November 28th, 2012 / 1:39 am
Behind the Scenes

The Obsolescence of Publish or Perish: How To Get (& Keep) Attention

I found this article on Dalkey Archive & the Best Translated Book Award over at Writers No One Reads really interesting. While it’s an interesting case study in its own capacity, it really had me thinking about the issue of how so many books are published, yet, from what it seems, not that many books are being read.

The fact that even a “major” publisher of “smaller” works, such as Dalkey, doesn’t seem to have any idea how to advertise, has me really concerned– almost 13 years into the 21st century, where advertising has almost literally been the singular thing every human being has been and is repeatedly exposed to, why are we–as writers, publishers–so bad at it?

At one point in life it seemed a huge thing to get work published; it was certainly more difficult in the past, yet every day, with more and more journals & presses popping up almost daily, as well as the new affordable modes of large-scale self-publishing, being published seems to be incredibly easy–if you can write a book, you can probably publish it. But, if you can publish a book, that doesn’t mean that anybody is going to read it.

A little while ago, Mike posted that “social media isn’t a very good way to promote your book”. I don’t necessarily agree with him in any capacity, but it’s interesting to consider, because, really, what else do we have? I’m convinced that even when books are reviewed, very few people read the reviews. I know that often I won’t read a review of a book I haven’t read unless one of three things occurs: 1) I’ve heard of the book already and am interested in it, 2) The title or the cover is appealing & 3) I’ve heard the author mentioned somewhere else. So, I guess book reviews at least, to support an authors egotism, support the idea that their book has actually been read, but unless it’s a review that pops up in a very large venue, I can’t imagine they’re helping to sell books much. It’d be pretty awesome if someone were to prove me wrong.

But I’m just wondering, what the hell is the best way to sustainably advertise books? Reading tours? Book trailers? Posting your shit on Tumblr? Linking your books to your friends and family? I don’t know.

All of this seems related to another thing that I’ve been thinking about: How many small press books have staying power? We post links to shit that’s new, we review books right when they come out, but three years, one year, hell even six months later, do we think about these books at all? What can we do, in small press world (and I think there’s some sort of development happening in the world, thanks to the decentralizing nature of the internet [cough-the literary establishment no longer has any reason to remain in NYC-cough], that small press can eclipse big press, at least it should be able to, in terms of generating interest; with the internet we can and should be able to push our words past the realm of small press book readers; we should be able to appeal to any number of individuals of–fuck it, i’ll say it–markets, and demonstrate that we have something people are looking for. Whether or not any of this is true, well, I guess we’ll find out in years to come.

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  1. Kurt Brindley

      Writing really good shit that people (however one may choose to define them) want to read seems to be the best factor in determining what’s gonna be promotable and what isn’t. It pisses me off whenever I hear about the hapless writer who somehow figures out how to upload his just completed novel to amazon and then the next day it blows up the rankings. It’s all about the content, I’m resolved to guess.

      Good post.

  2. Ken Baumann

      I’m going to use numbers here because it’s late and I’m zonked.

      1. Time is the greatest hero and greatest villain to culture. 99%+ of what’s been published in the last ten years, small press or big press, is not going to be actively read in the future. Don’t think this changes with the more history-agnostic platform of the internet in any deep way, except for maybe a wider dispersion of niche audiences for single titles (what has already happened), and an expansion of culture’s “fat tails” — the stuff that, for whatever reason, gets found and revived blown the fuck up/finds a huge audience, will have an even larger potential audience as access to the internet expands.

      2. I chalk small publisher’s advertising inadequacy to two main reasons: they disdain advertising, and they don’t know how to sell shit/make shit look interesting. The whole “lack of resources” thing sorta goes out the window, as anyone with a web browser can find & see shit at whim — although, advertising campaigns do cost money, and money is something that most small presses don’t have (beyond production costs). I blame myself for the disdain of advertising thing, and have tried (with various shades of success) to circumvent that by promoting a book in a mysterious way (as with Mooney), or a way that fits the content (as with Confessions) or with a collaborative art project on the side (as with The Angel in the Dream of Our Hangover). But, as the super wise Mark Leidner once said — or said something like this — the poets of the future will master the poetry of advertising (HELLO STEVE ROGGENBUCK).

