Lost in Blogland

July 17th, 2008 · 10 Comments
by Jennifer Epstein

[BS: Today, we bring back debut author Jennifer Epstein, whose lovely novel The Painter from Shanghai has garnered some great reviews and accolades. Despite glowing words from the NYT, Jennifer has learned that to market a book, one has to market herself. Follow her up and down the blogosphere…and special thanks to Jennifer for her patience: she had this piece ready a month ago, while we were lost in remodelingland]

I have pretty much always known that I wanted to be a writer. Having my first short story “published” in ’78 was what clinched it: The Magic Swingset—a piece I’d labored over for two weeks, illustrated and painstakingly copied onto yellow legal paper, was stapled onto the wall outside the principal’s office, complete with broody photo of 12-year-old self. Everything about the experience seemed to suit me; long hours in soothing solitude, lost (with license, for a change) in my own thoughts. Meetings with admiring editors–or in this case, teachers.

“The Internet,” I was told bluntly, when I asked about cyber-marketing, “isn’t part of our publishing model.”

That magic moment when I—a lone bookworm in a family oriented towards finance—not only read the finished product, but then got to see other people read it, and react. True, my parents voiced doubts about a career in the arts; they were clearly worried, already, about setting their spacey, pre-teen daughter free to make her way in the real world. Some of the more direct reactions were also less than appreciative: Tommy Windle dismissed the story as “dorky.” Which struck me as self-evident; I was, after all, a dork.

But all that really didn’t matter. What mattered was that I’d found a process that felt intrinsically right. I imagined doing it for the rest of my life. And three decades later, much of my writing life is more or less as I imagined it would be. I still love the long hours spent hunched over my laptop, the enjoyable lunches with mentors, agents and editors. The moment I held my first novel–The Painter from Shanghai—was nothing short of miraculous, thanks to the fabulous job my publisher did with the book’s presentation. I’ve loved, too, hearing from the reviewers and readers, none of whom to date have called it dorky (though one young critic did call it “hyperbolic”).

What’s different from my childhood imaginings is the enormous work it has taken simply to get people—enough people—to read it. Or at least, read about it. Especially online.
The Painter from Shanghai by Jennifer Cody Epstein

I’ll say it up front: I’m a novelist, not a blogger. My clothes might be hip (a latent backlash against years trapped in dorkdom). But my writing, most definitely, is not. It sprawls lazily across the pages; is reined-in and rewritten, cut and sculpted and pondered, and then cut some more. I love the freedom the novel as a literary form offers for this process; months or years to muse and daydream and refine, the deadline usually far-off, the readership misty, unformed. And yet, these days, it seems, the bulk of my time goes into—well, blogs. (Blogs. The very word would have been enough to make my sixth-grade self giggle. It sounds like a name from The Muppet Show.) These short, sharp little sites and pieces can be vastly engaging and informative, and I’ve found several that I truly love. That said, they feel like the very antithesis of the way I write; tight deadlines, immediate readerships. Instantaneous—at times cacaphoneous—response.

Still, in the past four months I’ve gone from blogging ignoramus (I’ll admit it; in 2007 I wasn’t ever quite certain what a blog was) to someone if not proficient then certainly functional; kind of like my mom with her VCR. I can do the basics: daisy-chain from blog to blog, track authorities, price ads. On occasion I’ve even designed my own banner. I email scores of bloggers, praising their efforts and their wit, then (more self-deprecatingly, of course,) praising Painter. Perhaps one in four will write back to me, interested in seeing a book. Off goes the book. Back online go I. I also blog in the verb sense. As in, when asked, I eagerly offer up blogs like this one, which attempt (obviously, with very mixed results) to adopt the hip quips and savvy, “I could care less that I’m so smart” tone that all good bloggers seem to have. Half the time I feel like a mom at a nightclub; overdressed, way too old to be here.

