Marketing the Un-Marketable

Warning: This is a very provocative post featuring sex, spirituality and chocolate…proceed at your own risk! Now that I have your attention…

This post is actually about book marketing, so you can skip it if you are not a fellow writer. But you’ll miss the sex and chocolate. Shortly after finishing my latest book, I sent a batch of relentless inquiries to various literary agents and small publishers, who let me know—through complete and utter indifference to my carefully crafted query letters—that my new novel idea probably has no place in today’s literary marketplace. This is nothing new to me. I’ve been told for decades that my work is ‘unmarketable,’ yet somehow I manage to find a decent number of readers for each of my books. Moreover, I’m hampered by the fact that with one ‘traditionally’ published book and three selfies under my belt, I can’t be considered a hot little ‘debut’ novelist, which is what everyone wants now.

But I understand what it’s really all about. As an author, I may be happy selling only a thousand books or so (if that many!) But agents and publishers have big money issues and want the sure thing, the guaranteed best-sellers, or maybe that one bold crazy work that will rake in the dough. (Not ranting! Just saying…) It’s painful, as a writer, to be reduced to your sales figures; but I think I’ve finally learned not to take it personally, or even seriously, or as any kind of true indicator of quality.

I’m excited about my new novel, but not because I think it’s going to be a big seller. It won’t. My life won’t change much, and I’m fine with that. I just want to maintain my little band of loyal readers, and believe me, my readers are the BEST. But the things I love about this novel are precisely what make it ‘unmarketable’ as the agents and publishing industry would define it. First of all, it does not fall into any identifiable genre. Nor is it what I’d call literary. It has a faintly literary sensibility, maybe, but the only way I can describe it to a publishing professional is ‘mainstream’ or ‘contemporary’ (big yawn). Because the two main characters are male, it doesn’t even fall into that huge amorphous category known as ‘women’s fiction,’ although I think most of my readers will be women (Although I do have my male fans, surprisingly enough, including one old dear now-departed gentleman, a grizzled hunting and wilderness enthusiast, who said he found Secret Vow ‘very moving.’ That still makes me smile.)

I think the biggest marketing difficulty stems from the book’s undercurrent theme of spirituality and whether the whole concept exists or not, and that word alone sends most people screaming for the exits. Which drives me crazy, because how many book blurbs have you read that blather on about a character’s ‘redemption’? Book marketers are happy to borrow religious jargon to make their offerings seem loftier and more important than they actually are. And yet when you actually try to write about that, no agent or editor wants to deal with it, or they find it off-putting. Yet, I don’t think many readers feel this way at all, and I think there’s a significant audience for books touching on the spiritual. Look at all those folks who bought Eat, Pray, Love

Now you might think: Okay, she’s written a novel that might appeal to people of a spiritual nature, if not specifically Catholics (lapsed, bitter and otherwise), and there’s an audience for that, so what’s the problem? Well…it contains some scenes of an adult nature, as they say. I use sex only sparingly in this particular book, but when I do…it’s fairly explicit. And there’s a reason for that: I feel there’s a potent connection between sex and the soul; and why be so coy and oblique about something that the reader doesn’t get the point, like in those old mid-century “women’s” novels: “…they fell into each others’ arms, onto the divan…” Dot-dot-dot, end of chapter. Besides, erotic (not pornographic) prose is a great challenge for a writer: So hard to do without sounding clinical or idiotic, and I’m really impressed when I see it done well. No doubt this all goes back to my schizophrenic reading habits in college, when my tender writer’s brain was being formed. I was reading both Anais Nin and Thomas Merton at the same time, and I still keep trying to channel the both of them in my adult books (It would be interesting to know what one thought about the other, as they were contemporaries). So will I turn off my pious readers with the sex, and then turn off my sophisticated readers with the spiritual stuff? I say, it’s like peanut butter and chocolate: Two great things, why shouldn’t they go together?!

Hmmmm. Sex and chocolate…that’s a good combination, too! But there’s no chocolate in my novel. Maybe I’ll write some in.

So, how am I going to market this unmarketable book? Beats the hell out of me! But I believe it all boils down to one single concept: Reviews. And more on that in a future post.

The Novice Master is tentatively scheduled for publication, in both print and e-book form, November 15, 2015. The print version may be available as soon as Nov 2 (All Souls Day—check your missalettes!), but the E version is dependent on Pronoun.com getting its act together soon; may have to go with old Amazon after all.

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