What it’s like to launch a debut novel in 2013

Hard, is what it’s like. Hard. It’s hard.

My first novel, “Pastors’ Wives,” debuted April 30. You already know that if I’m on your Facebook or Twitter feed because I WON’T SHUT UP ABOUT IT. My sister says I’m turning into the Amway lady, pushing dish detergent and hand lotion on increasingly weirded-out acquaintances.

It’s true. Launching a debut novel in 2013 is all about sales.

Pastors' Wives at Barnes & Noble

My friend Gerry sent me this snap of my book at Barnes & Noble. But many folks these days buy online.

You know who’s bad at sales? Writers.

Marketing a new book is a monstrous task. It’s made harder in my case because mine belongs to a genre called women’s commercial fiction, and we simply get very little traditional press. When’s the last time you saw a major newspaper review of a novel with a beach towel or flower basket on the cover?

Here’s another tricky fact: my novel is set in a Southern evangelical megachurch. Yet it’s not a quote-unquote Christian book. This is an important distinction. Christian books have their own publishers (mine is Plume/Penguin, a secular house) and their own set of rules.

For instance, characters must spend a lot of time in church. Given the setting, that’s a check for me. There can be no language or sex scenes. Um, mine has mild PG-13 content. Characters must also be or become believers; in “Pastors’ Wives,” a conflict arises when a main character’s husband becomes an evangelical pastor just as she realizes she doesn’t believe in God.

We knew all this going in, me and my team (my agents, my publisher, and a wonderful marketing company called Litfuse—I highly recommend them if you have a book like mine). So we decided to focus our marketing strategy online.

This is new for me. In 2006, when my first book was published, the marketing was all about radio interviews, newspaper reviews and personal appearances. What’s changed is how people buy books.

Check out this graph from Bowker:

Book sales chart

The portion of books bought online went from a quarter in 2010 to 44 percent in 2012. In just two years!

It’s desperate enough attracting notice in a bookstore with thousands of titles. So how do you get the attention of readers in a space whose edges you can’t even see?

One answer: book blogs. There are now thousands, maybe millions, of independent readers who have said to hell with the local paper’s weekend book review, if their local paper even has one any more—they’re going to publish their own damn opinions.

What’s more, online book marketing is far more targeted. I could sit in your local bookstore till the cows come home, but how many of its drop-in customers would be interested in my book? Yet if you’re clicking through a book blog specializing in women’s commercial fiction, you’re not there by accident. We could also target websites popular among Christian women readers who might be open to a respectful (if not “Christian”) book set in their world.

What this means for us authors is a lot of hustle—but of the kind we’re trained for, which is writing. So far I’ve written 26 online essays. I’ve participated in interviews for websites from Publisher’s Weekly to Gretchen Rubin’s The Happiness Project. My online recommendations go from People magazine to Sharon’s Garden of Book Reviews.

Basset hound

On the Internet, nobody knows if you’re a dog.

Do some of these sites reach millions while others a few hundred? Yep. But as the author Cheryl Tan (“A Tiger in the Kitchen”) quotes from that New Yorker cartoon: “On the Internet, nobody knows if you’re a dog.”

Meaning: a mention is a mention is a mention.

And the hustle doesn’t end with the coverage on other people’s sites. I maintain author pages on Facebook, Amazon and Goodreads. I Tweet book news. Last week I hosted my first ever Facebook live chat event. And then of course there’s the upkeep of this here site.

Also it’s not to say you can skip out on live events. Coming up, I’m part of this fun Beach Reads Night on June 7 at the Princeton Public Library, and one at my wonderful local library, both in New Jersey.

Is it exhausting? Look at me. Is it a full-time job that leaves little room for working on other projects, among them my next TV pilot and next novel? Uh huh. Will it pay off? I have no idea. But this is the reality of book publishing in 2013. And there’s no turning back.

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