Roughly 60,000 books are published each year, and if you’re an author, as I am, that’s a scary number. With that kind of market saturation, if you don’t write the next Gone Girl, then after a few weeks, your book is just kind of . . . gone.
"Selling books is hard to engineer," says Robin Sloan, whose debut novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-hour Bookstore, was published last fall. "I wanted someone to tell me what lever to push. But my publisher was like, ‘Dude, there is no lever.’ We make the right sacrifices, mutter the magic words and hope for the best."
This sacrifice is one of energy and time. Most authors can’t simply be artists anymore; they have to be entrepreneurs. Leading up to the publication of my debut novel, The Year of the Gadfly, I stalked famous journalists like Sam Donaldson and Christiane Amanpour until they agreed to appear in my book trailer. I spent multiple weekends last summer running a "Novelade Stand," in which I hawked my book on the street and gave away homemade cookies. I even designed a multicity book tour from contacts I made through Twitter.
Now, to save The Year of the Gadfly paperback from total obscurity, I have embarked on another creative—albiet ridiculous—project. This July, I will set the world record for the most book clubs visited by an author in a single month: 100. Sure, I’m visiting most of these clubs on Skype. But that’s still three book clubs a day. Every single day. For 31 days. I’ve got 66 clubs signed up. Only 34 to go!
Andrew Kessler is the CEO of Togather, a startup that helps authors plan events. (They’re helping me organize and publicize my record-setting project.) He, too, ventured into the absurd when his nonfiction book, Martian Summer, launched in 2010. He created a pop-up bookstore in an empty West Village storefront and stocked it with 3,000 copies of his own book. "Authors are always fighting for shelf space," Kessler says. "So I was executing that dream where all the shelf space and table space was just dedicated to me. I called it the Monobookist Bookstore."
Some passersby sniggered about the store obviously being linked to Scientology. Others didn’t understand the gimmick and would say things like, "I read about this asshole in the New York Times. He’ll be out of business in two weeks!" But the fact was: Kessler received coverage in the Times. Then on CNN. "After that, it was just a news explosion," he says. The store became so popular that he stayed open for a month. He even hired staff.
And yet, he’s not sure that any of this media attention affected the bottom line. "The sales certainly weren’t commensurate with all the press I got," he says. "I was invited to give a lot of talks, but at the end of the day, it would have been smarter to just do tons of little events—visit more book stores, more book clubs."
Getting people to turn out to those bookstore appearances or agree to choose your book for their club, however, isn’t easy. Which is why the big gestures can be vital. "When you do something a little bit extreme or weird, it helps make it more interesting and more amenable to being written about," says Sloan.
The title of his novel—about a 24-hour bookstore—begged for a stunt of comparable length. Like Kessler, Sloan decided to play with the idea of the traditional bookstore. Instead of hosting a normal reading, he held an all-day, all-night talk show on Google Hangout. "It was like a really long episode of Charlie Rose, and I was Charlie," he says.
He set up a headquarters at the Center for Fiction in New York and filmed himself interviewing guests—everyone from his childhood friends to the popular blogger Jason Kottke. Sloan says that by the end of the event, a few thousand viewers had tuned in. "Way more people than you can fit in a room for a live book event," he says.
But how do you get all those people to watch in the first place? In Sloan’s case, it didn’t hurt to have over 200,000 Twitter followers, a platform he’d built from years working at Twitter and commenting on the world of digital media. He says the Google Hangout event was helpful, but mainly as part of a larger campaign.
"There’s other events, press, reviews, and it all merges into this supernova, and you just hope all the lights together are very bright," Sloan says.
In the end, Kessler believes that creative marketing is really about building an audience. He thinks my project to set the book club world record will get a few press hits. "But they’re not going to be the thing that works," he tells me. "At the end of the day, you doing this over and over again will build relationships and an audience that sticks with you." That’s the plan anyway.
I’ve heard of authors whose novels landed on the best-seller list years after publication because of book clubs. It would be wonderful to see this happen with The Year of the Gadfly, of course. But it makes me wonder . . . maybe 100 clubs isn’t nearly enough. Maybe I need to up the ante to, say, 1,000.