Authors Gone Wild: The Crazy Business of Selling a Book


by Lev Raphael

As the publishing word goes through a revolution, publishers increasingly expect their authors to be relentless. It’s not enough anymore to send yourself on a book tour and maintain a website, produce print and email newsletters, go to conferences and book fairs.

You also have to have a presence on Facebook (author page and personal page), YouTube, GoodReads, Twitter and Tumblr. You need to do Skype video interviews and talks with book groups. You need to do a blog tour. You need to produce your own unique and unforgettable book trailers.

Traditional publishers seem desperate, and scared of authors going it alone. I don’t know what’s next, but I’m surprised the big guys in New York haven’t gone for a Real World episode featuring what’s left of the mid list authors. Forget about eating bugs.  How about eating your own words? And how about a cage match with the latest macho memoirists? Or “The Real Authors of Jersey Shore”?

The real truth is that writing is—and always has been a business.  A big business.  But when traditional publishing was the norm, that part of it was mostly shielded from the author, kind of like seeing your parents having sex.  Now that self-publishing is moving to the fore, it’s out there for everyone to see: the business counts as much as the art.  For indies authors—who don’t get the advances and the support (such they are), of a traditional publisher, its even more critical.  If you don’t know—or learn how—to sell your art, you’re sunk.

Pitching myself and my work wasn’t exactly what I expected when I left academia to start writing full-time. As Auden almost put it, I leapt before I looked. I didn’t know if I could flourish as an author, but I had to try. I was tired of publishing just a few stories a year—I needed to do more, and I needed serious time to do it in. Summer vacations just weren’t enough.

Within two years, I had my first book out and so the risk paid off.  And I paid out, spending thousands on a two-year book tour that took me from the East Coast to the West Coast, with plenty of stops in the Midwest. I got myself, my name, and my book’s title out there. I learned the public side of my craft the hard way. I learned how demanding promotion was, but more than that, how much work was involved in doing an organized, entertaining talk and reading that sold my book and sold me, too. My partner came with me for parts of it and I got director’s notes on each reading. I’d been a double major in theater and English in college, so I welcomed the intimate feedback that helped me hone my performances.

Because that’s what they were. Reading is a private event; doing a reading is a public one. A written text has to be massaged, played with, put across in a completely different way when it’s read aloud. And even when I wasn’t reading, I was on stage, from the moment I got picked up at the airport, through dinner, at the signing, and afterwards over drinks. It can be exhausting and I understand how friends of mine on tour have gotten ill or depressed and even had crying jags.

I spend a lot of time helping promote my work, whether traditionally published or eBook originals. That involves what seems like endless research and emailing. It’s not romantic or exciting, it’s not even about the work itself, it’s all about PR. I’m not alone in this effort, and have known people on The New York Times best seller list personally work hard to get interviews, reviews and coverage. The business side of a writer’s life can’t be ignored, but with the right attitude, you can enjoy it. And it leads you to unexpected destinations. If I hadn’t promoted my book My Germany so heavily to German cultural institutes in the U.S., I wouldn’t have spoken to a full house at the Goethe Institute in Washington, D.C. Someone on the staff there was transferred to the embassy in Berlin where she talked me up, and I’ve now done two different two-week German book tours thanks to that contact.

In some corners of academia, however, I’ve encountered contempt for this kind of crucial management of your own career, and so have many writer friends of mine. We’ve met professors and writing professors who say things like, “I marvel at your ability to keep promoting yourself.”

It’s clearly not a compliment, and it’s the kind of thing that academic-based writers are more likely to say than someone who appreciates the hard work working authors have to do.  And I recently heard one academic writer express disbelief and chagrin that someone actually assumed she had published her latest novel herself.

Academic writers like these have their own tight networks of summer workshops and conferences to which they invite their friends. They have a head start at prizes, fellowships and residencies. Some even have their own little bailiwicks—a journal, a conference, a summer workshop—that other writers grovel to be part of. They act like John Cleese’s French character taunting King Arthur in Monty Python and the Holy Grail. They look down their noses at us working authors and seem to think we’re trapped, that promoting ourselves is somehow menial and degrading.

Perhaps because they don’t have the balls or the skills to take the promotion side of writing as seriously as the writing itself. But to get literary about it, does any author really want to be like Tomas Gray’s flower “born to blush unseen,/And waste its sweetness on the desert air?” I doubt it.

