Promotion; the key to selling books, and the pain and the shame

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I know I am not alone in my dread of promoting my own books. It’s not only the obviously shy or tongue-tied who cringe at the idea of sitting behind a table in a bookstore, trying to catch the attention of the people who pass by deliberately avoiding eye contact. Or reluctant to approach event coordinators with a bid to be on the schedule. Not alone, but there are also many authors who are comfortable with and aware of the necessity of self-promotion. I pretend to be one of those comfortable authors, but all the while my ears are burning and the voice inside my mind is my mother’s. Blame your mother? Why not?

I grew up in the days before building self-esteem became one of the cornerstones to raising successful children. Be polite, do not brag about anything, and generally avoid calling attention to yourself. Those were my mother’s tenets and while I raised my own children with the hope they’d be polite but not afraid to speak their minds, happy to talk about their achievements without being boastful (that’s this mother’s job), and comfortable in speaking out and promoting what they believe.  My librarian, fisheries biologist, and musician all live and work with a fine balance of humility and confidence. I sometimes take their strengths for granted and forget to tell them how proud I am, but that’s for another post.

So. I had a new book published in May of this year, a novel for young teens, Odd One Out. Another book produced with the artistry of my good friends at Oolichan Books.

There were a few glitches in the beginning—problems not uncommon or unfamiliar to my author friends. A rush to have copies of the book in time for the scheduled date of the launch resulted in a small print run, because there was a design flaw that needed to be addressed. In truth, this was not a “flaw” to my eyes, but my publisher has a finer sense of the aesthetics of book design. Then, once the “new” book was off to the printer, it seemed to take an inordinately long time for it to reappear and more unfortunately, to appear in bookstores and libraries.

But at last. at last, the library orders have been filled: Calgary, Regina, Saskatoon, Camrose, Red Deer, Lethbridge, Vancouver libraries have copies waiting for your reading pleasure and more particularly the pleasure of young people in your lives from ages 11 – 15 and beyond as well from the feedback I’ve had. If your local library does not have the book, you could request that they order it. What harm in that?

And the bookstores. Our beautiful indie bookstores who’ve had copies albeit limited since the very first run. In Calgary Owl’s Nest, Pages, Shelf Life; in Edmonton, Audrey’s Books. Beyond the province, I haven’t been gathering stats. Available from Chapters/Indigo’s Signal Hill store in Calgary. And available online from Indigo Amazon.ca. as an ebook.

The one thing I don’t hesitate to tell people about any of my books is that this is work of which I’m proud. Odd One Out is a book that I hope will find its way into your hands.  I hope you will enjoy it, but if you don’t?  Then I rest on my strong belief that once a book is out of my hands, the story no longer belongs to me. Your experience, your taste, your perceptions will be your judge.

My mom is long gone, although she is so much a part of who I am, but she won’t hear me saying to you—

Hey, buy my book, give it to a young person for Christmas, or borrow it from our awesome libraries. Their circulation stats for the book are gratifying and nothing pleases me more when I visit the library than finding a copy of one of my books that’s dog-eared, well-thumbed, and has your fingerprints on it.

 

This Author’s Thoughts on Book Reviews

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I launched a new book this year, so I’m eager for reviews, and at the same time take a deep breath before I read them. I’ve known authors who simply do not read reviews of their books and theatre people who don’t read reviews of their plays. I’m just too curious to take that position, and I know from the reviews of my first four books and a couple of anthologies in which I’ve had pieces, that different reviewers bring different perspectives and I won’t always like them. I’ve been fortunate, though,  in that I’ve never had to deal with a review that was such a bitter pill it made me gag.

I’ve had conversations with other writers about the increasing number of reviews that lean more and more in the direction of a synopsis or précis of the plot with a concluding sentence or two  in which the reviewer tells us whether he/she is hot or not on the book in case we haven’t already gleaned enough clues from the tone of the synopsis. Some seem more promotional than analytical.

The book reviews that challenge my credibility are those that are so heaped with praise that they read as though they’ve been written by the author’s Grandma, or by another author with a debt to repay. The review of a fine book should tell us what makes it fine without declaring that it surpasses the discovery that peanuts make good butter, and will remain at the top of “The Best” lists for decades to come. There are such books and they are, and should be, held in high esteem. But a fine book that doesn’t quite achieve those heights doesn’t benefit in any way from gilding the lily.

