Thursday, December 30, 2010

Thanks but no thanks Uncle Sam!

I have been selling autographed copies of my book Kisses from a Distance from my home for over three years. Readers order through my web site or by mail, which is quite convenient for me and them.

Early on I invested in a Dymo label maker and subscribed to Dymo Stamps, which allows me to print both the label and the proper postage. I have literally sent out hundreds of copies by simply printing the label and postage and putting the envelope in my mailbox. If I have more than will fit in the box going at the same time, I will take them to the Post Office. I once took eighty at the same time and the postal clerk wasn't very happy. He groused about the media mail option as he weighed each one individually, even though they were all the same. “Don’t know why we even have this option,” he snarled.

In any event it's much more convenient to do it myself and to just walk them out to my big mailbox by the curb. Imagine my surprise when the below envelope came back to me two days after I handed it off to my mailman. The sticker says that if a package is over 13 oz. it must be taken to the Post Office. I know this limitation applies to the on the street mailboxes and to the boxes outside the Post Office. Little did I know that giving it to my postman was the same as putting it into a mailbox.

So, if I go to the Post Office, even though I have the proper postage affixed, I must go inside, stand in line and hand it off to a "retail associate" postal clerk. Now I have to use a dollar’s worth of gas (one-third of a gallon @ $3.00/gal.) and spend upwards of a half-hour of my time to make the round trip of 6.4 miles, all because of “heightened security requirements?" Do they really think I would send a bomb from my home? With my return address on it? Also note the sticker that says this package can be transported by surface transportation only. I don’t know how long it’ll take a book to get to California.

I guess I now have to get more for shipping and handling. I had been charging $3.50 per order which was break even for me. The postage (including the fee for printing the stamp from home) and the padded envelope, discounting the cost of the mailing label and any time spent in preparation, was $3.45. Because of this inane security requirement, it has now gone up to $4.50. I guess we can forget about "going Green," because I now have a bigger carbon footprint.

So, thanks a lot Uncle Sam. I feel eminently safer now that I know you are using such common sense in protecting us from our enemies.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Innocent conversations and book sales

Just to illustrate how an author can turn a relatively innocuous social contact into a marketing opportunity, witness my recent experience at COSTCO.

When shopping at places like COSTCO or Sam's Club, I always take notice of the book displays, perusing the best sellers and, if appropriate, striking up conversations with book browsers. Not all are interested in talking, of course, so this can be an iffy situation. You certainly don't want to give anyone a negative impression of you, or your work, so you have to tread carefully. I have occasionally used these contacts to pass out business cards.

I also like to sample food from the many stands that are positioned around the store. I always take care to note the person's name tag and thank him or her by name. It's always heartening to bring a smile to the face of the stand's operator who is largely performing a thankless (and low paying) job. They inevitably look up and smile, especially since most people just grab the snack and walk away.

At one stand I encountered a pleasant middle-aged lady who was dutifully spreading various prepared concoctions on crackers. I stopped to sample a salmon spread and engaged the woman by thanking her for the offering.

Looking over the array of readymade salads and sandwich wraps I said, "Boy, pretty soon no one will even know how to cook. Everything is readymade."

"Isn't that the truth," she responded. "But I'm old school because I like to cook."

That was my opening. "Me too," I cheerfully replied and went into a monologue about how kids can't do basic arithmetic because of calculators, and how society is changing because of advances in technology.

"They can't even spell without spell-check on word processors," she responded.

"Pretty soon no one will be able to read maps because of GPS," I added. "And isn't a shame how many people don't even read books anymore."

"I won't read books on those fancy readers," my new friend opined. "I'm old school. I've got to have the book in my hand."

"I don't either," I said, "I haven't even put my books on Kindle or eBooks, even though the resident wisdom is that I must do that."

"Oh, are you a writer?"

I confessed that I was and the lady wanted to know what I wrote. I thereupon handed her my card. The woman was so excited to meet an author, especially one who didn't treat her as a piece of furniture, that she ordered my book.

So, as you can see, an innocent encounter turned into a book sale. She may even tell her friends about it. And what did it cost me? A little kindness can go along way.

Friday, December 10, 2010

Finding that "niche"

I remember when taking a strategic planning course in an MBA program, I was assigned to a team with four younger students. The "leader" of the group was a waiter at one of the local resort restaurants, and who thought he knew a great deal about market planning. The other members were also people with varying degrees of non-management experience.

The first case we were given involved a small manufacturer who was trying to establish his company in a new market. As usually happens in these exercises, there's a lot of thrashing around, with many and divergent opinions being presented.

"Look, guys," I finally offered, "this chap doesn't understand his market, who his customers are, what they want, and how to reach them." These kids didn't know me or anything about my experience so I was outvoted in the final report. When the group presented its findings to the teacher, he shook his head and proceeded to repeat almost word for word what I had told the group.

Even with my past experience, I found I had to study this new market of bookselling. If you could just read a book to master it, everybody would be successful. Many product providers, authors included, believe that old canard that "if you build a better mousetrap, the world will beat a path to your door." The landscape is littered with companies that thought they had a dynamite product but who also didn't understand how to approach their market.

