What I Wish I’d Known

…When I Published My First Book, Part 2

As I promised last month, I’m back with part 2 of the list of things I wish I’d known before publishing my first book.

But before I dive in, a little housekeeping: I’m moving this blog to a once-per-month format, partly because I don’t see how you could tolerate my holding forth more often than that, given the fact that I’m now a regular columnist for The Butter. (Like how casually I said that? That I’m now a Regular Fancy Writer? Really, I’m over the moon to get to write “The Waiting Room” for The Butter twice each month. I hope you’ll come over and check it out.) I’m also posting regularly at Gailey and Davio, with lots of goodies for poets and writers over there.

Okay? Okay. 

We left off last time with the fact that, as a poet trying to sell a new book, you’re going to have to contact everyone yourself, from bookstores to reading series organizers. Most writers with even a little get-up-and-go can handle that idea, but once again, nobody tells you exactly what you have to do. So here’s the nitty-gritty:

You have to make a decent case for your book. 

It’s great if you can get on the phone with a bookstore’s buyer. That’s step one. But if you simply tell that buyer that you have a book and she should stock it, you haven’t actually differentiated your book from anyone else’s or created a compelling case for her to invest shelf space in your work. Before you cold call, try boiling your jacket copy down to a pithy few sentences, and be prepared to name a few comparable titles. Better still, have some thoughts ready about why your book is relevant in the current cultural climate.

Market your book, not your achievements. 

I once met a woman who couldn’t stop talking about the fact that she was once a Stegner fellow. She could only talk about her writing in relationship to this long-ago honor in her life. “But what do you write?”  I asked her. “Well, during The Stegner,” she’d say, and she’d be off again. (I never did find out what kind of poems she wrote.) The thing is, nobody gives a flying leap about her Stegner decades later. There are new fellows, new writers doing new things and putting new books out. Is it great if you’ve had a big fellowship? Absolutely. But it’s not a basis on which to market your book. (Honestly, can you really imagine walking into a bookshop and buying something just because the author was a former Stegner fellow?) Focus what you have to say on your work, not your accolades.

Buyers need to know how the heck to get your book.

So let’s say your phone pitch went well, and you drummed up some interest. Now what’s a conference organizer, for example, supposed to do to get copies of your book? If you’re drawing a blank, that’s a problem. You should know which distributor your publisher uses, and be ready to provide contact info. Or, you should be ready to provide consignment information. You should also have handy access to your ISBN number. (All the info we’re talking about here, from pitch to comparable titles and distributor contact info to ISBN, is what your Tip Sheet is for, incidentally. Have one, send it out, and keep it in front of you when you’re making calls.)

Cold calls really aren’t that bad. 

Most book people are extremely nice. Nobody’s in the book world to pad their bank accounts—we’re all here because we love literature, and, in general, we can geek out about books together. Think about the calls you have to make less as forays against some faceless gatekeeper and more as conversations with people who probably care as much about poetry as you do. You never know: you might make some friends along the way.

Finally, if all this talking about your book and thinking about your marketing is getting you down, remember this: you can spend all your emotional energy thinking about how much you hate doing book promotion, or you can get on with book promotion. 

I guarantee that you’ll be much happier with yourself and with your outcomes if you put your energy into getting your book into readers’ hands than if you put your energy into thinking up all the reasons you don’t want to promote your book. (“It’s distasteful!” “I’m not a marketer!” “The publisher should do everything for me!” “I’m too busy!” Insert additional grousing here.) While any and all of your grousing may be understandable or even valid, it doesn’t change the fact that it’s still your responsibility to build an audience. You don’t have to be a marketing goddess, but you do have to try, and a positive frame of mind never hurts.

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3 Replies to “What I Wish I’d Known”

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