JE: Last week, JR and I engaged in a lively discussion about agents and champions and dental insurance and surviving–financially and spiritually—as a writer in the twenty-first century. This week I thought we could pick up generally where we left off, and talk about audience building. I believe that the successful author in century twenty-one must be a force of nature, a tireless connector, social networker, and above all, accessible to his readership. Monetizing the relationship between reader and writer is going to be the key to survival from here on out. The successful writer will take it upon himself to find readers, rather than leave it up to his publisher.

I’m of the opinion that a good writer ought to do everything he can to find a readership online or elsewhere before he ever publishes a book. You’ve got to hit the ground running or you’ve got slim to no chance of surviving in the lit fiction market (and mind you, survival does NOT in most cases equate to making a living, so don’t quit your day job!). The average debut novel has about a three month shelf-life and will receive very little publicity or merchandising support. You’ve got to sort out your demand before those ninety days start ticking off, or your up shit creek with a turd for a paddle, and pretty soon your publisher is offering you the unique opportunity to buy back thousands of copies of your own book, lest they go the way of the shredder. Out of print, baby– not good in a market that is supposed to be driven by backlists. The overwhelming majority of debut novelists learn these lessons at about day seventy-three, by which time it’s all but too late to salvage a successful debut. You spend ten, maybe twenty years to get in the door, more than likely only to be greeted by a steel-toed boot to the teeth.

JR: I think an audience is key to becoming a successful writer. It’s what’s at the essence of that statement which should be examined. How do you do that? For the last nine years I’ve been writing one novel after the other and querying agents. They picked up my query and said, “who the fuck is Jason Rice?…I don’t care how good his prose is, WHO IS HE?” Then I looked closer at jacket copy of books I liked, the blurbs, the places first timers had been published before their debut landed in my lap. It was places like McSweeneys, other high end literary magazines, a ton of Iowa Grads, and some Yaddo…so I started looking at those places to get my short fiction published. Which got me more rejection slips, but it taught me a valuable lesson, you need to think smaller, to build a fire you have to start with a shred of glass and reflect in on one small spot, and try to make it spread, and don’t start with a log, start with twigs.

So I moved to the online world of lit mags and realized you can build your craft and style in little places like Failbetter, Hamilton Review, and my first published story went on line at 3AMMAGAZINE.COM (an excerpt of a my nearly unpublishable first novel) and I had to wait seven months to get it there. But what it does is develop an audience, a small one, but it’s people who like your stuff, and want to see more. I always look at a rejections for a line that says, “we’re not going to publish this, but send me something else, I like your style.” Remembering that these online editors get millions of submissions every month. I also took an unpaid job at Zoetrope magazine, I was a reader, twice a week I went to the Manhattan offices and read stories and wrote rejections letters. That was an education in so many ways…but what it taught me…is that you have to be good enough to grab the readers attention…nothing ever did ( I read hundreds of stories, a drop in the bucket compared to what is being produced and submitted today), but I did go home and tried to write something better than I had.

Then I stumbled on Ain’t It Cool News and wrote a monthly review for nine years, every month I reviewed two to three books. I told it unvarnished, I loved most everything I read, and told my readers don’t come to me for bad reviews, but I did get lots of reader responses, emails galore telling me what they thought of my writing, and it helped me practice the craft of building an audience, I know it’s a small thing, AICN, but it was that little twig…

