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From Phyllida's Desk

Sleeping With the Enemy

I'm leaving in a day or two on my one event to promote my Pride/Prejudice: a three-day "mini-tour" of western North Carolina, centered around an invitation to the cosmopolitan Malaprop's in Asheville, and including appearances at two other independent bookstores.

Many people, when they hear I've had a second book published, routinely ask if I'm going on a book tour, even though, for most authors, the tour is no more a part of our lives than manual typewriters or fountain pens (which people also assume we use). We persist in our beloved stereotype of the shy writer who dreads speaking in public, with the agent or publisher pushing this reluctant wallflower into the spotlight, a modern Iphigenia sacrificed for favorable trade winds, or at least good PR.

Like many writers, I would kill to go on a book tour, despite knowing the reality is pretty much as it's portrayed in Peter Kuper's cartoon on the back page of today's New York Times Book Review: "Double booked auditoriums. Broken equipment. Poorly-advertised readings." The drawing shows the author reading to one elderly woman sitting up front while the only other audience member catches a very large Z a few rows back.

So why do I, like Kuper's protagonist, wish I "could return again and again" to this miserable past? Because, for all its perils and faults, appearing in person is still the best way for a writer to introduce her work to potential readers. In fact, it could be said that writers and independent bookstores share a common enemy: Amazon and the entire online book-selling behemoth in general.

Now, why did I title this piece "Sleeping With the Enemy?" Because I love Amazon. I'm sorry, but I do. When I'm in the mood for a novel at 3 in the morning all I have to do is poke around on my Kindle and I can have a book downloaded and open to page one in a few seconds. (BTW, why do they all start on the first page? Some of us want to see the front cover, the title page, the imprint and dedication. It's like the down-to-business whore who dispenses with foreplay or seduction and goes straight to the bed to display herself in a receptive position.)

I can find every sort of out-of-print title on Amazon and get a copy in good condition from one of those "Amazon marketplace" sellers. The author, of course, does not receive a royalty from this (re)sale. Yes, I know this is wrong. How could I not? I'm a writer and a librarian. But I do it. Why? Because I can find exactly what I want without putting clothes on and taking the subway and "browsing" through miles and miles of used books on the off chance that what I'm looking for will be there, somewhere... This is how I hooked up with my current main squeeze, Byron: Life and Legend, Fiona MacCarthy's 2002 biography of the poet and world's first rock star. Yes, the print in this thick paperback is so small that even with reading glasses I can only make it through at most ten pages at one sitting before my tired middle-aged eyes, caught between severe myopia and this latest sign of impending decrepitude, demand a break for the next episode of Madmen. Yes, perhaps the hardcover (one copy available, priced at $99 and change) would be more readable. But at least I have it. In fact, my only serious regret is that this book, like any "old" nonfiction release, is not available on the Kindle, which allows the reader to enlarge the "print" to a size that someone without a portable electron microscope can read comfortably.

Even in my day job, when I'm trying to determine the real publishing date of a work ("copyright 2010" claims the verso of the title page of a book I'm holding in my hands in July of 2009), Amazon is the quickest way to find the answer. Publishers' websites, while more authoritative, are often cagey about displaying information that could "date" an item. (Oh my god, that's so this year!)

Not to mention that Amazon is indispensable for any writer who wants others besides her mother and her editor to know she has a book out. On my "mini-tour," over three days, I'll reach, at best, if I'm very lucky, a few dozen people; on Amazon, I'm exposed to literally millions every day, at least until the cyber world comes to an end.

But here is where the difference lies. A good book should sell itself, I suppose. But many books, especially of the comic or satirical kind, aren't always recognized or appreciated as such. On Amazon, a book like my first novel, Phyllida and the Brotherhood of Philander, while receiving glowing reviews in the mainstream media, is apparently forever doomed to display as "most helpful" that one-star customer review with the standard unhappy subject line on top ("I was so excited and then so very disappointed"). "The heroine comes so close to being likable, and then disappoints time and again," it says, and, "There were many passages I had to read out loud to my friends so they could be mocked." (Were they by any chance the same passages that Library Journal described as "Sparkling with Regency wit and panache?")

