A few weeks ago, I did something I never could have imagined myself doing. Another Chicago writer (for anonymity's sake, I'll call her "Amber," since I am pretty sure there are no actual writers named Amber, living or dead) and I piled into her car with neatly organized publicity folders for our books, sample reading copies, and a "pitch" letter, and drove all over the city and western suburbs whoring ourselves to disinterested bookstore employees. It was a grim little experience. Amber, who is a very talented short story writer, suffers from the paranoia that afflicts many--okay, most--writers, and kept saying that the booksellers were not just indifferent to us (oh, and indifferent they were!) but downright hostile. This brought out in my a reactionary Pollyanna optimism so that I kept insisting all was well and that surely some good would come of our (5 hour long) trip, when of course I suspected the exact opposite: that we would be forgotten, and our folders tossed in some slush pile of pitches the moment we used the store's toilet and raced out the door to the next store.
How did it come to this? To writers driving around like actors to an unsolicited cattle call, trying to pursuade bookstores to stock our titles? It's a complicated question, it turns out--as all questions of "marketing and distribution" turn out to be complicated, especially in the world of independent publishing. My novel, MY SISTER'S CONTINENT, has a distributor of course--it is available through either Small Press Distribution (SPD) or Ingram. But recently, when I asked SPD for a list of stores where the novel was available (where they had supplied the book to the store), they sent me a long list of libraries and (outside the city of Chicago, where admittedly MSC is all over the damn place) all of TWO BOOKSTORES! I was stunned. Okay, I knew MY SISTER'S CONTINENT wasn't exactly The DaVinci Code . . . but TWO STORES?! Lidia Yuknavitch, my editor, was quick to point out to me that Chiasmus Press has a list of a couple dozen stores nationally--mainly hip indies--where all its books, including mine, are carried, and of course any Barnes & Noble that carries the book gets its shipment from Ingram. But still. From sea to shining sea, my novel's primary distributor was responsible for getting it into a whopping two stores. It's enough to make a girl . . . well, get into a car with an equally desperate-and-depressed writer and start selling oneself. Sometimes these efforts lead to pretty cool successes, such as convincing my editor to actually send 20 complimentary copies to the Litblog Co-Op when they announced my novel as a finalist for their "Read This!" pick--she was convinced it was a waste of books and that they'd just get snarky and trash the novel in cyberspace anyway, but it turned out to be good publicity, totally un-snarky, and lead to some fun connections and conversations. Other times . . . well, anytime one is driving to the western suburbs of Chicago for ANY reason, usually no good can come of it, which is something I ought to have known . . .
But successful or not, my efforts at marketing my novel have sometimes felt like a full-time job. Taking my cue from such indie-press publishing success stories like Joe Meno, Steve Almond and OV Books’ own Tod Goldberg, my motto (when I wasn’t busy being cut open to deliver a child) has been to make myself open to any prospective interviewer, to say yes to any invitation to give a reading, to go to any conference or book fair or classroom that invites me, to send reading or review copies to any store or freelance reviewer who requests one. And so I might easily spend one of my (4-5 hour) childcare workdays poring over the transcript an interviewer has sent me, giving clarifications; driving to a local radio station half an hour each way so that I can do a 5-minute reading on the air; writing notes and sending books (from my own stash since Chiasmus has long ago sent out above its maximum number of review copies) to a book fair coordinator or a university instructor who is considering it—and me—for something or other that might help me get some extra sales; doing a daytime reading at a small, mostly-empty bookstore. As I zoomed around the suburbs with Amber, guzzling Starbucks and listening to her story of fighting with her husband about her indecision as to what to wear to meet these indifferent booksellers (we could have been wearing haircloths for all they cared), I couldn’t help feeling more than a little cynical and ridiculous. As writers, Amber and I had progressed from trying to sell ourselves to agent to trying to sell ourselves to editors to now trying to sell ourselves . . . to EVERYONE.
And here's the kicker. Since publishing a novel, I no longer have time to actually WRITE.
Isn't it ironic? There’s always something to complain about, isn’t there? In truth my experience of seeing MSC in print has been an overwhelmingly positive one. While often books put out by small independent publishers can be totally ignored by the media, especially in the case of new writers, I’ve been fortunate to have received numerous (and overwhelmingly positive) reviews from major sources like Booklist, the Chicago Tribune and Bookslut. The novel went into a second printing. My husband frequently reads me rapturous little blog entries from avid readers around the country who were actually compelled to talk about my novel to their networks. And recently, at a reading at the Heartland Café here in Chicago, I even encountered a small but raucous cheering section of three twentysomething school teachers who read my novel back in January—at the recommendation of one of their mothers no less—and claim it is their favorite book and acted like I was Brittney Spears on a surprise visit to a junior high. I mean, okay, so I’m not making any money; so I’m not getting a (Donna Tartt circa 1993) photo spread in Vanity Fair, but really: my novel has been read by a small but enthusiastic group of people. What more can any writer, particularly in this difficult climate, ask for?
So I’ve made a decision, to help stave off idiotic and annoying bitterness about how busy I am, um, giving interviews and readings (what a problem to have!) In late October, I’m going to LA to do three MSC/OV overlap readings, and then I am, one year after the advance copies came out, calling it a day. I’m closing the MSC shop, so to speak. No more checking the Amazon ranking. No more readings and interviews and classroom appearances (well, at least unless someone’s class of 30 has really all gone and bought the book!) It’s back to business as usual: OV, my kids, and—I certainly hope—writing something new. I will have had an experience I always dreamed about: nearly a year of relishing having my first novel out . . . along with occasionally humiliating myself in conservative Naperville, IL by trying to pimp the novel to some bored bookstore buyer with a dotty braid. The up side—and down side—of this year of experience is no doubt that when my next novel comes out, whenever that is, I probably won’t have nearly this level of energy and enthusiasm to try to oversee every aspect of it as it makes its way out into the world. Like a mom on her sixth child, I may someday be a bit more secure than I was with my first baby, but also perhaps a little more weary, less thrilled by every modest success—less giddy by what was once unimaginable becoming tangible.
Well, unless I actually get a fat advance someday. Then, I can promise, my family and I are going on safari in South Africa on my dime, and I’ll be giddy all over again.