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Lev Raphael is the author of the novel Rosedale in Love and twenty-one other books in genres from mystery to memoir. Raphael is best known as a pioneer in writing fiction and creative non-fiction about the children of Holocaust survivors, which he’s been publishing since 1978. His books have been translated into a dozen languages and he’s done hundreds of invited talks and readings on three continents. His work has appeared in dozens of anthologies in the U.S. and England.

Raphael’s academic mystery series has earned raves from the NYTBR and many other newspapers and magazines and he has been the keynoter at international conferences. Raphael has written hundreds of reviews and essays for The Detroit Free Press, Jerusalem Report, Forward, The Washington Post, The Ft. Worth Star-Telegram, Boston Review and Lambda Book Report. A former radio talk show host, he currently reviews for WKAR 90.5 FM in East Lansing, MI and writes the Book Brunch column for Bibliobuffet.com. Raphael’s web site is http://www.levraphael.com. Follow him on Twitter @LevRaphael.

9 replies
  1. avatar
    JL Oakley says:

    So true. I’ve been working my tail off promoting my novel, but I’m having a good time and am pleased with each success, winning an award, getting a great review in PW Select. I’ve given talks at libraries, museums and bookstores and I’ve had to learn how to choose the right reading for the right audience. Best of luck for your novels.

    (Oh, I see you are in Lansing. My grandmother lived there long ago. I went to Kalamazoo College for undergrad)

    Reply
    • avatar
      Lev Raphael says:

      Bravo! And keep cultivating non-traditional markets. For my memoir/travelogue “My Germany,” I’ve done about 60 readings and talks, almost all of them outside the bookstore world, which is super-saturated with authors. I’ve had great audiences, traveled far, and earned handsome speaker’s fees.

      Reply
  2. avatar
    Margaret Koch says:

    Great piece, Lev. Absolutely spot on. And I sure am glad that ebooks are immortal, because it’s going to take me almost that long to become skilled at promoting my series. Articles like this one are just what I need. I seem to be trying to prove a point — “if you write a book that’s good enough, they will come and find you”. By the time I’ve given up on that stance, I will have wasted a lot of time I don’t have to waste. So thanks. Great piece.

    Reply
    • avatar
      Lev Raphael says:

      Good luck! It takes time for the books to get noticed, but as more and more people switch to tablets and ereaders, our sales are bound to improve. I’ve seen a big jump in just one year for my own sales, and experienced authors say it can take 2-3 years to become established in this way. I don’t mind waiting, because having control of the process and the profits is worth it.

      Reply
  3. avatar
    Anna Rose says:

    Excellent article. I’m sending it off to other writers I know. You make very good points here.

    I still see some pretty nasty criticisms from traditionally published authors who seem to think very little of those of us who self-publish. It got old awhile ago.

    Reply
    • avatar
      Lev Raphael says:

      The snobbery is a new form of the contempt expressed by people who published with big houses when they’d be surprised someone chose an indie publisher. I’ve published with Doubleday and published with Leapfrog and Leapfrog was infinitely better and smarter.

      Reply
      • avatar
        zearl mitchem says:

        I am a new writer to this whole business side of things. Just looking to find a self publishing company that is not trying to give you the run around with your own work! I wrote a childrens book a year ago, and have had copy, and editing problems every since. They tell you if you pay this, or do that we will make sure that your book will end up here. That truth is! Who has an extra few thousand to throw away? I’m really not sure of all the companies out there, but I would really love some help. I really like the artical, and the view points where great. There are alot of names and titles given to us as a fact find or even another way to help others open there eyes to different authors and there work. I really like that. I’m wondering if the complament would be returned for someone like myself if I personally reached out to one of these fellow writers. If someone could please be willing to point someone like myself in the right direction in finding a company that is not looking to only make there name bigger with the promes of a completed book. When even you yourself fully know that there is no way! Anyone, would enjoy something that not even the editor fully understood or even cared about while editing your work.

        Reply
        • avatar
          Lev Raphael says:

          You can self-publish on Amazon or Nook without a company, but before you do, make sure your work is the best you can possibly make it. To start with, I’d recommend joining a writers’ group and/or signing up for writing workshops.

          Reply

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