As I've mentioned before, writing a great book is only a third of the effort in becoming successful. Authors, just like other businesspersons, must try to define the marketplace vis-a-vis their product and devise plans to reach those customers. Even if you believe, as most authors do, that your book has general appeal, you will benefit by dividing the market into segments that are more focused on your genre or subject matter.

You must ask yourself, "What is the demographic of my target audience? Are they men or women? Older or younger? Fiction or non-fiction readers?" And so on down the line. That, of course, is a very top level view, but you can see where you have to begin to start slicing and dicing to narrow the focus further. Once you decide on the most fertile grouping, where your efforts will yield the best results, then you have to examine how you can focus your efforts to reach them.

I'll be the first to admit that this isn't a precise science, and as mentioned in prior posts, I didn't get it right with my first marketing efforts. I continue to try to get better at it. When possible (especially with mail-orderers) I ask how they came upon the book, and what they liked about it. I'm not bashful in also asking if they know how I could attract other readers like themselves. Readers love this attention and sincerely want to help. Some told me they knew of groups that met at churches, or libraries, senior centers, or even colleges and universities. That information opened up whole new marketing possibilities. I also found there were many groups organized around recording life experiences. These are people interested in memoir writing, and whom I could contact to give presentations.

Given the tools available on personal computers, such as PowerPoint, authors can easily gin up lectures that appeal specifically to each group they are addressing. I now have a half-dozen different presentations that I use depending on the audience. Give it a try!

Monday, November 29, 2010

How do we sell books? One at a time!

A wise author friend once said to me: "You know how I sell books? One at a time!" This is one of those truisms that should cause every author to think and yet, many do not.

I've been promoting and selling my first book for over three years now and I've learned some dos and don'ts, some of which I've mentioned in previous posts. But one thing I didn't have to learn was that everyone is a potential book buyer, and if you treat them well they may just buy yours. If authors believe in their product then they shouldn't be bashful about promoting it and soliciting sales.

Admittedly, most authors suffer from insecurities about their writing and are many are even introverted by nature. As a result they are unsure whether their work is good enough to openly promote. But after the initial validation arrives, such as being published by a reputable press, they should be unabashed about putting themselves "out there" to solicit sales. Authors shouldn't be timid about offering their book(s) to others in a nice, yet unobtrusive way. Let me tell you about some of my experiences in this regard.

Whenever I'm seated on an airplane next to someone who is reading a book, and when the occasion presents itself I venture to ask, "Is that a good read?" It has never failed to get a response and always initiates a pleasant conversation. I then ask, "What other kinds of books do you read?" This normally elicits the response, "Oh, all kinds." I then offer, "Could I give you a recommendation?" "Sure," they invariably say. That's when I give them my business card, which has the cover of my book on one side and one line reviews and where they can order the book on the other (a card I designed myself, and which several authors have mentioned they wished they'd have thought of). Often times, if I have a book in my carry-on, I sell it to them on the spot.

I once met a little old lady on a flight home from a book appearance in Birmingham, Ala. We enjoyed a nice conversation—in which I mentioned that I was a recently published author. She said she'd like to buy one but the only copy I had was in my checked luggage. Unfortunately, she hadn't checked any so we parted ways in the terminal. "Darn," I thought, "There goes a sale." About a month later I got a letter from the woman telling me that she had ordered my book from Barnes & Noble and loved it. "You probably don't remember me..." she began, and related our trip together on that plane. Of course I remembered.

Many people have never met an author face to face and getting a personalized autographed copy from one can be considered a bit of a thrill (several people have told me this). Venues where I've sold books will surprise many authors. I once used taking a bunch of mail ordered books to the post office to start a conversation, and sold one to the postal clerk. When being checked into a hospital for surgery, I sold one to the admitting nurse. I've sold books at a bowling alley, a funeral dinner, to a cashier at a restaurant, to my doctors and dentists and their receptionists, at cocktail parties, once while out for a walk, and in a hotel bar while having a drink. I always carry business cards with me and hand them out at every opportunity.

I believe in answering all my eMails and treating people with respect. I met an author via the Internet and even bought one of her books. I tried to correspond with her but she never answered my inquiry. Do you think I'll buy another of her books? Underneath it all, everyone is a potential book buyer and you never know where your next sale will come from.

After all, we do sell them one at a time.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Scammers Are Everywhere

Many years ago, when I went to college, teaching was considered to be an occupation of last resort for most men because it was predominately populated by women—and had low pay scales to boot. A student who wasn't succeeding at his studies in the "more highly regarded" disciplines such as science, engineering, or mathematics was told, "You could always teach." They were in essence advised, "If you can't do, then teach." Later, as our educational system expanded and began specializing in preparing teachers, this simple maxim was modified even further—"If you can't do, teach, and if you can't teach then teach others to teach."