I get debut’s everyday, they land on my front porch or at the office, and nine times out of ten I don’t know who these writers are, but if their first two pages grab me, I stick with it. Then I tell other people, then I write about it on the blog, then I tell some more people. I don’t think enough people knew about David Benioff (the whole world rejected his first novel, then he wrote 25th hour) when I first reviewed him on AICN, his debut…it’s a smash, but Kakutani loved it, which made me read it, and when I did, I told the world. That’s how writers build an audience, they write something great, and now, today, in this market, they have to get the word out like a house on fire. If you’ve been published online, or in a small literary magazine, it doesn’t mean a whole lot to me, but if your prose sparkles, like Peter Craig’s Hot Plastic, (that book is great), then I’m going to tell people about it. Editors and Agents love that kind of pedigree, or at least I think they do, but of the places you can get published, it’s the high end places that get Editors and Agents to sit up and take notice, smaller places, they don’t care, but it’s the smaller places that you can use as a stepping stone to McSweeneys or Zoetrope (those places really only have about one or two slots for unsolicited stuff, so your wishing on a star to get in there and shouldn’t be crushed when you don’t, but it you do, the barometer is moving). When Dan Wickett reviewed a story of mine on his blog, and said he wanted to see more from me, that meant more than getting the story published. It meant I had people who liked what I’d written, those people will someday buy my book (someday…) and I think that’s what the gatekeepers are looking for. How do you market a debut writer? How much work will your publicity department have to do? How are they going to convince the ever evolving world, online, and in print, that this debut is worth their time, when there are ten more debuts sitting in a stack on the floor next to the reviewer or the store manager.

You start small and build a reputation. Write for free, write a blog, tell it like it is, don’t shade it to be popular, then people will come to you because they like your writing, then you’re moving in the right direction. But the one thing they never tell you in debut school, is there are only so many slots on the bookshelf, whether it be in someones home or in a store, chain or indie.

JE: Personally, I doubt whether any of my story publications prior to Lulu meant anything to a prospective publisher– sign this Evison kid pronto, he has a new story in The Wandering Hermit Review! The important thing about these publications isn’t the resume-building, it’s the actual forging of relationships with readers. A writer’s CV, no matter how stellar, is not going to convince an editor to publish a book. The work has to convince him of that. If you’re thinking in terms of building a resume, you want to be published in as many different journals as possible because it looks impressive on paper. But if you’re thinking in terms of name recognition and audience building, it makes more sense to publish several stories in a row in the same journal, so you can get a foothold in
that (albeit small) market. That’s what I tried to do. I published over an over in Knock, until they finally asked me to guest edit an issue. I’ll bet I garnered a lot more long term readers that way than I would have by publishing those stories scattershot all over the literary map. How many readers? Maybe fifty? Maybe a hundred? But the exponentials on fifty or a hundred are pretty good if you’re talking about a loyal readership. See, that’s the thing, every reader makes a difference. Every single reader has the potential to sell ten of your books through word of mouth. You just can’t think too small. I get maybe two dozen reader e-mails and Facebook messages, and Good Reads messages every week, and I answer every single one of them. Too many writers don’t seem to appreciate their audience, you know? Christ, books are collaborative when you get down to it. What’s a book without a reader?

JR: Five years ago authors barely had websites, I’m not talking Mary Higgins Clark, more like the debut guys, or the sophomore efforts, those people hardly managed the web (is that from lack of trying, or the absence of knowledge?). Now JE, you and I can talk to hundreds of people each day about books, you talk to at least that many before lunchtime.

When I met someone at Hudson who knew you, and your book, I knew you were working the network. But you’re not part of a majority that appreciates his or her readers, your one of a few. Sure, writers, big time and mid-list, they appreciate their readers, but let’s talk literary authors, let’s talk about someone who is in the world we live in, the Facebook world, and immediately slings an arrow at a reader who says, “I loved your new book” (this happened to me, and I had to apologize for liking his book), they aren’t willing or ready to embrace everyone that comes their way. But they should. If they only knew how few people actually read books, (maybe they do), then it would be a different story. I don’t think author tours are the way for writers to connect with their audience, it used to be that way, when I was hosting events at BN, you’d get 20-30 people a night for a mid-list author, and nine times out of ten that author was thrilled, but this was pre-internet (author tours cost money, lots of it).

Now, JE, you can talk to hundreds, in essence, sell hundreds of books with out ever leaving your pajamas. You’re right, every single reader can sell your book. But my question is this, are publishers, editors and agents willing to take on an author who wants to do just that, connect on moderate scale? Take it to the streets? I don’t know…is my answer. Or are they taking on so many authors just to meet a bottom line, and whatever happens after that is the chips falling where they may syndrome, lets move on, next book please, we don’t have time to worry about what didn’t work.

