Diary of Trade Book (Newton and the Counterfeiter) 12.0: Publicity in the post MSM era

(Editor’s note:  Go here for the last entry in this diary, and search “diary” in the box at right for the whole shooting match)

The most horrible words I know in publishing … well there’s a lot of competition for horror in the London/1665 plague pit that is contemporary publishing, so perhaps I should say that, among the most dispiriting phrases I’ve heard in my writing career is this:

“Your book is going to sell by word of mouth.”

Translation? We’re not going to do much/we don’t know what to do/we ain’t got the cash or the faith or the tactical cleverness to sell this book actively.  So we hope folks notice somehow…and if it does we’ll do what we can.

(And yes, I know that recently in this blog I gave Ron Fournier grief for his psychic translations of the Sotomayor questioning.  But I’m telling you what I hear when those words are said to me. And its my blog.  Plus I’m right.    So there.)

Now it is a truth universally acknowledged that any single author in possession of insufficient sales/celebrity* must be in want of someone to blame.  And the handiest scapegoats, after the gods, the times and the essential unworthiness of the world to receive mine or anyone else’s pearls of insight and artful prose, are, of course, each author’s publisher.

And so it is with me:  I am convinced that my publisher is not doing all that it could/should do to help Newton and the Counterfeiter (Amazon, Powells, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound) reach the audience that would prize the book if only they knew about it.  In particular, I see two choices that went the wrong way that I wish I had paid more attention to at the time.

For one, I think the decision not to pursue as many readings/talks/events around book publication was a mistake, and though we are now trying to rectify that, I see a big missed opportunity here.

The reasoning offered at the time, earnestly and I’m sure sincerely, is that book store events and other talks don’t sell that many books — and its true.  The one event I’ve done so far (several more on the schedule, at last, starting this Saturday — and if you are in middle-western Massachusetts, you could check it out) was a home-town event at Harvard Bookstore.   It was packed, SRO (literally), with an audience of about 90 — double what I was told to expect as the best plausible total.  The talk went well, and the store sold about two dozen books.  That was good.

Obviously, I could go around to fifty bookstores, have that good outcome, and sell maybe a thousand copies or so all told.  A lot of work, a lot of travel, performance at the hairy edge of expectation (and without the hometown edge, it’s hard to imagine I’d get that level of interest at most stops), for a total undiscounted sale of $25,000, and a royalty (or down payment on the advance) of about $3,750.  Royalty per stop:  $75.  I’d do better waiting tables.  And that’s the unlikely very best case outcome.  Most bookstore readings involve a handful of people, maybe a couple of dozen in a good book town, and less than ten copies sold and signed.  Work out the hourly rate yourself; basically, you don’t even make gas money.

Which is the point my editor and my in-house publicist made as they delicately let me know that cash-strapped HMH had no intention of touring me around the country.  Too much effort and expense for negligible returns.

But — here’s the rub. The event is the barker at the door.  If you show up in a town, you get a crack at local media:  radio, alt. weeklies, newspapers.  If you do events in the right place, you can piggyback — I’m talking with some folks in Cleveland about a public lecture (which will cover travel and even offer an honorarium) to combine with a bookstore farrago — and I plan to try to pile on a bunch of these two-or-more-fers over the fall.)  Finally, other majore opportunities turn on the fact of

Most of all, if you need to build word of mouth about a book, you have to reach that first circle of brains who can give utterance to the untold wonder that is your pile of words.  Doing so at this kind of barnstorming level is inefficient, certainly, but given what’s happened to what used to be the mainstream book press over the last few years, mass-access to the audience that would value any given book  is a dream for most authors — or at least it is so for me.  (More on this to come very soon).

The other error made back in March or April (for June publication) was mine and my publisher’s — and it is also directly connected to the fate of the MSbookM.  I’ll be writing about the incomplete transition from old reviewing models to internet/blog driven book journalism in my next post, but the basic point is that very few authors can count on timely reviews in major publications to drive word of mouth and sales.  So what to do?

Put oneself into the mass media directly.  I wrote a little about this here, but now I’ve had a few more weeks to realize the depth of my own lapsees in the US, and to watch a much more successful campaign unfold in advance of the UK pub date (August 20), I can urge the point with more emphasis.

