How not to get left on the shelf

Just penning a book isn't enough - academic authors want people to buy it and read it. Promotion is the publisher's domain, of course, but Dale Salwak is convinced that writers can make a big difference by taking an active role in spreading the word

August 4, 2011

Credit: Paul Bateman

Three years ago to help my publishers promote my new book, I emailed a message to 400 influential members of a projected core audience. Many responded with a thank-you, a congratulatory note and a promise to look into it.

One, however, asked me to remove his name from my contact list. "If your book is worthy of merit, it will get noticed," he said. "Pushing it this way robs you of authority and dignity."

Although my decision to contact him was certainly well intended, and although I believe there is nothing inherently unethical or unsavoury about self-promotion, I agreed to do as he asked and added: "There will be no more intrusions."

On the one hand, I can understand his objection. All of us are bombarded daily with an ever-growing deluge of unsolicited emails, text messages, mobile phone calls, video streams and blinking banners that threaten our ability to concentrate and contemplate, distract us from our own work and undermine our sense that we have any privacy.

On the other hand, I wish that my correspondent's assertion that a good book will draw attention to itself solely on its own merits were correct. Unfortunately, with rare exceptions, the world doesn't work that way. The reality is that many very fine books go quite unnoticed, despite the high quality of what lies between their covers. The reality is that, without a concerted and active programme of promotion in today's marketplace, even the best book can sink like a stone.

Part of the problem is that too many of us writers are chasing too few readers. The challenges are especially keen for academics like me, who are writing biographies, literary studies and educational books aimed at a specialised audience of students, teachers and opinion-makers who buy books for study, examination, writing and research.

The book-buying budgets of universities and the professoriate have spiralled downwards since the late 1980s, and in the global economic crisis of the past couple of years, the public at large has found itself with less discretionary income to spend on what might be considered "non-essential" items.

In addition, this financially pressed reading public is not nearly so well defined, so easy to get at or so motivated to buy books as it was, say, 40 years ago. And given the endlessly diverting electronic advances of our visual and aural culture, competition for people's attention is constantly broadening as we try to sell books in the midst of such formidable rivals for the public's leisure time and spending power.

Moreover, each season most reputable publishers have many books, not just one, to sell. They must take calculated risks on which ones to promote most vigorously and what kind of financial and staff investment that promotion will require. Many of these decisions are based on sales and marketing data, the ability of individual editors to "sell" their projects in-house, last year's list, next year's list, an author's reputation and myriad other vagaries that can push even a beautifully written opus to the far end of the promotion queue. With finite resources, publishers can send out review copies, advertise (never a guaranteed method of enhancing a book's sales) and energetically market some books on their list, but probably not all.

More and more it falls to authors to help make things happen; if we hope to expand our audience we need to suggest ideas, angles and potential markets that the publisher may not have considered. Given the volatility and other unpleasant realities of the business - including competition for attention from more than 200,000 new books released annually in the US alone - my publishers (for whom I have a personal affection) taught me long ago that the most influential individual in the marketing process continues to be the author.

This may seem somehow antithetical to some readers and writers. Like most academics, I am by nature solitary. Hours spent networking, handling emails, contacting book buyers, giving interviews, attending book signings, maintaining a website and telephoning are hours spent not thinking or reading or writing. I would like nothing better than to hand the manuscript to my publisher, devote my time and energy to a new project, and trust that the resulting book will reach its intended readers.

But if that's all I did, there's a good chance in the current market that not many people will read the fruits of all that solitary labour, and that's an outcome no author wishes for. Indeed, every serious writer I have ever met has acknowledged that keeping his or her work alive is just as much a problem of supporting its reception as of producing it in the first place.

And so, long ago, I resigned myself to taking an active role in marketing and promotion. There have been no miracles. The work is hard but deeply formative. I have learned a great deal about the publisher's perspective, about what sells and what doesn't (and why) and about changes in habits of the reading public. I have learned to stop writing for my former professors, to dispense with jargon, to embrace my own vulnerabilities, to be genuine, and always, always to keep my intended audience in mind.

From my experience three classic secrets of successful promotion stand out: what sells a book is getting it talked about; to get a book talked about, the author must do anything and everything to help the publishers sell it; and authors need always to be as professional about marketing as they are about writing - and that includes developing a high tolerance for rejection.

Some authors are gifted at pushing their products into the limelight; many are not. To some this is a pleasure, to others an ordeal. But rarely have I met anyone who, once the realities are made plain, is reluctant to assist. Lectures and readings sell books. Book signings sell books. Published or broadcast interviews sell books. That's the bottom line.

Success in public relations is also the cumulative impact of many small actions and decisions. If we move a leaf, said Ralph Waldo Emerson, we change the universe. Looking back over my 30 years as a published author, I realise that the distribution and sales of my books have been helped by many seemingly minor promotional activities - not just a single grand one. Those little actions may have seemed inconsequential along the way, but in retrospect turned out to have led to new opportunities.

