Posted by: oneyearbook | March 13, 2009

Word of mouth

“The publicists have done their job.”

Yeah, zombies!

Yeah, zombies!

So says Martin Levin, books editor at the Globe & Mail, on his blog,  Shelf Life. He’s referring to the book Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, which adds zombie fighting to the original text of Pride & Prejudice.  (I’ll admit it. I’m kind of interested in reading it.) Levin received it as a book review package, marked with a bloody handprint, which is the element he is saying caught his attention and thus, as stated above, the publicists’ work is done. Attention caught.

Actually, although he seems to think that his readers won’t have heard of it, and, generally, when mentioning a book published by a small press, he would probably be right. But this book, by virtue of the fact that it has the best hook of any book that will come out in 2009 (seriously – the title says it all – “It’s Pride and Prejudice, plus zombies” – no further discussion needed, either you’re into it or you aren’t), has already been spreading like wildfire all over the Internet.  I’ve seen it mentioned on at least four large-readership blogs, not all of them literary, before it hit his; the publicists have definitely done their job, although I’d argue that it wasn’t a particularly hard one in this case.

But that, right now, in the literary world, is generally a problem. How does one bring attention to a book that doesn’t have something like zombies going for it? Andrew Davidson’s The Gargoyle got a lot of attention a while back, partially because he got a huge, huge advance for a debut novelist, and partially because it, too, has a hook: a severely burned narrator and the tantalizing mystery of multiple past lives …

There’s a comment on Levin’s blog that makes me laugh: “Oh, what’s a poor academic publicist to do? I could send you a pomegranate with our next women’s studies book.”

Yeah, some books just aren’t going to sell themselves, or intrigue reviewers, in quite the same way as others. When I drive down the highway to work I consider whether one of the giant billboards that line the sides, mostly advertising hotels, restaurants, charity causes, and insurance, would have a sales impact if they advertised a book. They never have, in the years I’ve driven past them. Is that because the pay off wouldn’t be high enough? Starbucks has books that they promote along with their line of music, but I rarely see the books in the stores the way I see the CDs crowding the tills. Why is that? How about television advertising? Too expensive again? Are we back to author tours, book reviews, and word of mouth as options? (And, these days, web-of-mouth, if you will.)  I’m no publicist, and I’ll admit to not knowing a lot about that side of the publishing industry.

But I do think this is the major dilemma of the modern book industry. Sure, some people like the books that got written 50, 100 years ago better, but for every one of those, there’s someone out there that believes that literature today is taking risks, creating art, and raising the bar. But there’s a lot more of it than there used to be, and perhaps less interest, and fewer and fewer ways to put it in front of that shrinking audience. (Book review sections seem to generally getting the axe, but I do question if they are the great way of selling that some think; I buy a fair number of books and, when I someday have more money, will buy far more, but I don’t think I’ve even once based the purchase on a review.) So how do I get someone to hear about my book, hear good things, enough good things or interesting things or whatever that they are willing to shell out mad cash for it? (The price of hardback books is a post for another day.) This is a question of some import to me: I believe I can write a novel in the next year. And I’d like to believe that I can, with work, place it with a publisher. But at that point I’d rather not see it disappear below the surface with hundreds of others because it didn’t involve zombies or past lives and book marketing is the world’s most inexact science. I’m going to continue to think about it, that’s for sure.

Or consider adding a few discreet zombies.

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