Friday, March 8, 2013

How to Succeed in the Book Business While Really Really Trying

Every now and then I get a request from a fledgling (or even successful) author colleague asking for tips on the book business. To me, that's almost like asking a kid riding a Big Wheel for pointers on competing in the Daytona 500.

They also ask to "pick my brain" which sounds painful. It's not, really. 

But the prerequisite to any such talk is that you read one or several of Dan Poynter's books on self-publishing. It's as useful a handbook as my Wolf Cub Scout books were when I was a kid.

Pretty much everything you need to know is in Poynter's books, from developing a book that sells (if that is your goal) to marketing a "difficult" title that may be limited to a subgenre.

By "subgenre," I mean a book that's a genre within a genre, of course.  Take PINS, for example: gay + sports. While my subsequent three books were produced via Print-On-Demand (POD), PINS was done the old-fashioned way.

It's a long involved tale, some of which I'll be explaining within a few brief minutes at an author panel that's part of Word Week. The Noe Valley Book Festival is like a mini-LitQuake. Panels, readings, and a Saturday gathering of many authors selling and signing their books are part of it. It's mostly for Noe Valley area writers, but I got in because I'm nice.

I'll be on a panel Thursday, March 21;  How I Got My Book Published from 7pm to 9pm at the stylish Savor Restaurant, 3913 24th St.

Savor the Literary lessons March 21.
The other panelists include bestselling author Karen Joy Fowler, whose Jane Austen Book Club was adapted into a very sweet film)Thaisa Frank (Enchantment) and Rob Rosen (Divas Las Vegas, Queerwolf and other fun gay comedies).

Our stories range from big agent deals and small press successes to me, Mr. Independent. I'll also be part of the big author fest on Saturday, March 23, 2pm to 5pm, at St. Philip’s Church Hall, 725 Diamond Street.

So, once again, I'm self-promoting on small scale. I'd love to be able to say that I had a big-time agent and am currently posting from my mansion and/or yacht. The truth is, I had a big-time agent who was unable to sell PINS. My second-published yet first-written novel, Monkey Suits, also failed to pass muster.

But that's a good thing, in a way. While PINS was being shopped around, it was only after the 57 rejection letters before, during and after my represented days, that I realized that PINS wasn't finished, and Monkey Suits needed to be set aside.

Faced with seeming eternal obscurity, instead of paying some vanity press, I scraped together enough dough to do it myself; all of it.

Oh, yeah, if you were in media in 1999/2000, you got a press release from a "publicist." But any author worth his page count knows how to make up fake people.

Piles of PINS
The real part was hiring a printer, greeting UPS almost daily when cartons of books arrived (or later, were returned a bit roughed up), learning sole proprietorship tax stuff, gradually sending out press releases and review copies one by one as the clippings grew, and finding my audience.

Fortunately, my main audience – gay men who like wrestling – was easy to find, and thousands strong. Having been a wrestler, knowing the sports community, and demystifying the business with the help of Poynter's book, and helpful marketing newsletters from wholesalers Ingram and Baker & Taylor, eventually paid off. Dealing with the ins and outs of Amazon and other online retailers, oh, and dozens of consignment accounts with bookstores around the country (and a few in Italy, Australia and the U.K.), by mid-2000, PINS was the #1 Gay Fiction title on for several months.

Chicago Book Expo 2000
My subsequent books have yet to approach such success for many reasons, the most being the rift between POD books and retailers. Also, despite gloomy tales of the "death" of publishing, there are more titles in Gay Fiction than ever before. Sure, a lot of them are crap, but someone's buying them, so I'm not complaining.

But the oddest and most amusing aspect of the whole enterprise was the conventions. In summer 2000, I trekked to Chicago for the annual American Booksellers Association mega-gathering.

Fairies and cupcakes and PINS, oh my.

Like any trade show, the ABA includes all the biggies in the industry. The major publishers showcase entire shelves of their new and back catalog titles. They set up elaborate booths with tables, chairs, coffee machines and swag galore. The Scientologists had an entire wing, and were doling out free champagne as their deceptively innocuous Kool-Aid.