The reason I bring this up is that it reminds me of what I see happening in writing today. Along with many other authors, I have been dismayed and frustrated about the state of publishing today. I've mentioned in previous posts how difficult it is for authors to get into print, and it's not because good books aren't being written. Quite the contrary, many really good first-time authors never get a chance to be published because of industry problems and their resultant standards and practices. And, if and when they do get published, no matter how famous the authors, they have to do virtually all of the promotion for their work. Perhaps it's just me, but don't you think it's a bit demeaning to watch our former president make the rounds of the talk shows, just to hawk his memoir? In eight years in office he had fewer press conferences than the number of book promotion appearances. (For another take on this, see the NYT column Cavett's Lament.)

This development has caused me to paraphrase the above teaching maxim, adapting it to the writing profession as it has devolved today. "If you can't write (or get published), then teach others to write (so they can't get published either), and if you can't teach others how to write, offer publishing services, editing and promotional help (all for a price, of course)."

Bear in mind that not all people who offer services are charlatans and many offer writers valuable help. But, it is mind boggling just looking at how many self-publishing companies have sprung up in the past ten years. And if you put yourself in a struggling writer's shoes, one who has spent countless hours, if not months or years, researching and writing a manuscript, only to be told "no-thanks" or worse by the mainstream publishing industry, you can understand why this branch of the business is thriving. Frustration abounds, and authors are driven to the point of wanting to get their name on a published book no matter the cost.

In order to pay the bills, many writers have been forced to branch out into the writing support business—providing editing and consulting services. Some even give classes or courses on how to get published—"teaching others how 'write for fun and profit.'" And there's no shortage of aspiring authors to attend these sessions.

A disturbing trend, however, is the promotion of the self-publishing option by people who make money from "teaching others how to write or get published." This has caused me to wonder how they divorce their self-interest from the those of the author? Think about it—if you're teaching writers how to get into print, and you point them to self-publishing—what have you taught them? Without some of these aspiring authors actually getting into print, the pool of students would dry up and these "teachers" would lose a significant portion of their fee-paying audience. Lately I've noticed courses being promoted such as, "Is self-publishing right for you?" This trend takes counseling others to "do what you can't" to new heights. There is no end to the potential division of the writing profession into fragments that someone can utilize to make money, from an unlimited pool of aspirants.

Writer's conferences are another disturbing market faction that seeks to cash in on the aspirations of fledgling authors. Come to the conference (for a not insignificant fee) and learn how to make a "dynamite proposal to publishers," and get to present your book idea (for an additional fee) to publishing agents. Wow, what hopeful writer could turn that down? I once wrote letters, in advance, to all the agents listed to appear at a certain conference to ask if they were accepting new clients. The answer was a resounding "NO!" They either weren't accepting any new clients, or were only interested in authors who had known track records. So, I wanted to ask, why are you appearing at a conference, and accepting fees from aspiring writers, only to tell them you aren't taking on new clients? The answer is as sad as it is obvious—there are a number of people making a living off the dreams of others.

It turns out that this isn't anything new, just a new wrinkle to a very old game.

Wednesday, November 10, 2010

DeLand Appearance

Monday, November 8, 2010

RAFF ELLIS, author of the literary memoir Kisses from a Distance to present lecture.

Author/lecturer, Raff Ellis, will speak at a meeting of the Roots & Branches Genealogical Society of West Volusia County at 2:00 pm on Sunday, November 21. Meetings are held at the DeLand Public Library, 130 East Howry Avenue.

The talk is titled, The Making of Kisses from a Distance, in which Mr. Ellis chronicles the lengthy journey he took that led to researching and writing his award-winning memoir.

Mr. Ellis has also written a second book titled, I Don’t Believe in Ghosts, which is scheduled for release in December. Also a memoir, this work is somewhat unique in that it chronicles life experiences through a collection of short stories.

More information about Mr. Ellis and his work may be found at:

KFAD YouTube video

Posted by Lou Belcher at 12:34 PM - Florida Book News

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Golden Rule

Doing unto others —

There's something about interaction with other people that a lot of people don't seem to understand. And I think it's something that any author who intends to use any of the various media forms for publicity should consider. It's the principle of treating others as you would like to be treated.

Let's use an example that has been extremely vexsome to me. If I read a column either in the newspaper or on the Internet, and I think it deserves a response, I'll take the time to formulate a thoughtful note and send it off to the author. If I don't get a reply, even a perfunctory one-word "Thanks," I simply stop reading that columnist. My reasoning is this: It takes but a few seconds to respond to eMail, and if the subject columnist is so exalted that he/she is too busy to read my note, or hit Reply, then I'm too busy to read his/her work. This rule has greatly simplified my reading list.

Some may think this harsh so let me explain. Authors who make their living using the media depend on having a sufficient number of readers/viewers to attract subscribers/advertisers, which in turn pays the bills. Ergo they should be attuned to attracting and sustaining ever larger audiences so they can continue their pontification from on high. Apparently some of these commentators get so filled with hubris they place themselves above the fray. In fact, I believe this was but one of the factors contributing to the demise of newspapers in this country—these folks never asked themselves what their customers wanted, decided they knew what was best for them, and ignored their queries. Ignoring your customers is a form of disrespect and the only recourse they have is to stop patronizing your business. If enough people do this, then you're out of business.

