The run-up to the official launch of Savages and Scoundrels: The Untold Story of America's Road to Empire through Indian Territory, on April 21st, has been a thrill ride through the zany world of publishing PR and marketing. That's especially true in contrast to the launch of my previous book, Coyote Warrior: One Man, Three Tribes, and the Trial That Forged a Nation. The contrast between the two is where this deal gets interesting — as a cautionary tale and a tour through the labyrinth of imponderables that lay between your editor's desk and the front table in book stores. My learning curves always seem to look like flag poles.
Here's a rudimentary primer for would-be writers: Observation #1: writing your opus is the easy part. Observation #2: Getting it accepted, edited, proofread, typeset, designed, galley-ed, corrected, printed, and finally — drum roll, please — distributed, takes that once-upon-an-easy thing and turns it into an ordeal that involves a cast of dozens, if not hundreds, is a miracle akin to the loaves and fishes. Bottom line: to get from manuscript to published book requires the best efforts of a lot of very talented people. Be very, very nice to them. They're overworked, underpaid, and underappreciated. They have dreams too, and truth be told, your book is just another slice of bologna on the shit sandwich of life. If you have a problem, let your agent handle it. That's why they get the big bucks.
Despite the best efforts of my publicist at Little Brown, a tireless cheerleader named Amanda Erickson who has since moved on (imagine the publishing world as a gigantic revolving door with a porta-potty installed in each bays), Coyote Warrior was launched in August, a terrible month, and didn't really get rolling until October. It earned great reviews from flagship newspapers and magazines, like Audubon and Esquire and Outside, but by October, even those weren't enough to overcome the weight of the Xmas season. Alas, the collective attention span of the American public is measured in nano seconds. The book quickly disappeared beneath waves of holiday confections and brain candy that hail the arrival of the season to be jolly. RIP.
But, no! Alas, the book gods had other ideas. Miraculously, Coyote popped right back up after the Xmas hangover. Five years later, I'm happy to report, it's still going strong. In fact, it will have its second debut as a new edition in 2009 (third printing), with a (fantastic) new cover and an afterword. My devoted and talented former editor, Deborah Baker (who also edited Barack Obama's first book) gets a huge share of the credit for Coyote's success. She was a fierce champion of this story from the get-go, even after she got canned in a downsizing coup at Little Brown (a coup that foreshadowed much darker days ahead for the entire publishing world).
Compared to its older sibling, Savages and Scoundrels has made a lot of pre-launch noise — noise that started showing up in sales four months before it was officially launched. Welcome to A Brave New World, wherein publishers use outlets like Amazon as freebie national focus groups for soon-to-be-released titles in hopes of gauging public sentiment for new titles and better targeting their marketing dollars. The pre-pub hype for Savages started in earnest with the Smithsonian excerpting a segment of chapter five in early April, days before the new PBS series We Shall Remain began airing on American Experience. Even though Savages is really about white guys (shhhhhhh!) like Jefferson, Jackson, and John Marshall, et. al., and introduces a brand-new wrinkle into the theory of westward migration (thank you, Yale Press!!!), the book is closely related to the PBS series in other ways; i.e., the producers of We Shall Remain just got development funding to turn Savages into their next documentary project for PBS. In the meantime, while the Smithsonian was being flooded with responses to the excerpt — a good thing — a cover story I had written for American History magazine, entitled "What do We Owe the Indians?" rolled off the press the following week.
In the midst of that hoopla, the invitations from radio stations started rolling in, and we were still a week away from the official launch. It was heady and exciting, and while that fifteen minutes of fame can come and go in a flash, it reminded me of a conversation I had with Mark Spragg (An Unfinished Life) at the Montana Festival of the Book a few years ago. "Holy cow!" he exclaimed one morning when we sat on the curb outside the hotel sucking java out of Styrofoam cups. "Crowds make me break out in hives. I'm a hermit. I love being a hermit. Then poof! Your book comes out and the world expects you to be a media star. It's soooooo weird!"
I can relate. It's the schizophrenic side of the writer's life that you can only learn about the hard way. In a nutshell, crowded auditoriums can be damn intimidating, especially when you've spent the last six years of your life living in semi-catatonic isolation — all the more reason to marvel at the stage performances of Sherman Alexie, the champ — another reason to radio. Radio can be intimate at the same time it buffers you from all those eye balls. For me, radio is the coolest hot medium, the perfect showcase for books and authors — especially if the interviewer has taken the time to read your flap copy (here's my latest "Blah blah blah for Prairie Public Radio). Then, his/her lack of preparation launches questions that are just general enough to let you fly in any direction you wish (so long as it isn't the deathly "So, tell us why you wrote this book"). Radio is the best of both worlds...you get to be a media wizard for an hour without forsaking your true hermit.
But every book, and every roll-out, is a little different, and what we learn along the way are as much a part of the writer's life in the 21st century as grammar, punctuation, networking, and the splendid isolation of the actual work. I've learned a good deal about promotion from other writers who traveled this road ahead of me, and one rule seems to be universal: behind every successful book stands an author who is an enthusiastic and tireless promoter. It's the law of the jungle. Be careful out there. And have fun!