Dreams and Realities: Our Journey Begins


Congratulations! You’ve done it! Your dream has come true!

You’ve had your first novel accepted for publication—or your first story collection. You’ve been imagining the glory of this day since you were…oh, eight years old, and first decided you wanted to be A Real Writer, right? It feels pretty good, although it’s scary, too. You’ll have those nation-wide book tours to deal with and the lines of adoring fans winding around the block to meet you. You’ll have to figure out what to wear when Oprah invites you on her show and how to invest your copious royalties wisely. Then there will be all of those time-consuming calls with your publicist and those pesky foreign editions of your work crowding your bookshelves. It’s so overwhelming, you might start to understand why all those famous guys turned into alcoholics or shut-ins who shun publicity.

Except, well, maybe you’re getting ahead of yourself. After all, your advance was modest—if you got any advance at all. And your publicist is a twenty-three-year old kid who hasn’t even read your book but dolefully informed you the cover makes it a hard sell. Or you don’t even have a publicist, just a boutique publisher who was really excited about the book when she sent your contract, but has been rather hard to contact since. In fact, well, when you did speak, your publisher informed you that they don’t bother sending books like yours out for review. The big time reviewers won’t touch erotica or erotic romance or horror, but she’s still going to be knocking herself out to do the best for your book (without going into specifics)—and by the way, would you like to buy a few hundred copies at the author’s discount yourself?

Or maybe, as is quite common these days, you’ve self-published, and you already know you’ll be doing quadruple duty as writer, publisher, publicist and shameless promoter—which means basically you won’t have time for a life.

If these things don’t yet sound familiar to you, they’re all too familiar to me. I’m going to be shamelessly honest with you here. After all, this column is all about shamelessness! My first novel, Amorous Woman, was published by Neon/Orion in the UK in 2007 and was available in the US in June 2008. Birthing a real, live novel was a challenge, maybe the biggest challenge I’d ever faced to that point. Unfortunately, for me, and for most writers, that was just the easy part. Once the book is published, the great majority of us, even some writers with agents and New York publishers, quickly discover we are on our own when it actually comes to getting our baby into the hands of readers.

But what if you have no experience in marketing and sales? What if your one experience selling was in fourth grade—trudging around the neighborhood with boxes of Girl Scout cookies only to have doors slammed in your face by scowling gray-haired ladies? What if you vowed right then and there you would never do this again, that you would even buy all the raffle tickets for your kids’ school fundraisers because you can’t bear the thought of the poor tykes asking people for money. Shy, sensitive artist types like yourself could never beg people to buy and hopefully like your first novel, all the while getting dozens of doors slammed in your face with the occasional humiliating insult thrown in for fun?

In my case, those aren’t exactly “what if’s” and believe me, it hasn’t always been fun.

When the harsh truth dawned that I would be pretty much on my own with book promotion, my first thought was that I’d rather die. My second thoughts, over the long months of bumbling through my attempts at promotion as a rank beginner, were that I actually might die, at least in spirit.

But, as I look back at what I have accomplished in my maiden novel promotion efforts, I realize I not only survived, I learned a lot about the realities behind the fantasies of the publishing business. I learned I was capable of doing things I never imagined I could do—and I have a pretty good imagination. The most important thing I learned, however, is that while writing does involve solitude, my writing life has become much richer when I’ve connected with my community—fellow writers and readers here at ERWA top the list—and this would never have happened without a needy little novel to get me off my duff and out into the world.

Book promotion can be expensive in monetary terms, but it doesn’t have to be. There are plenty of professionals out there willing to take your money to help you pursue your dream of fame and fortune. Some of them are even very good at what they do. But the truth is eighty to ninety percent of my successful promotional activities were due to the advice and help of friends. One hundred percent of the emotional support to keep up my shameless efforts to put myself out there on the marketplace came from friends. For a beginning promoter who is willing to invest the time, the knowledge we get from our peers is our best resource. And so I decided to write a column on shameless self-promotion this year at ERWA because I wanted to share some of the things that I learned with other newbie writers.

