How (not to) market your book

My, what an interesting range of approaches there are in the publishing world as to how they think a reviewer can be best inveigled into reading their new book.

In the interests of good relations between reviewers and the publishing industry, here are the methods that work for me, and why; some that could be risky; and a few that annoy me. This is a personal view, obviously, and probably a hardcore response. I am the world’s least persuadable potential customer. I am a nightmare for sales staff instructed to offer their unwanted help to shoppers, and my rebuttals to telephone cold-callers are failsafe (pro-tip: reply in a language different to that in which they have confidently greeted you). So, if I say a marketing approach works for me, it might work for a lot of other people too.

bin-1These Methods Work

  • Send a short informative email with the name of the author, the title of the book and a one-para description (this is often forgotten, but is crucial) giving the basic plot, the genre, historical period, and cultural setting(s) (for example). Say who to contact to get hold of a copy. Leave it at that.
  • Prove that you’ve actually researched the reviewer you’re targeting and have an idea of the kind of books they review.
  • Reply to response emails quickly.
  • When a reviewer has asked for a review copy, tell them (briefly) when a book has been posted, and then follow up to see whether it has arrived. This makes a reviewer feel that you care about the book, are keeping an eye on them, and want to see a review.
  • Be brave if you’re a new author. Reviewers don’t (shouldn’t) distinguish between big-name publishers and the self-published, and we don’t care two hoots if we’ve never heard of an author before. The book is what we’re interested in, not the writer. So tell us about it!

bin-2These Could Be Risky

  • If you employ a temp (and I do mean EMPLOY: you do pay your interns, don’t you?) to do all the publicity for a book, this is your lookout. But don’t make it glaringly obvious that you’ve delegated publicity to an anarchist school-leaver, or a cocky student who doesn’t know that they’re out of their depth. Giving them an email account to use called ‘unpaidintern@publisher.co.uk’, or ‘temp_assistant@publisher.com’ does not inspire confidence. (Those email address prefixes exist: believe me, I’ve seen them.) Especially when we read the results of their unsupervised skills of persuasion.
  • Being witty. This is a risky strategy because you don’t know our senses of humour, or the humour we’re in when reading your message. Here is a real example that I’ve read: ‘It’s a rough life being a book marketer. Half of the time I’m flogging five hundred page doorstops on crusty old dudes no one’s cared about since the mid 1850s. The other half of the time I’m stuck selling the fluffiest fiction known to man.’ If we can be bothered to get past your idea of wit to the book you’re trying to market, you’ll be lucky. We’re not likely to be impressed by your comedy audition.
  • bin-3Being shy. New authors can be very nervous about telling the world how good their book is. We need to know about your book, not about your palpitating nerves, so please do give us the blurb in your first email. Please don’t bother being conventionally polite by asking meekly if we are interested in reading an undescribed first collection of short stories, because we will not bother to email you back unless something outstanding strikes us. Just get it out there! Tell us why you’re proud of your book, and why we will be interested, in your first contact.
  • Don’t tell us that your best friends and relations think your book is great: of course they will! Tell us if it won a prize, or was mentioned somewhere (positively) by an objective person you’ve never met: that will cut more ice.
  • Only making e-book versions of your book available. Some of us don’t do e-books, for eyesight or technical reasons, a simple preference for reading on paper, or plain Luddite stubbornness. We completely appreciate that some publishers can only publish in e-book formats, for sound economic reasons, and we would rather a book was available in e-book versions than not at all. But be aware that only making e-book versions available may lose you reviewing opportunities.

