Written by
Hope Edelman
September 2009
Written by
Hope Edelman
September 2009

Finding the Back-Door Approach What’s an author to do when her book attracts barely any media attention at all? Well, if you’re me, first you sit around for a while trying to second-guess what’s going on. At first, I was convinced that a book released in April, The Horse Boy, had co-opted my parents-take-troubled-child-to-shaman-in-exotic-country angle in the ever-dwindling media slots for authors. Admittedly, it’s a huge disappointment to have worked on a book for six years, only to have someone else’s similar story come out just six months before mine. And The Horse Boy got a ton of media attention. By the time my book was finished and ready to be pitched, there was decidedly a “done that already” attitude in the air. But that’s not the real problem, I’ve begun to realize. Timing is also a major factor. My release date of September 15 is the same as the release of Dan Brown’s new novel, The Lost Symbol. It’s also positioned directly in between Lorrie Moore’s first book in 11 years and Audrey Niffenegger’s eagerly awaited new novel. Plus: Oprah is announcing her first book pick in a year on September 18. For any other books coming out in September that adds up to a really large Oy Vey. My editor says these simultaneously book releases are a good thing, since they’ll drive foot traffic into bookstores. This may well be true. But what it also means is that the vast majority of national (and even local) review, feature, and interview space for September was long ago allocated to books that are expected to sell, right out of the chute, way more copies than mine. Again, if you’re me, you might spend a couple of days moping about how unjust and inequitable this is—an exercise that pretty quickly became a go-nowhere depressathon of zero productivity. Then I started thinking—because as an author today, you absolutely have to—okay, what’s my alternate approach going to be? If I can’t get any coverage via traditional routes, what else can I try? Well, there’s always the possibility of thinking small and local. The first three chapters of my book are set in Topanga Canyon, California, and my local newspaper here was happy to review the book. I live in a small community of about 12,000 people, yes, but arguably they’re more motivated to buy a book literally set in their own backyard than other readers might be. Also, the scene that opens Chapter Two is set in Pacific Palisades, so we pitched to their local newspaper, too. And Iowa City is mentioned in flashback a few times, plus I’m doing a reading there in late October, so we sent a book to the local newspaper there as well. "We" refers to myself and the two part-time assistants I hired a few months ago through Craigslist to help me with grassroots marketing and publicity. And they are amazing, amazing! None of this could be unfolding without them. We’ve given ourselves a crash course in niche marketing this past summer, that’s for sure. By dividing the book into many smaller market segments, we’ve been able to pitch it to groups as specialized as sites for women’s memoirs, blogs for Caribbean travel, and holistic parenting organizations. These web sites and blogs aren’t being inundated with requests to interview Dan Brown and Audrey Niffenegger, thank god, and they tend to be receptive to learning about books that are likely to appeal to their readers and members. So we’re operating under the “small + small + small + small + small + small=medium (we hope)” philosophy to disseminate news about the book. But mostly, I’ve been thinking a lot about the back door approach, as in, If major media outlets aren’t interested in the writing about the book directly, what kind of story exists around the book that they might want to cover? One is the alternative house-salon tour I’m putting together for October in lieu of regular bookstore appearances. Is an author trying to reimagine the book-tour process considered a newsworthy story? What if she’s doing it in conjunction with a new web site for women authors, in the hope of creating a circuit that other members of the site can follow afterward, because both she and the founders of the web site know firsthand how much it’s needed? If she was once the teacher of one of the founders (and author in her own right) of that web site, does that add another interesting twist? Ten years ago Kamy Wicoff took her first creative nonfiction writing course at UCLA Extension, which was only the second class I taught after moving to LA, and truth be told, I didn’t know what the hell I was doing yet as a teacher. But Kamy and I became friends, and supported each other as writers all the years through her graduate work, her first book, and my last two. And we recently realized that our friend Monica Holloway, another SheWrites member and bang-up author herself whose second memoir, Cowboy & Wills, is coming out in October, was also in that class. So from one UCLA course has sprung three launches this fall, from three women and mothers who’ve been friends and cheerleaders for each others' work for the past ten years. Will anyone want to write about this? I sure don’t know. But we’ll find out soon. Admittedly, It feels more than a little uncomfortable to be thinking about how a memoir can generate a story, since for me the artistic beauty of memoir involves the author’s attempt to extract the story from real-life events. I’ve always been wary of memoirs where the author sets off to have an experience with contract in hand instead of letting the story unfold organically, on its own, and then going back later to sift through memory and experience in a process of literary alchemy to create the text. This new marketing approach has a tinge of egregious commercialism, to me. But in an environment where the agent of production also has to be—at least at the moment—the agent of publicity, I’m not sure I can afford to be such a purist any more. It’s a whole new world now, where even the most distant spots on the horizon can have more influence on sales than one might initially think. May we all invest in really good sets of binoculars.

