Saturday, July 1, 2017

Reflections on The Promotion of the "Blood Cries Out"

The "Blood Cries Out" was published in July 2014.
As some of you have probably heard by now, I'm heading to London and Rome in about eight weeks.  It's part of a study abroad program with Marylhurst University.  (I'll be graduating in less than a year now with a BA in English Literature and New Media.)  Anyway, I plan to change the focus of my blog writings to #LondonRome2017 starting later this weekend.  Before making the transition, though, I thought this might be a good opportunity to share some reflections on the marketing and promotion of this novel back in 2014/2015.  

Unless perhaps one's a poet, it's not usually the writer's goal to sell fewer than a few hundred books. While the sales have been a little disheartening, I do think there are lessons that can be taken away here, and these lessons are perhaps also of some use to other writers.  Without further ado, then, here are the top ten things to keep in mind when promoting (and writing) your own work.

1.  Don't necessarily expect even relatively close friends to understand the importance of your novel to you.

After you invest years of research, writing, rewriting, and editing into a novel it begins to feel like the birth of a...really significant hamster, let's say.  Unless all of one's friends are writers, which would not necessarily be such a healthy thing, don't expect most of them to even remotely understand the personal significance of what you're revealing about yourself.  Good friends may show no interest, and you should avoid holding it against them.  You can't make someone excited for your book, so you should really not try to do so--too much anyway.  Many of my of friends, for instance, aren't into fiction at all, and this can be quite annoying.  What one really needs to do is find creative ways for the novel to be seen, read, and talked about by a larger group of people.  Think big, and try to ignore the people close to you who really couldn't seem to care less.

2.  Understand exactly who your audience is before you begin promotions work.

One of the challenges I faced in The Blood Cries Out was that I was striving for a strong sense of realism as well as a powerful sense of place.  I'm drawn to place, and I won't apologize for the emphasis, but it is worth noting what unexpected things can happen.  With my novel, for instance, I encountered two audiences that had issues with my book from the start: Catholics and non-Catholics.  That's actually a pretty large group...  So, what had I done to incur the ill will of so many good readers?  This quote from Flannery O'Connor goes far in explaining my problem with Catholics.

Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t try to write fiction.  It’s not a grand enough job for you.

FLANNERY O'CONNOR, Mystery and Manners

Many conservative Catholics (and Protestants) have become very comfortable with sanitized fiction; it's fiction that has no connection with reality.  If it's a mystery about a police detective, the author never took the time to learn about the daily life of police officers.  All their "knowledge" comes from television and movies, and that's not a good way to write.  These writers won't use profanity, because that kind of language offends them.  Well, it offends me, too; it's still necessary at times.  That doesn't mean the dialogue has to resemble the rantings of Allen Ginsberg, but you need to establish the authenticity of your characters.  You do this by letting them speak for themselves.

Another challenge appears to have been that non-Catholics assumed that my novel would be preachy or "overly" Catholic in nature.  I don't believe it was, and that has never actually been a criticism that I have received from anyone.  Catholicism deals, after all, with every aspect of what it means to be human. I don't think that a work can be a work of fiction can be too Catholic, but I certainly can see works being so preachy in tone that it distracts or annoys the reader.

In conclusion, however, it should be noted that there are some reasonable steps one can take to minimize the problems outlined above.  You don't have to lessen the quality of your work in order to give it a more broad appeal, but it does require careful thought and reflection.  In the case of my mystery novel, for example, the next work will likely not contain religious symbols on the cover, and it will likely not be so closely set in the heart of a bustling city like Seattle.  More details another time...

3.  If you're self-publishing or working with a hybrid press like I did, hire an editor.

I did the editing in-house, so to speak.  It was a family project.  We came very close to a professional edit, but we missed the mark in about a dozen instances.  When you have a potential reviewer bring your confidence down several notches by her vivid explanation of your errors, it makes for a memorable experience.  After you have climbed out from under the rock and into the light again (wearing sunglasses and a hat, of course, so as not to be recognized by any prospective readers), you may find that you never can quite promote the work the same way again; you've lost enthusiasm and passion for your own writing, and that's a seriously bad place to find yourself in as a writer.