bin-5These Are Annoying

  • A relentless chirpy cheerful approach. This makes you sound infantile, or on drugs. You also have no idea at what time of day or in what mood the reviewer will be reading your email. Keep it calm.
  • A frenzied tone of urgency and drama. It’s only a book, for heaven’s sake. Keep a sense of perspective. Remember also that if you maintain this tone for all your book plugging emails, we’re not going to believe any of them.
  • Over-familiarity and gushing false friendliness. You probably don’t know us, we probably don’t know you: don’t pretend otherwise. Just be pleasant and polite. Assume that we might do you a favour if we’re not irritated by you, and adopt the appropriate tone.
  • bin-6Assuming reviewers are your own age, share the same cultural background, have the same educational level, or like what you like.
  • We don’t want to know what you did last night that’s making you feel so ill this morning, thank you.
  • Telling us what the book is not (as in ‘It’s not Fifty Shades of Grey but …’) We really could not care less what the book is not, but we would like to know what it IS.
  • Comparing your novel to another one in a good or bad way: how do you know that we’ve read, or even heard of this other one? Or, what if we have and do not share your opinion of it?
  • Trying to get our sympathy and interest by deprecating your own book in a humorous fashion. If you don’t think it’s that good, why send it out?
  • Trying to pique our interest by being mysterious, and withholding the facts. We won’t have the time or inclination to email you back to ask for more information if you can’t be bothered telling us in the first place. Tell us all we need to know straight out. Then we can make our minds up whether we want to read the book.
  • Sending a perfunctory list of your upcoming books with only their titles and prices: why would anyone be interested in that?
  • bin-7Sending an email that begins ‘Dear Kate NAME, We’d like to tell you about The Name of the Rose / How Momma Bear Won a Fish / Economics for Beginners. It’s a great novel / storybook / work of economics we’re sure all your readers will love.‘ (Based on an example received within the last 2 months.) Please pay attention to what your emails look like from the recipient’s end, no matter how well you think you know mail-merging. Send yourself one first, just to check.

While reviewers know that marketing people have to create marketing emails to sell books, your emails will work better if they are businesslike, efficient and cautious rather than loopily outrageous or offensively ingratiating. (To me, at least.) Bonne chance.

What I hope to read at Christmas

By the time you read this, I hope to be in Hawai’i (actually Kauai). This is a major splashout holiday, for a particular reason. It’s halfway across the planet from my home, but it’s also halfway between where my siblings live, and the Christmas holiday is conveniently close to a significant birthday that they will be celebrating (they’re twins), so the clan is gathering.

We will be flying light, and I shall be severely restricted for my reading, as I loathe and abhor ebooks and refuse to use them now except for work when I have no choice. I shall take two fat novels for the flights, and intend to collect more when I’m in the US. I am also taking some slim volumes for reading on the beach as I rest from snorkelling practice, or while listening to the munching of dinosaurs behind me in the forest. I understand that Kauai was where Jurassic Park was filmed, so naturally I expect to see or hear dinosaurs. Hopefully just the herbivorous ones.

xmas-1Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies

No, I haven’t read them yet. Yes, I know. Yes, my husband was immersed so deeply in them he forgot to watch Have I Got News For You. Yes, I hope so. I like Mantel’s non-fiction writing, especially when she blasts prejudices into molecular fragments, so I’m looking forward to these. But, when I finish Wolf Hall, will I be able to wait for a fortnight before beginning Bring Up the Bodies on the return flight?

xmas-2Aliens, ed. Jim Al-Khalili

My favourite physicist broadcaster interviews loads of scientists about what alien lifeforms might look like and how they might function, depending on the speciality research area of each interviewee. Since my father is also a scientist (retired), but has no truck with science fiction, this will produce some interesting conversations.

Karen Russell, Swamplandia

This has been waiting to be read for far too long, I’m going to DO IT. I loved St Lucy’s Home for Girls Raised by Wolves and Vampires in the Lemon Grove, so I’m going to dive into the full novel-length version of her peculiar world.

xmas-4Daniel Defoe, Robinson Crusoe

I’ll be on an island. I’ll need advice. I’ve also never read this, except for a dreadful abridged children’s edition at primary school that made no sense.

Ben Lerner, The Hatred of Poetry 

I’ve ordered this from the lovely John Sandoe Books in Chelsea, because they slid a catalogue into my bag when I was buying Christmas presents and I was seduced. I’m hoping for poetical subversion, and sarcastic lines to read aloud to annoy people

If you have any suggestions for books I should be looking for in Hawaai’ian bookshops, do let me know.

