Outside of my small little world of trade book authors, the whole process is not well known. At least, it was not known to me, even as a widely published scholar, before I went into this world. In fact, it took a couple of trade books before I started understanding this world. One thing that I completely misunderstood, as a scholar just starting to write books for a general audience, was what it was that created sales.
At first I thought that if you wrote a good book, it would sell a lot. Oh boy is that ever wrong! There are tons and tons of really good books that don’t sell much at all. All of my books have sold reasonably well. But arguably my best trade book (my wife Sarah thinks it is absolutely my best trade book) is Lost Christianities, and it has not sold nearly as well as some of the others. The fact that it’s a good book is not what makes a book sell.
Then I thought what needs to happen is to have a book tour. Surely book tours get the word out there and significantly improve sales. But, alas, no. Not really. Most book tours are a complete bust. Most authors who have been on book tours hate book tours. You fly to Philadelphia and go to a Barnes and Noble and read from your book in front of thirty people. Fly to New York and read to forty people. Fly to D.C. and read to twenty-five people. And so it goes. Of course, if you’re Stephen King, then you read to hundreds. But if you’re just a decent author, sometimes it’s more like, well, twenty-five or forty. So what’s the point really? I know authors who love to tell their greatest book tour nightmare story. Some of them are hilarious. My publishers no longer do the ole “eight city book tour.” And I’m so glad.
After I had published a couple of trade books, I thought that probably what really made a book sell was advertising. If a publisher would simply go to the trouble of advertising the book in major publications, the book would obviously take off and sell like hot cakes. I was wrong about that one as well. As it turns out, advertising itself does little for sales (although it can help; but usually not much). I had one of my books given a full half-page in the New York Times Book Review. What effect did it have on sales? Almost none.
Now I know what affects sales. Media coverage. Print. Radio. And especially TV – if it’s the right TV. To sell a lot of books, you need a lot of media attention. And so, every author of a trade book with a big press is assigned a publicist who tries to arrange for media coverage – everything from local book signings (as opposed to massive book tours) to local NPR interviews that take three minutes, usually with an interviewer who is completely clueless about what the book is about, to major NPR shows (regional or national), to small TV spots, to the really big time: Jon Stewart or Stephen Colbert.
I usually get asked by people who know that I have a book coming out whether I’ll be on Colbert. As if I have any say in the matter! Of *course* every publicist in the country (there are lots) tries to get his/her author onto Colbert! Or the Daily Show! But here’s the reality. Something like 600 books get published in English every day. These shows have all sorts of guests, not just authors of recent books. So, well, you can do the math. Chances are never ever good.
But the media attention is absolutely what sells the books. So my publicist now is working the phones and trying to get me on shows. One very big breakthrough is that I have an interview scheduled for Fresh Air with Terry Gross. She is absolutely fantastic, and her show is top-notch. Millions listen to it. I’ve done her show maybe five times over the years. Every time there is a serious spike in sales, and tons of email to answer over the course of the following week. So I’m scheduled for an interview in early April; don’t know when it will play, but not long after that I should think.
I don’t know if any other big spots will open up, but hope springs eternal . If nothing happens within the first month or so, then probably nothing is going to happen. But flukes do happen, and something can come up later rather than sooner. It’s all a bit of a waiting/guessing game. Which is why it is both an exciting but also nerve wracking time.
In any event, tomorrow is the big day for the release. I think the book itself looks great, physically/visually. I’ll be doing my first local book reading tomorrow at one of my favorite bookstores, Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, which usually packs in the crowd. And then it is on from there to – no one knows to where!
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