4.  Don't self-publish.

All right, I know this is easier said than done, but self-publishing--even hybrid presses like Light Switch Press--just don't provide the platform you need to be a successful writer.  Are there exceptions to this rule?  Absolutely.  Many of them.  (Of course, some like The Shack, remain terrible books even after picked-up by that traditional publisher.)  Let's use my publisher as an example: Light Switch Press.  First, they offered no editorial services without a hefty price tag.  When I brought changes to them the first time, they were pretty reasonable.  The second time?  No so much.  As I recall, it was going to be close to a thousand dollars to get about half a dozen corrections done.
Second, beyond the initial announcement, there are no ongoing publicity efforts: nothing.  As I understand, this is pretty standard in the self-publishing industry.  It's important that your book is more than a simple revenue stream to your publisher.  If they don't promote their authors or their products, you should seriously consider going a different route.

Third, most importantly, your prospective readers are going to take your book a little less seriously than if it came from a traditional press.  That's not a good thing.  This also holds true to bookstores and libraries.  I had a pretty miserable experience with the library in Friday Harbor, because the book seemed to be missing entry into some list or other that they needed to utilize for all book purchases.  (I also don't believe they cared for the cross on the cover, and that might be a point for another day.)

Fourth, self-published works often have horrible and truly incompetent cover art.  This may not seem a big deal, but it is.  Assuming you're not fortunate enough to be married to an artist, you need to ensure that your book's cover truly sets it apart from the competition.  If you choose self-publication, this means (most likely) that you need to hire your own artist.  And don't ask them to do it for free.

5.  Beware of hiring a publicist.

Publicists can be a big help in spreading the word about your book, but they can also seriously drain your bank account.  Mine worked ostensibly for two months, but none of her efforts appear to have resulted in even a single sale.  (She didn't even buy her own copy of the book.)  It boosted my confidence for a while, and it was a fun experience to work closely with this person, but in the end the services were not really worth the cost.  A much less expensive approach can be to find author or reviewer blogs that will feature your work, or make yourself available for interviews.  There are also services that will promote your book online for scheduled periods of time, and this can be helpful.

6.  Stay grounded and remember how your brainstorming of ideas may appear to others.  

It's easy to get excited about the process of getting your book out there to the public, and it's fun to explore unusual or expensive promotional avenues.  It's best to think carefully about particular approaches before contacting someone about them, however; put yourself in the other person's shoes.  There was a young woman, for instance, who worked in the general entertainment industry, whom I asked to consider serving as a model for a promotional shot for the story.  What likely led to her blocking yours truly was the fact that her character's death in The Blood Cries Out is not a particularly happy or sanitized scene.  So, when this person realized I was asking her to be a model (relating to the protagonist's past relationship with her), I think she assumed it pertained more to the death scene than to the back story.  You want to avoid creeping out people in the publishing or entertainment industries when possible...

7.  Beware too much self-promotion of your new work.  

Let's face it.  When people promote their own books or music incessantly on social media, it can get old quickly.  Of course, if you are a self-published author, this may be about the only avenue you have to promote your work before spending dollars.  This is another reason in my mind to avoid self-publishing altogether.  The usual approach requires you as the writer to peddle your book to your friends and family first.  That's all fine and good, but it's not going to get you to the top of the charts.  It's also a good way to annoy those close to you.

8.  Don't give up.

If your book fails to sell the way you had hoped, try to avoid throwing in the towel.  Try exploring new areas for writing or consider collaborating on a project with another author.  Get out of your comfort zone.  In my case, I returned to school to complete my degree a year after publishing my mystery novel. It's never been a choice I've regretted.

9.  Pursue reviews as best you can.

Reviews are terribly important in the life of a work of literature--especially in the digital age.  Find ways to promote authentic and genuine reviews like novel giveaways or contests.  Readers usually appreciate these opportunities, and it makes them feel closer to the author--and the story.  Book giveaways are a good way to promote your work, but, at the same time, be careful about giving too many copies away.  I still regret agreeing to give free copies to a local radio station; the signed copies are likely on sale somewhere online even now.

10.  Keep reading, writing, and practicing your faith.

Hand-in-hand with number eight above, keep reading and keep writing as often as you can.  Read authors you treasure and explore others that you're not so sure about.  Push your boundaries and pursue a higher quality of writing product each time you finish an article or a work of fiction.  

The last one may seem out of place, but I really believe in faith playing an important part to the quality of art you create.  As I pointed out on this blog recently, look at how music, literature, and visual arts have crashed and burned in the last century.  While there are exceptions to the rule, modern artists (relating to all branches of the arts) seem to have lost a connection with the eternal, and that loss is reflected within their works in disjointed text, cacophonous notes, or paintings with form but lacking in any real substance.  As authors, I suggest, many of us have lost our grip on words, because we have lost our grip on Him.  


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