Over the next ten months I’ll be sharing some of my personal experiences as well as the experiences of other generous writer friends who have volunteered to share their tips. I’ll be covering topics that range from the basics like web sites and promotional swag to fancier, but fun promotional tools like radio interviews and book trailers. I’ll also be discussing the larger—what you might call philosophical—issues of book promotion. If you’re anything like me, the shameless life is foreign and demanding, and it’s almost impossible to keep it up without a deeper level of commitment and support.

As we travel this path together over the next year, please feel free to email me with comments, questions and experiences of your own. We’re all constantly learning and evolving as writers and self-promoters. Your feedback and contributions will help keep this column relevant to you.

So, now that we’ve had our introductions, let’s get started on our journey through the shameless land of Book Promotion.

Perhaps it is most fitting to begin at the beginning, by which I mean the second paragraph of this column—you know, the one with all the absurd daydreams about how your life will change when you publish your first novel? And yet, I’d bet that most writers wouldn’t mind living out a few of those popular scenarios of success. There are certainly plenty of heartless editors who’d regret their hasty rejections when they see you on the bestseller list. And it might be quite amusing to get rich and famous from your writing, even have your story up there on the big screen and part of the fabric of the fantasies of millions.

We all have our fantasies, and I’ve certainly gotten more intimate with mine since I’ve published my novel. Basically all I want is respect, like the Don in The Godfather. So while I’m working on my mustache and gravely voice, I think it might be worth it to do a little exercise that will serve you well over the course of your journey. I recommend that you take some time—a quiet half hour with a cup of tea or the first loop of your morning walk—to identify your own image of A Successful Novelist. What is her or his life like? What parts of that success resonate with you? Let yourself go with this. If it involves pools and personal assistants, fine. No one is watching. Can you think of a particular writer who has achieved the success you’d like to enjoy? Fantasies may seem silly, but they all harbor some instructive truths.

Now take a step back into reality, because that’s important, too. What is your definition of “success” in your writing now?

Whatever you come up with, I guarantee that after a few months of promoting your work, the answer will be different.

There’s a second part to my touchy-feely exercise, which takes us down to the list of the cold, depressing realities most new authors face. Piddling advance, unresponsive publisher—sound familiar? Especially if you are a virgin at book promotion, this can all be very daunting. I think it’s also a good idea to take a few moments to get to get in touch with your fears about meeting failure in front of the world. (Yes, they can all see your Amazon sales’ number is at Googolplex, if they want). You’ve dealt with rejection before, as any writer must, but more is at stake with a whole book that has your name on it. Mull over the challenges of the task before you. Is there any part of selling your book that is particularly distasteful or unknown to you? Parts that seem, on the contrary, interesting and exciting?

The answers to these questions will help you focus your promotion efforts. Each author and each project will have different requirements, which is why no boilerplate marketing plan will work for everyone. Figuring out what works for you will be an ongoing process, but it’s not a bad idea to figure out where your starting point lies. For example, I’d enjoyed reading my work at bookstores in the past, and indeed readings and radio interviews were some of the most enjoyable parts of my experience. The idea of written interviews didn’t really appeal to me. I never thought I was particularly interesting. But I found that a good interviewer gave me insights about myself as a writer as well as my work—one of the pleasant surprises of this process.[read “Between the Lines: Ashley Lister talks to Donna George Storey“] But some things worked out just as I expected. I’ve hated selling things since I can remember, and sure enough hand-selling to bookstores remains at the bottom of my list.

Okay, there’s one last Big Question for you to ponder over tea or during that walk. Ask yourself why you are doing this. Maybe the answer seems obvious—any author wants to sell her books. But if you’re like me, there are going to be moments when this answer is not enough, and you’re going to need some more deeply satisfying purpose if you’re going to keep on with this apparently thankless and exhausting task.