I was an Internet columnist for a few years and developed a fairly significant readership. The eMails I received numbered in the thousands—and I answered every one, even those from name-calling bigots. Many were actually surprised to hear from me and said they looked forward to my next column.

I've had other experiences with several organizations that continually send me fund raising appeals. Some of these are the same people who never answered my notes to them. Do you think I heeded their appeal?

I know from experience that a kind response to a reader has yielded many referral sales. The lesson here is if you are trying to attract more customers, treat them as if they are important and they will repay you with loyalty—even when other options become available to them.

Friday, October 15, 2010


Speaking as an author, I'm unabashedly interested in generating buzz about my work—after all, it's validation in the marketplace that helps keep my writing enthusiasm up and creative juices flowing. To that end, I've developed hundreds of Internet relationships with people that I'll never meet in person in this lifetime. I've also subscribed, and contributed, to other newsletters and web sites, and those that respond or appreciate my input get to occupy a higher ranking in my reading/referral lists.

The number of people servicing the writing industry has exploded due largely to the pervasiveness of the Internet. Authors are continually besieged by publishers, publicists, editors, coaches, and various others, all wanting to help the increasingly vast pool of fledgling writers attain their goals. There are also a number of newsletters, written by and aimed at authors, some local and others national in scope. I'd like to mention a few that I subscribe to—principally because they are informative, responsive, and attentive to their subscribers.

The first is the newsletter by Carolyn Howard-Johnson, the author of the Frugal series of books about writing, editing, and publicizing your work. Carolyn seems to have the time to answer every inquiry even though she has a heavy schedule of writing, lecturing, and consulting. To subscribe go to:

Locally in Florida I subscribe to Lou Belcher's, Darlyn Finch's Scribblers' newsletter at:, and Mary Ann de Stefano's MAD about words at:

I recommend that authors, if they haven't already done so, search the Internet for writers' groups in their area. Most of these newsletters will carry useful information about book and author happenings, including tips about writing and promotion. I operate on the theory that one is never too smart, too old, or too successful to learn from others, and recommend this approach to everyone.

Tuesday, October 12, 2010

Marketing Books—Successes & Failures IV

Trying Risky Strategies—

One thing I'm sure of is that you can't really know in advance which marketing ploy will work—or how well. There just aren't any surefire gimicks in business because if there were everybody would be using them.

As I have mentioned, I thought I was armed with all the marketing experience I needed to make a success of selling my book Kisses from a Distance. I talked about finding market niches in the last post, and having observed first-hand how markets continually divide and specialize, I realized that although the book was having success among various ethnicities, there was an opportunity to go after one ethnic group in particular. The book chronicles the experiences of three families who happen to be Lebanese belonging to the Maronite religion. Surely I would be remiss if I didn't try to address that group in my marketing strategy.

I did a little research and found a person who was the director of the National Apostolate of Maronites (NAM), and whom I contacted. I told him what I was about and asked if he'd like a book. We were in touch after he received the book and he thought this was a good thing to mention to his organization. He sent me the mailing list for all 80 Maronite Churches in the US and I decided to make a bold investment and send a complimentary copy to the pastors of each church. In a personalized letter, I asked if each church might mention my book in the their Sunday bulletin.

For a lot of authors this might be a prohibitive expense—the postage and padded envelopes alone totaled nearly $300. When you add in the cost of the books, it comes to a tidy sum that would take quite a few sales to cover.

What I thought was a brilliant strategy fell with a thud when I received only three letters thanking me for the book. I was a bit downcast to say the least. A couple of months later I got a surprise phone call from a lady in Birmingham, AL, who said she had read the book notice in her church's Sunday bulletin and had asked her priest about it. He hadn't read the book but loaned it to her. She said she loved it, and would I consider coming to Birmingham to be the speaker at their annual banquet, to be attended by 350 people. Long story short, they put me up, paid me a very nice stipend, and I sold 100 books to boot. That weekend recovered my entire cost for the promotion three times over!

But that wasn't all! One of the priests who read the book, wrote a nice review that was published in the organization's national publication. In addition, I was invited to the NAM convention two years in a row and to another speaking gig in Austin, TX— where a total of 140 more books were sold! There were also many uncounted orders from the word of mouth buzz that those sales generated.

So, what I thought was an abject failure turned into a big success.

To be continued--

Saturday, October 9, 2010

Marketing Books—Success & Failures—III

Looking for market niches—

Filled with hubris because of my past marketing experience, I surveyed all the marketing niches that my book, Kisses, might fit. I, like most authors, thought I was writing for a general audience but, as mentioned before, it’s a very crowded marketplace and every author should try to find a niche where a focused strategy will yield better results than a general marketing approach.

As an example, Kisses could be broadly classified as history, or more specifically Middle Eastern history. It also fit as a general immigration study, travel book, or even, as I accidentally discovered, the world of genealogy. The narrower the field you can identify, the more apt you are to find venues to the target market. You should always be on the lookout for markets that might not have been apparent at the outset.

