Since the advent of electronic books and the simultaneous contraction of the bricks and mortar bookstore franchises, authors have had to alter their strategies for touring behind their newest books. Last week I attended consecutive tour stops for different books: one for Mad Magazine, held at Barnes and Noble; one for my client Helen Wan’s The Partner Track, held at the office of the law firm Paul, Weiss. The vibes were totally different; as, I suspect, were the practical results.
At Barnes and Noble, five editors of Mad, flogging their latest anniversary volume of reprinted parody, sat in the basement in front of a traditional crowd of author appearance audience members: part fanatics (including my enraptured 14 year old), part random walk-ins (the German couple who stayed for five minutes until they started talking about Spy VS Spy, and part bookstore regulars, who come and listen either in order to learn something or because it’s simply a Place to Go. The editors were great: funny, erudite, and in the case of 92 year-old Al Jaffee, legendary. As a longtime reader of the magazine (never mind the father of a future comic artist—if he has his way), I was thoroughly entertained for 45 minutes, and left with four new (hardcover!) books.
But my overwhelming impression, when I left the bookstore, was one of depression. The Mad guys seemed to know that there was little energy in the room, that they were putting on an incredibly smart, professional presentation, with a Power Point presentation and great stories, with little hope of really moving the dial on sales. And it was a Thursday night with good weather in Manhattan. I can’t imagine what the crowd would have been like on a rainy Tuesday in, say, Kansas City.
The next night I went to Paul, Weiss, and looked in on Helen Wan. Helen’s book is about an associate at a (very Paul, Weiss-like) New York law firm who is coerced into becoming the face of Diversity and Inclusion at the firm after a racist event at the summer outing. Helen is a well-connected lawyer herself, having started at the very firm she was presenting to and now working as an in-house counsel for Time Inc. This appearance was her 31st out of 60 this fall and winter, all at law schools, law firms, and large corporations. She’d launched at Green Light bookstore in Brooklyn, but that was her only store appearance.
When I walked into the offices, I was immediately greeted by a buffet, with a bar in the back of the room and 55 attorneys, each of whom had been given a hardcopy of the book when he or (more typically) she had responded positively to the emailed invitation to the event. Helen was interviewed by a partner, and led a lively and highly interactive chat for 45 minutes. I didn’t need to ask how she’d do in Kansas City because she’d been there the week before, with similar success.
Now look: Helen’s circumstance is VERY, VERY unusual. She has the fortunate combination of experience, connections, and a book that dovetails perfectly with a large professional (and wealthy) audience. But it’s for precisely that reason that her publisher and I decided that the best strategy was to ignore the traditional appearance route and concentrate on this particular strategy: she would be able to promote her first book by trying to capture the most likely audience that would find it interesting, in the most efficient fashion, rather than trying to capture the Browsing market.
And I’ve found in the past several years that this has become the preferred, and often most effective way, for authors to market their books. Sometimes this is via a blog tour (particularly effective when in a genre with a lively online community, like British historical mysteries). In those circumstances an author can find interested readers throughout the country and even the world through the portal of a popular website. Sometimes, particularly in children’s books, this is by visiting schools, where the audience is large, if captive (and sometimes more concerned with preventing cooties than listening to a grown-up talk about a book).
And this is not (before Marilyn Thiele gives me the evil eye over the Dead Guy Internet Tubes) in place of a well-organized bookstore appearance. There are stores and booksellers (ask Jeff Cohen about Cathy Genna sometime) who absolutely GET writers, know their community, and understand well how to put on a successful, enthusiastic event. And there are writers who can command an audience anywhere they travel.
But much of the time, we are looking for ways for authors to segment their market, to put themselves in front of the most people at a time who will buy their book. As the habit of browsing through bookstores decreases and Discoverability becomes a more and more important (if oddly distasteful by its own jargon-y existence) term, we find ourselves thinking outside the box toward law firms, or churches, or knitting circles or (I suspect one day) covens. This is hard work. And it’s almost always the author’s responsibility (the publisher needs to connect the more traditional knots most of the time, though they will typically support a creative approach within reason). But when a debut novelist with a plan and a platform can outdraw more than a century of The Lighter Side of… experience, it is vital for authors (and their agents and editors and publicists) to sit up straight and notice, and learn.