I use Goodreads fairly regularly, both as a reader and as an author.
As a reader, there is a geeky thrill to keeping track of every book you’ve read. I don’t have every book I’ve read up there, but I try to add the new ones as I go along. But Goodreads also helps me discover new books. That’s because Goodreads has developed a recommendation engine that looks at your reading list and your reviews to offer you new suggestions. And there’s also an active community that introduced me to, among other books, The Lives of Animals by J.M. Coetzee.
Goodreads has been invaluable to me as an author in helping me raise awareness for my book The Tourist Trail. After my book came out, I gave away two free copies using the Goodreads giveaway program. This is something that all authors can do within six months of their book’s publication — and I highly recommend it. Because one thing you want people to do on Goodreads is add your book to their shelf. There’s no guarantee they will ever read your book, but it’s better to be on that virtual shelf than in the virtual closet. After two giveaways, several hundred people added my book to their shelves. If you’re considering a giveaway, I recommend that you schedule it roughly a month out, which gives people plenty of time to discover your book. And be sure that when you do mail out that free copy, you send a note to the lucky recipient asking for a review if he/she enjoys the book.
You can download the presentation here, and I recommend checking it out.
Goodreads is learning a great deal about how people discover books. I pulled out two slides that I found most interesting.
This first slide details how people discover new books. This chart makes it clear that word of mouth sells books. Your “offline” friends as well as your virtual Goodreads friends play a big role in influencing your next read.
The publisher’s website doesn’t do much, I’m afraid. Nor does TV and radio. Word of mouth is what matters most — and virtual world-of-mouth services like Goodreads and Facebook can certainly help.
The next slide details how people on Goodreads discover books — and it’s comforting to see that people have many different ways of discovering books. Which means that authors don’t have to rely on just one approach. But these individual approaches do add up. A giveaway may only make a 2% difference, but if a lot of people review your book highly, this will improve the odds of your book being recommended via the Goodreads engine. That is, success breeds success.
So if you’re not on Goodreads yet, check it out.
And if you’re an author, what are you waiting for?
As Alma writes, “the mainstream book media tends to feature the books that the publishers have put the most money behind. This excludes all but one or two debut novels a year” — so true. And so sad. She offers five ways readers can help, all having to do with word of mouth. (And I’ll add something for the writers out there: If your friends aren’t already doing these wonderful things for you, ask them to. They may not realize how much it means to you and your book.)
In addition to Alma’s five excellent tips, I have a few to add as well…
Feature the book in your book club. When my book, Forgetting English, came out, I was absolutely thrilled when a few friends chose it for their book clubs, and I joined a few of them, both in person and via Skype. It was so fun that afterward I lost all shyness and humility when it came to suggesting Forgetting English when someone mentioned being in a book club.
Give your favorite books as gifts. The gift of a book, hand-picked and personalized by an author, is a beautiful thing. Most authors have extra copies of their books on hand, so when a holiday or birthday comes along, ask them if they might sign a copy (or two) for a few people on your gift list.
Donate a copy or two to charitable auctions. I’ve done this many times with Forgetting English (which is a teeny item by itself but goes very well with, say, a trip to Hawaii or Africa), and I’ve also been honored and grateful to be included in gift packages that other writers put together for fundraisers. It’s a great way to find new readers and do a little good for an organization.
There are so many ways to support your favorite authors — and unless they’re already on the bestseller lists, they will probably need it — and they’ll always appreciate it. Word of mouth is one of the most powerful ways to market a book. Alma says it best in her post: “Remember to tell others about the book. It’s as simple as that.”
Q & A with John Wood, author of The Names of Things
By Melody Condon
Q: TheNames of Things is a portrait of a marriage as well as a story about grief. In creating a cross-cultural look at marriage and death, what was involved in researching this book?
A: I suppose the research came first, before the idea of a novel. I’m an anthropologist, and what cultural anthropologists do is fieldwork. For a long time mine was with Gabra, a group of camel herders in northern Kenya and southern Ethiopia. I wrote a bunch of scholarly things about my experiences with them.
But straightforward ethnographic writing didn’t quite get to some of the experiences that I thought were most important, particularly having to do with the compromises we make as humans on the way to other things. Nomads want to be together. They care about each other. They need lasting, intimate relations with each other. But because of what they do they have to disperse, to separate from one another.