One day, I received a call from the program chairman of the local genealogy society asking if I would be interested in speaking at one of their meetings. He’d heard about me at the library where I had given a talk (one where I sold three books). As a result, I ginned up a presentation, which was well received and sold eight books. I decided that this was a bona fide niche that I should explore.

I searched the Internet for genealogy societies in the state of Florida and sent off eMails to all of them. I soon began receiving replies, asking how much I charged, etc. The lead times were lengthy because most of these associations schedule talks a year in advance. Nonetheless, I have now appeared at six different genealogy associations and have not only sold 85 books, but also received several hundred dollars in speaking fees, plus travel. And I have several more such events on my calendar.

The bottom line here is that this was an unexpected marketing thrust that dropped into my lap—because of another event that I had considered a failure. So, the lesson I learned was that lemons can be turned into lemonade. You just have to be ready to squeeze them!

To be continued—

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Marketing Books—Success & Failures—II

Following conventional strategies such as bookstore or library signings is something that is recommended by just about everyone in the know about bookselling. Other than my first bookstore experience (mentioned in my previous post), this strategy has not worked for me.

An author who reviewed my book on public radio, recommended I have a book signing at Busboys & Poets Bookstore in Washington, DC. "It's a prestigious place," I was told. The manager of the bookstore was quite cordial but told me that success was dependent on getting “sponsors” for my appearance. Since my book was about Lebanese people and culture, he suggested  I contact Arab American organizations in the area to see if they would oblige me, as sponsorship would cost them nothing. Their names would be put on the program and all they had to do was notify their membership of my appearance.

With high hopes I contacted four such organizations, explained that my book was pegged as a cultural statement that would interest their membership, and had been well received by members of their communities. Would they consent to sponsor me, I asked? One never answered; another said they’d think about it and never got back; and a third said it was against their policy (this was one I had just given a substantial contribution to). The fourth was a magazine with a Middle Eastern focus and they agreed to be a sponsor.

I tried to arrange ancillary events around the date but no one responded to my inquiries (this included other bookstores and churches). The cost of lodging in the DC area is quite expensive, between $200-$300 a night, so I decided to make it a one day trip. Airfare was $300, and counting the costs of local transportation and a meal, it was a fairly expensive outing. About a dozen people showed up for my talk (including a reporter from the sponsoring magazine who wrote a nice review) and the bookstore sold a grand total of three books.

It was then that I began to look with a jaundiced eye at just how many of these expeditions I could justify in the pursuit of moving my book off the store shelves. I definitely needed to refine my strategy.

In the same time period I did two signings at local libraries where I gave PowerPoint presentations—result, sold three books at each. It was then I decided to give up on the bookstore/library scene and began to formulate other plans that would be more cost effective.

To be continued—

Friday, October 1, 2010

Marketing Books—Success & Failures

Ok, you’ve written a book and got it published one way or another. Now what?

When Kisses from a Distance finally came out, I had already been planning book signings and was looking for more. The self-help manuals I read pointed out traditional venues such as bookstores and libraries, so I plunged into arranging such events.

At about the same time, a family social obligation in my hometown of Carthage, NY appeared on my calendar. Aha, said I, perhaps I can turn this trip into a signing event at multiple venues. I called Borders in nearby Watertown (a city much larger than Carthage) and spoke to the manager. Although lukewarm at first, I convinced her that I was a local boy, would be in the area, had written a memoir, etc. She reluctantly agreed, as long as I brought books. She didn't want to be bothered ordering them.

Next, I called the pastor of the church where the social event was to be held and asked if I could piggyback a book signing at the breakfast after the church service. He agreed and said he would even announce it at the conclusion of the mass. The next thing I did was to contact the newspapers in the area to tell them that I, a local author, would be in the area promoting my book and could they mention it in the paper’s coming events. They asked for more details and I eMailed them an abbreviated press kit, which I had already prepared. As a result, I got a nice write-up, including a 4-color picture, that appeared in the paper before the scheduled Borders signing.

When I got up home the day before the events were to take place, I took a walk around town and stumbled across the local farmers market. The fellow in charge had seen the newspaper article about the book and asked why I didn’t sell books there? Why not, said I. For a fee of $5 he set up a table and I started buttonholing vegetable shoppers to interest them in the book. I was there about three hours and sold twelve books. Totally unplanned and unexpected.

When I arrived at Borders, the manager told me not to expect too much because they had three or four signings a year and sold at most eight or ten books. I was there for three hours and sold twenty-one books, much to Borders’ surprise. One of the people who came in to buy a book was a local TV personality who had seen the newspaper article. I engaged her in cordial conversation and as a result she asked if I’d be interested in a TV interview. Would I! So, two days later I appeared on the local evening news and many people who saw the clip went to Borders to buy the book. The bad news is Borders had run out! Not only that, they told people they wouldn’t be reordering either.

The good news is—on that first weekend, I sold 98 books. Because of my lack of experience, I didn’t actually know if that was good or not. I soon would learn that was excellent! The lesson here is, you never know what will work until you try—and when unexpected things pop up. Be ready to take advantage.

