The Book-Club Hustlers

This article, from Francesca Mari, originally appeared on The Daily Beast on 7/6/09.

Enterprising fiction writers are marketing themselves to book groups in person, by phone, and over Skype to boost sales. Meet the new breed of literary types on the make.

There is a thing authors do, nervously, when they think no one is looking. They check out their numbers—online sales figures, ratings, rankings, reader reviews. Not long ago, Joshua Henkin, a professor of creative writing at Sarah Lawrence and Brooklyn College, was doing just such a thing in his home office. He was scrolling through Goodreads.com, monitoring the reception of his new novel, Matrimony. A user named Shelley had given him a mixed review—three stars out of five. Henkin clicked on her name and decided to email her, offering to attend her book club, if she had one. She did—that very evening—and, after several exchanges, Henkin was set to call into it.

Joshua Henkin has topped 175 visits to book groups. “With 10 people in each group,” he said, “that’s 1,750 books sold right there.”

Henkin had already participated in over 80 groups, most of them personal visits to between 10 and 12 middle-aged women. By now, he’s topped 175. “With 10 people in each group, that’s 1,750 books sold right there.” When his first novel came out in 1997, Henkin said the book got good reviews but fell by the wayside in sales, in part because his editor was dying. “I’d heard enough horror stories in publishing that even if a book got great reviews it wasn’t going to sell well, and I got the sense that so many people were in book groups,” he says. So when Matrimony first came out, he emailed friends to put him in touch. Now groups find him. And he’s willing to drive up to two hours, one way, to any group that asks. “Most sales are going to come shortly after publication. When you see sales stay steady,” Henkin says, “something is going on in terms of word of mouth. And that tends to be book clubs.”

Henkin’s efforts are an enterprising response to the publishing industry’s chronic woes. Money is scarce for publicity, and the way it’s often hoarded to buy full-page ads for the books that make bank (think: James Patterson, Stephen King) means that authors must be on-call at all times. To make a living off of fiction, most writers must be as attuned to marketing as they are to writing. Mickey Pearlman, an author, editor, and professional book-club facilitator, says, “The only thing that’s going to save publishing is book clubs.” Pearlman offers four-hour book-marketing seminars (for $500), focusing on “how to creatively market your book on the Web and in other outlets”—one of those outlets being, of course, book groups. “You’re building an interest in you,” Pearlman says, “so they’ll be very likely to buy your next book.”

The focus on book clubs has spurred the evolution of a new breed: the author-hustler, the writer who succeeds in large part because of door-to-door salesmanship. After the writing comes a new challenge, one of industriousness, perseverance, and charm. Since 2000, Adriana Trigiani has averaged two to three book clubs a week by phone, and this past April, she led “The World’s Biggest Book Club,” a 300-person event run out of New York’s Convent of the Sacred Heart High School (the very set of Paris Hilton and Lady Gaga’s [mis]education).

Chris Bohjalian, whose book Midwives was an Oprah selection in October 1998, began phoning into groups after he was forced to cancel his book tour in the wake of the 9/11 attacks. Requests keep increasing, and this year he anticipates talking to 120 groups. As soon as The Divorce Party came out, Laura Dave was reaching out to book clubs at the suggestion of her editor and publicist, both of whom recognized her book’s potential appeal to the middle-aged woman. “Every time I speak to a book group,” Dave says, “almost without exception that book club refers me to another book club that emails.” Dave has done over 100 discussions in person, by phone, and on Skype. She says that Gwyn, the middle-aged narrator of her second novel, is a composite of some of the women she’s met in groups.
 

Read the rest of the article on The Daily Beast.

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