In August 2019, I signed my first book contract with Unsolicited Press, an independent press based in Portland, Oregon. I had just turned 34, and though I’d been writing fiction for over 15 years, I had little to show for it outside of three previously unpublished novels and a few published essays and book reviews. So it felt pretty damn good to sign and submit that legal document, even though the publication date was more than a year and a half away.
Once the contract was finalized, revisions began. And because I love revising, this, too, felt good.
But I knew as the publication date – March 23, 2021 – neared, I would need to shift my focus to marketing. And though Unsolicited had a strategy in place (even after COVID-19 hit), I dreaded the prospect. It’s a strange thing to go from writer to self-promoter. You’re excited, yes – what aspiring author doesn’t dream of publishing a novel? But once you’re in it, it can feel daunting. Years of literary rejections, and suddenly you’re supposed to talk about your work without the weight and self-doubt that follows, well, years of literary rejections.
Fortunately, I went to graduate school at the University of Houston with some talented writers, including JP Gritton, whose debut novel, Wyoming (Tin House), came out in November 2019, and Jeni McFarland, whose debut novel, The House of Deep Water (Putnam), hit bookstores in April 2020.
Both recently spoke with me about their debut novels and the challenges and surprises that came up while promoting their books amid a deadly pandemic.
I want to start by discussing what surprised you most about the pre-publication process – long before any of us knew about COVID-19.
Gritton: I felt like the marketing folks at my publisher prepared me pretty well for what came after publication, so there weren’t any huge surprises. In hindsight, maybe I sort of wished that somebody had said, “Don’t force things.” Leading up to my pub date, I was scrambling to put galley copies in the mail to everybody and their cousin. I forced myself on just about every bookstore in a 50-mile radius. I am cringing right now, remembering (for one example among many) how I express-mailed a galley to somebody I knew in my MFA and hadn’t spoken to in years. Don’t get me wrong – I think it’s good to hustle. By and large, however, I think the book’s most enthusiastic readers came to it through unexpected channels, ones that all this hustle didn’t have much to do with.
McFarland: I’ve been surprised by just how much energy social media strips from me. My publicist team asked that I be on at least two platforms, preferably three, and I’m not really sure I’m doing any of them right. I tweet maybe once a month. I actually had a guy say to me the other day, it’s easy, you just need to tweet inspirational things, and my stomach turned at the thought. I’m not sure I’m the person to be inspiring anyone. Most days, I’m doing good just to keep myself going.
Let’s stick with this topic for a moment because it fascinates me. To me, writing is an effort to unmask ourselves, as well as other people, in an attempt to understand why we do the things we do. Meanwhile, marketing often feels like the opposite of that – something painfully desperate and unnaturally shiny (like inspirational quotes). Yet writers must find readers because readership, in theory, could lead a writer to earn more time to write. However, most writers I know (present company included) write because that’s just what they do – they write. And that seems like the basis for this ongoing internal conflict some writers face – how to put aside the hypercritical, self-analytical version of themselves in order to embrace their selfie-self. (Even though they know damn well that in a week’s time, they’ll be cringing at what their selfie-self posted online.) How do you personally square the two?
Gritton: I know exactly what you mean. There’s an idea that good writing is authentic and honest, and yet the whole promotion and “PR” side of things feels wholly inauthentic and wholly dishonest. I guess I try to compartmentalize the best I can. There’s that Hemingway quote about writing drunk and editing sober. I don’t adhere to that advice, but I think there’s a kernel of wisdom to it. I take it to mean that when we write, we’re communing with the gods and inviting our souls and all that good-feeling stuff but that we should revise with a cold, even a clinical, eye. I think a similar split is necessary when it comes to promotion. Hemingway might’ve said, “Write and edit authentically – promote like a self-obsessed, self-aggrandizing narcissist.” I don’t think promotion hurts the project of writing itself – it’s just another identity you wear in a practice that demands a certain mental and emotional elasticity.
McFarland: I feel this in my soul. The whole self-promotional side of things feels really icky to me, especially as an introvert (like many of us are) and a Midwesterner. We have an unspoken rule in the Midwest that we don’t brag about ourselves, only about our loved ones. So, the promotional side of things is something I really shy away from, perhaps more than I should…And it’s possible my book sales have suffered because of it.
Of course, both of your novels came out just before or in the midst of the pandemic. JP, let’s start with you since your novel arrived first. What did your marketing strategy look like for the end of 2019/start of 2020? And at what point did you realize your initial plans would have to pivot? And how did you process the change?