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  • Nina Weber

    I did not work in the PR department, but in the editorial department that shared the floor with them. So we got their input on the titles we worked on - and since we shared the office, you got some "tutorials" during lunch or while sharing a coffee.
    It was just something that stuck in my mind - how as editor/project manager, all of your work concentrates on the months leading up to the publication. And then there is this sort of hole that the title falls into, before the efforts of the PR team (and the authors) start taking effect.
    The PR team kept preaching to us (fretting editors) that an early review is much much worse than a belated one. They had to start their work for a book so early, because print media is sluggish and it sometimes takes months before a book is reviewed. But starting press work early always brought the danger of a good publication reviewing a book before publication. The colleagues from PR claimed (don't know if it's true) that people very rarely jot down a note for a book they like and then still go after it after their bookseller (or Amazon) told them it's not printed yet. So, they said, it was like tightrope walk - if you start the PR work close to the publication date, people can actually buy the book when they read the review. But it means that months can go by without any printed review. It is difficult not to loose heart and also faith in a book during that time.

  • Christina Baker Kline

    Hope, I love what you're doing here. My novel came out nearly a month ago, and I'm amazed at the amount of feedback and attention it's getting on the web ... and dismayed at the lack of print reviews. (It was reviewed by all the big pre-pub places except Kirkus, but has only gotten a few print reviews since then - the promised big People review was killed at the last minute, alas.) I'm heartened by Nina Weber's comment below ... and also by the increasing momentum and enthusiam of online reviewers/readers. And I'm doing a lot online, from my blog to guest blogs to Twitter. Who knows? I look forward to learning and discussing more at the Oct. 1 salon!

  • Hope Edelman

    Good question, Nina. My experience has always been that sales figures during the first few weeks out of the gate are important for generating excitement at the publishing house, and drumming up media interest that might not have been there beforehand. Also, my tour is linked to the pub date so the majority of my prep activity will be coming to fruition at that time. Granted, in this economy hardcover sales are not what they used to be, and book clubs are more likely to buy in we're now seeing some books (e.g. Eat, Pray, Love) sell moderately in hardcover and then extremely well in paperback. I'd love to hear more about your experience on the PR side, since you'll definitely have the kind of insider's perspective that those of us on the writing side are always eager to hear.

  • Nina Weber

    Thank you so much for the post and the series - it is very interesting and gives me food for thought every time.
    Maybe it's a silly question, but I wondered why you are so dependent on the date of publication for the book.
    I know that in some cases it's a question of "What? How long ago was this published? We are not bringing anything on it." but that's more true for fiction or nonfiction that is clearly dated in some way.
    At the big publishing house where I worked, the PR department pitched early, but the reviews and also requests for more info trickled in very very slowly. The media did not care so much about the publication date for books that were not from the likes of Dan Brown. Sure, if he publishes something, and your magazine is the last to do a review or interview, it looks kind of silly. But for other books, most people besides the authors don't even *know* the publication date.

  • Gabrielle Burton

    Caroline See's wonderful book, Making a Literary Life, has a chapter on marketing that is great and still relevant.

  • Rebecca Coffey

    Wonderfully informative, Hope. Thanks for posting this. I'm saving it to my hard drive for when I need to think through these problems as well as you have.

  • Hope Edelman

    So--six hours after I posted this blog I received word that the LA Times would like to do a Writing Life interview with me--the first media interview for the book. Which makes me wonder if you all are a good luck talisman. Or secret genies. Does one only need to state a wish on She Writes for it to start being granted? Could be a very, very interesting social experiment to try...
    What this does tell me is that some media outlets may be waiting until closer to a book publication's date to plan and commit. In the past, interviews even on short-lead publications were often scheduled a month or two in advance. Now requests are starting to come through only two weeks out. Interesting.

  • Eileen Flanagan

    I hadn't even realized that my book was coming out two days after Dan Brown's, which shows that you are at least aware of the forces at work, which is the first step in figuring out how to position yourself.

    Still, I've had similar thoughts. Going with many local angles, such at pitching the small town newspaper where my grandparents worked for decades, and focusing on spiritual websites, rather than hanging my hopes on a NYT review. Good luck to all of us! I for one am looking forward to reading your book as a former Peace Corps volunteer who dreams of bringing her kids to Africa and writing about it.

  • Jennifer New

    So well put, Hope. I loved your comment the other day that you'd like to wake up five years from now when publishing has figured itself out. Amen to that!

  • Hope Edelman

    Thanks, Julie--that's a really interesting idea. I'm also thinking about how we'd be great participants on the same panel somewhere. I'd love to come through TN on a reading tour at some point, especially since I once lived in Knoxville for three years. Maybe for the paperback.

  • Julie Jeffs

    I feel like I am asking a stupid question but that wouldn't be anything new for me so here goes ... can you approach it from one, the angle that the publishing/marketing business has changed and how an author such as yourself gets kind of caught up in the machine or two ... maybe you do the work that at one time a book reviewer might do but now doesn't .... do your own type of review of your book as a comparison to the one already published to be able to show how different they actually are, maybe generate interest in people who might have originally thought it was just another one and thought been there, read that.

    I will follow with great interest and keep hoping for the best for you, you sold one here! If you ever are in Nashville there is a large group of writers (unfortunately not that many yet on SheWrites),and possibly a great audience for a reading and maybe a discussion of the process much like your blog has been.

    Best of luck.

  • Wendy Babiak

    Good luck, Hope! I've got a book of poems coming out in a few (or several) months, and I've been pondering some of these same thoughts (re: pure writing vs. marketing). I think you're approach is a great compromise, and I look forward to watching this aspect of the drama unfold.