I recently attended a literary festival, where I met a successful food author whose career had included regular appearances on popular radio shows and television networks across the U.S. Her most recent book, however, failed to get that same level of exposure, so after a falling-out with her publisher, she chose to self-publish her latest as an e-book.
The results were disappointing, she complained. There were no reviews or spots on Good Morning America. No one, it seemed, was even aware that her new book existed. “I put it out there and nothing happened,” she said. “I’m a writer, not a marketer. It’s not my job to do that work.”
She also chose not to hire a publicist. Without one, I wondered, who but she would promote her book?
Her frustration was one that I continue to hear from authors, both commercially and self-published. In a crowded marketplace—according to Bowker, more than 300,000 books were traditionally published in 2016—the prospect of one’s book attracting critical attention can seem dauntingly slim if not downright impossible. As a small press author, I knew this intimately. Neither my publisher nor I had the resources to invest in a professionally run marketing or publicity campaign for The Hunger Saint, released earlier this year. Still, I published the book hoping it would be read.
This reality puts particular pressure on authors. In addition to conceiving a book and meeting a publisher’s editorial demands, an author must often request blurbs and solicit reviews while functioning as a social media strategist and events coordinator. Without the backing of a large press, it’s difficult to have one’s book stocked in bookstores, let alone to be supported on a book tour. So it’s not hard to empathize with the food writer’s bewilderment.
Yet the industry occasionally reminds us that success is possible, no matter the publisher. Paul Harding’s Tinkers (Bellevue) won the 2010 Pulitzer Prize; Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan novels (Europa) and Seth Grahame-Smith’s Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (Quirk) have sold millions of copies worldwide. Lisa Genova self-published Still Alice to immediate acclaim, later selling the New York Times bestseller to Simon & Schuster for six figures.
While I didn’t expect my historical novella to win a Pulitzer or gross a million dollars in sales, I did realize that any possibility of success relied on connecting the book to the right readership. I embraced the fact that, without a publicist, this responsibility was mine alone.
It was uncomfortable at first. Self-promotion can be awkward and feel almost shameful at times. But I reminded myself why I published The Hunger Saint in the first place, which was to help raise awareness of the long-forgotten but brutal practice of indentured servitude in Italy—one involving child miners as young as five years old.
I took a grassroots approach and cast a wide net, reaching out months before my book’s release to set up readings with organizations that might have a natural interest in the subject matter: Italian cultural centers, universities, regional literary festivals, and reading series. Though I faced much rejection, those organizations that invited me to do book presentations often assisted with accommodations, some even offering generous stipends to cover travel expenses. I embraced an abundance mentality and kept reaching out. I used my professional networks and social media platforms, asking literary colleagues for help and advice. I took nothing and no one for granted.
Whether through word of mouth or pure synchronicity, opportunities began to arise, along with some wonderful surprises. Professors adopted The Hunger Saint into their course curricula, assigning it to their creative writing and literature students. The book was listed as a 2017 bestseller for four consecutive months by Small Press Distribution. Barnes & Noble featured it as part of a special in-store display throughout its stores in New York City.
That the food writer’s latest book didn’t receive much attention isn’t necessarily a reflection of its quality (it could’ve easily been her best yet); without marketing it couldn’t reach an audience. Taking a grassroots approach can empower authors to build momentum for their books and connect to larger readerships. The opportunities are there; we need only to seize them.
Olivia Kate Cerrone is the author of The Hunger Saint (Bordighera), a historical novella about the child miners of Sicily.