JE: Take Soft Skull. They’re all about taking on authors connecting on moderate scales. Richard Nash’s new model with Dedi Feldman is all about that. When Richard was in charge at Soft Skull, he reminded me time and again that a book doesn’t have to sell a million copies to be profitable. I would think– and maybe our friend Dan Wicket or Richard himself could sound in on this– that any small publisher would be excited about publishing an author who consistently connects with enough readers to make his or her books profitable, even if that number of readers is three or four thousand. It’s all about equilibrium. As far as writers who keep their readers at a distance, I can’t say that I really understand them. Hell, I invite stalkers! I have a number of women fans who regularly send me little emoticoms–farting unicorns, leprechauns sliding on their asses down rainbows, that kind of thing. They send them for every conceivable occasion– Happy Wednesday! Happy Saint Abernathy’s Day, whatever. I love them! I send them back pictures of my bunnies! As for tours: for me, book tours are less about connecting with readers and more about connecting with booksellers. I still believe in the old school book tour. They’re not profitable on a per unit scale in an immediate sense, but in the long run, a successful tour will pay for itself with continuing bookseller advocacy. I’ve forged relationships with booksellers who will be advocating for my next ten books. That said, I connect with a ton of readers at events. I always invite everybody in attendance to go drink beer somewhere nearby afterward. Drink beer with your readers and it’s a safe bet they’ll buy your next book and your next. I’ve probably attended 30 book clubs for Lulu, too. If you want to build readers for life, go sit in their living room and drink their beer for a few hours.

JR: You make a good point about the smaller publishers with more moderate means at their disposal. Debut authors sometimes don’t know the difference between Soft Skull and Random House; they just want their book to be published so they can write everyday without going back to their day job. So if you’re a first time author trying to break in, with no community, how do you find out about this? Is writing the book easier or harder than what happens after it gets published. I do think that booksellers will not be happy when they sign you up for a reading and no one shows up. They look bad, you look worse and the bad will is perpetuated. I wonder if there should be a sales level that you need to reach to get the marketing money to tour and enjoy advertising, just like the time that hardcovers are in the marketplace should shrink. Bring trade papers out six months early, lower advances, increase a books ability to sell. So you offer it at $25.95 or more, shorten the print run, and then sell it again as a trade, and not all authors should start in hardcover. I know the trade paper original gives publishers only one chance to sell a book, but will you save money? And why sell a book a second time, that didn’t work the first? But then again, should publishers try to make every book on their list? Why publish it otherwise? But has the genie gotten out of the bottle? Can we scale this whole publishing thing down and concentrate on connecting readers to writers? Isn’t that what we’re here to do? But when will publishers subscribe to this theory? Or is it all dollars and cents?

JE: First of all, I would NEVER play to an empty house. The fewest people I’ve ever had at a reading was 23 in Bellingham. And I worked my butt off to make sure I had that many– called everybody I knew within a fifty mile radius and invited them personally. I baked hot dog cake and brought coolers of beer to my events. I made hundreds of jello shots. The one exception is a signing I did in a strip mall in Bakersfield— which truth be told, was pretty much designed to be a Spinal Tap moment for me (see video). Otherwise, I make damn sure there was butts in the seats. I’d pay shills if I had to! The hell if I’m going to leave it up the bookstore to draw the crowds. You only play where you know you can put butts in the seats. That’s why publishers usually only agree to the “friends and family tour” for most authors. You probably won’t see San Diego on my next tour, because, well, I only know two people there. It comes back to the network. Before I launched my Lulu tour, I had like 4000 friends on Myspace. I personally invited everyone on my list that lived in any one of those cities in which I was booked. And you know what? A lot of them came. I had standing room only crowds in Seattle and San Francisco and L.A, and the biggest reason was that I invited people personally. I drank beer and tried to speak with each one of them individually at some point to thank them for coming. A lot
of writers don’t get it: you have to HOST your own events. I understand this is easier for somebody like me with a talk radio background who has a really social nature. But, like super-publicist Lauren Cerand recently pointed out to me (interview coming soon!): if it’s not in you to do the highly public stuff, well, then, you damn well better blog, because there’s no free passes. It doesn’t matter how good your publicist is, you gotta’ be ready and willing to help yourself.
-JE, JR