The reviews that anger me are the ones that kick a book onto the freeway with the hope that it will end up as road kill. There are people who disagree with me, but when a writer has spent years on a work, and has sought a publisher to the point of fatigue, and has finally found a place with either a traditional publisher or through the arduous process of self-publishing, the book surely deserves more than a venomous panning.

Here are links to two reviews of Odd One Out:

https://www.umanitoba.ca/cm/vol23/no4/oddoneout.html

http://www.quillandquire.com/review/odd-one-out/

I admit that my knee jerk reaction to criticism is to go on the defensive (although I really did enjoy the criticism that the book was lacking in foul language in the Quill and Quire review). Fortunately, the exasperated voice in my writer mind tells me to get over it or put down the pen. I know that every one of my books is flawed in some way but strong enough that I don’t have to hover around and protect it.

Though I don’t know either of these reviewers personally, from the bit of bio on the review pages, they are people whose experience and “credentials” I respect. Both of these are fair and balanced reviews for which I’m grateful. Two reviewers, two perspectives, and I know that among my readers there will be opinions that run the gamut from road kill to peanut butter.

Isn’t one of the pleasures of telling our stories the interesting feedback they provoke? Don’t our stories belong to the reader once we’ve sent them out in the world?

So I raise a glass to good reviewers, and to their ability  to approach a book with a clear eye and give it an honest appraisal.

How do I feel about these two reviews? Both of them recommend the book. What more do I need?

 

Gone to Grass

“Gone to Grass”

I learned this expression from the lovely Jean McKay when we were at Sage Hill in 2004, attending Robert Kroetsch’s novel colloquium. It is, in fact, the title of one of Jean’s elegant books which also include The page-turner’s sister and Dragonfly Fling whose cover bears the comment, “Jean McKay is one of North America’s finest writers” from no less than Annie Dillard.  This is all sidebar but important because if you have not read Jean’s book, do try to find them. It may be devilishly hard, but worth the effort.

“Gone to grass” is the phrase that comes to mind when I think of the back list of my books and those of many of my writing colleagues. It grieves me that while there are some literary comets that blaze for light years , too many of our books are more like shooting stars.

As many of you know, I have had the benefit of former bookseller and publishers’ sales representative, Susan Toy, in the promotion of my last three books, and while she was promoting those, she always shone the light on the first two as well. Susan closed down her business, Alberta Books Canada, when she left Calgary but she continues to be a fierce supporter of her Alberta friends and a whole new community of authors she has gathered online.

As many of you also know, I am totally dismal when it comes to promoting my own work, and I miss Susan’s help. She is one of those people who rarely go through a whole day without that light bulb flicking on over her head. I can hear her say, “I have an idea!” as I write this.

I’ve asked Susan if she would please go back to work for me for a short while to help get Odd One Out into the world, which she has graciously agreed to do. But not without coming back within hours with, “How do you like this idea?!”

Do stay posted for the Go Read Me Campaign! she will blogging about sometime soon. Now, Susan, compares this project to Crowd Funding, but it will feel to me like begging and I will blush but will not apologize.

Meanwhile, go in search of Jean’s books. http://www.douglas-mcintyre.com/author/jean-mckay  I’ve found them listed on both Amazon and Chapters/Indigo, but you may need to buy a used copy. And if you find Gone to Grass please let me know because someone borrowed my copy about 10 years ago and didn’t return it. Which is why, if you ask to borrow my copy of the other two books, you’ll have to read them at my house.

Was the Artist Paid?

During the years that I’ve had my nose to the writing stone, I’ve learned that not only is the artist frequently underpaid or not paid at all for time spent engaging formally with other artists and audiences, but that there is a common and puzzling opinion that artists—who from this point I’ll refer to as writers, because I’m not qualified to speak from the perspective of those engaged in the visual or performing arts—should simply be flattered to be invited to speak to the craft and have an opportunity to promote our work.