      3. The thing that I think THE MOST about is ecology. And, because I love and make and write and sell books, I think about the ecology of culture. I feel that’s something that isn’t considered; there’s a taboo to it. Every time I bring up the ethical implications of publishing something in this day and age — asking for attention (an increasingly strip mined resource) for a cultural object, let’s say a book, amid the hundreds of thousands of books IN ENGLISH published EVERY YEAR — let alone the massive treasures of past, time-tested classics, works in translation, etc. — every time I bring this up, the artist I’m talking to sort of blanches, scared of the idea’s inevitable conclusion — that, right now in America, as an American, HELL, even as a white dude that’s not a criminal or radical dissident or that doesn’t totally inhabit some fringe of society that is underrepresented in literature — that maybe publishing is unethical. Ecologically wasteful. Etc.

      4. It all boils down to suicide. Silence. Omission. (Fucking Camus was no dummy.)

      5. I’ll start to slow down here, and just sum up the only stuff that is empirically true to me, all that subjective glory — I write because I can’t help it, and I also love & fetishize literature and its capacities. I publish books because love & fetishize books, and I love supporting writers, and I love designing objects. I don’t LOVE selling objects, but I do love the response of a reader, and I understand that in order to grab that amazing, transcendant art-transformation (that AWAKENING, no less than an awakening), I have to sell some fucking books.

      6. Is it right? Who knows. We have not eyes long enough. I’ll leave the zooming out to the god I don’t claim to know a thing about, if there is one.

      7. In this way, we are all a bit reckless. But to know that, and to still pay as much attention as we can to what we do and how we do it, and most importantly, who we do it for… as transcendant as it gets.

  3. Jackson Nieuwland

      A book trailer has never convinced me to buy a book and I doubt that will ever change. I’m not opposed to them at all. I think that the good ones can be appreciated as works of art all on their own. Many of them are not exciting to me though.

      I think posting your shit on your tumblr is a good way to get people to buy. I think that if you want to sell books you need to develop an audience/fanbase beforehand, not expect one to appear once the book is out there. It’s not that great books won’t find an audience, it’s just that having a higher base level of support is going to mean a higher chance of the book catching on and a quicker spread if it does catch on. There’s no difference between a video going viral and a book becoming successful.

      I think that reviews/inteviews can still be a successful method of marketing, but one review is not enough. I became interested in Sheila Heti’s work after viewing an interview with her on this site, an interview with her on the Other People podcast, an interview with her on Bookworm, a post about her book on Vice, and a story of her’s being published on Muumuu House. I didn’t recognise her name when I saw the first few of these things and so I ignored them, but eventually my interest was piqued and I went back and looked at all of the previous coverage. I think if you’re going to use this kind of marketing, it’s important to create this kind of net of coverage that the audience will eventually be caught in

  4. Brooks Sterritt

      I’m not sure how long the Best Translated Book Award has been awarded, but if Dalkey has never won, then something is wrong. Maybe the track record is one of safe picks, so they pulled out with good reason. On the topic of “everything else,” it basically boils down to the fact that very few people in any field are remembered after their death, especially after the people who knew them are dead as well. :D

  5. rawbbie

      #3 for the win.

  6. rawbbie

      and #4 for the loss, absence, nothing

  7. Taylor Napolsky

      Posting what on tumblr? Your actual writing, like divided into chapters or sections day by day? Or talking about your book and advocating for it, or what? Sincere question.

  8. Taylor Napolsky

      what he said

  9. Taylor Napolsky

      I think it’s naive to claim small press or strictly Internet marketing can compete with big publishing. People should inspect the publishing industry more closely as a whole. Lots of book stores are starting to come around now that Borders and a bunch of other smaller stores have closed. The big publishers are combining and launching new lines to deal strictly with ebooks. They’re working their asses off to adapt. They’re starting self-pub businesses so they can rip off authors who can’t get book deals—that’ll mean more income. Some authors still get six figure deals.

      The dragon has not been slayed (if you look at it that way).

