stripping down to sell books

There’s an article in the Washington Post (“Leaping at the Chance“) about a conversation between editor Nan Talese and one of her authors, Valerie Martin (author most recently of Trespass). The question:

What will it take to get the American public to pay attention to Martin’s book?

They have some pretty outlandish suggestions, but in fact they both know the answers. There are a couple things that would make this happen.

[asa book]0385515456[/asa] 1. With the right publicist and a lot of money, any book/author can be thrust into public view. Show your face on the big talk shows, get celebrities to talk about it, and voila. Best seller. This approach is the easiest and most expensive, and clearly would require Martin’s publisher to invest heavily. Which I am sure they’d be willing to do — if she were already on the best seller list.

2. A scandal is a quicker way to get to the best seller list, which Nan Talese knows very well, as she was the editor of Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. (I posted about that here.) You can listen to Nan (on YouTube) telling her version of what happened with Oprah, which is extremely interesting.

3. A scandal that escalates and becomes a legal matter, even better. Ask Cassie Edwards about this. I have no figures, but I’d bet that her sales have not suffered as a result of the plagiarism kerfuffle.

Frey’s Million Little Pieces, Oprah, and Success

James Frey

Given the difficulty of marketing novels these days, I keep an eye out for new and innovative ideas. Unfortunately, there aren’t any. Everything has been tried, and everything has failed — or succeeded. There’s no way to know until you give it a go yourself. Invest the time, money, energy, and hope that all that results in more book sales. Because hey, a girl has to eat.

The idea I’m going to present isn’t new,either, but bear with me for a minute, because it does have an interesting twist. You know that old chestnut: no such thing as bad publicity? One example is James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces that was supposed to be a memoir and turned out to be a fake, at least in part. Which wouldn’t be such a big deal, except it was Oprah he embarrassed and she decided to make an example of him on national television. If she was trying to sell more copies of his book, she couldn’t have done a better job, as described by CNN:

In January 2006, the Web site The Smoking Gun revealed that Frey’s memoir of addiction and recovery contained numerous fabrications. Frey and his publisher then acknowledged that he had made up parts of the book.

Drury noted that 93,738 copies of the book were sold in the seven months after the controversy erupted.

“Amazingly, the book remained a best seller for another 26 weeks,” the Chicago-based lawyer told Holwell. Drury said Frey had received more than $4.4 million in royalties.

Now you might be tempted to conclude that crime paid, and paid well. But this situation could not have been planned, and it’s not a strategy that will work for most of us anyway. First you have to get Oprah interested, then you have to do something to really piss her off. It was a crapshoot that paid off for Frey; it made him some serious money. But there’s a big question mark about whether or not he can sell another book. And if he does, will anybody be interested, or will all his badboy currency have played out?

And then again, he’s got $4.4 million; maybe he’s not interested in writing another book.

Back to my point. The underlying principle is solid: make your book the center of a scandal. How? One of the best ways to do this is to get parents of teenagers up in arms.

Take, for example, this mother on the warpath. Her daughter was assigned an essay in her freshman English class that offended mother and daughter both. Bad language, talk about bestiality — they were not amused, nor could the mother be satisfied when her daughter was excused from the assignment. She wanted the essay and most likely the whole book banned from the school, from the district, hell, she probably would have liked to see every copy sent off to another planet. What she did accomplish was just the opposite. Thousands more people became aware of the essay and went out to find it and read it. Did it get banned from the school? No. And good for the school and the district, too.

What’s to be learned from this? Quite simple. When your novel comes out, take in a big stack to your local high school and hand them to an English teacher. Offer to come in and speak to the class about writing and publishing. Teachers are overworked, and they appreciate help –but you have to mean it. Be prepared to go into the class and talk to the kids and answer questions about your book, about their writing, about everything.

Then wait a week, and write a letter to the editor of the local paper and ask what the heck the school was thinking, giving the students that novel to read? Ask if it isn’t wildly inappropriate to expose them to such adult experiences and ideas. Ask if we’ve lost all sense of morality.