The nudge I needed to write about the poor starving writer came from the list I looked through yesterday of the panels at this weekend’s When Words Collide conference in Calgary. This conference has had a steady growth in attendance and is a wonderful forum for connecting readers with writers of genre fiction.  One of the panel topics this year is “If Artists Starve We all Starve.”  Unfortunately, I’m not able to attend the conference but I hope to hear from people who will be there as to the commentary, given that panels most often simply reach a decision to respect differing opinions.

Early in my writing career, I was flattered when I was asked to read from newly published work or to talk about the craft in various venues and never asked if there was a budget for paying the artist, or even the offering of an honorarium. I was called up short by another writer who told me that each time I went out as a member of the writing community and neither asked for nor received an honorarium no matter how small, I was discrediting the value of time and energy spent by other writers as well. I can hear her voice clearly: “Betty, I tell some organizations that even if they can only afford to pay me five dollars, I will come and spend some time with them. When I’m asked by organizations that do have a budget but offer nothing for my participation I tell them to find someone else and hope that they will get the same response from a lot of other writers.”

The expectation that writers will go happily to any venue where there is an audience and the possibility that people will buy their books, seems to rise from the notion that we are only artists when we’re bent over the computer writing/rewriting/editing/querying publishers.  The rest of it is … well, just getting out there and selling our books. The business part of the job for which we are compensated by book sales. That we should be grateful for any opportunity to promote ourselves and our work. Every writer I know who visits a book club, reads in a school or at a library, or is a participant in a conference, spends time preparing for those appearances and most often gives far more than she takes away from the experience.

I don’t know a single author who doesn’t have a not-so-funny story about “payment” for appearances. On the other hand, every author I know also has stories about warm welcomes and generous gifts of appreciation. I have a fine collection of coffee mugs and book bags imprinted with the names of schools or libraries – I treasure these honorariums. I’ve also had bottles of wine, bouquets of flowers, and gift certificates. I have a friend who wins the prize with a $5 Tim Horton’s gift card as an honorarium.

But I’ve also traveled on my own dime, and mooched off friends or family to be part of an event for a handshake and a thank you.  I’ve attended book clubs where not a single member has bought a book and my payment was cheese and a glass of wine. I shrug those off, as most authors do, and take my payment in the knowledge that at least some of the members of the discussion group read my book.

All of this sounds terribly whiny, perhaps even surly, but I am tired of the level of “volunteerism” expected of artists. I want readers to know that although some of the events they attend pay the author participants fairly and treat them as honoured guests, this is the gold standard and often the compensation the artist receives is many rungs below the bronze level.

Perhaps I’ll lobby for a yearly” Take an Artist to Lunch Day.”  Meanwhile, though, I simply ask that whether you are a reader or another author at a literary event that you ask the question—and I dare you to do so publicly.  WAS THE ARTIST PAID?   Did someone at least buy her lunch?

Summer Stories

My garden is my sanctuary from the time blue buds on hepatica dare to appear under a dusting of snow and until the last trees finally begin to drop their leaves—the laurel leaf willow and the burr oak that seem to hold onto hope until late October or longer.

This time of summer, when every plant and tree has reached the peak of its perfection, has always been the best of all. In any corner of our garden, I can find a place for a chair and a bit of loveliness to contemplate.

I know that spring and summer are also the seasons of many of my stories. Rarely do I write winter and in particular the dark months.

Will there be a story from this summer? Or is this endless succession of warnings— “Weather Alert! Conditions are favourable for severe thunderstorms, heavy rain, hail, and funnel clouds” —about to become the cliché for prairie summer.

This summer, my garden has been less of a sanctuary and more the scene of mad dashes into periods of sunshine to weed and dead head and clean up the damage from the latest deluge of rain and hail.  And yet, I’ve been in awe of the mild spring that began in April and carried straight through to summer, the explosion of roses, day lilies of spectacular size, the early harvest of vegetables and a Calgary landscape more lush and green than any I can remember.

Here’s a pictorial of the Seasons in My Garden https://goo.gl/photos/SaoeyWT2rsQas8Rr9

Next summer may arrive even earlier and bring weather more extreme but even so, as I watch my garden mature into its late summer beauty, I hold tight to the hope that the cycle will remain essentially the same. I’m hoping too, that the fall garden will provide its own sanctuary.

