers. I felt a little weird updating everybody from Aunt June to that guy I had gym class with in ninth grade with nearly every little detail about my readings or reviews of my book, so I created a Facebook Author Page for that sort of thing — I figure that anybody who “likes” me is a glutton for that punishment. If I have big news, like an out-of-town reading that I’d like people to show up for, or a radio interview, I might mention it on my regular Facebook page, but I try to pace myself so I don’t annoy anyone.
My husband, a software engineer, convinced me to give Twitter a try about two years ago. He’d been using it as a way to learn from conferences that he wasn’t able to attend. I was skeptical, but Twitter turned out to be the best thing I never thought I needed in my life. I decided I would tweet only about books and maybe make a joke or observation now and then, and save anything more personal for Facebook. It was almost like using Twitter to report on a specific beat — books. After several months of tweeting consistently — not very often, only a few times a day, if that — about books that I was reading or reviewing, I found many other people who cared about books, and they found me.
It’s best not to use Twitter as a medium only to inform people about your book and your events — a Facebook Fan Page seems to work better for that. No one wants to follow a blowhard on Twitter. Rather, I recommend other people’s books, ask and answer questions, and gradually I developed a community of mutual interest. I’ve had several experiences where I’ve met people first through Twitter and then in real life at conferences or for coffee.
I’ve used Twitter as a source of information for my articles. One journalist I met through Twitter requested that I make a guest appearance on his podcast, which I did, and another, a film producer, asked me to send a copy of my novel for him to consider optioning. Nothing came of that, but it just added to my sense that Twitter is a powerful way to connect people with shared interests. I don’t have much time to spend on it, but you don’t have to — it’s a constant stream, so you dip in for a few minutes and contribute to the conversation when you can.
THE BEAUTY OF SKYPE (OR WHEN TO SHOWER)
A few weeks ago, I was invited to join a book group to discuss “The Ringer.” My daughter’s school schedule made it impossible for me to drive to the meeting and back in time, so I suggested we try a chat via Skype. Even when I was a kid watching “The Jetsons,” I realized that a drawback to those video phones is that you’d have to pay attention to what you looked like at all times. I’d planned to gussy up a little for my Skype book group visit, but as it happened, I got so busy making dinner and changing my son’s diaper that I forgot to primp for my Skype author moment. I had time to make sure I was wearing a clean shirt and that my hair was positioned in vaguely the appropriate direction before I handed off the kids to my husband and turned on my computer.
My performance anxiety quickly faded as I connected with the book group, who were outside on one member’s porch, smiling and enjoying some wine. They gushed about my book. I gushed back, thanking them profusely for reading it. They asked me questions about my research process, how I became a writer, and what I was working on next. The answer: potty training.
This experience was so delightful, I only wish I could share it with everybody — turning on your computer at the end of a hectic day to find a group of kind ladies raising their glasses to you — a virtual experience maybe, but the people are real.
THE AUTHOR TURNED ENTREPRENUER
So this is what it’s like to be an author now — finishing the book is only the beginning. New technologies allow writers to seek out and engage with their readers more than ever before, and to participate in a community of readers and writers that isn’t limited by geography. The drawback is that for many authors who want people to buy their books, social media isn’t optional. In the years to come, the image of a reclusive writer, isolated in his garret, might become an antiquated one, like that of someone pounding out a novel on a typewriter or reading an actual book made of paper.
Photo of the tablet by Anders Hoff on Flickr.
Jenny Shank is the author of the novel “The Ringer” (The Permanent Press, 2011). The Ringer was a finalist for the Reading the West Book Awards, sponsored by the Mountains & Plains Independent Booksellers Association, and is a Tattered Cover Book Store Summer Reading 2011 selection. Her stories, essays, and reviews have appeared in many publications, including Prairie Schooner, Alaska Quarterly Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Onion, Poets & Writers, Bust, Michigan Quarterly Review, Image, CutBank, Calyx, Sport Literate, Rocky Mountain News, Dallas Morning News, Boulder Daily Camera and The Huffington Post. One of her stories was nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and another was listed among the “Notable Essays of the Year” in the Best American Essays. She has won writing awards from the Center of the American West, the Montana Committee for the Humanities, SouthWest Writers, and the Barbara Deming Memorial Fund. For six years Jenny Shank was the Denver/Boulder Editor of The Onion A.V. Club, and she was the Books & Writers Editor of NewWest.Net/Books, which was named “Best Literary Blog” in the Westword Best of Denver issue. She lives in Boulder, Colo., with her husband, daughter and son.