The same was true with me and my wife. We want to be together, but my work meant that either I had to leave her behind for a while or she had to come with me, and those compromises were difficult for us. So part of the fieldwork experience involved working through the consequences of that sort of work on a marriage, on family life. And so I was going through that periodic separation issue (or the guilt involved in asking her to go with me, to share that experience) and then I was seeing Gabra experience similar tensions between the desire to be together and the need to separate, to disperse, and the one experience shined a light on the other.
It was in seeing that connection between my dilemmas and their dilemmas that got me thinking about new ways of writing ethnography, of experimenting with fiction as a way of shining new light back on straight-up ethnographic descriptions. So the research was happening anyway, and the novel grew out of that body of experience.
Q: What aspects of your teaching experience were most helpful to you in writing this book?
A: I’m interested both as an ethnographer and as a teacher in the power of juxtaposition, of one thing being set up next to another thing, and the meaning that bleeds across the space between them. The working title for the novel was “The Space Between.” Sometimes you can tell people an idea. But as a teacher and as a student, I often think it’s better to let people, including myself, figure it out, to see for myself. Especially when two very unlike things are juxtaposed, it almost compels the human brain to resolve the gap, to make sense of what doesn’t make sense.
In my classes I sometimes ask students to read fiction, stories, about a place, set among people we are studying, with the idea of jarring some new insight loose. We get bogged down with the usual categories. Unusual juxtapositions give us new thoughts, some of them not very interesting or useful, but sometimes they can be important. That’s what ethnographic fieldwork is all about. You go live with people who are unfamiliar, get to know them, but on the way you get to know your own culture all the better for having experienced something strange, something different. So it is the encounter with difference: another culture. But you can approximate that with texts—at least I think you can—by juxtaposing different kinds of texts that force us to think about each one in a new way.
Q: Why do you write fiction?
A: What anthropologists do is go and experience other people, observe them, hang out with them, participate in their lives, and attempt to understand them. That process of describing and interpreting other people requires raw description but also theory—ideas about people, what they do, how they make sense of their world, the sorts of problems they’re trying to solve. Ideas help us make sense of raw description. But ideas are always a kind of fiction, they’re made up, they don’t exist out there in the world (except maybe if you’re Plato). So our theories are made up, they’re fictions. On the other hand, I’ve noticed that stories, true or made-up, have a way of making sense of things. If we don’t understand what someone has done, we want to know the story of that act, and often when we know the story we have a sense of aha, I get it.
Honestly, one of the reasons I write fiction is I like writing fiction. I feel an impulse to tell stories, to make things up, to imagine things.
But another reason I write fiction as an anthropologist is to explore the ways stories, even made-up stories, have of giving a reader a sense of things: not just that they happened, but what it felt like, what the experience was like. I think that’s one of the main reasons people read ethnographies in the first place, not simply to find out that there are people over there who do such and such, but what it is like to be there with them.
If out of that comes some emergent understanding of what they do, so much the better.
Q: The book is about a marriage between an anthropologist and his wife, a painter. What significance do the disciplines of anthropology and art have in the story?
A: Perhaps I run the risk of telling the obvious here. But both anthropology and art are in the business of representation, of making representations about the world, or human experience, or feelings, attitudes, ideas. They both seek to make “true” representations, but there are quotations marks around the word in both cases. The representations take on their own reality; they’re not independently real, they’re made. But both disciplines have a different relationship to the idea of truth, to the idea of accuracy, to the ideas of nonfiction or fiction, so making one character an anthropologist and the other an artist gave the story an opportunity to explore those similarities and differences. That also seems like an anthropological impulse, as well as an aesthetic one.
Q: What is the relationship between the story of the novel and the interwoven accounts of Dasse death rituals?
A: Well, this is what I’ve been talking about. The hope and prayer I have as a writer is that reading the fictional story will give the reader a sense, a feeling, for the purposes behind Dasse funerary practices, but also that the straight-up description of the funeral practices will shine a light back on the events of the story. That way, the reader will understand the fictional anthropologist better for knowing something about the death rituals of the people he studies, and the story of the death rituals will take on new meaning because the reader is familiar with the story of a particular individual and what he went through to do the ethnography. The hope is they—the fiction and the nonfiction—help each other tell an even bigger story.
Q: The anthropologist in the book has an intellectual argument with his students about whether the very practice of anthropology changes or even harms the society being studied. What would you say to those wondering about the value of anthropology?
A: One theme of the novel is that the anthropologist is struggling with the guilt he feels for what happens to his wife. He didn’t intend anything bad, but something bad happened, and in a way he’s responsible. At least partly. Same thing happens in anthropology. We go out with the best intentions and then we have an effect on one another, and sometimes that effect is not so salutary. Of course, that happens in any relationship. Life sometimes damages us. But I don’t think because sometimes we hurt each other that we should stop associating.
