Once upon a time in my life, a time that now seems both eons ago and kind of like last week (i.e., 10 years ago; somehow, 10 years always feels this way), I thought there would be nothing more gratifying than going on a book tour. When I later had the rare good fortune of finding out firsthand that this was not even remotely the case (i.e., when I actually went on one and became intimately familiar with the sight of empty folding chairs), the salient image of the whole disenchantment boiled down to the fact that I never once saw someone on a plane or in an airport reading my book. And it wasn't just my book that people weren't reading; they weren't reading anything resembling it. Based on my observations, air travelers' tastes seem to run toward paperback thrillers, celebrity memoirs, and business philosophy books of the Who Moved My Cheese?
variety. Not that I should have been surprised, of course. I was the first to admit that my novel
, a work of "literary" fiction (sorry, can't help but put that in quotes; what does the word even mean?) with satirical and occasionally downright transgressive undertones, wasn't for everyone (after all, there's a masturbating horse). But, as I traipsed through airport terminals and surveyed rows of airplane seats in which reading material was abundant yet utterly devoid of my opus, I finally internalized the idea that writers don't write just for the sake of writing. We write in order to be read. Preferably not just by one person.
As authors and publishers know all too well now, getting masses of people to read a particular book is a crapshoot of the highest order. There are the classic paths — getting reviewed in major newspapers, landing interviews on NPR, doing bookstore readings for (ideally) audiences larger than four. There are, these days, the social marketing strategies that have become standard — Facebook pages devoted to the book, Twitter accounts for the author, and, of course, increasingly elaborate websites where the author lists every tour stop and chronicles every passing thought on a blog (or, better yet, a well-established, high-traffic blog like this one).
Every once in awhile, though, you hear of a publisher or an author truly "thinking outside the box." Granted, this is a horrible expression (it belongs in quotes even more than "literary" does). I don't know about you, but just about anyone I've ever met who uses the phrase "think outside of the box" has an imagination that's about as hemmed in and permanently suffocated by the box as is humanly possible. But sometimes the phrase is the only one that applies.
Case in point: author Jennifer Belle's hiring of dozens of actresses to read her new novel (while hysterically laughing) in public places. "There is just no better feeling than seeing someone you don't know reading your book in a public place," Belle said in this New York Times story. And how right she is! In fact, it's such a great feeling it's apparently worth paying for. After her casting call resulted in 600 young women "auditioning" for the job of reading her new book, The Seven Year Bitch, on the subways, park benches, and buses of New York City, Belle selected those with the "most infectious laugh" and paid them eight dollars an hour. There's a video of the campaign here.
This is genius, but it also reminds me of a similar campaign my publisher launched for my novel, wherein "buzz agents" were hired (yes, this was the official job title and, yes, this was before the financial crisis turned such jobs into volunteer positions) to function as stealth cheerleaders. The idea was that these "agents" would go to cocktails parties or garage sales or wherever book readers could be found and spontaneously start gushing about how great my book was and how everyone should buy it immediately. It was an interesting idea, not least of all because on the few occasions when someone said to me, "Hey, I was just at this party and this woman was totally into your book," I had to wonder if it was a buzz agent and not genuine enthusiasm. On the other hand, I'm one of those people who can't take a compliment, so I tend to think that about anything nice anyone says about me. I'm pretty sure my parents were buzz agents when they went to my school plays.
Is my low self-esteem making you uncomfortable? Don't let it. This is a passing condition stemming mostly from being on book tour for my new book (more on that later), and from the fact that on a recent flight the person sitting next to me said her favorite author was Jill Zarin from The Real Housewives of New York. On the other hand, maybe Jill Zarin was paying this woman eight dollars on hour.
Or maybe the people who read my books all have private planes. Yeah, that's it. Definitely.
Okay, see you tomorrow.