Just ASK the questions. Don’t answer them. Let the questions stew, and then about a week later have somebody you trust write another letter to the paper, this time taking up the book’s cause. Accuse the first letter writer of censorship, and talk about other books that have been banned in the past. Tropic of Capricorn is a good bet, everybody knows that was a dirty book, and the more conservative parents will sit up and take notice. Other people will think, hmmm, Tropic of Capricorn. Maybe I better have a look at this new novel.

If things go according to plan, one or two or a whole crowd of parents will raise a ruckus. They’ll go to PTA meetings and insist on meeting with the superintendent; they’ll feed stories to the newspaper. And the topic of all that noise will be your novel. You will be gracious when they ask you questions, but unyielding in your assertion that your novel is not morally corrupt. That will get you some more sales. Maybe there’s nothing sexual in the novel at all, but that doesn’t matter. Put the idea in people’s heads and it will flourish. Imagine mothers and fathers reading your novel under cover of darkness with a flashlight, looking for the sex scenes… and wondering if they are so out of it, they don’t even get double entrendres anymore. Now nobody can admit they don’t see the problem with the novel, because that would expose them to ridicule.

Do you know of a better way to interest people in a book than to forbid them to read it?

So there you go, instant celebrity on the local level. If you work really hard, you might be able to parlay it up a notch to regional papers, and if it’s a slow newsday, who knows where it will end? You might find yourself sitting across from Oprah after all.

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If you're going to fantasize publically…

I missed this story when it first made the rounds last week. Then I ran into it at Writers Unboxed.

The short version: a guy writes a novelette (*his term)), self publishes it, and does some promotion. Among other marketing approaches, he starts claiming that his book was an Oprah pick. He goes so far as to put a transcript of his on-air interview with Oprah. Oh, how she loved his book.

fakeblurbsWhen I first read about this, I wondered if the guy might really be delusional. Psychosis can do things like that, make you absolutely sure that you had tea with the Queen when you were last in London. Then there he came clean, apologized, and claimed it was “an error in judgement.” Which means, he wasn’t delusional, and it was a conscious decision on his part to perpetuate the fraud.

I have no idea if there will be legal action against him, but that’s less interesting to me than this guerilla-style approach to marketing. Damn the topedoes, full speed ahead. This is a writer who is so desperate for attention that he lost all perspective. What he did was absolutely wrong, but I can see how he got there. Those of us who struggle from book to book and contract to contract know how frustrating and discourging the process can be. Authors often play games with fake covers (see the blurbs here for Pajama Girls?) but this is usually for personal consumption and a bit of a laugh.

One other thing that I’ve been thinking about since i read about this fictionalized Oprah love-fest: why Oprah? If you’re going to make something up, if you’re willing to be exposed as a fraud, why not go all the way? Unless, of course, you know you’ll get caught and that there will be corresponding publicity (author goes off the deep end!), the kind that puts you on the front page of newspapers. Which is, after all, what the guy wanted. So maybe things worked out just the way he hoped.

If I had to make up a fake interview, it wouldn’t be with Oprah. Most probably it would be Jon Stewart. He doesn’t do novels, but so what? On paper we could have a grand old time. Or you could go at this sideways. If you had to make up a television interview with a major personality who (of course) adores your work, who would it be?

Cage of Stars- Jacquelyn Mitchard

[asa book]0446578754[/asa]There’s a fiction subgenre that doesn’t really have a name, or at least, not one that’s used consistently. The kind of novel I’m talking about isn’t about romance or romantic love in the first line, though that may be one of the subplots. These are novels that examine the way families work, or fail to work, in the face of crisis. And I mean crisis in the bigger sense of the word. Divorce would be the least of the problems in this kind of book. We’re talking accidental deaths, fatal illness, rape, murder, permanent disability, kidnapping, felony arrests. You get the picture. The term domestic drama is sometimes used.

Some of the authors who are active in this genre (which is sometimes called domestic drama, a term I dislike because it feels dismissive) are Jacquelyn Mitchard (The Deep End of the Ocean, A Theory of Relativity), Jodi Picoult (My Sister’s Keeper, Vanishing Acts), Judith Guest (Ordinary People), Elizabeth Berg (Range of Motion,We Are All Welcome Here), and Elizabeth Strout (Abide with Me).

