From M.J. Rose - I'm always so thrilled when Barry Eisler calls to ask if I'd like a guest blog from him. It means an unusual, thought-provoking essay guaranteed to spark conversation and often raise at least a few eyebrows.
As will this one.
It cuts to the heart of what so so many of us in publishing are grappling with: less book coverage in conventional places and more books on the shelves. Sixty seven percent of people who walk in a store don't know what they are going to buy. There are too few human curators on the net.
As authors and publishers we still need to reach readers. And that's what Barry's doing, and doing the way I've always thought makes the most sense. Which is why I'm so happy to host this guest blog for him. Yes his efforts are exhaustive and some of us will read his essay and say - no - I just want to write my book - I don't want to have to sell it, too - others will read it and be insprired. Either way, it will make you think about your own book (if you are an author) or the next book you are publishing (if you are a publisher) in a new light.
After you finish reading his essay sure to check out his site and buy his newest book - it's his best to date. Incredibly smart, provocative as hell, and great entertainment. A thinking persons's beach book. And I say that as the highest compliment.
Book review pages are shrinking, book tours are declining, readers are inured to advertising and distracted by new forms of entertainment. But you know what? I don't think any of that matters all that much. Let me tell you why.
Notice that all the traditional means of book marketing enumerated above are about positioning the book as a generic. That is, they're about selling a book to people who like books. Okay as far as it goes, but differentiation is what really sells a product. Yes, when you last bought a car, presumably you needed a car, but no one sold you a car—they sold you a Honda (or whatever). When you ran out of toothpaste, you didn't go the drugstore to buy new toothpaste—you went to buy Colgate, or Crest, etc. You get the idea: whether the difference is real or something implanted in your mind by someone clever on Madison Avenue, differentiation (a key aspect of branding) is what sells products.
How does this relate to books?
Like this. Stop wondering about who will want to buy your book, and start asking about who will want to buy what's in the book.
My first novel, Rain Fall, had a number of sellable elements, or hooks. The three that were most specific to the story were what I came to call the Three J's: judo, jazz, and Japan. I identified media that would be interested in these hooks, and Putnam, my publisher at the time, and I set about contacting them. More on how to do so below.
Ballantine and I went through a similar exercise for my latest novel, Inside Out. The book is exceptionally political and timely: the torture tapes the CIA claims it created but then destroyed; Guantanamo, ghost detainees, and the steady erosion of Constitutional liberties; DADT and the costs it imposes on gay Americans and national security; the corrupt government/media/corporate nexus one of my characters calls "the oligarchy"… obviously, we had a lot of hooks with which to promote the book. Here's what we did with them.
Any good campaign—management, military, marketing, you name it—will begin with a concrete objective, and work backward from there. Our objective for Inside Out was mass media exposure. We reasoned that if we could get the book featured on big Internet, radio, and television shows, sales would follow. Maybe the novel isn't quite right for Oprah (although actually, it is… Oprah, it's a thriller with a conscience!), but it would be perfect for political programs like AntiWar Radio, GRITtv, The Young Turks, and many others. The challenge would be getting these shows to break their usual pattern of programming and agree to interview a novelist. But how?
I imagined the producers of these shows being inundated with pitches: boxes and boxes of advance reading copies; reams of press releases and publisher pleas; a dumpster within tossing distance from the producer's desk overflowing with all of it. I knew we needed something that would create an instant "holy shit!" moment in the producer's mind, a pause of pleasant surprise that would interrupt the reflex to toss a pitch about a novel into that overflowing dumpster. We would also need (and I knew we had) a compelling overall story about the novel, but if we couldn't find a way to get that producer to pause for a moment and take a closer look at the package, our compelling story would never get read.