But I’m also aware—as my 12-year-old self was not–of the realities of the post-millenium publishing world. I know that the Internet can spread word of a new novel in a way traditional ads and book tours can’t. And that readers today—or at least, many of them—have come to expect the dimensionality only the Web offers: the instant gratification of seeing a book’s sales-rank and popularity, both in numbers and reader comments. Of reading reviews in twenty-six different languages. Of Googling an author to see what else she’s written or posted or perhaps just to see what she looks like. And then, of course, blogging about it. I also know this particular, quivering tip of the publicity frontier is one that most publishers—at least traditional ones—have not yet crossed into. It was fact made clear to me early on in the publishing process; not only by mentors and fellow writers, but–with disarming honesty–by publishers themselves. “The Internet,” I was told bluntly, when I asked about cyber-marketing, “isn’t part of our publishing model.” That doesn’t mean that publishers aren’t aware of or don’t care about the Internet’s power and scope. It simply means that—as with so much else in a hopelessly understaffed, underpaid and overwhelmed industry (built on a cyber-free business model that—like Keynsian economics—makes no sense in real life) it remains an unproven region, one that most publishers simply don’t have the time, expertise or money to explore.

Which leaves it up to us—the authors (like me), some of whom (also like me) leap eagerly in to fill the gap. Why do we do it, when we’re clearly so ill-equipped to do it, and really (like me) should be working on our next novels?

In part, it is due to the vicious cycle of authordom; something that—like ARA (Amazon Ranking Addiction) and pyramid-scheme MFA programs and the uncorruptible, absolute power that is Oprah—my preteen self could also never have imagined. But the truth is this: if you want to write your next book, your first book has to sell. If you want it to sell, in today’s world, you have to help.

And while no one yet knows quite how much, the Internet does help—I can attest to that. When I take out a set of blog-ads, my Amazon and B&N rankings jump. When one of my blog reviews makes it to the Huff Post and Yahoo news, they jump more. When Barnes and Noble puts me on the front-page of their “recommended books” site as a Discovery author, the number there jumps too. Of course, no one—apart from Amazon and B&N themselves– knows precisely how many sales that represents. But, absent having the book stapled to a public wall somewhere where I can actually count the people who read me, it’s the best proof I’ve got I am selling; so that–when I finally stop blogging–I can get to work on the next novel, in good faith.

Of course, there are other, more vicarious gratifications in the blogging world for an oldish, first-time author like myself. Like many, I can’t resist the autoerotic urge to self-Google, though I’m worried it’s hurting my eyesight… But all the stuff I find! The Shropshire County Council (is that in England?) is recommending my book to readers! NYPL has 87 holds on it today! A teenager in Singapore is putting off her homework to read Painter a little longer (“going to stop procrastinating SOON, I hope” she writes)! Of course another S’pore teen (a lot of Painter chatter in Singapore, for some reason) reports bleakly:“I was force to buy a story book cos I always nv read books. So I randomly choose a book. Its tittled: the painter of shanghai….its so thick! I dun think I can finish it in a year….” This particular blog-entry is titled “Hi, Bitch.” I would venture its author thinks reading is for dorks…….Which, I suppose, sort of brings me back full-circle. It’s not quite Tommy Windle. But it’s close. In the end, then, maybe things aren’t so very different from how I imagined them after all. Not, at least, if one pictures the Internet as a very, very long wall, with my novel stapled up on it, in a school full of student bloggers. (In Singapore.)

Of course, that doesn’t change the fact that I’ve now spent two days on a blog while my next novel languishes—achingly unwritten—in my bookbag. Perhaps I, too, should stop procrastinating. SOON. After all, at some point books—not unlike spacey preteen daughters—must be released to make their own way. In both the cyberworld, and the real one.

You can find Jennifer Epstein’s website here. And buy her book (c’mon you know you want to!) here.

File Under: Wrapped Up In Books

10 responses so far ↓

  • Timothy Arbuckle // Jul 17, 2008 at 6:29 pm

    Unfortunately, it seems to be the instinct of many writers confronted with this oh so public forum to tell the world how they wrote their first story at the age of twelve, la-di-da-da. That story’s been told before. If I sound harsh here’s why: Your metaphor of an overdressed mom at a night-club is only correct insofar that you feel awkward about it because there are many older people writing online quite seriously about books and enjoying the spirit of finding like-minded writers. While I sympathize with your plight as an author I think your attitude toward blogging and single-mindedness about patronizing bloggers so you can pitch them your book is corrupt. You sound like one of those people who only go to parties to get the most out of networking when in fact if you relaxed and enjoyed yourself you might just find that you’d meet interesting people, have fun and maybe just maybe make some good connections to boot. Otherwise, you’re merely being tactical anyway and really should do something better with your time.

