A comic author’s marketing techniques

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  • A Comic Author's Marketing Techniques

    S. S. Hanna

    What happens when an author undertakes a supplementary marketing campaign to uni- versity librarians? S. S. Hanna, the author of a comic account of finding a publisher, added to the efforts of the Iowa State University Press some communications of his own. The details of his campaign, and some of its results, are offered.

    T heir offer seemed harmless enough, but their timing troubled me. The folks at Iowa State University Press, publisher of my first book The Gypsy Scholar, offered a special 20 percent discount on the book, and they did so before the book was even six months old. Their move prompted me to write the director of the press: "I am pleased--I think--to notice that in your news- letter On & Off the Press, which arrived today, you're offering a twenty percent discount on The Gypsy Scholar. I trust you're doing this, not because sales are slow, but because you expect to sell a lot of copies, kind of like grocery stores do with turkeys around Thanksgiving."

    The Gypsy Scholar: A Writer's Comic Search for a Publisher universalizes the frolics and frustrations that most writers, professors, and creative artists ex- perience in marketing their work. I had assumed that the book would interest most college and university libraries and some public libraries, in that these libraries serve writers and scholars who are forever searching for publishers. For a good while, I wondered whether my assumptions regarding the book's audience were shared by librarians across the country. I resolved to find out and to act on my findings in a manner consistent with the book's comic dimensions. I was delighted when some librarians replied in kind.

    One day I went to our college library, tapped the "Display Send" command for all holdings of The Gypsy Scholar on the Online Computer Library Center (OCLC), and noted that the book was indeed in numerous libraries through- out the country. I also noted that some prestigious college, university, and public libraries did not have it, or if they did, they had failed to enter it into the OCLC system.

    I refused to blame the publisher for failing to bring the book to the attention of the appropriate librarians. Iowa State University Press did an excellent job in marketing the book--and, after all, the book was still very young. The press had sent prepublication review copies to several influential forums, and two of these--Publishers Weekly and Library Journal-gave the book positive reviews. The press, moreover, listed The Gypsy Scholar in a ten-book ad in the New York Times Book Review. The Chronicle of Higher Education, which had

    S.S. Hanna is the ex-head coach for women's soccer at Geneva College and author of The Gypsy Scholar. Address for correspondence: Geneva College, Beaver Falls, PA 15010.

  • 38 Book Research Quarterly / Summer 1990

    published an excerpt from the book's first chapter, featured the book in its "Footnotes" column, and did so by quoting passages from the book's ironic dimensions. (One of the quoted passages dealt with the attempts of two former colleagues who had tried to publish their dissertations with a univer- sity press in the Southwest: "One was accepted and published, and in five years it earned the author $123.29. The other doctoral dissertation was re- jected and returned, but it was returned damaged due to a fire at the press. Thanks to an insurance claim, the press enclosed a $300 check with the partly barbecued manuscript.") The press, as expected, listed the book in its spring catalogue and, in a later issue of the catalogue, highlighted the book by quoting from the reviews that the book had received. The press also spon- sored a special Christmas sale in which The Gypsy Scholar was featured, and later the press included the book in a brochure of seven recent and related titles that it had published.

    All these activities certainly helped sales. All were conventional approaches calculated to bring the book to the attention of librarians and other book buyers. Yet, some librarians had failed to isolate The Gypsy Scholar from that massive book-data pile that they receive daily; if they did isolate it, they failed to place it in the "to be ordered" stack. I desperately wanted the book to get into that stack. Indeed, all authors do, and though many make it, many more fail. I hoped to avoid the fate of the "many more."

    For days I wondered: "What could I do to bring The Gypsy Scholar to the attention of those librarians who had overlooked it? And how could I do that in a way that might lead them to order it?" I wanted to supplement--not supplant--what the publisher was doing. I had assumed that the publisher would continue pursuing conventional approaches to marketing the book, so I considered several unconventional approaches.

