Shades of Marketing

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The art of grabbing the attention of agents and publishers to try to get your book published is not easy, and while a large part of me still wishes that I’d been able to get The Prostitutes of Lake Wiishkoban published “traditionally,” I can’t say that I miss  the rigmarole of emailing agencies and publishing houses all that much. In addition to dealing with a shrinking number of opportunities for traditional publication, trying to market a book to literary agencies and publishers is a process full of contradictions and unwritten rules that often prov ed all but impossible for me to wrap my head around. Selling myself, and my work, has never been easy for me (which I attribute to spending so much of my life around people who constantly degraded me), but trying to get agents and publishers to take notice of The Prostitutes of Lake Wiishkoban was its own special kind of hell.

One of the biggest contradictions that a writer has in trying to market their work for representation and publication is that you have to sell your work as something that is completely new and fresh, and yet also something that’s just like another work that’s been a major success. Nearly every agent and publisher out there is in their line of work for the money, and especially in an age where it seems like half the films in a theatre at any given time are retreads of previously-successful franchises, it’s more important than ever to tie your work to something that’s already been a big hit. (There are larger issues about stifling creativity and the market for new characters/stories/franchises here, but those will have to wait for another blog.)

When I sent out my first query letters for The Prostitutes of Lake Wiishkoban all those years ago, I tried to deal with this problem by selling my novel as “a 21st century Best Little Whorehouse in Texas” in my closing.  Setting aside the matter of writing quality, I thought that the comparison was fairly apt. Like The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (which I’ve seen several times, since the movie adaptation was one of Mom’s favourite films), my novel deals with the morality of sex work in a comedic way, but not without moments of high drama and tragedy. The film version of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas was the top-grossing movie musical of the eighties, so it was certainly a success, but I wasn’t sure if it was the best comparison I could make since the film was over twenty-five years old by that point. (Thankfully, prostitution should always be in the news regularly for as long as we have a Congress.)

I struggled for a while to come up with another successful work that I could tie The Prostitutes of Lake Wiishkoban to, but I didn’t have any luck. Finally, though, the universe dropped the Fifty Shades books in my lap, and I’m not sure if I’ve fully recovered from that yet.

Apart from the many issues regarding the abusive relationship between Ana Steele and Christian Grey portrayed in the books (and subsequent movies), and apart from how dangerously inaccurate the book’s depictions of kink and kinky people are, the success of the Fifty Shades books caused all kinds of problems for me as I was trying to get The Prostitutes of Lake Wiishkoban published. Before Fifty Shades became a huge success, many agents would reject my queries because the premise of my novel was too salacious for them; it wasn’t uncommon for me to get this response mere minutes after emailing my query out. Once Fifty Shades became an international phenomenon, though, the agents who finally asked for my manuscript would turn it down because it wasn’t full of sex scenes. (There are lots of sex acts in The Prostitutes of Lake Wiishkoban, but only one real “sex scene,” at least by my estimation.) It felt like I couldn’t win.

Still, regardless of opinions about the Fifty Shades books and movies, there’s no denying that they’ve been hugely successful, and so I started marketing my novel to potential agents and publishers as “an intelligent alternative to Fifty Shades of Grey” in my query letters. That wasn’t meant to be a knock on Fifty Shades, but a way to differentiate my work from that franchise. The fact that Fifty Shades is firmly situated in the genres of romance and erotica is a huge concern for many potential readers (to say nothing of the issues I previously mentioned), and while the premise of The Prostitutes of Lake Wiishkoban is arguably just as risqué, I wrote the novel as literary fiction (with occasional small-scale borrowing of conventions from women’s fiction and romance), and I view it as a modern bildungsroman about a young woman’s coming-of-age in small-town America. The sex and prostitution stuff is just a backdrop for that story.

Like I said, though, I still couldn’t get representation, and Mom’s passing last year kind of forced me into the self-publication route. With that change has also come a change in my marketing efforts, because trying to sell a novel to the people who will eventually read it is far different than trying to sell it to agents and publishers. It’s a process that I’d been studying for years — except for A-list authors, publishing houses rely on their writers being the primary marketers for their own work –but even though I’d been practicing self-promotion on the Facebook and Google+ pages I’d set up for my novel, promoting a novel that’s actually available for purchase is a lot different than promoting a novel that’s still “under wraps,” like mine was for so long.

With the new Fifty Shades film coming out this weekend, for example, it’s been difficult to figure out if I should do any additional promotion for The Prostitutes of Lake Wiishkoban. Although there are comparisons to be made between my novel and the Fifty Shades franchise, those kinds of explanations are better suited for publishing professionals and long-form blogs like this one; they don’t exactly make for good soundbites. Still, the new movie coming out this weekend will almost certainly result in increased attention to the Fifty Shades books, and any novel with the word “prostitutes” in its title could stand to benefit from some increased visibility right now.

In the end, though, I decided that I’m not going to do any extra marketing this weekend outside of this blog. As many hypotheses as I have about the virtues of targeted marketing, I’m still kind of new to the whole self-promotion thing (at least on this scale), and it’s not like I’ve got money to burn here. In addition, I’m finally getting some momentum going with that all-important (and free) word-of-mouth advertising, so it may be best for me to just ride that out right now, and let the many enthusiastic readers of The Prostitutes of Lake Wiishkoban do my advertising for me. With any luck, in a few years’time it’ll be my book being made into a major Hollywood film. I wouldn’t bet money on it, but that’s not about to stop me from trying to reach that milestone with everything that I have.

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