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