How Not to Market a Book

My mother’s sister Mary and her husband, Bogdan, a career Air Force man who immigrated from Poland after World War II, lived in New Jersey about an hour outside Philly. I knew there were pockets of Polish communities in the area, and I identified a Philadelphia library branch in the area of the city that was historically Polish. My first book had just been published, in 2005, A Polish Son in the Motherland, and I had already had some success with talks and book signings in communities in Chicago, where I lived, and in Michigan, where I was born and grew up, as well as Polish towns in Texas and Wisconsin, so it seemed logical to try a similar setting in Pennsylvania.

I really built my aunt and uncle up for the event. My uncle in particular seemed surprised that this nephew, of all his nephews, would decide to write about Poland and actually manage to get a book published. I wanted to show him off too; he was, after all, authentically Polish, having been born in the motherland. His Polish accent alone, gave me more confidence in my own authenticity, even though, until middle age, I never gave much thought to my own Polishness.

The day of the program, Uncle Bogdan emerged from his bedroom decked out in his blue Air Force uniform, his insignias labeling him “Chief Master Sergeant, E9.” He told me this was the “highest ranking a noncommissioned officer could achieve.” On his chest he wore his medals. “I was in the military during the Cold War,” he hastened to explain, “so no hero medals.” Two other badges signified that he had worked in the areas of “engines and rockets” and “intelligence.” I wanted to joke about “military intelligence” as an oxymoron, but he was so resplendent in his uniform, that he took all the wind out of my sails. Uncle Bogdan had escaped communist Poland, established himself as an American, and eventually brought most of his siblings and his mother to the States.

We arrived at the library early, having no idea how long it would take to cross the bridge from New Jersey into Philadelphia. We walked around the old brick building, impressed by its size and marveling over what it must have been like back in the day. We kept our eyes open for a Polish grocery store and, finding none, entered the library.

It was immediately clear to me that the library staff did not even know I was scheduled to speak. A few young people were scattered around the enormous reading room, doing homework mixed with a little horsing around. Unlike other venues I had visited, there were no signs announcing the program, no room set-up, no coffee, no cookies, no anything.

At long last the head librarian appeared, the one with whom I had made arrangements. “Well, I don’t know if anybody is coming,” she offered, with an I-am-so-overworked sigh, one I had heard from other librarians who seemed to feel saddled with an unwieldy building, a burdensome workload, too many hours and too few staff. She grimaced and looked at me as if she had not had time to prepare for work in the morning and was disgusted that her chosen polyester pants did not fit right anymore.

When I asked where the program was to be held, she waved her hand and said, as if the answer had just occurred to her, “Oh, over there,” pointing to the opposite side of the room. She marched over and started pulling a few chairs and a podium into place. She invited the young people to be the audience. “There’s a program over here,” she called to them. What a publicity machine, I marveled. 

What bothered me was not so much the fact that I was likely going to play for an empty hall, but that I had invited my family to hear me talk about this journey of discovery I had made in Poland, and to hear other people talk about their own families, as had happened in every other library where I had appeared. Now, there we were in this massive room with my aunt, uncle, and cousins seated and waiting for the show to begin. One teenager dragged himself to a seat and stared with a blank expression. We waited until fifteen minutes past start time and finally one woman rushed into the room apologizing for being late.

I did not know what to do, so, not wishing to appear ungrateful for this marvelous opportunity to speak to an empty room, I forged ahead with my speech. The young man, who had seated himself in the front row, got up and walked back to the distant other half of the room to join his friends in conversation more to his liking.

At the end of the program fiasco, I offered the librarian one of the copies of my book that I had brought for sale and signing. I think she said “thanks,” but I can’t remember for sure.

Books take many months to go from manuscript to publication, and during that period, I had given a lot of thought to marketing the book and enjoying an opportunity to meet people who would read it. When I was young, I never saw myself as much of a salesman. Incapable of it, I thought, associating salesmanship with the slick door-to-door Electrolux vacuum cleaner salesman and the fast-talking peddler who showed up now and then at our farmhouse in Michigan during my childhood. As a freshly minted librarian in my twenties, I had the sanctimonious idea, widespread in the profession, that I was somehow above all the marketing and salesmanship that was implied when some librarians started referring to library patrons as customers.