Somehow this subgenre — though it is written primarily (or maybe even exclusively) by women — has mostly been spared trivialization or undue snark from the litcriterati. A few of these novels have received both high critical praise and popular success.Ordinary People is the best example of that, and it is also the novel that sets the standard for this genre. And of course, not all attempts at this kind of family in crisis novel are equally successful or well written.

Before I talk about Cage of Stars, I wanted to ask you what other novelists or novels you think might fit into this category.

So now, Mitchard. She’s best known forThe Deep End of the Ocean, which was an early Oprah pick. It was her first novel, and it catapulted her into the best seller list. Publisher’s Weekly said: “One of the most remarkable things about this rich, moving and altogether stunning first novel is Mitchard’s assured command of narrative structure and stylistic resources. Her story about a child’s kidnapping and its enduring effects upon his parents, siblings and extended family is a blockbuster read.”

I’ve read most but not all of Mitchard’s novels since her first. The second one,The Most Wanted [asa book]0451196856[/asa] probably made the biggest impression on me. Publisher’s Weekly wasn’t so happy with it: “Despite portentous foreshadowing, Mitchard second novel never achieves the dramatic momentum and the emotional immediacy of her acclaimed fiction debut,The Deep End of the Ocean. But her depiction of two female protagonists is so large-hearted and wise that readers undoubtedly will be engrossed in their story.”

Side note: Beware the review — especially the PW review– that starts with the word despite. I speak from personal experience here. Another note: I think they’re wrong.

I read Mitchard’s newest about two weeks ago, and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. Of course that’s a good thing, a story that stays with you. But in this case there was something off, and I couldn’t put my finger on it. One thing that jumped out at me was how much her style has changed, or maybe just her approach to this story is a departure. Not necessarily a bad departure, but I was strongly reminded of Jodi Picoult in a way that Mitchard probably wasn’t aiming for.

Cage of Stars is about a small, healthy, close knit Mormon family that lives in a tiny rural community where people generally get along and take care of each other. In the course of the novel you learn a good amount about the LDSaints, all provided in a matter of fact way. You get this information through the main character, Veronica Swan (Ronnie to family and friends), who is twelve years old when the novel opens with a very powerful image: “At the moment when Scott Early killed Becky and Ruthie, I was hiding in the shed.”

This is a story not so much about the murder of two little girls as it is about the way violence is embedded into the heart of their twelve year old sister. Scott Early, who commits this crime, does so in the grip of a psychotic break. It’s his first, and with it, his history as a good guy, a man loyal to family and scrupulously honest, is null and void. He is not convicted of the double murder of the Swan girls, but is sent off to a hospital for the criminally insane for treatment.

Ronnie spends the rest of her adolescence nurturing her anger, while her parents work to overcome their despondency and sorrow after the little sisters are buried. Eventually they meet with Scott Early in the hospital and they forgive him. Which only makes Ronnie more determined to extract justice.

Most of the novel deals with how she does that. Her plan, which is elaborate and well thought out, eventually takes her to California where she inserts herself into the lives of the now released, medicated and stable Scott Early and his wife and infant daughter. This sounds like a retelling of The Babysitter, no? But it’s more complex than that, and we’re in Ronnie’s head for the whole time, watching her thoughts as they evolve.

And here’s the cause of my discomfort: This is another case where I’m unhappy about a first person teenage narrator. And I freely admit that this is a matter of my own quirk, my need for a broader narrative scope and a dislike of the restrictions Mitchard puts on her readers by keeping them in Ronnie’s head.

So is this a good story? Yes. Is it worth reading? You will like it, if you aren’t as sensitive to the narrative voice issues as I am. If you are getting started with fiction writing yourself, this is a novel that might be instructive in terms of approach and structure. It’s one of the few cases where a prologue felt off to me (I generally like prologues; which you probably knew if you’ve ready any of my novels).

At any rate, I continue to be a great fan of Mitchard’s work and look forward to the next novel.