      Just wanted to put that perspective out there.

  10. Jackson Nieuwland

      A post talking about/advocating for your book isn’t going to go viral. If you’re trying to sell copies you want to post whatever will get the most attention. Unless you’re doing something controversial outside of writing, the writing itself is probably going to get your book the most attention.

      Post your actual writing. Your creative output. Your poems or stories or pictures or videos or essays or gifs or whatever. If you have something published somewhere repost it on your tumblr. Post some things on tumblr without trying to get them published elsewhere. I’m not saying put your whole book online but give people a taste. Let people get to know your work. This takes time but some of those people will begin to care about your shit and might even pay for it somewhere down the line.

      I buy a lot of books published by small presses. I buy almost all of these books over the internet. I can’t flick through the books and read a few pages before paying for them. In order to see what sort of writing the writer is writing before spending money on something I look online, if I can’t find any of their stuff I’m probably not buying anything

  11. Jackson Nieuwland

      There’s also the matter of distribution as marketing. Big publishers have their books in all the stores (their books are also usually more prominently displayed in the stores. Do they pay bookstores for this?). Of course this is going to mean they sell more

  12. Taylor Napolsky

      “I buy almost all of these books over the internet. I can’t flick through the books and read a few pages before paying for them.”

      You can actually do that if the book is on Amazon, easy as pie to read the first few pages.

      But not all books are on Amazon, and anyway I get your point. This is good advice. I guess I never thought of it that way.

  13. Taylor Napolsky

      Yeah really the list goes on and on if you want to talk about advantages major publishers still have.

  14. Jackson Nieuwland

      Many small press books aren’t on Amazon and many of those that are don’t have the ‘look inside’ feature enabled

  15. JosephYoung

      adam robinson sometimes talks about the 5 pops principal [i think it’s ‘pops’ or something similar], where a thing–like a book–has to catch a person’s eye 5 times before that person is moved to act. that is, they see a review, a thing on facebook, a book trailer, two more things, and then it catches the attention and can move someone to buy, or at least look into it more closely. that thing about cultural ecology though, yeah definitely. and yet, it’s what humans gotta do, make stuff.

  16. Kurt Brindley

      Jesus. I can only wonder what your output would have been if it had been early and you weren’t zonked. Good stuff, regardless.

      As for your 1A., reader reviews on Amazon are helpful…if you can get enough of them built up to make a dent on anyone’s attention. It’s hard to get someone to take the time to put down coherent thoughts about what they just read. They gotta be really motivated to fire up the computer, drive to amazon, find the review page…and on and on…you get the point.

      Again, good reply.

  17. Johannes Goransson
  18. Michael Fischer

      Meh, it’s always been extremely difficult to convince people to devote several hours/days to read a book. Not much has changed, other than writers becoming more starved for attention and affirmation thanks to the Internet and our culture’s obsession with fame and celebrity. The Internet’s mere existence doesn’t entitle you to anything. Most books have never had staying power, and the assumption that the Internet can somehow correct this historical reality is troubling.

      You write because you love literature and books and want to contribute to the conversation, and it’s myopic to assume that you need to be widely read or popular to contribute to the conversation. Writing and reading are solitary activities, and thank God Facebook and Twitter didn’t exist when Emily Dickinson was alive.

  19. PHC

      lol thank god

  20. Michael Fischer


      I’m not sure why the site removed your post (or didn’t approve it), but to respond to your belief that my post is romantic and reductive, I disagree: “you” either loves books and literature or you don’t, and I never said loving books and literature precludes seeking payment, more than I emphasized what matters most.

  21. Tim Jones-Yelvington

      Hi Johannes,

      The chitinous piece is an all-time favorite of mine. I think Bug Time is a wonderful strategy for writing and reading, but not so much for distribution and dissemination. I love nothing more than creating and talking w/ y’all, but if I am truly honest with myself, my ambition is to be consumed by a much broader audience than anything the small press scene can provide me right now. I am happy to be a glorious flare-up and burnout, but if Imma be a bug, I wanna be the bug that pollinates every kinna flower in town.

