Community Voices: Bordeaux and the Last Gunfire

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 And, of course, “Bordeaux” went unfinished and unpublished (though I still occasionally read the couple of typewritten pages of the book’s beginnings to my kids on Family Night, which they occasionally enjoy.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.

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16 Responses to Community Voices: Bordeaux and the Last Gunfire

  1. Th. says:

    .

    I think we’re all trying to figure that out because I suspect the future of publishing might look like your mix of Toto and backyard shows. He who guesses right and opens the right doors for a large number of people just might make a fortune.

    Oh, for some ambition!

  2. Sam,

    What you wrote sounds *exactly* like what my experience has been with [i]No Going Back[/i]. We had plans and hopes for getting it reviewed by major Utah newspapers. (No go.) We had plans and hopes of other kinds, most of which have also turned out to be disappointments.

    What has made a difference has been small, individual connections. Sometimes I feel like every single sale we’ve made can be traced back to someone I contacted directly. I contacted a lot of the little LDS book blogs, and many of them wound up reviewing my book. I sent out emails to people in the LDS gay/same-sex attracted community, offering free electronic review copies. (Electronic, because you want to avoid a lot of overhead when you’re doing direct contact and giving away free copies.) Chris and I ultimately contacted college newspapers, several of which did review NGB–both positive and negative reviews, but at this point very nearly any publicity is good publicity.

    And the results so far have been quite small. Maybe this means that I’ve missed some yellow-brick-road path that could have brought in big sales. Mostly, I think it just means that it’s very hard to sell marginal literature in the Mormon market: not just because of lack of interest (though that certainly could be a factor), but because even doing it via personal contact, there’s no easy way to reach the people who might want to read your work.

  3. Melinda W. says:

    I skipped the publisher step and put my entire novel on a blog. I wrote it as a serial, with chapters published twice a week. I took out ads for a couple of months, and then did some word of mouth advertising. With very little effort, I ended up with about 90 readers. Obviously I made no money at all, but the fact that 90 people (most of whom I didn’t know) were reading it was enough encouragement for me to finish it. I had people who checked in twice a week for the entire ten months that I was writing it. It was kind of frightening to put up a first draft for public consumption, but my readers were nice and I got some good comments.

    Here’s the first chapter: http://thejellobelt.blogspot.com/2009/05/chapter-one.html (then just click the "newer post" link at the bottom of each post to get to the next chapter if you want to read a few chapters.)

    I finished it a couple of weeks ago. I especially appreciated the comments about how realistic it was. I’d tackled a touchy subject (surviving sexual abuse), and I breathed a sigh of relief every time a commenter who had survived an assault would say that I’d gotten the emotions right, or she could completely identify with one of the protagonists. I got the most comments on a chapter about forgiveness that I feared was too preachy, but the people who commented said they loved the insights. So I left it preachy.

    It was so challenging and rewarding to do a serial novel online that I’m planning on doing it again. I’ll advertise more widely with the next one, now that I’m confident I can write for a deadline and actually finish a novel.

    Whether or not a real publisher ever picks it up is kind of a concern. But I can always try self-publishing. I guess it’s naive of me, but right now I want people to read my writing more than I want to have a book on the shelf. From what I’ve learned from discussions of Mormon publishing, most authors don’t make much money anyway.

  4. Mark Brown says:

    In Pocatello, an event called the Rocky Mountain Writer’s Festival has been going on for years – it started as one night of a bunch of friends getting together in a bookstore to read their work to one another. It grew and now lasts for a week with half a dozen readings at four or five different venues. Most years they’ll bring in an "established" writer who has a book or three published with a warehouse-and-receptionist entity. But the most exciting part is the last night of readings that begins at four or five in the afternoon with a big potluck and tables and tables of handmade/self-published/indie/startup books for sale. I loved seeing the variety of books laid out on those tables and I loved being able to pick up something new and wonderful for just a couple of dollars. What these local Pocatello poets were doing with photocopiers and laser printers and self-promotion was so much more exciting and creatively enlivening to me than the glossy perfect-bound books of the more established poets. (Although, I bought those too, of course.) That was the wonderful thing about that area at that time – there was a culture of creativity and happy, willing, unabashed self-promotion. It was a lot of fun and, with the right people and circumstances, could be replicated pretty easily, I think. I think the next AML event should have a table for self-produced chapbooks to sell (or CDs, Sam). Not because I think it should be turned into some lame commercial event, but because it’s exciting to create somemthing and get it out there to people who may actually read it and enjoy it and it’s also exciting to be the person who can pick up something unique, maybe handmade, and hopefully wonderful for just a few bucks. For so many of us, the ten or twenty people who will really "get" our work will be at an AML event. Why not get something directly to them instead of waiting for your hardbound best-seller to be release by Scribners (once it gets written, edited, submitted, accepted, edited again, and published, that is.)

  5. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    One of the problems we’ve had with the venues for AML events is that they have not allowed the selling of any publications except Irreantum (which we have "sold" as part of AML memberships).

    That’s why we no longer have anything like the Read Leaf table that we used to have.

