This summer, I’m learning to ride a motorcycle. I plan to jump it through a flaming hoop at my book party.
This disturbs my wife—who believes that riding a motorcycle through a flaming hoop will do very little to advance my career. The only career it will benefit, she argues, is that of my orthopedic surgeon.
And yet I’m stuck with the dilemma facing all midlist authors in 2012: in this era of BookScan, sales figures for novels are instantaneously available and ubiquitous. If my second book, Evel Knievel Days, sells like my first, Red Weather—then there may not be a third.
“Not true,” says one of my friends, a New York book industry independent publicist. “You could always write under a pseudonym.”
Which leads me to wonder: what can I do to promote my second novel? How can I differentiate it from the other titles in a crowded marketplace? What have other authors done, in recent years—successfully, unsuccessfully, or outrageously? Should I blog? Should I tweet? Should I tumbl?
Marc Fitten visited 100 independent bookstores when Bloomsbury USA published his first book, Valeria’s Last Stand. He chronicled the experience on his blog, Marc Fitten’s Indie 100 (indie100mfitten.wordpress.com) with each entry accompanied by photographs and a lengthy narrative passage about the store. When I spoke to Fitten, he was clear about one point:
“I got a lot of press for it,” he said. “And it was great to meet so many booksellers, to see what their challenges were. But I have to say that it did not help sales for the book, at all. And it cost around $5,000 traveling around the country—cheaply.”
John Wray went even farther. The New York Times chronicled his 2005 raft trip down the Mississippi River to promote Canaan’s Tongue, his Civil War era historical novel. Using salvage materials and scrap he purchased on eBay, Wray floated downriver, making his way to readings that were often attended by fewer than a dozen people. Canaan’s Tongue sold under 3,000 copies.
I asked my writer friends: what sells books? Nobody seemed to know. More than one person offered, “Oprah.”
So, I did what I often do in a crisis. I turned to Virginia Woolf. Since I discovered it as a melancholy teenager, her five-volume diary has not left my bedside. According to Woolf:
“To write a work of genius is almost always a feat of prodigious difficulty.... Generally material circumstances are against it. Dogs will bark; people will interrupt; money must be made; health will break down. Further, accentuating all these difficulties and making them harder to bear is the world’s notorious indifference.”
The world’s notorious indifference. Works the same this summer as in the summer of 1929.
To me, though, the surprising thing is this: the sales numbers that the big houses regularly reach—even with the most midlist of midlist authors—would have astonished 1920s Bloomsbury. After the publication of Mrs. Dalloway in 1925, Virginia and Leonard Woolf rejoiced that the Hogarth Press had sold an “unimaginable” 2,400 copies of the novel.
So perhaps we anxious authors can take comfort in this idea—raw numbers, while indicative of something, are not the whole story. There’s no metric that will judge a book’s path through the next 50, 60, or even 100 years.
Many books are written. Some books sell. Some survive the passage of time. It’s all a great mystery. Who’s in charge? Ah, that—that’s a question for another time, altogether.
Pauls Toutonghi teaches at Lewis & Clark College in Portland, Ore. His second novel, Evel Knievel Days, will be published by Crown in July.