  22. Matt Rowan

      I appreciate where you’re coming from with this, Mike. A lot of small press books have stuck with me. Despite that I write, I find the small press stuff resonates with me more than the big names of literature, whatever that is worth. Museum of the Weird, Scary No Scary, I Am A Very Productive Entrepreneur, Iceberg, Hot Pink (if McSweeney’s counts still), The Universe In Miniature In Miniature, Daddy’s, Piano Rats, Chicago Stories, Map Of The System Of Human Knowledge, Amazing Adult Fantasy, Revelation, Us, and really more than I can count have had a huge impact on me, much more than a lot of other books. These books aren’t very old, but I’d wager (since I already do) they’re books I’ll keep going back to and looking at in different ways.

  23. Erik Stinson

      losing things – forgetting them, not paying attention to stuff, disappearing into history – are all really healthy and chill behaviors that i would just embrace and not problematized

      i charge people $400/d to help them advertise their crap but (and?) i don’t really have the same level of interest in ‘advertising’ my own stuff – it’s ok to just relax and let things fade away

      ~ ken’s 4th point i guess

  24. Mike Meginnis

      I’ve talked enough about marketing in the last little while to get tired of my own voice, here and elsewhere, but I will go ahead and express my opinion that the vast majority of small press stuff is unbearably dull. Of course, the majority of everything is dull, but small press stuff is mostly somehow even more boring than other stuff.

      Why? Because people are trying to get laid. Because of a lack of ambition. Because of laziness. Because people confuse “being able to articulate a reason why anybody would want to read your goddamn book” with “selling out.” Because people really do mostly publish their friends. Of course, people tend to make friends with each other on the basis of mutual admiration (this is certainly the main reason I have friends who also publish me — it’s not my winning personality) but the fact remains. I suspect the small press “scene” has quieted down some of late because people basically accepted this. The books just aren’t that good. And I don’t say that out of grumpiness, but as someone who really wishes they were.

      I suspect that if they were better, they would also sell better. (Some will answer that plenty of great books don’t sell. True! But they would sell more if they weren’t impossible to distinguish, at arm’s length, from the super-boring stuff their presses also publish, and which the “community” also promotes.)

  25. Kurt Brindley

      Yeah, I don’t know what happened to my reply either. It was there and then it was gone.


      “You write because you love literature and books and want to contribute to the conversation…”

      This article is about the concept of marketing books…to sell them…to make money. Profundity and obtuseness are well and good and “contribute to the conversation” nicely…and small presses love to publish stuff of the same so they publish a lot of it. And it doesn’t sell. And the writer of this article began this article expressing his concern regarding “The fact that even a “major” publisher of “smaller” works, such as Dalkey, doesn’t seem to have any idea how to advertise…” the profound…and usually boring…stuff they publish.

      And it’s okay. There’s a need for what small publishers do. And there’s need for what you say all writers (which is what I interpret your “You” to allow for–all writers) do, which is write because they/you love literature etc. Of course it’s not true. Maybe some writers write because they can’t do anything else. It’s the only way they know how to best put food on their table. Who knows.

      But there is a need for such wild-eyed, romantic thinking. And thank you for thinking so.

      Now, just tell us how to market that line of thinking so it sells.

  26. Taylor Napolsky

      oh I didn’t realize that

  27. HolidayInnExpress

      The article is about the concept of marketing books…written by a writer who devotes much space to the ways writers market (or are expected to market) their own books, which is important to note. The writer also discusses small presses that publish literary fiction, and most literary writers cannot live off their writing alone, so they are surely doing something else, unless they are homeless.

      Anyway, writers are–first and foremost–writers, not publicists, so I’m not sure we disagree here. Earlier, you wrote that the writer’s primary obligation should be to “write good shit.” Again, not sure where or how we disagree, since I’m basically saying the same thing. I’m also not sure how my thinking is “wild-eyed and romantic,” since anyone who writes “good shit” usually loves writing and reading. The writer’s first and most important commitment is always the creation of his work, not its marketability, and I have to question a writer (not the one writing this article, btw) who is more concerned with authorship, marketability, how others perceive him, popularity, etc. I have to question his artistic commitment. If such a position is wild-eyed and romantic, then the opposing position is incredibly myopic.