    So if someone can come up with a venue that AML can afford that will allow us to set up a table like that, please let us know?

  6. Th. says:

    .

    "I think the next AML event should have a table for self-produced chapbooks to sell (or CDs, Sam). Not because I think it should be turned into some lame commercial event, but because it’s exciting to create somemthing and get it out there to people who may actually read it and enjoy it and it’s also exciting to be the person who can pick up something unique, maybe handmade, and hopefully wonderful for just a few bucks. For so many of us, the ten or twenty people who will really "get" our work will be at an AML event."

    This is an excellent idea. And my favorite part of comics conventions. I hope you can find a proper venue to make that happen.

  7. Moriah Jovan says:

    Is there any reason why someone couldn’t have a party at his/her house to serve the purpose until there was enough interest to have it at an actual "venue"? Why does AML have to be involved at all, especially if, as Kathleen says, there is no allowance for Other People’s Stuff?

    It would only take one person starting the ball rolling. I say that easily, however, since I am out in the mission field with nary an LDS Letters type within a good day’s drive, and that person would not be me.

  8. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    Something else that I’d be interested in knowing, Mark, about selling self-published, etc. books and CDs at an AML event: who would be in charge of the table and handling the exchange of money for books and CDs?

    I have missed most of the presentations at the AML events for the past several years because I have been involved with registration, and that has been enough to keep me plenty busy.

    Would I have to be in charge of this table as well? Or would we have 60 different sellers because there are that many different items for sale?

    I know at science fiction conventions, they have what they call a "dealers room" in which people with something to sell purchase the right to use a table in the dealers room from the SF convention organizers, and then the dealers are responsible for making sure someone is at their table to sell their items while the dealers room is open.

    How do they do it at the Rocky Mountain Writer’s Festival?

  9. Mark Brown says:

    Yes, Kathleen, you would be in charge of that table as well. Who else?

    Just kidding. At the RMWF, every author is responsible for their own sales. They bring their own little till, their own signs, etc. I think the key would be having the book table be a limited thing – open during the hour before and the hour after or somemthing like that.

    But also, I agree with Moriah. While it would be silly to not make AML people part of it because they are the aformentioned 10 people who actually care but it doesn’t have to be an "official" event for something like this to happen. Like her, I’m clear out in the middle of AML nowhere — Illinois — but it I were there, I’d love to have a backyard get-together with potluck appetizers, music, and a featured reader or two and let whoever wanted to bring stuff to sell/trade/give away do so.

    My friend Doug Airmet founded his own ultra-small press called The Acid Press (the tagline was "Read it before it returns to a state of nature" – his policy was to produce the books on the cheapest paper possible) and he’d have a little publication party every time a new book came out. People brought food, listened to the reading, bought copies of the new book. (They were really well-designed and were good books but they were also super cheap – 2 bucks a pop. Airmet wanted poetry in people’s hands more than he wanted to create something archival.) He’d have it at his house or at his friend’s bookstore. No real expense was involved. It was mostly just friends getting together to support one another’s creative endeavors.

    That’s odd about the different venues not allowing people to sell books. Is that because they don’t want anyone cutting in on their bookstore’s business? I remember when we had the conference at Westminster the Red Leaf book table was there. I guess they had a different, more lax policy than UVU?

  10. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    I don’t think Westminster had a bookstore that felt intimidated by Read Leaf books. BYU and UVU have similar policies that books (and CDs) can only be sold through their bookstores. In any case, Read Leaf closed down a few years ago, and the proprietors have gone on to other ventures.

    Darlene Young has offered her place for readings and such, and even with the "concentration" of AML types around here, I don’t think attendance has been that impressive. Maybe we should try again.

    Thanks for the clarification on how it has been done elsewhere, Mark.

  11. Melinda W. says:

    Kathleen, was the reason for not allowing book sales related to tax issues? As a non-profit, the AML couldn’t typically sell books, but there are exceptions for incidental sales, especially if the AML didn’t coordinate the sales but just set up a table for others to use.

    Universities have their own tax rules; that might be why they want all book sales to go through their bookstores. But if AML is just renting the space for a day, the university shouldn’t be responsible for the tax impact of selling a few novels.

  12. Moriah Jovan says:

    <blockquote>Like her, I’m clear out in the middle of AML nowhere — Illinois</blockquote>

    Well, I lied. I’m in KC and I can get across Missouri and Illinois in a not-hard-day’s drive.

  13. Wm Morris says:

    I’m in the Twin Cities and Jonathan is just over the river in Wisconsin. We should do an AML roll call.

  14. Th. says:

    .

    El Cerrito, California

  15. Mark B. says:

    Tonica, Illinois – about an hour and a half west and south from Chicago, 45 minutes north of Bloomington/Normal.

  16. Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury says:

    Melinda W., I haven’t been in charge of working with a venue since we used Westminster (and we stopped using them when they asked for us to get a one million dollar insurance policy for the one day we would be there), so I don’t know if taxes were a factor in the only-bookselling-through-our-bookstore requirement or not.

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