  • Kassia Krozser // Jul 17, 2008 at 6:57 pm

    Wow, Timothy, I think you missed the point the of the post. As a blogger, I have to totally disagree with your assessment. First, Jenn is a lot like *most* authors — you’d be surprised at how hard this world is for them. Those of us who move easily in the online world are still, to a large extent, unique.

    I get pitched by authors every day, all the time. I’d say 99.999% of them do it wrong. Very wrong. They don’t take the time to read my blog and they don’t take the time to write a pitch that meets my needs. Jenn did both (plus, if my old brain recalls correctly, she connected via a mutual acquaintance). This is how the real blogosphere works — I want people to guest on my site, but I also want to limit those guest to authors who intrigue me. Since I cannot possibly find them on my own, I depend on pitches and mutual friends to do some of this heavy lifting.

    That being said, the real point of this post was that this terrifically reviewed author had to learn how to do all of this on her own. I cringe at the comment about no online strategy…it’s sad and true. People network. Sometimes they click with others, sometimes they don’t. This is Jenn’s second post here, and she’s having fun. And I hope she continues to play in this space because it’s always interesting to me to see how authors step into other voices and characters as they move from writing person to promo person to casual person to….

  • Timothy Arbuckle // Jul 17, 2008 at 9:23 pm

    I didn’t miss the point of the post, we’re just looking at it from different angles. And maybe I wouldn’t be surprised at how hard it is for “them.” My point is that she’s only here to promote her novel, she’s uncomfortable doing it, quite, yet someone has convinced her that patronizing bloggers will promote sales, so she’s out telling people they’re witty so they’ll want to look at her book. If you don’t think there’s anything corrupt – or perhaps I should say empty – about that, then you’ve been in the publishing business too long, but it seems clear from what she wrote that she knows it.

    It’s not lost on me that she has to help promote her own book or that you want to help her help herself by letting her post here. And when she’s sold enough books she’s going to stop blogging and get back to what she wants to be doing, which is writing her novel (you say she’s having fun but she doesn’t seem to be from what she wrote here). What is lost on me is why she, or at this point I should say any author, would do this ‘woe is me, I started out as an idealistic child wanting to be a writer and now that I’ve made it I’m forced to suck up to these things called blogs because I’m on my own in this big bad publishing world’ and not just hire a good publicist. Is a novelist’s time worth so little that it’s more cost effective to do so-called “marketing” for a blip here and there on their Amazon rankings and not write? Or is it just too easy and reassuring? Is it a commercial response to an author who wants commercial success (was selling lots of novels part of that 12 year old’s dream)? But really what’s happening is that just as the blogging phenomenon has created millions of amateur writers it also appears to be creating even more millions of amateur spammers.

  • Jenn Epstein // Jul 18, 2008 at 8:39 am

    Hi Tim:

    Wow as well. I have to say that while I’m always happy to have a response to my writing I’m a little taken aback by the vehemence of yours. I think you took my blog far more literally than I’d intended. And actually, as Kassia (happily) sees I did have quite a lot of fun writing it. For one thing, it’s a welcome change from my normally not-so-fun literary focus on things like sexual slavery and war crimes. But part of what was really fun about it, for me (if not for you) was poking fun at myself for being such a blognoramus. Hence the mother/VCR comparison. Though of course I also recognize that this may be seen as another “la-di-da-da” cliche.

    I also want to clarigy that I certainly meant no disrespect (nor patronization) to the bloggers to whom I’ve written about my novel. The fact is, I only write to blogs I find interesting or thought provoking, and I’ve been honestly gratified by the warm response “Painter” has gotten on great sites like Booksquare. I was initially simply a bit overwhelmed by how many of them there are, and how endless the daisy-chaining process (usually via everyone’s recommended links) can be. As someone who literally knew nothing about the blogging universe 18 months ago, it was eye-opening, to say the least. For the record, though, I don’t feel in the least bit woeful about it. On the contrary; I feel very lucky.

    Anyways. Thanks to Kassia for the forum and to Tim for the thoughts (I think). Maybe sometime we’ll run into each other at a party and I’ll get a chance to demonstrate to you how relaxed and enjoyable I can be.