  28. Johannes Goransson

      I don’t think of it as a strategy so much as a way to rethink this model – “sustainable” by the market place, by the canon committee. / Johannes

  29. Kurt Brindley

      I agree we’re in agreement and more than I’m sure you could/would imagine.

      I tend to get a little nauseously reactive to broad, sweeping, celestial You and We statements.

      But don’t mind me. Stay your romantic, questioning, hyperopic you. It’s important to Us that you do. Seriously.

      [though I do rhetorically wonder why you are so quick to declare that the writer of this instigating article is not in question when you say you have to question a writer who is more concerned with authorship, marketability, how others perceive him, popularity, etc…isn’t he the one who got us started on this marketing/social networking spewing bullshit?]

  30. Michael Fischer

      Yes, I understand how cynical people are today, compared to the past, so that any comment highlighting a passion–or L-O-V-E- –for books immediately becomes suspect and chalked up as new age sorcery or celestialism.

      You might be right in your second paragraph. The writer also recently blogged about the relative worthlessness of lit magazines because they’re not widely read. It’s a strange turn of events for a writer who seems to embrace the experimental or avante garde–to spend so much energy on equating worthiness with capital or popularity.

  31. M. Kitchell

      as a writer I’m satisfied with my work being out in the world at all, and the minute level of appreciation it has seen. as a writer i really honestly would like my work to spread beyond the myopia of the small press world, because if i insisted otherwise it would be insisting that my writing truly has nothing to say.

      as a publisher i’m more concerned with advertising. as a reader i’m the most concerned, perhaps, as probably 50% of my favorite books sold horribly, undoubtedly lost their press money, and are now out of print and virtually inaccessible. my insatiable nature as a reader, tied up with the fact that i’m also a publisher and writer, are why these ideas get brought up on a blog that’s been staring into its own asshole for years now–& no offense to anybody involved, but let’s be real, some bullshit post about anything remotely related to tao lin garners 30000 comments [side note: maybe the best way to advertise books is to develop a rapid and naively adolescent following], while a well thought-out book review (i’m not inherently referencing my own reviews here) barely can get a single comment. why?

      if you don’t care if anybody reads your books outside of other writers, why are you bothering to publish your book, why not just print it out at the library and send it to who you want to read it. the entire idea of publication is, partially, to spread the work to people who otherwise would not have access to it.

      also, if you’d paid attention to basically anything i’ve posted here in the last 3 years i’ve been contributing here, you’d’ve noticed that these two posts are really not my operating motivation, rather it’s a result of frustration. you’ll also notice that my last post was not actually bemoaning that nobody reads lit magazines, but rather my last six posts–barring my snide commentary on how everyone somehow still thinks that NYC is the center of the ‘literary world,’ which is highly myopic because it’s first and foremost proclaiming an idea that America matters more than anywhere else when it comes to lit– are five book reviews & one post proclaiming the freedom that self-publishing can offer and the sense of community that the small press “scene” can garner.

  32. Michael Fischer

      Nothing you express here is new: you’re bitter. Welcome to the club. Have a seat and let’s talk about how we’re all underappreciated geniuses who deserve three-book deals with Random House.

      When we’re done with that, we can discuss how any publication that falls short of the best seller list is a failure, and how we would’ve been better off self-publishing our work, rather than going with a reputable small press that’s respected by agents and editors at larger houses that could possibly lead to a bigger deal down the road, because we are owed everything right now, dammit!

  33. Kurt Brindley

      So, I just read a mildly interesting article on the Harvard Business Review blog ( about how big business is very apt at using social media to market their shit, yet, non profits and other orgs and individuals who want to get the word out about good causes — awareness campaigns, charitable donations, etc. — aren’t. The author speculates that reason is (and I’m paraphrasing severely here) probably because those who are of the idealistic sort, who think they are working for an altruistic good, believe “marketing” is only for those vile and bloated entrepreneurs; that if they were to muss it up within that fray, it would take away for their grander purpose…or some bullshit like that.

      Which, obviously, got me to thinking about this intriguing and instigating article of the Impossible Mike’s.