For a few hundred dollars, I got a table on Small Press Row, sandwiched in between a woman selling handmade holiday cupcake recipe books, and a children's author who dressed like an aging fairy godmother.

I had a big poster made of the PINS book cover, with a few select blurbs and exclamatory adjectives.

Michael, a sweet fellow whom I was connected to via a newspaper colleague, helped me assemble and hold down the fort in the 'back of the hall ghetto' (despite having a broken foot and using crutches!). 

Mike and me and my "ghetto" booth
We frequently traded off, so one of us could wander the aisles and collect swag –free books, brochures and the occasional tiny plush toy– or line up for an autographed copy of Julie Andrews' then-new book.

The big celebs basically sat along a row of tables as fans lined up in corralled queues. Cooking gurus prepped and shared food, music was performed. 

Cool cats at Book Expo
But mostly, I stood at my table, offering a free book for a retailer, or selling one to those who were polite enough to offer payment. I didn't have any gimmicks or run around in a singlet or headgear.

Possibly 500 PINS promo cards with ISBN and wholesale info were doled out. While it was exhausting and I wondered if it had all been worth it, over the next few months, the orders did increase, including several from universities who added PINS to literature course reading lists, including my alma mater, Ohio State University.

Near the end of the trade show, whatever wasn't sold or doled, combined with the many pounds of sample books and catalogs were collected, weighed, and boxed, with shipping paid to the convention's staff.

That same weekend I attended the annual Lambda Literary Foundation's Lammy awards, which used to be timed with the ABA.

At the time, despite PINS' sales, the book was not eligible for a nomination, because it was self-published. Nevertheless, an old college pal, Lydia Stux, had penned Imagine That, a touching memoir about a friend who had died of AIDS, so I attended as her guest. 

To prove my point, and continue standard industry PR (with a bit of resentful in-your-face promotion), I created and submitted a half-page awards program ad that extolled the virtues of PINS

Since then, Lambda Lit has expanded their submission requirements, and several new categories fulfill the purpose of the organization, to promote LGBT books. Just this week, editor Karen Schechner posted a Q&A with indie author John Waldron, and comments on the rise of self-published authors.

I also attended a Lambda Lit Awards ceremony in Los Angeles one year in the early 1990s, stopped by the ABA, but did not rent a booth. I had timed a reading at the then-solvent A Different Light bookstore in West Hollywood.  

Bo Huston
I remember driving from LA proper to Anaheim, where the ABA-adjacent Lammies were held, in a red rented convertible with Bo Huston. He was nominated, I think, and sadly died the next year. Bo was one of many authors at the time who were kind and patient with me, despite my having more ambition than talent. 

One of the folks who sat at our table and won that night was Douglas Crimp, whose ACT UP-themed art book documented Gran Fury and others who made the AIDS activism movement such a compelling visual community. While I was overdressed in a jacket and tie, he was cool and calm in a classic T-shirt and jeans.

What's ironic is that all these years later, Every Time I Think of You was probably the easiest book to write and produce. And it won a friggin' award! Yeah, I'm still happy about that. And I'm happy for all this year's finalists, who should be happy for themselves.

I could have done more to promote my recent books, and will endeavor to do more when the next one's out. But I don't have the time or money to travel the country, visiting every bookstore that remains. I admire my colleagues who do this. 

These days, I attend fewer book fairs and conventions, because I have a full-time job, and in a way, I'm not as hungry or ambitious. The need to garner a crowd at, say, a Portland cafe/bookstore/macrame shoppe isn't high on my agenda. And I sure as heck don't want to hang around a massive convention hall to be reminded of my tiny place in the industry.

So it's a great relief that for Word Week, all I need do is hop on a Muni train and hang out with authors and readers of all stripes. No airports, no rental cars, no disappointment when the bookstore forgot to promote my event.

I'm not eager to gather wisdom and info about the mystical world of publishing, because I stepped behind the Oz-ian curtain and realized that while this long journey may make me feel like Dorothy, I'm really my own Wizard.

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