    One such approach dealt with a baseball-type cap. "These days," I rea- soned to myself, "a cap can transform a human head into a billboard, so what I really need to do is design and mass produce a cap with these words: 'THE GYPSY SCHOLAR ! READ IT.' I would also need to include the cap with a flyer on the book in a special mailing to librarians. Both items might, presum- ably, lead librarians to isolate The Gypsy Scholar from the book-data 'slush pile.'" My reasoning reached its climax when I told myself: "Since most librarians have families and since most caps these days are the adjustable type--one size fits all--the cap would have a substantial pass-on "wearship.'"

    After convincing myself of the merits of the cap idea, I investigated the price of a cap, compared that price to my 10 percent royalty on a $15.95 hardback book, and quickly "de-convinced" myself of the idea's merit. I con- sidered several other ideas from similar domains, but in the end drifted to- ward a somewhat conventional approach.

    I entered into my word processor a letter that offered a feel for the tone and style of the book; I printed that letter and enclosed with it a copy of the book's foreword, chapter titles, and the reviews from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal. Addressed to librarians by name, the personal form letter stated:

  • Hanna 39

    Dear Dr. Pleaseorder:

    Sitting in one of those Siamese benches (you know, the kind where opposing buttocks share a backboard) I sipped brown water--the restau- rant called it coffee--and isolated your name from a directory as the librarian to contact regarding my book The Gypsy Scholar: A Writer's Comic Search for a Publisher. The book is transforming me from a writer (one who corresponds with himself by enclosing the usual SARL, Self-Addressed Rejection Letter) into an author who is as unknown as Vanna White is known.

    Please consider reading the enclosed Foreword, chapter titles, and re- views. I hope these items lead you to decide that The Gypsy Scholar has got to journey from the warehouse of the Iowa State University Press to your shelves.

    The Gypsy Scholar is the only book in America that comes with a guaran- tee and a warning. The guarantee: "Fully guaranteed to make you laugh or your sense of humor back." The warning: "This book will self-destruct if the National Enquirer discovers Kafka.'"

    Cordially, S. S. Hanna

    P.S. Please consider the book for your library. If you already own it, you might wish to keep it in mind as a possible gift to a family member or a writer or a retiring employee or a professor who is about to perish for failing to publish--a poignant gift, perhaps.

    Under the cover letter, I placed the foreword, whose tone and style re- flected that of the entire book. Entitled, "PBS, Puffers, Harvard~ Termites, and Others," the foreword stated:

    All college professors would love to publish as often as animals mate on the nature programs of PBS television. Few professors do. Most plod along as learned hacks: obscure, undistinguished, but not unhappy. The few who do publish often practice a common ritual: they write books with forewords.

    Most books with forewords feature a puffer and a puffee. The puffer, usually a famous person, uses two pages to celebrate the greatness of a given book. The puffee, usually an unknown writer, uses two hundred pages to disprove that lofty estimate.

    At first I considered asking a famous puffer to write this foreword. Then I vetoed that idea and considered pivoting the entire foreword on a rejection letter that I had received from the Harvard University Press. In time, I chucked the Harvard idea and incorporated into the foreword a brief dialogue on writing that I had with a student of mine at Geneva

  • 40 Book Research Quarterly / Summer 1990

    College. The dialogue lasted for several days until one morning I walked up to my third-floor office in Fern Cliffe Hall, a Victorian clapboard structure erected in 1870, read the dialogue out loud, dramatized some phrases with those professorial whistle-grunt combinations, and con- cluded that the dialogue was as bad as it sounded. I tossed it and glanced at a plastered chimney planted near the center of the L-shaped, book- lined office. I paced the spacious office, stood in the alcoves of its arched windows, looked at the campus below, and decided to write another foreword.

    One day, "Termites in a Yo-Yo," an unpublished short story of mine that was searching for a publisher, came back with a note that read, "This is excellent, but it doesn't meet our current needs." I instantly thought of sending the rejecting editor another story with a cover letter that read, "The enclosed might meet your current needs. It's mediocre." Given the content and character of this book, I thought of focusing its foreword on these and other related letters.

    In time, I vetoed the "Termites" idea and reasoned: "Since excerpts from this book have originally appeared in Publishers Weekly and the Chronicle of Higher Education, then this book could be 'guilty by association' with these distinguished forums. These forums, in effect, could serve as its puffers. What remains for me to do is say in a few words what this book is about."

