Wednesday, January 12, 2005

The Chronicle: 1/14/2005: Lawrence and Alex's Great Publishing Adventure


Our sentimental education in the ways of publishing began two months before our book of humor, Sense and Nonsensibility, was to be issued by Simon & Schuster. Over lunch at the publishing giant's corporate headquarters in Manhattan, our publicist revealed a highly confidential fact: 'Advertisements don't sell books.' When we registered our surprise, he assured us that this was the typical reaction of first-time trade authors. 'Ads are totally pass�,' he said. We were therefore immensely relieved when, over dessert, he revealed that Simon & Schuster was not planning on running any ads for our book whatsoever. 'Let the publisher of Eats, Shoots & Leaves waste its money on full-page color spreads in The New York Times,' we snickered. We knew better!

Our spirits remained high when our summer publication date quietly passed. Patiently we waited for reviews to appear. Two early and enthusiastic notices in Publishers Weekly and Library Journal prepared us for the coming flood, and we openly wondered whether David Levine's caricature in The New York Review of Books would flatter or ridicule us. But weeks went by, and nothing further appeared. No Booklist, no Kirkus; not even our own campus newspaper reviewed our book. This prompted our ever-helpful publicist to share another trade secret: 'Reviews don't sell books.'

Frankly, we were flabbergasted. "Really?" we exclaimed. "Not even good reviews?"

"Oh ... good reviews." he sniffed. "Yes, I suppose they can help, but even then. ... "

The process was starting to appear mysterious. "How do books sell?" we asked.

"When people buy them," our publicist confided.

We had occasion to muse over the significance of this lapidary insight as we monitored our Amazon ranking. It remained stubbornly at 1.5 million. That figure was far higher than the total number of volumes housed in Amherst's venerable Robert Frost Library. How could that be? Our Amazon site already had more than its share of glowing five-star reviews written by our respective siblings, partners, former lovers, children, and close or indebted friends, not to mention ourselves. Suddenly we saw the flaw in our strategy -- it assumed that people were aware of our book's existence, and did nothing to steer the would-be buyer to our bargain-priced volume. Promptly we hired work-study students to insert exuberant plugs for our book into otherwise-lackluster reviews of our competitors' works. Amazon's listing for David Sedaris's latest was soon flooded with comments like, "Entertaining. Great for the bathroom. But if you want something life-alteringly hilarious, you're better off with Douglas & George's Sense and Nonsensibility." Or, for The 9/11 Commission Report: "After reading this sobering and important document, I was glad to unwind with Douglas & George's gem, Sense and Nonsensibility."

Within days, our Amazon ranking had broken through the glass ceiling of 100,000. A week later we were under 10,000. And for one glorious, improbable day, we were at 485.

Emboldened, we turned next to bookstores. Even our publicist agreed that bookstores remain an important venue for book buying. But an exploratory trip to our local Barnes & Noble confirmed our worst suspicions. All six copies of our book had been relegated to the bottom of the humor section, sandwiched between the latest Garfield and a book of knock-knock jokes. Stealthily we moved these copies to the head of the "New and Noteworthy" table. (To make room, we cleverly stashed the new Ann Coulter in the "Pets and Domestic Animals" section.) In the coming days, we printed up our own "Staff Pick" cards and penned glowing endorsements in neat calligraphy. I laughed till I herniated a disc in my lower back! I gave this book to my teacher and now we're having a lovely affair!

Our stock quickly sold down, but not before B&N got wise to our guerrilla tactics. Our adversary turned out to be a goateed young employee, clipboard in hand, who periodically would check to make sure the proper titles were on display, all the while removing any interlopers. And so began an elaborate game of following Mr. Goatee around the store and moving the books back to the very table he had just removed them from. (At times, my co-author would distract him with pointless inquiries about the new Kant biography, while I shifted our books to the New and Noteworthy table.)