To be continued—

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Marketing—The third leg of the author's milking stool—Part II

As I mentioned previously, changes in the publishing industry have mandated that authors become intimately involved in the promotion and sale (marketing) of their work. And, this development has not been greeted with enthusiasm by individuals in the writing community.

By way of background, I need to mention that I was involved in selling at a very early age. I worked in my father’s tobacco shop from my pre-teen years all the way through high school. Dad was an unschooled graduate of Hard Knocks U, and he dispensed his accumulated wisdom, reflexively and without thought. “Don’t discuss religion or politics with customers,” he ordered. “And when a customer gives you money, you say thank you.” These are but a couple of the dictums that obviously had an impact on me, for I remember them clearly even decades later. And, I might add, not always following them usually redounded to my disfavor.

Although I earned a science degree in college, it didn’t take long after embarking on my business career to notice that, no matter what pursuit you were involved in, selling quickly became an important part of your job. You had to sell your co-workers that you were a competent partner in the projects you were assigned; you had to sell your boss that you were doing a good job; you had to sell the customers that they had placed their faith, and money, in the right firm to do their work. I didn’t think of these activities as part of marketing until much later when I began reflecting and writing on my experiences.

It soon became obvious to those in positions above me that I had acquired a flair for marketing and was given more and more of those kinds of tasks, which included making presentations, writing technical papers, proposals, and articles for journals and newspapers. I like to call this part of my life as my “writing and marketing apprenticeship.” As a concrete example of my activities, I once sold a $5 million service contract to a consortium of banks, and a $20 million venture capital project to a large conglomerate, among others. I like to joke to my friends that, whereas I used to run around the country selling multi-million dollar projects, I am now reduced to running around the country selling a $20 book!

I was thrust into the sphere of bookselling by the simple accident of getting a book published. Like most writers, I thought I had done all the heavy lifting by the time I finished the research and writing. When I realized that the publisher wasn’t going to do anything to promote the work, I plunged headlong into the tide, just as did Horatius at the Bridge. I didn’t really know anything about it but thought, “How hard can this be? It’s duck soup, comparatively speaking, especially for someone with my background.” Let’s just say I had a bit to learn.

The first thing I did, as any scientist worth his salt would, was to research the problem. There are several good self-help books available on this subject, so I bought a couple and studied them. They were quite helpful, especially in acquainting me with the venues that other authors had used for promotion. But, and this is something that all writers soon realize, effective marketing can be expensive. There are precious few lucrative “cheap ideas” for book promotion. (Some will argue this point, but I say show me the figures.) Of course everyone touts the Internet—you must have a web site, a blog, a Facebook page, and now you must also Tweet. But how many books do these activities sell? No one is saying, but as any marketeer will tell you, getting your name out there is always good, even if no tangible results are immediately seen. After all, commercial direct mail is considered effective if you get a two percent return. But, can authors live on two percent?

The prospect of spending money to market my book didn’t daunt me, because, unlike many other writers, my livelihood didn’t depend on it. So, I asked myself, “Why are you doing this?” My first answer was simply this: “I’m doing it because, as one who came to this avocation later in life, I feel my accumulated ‘Elder Statesman’ experience might be useful to others.” Second, I thought I had some entertaining stories to tell. And third, I believe underneath it all, everyone is searching for “immortality” in one way or another, and successful books have a good chance of enduring after one is long gone.

Once the book was published, I attacked the problem of promotion with gusto, devising strategies and plans of attack that I was sure would guarantee great results. When several of my first readers asked when the sequel was coming out, I said, "Let's sell this one out first."

In my next post, I will relate some of my marketing experiences, their costs and their results.

Friday, September 24, 2010

ALJADID Book Review

A Review and Record of Arab Culture and Arts

COPYRIGHT 2009 AL JADID VOL. 15 No. 61 (2009)
Kisses From A Distance: An Immigrant Family Experience
By Raff Ellis
Cune Press, 2007, 312 pp.

Maronite Family Life in Early 20th Century Lebanon, and Journey into America

“Kisses from a Distance” is an intimate chronicle of Raff Ellis’s attempt to reconstruct his family history using as the letters left behind by his mother after her death in 1994. The author’s parents were Lebanese Maronites who made the journey to the United States in the early 20th century, against a backdrop of historical events of enormous significance both within Lebanon and on the global stage.

The dynamic of this book is due in large part to the fact that the author had at his disposal only the letters his mother received from her family and friends, and not the ones she wrote to them. This not only leaves room for imagination but also makes Ellis’s trips back to Lebanon to conduct research as central a theme as his parents’ initial journey to America, giving the work an enjoyably personal feel.

From a historical standpoint, the most interesting aspect of “Kisses from a Distance” is the author’s re-creation of Maronite life in the mountain villages of Lebanon around the turn of the century. Ellis’s mother came from a family of notables while his father was of peasant origin, making for a fairly thorough portrait of day-to-day existence. This is the part of the book where the author resorts to re-creation most often, and he describes the situations and conversations between members of his family as he imagines they must have occurred with great sensitivity.