  • Arthur Plotnik // Jul 18, 2008 at 3:04 pm

    Jennifer Epstein’s generously shared observations on what I call “plogging” (plugging via blogs) and on trawling for bits of sales information prompt me to offer these shameless notes, the legacy of a midlist author intent on writing-avoidance.

    In the past, authors looking for sales figures had to wait for the publisher’s semiannual royalty statements, which reported sales for a six-month period beginning about 9-12 months earlier. So in December 2008, for example, an author will learn the sales totals from fall 2007 to spring 2008.

    Now, however, the cruel Web provides, if not numbers, sneaky glimpses of sales trends. Every author knows to watch the rankings on Amazon.com and Barnesandnoble.com to see if a book catches fire—i.e., goes to the top few hundred, or, for slower selling books, jumps a few thousand places from a single sale. BooksaMillion (BAMM.com) and Target also offer sales rankings for books, slowly updated and best explored by category.

    One can also track, via the Web, a book’s purchases by libraries—either by checking the online catalog of individual libraries to view how many copies were acquired (start at http://lists.webjunction.org/libweb), or by seeing how many and which libraries have reported an acquisition to WorldCat (use the full database available through most big libraries). WorldCat doesn’t reveal how many units were acquired nor does it represent all libraries.

    In addition, Borders online (go to “My Stores,” then “Inventory”) and Barnes & Noble online provide data on which stores are stocking one’s book. One searches for these figures metro area by metro area. Powell’s Books (Powells.com) also gives updated stock figures.

    Through the online database of “Books in Print,” available via large public libraries, authors can glimpse holdings and movement of stock at such wholesalers as Baker & Taylor. Not all wholesalers give numbers, however, preferring to say, “available for order (like, what isn’t?).

    And, of course, one can Google (or MSN) a title and author to see if there’s any buzz developing. For the desperate—and aren’t we all?—general searches can be followed by searches under images, groups, and blogs.

    If you think dogs look silly digging up yards in search of old bones, just watch us literary bipeds clawing for such scraps as I’ve mentioned. The real absurdity—or pathos—is that for most authors the numbers are going to be nickel-and-dime, ever faltering, and generally depressing (if slightly diverting).

  • Lit Links // Jul 22, 2008 at 9:46 am

    […] Author Gets Lost in Blogland – Booksquare […]

  • Lorra Laven // Jul 26, 2008 at 4:22 pm

    I take exception to Timothy’s painting those of us who comment on literary blogs, especially when the writing is witty as is often the case with Kassia’s posts, as patronizing. Booksquare is one of the firsts blogs I discovered and I’ve been visiting the blog regularly for the past few years, always enjoying the posts, even occasionally leaving a comment.

    Kassia and other bloggers are like imaginary friends, literary friends, whose company I enjoy – pathetic I know, but true. Like “real” acquaintances, if they say something funny or teach me something new, since they can’t see me throw back my head and guffaw or wrinkle my forehead in concentration, I leave a comment to let them know they made me laugh or taught me something useful.

    And Jennifer, I enjoyed your post and you’ve piqued my curosity with respect to your novel. You also scared the bejesus out of me. Sounds daunting: wending your way through the blogosphere as a way to promote your writing. But I guess if you can do it, especially since you started from scratch, we all can. Doesn’t sound like we have any choice.

  • More Juicy Links. And Mashed Potatoes. « Boolah // Jul 30, 2008 at 11:56 am

    […] care of Booksquare, Jennifer Epstein, author of the Painter From Shanghai, on moving from writing books to blogging and blogs: These short, sharp little sites and pieces can be vastly engaging and informative, and I’ve […]

  • Dianne Weil // Dec 15, 2009 at 1:17 pm

    As an art history majoy from Wellesley and friend of your mother I was intrigued by your book at the local Library. I just finished it and was hooked from the first two chapters to the end. Your writing is lyrical and I feel I am in the studio with Pan. Thank you for such a rare treat.

    I intend to share your book with my Book Cluc. Will it be out in paperback soon?

  • jenn // Dec 16, 2009 at 7:49 am

    Hi Dianne–

    Thanks so much for the post. Yes, it is in fact available in paperback already and should be at the local Wellesley bookstore. Thanks for sharing it with your group –I’m happy to drop by if I’m in Boston at the time of your meeting and answer questions (or do so by conference call if I’m in NYC still–I’ve done this with numerous clubs and it works pretty well!)

    Meantime, all best for the holidays :)