Keeping our book well placed gradually turned into a full-time affair, requiring trips to the bookstore at first twice, then three times a day. Fortunately I was on sabbatical and could afford to make these constant shuttles to and fro. My co-author had no such luxury. His teaching suffered; his students' papers languished ungraded. Yet by enlisting the help of our mothers, we were able to keep our book prominently placed in five Barnes & Nobles and Borders bookstores for months at a time. That left the book stranded on the lonely humor shelves in roughly 6,500 other bookstores nationwide. Like all guerrilla operations, ours started small.

Next we tackled the problem of readings. Our humor was directed at academics, so we concentrated on bookstores in large university towns. After dozens of phone calls, we managed to book ourselves at the Harvard Coop, the Brown Bookstore, the Yale Co-op, and a handful of other excellent venues. We found those readings to be wonderful experiences, especially when an audience was present. That, alas, was not always the case. Our experience suggested that for every 500 notices mailed, one person would show up. We arrived at this ratio after a reading for which 450 notices had been sent out. However sobering the experience, we learned from it. In particular, we learned the importance of professionalism: Even when the only person in the audience was a homeless person seeking refuge from the elements, we gave the reading our all. And our efforts were rewarded. Our sheltered friend bought two copies.

Media appearances remained the final frontier. We knew this could mean painful compromises of our artistic integrity; we recalled Jonathan Franzen's tortured decision to forgo an appearance on Oprah. After long discussions we decided that, if summoned, we were prepared to tattoo likenesses of Ms. Winfrey on our foreheads. But more than Oprah, one figure assumed mystical status. Terry Gross. The Voice. She had, in her time, interviewed some real duds. By our lights, we were brilliant candidates for her show: two professors, one an authority on war crimes, the other a specialist on the philosophy of math, writing humor in their spare time! And what about the tantalizing fact that we had scandalized many readers -- including famous professors -- who had taken our parodies seriously? I contacted a producer at National Public Radio who expressed interest. A few days later I called again, as per her instructions; now she had no recollection of our previous conversation and sounded doubtful, distracted, distant. I tried to disarm her with the very kind of warm humor found in our pages. "C'mon, aren't your listeners sick and tired of hearing about Iraq?" She hung up on me.

Undeterred, we audiotaped one of our readings, to which we added a digitally enhanced laugh track. We made a DVD video of another reading before a receptive audience of parents of our students. Copies were FedExed to Charlie Rose, Brian Lamb, Jon Stewart, John McEnroe, Dennis Miller, and Click and Clack. No responses. Perhaps we were aiming too high. Maybe we could generate buzz by interesting famous writers in our book. On, a Web site that lists contributors to the recent presidential campaign, we learned the home addresses of many of our literary lodestars. Philip Roth. David Foster Wallace. Wallace Shawn. Roz Chast. Reassuringly, they had all given to Kerry. We bombarded them with books and heard nothing in return. Not even a "If you contact me again I'll be forced to seek legal redress." We considered desperate measures to attract media attention. We would fake our own alien abduction, take the president of our college hostage and threaten his beheading. Tasteless and, worse, unlikely to bump sales.

Which leaves us where? Now, five months after our pub date -- a date filled with such giddy expectations -- our Amazon ranking has slipped to 158,000. Already we can see our book, the fruit of years of labor, indifferently picked over on remainder tables.

And yet our colleagues, more accustomed to academic publishing and its minuscule markets, think of us as great successes, conquering heroes of the trade world. When they ask us to divulge the secret of how books sell, we gaze off into the distance and speak in sage aphorisms. When people buy them.

Lawrence Douglas is an associate professor of law, jurisprudence, and social thought at Amherst College. He and Alexander George, a professor of philosophy at Amherst, are the co-authors of Sense and Nonsensibility: Lampoons of Learning and Literature, published by Simon & Schuster last August.

Section: The Chronicle Review
Volume 51, Issue 19, Page B5

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