Saturday, August 1, 2009

Selling Books in a Changing World

By Ellen Crosby (Guest blogger)

New year, new book. For the fourth year in a row, the first Tuesday in August is mine--the day Scribner, my publisher, officially releases The Riesling Retribution, latest book in my mystery series set in Virginia wine country.

I’m not the only writer in the country with an
August 4 pub date, though it’s nice to feel unique for a day, especially that little heart-flip the first time I see my book actually on bookstore shelves. Truth be told, I’m in first-rate company for the entire month, joining fellow mystery writers like Charles Todd, Marcus Sakey, Dan Fesperman, Marcia Talley, and Jeff Deaver (among others) who will be hitting the road visiting a bookstore near you. But how will you hear about us?

Last year my local events would have been billboarded in the calendar of The Washington Post Book World. First thing I turned to every Sunday morning over a cup of coffee: Who’s in town? Now it’s gone. I freelanced for the Post for a couple of years so that loss really hurt. More Post hemorrhaging followed, with buyouts accepted by some of the paper’s most famous names, by-lines g
one for good. My former editor left two years ago for a research foundation. (Why did he do it when he didn’t want to leave? “Next time they might not offer me money.”) I met Marie Arana, former Book World editor, at the Annapolis Book Festival—she’s now at the Library of Congress. Their gain; our loss.

How many newspapers have folded their tents or jettisoned their book review sections? A story on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation” discussed the slow death of book reviews—back in 2007. As for newspapers, there’s a list on a cheery website called Newspaper Death Watch. In the past year we’ve lost the print editions of the Detroit News/Detroit Free Press, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer, and—one I truly lament—The Christian Science Monitor. Gone for good: Rocky Mountain News and the Baltimore Examiner. The Boston Globe is on the skids. I’ve only named the big guys, but trust me, it’s a much longer list.

On to bookstores, but first please put away any sharp objects. Just in the mid-Atlantic region, we lost Mystery Loves Company in Baltimore, as well as Olsson’s and Trover’s, two beloved Washington, D.C. landmarks. One stop on my book tour is a “favorite authors” final farewell signing at Creatures ’n Crooks in Richmond, which closes its doors on September 30. I promised to go if there weren’t too many tears. (She wouldn’t promise; I’m stocking up on tissues). As I write this yet another bookstore, Kate’s Mystery Books in Boston, will close on August 1.

Is it just me, or is the drumbeat growing louder for doing away with quaint twentieth century customs like reading newspapers, buying books in bookstores, and turning actual pages instead of pressing a button? What’s going to replace the institutions we’re dismantling at the giddy pace of kids leveling a sand castle? The front page of the business section of the July 22 New York Times (yes, the print edition!) featured a story called “Musician, Market Yourself.” It spoke about doing away with “the old model of doing things” as musicians create their own direct links to audiences over the Internet.

Ditto the book world. Like it or not, we’re all becoming cottage industry promoters, each of us tooting his or her own horn on individual websites, blogs, Facebook, and Twitter. Is it better, worse, or just new and different? I dunno. Right now, I’m resisting—though sure, you can find me on Facebook and I think I’ve tweeted about six times. But I mourn what we’re losing because once it’s gone, it’s gone for good.

A few weeks ago I attended a bookstore event in Middleburg, Virginia videoed by a young reporter for Naively I asked how long the link would be available, remembering how in the past some of my news stories would drift into that hole in cyberspace where broken links went to die. He blinked and stared at me. “Forever,” he said. “It’ll be there forever.”

Later an author friend explained how to post that video to Facebook. “Go to the article online,” she wrote, “and click on ‘Tools.’ It asks where you want to send the link. Click on Facebook and, voila, it’s there on your page. Doesn’t even ask your name because it knows who you are. Scary, huh?” Yeah, real scary.

As part of this indi
vidualized promotion gig—and because there are so many of us out there—we’re reaching for what’s new and different, opening doors to our lives, places we once considered off-limits, in an effort to get you readers to pay attention . . . or just to find us. Last spring I filmed a (very) brief video for Simon & Schuster answering questions about my favorite movie, favorite place, and wished-for talent. Fun stuff, a bit of fluff, all part of S&S’s new “Author Revealed” website. But I’ve decided to draw a line beyond which I won’t go in this whole promotion thing; parts of my life are private and there’s such a thing as Too Much Me.

As August 4 rolls around, I’m excited about getting out there and spending time with folks, after a year of living in my head alone in my office. Nothing virtual: real meetings, real people. In the meantime, I’m still wrestling with Facebook and Twitter. Guess I’d better get used to it; next year could be a whole new world . . . again.

Ellen Crosby is the author of The Merlot Murders, The Chardonnay Charade, The Bordeaux Betrayal, and The Riesling Retribution. Visit her web site for more information, and if you're on Facebook, please be her friend.


