Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Tayari Jones balances the writing/publicity act

It has been carefully documented on this blog and on my own, that publishing houses often neglect to publicize the books that they have agreed to publish. It becomes pretty clear to an author that she is going to have to get out there and hustle if she wants her book to reach readers, reviewers, prize committees, etc. Many articles have been written by editors and publicists urging more authors to get out there and HUSTLE.

I’ve done it. I’ll admit it. Many authors of literary fiction feel demeaned by the dirty-hands work of hawking their book. And, though we seldom admit it, it is also pretty depressing work. Literary fiction does not exactly lend itself to the same techniques that work well for urban lit, romance, and mystery novels. One writer friend of mine told me of her dismay at sitting at a book festival next to a romance author who had brought along a troupe of bare-chested policemen to draw attention to her steamy novel. I, too, have appeared with an author of a salacious tale of “interracial sex, drug money, and senseless violence” while I was trying to get the same audience interested in my book about loss of innocence in Atlanta during its infamous child murders case. It was enough to make me want to go knock on J.D. Salinger’s door and see if he wanted a roommate.

But once I got over myself, I had to face the fact that I was going to have to play a role in the publicity plan for my second novel. The real question was what my role should be. Here are a few guidelines that have worked for me:

If you can afford it, hire an independent publicist. Don’t go into massive debt for it, but you should squirrel away some of your advance for this important project. Although I think of myself as having a lot of good ideas, I also have sense enough to know that I am not an expert in literary publicity. Also, keep in mind that reading series, book reviewers, etc., are often more comfortable dealing with an author’s representative rather than the author herself. (Here are some things to think about when hiring a publicist and here is a Q&A I did with Lauren Cerand, the publicist I ended up choosing.)

Do what you do best, WRITE. When my second novel was published, I wrote a few articles about the experience of writing and publishing, and also pieces connected to the themes of my books. Some were published on line and others in magazines. Many writers are more comfortable lounging at home in their pajamas than standing in front of large crowds, giving readings, etc. If this is you, that’s okay. Let your writing represent you. Everything helps when it comes to getting the word out.

Get good at reading from your work. I know I just said you could help yourself without facing a crowd, but you will have to venture outside from time to time. Bookstore readings are helpful even if you only read to an audience of six people. For one thing, those six folks may tell six other folks, but more importantly, the bookstore staff will hear you and their enthusiasm will linger well after you’ve gone back home to the comfort of your pajamas. My advice is to practice reading until you feel confident. You won’t be so nervous once you know what you’re doing.

Use the internet. Blogging is a terrific way to communicate with your readers without running all over the country. Many writers think they will not have time to blog, but once you get the hang of it, it only takes about three hours a week. Also, get familiar with the major lit-blogs and then decide which ones would be a good fit for your work.

Don’t overdo it. Once you start thinking of ways to publicize your book, you will realize that there is always something else to be done. There are always more postcards to mail, more hands to shake, more festivals to visit. Know when to back off. You don’t want your efforts to get the word out to compromise your ability to have a life. Don’t miss important milestones with your family because you were busy signing stock at a major bookstore. And always remember, you are a writer who is trying to publicize your book. You are not a motivational speaker who writes in between reading and speaking gigs (unless, of course, you are). Don’t ever lose that focus. Nothing will help your career more than finishing the next book.


  1. Good stuff here, Tayari. And you are right-on about the difficulty of balancing promotion with writing. Three months 'til release day for me, and I am drowning in all the publicity stuff people are telling me I have to do: interviews, ARC distribution, posting in every forum/blog on earth...and oh yeah, in the meantime, I'm trying to meet deadlines. I'm currently abandoning all the promotion for the sake of the next project, and the consequences are showing up as a drop in my blog/web stats.

    The whole thing is a frustrating process, one we're sort of thrown to the wolves on, but your words hit the heart of it: a solid next book is what counts. If we can have it all, great, but all the advertising in the world doesn't do anything if a book turns out mediocre. The truth is in the writing. I hope.

  2. What delightful common sense, Tayari.
    Thank you.

  3. Thanks for the good info, Tayari. It's nice to know from someone who has been there/done that that our job as writers remains the same no matter what: Write!

  4. A great and interesting post.

    I did a lot to publicize my *academic* book--it'll sell a couple hundred copies maybe. But when you're writing something for not very many people, I think it only makes sense to try to find those people.

    You seem to hit the balance just right... : )

  5. Tayari
    Along with using the Internet as a promotional tool, consider podcast interviews. Podcasting is becoming more mainstream and the interviews are 'evergreen' as most sites place the older ones in their Archives. There are zillions of podcasts out there, some of them quite 'niche'. Much like being interviewed on radio, podcasting offers a new way to get the message out about your book without lots of expensive travel.

  6. Tayari,

    There is another method utilizing our modern communication tools you might want to consider:

    talking by phone to book clubs.

    Donna Woolfolk Cross author of Pope Joan has marketed the hell out of her novel from the comfort of her own home. Readers see some sample questions to ponder in the back of her book as well as an invitation to contact her via her website. From there they post their request and she contacts them via email to arrange a time where she calls the book club via speakerphone.

    She chit chats for an hour or so, answers their questions and they are so pleased with the experience they tell their friends about her and the novel. This positive word-of-mouth leads to more sales and future book club calls.

    She's done this for several years and her book is in its seventeenth printing.

    May your books suffer such a fate!

    (I have more details about Donna Cross and her publicity campaign on my blog. It was a recycled column I had written for my writer's club newsletter. If you want to read more just click through and scroll down to my first posting.)

    Good luck with your promotions and marketing for your current projects and creating new ones as well.


  7. Tayari, This is a wonderful site. I just happened upon it looking for publicity information for my husband, Tito Perdue. I don't see how writers can do both - write and publicize, so I'm helping with the publicity side. Tito has been writing for 25 years and this is the first year we realized WE were going to have to do something to sell his books. I've found some useful tips here. Thank you.

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