Saturday, March 1, 2014

How to promote a book on a shoestring, a talk prepared for AWP Seattle, 2014

    First things first: a specific kind of love makes people keep books and return to them at odd hours, even middle-of-the-night hours, and share them. This love is hard to define, but it is when people love books so much that they can’t feel alive or complete without them, and they spontaneously want to share them. A symptom of this is when you love a book so much you give it away to friends a half dozen times because you want them to be able to appreciate it.
    (This isn’t bibliomania—this is not about collecting/possessing/owning)
    The way it starts is that you the reader/the editor have to love the work so much that you feel compelled to do everything you can for it to advocate for it, to sell it, to bring it to light.
    There are practical things you can do that cost nothing or nearly nothing, and these are just commonsense:
    Step 1: Start with friends and colleagues that you respect as readers. If you can persuade them to read it, if they are teachers, ask them to teach it. If they have book circles, ask them to share it.
    Note: course adoptions can mean a lot because students—when they love a book—share it and talk about it.
    Corollary: listen to their responses because they will help you shape the way to pitch the book to various people, decision makers, program coordinators, radio hosts etc.
    Step 2: Ask local libraries or college libraries etc. to buy the book, and/or ask friends to do the same.
    Step 3: Share good things with your authors. I don’t honestly remember how it happened that I was invited to be interviewed on the Joe Milford poetry show as a poet, but it went very well. My appearance attracted a near-record number of downloads, so I asked the host if he would interview all of the other authors in MMM Press. Joe did all of that on his own, and he was very happy about the interviews. So actually ALL of us with the press then got into the Joe Milford radio podcast archives. You can find everyone here:

    As words gets around, spontaneously great things can start to happen for a book, e.g. Rebecca Foust’s book’s cover art by a great artist, John Folinsbee, gave Rebecca the idea to find out more about the artist, which led her to a museum showing his work, which led to an event at the Woodmere Museum in Philadelphia, and then the museum bookstore sold the book.
    Another example: our author Patrick Lawler got featured in Brian Brodeur’s blog, “How a poem happens”:

    Coincidentally, Brian Brodeur was the copyeditor of Patrick’s book and he even suggested one or two of the poems in the Table of Contents, so he was already an ardent fan himself. Patrick’s book had a new ally and friend in a very well-respected peer poet.

    Here is another fortuitous, spontaneous thing that no one could foresee. One year the poet Sean Thomas Dougherty was visiting Drexel University and a student asked during the Q&A part of the reading who he had learned the most from, and he really paused thoughtfully, and then he said spontaneously: Patrick Lawler—he learned the most from Patrick Lawler. Given that Sean is a voracious, impassioned reader—it would be hard to find his equal in that regard—this was no small compliment.
    No way that could have been planned.
    Important note: this kind of fortuitous good thing doesn’t work as well if there is a sense of “I’ll-do-this-for-you-if-you-do-that-for-me.”
    Just as there is no way to plan to fall in love with a book, transactional calculations have no real place here. To fall in love with a book is the only really good reason to buy a book or to sell one, or to teach one.
    If you are selling (or publishing) a book to score political points with someone or to advance your career without regard to the real feelings of your friends, readers, and the audience of unsuspecting readers, I am afraid that evil karma may pursue you through a dozen lifetimes and jackals may urinate on your grave.

    Be that as it may, back to practical steps:
    Build web pages for a new book— (off the press site, or off the author site)
    Why? Give people a chance to browse in depth. Give some text and audio samples or other forms of media. Give hungry readers a chance to fall in love.
    I’m sure web offerings helped my books, so I knew it would help the other authors’ books. Here are some samples pages that show sample poems, audio and video links:
{Play (if possible): }

    Further, good online offerings help inspire other good online things, and many good things come up for our authors, often because of their own initiative, and here is just one:
    Why else do all this work (or pay someone else to)?
    It makes it much easier to sell the work to a teacher, a colleague, a committee, a decision-maker, a programming director.
    For example, Rebecca Foust was easy to bring to Drexel University given all the resources available about her. Further, Patrick Lawler’s Underground got adopted for use as a selection for the Syracuse University Living Writers Course (i.e. over 200 students read it, and most of them loved it—I know, because otherwise they would have returned it). The same thing happened at Muhlenberg College for their Living Writers Course, where they had 80+ students reading it and most of them also actually read and kept the book. Ditto SUNY Oswego.
    So far, all the above costs very little money. And book sales have actually made money to pay for other things to help the books/authors.
    Here is another simple thing—when a great thing happens for your author from another source like another press, try to work with those people because you both want your author to succeed. So, for example, a few days ago Renato Rosaldo had a brilliant, tragic, harrowing, intriguing new book from Duke show up at our MMM Press table, and he sold quite a large number of them yesterday. So in a way you could say that was bad for MMM Press because it means all that money went not to help MMM Press but to help Duke, which did not even come to AWP. But I think Duke and MMM Press can work together better to find and create events for Renato, and actually both books together sort of complete each other, honestly. So we both would want the author’s works come further into the light.
    MMM Press has also created a lot of different author events in many cities, including NYC, Chicago, Philadelphia and Denver, and these did not cost much either.

    Readings are great for everyone (the authors, the editors and staff) because you are reminded of the most important things: you hear a reading where you get chills. You see new strangers fall in love with the work the way that you did, for its own sake, and even the author can realize that she/he has created something greater than oneself. With Renato and Patrick and Alison Stone in NYC at the Cornelia Street Café, I was reminded, too, of why these poets are so wonderful and worthwhile.
    BIGGER COMMITMENTS (now that you have a budget, thanks to sales of books:)
    Competitions: I try to nominate the books for every prize that they might deserve. I’ve always tried to nominate them for things like the Pulitzer and many smaller prizes. (Usually, I thought the MMM Press authors were robbed if they didn’t win.) Often the authors take the initiative and win things, e.g. Anne-Marie Cusac won a prize from the Wisconsin Library Award. Rebecca Foust’s book also won a prize from the San Francisco Book Festival for a poetry book.
    More significant money goes into advertisements in respectable print publications:
Poets & Writers, APR, ABR, Library Journal etc.
    What also costs money: review copies.
    For Rebecca Foust’s book, we did send out a very large number of review copies, and we got  maybe a dozen reviews and notices, all positive, some glowing. Rebecca also got a radio interview on a local station (I think it was an NPR affiliate), and she also got very glowing responses from her own network of friends, peers, mentors, which helped give her book a lot of momentum. So she has almost completely sold through her first printing of over a thousand copies. Patrick Lawler’s first book likewise has sold through almost all through his first printing of over a thousand copies.
    What else costs MMM Press a lot of money:
    The AWP bookfair ($500 per table fee this year, which goes up pretty drastically EVERY year. Ho hummm. The expense of flying people to AWP, which also goes up every year.) And the cost of cakes, drinks, utensils etc. for bookfair.
    Last words:
    I only get to do 10% of what I’d like to do for the authors, if that. (This is due mostly to the conditions of the serf class of @^#%#%#$%, but that is another panel that AWP rejected.) MMM Press is free, independent, and not beholden to anyone. That also means unsupported by any institution. We have friends who have given us money, though, but that was out of love, given freely, and received in that spirit.