The next two weeks on this site will offer two humdinger posts, and normal reviewing services will resume in early January. Joyeux Noel, Prettige Kerstdagen, Prettige Feestdagen and Bonne Année!

Science fiction and speculative fiction from Iraq

iraq100I really like the concept of Iraq + 100. Stories from a Century After the Invasion. In 2013 Hassan Blasim and his collaborator Ra Page, the founder of Comma Press, asked well-known Iraqi writers to write speculative short stories envisioning Iraq in 2113 or thereabouts. The Introduction and Afterword are persuasive about the artistic ambitions of this project, and give a proper sense of political and humanitarian rage at the destruction of Iraq by the British and US-led coalition, in 2003. As time has moved on, new predators have emerged in Iraq, so several of the stories feature deeply-felt responses to the atrocities of ISIS/ISIL/Daesh. This is an anthology about what it’s like to write fiction about the future in a present that no-one wants.

Hassan Blasim by Ahmed Al-Nawas
Hassan Blasim by Ahmed Al-Nawas

There is nothing hopeful about these visions of a future Iraq. It’s impossible to quantify how science-fictiony these stories are, but their defining characteristic is anger at the present, and a recurring sense that little is going to change in 100 years except the need to look back at this time. In that context, these are not particularly good science fiction stories, but I don’t think that’s important. In how they tackle problems of an unknown future that will somehow relieve the discomfort, injustice or the tyranny of the present, they are very like early Anglophone science fiction of the late Victorian and Edwardian period, especially that written by women. They show strong signs of an emerging artistic tradition.

Zhraa Alhaboby
Zhraa Alhaboby

Early western male sf writers focused on technological advances and ignored everything else about society, or they railed against feminists and the horrors of sexual equality. Early female sf writers from the west also focused on technology, and how it would alter their lives for the better (rather than for war, which was often the male response), but they also wrote about changing society for the better, creating social equality, and doing away with injustice. That is the common factor with these Iraqi stories, by men and women both. Hassan Blasim remarks in the Introduction that ‘Iraqi literature suffers from a dire shortage of science fiction writing’. In both content and impetus, Iraqi writers have used sf in this collection to express their fears and anxieties about the present, by changing them for the better through speculative fiction, or by digging into their nature to find out what needs to be fixed.

Hassan Abdulrazzak
Hassan Abdulrazzak

The stories most aligned to modern sf are ‘Kuszib’ by playwright Hassan Abdulrazzak, with its really remarkable combination of alien eroticism and humans treated as meat; and ‘Najufa’ by Ibrahim al-Marashi, which envisions a modern and roboticised Islamic society, in and out of the mosque, in a totally climate-altered world. Other stories use a futurised society to retell the story of Scheherazade (‘Baghdad Syndrome’ by Zhraa Alhaboby), and the story of the 2013 invasion through time travel (‘The Corporal’ by Ali Bader’). There is an unsettling recurrent image of eating human bodies, in ‘Kuszib’, in ‘The Worker’ by Diaa Jubaili, also a story of a giant automaton, and in ‘Kahmarama’ by Anoud, which rages against the commodification of women by charlatan imams. For the strongest story of speculative invention glazed with horror I’d give the prize to ‘Operation Daniel’ by Khalid Kaki, in which transgressors are incinerated and archived into a glittering chip, to be attached to the robes of the Venerable Benefactor and tyrant, Gao Dong. This is the only story that reaches beyond the familiar Iraqi-US binary, and envisions a different cultural player in the future.

All these stories are about punishment and transgression. This is not a collection for comfort reading, and the stories are certainly not contemplative visions of a calm and perfect future as seen from a suburban armchair. But they’re vigorous, and exploratory, and represent a new way of writing about present-day problems by authors who really know what suffering and destruction mean. For that reason alone, this impetus should be nurtured.

Iraq + 100. Stories from a Century After the Invasion, edited by Hassan Blasim (Comma Press 2016), ISBN 9 781905 583669, £9.99