Equally poignant is the role played by the impending collapse of the Ottoman Empire which, in its death throes, implemented increasingly repressive measures to extract resources from and control local populations. The author also details the ravages of the locust plague of 1915 that brought famine and disease to an already suffering population. The resulting economic deprivations and socio-political turmoil were largely responsible for the departure of Ellis’s parents, and so many like them, to foreign lands in search of a better life.

As is the case with so many who emigrate, however, adjusting to a new and completely different life is often just as difficult and even traumatic as the adverse conditions from which one was fleeing. The depiction of the many setbacks and hardships endured by the Kmeid family in their new life in upstate New York constitutes one of the book’s strongest aspects. For all of the author’s painstaking research into the minutest details of his family’s past, the universality of the story is every bit as important. Indeed, this book could be read by anyone whose ancestors made the trek to America at the time of the chaotic birth of the 20th century.

The movement back and forth between personal and universal also underscores another of the book’s strong points, in that through Ellis’s family history we have a unique window onto the social and political situation of the Maronites after the turn of the century. While sociological and political analysis is mostly beyond the scope of the work, we nonetheless catch a glimpse of conflicts that would eventually play a central role in the civil war years later. The author’s uncle served in the army under the Ottomans and in his letters makes several references to his role in quelling the Druze rebellions during the French Mandate. The tumultuous history of the Druze- Maronite relationship in Lebanon is perhaps well-known and is really not at all a focal point for Ellis, but it adds a layer of complexity to the account. Particularly, since the Maronites were having their own problems with the Ottomans, also represented by Ellis’s uncle, who was an exemplary soldier on the battlefield but who often clashed with his superiors.

Reading this book, one cannot help but wonder helplessly about the other boxes of letters out there collecting dust in the attics and basements of the world, and what these letters would reveal not only about the folks who wrote them but also about the historical events of the times in which they were written. AJ

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Marketing – The third leg of the author’s milking stool

Kisses from a Distance just celebrated its third anniversary, and as books go, it’s getting a little long in the tooth. Although many readers have commented that the story is timeless and will endure, it continues to take effort to keep the title in the public eye, and hopefully generate sales.

It was only natural to expect book-related activities to slow down, simply because it is difficult to keep up the drumbeat in a crowded marketplace. After all, there were some one million titles published last year, all of which are considered to be competing for the same entertainment dollars.

Nonetheless, surprises come in occasionally and I just booked three lectures for interested groups in the next few months. Some of this activity has to do with publicizing the accolades I received from a previous appearance. A few months ago, after a lecture, I received a complimentary note from the group’s program director, and who also booked me for an encore presentation.

What a delightful afternoon! I so much enjoyed meeting and talking with you before the meeting. Everyone I spoke with was thrilled with your presentation. It had just the right mixture of genealogy, history, and human interest…
It is always gratifying to receive accolades and brings me to the subject of what authors can do to market their work—since publishers no longer have the resources to do so. Many writers lament this situation and blame the lack of sales on their publishers for not doing a good job of promotion. Let’s face it, the marketplace has undergone drastic change in the last decade and many of the dinosaurs in the industry have become, or are on the verge of becoming, extinct. It’s in the natural order of things to evolve, and publishing is no exception. The marketplace has changed dramatically, due in large part to the rapid encroachment of technology—the Internet being one of the chief competitors to the publishing enterprise. We must not forget, however, that publishers are in the business of making money and marketing is an expensive proposition. Publishers just don’t have the resources to do it any longer. So, we as authors must adapt and stop lamenting the lack of support from our publishers.

When I was working for a living (that’s a joke son), I did several stints in marketing/selling. Marketing is an often-misunderstood and maligned concept, especially among those involved in artistic pursuits. Many think it involves only the selling of a product when in fact it includes devising strategy and formulating plans, as well as actually making the sale.

The milking stool metaphor I used in the title is apt because without all three legs intact (first is writing, second is publishing), the author’s work will collapse into a pile of cow dung (pardon the graphic metaphor). The marketing leg has increasingly become the hardest to support because just as not all markets are equal, neither are all marketers. Professional in the field recognize that markets are continually changing, fragmenting, and transforming into barely recognizable entities. Marketing is where artistry meets commercialism head-on.

It should not be hard to imagine that all the different publishing genres actually have different markets. Neglecting the few among us who read just about anything, there are definite market niches for romance, mystery, fantasy, and the various non-fiction categories, etc. Authors should, just as any successful businessperson does, ask of themselves the following: What market am I in? Who are my customers? How do I reach them?

The old business model where publishers stood behind a stable of authors and pushed their work to reviewers, award granting organizations, and booksellers, is long gone and lamentably so. Thus, the burden of marketing falls to authors, most of whom are unprepared for the task, if they understand it at all.

Authors must seek help if they are not up to it and, as Hamlet once said, therein lies the rub. Books are among today’s best values when placed in competition for discretionary entertainment spending. If one were to calculate the cost per hour of reading enjoyment versus going to the movies or a round of golf, books come in way below many entertainment choices. I mention this because it speaks to the lag in book pricing versus increased costs in other leisure activities. Accordingly, potential author remuneration is correspondingly low when you consider the amount of effort required to write, publish and market book products. The bottom line begs the question: Who can afford professional marketing help when the returns versus cost are so low?