I managed to get just one article up in a quasi national magazine to coincide, more or less, with the US publication of Newton and the Counterfeiter, (again:  Amazon, Powells, Barnes and Noble, Indiebound).  That was in Technology Review which is certainly national — but the MIT news section in which my piece ran is not.  If you are not on the MIT list, you had to know to go to the website to find it.

Not good enough, not even close.  I’ve been scrambling ever since to get some more stuff out there, and some is beginning to appear — this interview on Bloomberg’s Muse site just went up today, for example, and there is more to come.  But I didn’t think to try to place an op-ed in The Wall St. Journal, despite the fact that Newton’s role as a money man is in that publication’s wheel house.  I didn’t hit Forbes or Fortune or Business Week or Physics Today.  I wrote a note about this to Corey Powell at Discover last January, and then forgot to follow up when he replied…and so on, through a range of less widely read publications that reach (often in higher proportion than the mass market ones) book-buying readers.  That’s no way to run a railroad.  There were real-life reasons why this campaign took second place to everything else, but the blunt truth is that if I wanted to sell my book to as many people as might want it, I needed (and still do) to do much more than I have done to date to let people know that it exists.

At the same time, a strong publicity department will sell you into appropriate venues.  That’s what has happened with Faber, my UK publisher.  I’ve got pieces coming up in the Sunday Times, in the Daily Telegraph, in BBC History magazine, some originally produced radio about my book (not interviews!), and even a travel piece that mentions the book in yet another of the national dailies.  I’m sure there is/was more for me to do (it occurs to me I should try to hit up the FT — and while it’s late, it’s not as past its sell-by date as my US efforts have been) but this is a solid foundation.  And virtually all of it came through the vigorous efforts of a hard working publicist in house at Faber.

That’s how it’s done — and what pisses me off is that I knew both of these facts — that I needed to hoof it around the country to help my book get a hearing, and that I needed to be much more persistent and prolific in getting my own copy about the book and its themes out into the world.  The repair operation is under way — but it’s less and later than it should be for maximum effect.  Do as I say, not as I have done.

In the next diary post (later today or tomorrow at the latest — I promise.  No really! Sure thing, kid — ed.)  I’ll talk about something that has become brutally clear as Newton… has rolled out.  That’s what I alluded to above: the undead quality of conventional reviewing and my experience of trying to work through the blogosphere to make up for the lapse.

*Insufficient sales and the ability to go to the grocery store unrecognized are of course infinitely elastic categories.  Trust me, though, when I tell you that all but a tiny handful of the many tens of thousands of books published in the US each year rise to nobody’s standards of acceptable sales.

Image:  James T. Eglington: The Poultry Seller, 1839 (I’ve always seen the book trade as more akin to selling chickens off the back of a truck (or a roadside table) than any modern business.)

Explore posts in the same categories: good books, Isaac Newton, Newton and the Counterfeiter, Newtoniana, Self-aggrandizement, Uncategorized

5 Comments on “Diary of Trade Book (Newton and the Counterfeiter) 12.0: Publicity in the post MSM era”

  1. thonyc Says:

    I have done my best and posted “two” positive reviews on my humble blog here and here and wish you maximum sales.

  2. Barnes & Noble in Framingham has Newton… shelved in the Sci/Tech section, not in biography, where it would see a whole lot more eyeballs. At least it’s shelved facing front.

  3. […] book with such subject matter would naturally be an instant hit!  But as Tom Levenson noted on his own blog, the book has not gotten the publicity it needs (I would say deserves), so I thought I’d do […]

  4. Jack Valentin Says:

    I saw the review in Physics World, thought ‘that sounds fun’, saved the review for a year or so, then cleaned out that pile of clippings and ordered it from Amazon, shelved the book for another year or so waiting for a rainy day; now I’ve read it, loved it of course and am investigating your other books. Moral: Be patient!! (My wife, a cartoonist, produced a popular comic strip for 3 years from 1988. She was paid a pittance at the time, earned a bit more from book re-publishing ten years later, and is getting good money -and the first signs of international syndication- only now…) So, keep up your good word / Jack Valentin, Sweden

  5. I am very pleasantly surprised to find yourself, the author of Newton and the Counterfeiter, on WordPress… I’ve read it a few times; in fact it’s one of my favourite books on the subject of Newton.
    Although I am aware that you are busy, I am writing now a paper for my IB diploma on the nature of Newton’s beliefs, specifically his Arian tendencies, and was wondering if I could ask you a few questions about the subject as a resource? I would be honoured to have your input on the subject.

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