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By Nick Taylor

About this blog: This blog is a place for conversation about books. I post reviews of what I'm reading--lots of contemporary fiction, but also classics and the occasional work of narrative nonfiction. I am always looking for new books to read, so ...  (More)

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Publicity! The Story of a Novel, Part 5

Uploaded: Mar 10, 2014
Note: Nick Taylor (as T.T. Monday) will be appearing at Kepler's Books in Menlo Park on Tuesday, March 11, at 7:30pm. The reading is free and open to the public.

In 2007, when my first novel was published, I hired some friends to make a website for the book. I remember that my only instruction was that I didn't want to write a blog. "No one cares what I ate for lunch today," I said. "They just want to read the book."

So, that was then. When I created the website for my new book, The Setup Man by T.T. Monday, I decided that a blog would be the central feature. In part this was a selfish choice, because I find tweets and Facebook status updates too short to say anything interesting, and this way I can write something more substantial about baseball, or writing, or baseball writing, and then tweet out a link. I also think blogs are better for browsing, increasing the chance that someone who discovers my work will linger on the site and be convinced to buy a book.

Beside the blog, I built all the usual features of an author's promotional site into, like pages listing my public appearances, reviews, and contact info for subsidiary rights and other business. I got permission from Doubleday to post the first two chapters online, as a free sample. And of course there are multiple encouragements to Buy The Book.

A popular topic of conversation among writers is how the work of publicizing new releases has shifted from the publishers' publicity departments to the authors themselves. The authors who believe this is true generally resent the change, and you can understand why: authors chose this career because they wanted to write books, not tweets or blog posts. Or as a friend once said, with heavy sarcasm, "All the time I was in graduate school, and all those failed novels I threw in the drawer--all that time I was dreaming of one day filming a book trailer!"

No question book publicity has changed, driven largely by the decline of newspaper book reviews and the rise of social media. The competition for book reviews, which was always intense, is fiercer than ever, as all the major metropolitan newspapers but one (the New York Times) have shut down their independent Sunday book sections. More books than ever are being published in this country (over 290,000 in 2011), but think about how few of them actually come to your attention. Recommendation engines like Amazon's can help steer us toward new discoveries, but they lack the authority and the nuance of newspaper reviews, and as George Packer's recent New Yorker article points out, Amazon search results are bought and sold just like table placements at Barnes & Noble.

Because publishers know they can no longer rely on reviews to drive readers to their books, they've put more and more of their resources into social media. Each of the major publishing houses now has staff members who concentrate only on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and so on. Authors are also expected to grow and cultivate their audiences on their own, the same way bands do, with mailing lists and Facebook pages and swarms of Twitter followers. This shouldn't surprise anyone; publishers have always been interested in an authors' "platforms" -- the audiences they bring from their day jobs. Journalists, politicians, celebrities, and professional athletes are examples of authors who bring platforms to their book projects. Not everyone who knows your name will buy your book, of course, but you are much more likely to get a publishing deal if you can show a publisher that you have 30,000 followers on Twitter or Likes on your Facebook page. (Social media makes it easier than ever to measure your platform.)

For authors without big platforms, the new publicity regime can be simultaneously empowering and discouraging. Twenty years ago, the only way to get your name out there was to buy an ad in a newspaper or magazine, and if your publisher wasn't going to spring for that, you were probably doomed to obscurity. Now, authors now have at their disposal the same tools the publishers are using, and they are encouraged to work in parallel with the publishers' publicity departments. San Francisco author and former Twitter employee Robin Sloan ran an expert publicity campaign for his first novel, the geek thriller Mr. Penumbra's 24-Hour Bookstore, in 2012. The novel sprung from a story Sloan first posted on his website, and I'm sure his publisher understood that he would be able to leverage his Internet presence to drive book sales. But Robin Sloan's web presence is the product of years of living in the medium, accumulating friends and contacts, becoming familiar with new tools and techniques. It is wrong to think that all an author needs to do is open a Twitter account, start tweeting, and followers will come. If you don't have a long history online, you will need some other kind of media to drive followers to you. Otherwise they don't know you're there.

And this is my problem with the argument (made by disgruntled authors) that traditional publicity has vanished. It hasn't. In fact it's more important than ever. Thanks to the Internet, the potential for amplification is huge, but that first newspaper book review, or shout-out in some other popular medium, remains essential. Without it, your potential blockbuster is a bomb without a fuse.
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