I open a battered copy of Leaving Little Havana. Projecting my voice over the noise of a restless and indifferent crowd jostling past a lineup of book vendors at the Brooklyn Book Festival, I yell: “Don’t you want a husband and a house?”
Standing my ground on a narrow stretch of sidewalk in front of the La Casa Azul Bookstore’s booth, I continue: “No. I want a fun filled and adventurous life.” These lines from my book stop a few people and wipe the bored look from the faces of others. Most move on.
Behind me, Nora de Hoyos Comstock, founder of Las Comadres Para Las Americas, waves a copy of my book over my head, shouting: “Buy it here! Buy it here!”
Jose Luis Orozco, an author participating in this impromptu, sidewalk reading, strums on his guitar and sings: “Guantanamera! Guajira! Guantanamera!”
This street performance is an example of the “guerrilla marketing” effective in today’s publishing world, where only a handful of publishers have the capital for promoting their authors, and hundreds of small presses compete for a share of a fickle, tight-fisted reading public. In this environment, guerrilla marketing ensures the author the only thing he or she can control: exposure. At this point, an author’s beloved book becomes an artifact, a product competing in the market with many others. What good is writing if no one reads your work?
After the reading, in a grassy spot behind La Casa Azul’s booth, I face the microphone of Nydia Marsella, a producer with HITN television, the Hispanic version of PBS. She is putting together a story of Latino authors at the fair. And I, thankfully, am part of the story, vying for exposure with a dozen other writers lined up behind me.
Interview finished, I dash down an alley to my publisher’s booth. Beating Windward Press is prominently displayed in white letters on a sapphire blue banner, and publisher Matt Peter’s books are spread out on one-third of a table.
My daughter, Alexandra, in charge for the duration of my street reading, hands out flyers urging readers to buy Matt’s diverse titles: Boat Girl: A Memoir of Youth, Love and Fiberglass by Melanie Neale, Doc Voodoo: Aces and Eights by Dale Lucas, American Fraternity Man by Nathan Holic, The Snuff Syndicate by Keith Gouveia.
I stand in front of the booth and flag down distracted passersby, pointing out the books and giving a quick elevator pitch about the contents of each, leaving mine for last. Then I close: “Will you buy my book?” Some say yes; others smile and walk away.
Ours is just one of a 1,000 booths at the Brooklyn Book Festival this weekend, but every single vendor is doing the same thing as I am. Maybe they are selling with a bit less intensity, but, hey, I worked in sales for a while, peddling pharmaceuticals to doctors and often bribing them to prescribe. I know what happens when you don’t meet a quota. You get fired.
No one is going to fire me for not selling books, but this exercise reinforces the fact that, once published, a book needs all the help it can get from the author, who really cannot afford to rush back to her desk – often in a lonely bedroom – and start writing another book. Today’s writers – even if published by top publishers — must embrace the function of a marketer. Find your audience, create a need, and promote, promote, promote.
With that in mind, why shouldn’t I give potential book buyers a hard close? And to help close a sale, you need sales aids.
- The Title: Selling Tool Number 1
The title is a way for readers to connect with the book. If you choose the right words, they pop up as keywords on the internet. It’s like a headline in a news story; it either grabs your attention or turns you off. I wanted the title to reflect the narrative, but I also wanted it to sell the book. We all agreed on the Leaving Little Havana part, but none of the subtitles seemed to work. Matt and I went back and forth, involving as many people as possible in the process: people in the street, friends, foes and relatives.
Finally, Dan Wakefield, my mentor, famous writer, and my MFA thesis committee member at Florida International University, came to the rescue and provided a catchy subtitle: A Memoir of a Rebel from Miami’s Little Havana. Something rang a bell, and, with a few pushes and pulls, Matt, Melanie (nonfiction editor), and I carved it down to: A Memoir of Miami’s Cuban Ghetto. Relief!
