When I visited a local book club this month, a question I hadn’t heard before came up: “How can we help writers whose books we like?”
I was impressed that these kind readers were aware that writers need help. With more titles competing in a declining overall market, books--especially fiction--no longer sell themselves on their own merit. Many fiction writers fade out of sight after their debut novel. Advances, smaller than ever, no longer allow new writers the reward of quitting their day jobs. The stolen weekends and evenings newly-published authors used to spend writing are now required to service vastly increased PR responsibilities such as maintaining a web site, blogging, and networking, in addition to constantly scrounging for whatever reviews, radio interviews, conference talks, or readings they can get. No matter how much work the author puts into book promotion, though, it doesn’t necessarily result in sales. Let’s face it: any author telling the world how wonderful his own book is comes across as being biased! And if his first book doesn’t sell, the publisher won’t print a second.
What’s needed is the elusive word-of-mouth from readers who liked the book. So, next time you read a good book, here’s what you can do to help sales and perhaps have a chance to read another book by the same writer.
First, buy the book. Publishers don’t care how many people read a book: only how many pay for it. Most people know that writers make nothing if you check out their work from the library, but many don’t realize writers get no royalties from used book or remaindered book purchases. If your budget is tight, buy discounted new books, which still provide the writers with a small percentage. Royalties for e-books are higher than print, so choosing to go green will help your favorite authors as well as the environment.
Second, don’t be silent! There are ways to speak up, and all are free.
You may already be speaking up without saying a word. Every time you read in public, you are providing a subtle ad for the book. So, take your book to work, read in the subway, read in the cafe or mall, and hold that cover high.
Writing to authors to let them know you enjoyed their books provides valuable encouragement in a lonely profession. You don’t need to be careful with your grammar or craft an elaborate letter. One sentence such as “hey, I really liked reading your book” is as welcome as an elegant essay.
Post comments on author’s blogs. Comments make a blog seem livelier and generate more interest. If you’re shy, use only your first name or be anonymous.
Post reader “reviews” on online booksellers’ sites. Keep in mind there are always disgruntled or jealous crackpots posting 1-star reviews out of pure spite, so give the highest star rating you can. 5 stars means you liked it a lot, not that it’s a masterwork of literature. Don’t stress about reviewing. Keep it short and either mention a few details you particularly enjoyed, or that it kept you reading from start to finish. While Indie Bound, Amazon and Barnes & Noble are the primary online sources, also visit book groups and independent book stores and post reviews there. With less traffic, your positive review will get more attention and mean more. Some Indie bookstores, such as Powell’s of Portland, Oregon offer a chance to win free books for posting the first review.
While you’re visiting Amazon.com, take a moment to “tag” the book. Sign in as a customer, then scroll down to “Tags Customers Associate with This Product” and check 15 boxes. Check the popular tags to build numbers and whatever other tags you think apply. This is not a small thing, as tagging will help the title show up in customer searches.
You can help several books with one post by creating a customer "list" on any book retailer's site which includes the titles and authors of books you like. All of this can be done anonymously or with a pseudonym. Your list can be books you recommend for reading groups, or books to read on an airplane, or books set in other countries--anything you can imagine.
Tell your friends about the book on Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, Goodreads, and any other social sites you use. Be sure to include the title and author’s full name. Add a link to the author’s web site or blog and get a photo of the book jacket to accompany your post. If you blog, please, oh, please mention the title and author in a post! Include links or photos whenever you can. To kick it up a level, invite the author to do an interview on your blog. Ask questions you genuinely want to know about the book, the author, or the subject. It's perfectly all right to ask just one question.
These ideas are not as much work as they seem. The same review can be posted on multiple web sites. Tagging takes only a few seconds, and commenting on blogs can be fun, even addictive. If your time is limited, keep in mind the best selling authors will do well without your help; focus on new authors and the books you’ve found off the beaten path. Usually, these authors will thank you with personal responses.
Writing is a difficult profession and success is haphazard. Spreading the word about a good book is a way to give back to the person whose writing reached you.
I took this photograph from the same spot as the other one, looking upstream toward the mountains. Here, you can see my local nuclear power plant and, to its right, the "hook" described in American Fuji (p.277-8): "A long-legged bird picked its way through construction gravel blocking the trickle of the stream. Alex looked up the scaffolding of the mechanical crane to the bright white sky, in which a giant hook balanced, poised and ready." (The birds I saw were herons; the only Japanese cranes I saw were the man-made kind.)
I was in Japan in the early part of its now-famous "lost decade" when the government was funding unnecessary public works projects to stimulate employment. My neighborhood project (about two blocks from my apartment) was turning a natural creek into a concrete culvert. I described it from Alex's point of view in American Fuji (p.277): "The chain-link fence on either side of the culvert was coated in toothpaste-blue plastic. Natural mud banks covered with grasses and hydrangeas stopped abruptly at new concrete walls flanking the stony stream." This photo almost shows the mud banks. I'm facing the ocean, looking downstream.
Here is the lovely kanji for water, which is mizu in Japanese or sui in combination with other characters, such as suiyoubi for Wednesday. In American Fuji, Gaby notes (as I did) how delicious plain tap water was in Shizuoka City. I had never thought about the taste of water much (except when I lived where the water was harsh--yes, I mean Davis, California) but in Shizuoka the difference is striking. I learned Shizuoka is famous for its water within Japan. I wonder if the proximity to volcanic mountains has something to do with this. Do layers of obsidian and pumice help filter water? Does anyone know?
Oshika Street was the "shopping" street in my neighborhood which I described on p.187 of American Fuji: "Alex came to a diagonal street crowded with small shops. Sidewalk bins, telephone poles, pedestrians, and parked cars all competed for space on each side of the road, narrowing traffic to one lane. Alex stood under the red-and-yellow striped awning of a candy stores and opened his map, looking for any street that cut a hypotenuse through the typical grid. He'd never take named streets for granted again." When I ventured out exploring on my red bicycle (looking much like the man in this photo) I learned to look backward every so often to help orient myself in new parts of the city. I was happy to find any landmarks--like a diagonal street--to find my way home.
This review (like American Fuji itself) is not what you'd expect, but I was charmed by Brittany Holman's direct, impassioned style. It's so rewarding to get support from others who have lived in Japan.
The Japanese New Year's Day tradition is to wake early (3-4 a.m.) and go to the nearest ocean to watch the sun rise. (It's not called "the land of the rising sun" for nothing.) I'm sorry to report I never observed that tradition, despite my best intentions. I set my alarm, but each year, the warmth of my futon won out over riding my trusty red bicycle to the coast in the dark and freezing night.
I moved my Japan slideshow to my website on the Bio page.
About the Author
Most Americans who move to Japan are already in love with their idea of Japan. My feelings were neutral. I had a fresh graduate degree and jobs for English majors were scarce. I was lucky to get a prestigious Visiting Professorship at a national Japanese university and I was up for adventure. I didn't know I would be the first woman and the first American to hold that job. I was in for more groundbreaking than I imagined, but while Japan's invisible expectations were stressful, my students made my job the most fulfilling one I've had. I wanted to show aspects of Japan I hadn't found in books written by men (who experience an entirely different culture), but I didn't want to add to the cliche genre of personal memoir about gaijin in Asia. Fiction was the way I could show the humor and charm of a country that seems crazy and frustrating to a Western ex-pat. This blog explains how my actual experience informed my novel. Start by buying American Fuji and visit this blog for behind-the-scenes extras.