At the beginning of the movie Sleeper, doctors peel 200-year-old tin foil off Miles Munroe’s face and feet, and he reawakens in the year 2173. I sorta know what that’s like. No, I haven’t been asleep for 200 years. My story’s simpler: 14 years ago, I published my second book, a novel, and then I stopped writing books. Or, should I say, I stopped selling them.
That 14-year span included a pretty bad decade for me professionally. I survived multiple rejections, an agent breakup, a crisis of confidence that I’m sure made everyone who loves me miserable and exhausted. Eventually, I began to pick up the pieces. I went to graduate school, stumbled onto the works of Shirley Jackson, and found myself immersed in a new project—different from anything I’d ever done.
Everything began to turn around. I was hired as assistant editor at TSR: The Southampton Review, the literary journal of the M.F.A. in Creative Writing & Literature at Stony Brook Southampton. Soon I was asked to teach in the M.F.A. program, promoted to fiction editor of TSR, and acquired brilliant thesis students to mentor. I also kept on writing. And then my wonderful new agent sold Shirley: A Novel to my wonderful new editor.
Ten awful professional years, and now look at me: the poster child for Writers Who Don’t Give Up.
Reawakened in the brave new world of publishing, I keep hearing how publishing has changed. And it’s true. About the only thing that hasn’t evolved since the year 2000 is that you can still check your Amazon numbers obsessively, and still not be sure what they mean. (Amazon now occasionally emails to encourage you to buy your own books, a narcissistic looping I quite like.)
The publishing experience is quirkier now, less formal, much more personal. When Publishers Lunch noted the sale of my novel about Shirley Jackson to Penguin/Blue Rider last year, I immediately made a couple dozen new Facebook friends, all devoted fans of Jackson. My Twitter account suddenly had 30 new followers. It’s less about numbers than who these new friends are—as Shirley Jackson enthusiasts my new contacts have become a primary energy source for marketing the novel. Some followers were early readers of the novel and have plugged it repeatedly through their own devoted social media followings. Every time one of my etherworld friends expresses affection for my novel, more people become aware of it, and more books (I hope) sell. Even the book’s jacket designer, Chris Sergio, found out about the book through one of my social media contacts; as a Shirley fan, he was so excited he contacted Blue Rider and asked to design it. This would never have happened in the world of 2000.
In today’s publishing environment, the people who are hearing about Shirley are people who share my interests. The smallest pool of potential Shirley buyers is those who knew me before I sold the novel (thanks, Mom!). The larger pool, the one that keeps extending outward, is the expanding niche of my reading cohort: people I’ve never met, people who love what I love. From Goodreads, Twitter, and Facebook to BookRiot and whatever other social media streams I dabble in, this network of contacts keeps building interest in Shirley. My fellow Shirley Jackson lovers, friends old and new, are the core of my sales force. Word of mouth is a direct result of developing a network of mouthy friends with shared interests.
Posting about my own good news is odd; I know I have to do it, and I want to, but the self-promoting part feels uncomfortable. And then I remember who all these contacts are. We’ve connected with one another because of what we have in common—a school, a dinner party, an interest in Shirley Jackson or writing or some other shared geography or history. Telling these folks what’s happening is actually what they signed on for. Sharing’s okay.
The old world of promotion—reviews and readings—still matters, too, without a doubt. Blue Rider’s marketing department is fabulous, and smart, and committed: how hard they’ve worked, how clearly the publisher is behind my book. We are all focused on making friends for Shirley. In the old days, your readers didn’t “know” you, but now that’s essential to the deal.
I have no idea how my novel will do, but never has marketing felt so natural. Brand-building while in your jammies. For an introvert—and most writers are, no matter how we pretend otherwise—the changing face of publishing has some serious perks.