When I went to work for the American Library Association on the editorial staff of American Libraries magazine, a conversion began. Gradually, I started to find it easier to talk with our advertisers than our writers. I had not yet published a book of my own, nor had I traveled the world as a spokesperson for libraries. All of that was yet to come, and it would only reinforce the inklings I was beginning to inkle.

The conversion culminated in a steak house during a 2004 international conference in Buenos Aires, Argentina, with the CEO of one of our best advertisers. He had just backed away from a very big deal that involved a public relations campaign to put libraries, particularly public libraries, into their rightful place in the consciousness of America.

“I simply cannot deal with those people,” he confided, speaking of the librarians and public relations people he had dealt with to get the marketing campaign off the ground. I recognized my old attitudes in his every assertion. He was smooth and practical, debonair and smartly dressed, and I realized that he was confiding in me because I no longer exhibited the dour self-righteousness he had come to expect from librarians. He also smiled a lot and could talk about any topic—sports to music—with the kind of confidence sometimes lacking in library staff—a shortcoming often drawn to my attention by friends who visited their public library, especially in big Rust Belt cities like Detroit and Cleveland, even St. Louis, Washington, and Philadelphia.

Back to Argentina. My friend the CEO ordered his steak medium rare. I ordered mine scorched, the Polish style I was raised on. Both steaks were brought to the table together exactly as ordered, and I wondered by what miracle of timing the guys at the grill, which was open for all to see, could have engineered so perfectly what two American businessmen wanted.

American businessmen. Librarian that I was, I finally understood that I was a businessman. It also seemed to me that I was not a very good one, but as librarians went, I was probably in the top ten percent. I was not at the mercy of a board of trustees, nor was I under the thumb of taxpayers, but in a membership organization I was obligated to act in the best interests of the members who laid down their hard-earned dues every year to support a national voice that would stick up for them and not for some corporate interests.

“The business of America is business,” said President Calvin Coolidge, an assertion that I resented, but an assertion the notoriously dull 30th American president (Dorothy Parker is said to have remarked when told he had died, “How can they tell?”) seems to have made based on an epiphany similar to mine.

A few drinks later, my CEO friend and I were naming names, laughing at outrageous moments of librarian obstinacy, and wondering how big the bigger picture had to be before you could get people to see it. If unscrupulous companies can do business with terrorists, with genocidal tyrants, with war mongers, why should there be such resistance to a company attempting to sponsor a public relations campaign aimed at getting people to use their libraries?

Watching entertainers dance the tango in the streets, crossing the river for a day in Uruguay, strangely a sense of just exactly what public relations and marketing had to do with books. If Evita can sell laundry soap, I’ll bet I can sell some books.

After that dinner in Argentina, I visited the Museo Evita in Buenos Aires. Talk about a public relations genius. Evita Peron was almost as good as Madonna, who portrayed the Argentine First Lady in the 1996 film based on her exploits. Evita’s popularity rested strongly on blurring the line between entertainment and politics. Instead of “Don’t cry for me, Argentina,” I began singing, “There is no soap, no soap like Zaz, no detergent, lotion, or oil with such power in the shower. It’s the mother and father of luxury lather….”

As I wandered through the museum, there appeared a woman being guided through in Spanish by a much younger woman. The older woman was fashionably dressed, by standards twenty years past, in a tailored suit and by my quick calculation was about as old as Eva Peron would have been had she not died in 1953 at the age of 33. The woman had a regal air about her, her gray hair teased and sprayed to perfection. Suddenly she saw me looking at her, staring at her to be precise, and before I could pretend I wasn’t, she raised her hands in the style of Eva and said in that familiar chant, “Peron! Peron! Peron!” She aimed a sly style at me.

The year after my Argentina visit, when I published my memoir, A Polish Son in the Motherland: An American’s Journey Home, I was told by my academic publisher that there was no budget for publicity, but there would be people to help me with whatever author signings or appearances I could arrange for myself. Having been a publisher, first of poetry chapbooks in the 1970s and then of professional writing in American Libraries, I was totally sympathetic. I was as keen an observer as anyone of the ebbing away of independent bookstores, of publishers’ dependence on blockbuster bestsellers, and the shift toward author programs in libraries.

I embarked on a book tour of my own design, with the full cooperation of the intern Texas A&M University Press assigned, with the endorsements of other writers including old author friends Stuart Dybek and Elizabeth Ehrlich, with reviews in all the library sources—Library Journal, Booklist, Publishers Weekly, in short all the reviewing sources we are told to believe in if our books are to be read. I did everything right, the result of years of learning what “everything right” was.

