One of my most important formative experiences as a writer was working in bookstores. I worked in three shops: a specialist science fiction store (Bakka Books in Toronto), an academic store near the University of Toronto campus, and a dreadful suburban mall bookstore. Going into my first bookstore job, I’d been supremely confident in my understanding of the bookselling trade: after all, I’d been spending all my pocket money and after-school wages in book shops since I’d been old enough to ride the subway on my own. I didn’t just shop at bookstores, I haunted them. I could happily spend a day reading the blurbs on every single book in the science fiction and fantasy section, perusing every likely-looking magazine on the rack, looking through all the interesting reference books and the sale tables, hunting for…. Well, I didn’t know exactly what I was looking for, and that was the point, right? I just wanted a great book, something I hadn’t heard of, new or old, used or new, genre or mainstream, just something that’d grab me by the ganglia that reading activated and drag me around for a few days.
Needless to say, the reality of working in a bookstore didn’t have much in common with my imaginings. On the one hand, I had been right that many bookstore clerks really liked books and were delighted to talk about them with customers (at least, I was that sort of clerk). On the other hand, I’d been totally wrong about the reverence I’d imagined that booksellers had for books. I’d been taught to handle books by librarians, taught to think of books as something more than mere articles of commerce. Books had lives and afterlives, living on as cherished friends in the bookcase and then resurfacing as precious used books, rich with history and old bus-transfer bookmarks.
But the reality of books was this: a publisher’s rep would come in and tell us breathlessly about the lead titles – how much promotion they were up for, how much the house believed in the title, how well the author had done before. We’d order a pile of hardcovers, generally a smaller pile than we’d been asked to take, and usually, they’d sell modestly well. Then we’d return the leftovers, and some months later, they’d resurface as remainders, with their dustjackets clipped or magic-markered lines drawn on their page-edges. Then they’d come in as paperbacks, hang around for a few months longer, and vanish. Sometimes, a copy or two would surface as used trade-ins, and sometimes a regular would ask us to order a copy, but within a short time, the book would no longer be in the publisher’s catalog in any form. It would be gone.
This was the greatest shock of my bookselling career, because these weren’t always bad books. Sometimes, they’d be wonderful books, the kind of books you wrote enthusiastic ‘‘shelf-talkers’’ for and recommended to all the regulars – the kind of books you fell in love with. Sometimes there was an afterword that talked about how much heart and soul the author poured into the book – the years of work and heartbreak. And just like that, the book would be gone.
Now, obviously much has changed since then. The advent of online stores like Amazon combined with efficiencies in short print runs has made it possible to keep modest sellers in the stream of commerce for something like perpetuity. But one thing hasn’t changed: most books – even those that are deservedly well-loved by publishers, readers, and booksellers – make hardly a ripple on release and fade away to nothing before you know it.
Here’s the thing: I’ve just described the best-promoted books in the field, the ones with the biggest push. Books whose authors tour, books with whole pages in the catalog and special, personal mention from the sales reps. Books with lots of advance reader copies, liberally distributed to critics and booksellers and influential readers. Most books get none of that: these days, they’ll get a few hardcopy ARCs and a lot more digital ones (as a reviewer, I’m skeptical of how much attention electronic ARCs get), a short summary in the catalog, and not much more. The author and her friends will make as big a fuss as possible, and sometimes this works (especially in the Internet era, where readers and writers are much more intimately involved in each others’ lives than ever before).
Modestly promoted books aren’t necessarily doomed. A favorable review in the trade press, a surprise review in a mainstream newspaper, online buzz, word-of-mouth among the super-networked library world – they can all translate into healthy sales. Publishers generally know what they’re doing, and they’ve got well-tuned, semi-automated systems for getting readers to pay attention to books. They’ve had a lot of practice.
Writers, by and large, haven’t. Not successful, established writers, and certainly not brand new, fresh-out-of-the-wrapper writers. It doesn’t really matter how much time you spend hanging around bookstores or browsing online stores, until you’ve marketed a book, you don’t really know how to market a book.
I certainly didn’t.
Oh, when I launched my DIY short story collection With a Little Help, I figured I could deploy all the stuff I’d done when my other books had been published by mainstream publishers, the stuff that had given my books a little push to get them out of the midlist and into wider circles of attention and discussion. I knew I’d have to do some of the stuff my publisher had done, but like everyone doing something complicated for the first time, I dramatically underestimated how much work this would be. It’s not impossible, and it’s not horrible work – it’s challenging, exciting stuff, but it’s incredibly time consuming and it can be tough (and expensive – sending out hundreds of review copies ain’t cheap, but it was worth it, if only for the major feature in The Wall Street Journal this garnered me).
I get a lot of e-mail from writers starting out who want to know whether it’s worth trying to get published by major houses. The odds are poor – only a small fraction of books find a home in mainstream publishing – and the process can be slow and frustrating. We’ve all heard horror stories, both legit (‘‘Why is there a white girl on the cover of my book about a black girl?’’) and suspect (‘‘My editor was a philistine who simply didn’t understand the nuances of my work’’). And we’ve all heard about writers who’ve met with modest – or stellar – success with self-publishing. So why not cut out the middleman and go direct to readers?
There’s not a thing wrong with that plan, provided that it is a plan. Mainstream publishers have spent hundreds of millions of dollars over decades learning and re-learning how to get people to care about the existence of books. They often do so very well, and sometimes they screw it up, but at least they’re methodically attempting to understand and improve the process by which large masses of people decide to read a book (even better, decide to buy and read a book).
I firmly believe that there are writers out there today who have valuable insights and native talent that would make them natural successes at marketing their own work. If you are one of those writers – if you have a firm theory that fits available evidence about how to get people to love your work – then by all means, experiment! Provided, of course, that you are pleased and challenged by doing this commercial stuff that has almost nothing in common with imagining stories and writing them down. Provided that you find it rewarding and satisfying.
You’ll probably screw it up (I did). You’ll probably learn and improve (I did). If you’re lucky, you’ll make some money at it (I did). If you’re very lucky, you might make a lot of money at it (not yet!). But, as with any arts venture and any entrepreneurial effort, the realistic odds are that you’ll be one of the people whose efforts fail to shake the world. The realistic odds are that you’ll earn more working a regular job in an office than you will trying to invent fictional worlds and then invent new ways of selling them. There’s only one good reason to do that kind of thing: because it makes you sane and whole and happy.
Getting people to care about the products of your imagination is a profound and infinitely complex task that will absorb as much attention as you give it. Every book and every author brings a different proposition to the negotiation with readers, but there’s one thing they all have in common: unless someone takes charge of doing something, something clever and active and good and slightly improbable, no one will care about the book or the person who wrote it.
Cory Doctorow is the author of Walkaway, Little Brother and Information Doesn’t Want to Be Free (among many others); he is the co-owner of Boing Boing, a special consultant to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, a visiting professor of Computer Science at the Open University and an MIT Media Lab Research Affiliate.
From the September 2011 issue of Locus Magazine