So yes, anthropologists have an effect on the people they study. Sometimes it’s not so good. But the alternative, not getting to know each other, ignoring each other, being ignorant of each other leads to even worse effects, causes more damage in the end. If nothing else, anthropology, doing fieldwork, attempting to know and understand each other, even if we ultimately fail—and we ultimately will fail to fully understand each other—is the most important thing any of us can do, whether it’s with your family or our neighbors or people on the other side of the planet. The alternative, not trying, is worse.
Q: What is the relationship between this book and your previous ethnography, When Men Are Women?
A:When Men Are Women explores the symbolic ways Gabra make sense of ambiguities in their lives. Men are associated with “outside,” the pasturelands beyond the camps, while women are associated with “inside,” the tents and life within the camps. Yet both men and women have to go outside and return inside. Gabra must separate from one another and yet form lasting attachments. So the gender reversal is doing a lot of symbolic work in capturing the need for both. Life is not either/or but both/and, and yet being both creates a sense of contradiction, and that sets up an existential tension. This is not unique to Gabra. All of us, in one sense or another, are dealing with the simultaneous need to connect with other people but also to individuate, to separate. The novel became another way of exploring that tension. In that sense, I think of it as a sequel to the ethnography. They’re a matched set though they occupy very different genres of writing.
Q: What is the most frightening—or, perhaps, enlightening—encounter you have had with African wildlife?
A: Well, the most frightening encounter involved my wife, Carol, and I wasn’t there. She was walking in the forest on Marsabit Mountain. There were some other people from the town nearby collecting firewood. An elephant happened by, or the people happened by the elephant, and the elephant charged them and they had to run away. Elephants are fast but their eyesight is poor. At least that’s what I’m told. I’ve never talked with an elephant about this. In this case, everyone managed to escape. That doesn’t always happen. People are often killed by elephants in the Marsabit forest. But that was pretty frightening to hear about when she told me. I think I was off on the desert with Gabra at the time this happened.
More typically what frightened me was snakes, for most of the snakes in this part of the world are pretty poisonous, and I was often far away from medical help. Fortunately they’re not numerous. It’s a desert. And snakes don’t like hanging around people. So though I saw many snakes, and had to kill a few, I was never bitten. A Gabra friend stepped on a puff adder one night and was bitten and died. So I knew this was a danger.
The novel has scenes of hyenas and lions, and, while I suppose they are dangerous to people, they’re more a danger to livestock, and Gabra have to contend with them for that reason. Most of the time predators stay away from people, so, though I saw hyenas and lions and leopards, I never felt directly threatened by any of them. I knew Gabra who had been attacked by lions, or who had killed lions that were attacking their flocks.
The most enlightening experience I had with wildlife was not frightening at all but just the opposite. Some friends and Carol and I were camping in a place called Hell’s Gate National Park in Kenya. This was when Carol and I were teaching school there, years before doing fieldwork with Gabra. I was a runner. In the morning I got up and went for a run, and as I did I met a small herd of zebra and another of wildebeest. For a time, running along this path, I was running with them or they with me. They didn’t seem to be desperate to get away from me. We were trotting along at more or less the same pace. Of course, this is all in my head, but it was the closest I’ve felt to experiencing some sort of connection between my human self and my animal self. Not sure there’s an insight there. But the experience was thrilling then and remains thrilling when I think about it now.
Perhaps that’s what anthropology is all about—perhaps that’s what being human is all about—finding ways to connect, to make connections with the world, both human and nonhuman, and even to break down those divisions.
Melody Condon is a student at Southern Oregon University who will graduate in 2012 with a B.A. in professional writing and a minor in creative writing. After graduating, she hopes to break into publishing and spread the joys of proper punctuation through the world. She is sharing her joy of literature and proper punctuation at Ashland Creek Press, where she has been an editorial and marketing assistant since October of 2011.
The Independent Book Publishers Association (of which we are members) recently held a conference down in the Bay Area. We weren’t able to attend, but we did discover a recording of an excellent session on how to market your books to libraries.
The session is an hour long, but it’s well worth the listen if you’re an author or a small publisher.
And if you don’t have the time, here are some key takeaways:
The local library is a local author’s best friend. Libraries go out of their way to stock works by local authors (provided they have the shelf space). And they genuinely want to hear from local authors (not just their publishers). If you’re an author, don’t be shy about sending an email or dropping off a review copy. But be sure to emphasize your local connection. Better yet, suggest a speaking event. Perhaps you wrote a murder mystery that takes place in Yellowstone National Park and you’ve become an expert on the area and even visited a few times. You could suggest a talk on the area and the stories that the region has inspired (including yours). Or consider proposing collaborative events with authors who have written related works — in topic or in genre.