- The Cover: Selling Tool No. 2
Another agonizing choice. Matt sent me several options of the cover in different color schemes and with two different pieces of art work. I loved the orange to symbolize the fire inside the cover, but also the blue of peace finally achieved. I wasn’t too sure about the flamingos in one of the art pieces. I thought they were a cliché. Melanie: “I say we get rid of them.” Will McClendon, MFA wannabe: “Leave the flamingos alone. The cover is for the outside world.” Good advice. I stopped worrying about the flamingos.
What a cover! It screamed: “I’m HERE!” Who do I thank for that? The designer, Kristie Peters, and the artist, Victor Bokas. The cover is a major player in the sales process. It goes on your flyers, newsletters, press releases, on all your social media. It can also be your business card: that incredible little piece of cardboard that confirms the identity of…everything!
- Blurbs: Selling Tool No. 3
Book blurbs from influential people and published authors cannot be ignored. These all-important paragraphs prominently displayed on the first page of the book give a stamp of approval, helping you sell. I asked Guarione Diaz, President Emeritus of the Cuban American National Council; Ruth Behar, author of Traveling Heavy: A Memoir in Between Journeys; Virgilio Suarez, author of Latin Jazz; and my beloved professors, Dan Wakefield, Lynne Barrett and Les Standiford, and they graciously accepted the task.
- Readings: Selling Tool No. 4
Readers want to see you in the flesh. They want to talk to you, touch you, while you sign your book. Schedule readings in bookstores, college campuses, and any literary conference you can find. Contact community organizations and offer to read at their monthly lunch meetings. Go to every book fair imaginable, even as far away as Alaska, Spain, Germany, if your budget allows. Connect with your readers. Tell them why you wrote the book and why they should read it.
- Social Media: Selling Tool No. 5
In today’s social media atmosphere, replete with digital reading devices, the writer must design Facebook and Linked In pages, write a blog, post on Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest, and develop a Website. All of these can be linked together and updated regularly. Witty comments and tidbits of interesting info on your social media pages keep you connected with your readers and attract new ones. Goodreads, Book Bub, all digital book promotion sites, are indispensable. Warning: it’s extremely time consuming!
- Book Reviews: Selling Tool No. 6
Compile a list of print, blog and broadcast reporters. Send them a review copy of your book, a picture of yourself and a press release and ask if they will write a review and interview you. Try to get on your local radio station, local TV stations, the New York Times!! (haha), Booklist, Publishers’ Weekly, alumni magazines. There are many venues out there. Do your research. I’ve had reviews from The Florida Book Review and The Latin Post. And Latina Style magazine allowed me to write a column focusing on the themes in the book.
Am I nervous about getting negative reviews? Yes. But I won’t let them get me down. At least the naysayers felt something besides apathy and indifference, the worst feelings you can evoke if you want to sell a book. They’ve even interpreted the book for me in ways I had never considered. So I’m incorporating those fine-tuned lines into my sales pitches.
Why do I do all this work? Most writers will tell you their drive to write lacks pecuniary interest. Creating art is compelling and obsessive. Picasso and Matisse painted because they had to. Without their art, writers, musicians, painters, don’t function. For me, writing happened so I could go on living. Here’s the reason.
I want to be famous. As a television reporter, I know how it feels to be loved (and hated) by the masses. I loved when strangers stopped me in the street to ask: “Are you Cecilia Fernandez from Channel 7???” I sing karaoke, spotlight on me, and, when I traipse off the stage in some obscure, dark bar, my spirit soars when someone says: “Great song.”
George Orwell rates egoism as the number one reason for writing. In his essay “Why I Write,” he says the motive springs from the “desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death.”
Fame is my “American Dream.”
If you are a writer, a visual artist, a musician, incorporate guerrilla marketing into your daily activities. Always be on the lookout for the opportunity to sell your artistic product.
So now that you have read all that it takes to bring a book to market and put it in the hands of a reader, I hope you will buy it. I know you will love my book! Post your review on Amazon. It won’t take long! Help me spread the word!
Guerrilla marketing works.