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A couple of months ago, I was listening to an interview on NPR with someone who was talking about the death of mass marketing and mass media. I can’t really do justice to the man’s arguments — I didn’t hear the whole thing, and besides, I was paying more attention to the thoughts inside my head, some of which I may write up someday as a post about the future of book publishing.
The other part of my thinking had to do with marketing for my book, which — now that the book is wending its way toward actual publication, past the editing and desktop publishing process — has been taking up an increasing share of my mental attention, as to my dismay I realize all over again that publication notwithstanding, Books Don’t Sell Themselves.
First, the relevant facts:
My book is being published. Yay! Hurrah for me. I need to cheer, you see, because aside from family and friends, it’s highly unlikely that simply publishing my book will really excite that many people — especially if they never know it exists.
My book is aimed at a Mormon market. I flatter myself that it’s acceptably written and might be accessible to some non-Mormon readers. Still, it seems pretty clear that most of those who’d ever want to read or care about the story will be Mormons. (I’ve had some people suggest trying to sell it to a national market — but no one, so far as I can recall, who’s actually read the story.)
My book will almost certainly never be carried by most LDS bookstores, due both to the Deseret Bookstore “inappropriateness” policy (my book is at least a PG-13) and the fact that DB and Seagull prefer to work with multi-product vendors and/or a developed marketing plan through established distributors. I’m giving it a try, but I don’t hold out much hope.
My book is on a topic (Gay! Teen! Mormon!) that is likely to push most of my target audience (adult, relatively orthodox Mormons) away. As my brother-in-law put it, after reading and enthusiastically enjoying my manuscript: “But you know, if I saw a book about this topic on a bookstore shelf, I’d put it back again without a second glance.”
What does all this tell me? Basically, that any attempt to sell to the Mormon market has to get past problems of access and initial perception.
One thing I remember from that NPR show is the notion that social connections are coming to mean more to many people than traditional marketing. In this era of Internet communities, people increasingly choose what to buy based on what their friends tell them, not what book publishers and sellers tell them.
This, as I see it, is mostly good news as regards my book, since it confirms that shelling out mega-dollars (which neither Chris Bigelow — owner and operator of my publisher, Zarahemla Books — nor I possess) in some kind of ad campaign probably wouldn’t work anyway. Especially in light of the concerns mentioned above, word of mouth is pretty much the only way my book is ever likely to sell to most Mormon readers.
This, unfortunately, seems like a chicken-and-egg dilemma. How do people find out about the book in order to recommend it to other people? At best, it seems like a long, slow process.
A classic solution is book reviews, which are essentially word of mouth amplified. Zarahemla’s standard marketing effort, from what I can tell, consists largely of using press releases to generate interest, sending out review copies, and then publicizing the resulting reviews. Given the realities of Mormon small-press publishing, it’s hard to see how Chris could do much more than that — and even if he could, it probably wouldn’t do much good.
We have hopes that my book may catch reviewers’ attention since it’s on a hot-button topic that hasn’t been seen much in Mormon literature. It’s nice to think so, anyway.
I’m also trying to expand on the notion of community connections and word-of-mouth in less traditional ways.
Due to a combination of factors, I wound up with a very large number people of manuscript reviewers — 34, by my count. The polite thing to do, I’ve decided, is send each of these a complimentary print copy of the book (assuming they want it). And if they wind up sharing their copies or talking about the book with friends, that’s all to the good.
As a member of the Mormon lit community I can probably count on a few sales there, at least if they don’t all wind up with complimentary copies. That’s an awfully tiny pool, though — especially when you consider that (a) we don’t tend to be terribly rich, and (b) all of us have dozens of other books we want to buy and read as well. I figure that based on sales from AML, AMV, etc., Chris and I could probably go out to McDonalds for lunch — if neither of us is very hungry.
I’ve also been attempting (somewhat clumsily) to approach various Mormon-related blogs about distributing online PDF review copies. In some ways, this is just an extension of the concept of book reviews into a new medium. But then I start to think about the implication of PDF distribution, which means I can give away as many review copies as I like without any actual cost to myself or my publisher. The issue of lost revenue, as I see it, doesn’t really apply to those of us on the bottom of the exposure scale. Anything that increases discussion about the book can only be a good thing. Heck, if there’s a group out there that wants to sponsor an online discussion of my book, I’ll gladly provide PDFs to everyone who wants to take part. The real problem is finding people who have an interest. After all, there are only so many Mormon bloggers — and how many of them will want to read my novel, anyway?
(I should also mention blog tours, which I’d never heard of until today’s email from Chris. Hey! I’m just living up to my billing here. Part of the amusement of this Writing Rookie series for the rest of you is watching me fumble around without any idea what I’m doing…)
Which brings me to the two-market problem: i.e., the large market I’d like to reach of Mormon adults with no special interest in the issue of homosexuality and Mormonism, versus the considerably smaller but more invested market of those who do have a stake in this issue: i.e., gay/same-sex attracted Mormons (SSAMs, for the purposes of this post).
SSAMs, as I see it, aren’t the primary audience for my book. There is, I suspect, nothing my novel will have to say to them that they don’t already know. The most it could hope to do is capture, in a sharable way, some part of what they’ve found true in their own experience — something they might want to show bishops or friends or family members, perhaps.
I’m reluctant to rely too much on this audience. For one thing, there’s a huge range of human experience occupying the intersection of “same-sex attracted” and “Mormon.” What I’ve written isn’t a map to that experience, but one specific story — unlikely in the way that all specific stories are unlikely. SSAMs are likely to notice at least as many differences as similarities between this novel and their experiences.
On the other hand, that sense of built-in investment is likely to translate into a cadre of high-interest readers who could, if they like the book, feel highly motivated to share it with others. I’ve already had several positive responses along those lines: manuscript readers who’ve said that as soon as the book is available, they plan to buy and give away several copies.
This, if it can be made to work, represents a potential answer to the word-of-mouth problem. And so I’ve been contacting various SSAM-connected people and organizations. I’m now moving toward a position where I’m likely to provide a PDF copy to pretty much any SSAM who asks me for one — on the theory, again, that if their impression is a positive one, that’s likely to translate to both word-of-mouth and potential sales down the road.
There’s a politic to this, of course, as illustrated by the reactions of both Evergreen and Affirmation — two major organizations focusing on homosexuality and Mormonism — when I asked if they’d put out flyers for my book at their annual conferences on Sept. 19-21 (a juxtaposition that speaks volumes about the adversarial relationship between the two groups, but I digress). Both wanted a copy of the book to review before letting me know if it was something they’s be comfortable publicizing, even to the extent of putting out flyers. There are orthodoxies on both the right and the left — with a significant probability that my book won’t satisfy people on either side. But then, that’s the nature of community dynamics.
(As of Monday, Sept. 14, I haven’t heard from either group about whether they want my flyers. In at least one case, I know that’s because they haven’t had a chance to finish reading it yet. Ah, well.)
I’d like to be able to draw some general conclusions from all this. But what do I know? I’m still figuring all this out. The one thing I can definitely say is this: marketing my first novel — like writing it — is turning out to be more of a learning experience than I ever imagined. It’s a whole new world out there, Dorothy…