06 November 2009

Proof: The Power and Pitfalls of Self-Marketing

I was looking back at posts I never finished writing, and found one inspired by a December 2007 story on fantasy author Troy (Tompkins) CLE in a local section of the New York Times. The article’s opening hook was how CLE had created a fictional publicist for a press release for his self-published fantasy novel.

A similar press release dated May 2007 and preserved on the Hip Hop Cosign explains how CLE wasn’t just his own publicist, he was also the book’s original publisher:

When Troy couldn’t find an agent or major publisher for his novel, he published it himself with the help of David Finn, co-founder of the worldwide corporate PR firm, Ruder & Finn, and then created a fictitious publicist to get the word out.
Though that raises a question: If the co-founder of a “worldwide corporate PR firm” (which actually prefers to be called “Ruder Finn”) is helping to publish your book, why do you have to create a publicist? Isn’t that the one type of expert you already have behind you?

That same May 2007 release says of the book:
Combining the best and hottest elements of fantasy, science fiction, hip-hop, video gaming, Nascar and Anime, “The Marvelous Effect” has been likened to a “Black Harry Potter,” for the outrageous adventures, over the top sci fi gadgets and memorable characters Troy has created, as well as the passion it elicits from the hundreds of high schools [sic] students in some of the toughest neighborhoods who’ve attended Troy’s readings.
So CLE’s fictional publicist didn’t lack audacity.

After the Times story, some publishing pros criticized CLE’s tactic. MediaBistro’s Galleycat countered by asking, “Is Having An Imaginary Publicist So Wrong?”

Even asking that question seems quaint now that publishing staffs have been decimated and publicity efforts outsourced. Worldwide media conglomerates are asking first-time authors what they can do on their own to push book sales.

Furthermore, CLE’s method worked. His press release about a reading caught the attention of someone at Simon & Schuster. The company saw enough potential in the Marvelous World series to republish the first book, The Marvelous Effect, and this month is bringing out the second, Olivion’s Favorites. (So this posting isn’t two years late, after all.)

I see two downsides to marketing one’s book through a fake publicist or the story of one, however. The first is that it makes natural cynics like me even more suspicious of any claims. Just who was likening The Marvelous Effect to a “Black Harry Potter”? Did Simon & Schuster really offer “a six-figure advance” for CLE’s book rights? Beyond cross-cultural name-dropping, what exactly is a hybrid of hip-hop, anime, and NASCAR?

And the second pitfall is that publicity can draw attention to a book for the wrong reasons. There are two ways to promote a novel: the story in it, and the story of it. The second can bring attention (CLE was on Tavis Smiley’s talk show and PBS’s Now) and initial sales, but only the latter can please readers and lead to lasting sales.

As I’ve written before, the story of Harry Potter (impoverished single mother finds magical riches!) produced the book’s first spate of publicity in Britain, and dovetailed surprisingly well with the story in Harry Potter (impoverished orphaned boy finds magic and riches!). If the book hadn’t delivered, however, J. K. Rowling’s life story would have been a flash in the British tabloid pan.

I’m not seeing the same overlap between how CLE steered himself to publication and what I read of his hero, Louis Proof, who sets out to win a radio-car race in a junkyard and ends up in a coma. (The fact that the opening chapter is all circumstance and no character doesn’t help.)

And as for the series’s potential as a “Black Harry Potter,” the first book’s jacket showed African-American characters. Its paperback and the second book have abstract science-fiction images on the front.


gail said...

For every story like this of a self-published, self-promoter finding themselves a traditional publisher, there are hundreds of stories of self-published, self-promoters who didn't. Unfortunately, those stories don't seem to be getting much press coverage--probably because, being more common, they're not newsworthy.

Good for CLE, but I feel for all the people who are going to read about what he did and go right to self-publishing thinking that they'll be able to do it, too.

J. L. Bell said...

That reminded me to put my “self-publishing and other ways to lose all your money” tag on this post.

I’m curious to see where CLE’s writing career goes from here, now that his first two-book contract has been fulfilled. He got a fair amount of press with his own story for book one, but I haven’t seen it make a splash literarily.