As for story, I’ve written weather many times, and I suspect that will not change.

Here’s a short excerpt that seems fitting in this summer 2016.  “Storm Warning” was published in AlbertaViews 2002 July/August issue, the 15th anniversary of the Edmonton tornado, Jackie Flanagan reminded me the day she called to tell me that “Storm Warning” was a finalist in the AV Short Story contest. “Storm Warning” was also included in the collection A Crack in the Wall (Oolichan Books 2008)

Storm Warning

Always, when she smells a storm, Jess’s heart races and she’s whirled into the eye of the tornado. She was driving cab on the south edge of Edmonton the day piles of coal black clouds rolled toward the city, bulging and heaving, gathering an eerie jaundiced light. When the car began to buck in the rising wind, Jess turned it around, driving furiously toward the edge of the storm. She hesitated when she saw a man at the side of the road braced against a mileage sign, his hair, his jacket, the legs of his jeans plastered to him. A glance at the sky in the rear-view mirror and her foot hit the brake. She pulled onto the shoulder, backed to where he was standing and flung open the passenger door. Both man and door were almost ripped away by the wind before he pulled himself gasping into the car and heaved the door shut.

Jess put her foot to the floor, instinctively heading for home. They were silent except for Brian’s ragged breath until a tight black funnel came spiralling out of the clouds.

“Jaysus! Is that what I think it is?” His voice was muffled in the thick heat.

Brian’s family loves to tell the story of how Jess saved him

 

 

 

 

 

 

https://goo.gl/photos/SaoeyWT2rsQas8Rr9

reunion: who are you? Who was I?

reunion;  (OED)   the act or instance of reuniting; the condition of being reunited; a social gathering especially of people formerly associated.

Google “school reunion” for more advice than I hope you will ever need:  6 Reasons High School Reunions should not exist; 5 Reasons to attend your high school reunion;  school reunion ideas, quotes, songs, invitation wording. Apparently high school reunions thrive in spite of the “6 Reasons” and in spite of reunion horror stories. Mine is not a horror story; simply the story of a woman who, for the most part, stays afloat by living in the Now.

I had an email today from a woman I haven’t seen in more than fifty years. As soon as I began to read the message I had a clear visual of my kind, funny, red-headed, preacher’s kid, best friend.  I met Joyce when we were ten years old. We’d moved to Camrose from a small town where I didn’t really have a best friend because I was a townie and all my “friends” arrived in yellow busses that rolled into town in the morning and departed at 3:00 in the afternoon.

I lost track of Joyce and other best friends when we moved to Edmonton six years later. So many different schools, so many partings with best friends, one would think I’d embrace the idea of “reunion.” Ten, twenty, thirty years of catch-up just might rekindle friendships and stir the pot of precious memory.

The invitation to the 50th anniversary of the class of 1966 at Camrose Composite High School arrived in February of this year. I was puzzled to receive it, because I’d only attended the first half of grade ten in Camrose. In 1966 I’d graduated from Bonnie Doon Composite High in Edmonton. When I questioned the enthusiastic woman who was head of the organizing committee, she said it mattered not. They were including everyone who had spent any length of time in grades 10, 11, 12 even if they’d moved away before graduation. A friendly inclusive gesture.  I left the invitation simmering in my Inbox; when the reminder came in May, I put off replying. The closing paragraph of the reminder: Don’t forget to pack yearbooks and conversation starter memorabilia and items that scream the 50’s, and 60’s. I didn’t have a yearbook nor do I keep memorabilia.  I let the date slip away.

I attended one high school reunion and it dispelled any notion I had of fun and renewed friendships. At this point in my life, connecting with people I haven’t seen in ten years is a  pleasure but in the context of a long life, not a reason to make of it a huge celebration. In 1976, high school graduation felt like the distant past and I allowed an Edmonton best friend to talk me into attending the ten year reunion of graduates from Bonnie Doon. Compared with Camrose Composite High School, Bonnie Doon was huge. For reasons too ill-conceived to ponder, home room classes were determined by academic achievement. I attended all the core subject classes with the academic bright lights. Many of them were also athletic bright lights and on the school council and beautiful. The combination of brains, beauty and success in every possible activity struck me as unfair in 1963 and still strikes me as an unfortunate glitch in evolution.