Gritton: My book came out at the end of November 2019, and most bookstores were pretty lukewarm about hosting events in December, since that’s the month where they have their biggest sales and highest foot traffic. I think their hesitation maybe prepared me for the possibility that bigger and more meaningful events (i.e., COVID) might complicate a book tour. I did a handful of readings in the Triangle, Baltimore/D.C., and Denver/Boulder. I had planned to use spring break at the university where I work to give readings in Seattle, Portland, and the Bay. I got to read in Seattle, which is a city I love and one where I have a lot of community, and I’m really thankful for that. I was on the train to Portland when the Tin House publicist called me to say that Powell’s had suspended readings indefinitely, ditto Alley Cat Bookstore in San Francisco. I guess this would’ve been the first few days of March, and a scrapped book tour seemed suddenly like the least of anybody’s worries, including mine. Since then, I’ve done some online readings and events with bookstores in Colorado, Minnesota, and West Texas. They’ve been really great.
Jeni, your novel debuted in April as things were getting really dire. But I’m sure the marketing strategy had been planned long before the pandemic, so what was the conversation like with your team as the publication date neared and plans continued to change and evolve? How did you process the new strategy?
McFarland: My publisher left it up to me whether I still went on book tour. I had an early publicity event in October 2019, so I got a little taste of what a book tour would have been like, and I was stoked to do more events. But I also knew there are people in my life that would have attended the April and May events if I held them, and I didn’t feel OK asking people to gather in large groups during that time, so I pulled the plug. My publicity team then scrambled to put together a virtual tour, which I think went well. But it was still in the early days of the pandemic, where we were all learning best practices for virtual events. The hardest part for me was figuring out how to speak to an audience I couldn’t see. In some ways, going virtual was kind of a relief, though; I had worried that a full week (or maybe it was 10 days?) of travel and public events would have really taken a toll on me. It was nice to be able to pivot and do the virtual events, where I could pet my cats in the evenings and sleep in my own bed at night.
Jeni, you’ve anticipated my follow-up. Aside from a less-grueling travel schedule, have there been any other surprising perks associated with a virtual book tour compared to in-person events?
McFarland: Not that I can think of. I’m not so much of a tech person, though; like, I’m technically a Millennial, so I think people assume I just “get” social media, but I really don’t. I remember one event I did, it was a conversation at Brazos [Bookstore in Houston] with my friend Andy, and it was on Instagram. So, I had my office all set up, I had the lighting good, my laptop ready, and at the time of the event, I couldn’t for the life of me find the button to go live. I was on the phone with the folks at Brazos, and we just couldn’t figure it out. Meanwhile, my poor friend Andy had to stall for, like, a half-hour while we figured out how to do an Instagram takeover. Turns out, you have to use the app on your phone, but I had been trying on my laptop so I wouldn’t have to hold my phone the whole time.
I have heard that with virtual events, you get people from all over the country or the world, but again, when you can’t see the audience, it’s hard to gauge that.
Gritton: Yeah, there’s no way around it: COVID complicates just about every step in the process, from readings and signings to shuttering the bookstores where prospective readers might see your cover. I think if there’s anything worth remembering, it’s that distance is no longer an obstacle. If your book were to end up on a “staff picks’’ list in a bookstore somewhere you couldn’t possibly travel in real life, you could help drum up enthusiasm for the book with a remote Q&A. But I agree that the technology generally sucks – it’s impersonal, it’s awkward, most of it isn’t even particularly user-friendly.
And seeing as there’s no telling when things return to normal and what that even means, what advice would you give to other debut authors gearing up to release a book during the pandemic?
McFarland: If you’re launching during the pandemic, I think it’s even more important to do the extra work to get word out about your book. Even if you have the marketing team of a large publisher behind you, everyone is still working on the fly, trying to figure out how best to promote in our new, all-virtual world. Just know that it might require some extra hustle on your part.
Gritton: For me, books (even “sad” or “serious” ones) are always an escape. While I don’t think it’s the case for everybody, I think many people read out of a desire to look at the world from the vantage point of somebody else’s brain. If you’ve written a book, you’re selling something that people are seriously, seriously hungry for right now: a connection with another human being that doesn’t involve a mask or hand sanitizer. Whether or not promo in the age of COVID feels “impersonal” or “awkward” or whatever, you’re still connecting with your readers. Don’t underestimate how awesome that is.
—Thomas Calder earned his MFA in creative writing at the University of Houston. He lives in Asheville, N.C. His debut novel, The Wind Under the Door, is out now. To learn more, visit thomas-calder.com.