For a lot of reasons I won’t bore you with here, I cannot motivate myself to do something for the sole purpose of making money. Couple this with an old-fashioned female hesitation to brag and otherwise show off my goodies, and I had to find other pep-talk points to keep slogging away. Perhaps I was delusional, but I finally came up with a few that kept me going through the tough times. In Amorous Woman, which is about an American woman’s erotic adventures in Japan, I felt I’d written a book that told some truths about Japan that weren’t often dealt with in fiction published in the US. I also believed I’d written a book that challenged people’s conceptions of what erotica could be. My self-motivational reasons ended up becoming the main selling points I used to try to convince people my book was worth reading. They also allowed me to be shameless for the cause of international understanding and an enlightened attitude toward sexuality—much more comfortable for me than the cause of promoting Me and my yet-to-be-seen royalties.

See, sometimes touchy-feely bullshit can have practical applications after all!

We’re almost finished, but I have one more exercise for you. We’ve done some inward gazing, now it’s time to look outward. Even those of you who’ve been hoping I’ll cut the psycho-babble and get back to the real business of selling books will find this one useful. As I mentioned above, my most successful promotional activities were thanks to the help of friends, friends of friends and colleagues who knew me from my earlier publications. When I started out with book promotion, I had no idea there were so many generous people out there willing to help me, even if it was just to attend a reading or buy a copy of my book. You already have a network in place, too. Now is the time to appreciate what you have and start building new connections.

Even if your book is not yet available, you can start telling everyone you know about your exciting news as soon as you’re comfortable with it—but don’t schedule any events until you’re sure your book will be in hand. In our genre you may be limited by the use of a pseudonym, but do your best! You might be surprised what treasures you discover. Your mailman might have a cousin who works for the local paper. A writer friend might know an interviewer who is looking for new guests. And everyone is looking for a juicy, entertaining book to read. If you’re not already a member, join Facebook, Goodreads, MySpace, EAA (The Erotic Authors Association) and any other group that is relevant to your genre, like Romance Divas. They are all good places to start networking and share information about your book.

Many experienced writers are happy to help, and their advice is gold. Since people are busy, I’d recommend specific questions rather than “tell me everything you know about book promotion,” which can be overwhelming. Another key point is that even though you’re a beginner, you have things to offer in return. You can review books, do author interviews on your blog, take someone out to lunch for an informational interview. (If you actually do make some money from your writing, these working meals are tax deductible.)

Not to give away the ending—although I am one of those perverse readers who reads the ending first—but meeting new people and making connections has been the most gratifying part of my book promoting journey. I haven’t even gotten my year-end royalty statement but I know I’ve succeeded in what matters to me. I’ve made wonderful new friends. I’ve even enjoyed the process in ways that surprised me and in some cases exceeded my dreams.

I hope you enjoy this year’s column and my newbie’s tour through Book Promotion Land. Next month, I’ll get right down to business with a discussion of your basic tool kit: web sites, blogs and the “brand” New You.

For now I’ll leave you with a summary of this month’s Shameless Self-Promotion Points. Collect ’em all and you’ll earn a special

Shameless Self-Promotion Badge in December!

ONE: Start nurturing your network, slowly and lovingly, even if you don’t have a book out yet. When I first heard that some experts recommend you start promoting your next project years before it’s published, I thought the idea was crazy. Now I understand it’s not.

TWO: It may seem touchy-feely and not at all relevant to the cutthroat world of sales, but just as knowledge is power, self-knowledge can help you focus your efforts. I suggest you take a little time to get in touch with your authorial dreams and demons. They’ll be with you on your promotion journey anyway, so you’re better off if you’re aware of the baggage you’re carrying.

Donna George Storey
February 2009

“Shameless Self-Promotion” © 2009 Donna George Storey. All rights reserved. Content may not be copied or used in whole or part without written permission from the author.

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