New writer identity, new audience, new challenges

(March 1, 2020)

When you’re an academic author, the marketing mechanisms are built into your job: you attend regular professional conferences where you talk to colleagues from all over about your work; library journals automatically do reviews which can create book sales to many college libraries; other colleagues will review your books for our professional journals; and you can sometimes use your own books in your classroom to boost sales. But when you’re a commercial author (or should I say, non-academic author, since commercial implies sales, which don’t always come easily), things are very different. My first book (Women Stage Directors Speak: Exploring the Influence of Gender on their Work, McFarland, 1996) practically sold itself, and because no similar studies have been carried out in the nearly 25 years since its initial publication, the book remains in print. During my teaching years, I was often making presentations at national or even international conferences about issues facing women directors in live theatre, and people who had seen my conference presentations often approached me to ask me to write or speak more on the same topic, which fed the book’s sales numbers.

Because marketing the first book had been so effortless on my part, I was very naïve about marketing my second book (Keeping the Lights on for Ike: Daily Life of a Utilities Engineer at AFHQ in Europe During WWII; or, What to Say in Letters Home When You’re Not Allowed to Write about the War, Sunbury Press, 2019). I had been an administrator in the latter years of my academic career, which left me with little time for my own work, and a book so far out of my disciplinary specialty had to wait until my retirement for its completion and publication. This second book had absolutely nothing to do with my professional discipline and everything to do with my family history. But then came the great awakening: the new book wouldn’t get read automatically like my first one had, not without lots of effort on my part in getting the word out. Further, for the first eight months after the book was published, I was up to my eyeballs with volunteer work, most of it at a small professional theatre in my local area, so it wasn’t until I stepped away from that situation and turned my full attention to my own concerns that I became aware of just what a big task marketing a new book was going to be. And marketing is very important because what good is a book if no one is reading it?

My publisher (Sunbury Press, Boiling Springs, PA) is a small company with big ambitions, but they don’t have a huge marketing operation like some of the major publishers do. They send out announcements about their offerings from time to time, and they use targeted marking lists for these announcements to make them effective, but they also rely on their authors to help sell their own books, which is the least we can do, given how well they support us in the final editing and production process of getting the book to print. But it’s all quite new to me. My new book is in the publisher’s and their distributor’s catalog of new works, but there’s no automatic market for the book like there had been the first time around, even though it’s possible this book will eventually appeal to a larger market than the more specialized work did. Further, I discovered when I approached some of the local bookshops in my community asking them to carry my book, that small booksellers were happy to order books if people asked for them by name. However, if I wanted my books on the shelves of these stores, where folks who were simply browsing could come across them serendipitously, I had to provide them myself. This was because there was a significant re-stocking penalty the stores had to pay if the books they ordered didn’t sell and had to be returned to the distributor, so it was hard for independent booksellers to take chances on unproven authors and new titles. Thus began my relationship with consignment bookselling, which required that I purchase copies of my own book (at a discounted author price) and make agreements with each bookstore in turn regarding the financial arrangements when and if the books were sold. Though I had some publicity cards for the book, most small bookstores didn’t have display room for them, even if they were willing to put a couple of copies of my book on their shelves. I was also on my own to arrange author events at various locations in my local area.

I’m a theatre person by training, and as a teacher for many years, public speaking comes easily for me (most of the time), so appearing at the events themselves is not the hardest part of book promotion. The interesting new challenges have been these: 1) making an author’s website (needed lots of help with this one); 2) creating a “fan list” (who knew one would be needed?) for occasional email newsletters; 3) getting organized to book the gigs that will allow me to talk about and get people interested in my book because I can no longer rely on professional conferences for those opportunities; and 4) creating this blog for those same purposes. At the heart of these new challenges is the fact that, as my identity as a writer is changing, so is my audience. I’m going from a specialized audience, one that I knew well, to a much more general audience, one that I’m still getting acquainted with. This blog, and the conversations it generates, will be one piece of that process of getting acquainted.

Next time I post, I’ll start sharing the story of how Keeping the Lights on for Ike came to life over a period of more than a decade since the source materials (letters, slides, scrapbooks, stories, and other memorabilia) came into my possession in the fall of 2006. Look for it in mid-March.

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