It necessarily becomes incumbent on authors, who really believe in their work, to muster the effort to master the elements of marketing their work. I will go into detail about the techniques I used with my book Kisses from a Distance, what worked and what didn’t, in a subsequent post. However, I will say this: I personally sold over 1,200 autographed copies of my first book through personal appearances, my web site, word-of-mouth, and selective mailing campaigns – both snail and Internet. It was a lot of work that resulted in my publisher getting the benefit of many sales through my marketing efforts.

The bottom line, as many a businessperson is wont to say, is to recognize that, like it or not, you are in the marketing business, and you will have to spend some effort to learn the basics. You must also understand that everything you try will not work, but you won’t know which ones do or don’t until you try. Do not underestimate the work involved because no matter how much you’d rather sit alone cranking out deathless prose or poetry, in the end the marketplace must validate your work.

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

A Review of Kisses from a Distance

books I’ve been reading …

Posted by adiamondinsunlight

My new position leaves me with free time on weekends (a luxury I haven’t enjoyed for years), as well as roughly 20 minutes of commuting time every morning and evening. I’ve been putting all this time to good use by catching up on a shelf’s worth of books that I have ordered over the course of the past year but not yet found time to read.

The first was the bittersweet family memoir Kisses from a Distance, written by Raff Ellis (Elias). His maternal grandmother was the product of an unhappy alliance between members of two elite Maronite families in Ottoman Syria: the Hobeiches and the el Khazens. Elite, but deeply impoverished – which is what led their son, a man with the Hobeiche name and the desire for financial security to match, to marry off his sister to a ‘nameless’ young Lebanese man newly returned from the United States to look for a local bride, with a general goods store and bright prospects for the future. That man and that auctioned-off woman would become Ellis’ parents – and despite the initial promise of a rented store, they ended up living a very hard life, trying to keep their store (and family) afloat.

Ellis moves charmingly from one side of his family to another, and intersperses the history of their lives with his own memories of visiting Lebanon in the late 1990s and early 2000s. The book is published by Cune Press, a small but very good Seattle-base publishing house, which has published a number of books on the Middle East and Arab culture. Kisses from a Distance is a sweet book, but its not a fairy-tale. I cheered for the Ellises when their store did well, and I grieved for them when tragedies struck.

Lebanon - Kisses from a Distance

The New York Times - sic transit historia

The esteemed publisher of “all the news that’s fit to print” seems to have lost its way. Has printing erroneous information and flights of fancy that bear no resemblance to the truth now become de rigueur?

On August 13, 2010 the Times printed an op-ed column by Gail Collins that celebrated women’s suffrage, which she said would be observing its 90th anniversary. “It has everything. Adventure! Suspense! Treachery! Drunken legislators!” she wrote. It made for wonderful reading, bringing tears to the eyes of many who posted comments on the NYT web site.

Well, why shouldn’t it? After all, it is worthy to note that American women finally got the right to vote -- before most developed countries had granted such rights to their women. All emotional responses aside, the article raised my suspicions as the events surrounding the article seemed to be out of place or at least out of time.

“Ninety years ago this month [August, 1920], all eyes turned to Tennessee, the only state yet to ratify with its Legislature still in session. The resolution sailed through the Tennessee Senate.” Ms. Collins said, “The most vigorous opposition came from the liquor industry, which was pretty sure that if women got the vote, they’d use it to pass Prohibition.”

There are two problems with this statement. First is that Prohibition had already passed in January of 1919 (taking effect one year later) so if there was concern that the ladies would vote for it, it was misplaced and curious at best. Second, there had not been, nor would there be, a popular vote for Prohibition, or even for women’s suffrage for that matter. Constitutional Amendments are voted on by the parliamentary bodies of the US Congress, and each individual State.

“Both suffrage and anti-suffrage men were reeling through the hall in an advanced state of intoxication…” Ms. Collins continued. Although this is quite possible, remember that the National Prohibition Act that went into effect in January of 1920 restricted or prohibited the manufacture, transportation, import, export, and sale of alcohol and alcoholic beverages. Thus seven months later there wouldn’t have been any legal manufacturers of alcohol, and anyone transporting booze to the Tennessee legislature would have been breaking the law. There is no historical record for this statement (at least not in the extensive NYT reportage of the event) and it couldn’t have been for the reason given, as Prohibition was already a fait accompli.

What is most bothersome about this affair is that of the 135 or so comments I read on the Times web site, no one save I, even noticed or seemed to care about the discrepancy noted above. I was alarmed that so many commenters actually mentioned that suffrage was indeed responsible for the enactment of Prohibition. They swallowed whole an erroneous piece of purported history. This, I believe, is food for the urban myth monster, which continually rampages across the Internet, bombarding us with false information.

I wrote a note to the Times corrections department pointing out all of the above but received no reply. I then wrote to the public editor, which was returned with… silence. It seems that accuracy in publishing is of little consequence to an organization that in recent years has been riddled with scandal due to reporters’ conflicts of interest and fabricated stories. Frankly, I expected better.

Raff Ellis