This writing business. Pencils and what-not. Over rated, if you ask me. Silly stuff. Nothing in it. Eeyore
Almost anyone can be an author; the business is to collect money and fame from this state of being. A.A. Milne
In today’s world of digital DIY books and artless self promotion, the idea of a visor-ed editor nursing beginning writers through their early works is pretty quaint stuff. These days, everybody is looking for a Best Seller — the celebrity among books — which often is known just for its celebrity and not necessarily for its content. So unless you have a recognizable name, an agent or an online book that has already sold 10,000 copies, your chances of being taken into the fold at Penguin Press are pretty slim.
But suppose you do find a publisher. One that will support you. Promote you. A publisher who will sign you up for a mass market paperback. Is that enough to ensure your literary success? Are you set? What are your chances, really? Can you kick back and watch the balloons go up or is there anything you can do to narrow the odds?
The following article by John Lippman appeared in the Wall Street Journal several years ago and it had a profound impact on me and how I viewed the business of writing. It is an amazing tale about a first time author who decides his publisher’s promotional efforts need a little help and then proceeds to do anything, and everything, to raise his book above the masses. Does it work? Is it worth the tireless effort? The money? You be the judge.
Allow me to pause for a moment of shameless commerce: my detective novels can be downloaded from amazon.com/author/dcwall. Tks.
John Lippman, staff writer for the Wall Street Journal
For Peter Lance, the marketing of “First Degree Burn,” a novel about a firefighting sleuth, has been a five-alarm job. He has spent months promoting the book and begging stores to hold signings. Indeed, he thinks so much of the book, he paid $4,032 out of his own pocket for 1,200 promotional copies of the $5.99 mystery paperback published July 1.
Of course he cares. He isn’t the publicist, he’s the author. And he isn’t about to see his book disappear in the haze of 52,000 titles (including nonfiction) published this year. A few of those books, like Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes” which won a Pulitzer Prize this year, really catch fire. Most just go up in smoke.
Mr. Lance, 49 years old, is a successful independent television scriptwriter with credits including “Miami Vice” and “Wiseguy.” He is also a former ABC news producer. “First Degree Burn,” his first novel, is about a New York City fire marshal who investigates a string of murders involving an arsonist and a vanished painting. Mr. Lance was paid a fairly typical $8,000 advance. And, so far, he has shelled out an atypical $34,762 of his own money to try to crack the book market.
In other ways, his is a common writer’s tale of woe. Publishers lavish promotion money on books likely to sell written by bestseller writers. One of those lucky guys, Robert Crais, author of the Elvis Cole mystery series, says, “Everyone else pretty much has to fend for himself.”
Few could possibly fend more fiercely than Mr. Lance. During the past six months, from his home in Los Angeles, he has nudged “First Degree Burn” into every conceivable book nook, from chain stores to mystery-reader clubs to local libraries. He had to, he says. He was unable to light a fire under his New York publisher, Berkley Publishing Group. “My publicist hasn’t called me back in five weeks,” he said.
To hear Berkley tell it, that’s nonsense. The company publishes 700 titles a year, some of them reissues and about 60 of them mysteries. Berkley says it promoted “First Degree Burn” just as heavily as it does any other mystery novel by an unknown. The company dispatched more than 200 galley proofs to book reviewers and mystery critics. Publishers Weekly, in its pre-publication review, called the book “a smashing debut.” If others review the book, Mr. Lance will hear about it from Burrell’s, the clipping service he hired.
Berkley says its first printing of Mr. Lance’s novel was 55,000 copies, again fairly typical for a paperback first novel. Berkley is a division of Penguin Putnam Inc., which in turn is a unit of Britain’s Pearson PLC.
Berkley’s spokeswoman says it may be several months before actual retail sales are known, but all but 5,000 copies have been shipped. Will there be a second printing? It’s too soon to say.
In March, four months before the publication date, Mr. Lance spent $1,000 at Kinko’s to print and bind 50 copies of the galleys to ship to friends and former colleagues, such as ABC News Anchor Peter Jennings. He hoped Mr. Jennings might write a selling blurb for the book, but he never heard from him. He did get a plug from Miami true-crime writer Edna Buchanan. “Explodes off the page,” she raved. “Hot, hot, hot!”
Then Mr. Lance assembled a list of 250 mystery bookstores nationwide, compiled from searches on the Internet and a reference book called “The Deadly Directory.” He mailed the first eight chapters to independent bookstores, enclosing pitch letters. “I didn’t want you to make the commitment,” he wrote them, “without sampling the book.” The printing cost him $2,600, the shipping $562.50.
In April, Mr. Lance bought 1,200 copies of “First Degree Burn” from Berkley at 40% off the cover price. He took 350 signed copies with him to the National Fire Protection Association convention in Los Angeles, spending $1,200 for a booth, plus $350 for furniture and $250 for a phone. He sold 200 copies.
In May, he ran big ads in Firehouse magazine and Fire & Arson Investigator, trade journals with a combined circulation of 510,000. The ads, including design work, ran him $5,900. Setting up two toll-free mail-order phone lines cost another $850.
And now, in the best network television style, we’re going to step away for a commercial before revealing the exciting conclusion of Mr. Lance’s assault on the world of mass market paperbacks. Be sure to tune in next week. Same Bat Time. Same Bat Channel. Until then, please visit amazon.com/author/dcwall and download a copy of “One Cried Murder” or “Exit Marks the Spot.” “Dead Last” will be joining them shortly. It may turn out to be the most entertaining three dollars you’ve ever spent.