Marketing Your Book: An Author's Guide



review by Tess Brady




  Marketing Your Book: An Author's Guide
Alison Baverstock
A&C Black, London; distributed by Allen & Unwin
ISBN 0-7136-5965-3
150pp, $27.95


I know, in the way that I know that Australia is moving north at the rate that our toe nails grow, that only 2% of people who buy how-to books or self-help books act on the advice of the book. Both pieces of knowledge are curiously comforting.

I have no idea how I know these things, I just do. They are crowded in my head with all that other trivial knowledge that is never asked at the local Greens' trivia nights. It just isn't the kind of knowledge to win anything, not even the door prize. When I cut my toes nails I toss the clippings "down south" to somehow even the score, as if the land mass and the population of toe nail clippings are equal in some kind of density count.

How-to books try to instruct. It's something we as teachers of writing are familiar with - we instruct, but in what? The craft of writing? the act of writing? the writing life? the theory of writing? the process of writing? We occupy hours of classroom time, we strut our stuff at a variety of levels, in a variety of ways, opting for more of this, and less of that. We studiously avoid the old chestnut, "Can you ever teach someone to write?" and are often taken aback by it, as if it has been mentioned for the first time or, as if it belongs to a theory long since dead - something akin to reading fortunes in dead animals' entrails.

Instead, we get on with it. We strive to be challenging, entertaining, gentle, humorous, knowledgeable, reassuring, supportive, positive, or whatever. In all of it we want to be liked, we want to enjoy our work and gain some sense of satisfaction beyond the pay packet. For some the satisfaction comes from working with people, others are deeply interested in how to teach, for others there is the satisfaction in seeing a student succeed, and for others there is the fascination with the writing process. Few of us teach writing just for the money, although, if we are very honest with ourselves, on our worst days, the comfort of payday does help.

I say all this because I am interested here in the relationship between how-to books and teaching. Until recently I thought how-to books to be popular, in a lowbrow sort of way. I thought them too focussed on the commercial in a way that reminded me of used car yards. I saw them as trivialising the complexities of life and process, of dumbing it down too far into some kind of pop psychology that rendered even the smallest knowledge trivial. Like midday television and chat shows, they were devised and produced solely to entertain and to line the purses of the writers, publishers and booksellers along the way.

But life takes revenge on such smugness. Have you noticed?

Late one afternoon, several years ago, Dona Lee Brien from QUT and I got talking about real estate. Not everyone knows it's a reoccurring topic of ours. There were other women at the table and they planted in our heads, with a kind of earthy determinism, the idea to write a book about real estate - for women, for them.

So we did.

The working process taught us both - we needed to find out about how-to books and about collaboration and about a range of other market driven necessities. We used Billy Wilder's pacing and sitting methods, we used angel wings, we used hideouts, we used our creative writing skills, we used a friend's printer, we used abseiling gear to install the phone line, we used our research skills, we used a crate of mangoes, we used our sense of humour, our knowledge of pace, our skills at dialogue, we used a lot of tact and yellow stick-ons, we drank a boat load of tea in a variety of cups and we never used Thai take-away, because we couldn't ever find any!

All of my smugness about how-to books left when I realised that they engage with their reader by challenging, entertaining, being gentle, humorous, knowledgeable, reassuring, supportive and positive. And perhaps most of all we were empowering the reader. But those are the same attributes I give to teaching? And like teaching, the book contains fun and moments of seriousness and reflection and reward. I was beginning to blur the lines between the two activities.

Like our teaching we had to turn our interest and knowledge about writing/real estate into a step-by-step guide, a series of lessons. We needed to find the right attitude for the teacher-the writer. We had to find our voice, our persona. We needed to be aware of our audience, of our pupils, and run at the speed that they wanted to run at rather than the one we preferred. We needed to be focussed and clear and precise and to not lead people up any garden path no matter what dream sat behind that front door. Importantly, we needed to be friendly - preaching and patronising and telling were out- it was all show and discover and reveal.

And to do this we needed evaluation and reflections. We needed opinions, and editing and criticism, just as we need in teaching in order to develop and perfect.

So it was with this awareness and new-found interest in how-to books that I decided to read and review Baverstock's title. This decision was completely self-serving as I was keen to pick up a few marketing tips.

But I was to be disappointed.

Baverstock's Marketing Your Book is the very worst kind of how-to book. Like all worlds, the how-to publishing world has a few tactics. One such tactic is to re-use old material, re-packaging it with a new title and a few new sections. There is on the face of it nothing wrong with doing this - after all only 2% of readers act on the information, and sales of any title keep publishers, writers and booksellers afloat. It's a kind of re-packaging that has become part of Western culture. The problems of re-packaging occur when the parts fail to homogenise or montage into a whole and are left as parts conflicting and working against each other such that not even a postmodern reading can find satisfaction.

Baverstock's title reads as if she has re-packaged existing material from other books and she has done so very badly and very quickly.

Less than half the book is given over to the needs of writers who want to assist their publishers in publicity campaigns, which would have been, if she had kept to it a focus, worth pursuing. This is punctuated in an almost random way with chapters on how to get published, the basics of writing, how to be a speaker and how to organise a book launch.

It's trying to be a kind of one-stop shop for writers - everything from getting the grammar right, to writing the book, to printing it, to publicity, book launches and reviews. As if it were so simple that it could fit into 150 pages - the exact number publishers use to render a product 'thick enough to be seen as a book'.

The problem is that the sections are written with different audiences in mind. The reader who wants and needs the basics of writing is not the reader with a published title wanting to improve their publicity campaign. The reader who is organising a book launch does not need to know about the ins and outs of publisher-writer-publicist relationships and the importance of the publicity information form which publishers ask their authors to fill out. Why? Because one is self publishing and the other is being published. The two are just not the same, and here I am not being snobbish. There is nothing wrong with self publishing, but the economic and publicity situation for the two are different in ways which are significant and in ways which render this book of little use to either.

No matter who the reader is they will find themselves flicking over large sections of the book - saying to themselves that it is of no relevance - and left searching for the few scraps that are.

Coupled with the problem of too wide a focus, it is an English publication and the long potentially-useful list of contacts for publicists, press agencies, courses on public speaking and the like are of little to no use in Australia.

Lastly, and this is perhaps its most serious fault - it does not discuss in any way the contemporary publishing situation of flooding the market with more and more titles so that in too many cases it becomes the writer, not the product, which is publicised. This is an odd omission because this book itself has been marketed on the basis of the writer's particular credentials - according to the blurb:

The author worked in marketing in publishing before setting up her own marketing consultancy. As author of six books, she knows how, by working with the publisher, much greater results can be achieved.

A book dealing with this situation might have a section on working with photographers and developing a popular persona. It is probably better these days for a writer to talk about their local gym rather than their local bar even if they have never purchased a pair of gym shoes in their life and know more about mixing manhattans than doing crunchers.

Somewhere in the dark history of Baverstock's career is probably a genuinely fine book about marketing your work, but this is a trade make-over and it's as stiff as a bad plastic surgery job. In its efforts to be all things to all people it is nothing to nobody.

What has become obvious to me after reading Marketing Your Own Book: An Author's Guide is the need for such a title in Australia. One that keeps to the point, separates the author who is working with a publisher's needs from the self-published author, and provides an up-to-date list of contacts for both.




Tess Brady is co-editor of TEXT, teaches writing at Deakin University and with Donna Lee Brien has written The Girl's Guide to Real Estate which will be published by Allen & Unwin later this year.



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Vol 6 No 1 April 2002
Editors: Nigel Krauth & Tess Brady