It was the same setting, only a different novel.
I was doing a reading at Dorian Gray, an Irish pub in New York’s funky Alphabet City neighborhood. Framed photos of famous Irish authors lined one wall. A Guinness in one hand and my new self-published novel in the other, I took a deep breath and stepped up to the microphone.
I looked out to the 20 people in the pub. A year before, I’d read from my first novel -- also self-published, a darkly humorous tale, set in the rapidly changing neighborhood around me, of a man setting out to fix the many relationships he’d busted up -- to twice as many people. I’d lugged a huge box of books to the bar -- as many as I could carry to a taxi -- and tossed the empty box before I left.
How had I lost half of my friends and supporters from novel #1 to novel #2?
We all know about the sophomore slump, in which your second book, record, or film does not meet the expectations set by your smashing debut. But I have a parallel theory. As a self-published author struggling to get your work beyond your circle of Facebook friends, the second book -- regardless of how good or bad it is -- is simply not that big a deal to your pals who so wholeheartedly bought your first one, talked it up on social media, and turned up for your readings. And when you’re a no-name author, those friends are the bulk of your readers.
I wrote my debut novel, No Never No More, a dozen years ago, and went the traditional route toward publication. An agent showed it to a handful of New York editors, then shared the eloquent rejection letters with me over sushi at a midtown Manhattan restaurant.
I kept writing, and had the second novel, When I Was Punk, about a runaway teen in New York’s Tompkins Square Park, completed a year later. The first agent quit representing authors. A new one -- young, ambitious, connected -- thought he could find a taker for When I Was Punk.
Again, the erudite rejection letters, these shared over beers and burgers at Cedar Tavern. I started rethinking my career plans of writing novels and appearing on Politically Incorrect.
Jump ahead a decade and, in mid 2012, I decided to publish No Never No More through Amazon’s CreateSpace. I hired an art director pal to execute my cover concept, tapped CreateSpace to do the bare-bones interior, and in the spring of 2013 had a decent looking book in my hands.
I had to sell roughly 100 copies to make back my costs, but sales were secondary. The goal was to publish a book that looked like other books on the shelf, that made a noise when you dropped it, that had my name on the front and my goofy mug on the back. Mission accomplished: I was a published author, even if I’d sneaked into the party through the back door.
While No Never No More’s sales covered my costs after a few months, the biggest rewards came in forms other than cash. There were flattering profiles in local media, a few lines of favorable ink in an international newspaper, a long-form local TV interview. The author Jay Atkinson, with whom I had a common friend and mutual love of rugby, called my novel “required reading for any dude who’s ever thrown a roundhouse punch or had his heart broken by a dame.” That made my month.
It got better. While on the subway headed to Dorian Gray days before my first reading, flyers and a couple copies of No Never No More in hand, I met the filmmaker Jim Jarmusch, gave him a book and its quick back story, and received genuine words of encouragement -- all between 28th Street and Union Square, two stops later.
And the reading itself, I may never forget. Friends from every stage of my life -- childhood, college, various jobs, even an overseas exchange program two decades before -- turned up at the Irish pub that night, and every one of them bought me a beer, if I remember correctly. It was almost exactly how I’d dreamed it would be when I was a kid, except for all the Guinness.
Why, then, when my follow-up novel came out in September, were sales so paltry that I was certain CreateSpace’s sales counter was busted? Where were the editors and reporters and bloggers who’d written about my debut novel when I tried to reach them this time around? Didn’t my pals have any idea how damn hard I worked on the book -- some eight months of revising and reworking, all of it after the manuscript had been “finished” years before?
Yes, they did. But, frankly, who cares? If you asked me to attend your improv debut, I’d make an effort to go. If you asked me to go a second time, I’d probably find myself busy.
We’re all busy. We’re all absorbing more and more blips of media each day. I’ve no doubt my book-promoting Facebook and Twitter posts don’t reach my friends as effectively as they did even a year ago.
Maybe the issue is self-publishing itself, the platform that, a year before, brought me such joy. I did an efficient job of wiping away the self-publishing fingerprints with the first novel, coming up with what sounded, at least to me, like an authentic imprint name (Well Lit Books) with its own logo and website. By the time the second book rolled around, most of my friends probably knew it was a D.I.Y. effort, and perhaps that takes away from their appreciation for my literary efforts. After all, anyone, at least in theory, can publish a book these days.
As my most recent reading began, I felt disappointment while looking out to the quarter-full pub. But in every disappointment there is a lesson to be learned. I do a decent job of marketing myself and my books to traditional media; finding a certain hook and pairing it up with a newspaper or magazine or website whose readers appreciate that angle. As an editor by trade, I know the difference between a decent pitch and a sharp one, and can communicate effectively -- selling that hook, and keeping it real short -- to a fellow editor.
But as my new book’s sales performance has shown me, I need to spend as much effort on marketing as I do on publishing. I need to start the process earlier, and become more fluent in emerging social media platforms, such as Wattpad, that young authors use so effectively. Facebook and Twitter are traditional media now, and being versed in those platforms is not nearly enough. Standing in line at the post office with a stack of review copies to mail to newspaper critics does not seem like a terribly current marketing strategy.
The future, if not the present, of media is video, and perhaps my friends who work in television and film can show me a trick or two to help me promote myself with media that’s a bit more dynamic than text on a page.
Ultimately, the distressing commercial reaction to this thing I toiled so long over will make me savvier and smarter. And reading to a sparse gathering in a little Irish pub will make me stronger -- as will lugging a box full of books back home afterwards.