    Every year, many college professors and writers undertake the often frustrating search for book publishers. Few, however, write about their experiences in a l ight--and instructive--touch. This book attempts to do just that.

    It follows a two-part format. Part one abridges a nonfiction book manu- script that I had circulated to commercial houses, university presses, and literary agents. Part two reproduces and narrates--with a wink at the ironic--the numerous letters that I had sent and received on the manu- script. I abridged the manuscript to give the readers a feel for its contents and an opportunity "to play editor" with it. Indeed, the readers might enjoy comparing their estimates with those of established editors at var- ious presses.

    If this little book works, the readers should learn about a gypsy scholar teaching English, coaching football, and working at the writer's craft. If it works well, the readers should be entertained by a self-deprecating comic style. If it works extremely well, the readers should learn, smile, and smuggle away some clues on how to get their book-length manu- scripts professionally published.

  • Hanna 41

    One final--but crucial--note: I deeply respect the academic institutions where I had taught and coached and the book publishers with whom I had corresponded. I say this because the word "comic" in the book's subtitle might unwittingly blur that respect, a respect that I hope remains clear and strong throughout The Gypsy Scholar.

    Under the foreword, I placed the book's chapter titles, and I did that for two reasons: one, I felt the titles might offer the librarians an overview of the scope and contents of the book; two, I felt that the librarians working in the states that have entire chapters devoted to them might place the book in the "Must Order" category. The book's first part, entitled "'The Gypsy Scholar," has these titles:

    1. Indiana: Search for That First Job 2. Oklahoma: A Young Professor, A "Little" Magazine 3. Kansas: Coaching Football and Marketing Poetry 4. Pennsylvania: Clouds of the Golden Tornadoes

    The book's second part, entitled "'The Gypsy Manuscript," has these titles for the chapters and the afterword:

    5. The Commercial Side of Publishers Row 6. University Presses and Literary Agents 7. Publishers Weekly and Literary Suicide Afterword: Dropping Anchor at the Other Geneva.

    Reviews influence acquisition librarians. This much I knew. Accordingly, I enclosed reviews from Publishers Weekly and Library Journal. Both reviews had appeared before the publication date assigned to the book by the publisher. The unsigned Publishers Weekly review noted:

    This memoir of a young Ph.D's experiences in the 1970s, as he sought, obtained and fulfilled teaching jobs at three religious colleges in Okla- homa, Kansas and western Pennsylvania, was rejected by many trade publishers before it finally was taken up by a university press. Well written, fast paced, funny and enjoyable, it deserves a sizable audience. Hanna paints a humorous picture of educational and social conditions in small colleges, struggles for a livelihood in academia, problems of ap- pealing to jocks and other unwilling students of freshman English. Most delightful of all is his account of attempts to get his manuscript pub- lished. Readers of PW may recall his article "Looking for a Publisher" (Nov. 11, 1983), in which he cited the various responses he received from trade and university press editors. In this book he includes dozens of rejection letters, accompanied by ironic commentary.

    The Library Journal review, written by a librarian from the Miami University Libraries, Oxford, Ohio, stated:

  • 42 Book Research Quarterly / Summer 1990

    Not all is well in academe, as recent studies have shown. One problem is an oversupply of Ph.D.s, especially in the humanities, resulting in a new underclass of highly educated persons who find themselves either underemployed or going from one temporary teaching job to another. Such has been the experience of Hanna, who in this clever book tells of seeking a position teaching English in a glutted market, while trying to find a publisher for his manuscript "The Gypsy Scholar" (here finally published in an abridged version). The second half of the book provides, in equally witty prose, tips the reader won't find in such standard sources as Writer's Market. Letters of rejection to Hanna from a variety of pub- fishers serve as guide on matching manuscript with publisher. Recom- mended.

    Many librarians, I trust, ordered the book. Others must have ignored it. Some wrote back. Their responses fell into three categories: the kind, the gentle, the comic. In the following examples from each category, the inside addresses, dates, and names are omitted, but the rest of the letters are repro- duced verbatim. First, a kind letter:

    Dear Friend:

    Thank you very much for the review of The Gypsy Scholar: A Writer's Comic Search for a Publishe...

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