Thus I decide to attend a writer's workshop where a chance meeting with someone leads to a book signing, which leads to 10 new readers, and then one of those 10 issues an invitation to speak at a literary club.

Or I visit a bookstore, pay my respects to the manager, and talk to the seller who agrees to order my book and put it on display. Later, she remembers my name and face and recommends my book to a potential buyer.

Or I call the editor of a local newspaper who agrees to an interview which, when published, leads to a book awards reception where I introduce myself to others, collect business cards, and follow up with a letter and publicity release about my book.

Everything connects.

Still, I could never focus solely on promotion. During the two to five or more years it takes me to complete a project I am silent, sequestered with my work. Once the book is safely in the publisher's hands, however, I am eager to break out of my self-imposed cocoon and talk about it with anyone. There is great pleasure in feeling that you are contributing to the "launch" of what you've worked so hard on, in attending events where such endeavours are celebrated, in meeting potential readers face to face.

Because I engage in promotion rather judiciously, there's little risk of over-exposure. I would never want to wear out my welcome with booksellers, nor would I want my friends and colleagues hearing from me too often and thinking, "Oh, him again!"

When authors publish a book every year, appear for book signings frequently or send promotional emails to friends and colleagues too often, then indeed they might risk losing authority and dignity. But the occasional push, conversation or outreach can be instrumental in getting your books read and recognised, which is what allows you to accrue that authority and dignity in the first place.

Early on, I'm sure I rattled a few windows with my lack of experience - but that's the risk we take. Inevitably, not everyone is enamoured by the idea of academics promoting their own work. If such authors are busy with all these peripheral, post-publication activities, so the thinking might go, how can they have enough time for class preparations, research, committees and attending to all the other demands of an academic position?

The answer is, we make the time. If we postpone until we are secure, our work will never begin. If we wait until a suitable moment, that moment will never come. If we delay a task until conditions are favourable, favourable conditions will never arise. I have learned to balance my campus responsibilities with my own need to get out there, talk about ideas and perhaps sell a few books at the same time.

Although some might see this as crassly commercial, that isn't my intention. What drives me is not the prospect of fattening a royalty cheque, but the desire to instil knowledge and a sense of critical enquiry among students and those who teach them. That's why many of us have become, unapologetically, tireless advocates of our own books.

Most authors write to be read. We write to find our way into ongoing dialogues about issues that are important to us. We want to connect with people who have similar interests. We don't want our work to languish on a back shelf. Those are the words that ring loudest in my ears.

Brought to book: when self-promotion ends badly

A story that broke on to the pages of the national press last year offers a salutary lesson in the perils of self-promotion when it is taken too far.

Orlando Figes, professor of history at Birkbeck, University of London, saw his attempts to sweeten profiles of his books on the shopping website Amazon backfire spectacularly.

The acclaimed author of A People's Tragedy: The Russian Revolution 1891-1924 and The Whisperers: Private Life in Stalin's Russia posted several anonymous reviews praising his own books on the website, and also savaged publications by authors including fellow historians Rachel Polonsky and Robert Service.

Using the pseudonyms "historian" and "orlando-birkbeck", Figes rejoiced at his own "superb storytelling skills" and even said: "I hope he writes forever."

Meanwhile, Polonsky's book Molotov's Magic Lantern was dismissed as "dense" and "pretentious" and Service's Comrades! A History of World Communism as "awful".

When the two challenged Figes, he issued legal threats against the pair and against newspapers that suggested he might have written the reviews.

His lawyer David Price also denied that he was the author, demanded a "corrective publication" and said his client would be "entitled to damages".

Hours later, Price issued a new statement saying that Figes' wife Stephanie Palmer, lecturer in law at the University of Cambridge, had written the reviews and had only just told her husband.

Days later, however, Figes came clean and admitted that he was the author. He blamed "health issues".

In a statement released in April last year, he admitted "full responsibility" for the posts, saying he had been under "intense pressure".

"I have made some foolish errors and apologise wholeheartedly to all concerned.

"Some of the reviews were small-minded and ungenerous, but they were not intended to harm."

He described a state of panic when faced with legal action, which made him instruct his lawyer "without thinking this through rationally".

"This escalated the situation and brought more pressure on myself by prompting a legal response.

"My wife loyally tried to save me and protect our family at a moment of intense stress when she was worried about my health. I owe her an unreserved apology."

He agreed to pay damages and costs to the two academics who had issued libel proceedings against him.

Service said he was "pleased and mightily relieved that this contaminant slime has been exposed to the light and begun to be scrubbed clean".

Figes went on sick leave from Birkbeck temporarily following the incident but returned to work in the autumn.

Register to continue

Why register?

  • Registration is free and only takes a moment
  • Once registered, you can read 3 articles a month
  • Sign up for our newsletter
Please Login or Register to read this article.