I was bright, but an ordinary looking teenage girl, totally lacking in athletic ability and morbidly shy. I suspected that it would be the most successful and happiest ex-Dooners who would attend the reunion, but never validated that prediction because there were few people I recognized and even fewer who remembered me. Apart from a half dozen people with whom Carolyn and I chatted, I felt as personally connected as I would have at a play or concert or wandering through the grocery store.  To be expected—name tags.  I was asked not once or twice, but far too many times — What was your name before you were married? Having morphed from the shy kid to the introverted adult with a sharp tongue, my answer to the question?  My name before I married is the same as it is now—Betty.  I convinced Carolyn that we (I) had stayed long enough to have made our understated appearance. She had her infant daughter with her and baby had definitely had enough. That, I told myself, was the last school reunion I would ever attend.

Joyce caught up with me because she did attend the Camrose reunion. She was in the 1966 graduating class. She’d gathered a mini-history of what I’ve been up to for the past 50 years from a few Camrose people with whom I’ve visited when I’ve done readings in that city.  I had a ripple of regret as I read her email, because I wondered how many other long ago “best friends” I’d missed by staying home. I found the invitation and scanned through the long long list of recipients and recognized so few names (although I make allowance for those girls, who like me, hadn’t kept their surnames when they married) that I imagined myself drifting uncomfortably from one corner to another wondering why I was there. Perhaps it wouldn’t have been so. Perhaps I would have reminisced and laughed and been saddened by the list of classmates who have died or suffered misfortunes. For all of them, I offer up a prayer of peace.  For all who are doing fine and are happy in their lives, I wish them well. I do this comfortably from a distance because age mellows memory, and what’s left in my memory of the time in which I knew these people makes me grateful that we survived those harrowing teenage years.

I’m delighted to have had this “reunion” with Joyce and I hope to hear from her again. I’m sure the weekend was a wonderful chance to feel eighteen years old again and to marvel over the distance all those who attended have traveled. Will I go to the 60th reunion? Or reunions of any other people with whom I was formerly associated? I suspect not.  Although imagine the fodder for writing?  Every former student a walking short story.

 

 

 

 

Dear Mr. Green,

Among the many things on my mind this week:  the relentless rainstorms; my sadly bedraggled garden; the unlucky visitors to our city who are sloshing through deep puddles on the Stampede grounds with their Big Pickle Dogs, Mac and Cheese Burgers, Poutine Stuffed Corn Dogs and other innovative food offerings; and short stories.

Although I’ve held tight against every twitch of my brain that wants to lead me into a story, I have been thinking how much I love the form. When I began writing, the idea of writing a novel was both terrifying and laughable.  What story did I have that would demand 350 pages in the telling?

I already knew the gargantuan task involved in the writing, and also in the search for a publisher. But in each short story class I took, we were urged to finish the work and “get it out there,” the “there” being to literary magazines. In 1997 we had far more possibilities in the form of magazines, many of which ceased publishing years ago.

Those submissions, the comments offered even on rejections, the lucky strikes that got our work between covers sustained many of us as we carried on and grew stronger in the craft.

By coincidence, the Stampede, a  beguiling old lit mag called “Green’s” published in Regina, and a story written from the perceptive of my own snooty indifference to the Calgary Stampede, came together. The story, “A Short Ride on Lightning” was published in the Summer 1998 issue of “Green’s.” The communication with Mr Green over some editorial suggestions – most of them good – was probably the lengthiest editing process I experienced with any of the other lit mags I managed to finagle my way into in the years that followed. My favourite comment/complaint: “Do we need a passion (yup, Mr. Green corresponded from his manual typewriter which did not have the option of italics) reference to their relationship? (does she live with him?)?

My reply:  “In response to your question about the “passion” reference, I think it is necessary that there be a strong attraction between these two. If they were only casual friends, why would he care if she rides off with a cowboy?”  He bought it.

To Mr. Green and the other publishers who have since folded, thank you for the opportunities and the honour you bestowed on us. To Anne Burke, whose magazine, “The Prairie Journal,” is still going strong since back in the days when I first began writing — a special recognition and thank you!  And to all my writing cohorts — send those stories out!

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