Elizabeth Zelvin said...

Just yesterday a friend told me she's boycotting the Sunday New York Times because, although it still has a book review section, it's getting thinner and thinner--and costs $5.

Chris V. said...

Yes sad things. What newspapers are left are on life support; makes freelancing very hard. The Chicago Tribune used to have a great book section, with a mystery column too. Now it's not worth buying - two pages, stuck in Saturday, with mostly "mainstream" books. Used to be fun to see if they added some unique small press or other book. But no more.
Good luck on your book launch!

Chris Verstraete
Searching For A Starry Night, A Miniature Art Mystery

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Very wise, Ellen...and so nice to chat with you.

Yes, transition is difficult, even if *some* of the things we're transitioning to might turn out to be wonderful.

Demise of the book review sections, though..very sad.

And speaking of sad, I'll be at the closing of Kate's Mystery Books today, along with many other New England authors who owe her such a debt of gratitude. This is a true turning point.

Ellen--congratuations on your newest! And I'll think of August 4 in a completely different way now..

G.M. Malliet said...

Ellen - Adding my congratulations on your newest release!

I have not adapted to the loss of Book World. That loss effectively curtailed book promotion in this area--the new, truncated calendar has to be affecting turnout at book signings. Is the Internet an effective replacement? Not really.

The upside is it takes me half as long to read the paper on Sunday now.

Genie said...

As a bookseller, I know all about the pain. We are still open at Books & Crannies through sheer force of will...and a readiness to do anything it takes to sell books and to promote authors who deserve--no, who MUST--be read. We get little or no help from the usual suspects (publishers, publicists) but we persevere. Ellen is right--it's going to be up to authors to get out there, but Books & Crannies will be there, God willing, to lend a hand, provide a venue or hit the road to get the books to readers. We'll keep doing it until the last nail is hammered in.

Elizabeth Spann Craig said...

I'm trying to be adaptable so I won't go the way of the dinosaurs, but I have to admit it's really tough thinking about a world without morning newspapers. I won't even contemplate the demise of bookstores.

Mystery Writing is Murder

nancy martin said...

See you on Facebook, Ellen.--We're riding the wave of the future!

Debbi said...

Hey Ellen,

You can add me to the list of those who grieve the loss of "dead tree" journalism and books.

I've always loved browsing the newspaper over a cup of coffee. Now, I tend to zip through emailed headlines. Not the same experience.

I hate to see the book review sections disappearing and newspapers thinning almost to brochures. And it pains me to see indie bookstores closing.

But, as you say, it's a brave (and, in some ways, better) new world out there.

I'm on Facebook and Twitter and have found both useful for connecting with others and promoting my work.

Despite all the online hubbub, I'd like to think there will always be a place for print books. (Maybe even newspapers, too?)

Meanwhile, if you ever want to Facebook with me or tweet me @debbimack, feel free. :)

Ellen Crosby said...

Thanks for all the reinforcement and the comments, gang, as well as the good wishes on the new book. I'm glad I'm not the only one who feels this way about what we're losing. Nice to hear from friends and a few folks I don't know (yet!). Continuing the deathwatch, however, I just saw a post from Sarah W on Twitter (I can't believe I'm writing this . . .) about the book editor from the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel taking the buyout. One more nail in the coffin . . . it's just sad.

Hank, how did it go at Kate's yesterday? Getting ready for a similar gathering in Richmond next month. Have never been to a bookstore funeral before.

Sandra Parshall said...

Ellen, I'm going to the "bookstore funeral" at Creatures 'n' Crooks next month too. Lelia tried so hard to keep that store alive -- I know this is a very sad time for her as well as her customers and all the writers she has befriended over the years. I confess I was terribly worried about Hamilton, the store cat, and was relieved when Lelia sent out a post about his future. Sounds like he's going to an ideal home for his retirement years.

G.M. Malliet said...

I'll also be at Creatures 'n' Crooks to say farewell. Lelia invited me to my very-first-ever book signing, and since I was a brand new author and no one had a clue who I was, that was a real kindness. She probably sold about two copies of my book but for her and for me that wasn't the point.

Hank Phillippi Ryan said...

Ah, Ellen...yeah, it was kind of a funeral. Kind of a celebration. Kind of a poignant combination of emotions.

It was packed with people, all packing boxes and talking and reminiscing and working hard. (Hallie Ephron is blogging about it on Jungle Red soon, with photos.)

A telling moment, taking those photos. We all lined up and smiled--and then realized maybe we shouldn't smile.Then had to figure out--what's the proper expression for a photo taken with people you love at a sad time? (When we'll all see each other agan--but never in that circumstance.)

Kate herself was probably the most upbeat, and in the back working on promotion for her new on-line bookstore.

Which is probaby a lesson.