Wednesday, June 8, 2011


When I was a kid I loved going to carnivals and fairs. Everything about those places was magic, from the gut-thumping rides to the slick games to the flashy shows. One year at the Kentucky State Fair, a sideshow exhibit that caught my eye was called, rather luridly, “The Pygmy King and the Deadly Serpents.” The poster outside the tent promised … well, you can imagine. As I recall it was probably done by the same Fletcher Hanks-style artist (look him up; you’ll be stunned at his story) who did most such garish displays found on the midways. Anyway I begged, wheedled, and relentlessly pestered my folks all afternoon until they finally capitulated and we went in.

Once inside the tent, however, rather than spooky lights and distant drums and slithering danger a-plenty, what we found was a bored African-American midget perched on a wooden stool, puffing away on a foul brown stogie and surrounded by what appeared to be a dozen non-venomous black and king snakes drooping on top of each in such mid-day summer torpor it was like they’d been shot. The deadliest thing there was the rancid gray smoke curling up from the man’s cigar.

I felt rooked, conned, taken, and generally bamboozled, and I believe that’s when I first realized the first of life’s hard lessons: many (if not most) things are not what they’re advertised to be.

So it is with marketing, whether it’s shoes or cars or weight-loss products. There are firms out there who’ll promise you the moon and the asteroid belt … for a small fee, of course; what you’ll usually get is only a handful of dust, and not the lunar kind. But since this concerns writing, let’s zero in on what publishers do and don’t do, and how present-day marketing comes into play.

Some of us need to jettison the old view of the author/publishing house relationship. There’s a story (probably apocryphal) concerning legendary editor Max Perkins. One day Max received a steamer trunk from writer Thomas Wolfe. Being a curious sort, and having worked with Wolfe before, he opened it. What he found when he lifted the lid rocked him back.

Inside were a thousand handwritten pages, the massively embryonic version of Wolfe’s iconic masterpiece, Look Homeward Angel. According to legend, over the next few months Perkins managed to not only edit the beast into the pristine form we know today, but once it was in print he also pulled strings and called in favors with reviewers to get it into bookstores across the nation.

That time—if it ever existed at all—is gone. Nowadays unless your name begins with Stephen, Stephanie, or J.K., any marketing you get from your publisher will be minimal. So what can you, the new or midlist author expect?

First, here’s what not to expect: end-cap or cover-out store displays, appearances on Dateline, a physical book tour, limo rides, steak dinners at Morton’s, or inside the front cover magazine ads (all of that costs, and costs big). What you may get, and again, this depends on the size of the house, are press releases to your local newspaper, bookmarks, postcards, and some media coverage. If the house is larger, they may augment that with radio or TV interviews, public appearances, publicist-arranged signings, and so on. If they’re very small, you may get nothing at all.

This isn’t meant as a downer, but simply a reality check. And since knowledge is power, it’s best to go into this crazy writing venture tanned, rested, and ready, eyes wide open, the scales fully gone. Of course, if your agent manages to land you a deal with Simon and Schuster, I'll gladly eat these words. With A-1 sauce, please. *G*

By the way, if any of this was useful to you, just let me know in the comments box, and in the future I'll be happy to share more. Thanks!

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  1. Great stuff, John! I'd forgotten that anecdote about Wolfe's manuscript. Can I just say I'm glad I wasn't his editor?

  2. Whenever I think of a steamer trunk now, I think of four of them lashed together and Tom Hanks hitting golf balls off them when bobbing about in the Pacific (thanks to Joe Versus The Volcano).

    Thanks for the post, John. Times are changing before our eyes, and it's good to know what to look for, and to modify our expectations to the modern reality.

  3. Had a new author approach me the other day. All his manuscripts are hand-written. (Six or seven of them.) I carefully emphasized that he would not be able to submit them to anyone until they were in electronic format. (Personally, I can't imagine writing an entire book by hand!) Today Wolfe's work would have been round-filed, or at the very least shipped right on back to his front door.

  4. Amazing story. I appreciate all the informatation. My author/publisher bubble was burst a long time ago....always good to have more information, and in such an entertaining format! Thanks, John.

  5. Thanks for the kind words, friends.

  6. Your post reminds me of the advice I got long before I published: Work on your platform *NOW*. If you're stuck doing your own marketing, you're gonna need all the cyberpals and fans you can get!