By Neely Tucker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 24, 2009
Poor Kelly Corrigan, first-time author, didn't get invited to this weekend's National Book Festival on the Mall to plug her 2008 memoir, "The Middle Place." She won't be rubbing shoulders with heavyweight authors such as Sue Monk Kidd, John Grisham or Pulitzer winner Junot Diaz. No major newspaper bothered to review the California mom's tale about cancer and family and recovery when it was released. Her publisher didn't send her on tour. All the old-school staples of book promotion -- the book festival, the tour, the glowing newspaper review -- Corrigan got none of them.
What was a newbie author to do?
She cobbled together a trailer for her book on her home computer, using iMovie software, downloading a free tune off the Web for background music, and stuck it on her Web site. Her agent helped get her on one network television morning show. About 20 friends hosted book parties, which she hit on a self-funded three-week blitz, selling books out of the trunk of her car. A guy shot video of her reading an essay at one of these parties, and she posted it on YouTube when the paperback came out.
A year later, the book has sold about 80,000 copies in hardcover and another 260,000 in paperback, according to Nielsen BookScan data. It sat on the New York Times bestseller list for 20 weeks, peaking at No. 2. That homemade trailer has been viewed more than 100,000 times. The video of her reading has drawn 4.5 million hits. She's in Washington on Thursday, speaking at the Congressional Families Cancer Prevention Award luncheon. Then she will plow into more than a dozen paid speaking gigs across the country in the next six weeks.
"I hand-sold at least 2,000 to 3,000 copies," the 42-year-old said in an interview this week from her home in Oakland. "And while the hardcover was doing well, everything changed with that video from the reading."
Corrigan, spending $3,700 for the Web site and her tour, figured out a path through the weird new-media maze of authors overseeing their own marketing and promotion, using the Internet and networks of friends to get their little-known works off the ground.
Book publishers actively market and promote authors, of course, particularly the big names, but for thousands of writers it's a figure-it-out-yourself world of creating book trailers, Web sites and blogs, social networking and crashing on friends' couches during a tour you arrange.
"Being an author has become much more of an ongoing relationship with your audience through the Web, rather than just writing a book and disappearing while you write the next one," says Liate Stehlik, publisher of William Morrow and Avon Books. "You have to be out there in the online world, talking and participating."
Authors are expected to behave like mini-entrepreneurs, says Kamy Wicoff, founder and CEO of She Writes, a Web site devoted to helping women writers promote their books. She started the site in June. More than 4,000 writers have joined.
"The landscape has altered so fundamentally and irrevocably that almost no one is immune from finding ways to participate in the promotion of their books," Wicoff says. "Writers with small advances and limited resources are expected to treat their book as a new company, with marketing and promotion and PR."
This trend is driven by the availability and ease of Internet marketing, the expense (and diminishing use) of author tours and the need to keep up with the competition. More than 560,000 books were published in the United States last year, a $25 billion pie of which everyone wants a slice.
"The fragmentation of the market is staggering," says Peter Hildick-Smith, president of the Codex Group, a book audience research firm in New York. "Authors walk into bookstores and think they're cluttered, and wonder how browsers could find their book in there. The problem is, the Web is giga-cluttered by comparison."
For some established icons such as E.L. Doctorow, John Irving or Toni Morrison, the established round of reviews and readings at major festivals is promotion enough. For pop-culture mainstays like Grisham, Stephen King or J.K. Rowling, fans are primed and waiting for their next efforts.
Many other authors -- the media personalities, the pundits, the politicians, the self-help gurus -- "are actually selling their book long before they sell the book," says Richard Pine, a literary agent for three decades and co-founder of InkWell Management. These people, he says, are establishing who they are and what they have to say and are building an audience years before they actually have a book on the shelves.
This reader familiarity is the biggest factor in sales, according to repeated studies carried out by Hildick-Smith's firm. About 60 percent of respondents in surveys say the decisive factor in their decision to purchase a book is that they are already fans of the author.
But most authors are much more like Corrigan. Or, say, Monica Holloway.
The Los Angeles-based mom got good reviews for her first book, a 2007 memoir called "Driving With Dead People." Her second, "Cowboy and Wills," about her autistic son and his dog, is coming out this month. She's hired a consultant to help with Internet publicity. She's got her own Web site (which she pays for), hired a company to put together a trailer for the book, and commissioned someone to write background music for it. She's worked hard to make sure the red on the Web site matches the red on the book cover, ensuring a professional appearance. She's started blogging on the Web site of her publisher, Simon and Schuster, and is networking to set up book club appearances.
"It's all Internet, Internet, Internet," she says of the promotional process. "It's crazy, you emerge from this place of solitude in writing and then switch into the hot glare of 'market yourself now!' It's very uncomfortable, and you try to get past it with some sort of sophistication."
Book trailers are one of the newest promotional outlets. Everybody's got them, little video commercials for their books, something like movie trailers. Grisham's are 20 seconds; Corrigan's is about two minutes.
John McWeeny, chief operating officer at TurnHere Inc., a media production company based in San Francisco, has seen his company make "hundreds and hundreds" of these videos since it got into the business in 2006. He's hired mostly by publishing companies, he says, but a bargain-basement video for a writer working solo would cost about $2,000.
"We're not shooting talking heads in studios," he says. "We're capturing a story about the author, often on a location relevant to the content of the book. It's a way to convey the meaning of the book in moving images and sound . . . and relative to the cost of a tour, it's extremely inexpensive."
So all these shiny things that go fast are really fun to produce, and some are even fun to watch. But do they move units any better than the old-fashioned author signings in a local bookstore? Do they help a book sell more copies, or merely keep pace with others in the marketplace?
Nobody really knows, a range of publishers and industry watchers say. There is not a clear-cut means of connecting Web site traffic, say, to results in sales, and some experts warn new authors not to go overboard.
"There's so much you can do for free in Web promotion that it's just crazy," says Christopher Jackson, executive editor at Spiegel and Grau. "There's been a lot of money wasted in publishing on slickly produced author Web sites that, in the end, really didn't lead anywhere."
Annik LaFarge, a prominent Web site designer based in New York, works with high-profile authors such as Mitch "Tuesdays With Morrie" Albom to help them stay in touch with their fans.
"I get calls several times a week from writers asking me to help them with their projects, but I encourage a lot of them not to do that much," she says. "Unless you have the time and money to invest in it and do new things with the site and keep filing new content, it may not be worth it. . . . The main problem is the cacophony of the Internet. It's difficult to make any sort of impression at all."
Pine, the literary agent, says his best advice to authors is still "write the best book you possibly can." After that, he says, put your name and face out there, no matter the odds. He names Stephen King as "the king of taking a chance on things digital," and salutes Corrigan's seat-of-the-pants success story.
"If you don't try it, you don't know if it will work," he says. "Her videos could have not worked just as easily as it turned out they did. But she got out there, threw herself in the game and look what happened."