Oh, let me back up just a bit. In order to get a review in the rival publication Library Journal, I had to call the editor, a colleague, and lay a guilt trip on him about how I could not believe that a library magazine would take a pass on reviewing a memoir by a librarian. He assured me that he would check into it. The review appeared soon after, calling the book “a charming and novel-like memoir.”

Librarians, me included, were as interested in best-selling authors of the moment. In meetings with publishers who were eager to provide speakers for American Library Association conferences, I was every bit as taken in as any HarperCollins publicist by celebrities. Here I was, offered interviews with Julie Andrews, Marlo Thomas, Garrison Keillor, Amy Sedaris, people who had influenced me and countless librarians with their great performances. I jumped at the chance.

I learned that follow-up is everything. So many celebrity library lovers were slipping through our fingers because we did nothing to keep them in the fold. “What would you like me to do?” Julie Andrews said to me. Because I would not let go of her, she followed up with a public service announcement done at her own expense, a letter to the editor of the Los Angeles Times backing library funding, an op-ed piece in American Libraries, and chairmanship of National Library Week in 2008. Quid pro quo, I later endorsed Raising Bookworms, a book by her daughter Emma Walton Hamilton, whom I had met during the American Library Association conference in Washington D.C. in 2007.

By then, I was well into my own personal book tour. It started in Chicago and I tried to keep track of it as if it were some media event that no one in America would want to miss.  It really was the biggest adventure of my life, beginning with an interview with Donna Seaman on her excellent but little appreciated public radio show called Open Books, where she called my book “literary nonfiction.” I traveled to Polish communities in Wisconsin. Librarians in Wisconsin Rapids and Stevens Point and other historically Polish communities seemed to know more about marketing than my publisher. It was so simple, they seemed to be saying. People will want to read your book for a reason. They will not want to read your book if the have never heard of it. We are developing a community network separate from television and the internet.

I discovered a lot about the state of university presses during the publication of my book. The manuscript was given a light going-over by an editor hired by Texas A&M University Press. I hired my own indexer and proofreader. I felt that A Polish Son in the Motherland was the one important book I had in me, despite my inability to self-edit and my impatience with fact-checking and indexing.

My experience with a book tour was unlike that of more successful writers, like Ann Patchett, who writes about the topic eloquently in “My Life in Sales,” a chapter in her book of essays, This Is the Story of a Happy Marriage.

I orchestrated my entire book tour, trying to coordinate visits with friends and relatives, using my year’s worth of vacation days. Mostly, my talks were daytime programs at libraries, with lots of Polish Americans, mostly elderly in attendance and ready to talk about their own families and the delightful tales of immigration and assimilation they had grown up with. Most memorable, however, was the fiasco in Philadelphia.

Much later, I would look back on the day with regret and a little anger, regret that I had not simply said to the librarian, “Since we have no audience, let’s all go out to dinner. We could have taken the tardy lady with us. When I finally did move away from the podium and sat in a folding chair next to her, it became clear that she had plenty to say about her family’s immigrant experience, and she and my uncle had a nice chat about his escape from Poland after World War II and his American military career.

The librarian came to represent every librarian I had ever known who saw herself as a victim–in charge of a faded edifice, a meager book budget, and patrons asking stupid questions. I wish I could have taken her by the shoulders and shaken some sense into her. I wished that I could have somehow made her see that she was in charge of a glorious historic building, a budget that should no longer be thought of as applying only to book buying, and patrons desperately in need of guidance. Little did she know that almost a decade into the 21st century, libraries were about to experience their highest usage rates ever, contrary to the perception that the internet, online retail, ebooks, and chain bookstores somehow meant doom for libraries. The up side of every perceived challenge to libraries, was the opportunity it represented. That is because there is no other institution in the country or the world, for that matter, that does what libraries do.

My Philadelphia experience, where there was neither publicity nor follow-up, made me think again about the advice “Run it like a business.” Not long after that debacle, the American economy took a nosedive, and we all started looking at just exactly how poorly certain businesses had been run in this country. A more important question we all should have been asking ourselves is “Run it like what business?”  Let’s say, oh, Amazon for one. Google and not Enron.

Years later, I can buy discarded library copies of A Polish Son in the Motherland on Amazon that appear never to have been read. I keep looking for the copy I donated in Philadelphia to show up in my mailbox. It hasn’t yet.

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