When I was ten, I wanted to publish a book. I knew plenty of adults who had published books, and I fancied myself a writer beyond my years. I had even begun a book: a noir thriller about a cat-and-mouse struggle between a gumshoe named Roy Marlow and a villain named Bordeaux, whose henchmen used guns loaded with bullets inscribed with the symbol of their evil syndicate (though they mostly used crossbows). With loads of objectivity, I had compared the beginnings of my book with an early story, written at about my age, by an author whose later works I had on my bedroom shelf. That story was called “The Last Gunfire,” a western written in huge pencil letters on three or four pages of elementary-school-ruled newsprint. Compared with “The Last Gunfire,” “Bordeaux” was killer. I was sure of it. I was ready to talk to publishers.
I had pressed my dad into service as my advisor in this venture, but fired him, because I thought his one suggestion was stupid. He thought I should finish the book, and take it down to Alpine Copy, run off twenty copies of the manuscript, and bind the whole thing together with brads between hand-drawn construction paper covers. He thought I should sell copies around the ward. My vision was bigger than that. And, of course, “Bordeaux” went unfinished and unpublished (though I still occasionally read the couple of typewritten pages of the book’s beginnings to my kids on Family Night, which they occasionally enjoy. Occasionally.)
I was frustrated with my dad’s suggestion because putting a book together in my bedroom and selling it to my neighbors didn’t seem like a grown-up thing to do (“no, Dad,” I said. “I’m talking about a real, professional book. Don’t you get it?”) What didn’t occur to me was that Dad’s suggestion wasn’t just a condescending pat on the head. As a kind of itinerant folk singer, it was the way he’d been doing business as grown-up for years. He had albums in stores, of course, put there by an actual distributor with an actual warehouse and an actual receptionist. But he moved a lot more albums door-to-door than Covenant Communications ever moved through their machinery. And those door-to-door albums got remembered (as a musician myself, I never perform anywhere in the country without someone approaching me with a story about the door-to-door musician who sold him or her an album in college). Dad’s motto might well have been, “Never be afraid to think small.”
As a grown-up, I’ve published stuff and I’ve sold stuff. Mostly recordings. And I’ve gotten past some of the gatekeepers that I always wanted to get past (people with warehouses and receptionists). But the marketing strategies that have worked the best for me have really always been strategies that don’t involve the gatekeepers at all. I might have begun to learn that at ten, had I not been too proud to sell a book between construction-paper covers to my neighbors.
Instead, I had to learn it as a grown-up, on a weekend of some recent summer. On the Friday of that weekend, my friends and I opened for Toto, before a crowd of about 2,500 people (The concert consisted of two hours of 2,500 fans screaming “Play ‘Africa!’”). 2,000 of those people, probably, liked us. About 50 of those people loved us, and became core fans who’ll follow us anywhere. We sold a couple hundred bucks’ worth of CDs, and went home happy. The next night, on Saturday, a friend and I played a concert in someone’s backyard. About sixty guests. All sixty liked us. But about fifty of them, probably, loved us, and became core fans who’ll follow us anywhere. We sold a couple hundred bucks’ worth of CDs, and went home happy. For us, the net mercenary gain was about the same at both concerts: the big summer concert that required some sort of nod from industry gatekeepers, and the little backyard show that we set up ourselves with a phone call or two.
I’ve come to know a little something about the care and feeding of a little indie music career that, by and large, bypasses the necessity of getting the nod from gatekeepers (labels, publishers, distributors, concert promoters, and the like). What does that sort of strategy look like for a writer? Frankly, if anyone’s willing to chime in, I’m interested in reading about guerilla strategies that have worked.