Such a review, of course, is not "wrong." It's obviously right for that reader. But there is another side to this. When I first "published" Phyllida, print-on-demand, a friend of mine, a street-smart woman with a wicked sense of humor, immediately bought five copies for her book club. But as she started reading she came to me, troubled. "Is this supposed to be funny?" she asked. When I assured her it was indeed, she went back to it, fell in love (although still afraid of shocking the sensibilities of over-the-shoulder readers on the NJ Transit bus with some of the steamy scenes) and when she and her friends were done, invited me out to her house for the discussion. Over a three-course Italian meal and several bottles of Pinot Grigio, we howled with laughter, talked seriously about sex and love and man-on-man action in Regency England, and by the end of the day I had four real fans. For one reader, there was still too much sex. So instead of five "disappointeds" I had four five-star reviewers and one who, perhaps, recognized good writing in a story that wasn't right for her.

In other words, in person I can sell my work to the readers who will like it. Not all readers will like it, any more than everybody will like lobster or sunny-side-up eggs. But the people who might like it and haven't yet tried it won't be put off by the Amazon equivalent of comparisons to "big red bug" or "runny yellow eye."

This is why authors and independent bookstores are on the same side, a side that feels a lot like being one of those 300 Spartans at Thermopylae, bracing for the holding action that will end in annihilation. Yes, we're the better warriors, but the enemy sure has the big numbers...

Bookstores can't compete with Amazon's discount prices or unlimited stock. They can't stay open 24/7 or offer instant delivery to every night owl jonesing for her fix of fiction. But what they can do--and do--is provide a place where readers and writers come together, either in person or by proxy, through the knowledgeable staff, to learn about interesting books. Not always the most popular books or the easiest reads or the ones that make us feel good about ourselves and our enlightened consciousness--but books that provide "caustic wit" or speak with an original voice or simply tell a familiar story in a new and different way. Perhaps even my Pride/Prejudice that dares to call my heroes "Fitz" and "Charles" instead of the usual (Mr.) "Darcy" and (Mr.) "Bingley;" not because it's wrong but because it's an intimate look at these characters we haven't had before.

The recent obituary of Nina Bourne, a publishing executive described as "a prime mover in the marketing of books," reminded me of the role that the flesh-and-blood human being plays in selling the written word.


Ms. Bourne created pioneering ad campaigns, notably for Joseph Heller's Catch-22, which was not immediately regarded as the enduring classic it became. As the obituary tells us: "The novel needed help. Initial reviews in the United States were mixed." Ms. Bourne's ad campaign is now regarded as a classic, every bit as much as Heller's novel, which, no doubt thanks to her efforts, has never gone out of print.

I'm thinking also of Benjamin Kissell, a sales person at a bookstore in the DC area, who e-mailed me to say how much he enjoyed P/P and sent me a photo of the display he made for it. In his latest message Benjamin told me the store had sold out its stock of P/P three times over.

Wouldn't it be great if Amazon could do this for us? For some writers, it does. We all dream of the viral "marketing campaign" that begins as one reader's blog post or review. But for many of us, it's the individual voices at the independent bookstores that sell our work, and the only way to reach them is face to face. This week, as I talk about my writing and how I got my ideas; as I read a humorous or touching passage; as I discuss why I see the bisexual married man as a romantic hero and the m/m/f menage as the ideal romance, I'll connect with some potential readers in a way that no review, no matter how favorable, really can--because I'll be there, in the flesh, to convey the passion that went into the writing, a passion that can be shared through reading the novels that were born from this messy business of creation.

Yes, there will always be detractors. Evelyn Waugh, approached by Nina Bourne for a blurb for Catch-22, said, “I am sorry that the book fascinates you so much. It has many passages quite unsuitable to a lady’s reading.”

Yeah, I know what he means. Phyllida and P/P have a lot of passages like that. But when I appear at a friendly independent bookstore, I can show how this "lady" wrote those passages, not out of crudeness, or ignorance or the desire to offend, but out of love, out of passion--even out of, dare I say it--creativity and originality. And I know I'll be able to convince some of my listeners to become readers.

It's making me feel very guilty about the fact that on my trip I'll be sneaking off for a tryst with the enemy. Yes, my Kindle will be coming with me, and Byron will be waiting (with any luck, on the bed in a receptive position) when I come home.
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