I'm a political blogger and major news junkie, so I started by approaching a few writers whose work I closely follow: Glenn Greenwald of Salon, Scott Horton of Harper's, Dahlia Lithwick of Slate, and several others. I also contacted author Bob Baer, a fellow CIA alumnus. I told them how topical Inside Out is, and how their writing and reporting had influenced it (Scott even has a character named after him, as do many other bloggers I admire). And I asked… would you be kind enough to give it a read with an eye toward a blurb? They graciously agreed, along with, eventually, an amazing constellation of bloggers and journalists; ex-spooks and soldiers; attorneys and professors; filmmakers and prominent businesspeople; and human rights and civil liberties organizations. It was hugely gratifying to see how these people understood what I was trying to do with Inside Out: entertain, yes, but to set that entertainment within a real, and politically relevant, context.
When the ARC went into production, the book had actually received more praise than we could fit on the front and back covers, and we had to include an extra page inside. I started bringing copies to conferences on human rights, civil liberties, and journalistic integrity, and handing them out to key opinion makers. I created a list of about 200 further activists and bloggers involved in the various areas the book touches on and mailed each of them a letter and signed copy. The response was terrific, in part because of the novelty of these people and organizations being approached by a novelist. All of which became part of the story we pitched to the mass media programs that were our primary goal: reality-based thriller writer and progressive media working together for the good of both—and of the country!
At the same time, I wrote a front page Huff Post piece called Torture Tales detailing the right's effective cross-promotion of torture through "conservative porn" fiction—and challenging progressives to do the same with reality-based fiction like mine. And I practiced what I preached, using my platform as a novelist and tools like Facebook, Twitter, and my blog The Heart of the Matter to introduce my readers to the work of progressive bloggers, human rights organizations, media watchdogs, and political campaigns. Many of them noticed, and began to respond in kind.
So here's what it's all led to so far: I've done interviews with AntiWar Radio, GRITtv, VoiceAmerica, and will be on The Young Turks at 5:00 PM California time today, with many more progressive shows coming up; my blog is now syndicated with CHUD, The Huffington Post, MichaelMoore.com, The Smirking Chimp, and Truthout; I've written a piece for The Nation called Torture Talisman, Torture Taboo; FireDogLake has invited me to do a book salon and Talking Points Memo, a book club. Not a bad start—but there's more.
As part of the book tour, I'm doing a big event with Truthout tonight in Los Angeles, with AlterNet at the kickoff signing at Kepler's in the Bay Area tomorrow, with Firedoglake in DC, and with Truthout and GRITtv in New York. I'm donating five dollars for each copy of Inside Out sold at the events to these organizations; in exchange, the organizations are putting up banner ads on their home pages, Facebook pages, and are promoting the events through Twitter and direct mail campaigns. This is much more than can ordinarily be achieved in a traditional banner ad advertising campaign: the organizations are motivated because the more books we sell, the more money we raise, and whatever the campaign costs me, it's tied directly to the number of books we sell. So the campaign isn't about exchanging existing value in the form of dollars for advertising space; rather, it's about creating value, by cross-promoting one another to our respective audiences. At a minimum, we'll raise money for organizations I want to support, and with just a little luck, the model will be successful enough to inspire other novelists and progressive organizations to imitate it. With a little more luck, the Colberts, Maddows, Mahrs, Olbermanns and Stewarts of the world will get involved, too, and Beck, Hannity, and Limbaugh will face increasingly formidable competition in their efforts to promote ideology through fiction.
Now, obviously not every book will have the same "hooks," political or otherwise, as Inside Out. But that's not the point: the point is, it pays to identify the hooks in your book, whatever they are, to find media and other amplifiers likely to be interested in those hooks, and to find a way to partner with those amplifiers. How to find your amplifiers? Googling keywords is a good start; so is a visit to the magazine section of a big bookstore (if you've written a reality-based thriller, of course, by all means, take advantage of my blogroll). And once you've identified who might be inclined to help you, how do you recruit them to your cause? This one is as easy as it is rare: don't worry about what they can do for you. Figure out what you can do for them, and start doing it. Most of the time, they'll wind up supporting you right back—and thus are born great partnerships, and innovative, differentiated marketing campaigns.
Thanks as always, MJ, for giving me a space to share these thoughts. And looking forward to learning from the responses of BBH's readers as always, too.