Libraries are eager to purchase ebooks but are frustrated by the sky-high prices major publishers are asking these days. As one of the speakers asked: $80 for one book? That’s right. But the good news is that libraries are open to ebooks from smaller publishers and from self-published authors.
That said, keep in mind that libraries don’t generally “stock” their own ebooks. That is, they need some type of software platform that can store the books and serve them directly to patrons through their Kindles, Nooks, etc. So don’t approach a library offering your ebook for sale; instead approach the platform provider.
OverDrive is the dominant ebook platform used by libraries, so if you want to get your ebook into libraries you’ll probably need to connect with OverDrive. Ebrary is another platform. And then there is the very intriguing Open Library platform supported by the fine folks at the Internet Archive. If this all sounds a bit confusing, that’s because it is a bit confusing. But I do see opportunities for small publishers and self-published authors to find their way onto those ebookshelves.
Authors should also consider trying to get their books into universities via “first-year experience” programs. These are programs for incoming freshmen, and they often include recommended books. It’s a long shot for smaller publishers and lesser-known authors, but definitely a shot worth taking — most first-year titles recommended by faculty members, so a good way to start is to talk up your book and what students can learn from it to instructors you know.
Finally, don’t overlook the importance of reviews. Booklist was cited as one of the more popular magazines read by libraries, and we submit all our books to them (Out of Breath received a very nice Booklist review, and this is one reason the book has been so popular with libraries).
Here at Ashland Creek Press, we love libraries and have been very successful getting books and authors placed throughout the state of Oregon. And keep in mind that you don’t have to be local to be interesting to a library: Two of our authors, both from out of state, will be speaking at Oregon libraries this summer: John Wood will be talking about his novel, The Names of Things, at the public libraries in Eugene and Ashland, and Cher Fischer will also appear at both libraries to discuss her eco-mystery, Falling Into Green.
While this post touches on some of the points from Tips for authors: Giving good readings, I wanted to devote a little extra time to the art of reading aloud, especially given the wonderful tips I received last fall from Jack Straw Productions and Elizabeth Austen.
As part of the preparation for our joint book tour, Wendy Call and I visited Seattle’s Jack Straw Productions, the Northwest’s only non-profit multidisciplinary audio arts center, to record excerpts from our books.
Producer Moe Provencher had wonderful advice for me as I stumbled through a practice reading — an excerpt I’d never rehearsed until that afternoon — and I found her tips as relevant and useful for live readings as they are for audio recordings:
Mark up the text from which you’re reading so that you’ll know when to pause, what to emphasize, etc.
Develop a facial expression that reflects a character’s voice and/or mood; when you use your face to express something, this mood and tone will come through in your voice.
Read far more slowly than you think you need to — to the point at which you feel ridiculous — and this will likely be the perfect pace.
Practice. Aloud. Many times.
The good news for those of you who are Seattle-area writers is that Jack Straw offers a Writers Program (Wendy, pictured above, was a 2008 Jack Straw Writer) in which writers spend several months developing a project while learning tips for readings, doing interviews, and more.
I learned a few more invaluable tips when I attended Elizabeth Austen‘s workshop at the Port Townsend Writers’ Conference: “Beyond the Page: Poems Aloud, Poems Alive” (excellent for prose writers as well). Elizabeth, with her background in theater, has a gift for the spoken word, and she reminded us first and foremost that language is physical, that we need to remember this when we read aloud, and that we need to feel every word. She offered a few examples — words such as awe, hiss, tip, trapeze — and in speaking them we could hear and appreciate their pitch and length, their sharpness or languidness. (Give it a try, right now. It’s pretty cool.) Elizabeth gave us tips on everything from rehearsing (avoid mirrors or recordings; ask a friend to listen and offer feedback instead) to what to wear to a reading (whatever makes you feel comfortable and confident; also, avoid high heels, and rehearse in the shoes you’ll be wearing at the event).
Among Elizabeth’s wisest tips was this: “The performance requires you, but it’s not about you.” As readers, she explains, we are conduits for getting the words out into the room and to the audience. I love this eye-opening tip, not only because it takes the edge off the self-consciousness most of us feel when we read, but because it reminds us that our words need to speak for themselves — that, now that we’ve written them, it’s time to let them shine on their own.