Book Club:The Life and Death of Sophie Stark
Promoting a book can be scary. It’s exciting, of course, to have your story between real covers, in real bookstores for people to buy. But you also need people to actually buy it. And authors are more involved in the process of convincing people to buy their books than ever before. Luckily, there’s a lot of advice out there on how authors can help their publishers sell books. I want to talk about something a little different: what I’ve learned from the process of promoting The Life and Death of Sophie Stark, not just as a writer, but as a person.
First, I learned how to ask for favors. Any writer will tell you this is a huge part of the book-promotion process. First, you have to ask for blurbs. Then you might need to ask writer friends to do readings or other events with you. And, of course, when your book comes out you’ll probably want to nicely encourage your friends to buy it. I’d gotten a taste of the process with my first novel, America Pacifica, but with The Life and Death Sophie Stark, I took a much more active role, and I did a lot more asking.
Nobody loves asking for favors, and I’ve always found it especially uncomfortable. What if the person I’m asking feels put upon? What if she says no? What if she says yes, but then resents me forever?
The publication of Sophie Stark pretty much forced me to confront these fears head-on. I’d read that the best way to ask someone for something is to be clear and direct and give him or her an easy out. Once I followed this script, asking got a little easier, and my worst fears were never realized. A few people said no, of course, but they often offered to do something else to help me with the book instead. It helped that a lot of the people I needed to ask were writers too; they knew the drill. But I think it’s also true that people like helping their friends when they can, in general, as long as the favor isn’t too onerous and the requests aren’t too frequent. To this end, I tried not to ask any one person for too much. And I tried to show each person how much I appreciated what they were doing, by sending them a thank-you card or note, or just giving a heartfelt thanks in person.
I also had to learn how to prioritize. As a writer, it’s tempting to say yes to everything – every event, essay or Q&A has the potential to get your book in the hands of new readers. And saying yes when you can is a good thing – but there are essentially infinite things you can do to promote your book (especially when you throw Facebook and Twitter into the mix), and there’s no way you can do all of them. Over time, I got better at deciding which obligations were the most important, or at asking someone if I wasn’t sure. I also got better at figuring out what I was capable of – I learned, for instance, that while I might be able to write two essays in a month, I couldn’t write five. Once I knew my limits it was easier to focus on the things I could do, and to politely turn down the things I knew I couldn’t.
Finally, I learned how to support my peers. Having a book come out reminds you how much small things matter – a friend showing up at your reading, for instance, or telling you she liked your book. So I’ve tried to become a better literary citizen this year: attending readings and events, reading my peers, supporting local bookstores, sharing book recommendations with friends and giving books as gifts. I’ve also tried to share what I’ve learned from book promotion with other people. I’m no expert, and my advice isn’t going to make anyone a bestseller. I hope, though, that it can help a few writers feel more relaxed about the process.
I’ve learned a lot from writing novels: how to be patient, how to hold a complicated structure in my mind all at once, how to start fresh if something isn’t working out. But I write alone in my room, and publishing The Life and Death of Sophie Stark taught me something writing never could: how to be a more polite, calm and gracious person. If writing makes me better at living in my head, promoting a book has made me better at living in the world, and for that I’ll always be grateful.
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