      It is evident to me that there is a type here that we can point to; that the marketing mentality of those of the small/indie presses and those of the npo world are similar.

      And we see that same type expressed in some of the comments in reply to Mike’s post.

      And they –with their high ideals, ideals so high they can barely see when looking down their noses the rest of us wallowing in our base ideals of marketability and profitability– make me chuckle.

      They’re so cute…and pricklish…actually, they can be somewhat annoying.

      Because why write — I mean serious writing — unless you want to be read?

      I think all writers, regardless their high ideals and contrary to what they may say, want to be read, and to be liked, and to get a little coin for their effort.

      So promote…and do it any and all ways you can, that’s what I believe. We’re fortunate as writers to live in such a free and empowering age.

      And because I love you guys (that’s a non-gender-specific “guys”) (and that’s a pure, platonic love, btw), you writers encompassing all points of the idealistic spectrum, I offer you a free copy of my novel The Sea Trials of an Unfortunate Sailor, a tale about the harsh realities of life in the navy during the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell era.

      You can redeem my love for you right here.

  34. Michael Fischer

      Man, are you serious? Good small presses market the hell out of their titles and are staffed by PR savvy staffs who bust their asses to promote. The argument that they are failing because people aren’t talking in the streets about 2010 Coffee House titles is absurd. The argument that no one cares about small press literature based on the lack of comments below an HTMLGiant book review is even more absurd, primarily because it’s difficult to discuss a book review, unless it’s highly provocative (e.g. William Giraldi’s justifiable shredding of Alix Ohlin). What are people going to say in response to the average book review?

      It’s also not idealistic, snooty, or high-minded to distinguish books from shoes, plastic toys, and miscellaneous gadgets sold at WalMart. Most writers have a web presence and do the best they can to promote their work, but–again–they are promoting literature, not useless crap/junk, and it’s silly to pretend like books aren’t unique compared to the average product hawked and sold in the US.

  35. Kurt Brindley

      Someone’s ears must have been burning.

      And, yes, Mr. Fisher, I’m serious, albeit in an hyperbolical and sardonically ironical kinda way.

  36. Michael Fischer

      Yeah, but I sense you’re throwing crap against the wall here. So small presses don’t know what they’re doing, even when the evidence clearly suggests otherwise? Many small presses publish established writers alongside emerging writers and bring home major awards and/or finalist nods.

  37. Kurt Brindley

      This article isn’t about awards, it’s about marketing. I wonder how many small press authors are also working day jobs, perhaps several of them, so they can exist materially while expressing themselves literature-ally.

      Look, Michael, you’ve made your point that your smart and well read and deep into the intellectual scene and I seriously commend you for your efforts and interests, but I wonder, did you read the HBR article I referenced?

      My inane post aside, do you not see any relation/comparison between what that article is attempting to do and what this article is attempting to do?

  38. Michael Fischer

      Are you new to this “scene”? There is a relationship between marketing and awards. One reason why small press titles have been represented well lately in the major awards is because of the marketing and PR work of small press staffs. As for your comment about day jobs, I don’t see how that’s relevant.

      And no, I haven’t read the HBR article–don’t need to, either, since no one here has presented a compelling case that small presses are failing to promote effectively.

  39. Kurt Brindley

      I agree with your point that awards can potentially help with marketing efforts, as long as they’re effectively employed. And since you think you have a complete and comprehensive grasp of “this ‘scene'” and require no further expansion, there is no need for further discussion with you.

  40. Michael Fischer

      You still fail to grasp my point about marketing and awards Let me rewrite what I wrote above: “One reason why small press titles have been represented well lately in the major awards is because of the marketing and PR work of small press staffs.” In other words, those titles were considered because of the buzz created by librarians and reviewers, which isn’t possible without a lot of hard promotional work–on the ground–by small presses. I’m not talking about post-nomination or award-winning benefits. I’m talking about getting nominated in the first place.

      If you and others are going to argue that small presses are failing to promote effectively, you need stronger evidence than the number of likes on an HTMLGiant book review, or the lack of water cooler chat about books published six months ago.