And the campaign it takes to win advance trade press reviews.
I’ve learned how vulnerable a writer feels before those first reviews arrive. Though you labored to simplify, clarify, and dramatize key elements, you’ve also tried to convey your story’s complexity. You fear that a review will over-simplify or distort. At the same time, you realize you’re too close to your own narrative—you spent years writing it but don’t know how it comes off. How you come off. But Shirley really got my story. And I’m beyond thankful—I’m grateful.
Another recent notice is in the form of an interview with me on Learnist, conducted by Maggie Messitt. I met Maggie years ago at Goucher College, where we both earned MFAs. Now she’s a doctoral student in creative nonfiction just down the road at Ohio University.
Maggie’s first question was “What was the story’s driving force?”
During the years I was writing Shepherd, I told myself, “This is a story about fatherhood, farming, dreams, and loss.” And so it is. It’s about a middle-class couple who move to a beautiful, impoverished backwater, Appalachian Ohio, and get a farm and start raising sheep. As they learn to love the challenging region, they suffer culture shock and mishaps, including a disastrous house renovation, animal deaths and disease, and human injuries. Against that foreground story are flashbacks to my truncated farm boyhood, to my father’s boyhood in which a farm in Michigan was a refuge after his father’s suicide, and to my wife’s sunny farm girlhood in northwest Ohio.
My father sold our family’s farm in Georgia when I was six, and after that I grew up in grieving for it in a Florida beach town. I was living in paradise but couldn’t see that. I had this pent-up desire to get a farm and to redeem my father’s dream. I did that and actually ended up buying two adjoining farms; the experience of farming seriously, for over ten years, was joyous and painful and deeply instructive.
But the book’s driving force was very simple. I yearned to write this story so that people would understand what it was like to obtain the most magically beautiful farm in Athens County, Ohio, and to lose it by overreaching. And why I was okay with that, when I’d have predicted it would have killed me, given my disturbed and dreaming boyhood.
The Learnist format is graphically impressive. In their interviews with authors format, a standard feature is for authors being interviewed to pick five questions from a stock list:
In the late nineteenth century, lists of questions were a popular diversion, a parlor game of sorts, designed to discover new things about old friends. Apparently, when Marcel Proust was a teenager, his friend Antoinette Faure asked him a list of 35 questions. Years later, Proust was asked those same questions for a second time and his answers were published on a French album in 1892.
I tackled: “What is your greatest fear?”; “What is your current state of mind?”; “What do you consider the most over-rated virtue?”; “What or who is the greatest love of your life?”; and “When and where were you happiest?”
I’ve just completed a second interview, very wide-ranging, with Daisy Hickman of Sunny Room Studio, where I once wrote a guest post on my spiritual influences. That interview is scheduled to run April 11—which is about when Shepherd should get its advance trade press reviews.
If Michigan State University Press’s campaign has been successful . . .
How to win advance trade press reviews
Waiting for my book to arrive, I’ve felt strangely adrift. Although its publication date is May 1, books go on sale on or about April 15. Which is about when I’m hoping for advance reviews in the trade press: Booklist, ForeWord, Kirkus, Library Journal, and the biggest dog in this pack: Publishers Weekly.
Advance notices are important because they’re read by major reviewers, editors, and booksellers. Not to mention by Hollywood producers and directors. (Note to Wes Anderson: My wife would love Meryl Streep to play her; Brian Cranston could certainly do justice to me, though, knowing you, you’ll probably cast Bill Murray.)
But my true hope is simply that by getting advance reviews, Barnes & Noble will stock my book in its stores. It is listed on the B&N website. But the physical book world is still old-fashioned, and a web notice doesn’t mean my book will enter a bricks-and-mortar building.
I campaigned for books for 11 years at Indiana University Press and Ohio University Press/Swallow Press, where I ascended to marketing manager and also helped acquire books and reprints, including the classic farm memoir RFD, by Charles Allen Smart, The Sheep Book, by Ron Parker, and All Flesh is Grass, by Gene Logsdon. It still surprises me how few authors (and smaller presses) know how the game is played.
Here are the steps:
• Ideally, go to New York once or twice a year and hand major trade press and elite editors your catalog page proofs. Pitch only a few books; you can destroy your credibility by pushing a book they don’t consider a “trade” (i.e. having potential wide appeal) title.
• Follow up with the catalog and a letter confirming the galleys you plan to send, based on what was requested.
• Send each reviewer a personal letter and bound galleys made from first page proofs—often also called Advance Reading Copies or ARCs. These must be sent a minimum of four full months before the stated publication date. If need be, you’ll say you’re pushing the pub date back; pub dates are guesses, kind of fictional, anyway. For my book, with a planned pub date of May 1, trade and elite reviewers (New York Times, Washington Post, etc.) had to receive galleys in December, giving publications four full months—all of January, February, March, and April—to plan and prepare reviews.
• Send a letter (or two or three, spaced out) early in the period before publication announcing major blurbs, the final cover, or subsidiary rights sales. If there’s buzz, it’s easier for trade reviewers to get on board.
• Using Filemaker Pro database software means your various and ongoing pitches and mailings are less than onerous.
Winning advance and elite reviews is just this easy and just this hard.I brought these procedures for book campaigns from Indiana University Press, a powerhouse Midwestern academic and literary publisher, to smaller Ohio University Press in its backwater in the Appalachian foothills of Athens, Ohio. Using them, I managed to get one or two reviews a year in The New York Times Book Review. I met in person once a year with the then-editor, formerly of the New Yorker, Charles McGrath, now writer-at-large for the Times; he was a friend and golfing buddy of John Updike’s! Though my visits with Mr. McGrath could be measured in minutes, he was being both book-world respectful and personally kind to see me.
And our books got regular notices in the big four advance review outlets: Booklist, Kirkus, Library Journal, and Publishers Weekly.
Publishers who can’t afford to send a representative to New York cut their slim chances by about 50 percent. Lack of hand-selling is a real obstacle to overcome. Then, if they send ARCs late, or with just a press release and no personal letter, there’s no way on God’s green earth a book will get an advance review. Believe me, there’s no penalty for the New York publishing world in overlooking a great book from a tiny press. They cannot afford to do that with Random House—whose rep, in any case, they know on a first-name basis.
Having said all this, what if I get what I’ve wished for—legitimizing trade press notice!—and my book is panned? I’ll have to eat the words I have told so many authors over the years: “A mixed review in Publishers Weekly still means they thought your book was worthy of notice. And many readers will think, ‘Well, I think I would like it.’ ”
Yet I know that the only review I ever tried to hide from an author appeared in Publisher’s Weekly. A total massacre and, I felt, mistaken. Alas, Amazon loaded it prominently on the book’s web page. And the author’s friends helpfully called her attention to it. She wanted to protest; she wanted names. I knew that would do no good. To preserve reviewers’ goodwill toward me and therefore toward our other books, I couldn’t allow it. So I refused to help.
An author should doubly rejoice, therefore, in the kind of positive reviews and notices my book has just received. And I do. Because, in my experience, sooner or later, an author will have to take his lumps.