Disambiguation In Promoting Books of Literary Fiction; or, Publishing and Marketing Moby-Dick for the Masses


Imagine if Herman Melville were a self-published (Indie) author today, and had to compete in the ebook marketplace with his brand new novel, Moby-Dick. Not only are the electronic bookshelves of Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Smashwords, and others crowded to overfull already, but he’s really relying mostly on the tactics of word-of-mouth, and of name recognition–he’s published a few well-received pieces already, though he’s no Longfellow. And let’s face it, his cover is not the greatest, anyway. So what would be your prediction?

If you guessed critical and commercial failure, I agree. And if you’ve taken more than the bare minimum of English courses in college, you probably already knew that’s exactly what happened in the 1850s. Melville’s masterpiece did not enjoy success until the 1920s–and I’m not sure how much good that did the author, as he was thirty years dead, at that point.

So. . .who here wants to write this decade’s Moby-Dick?

Dummy me, I kind of tried to.

Never mind the 1850s–think about now. What’s the problem? Melville’s novel is more than good–for those who have actually read it, you understand it’s so mind-blowingly great almost as to be in a class by itself. Right up there with John Milton’s Paradise Lost and the Odyssey of Homer.

Well, it’s just that, as a book marketer and seller, Melville made one hell of an author.

Think first about the title: not only is it a proper name, but, unlike say Charles Brockden Brown’s Edgar Huntly or Edgar Allan Poe’s William Wilson, it doesn’t even sound like the name of a person. Well, he chose accurately, anyway. So okay, taking a cue from those others, he adds a subtitle: the Whale (published in Great Britain under that title). So that’s one hurdle overcome, sort of. But since he can’t hover around the shelves of every bookshop from Nantucket to Paternoster Row, answering questions from potential buyers and readers, another problem arises.

What in the seven seas is the book about?

Well, it looks as if it’s about Whaling, we can hear the old spinster telling her sister, prowling among the stacks for their next guilty pleasure. How dreadful. (Today’s equivalent might be about Fossil Fuels.)

Of course, it’s about much more than that–has to be. It’s so deuced long.

So, our generous ladies crack the binding long enough to see the name-drop of Nathaniel Hawthorne in the dedication. Fine. A bit impertinent. Okay, give him a paragraph or two (here I’m invoking Amazon’s “Look Inside” feature.) Call me Ishmael.

Now, depending upon the edition, there may or may not be a footnote (today’s hyperlink) explaining the allusion of that name. Or, by chance, our sisters may be Bible-saavy enough to have vaguely remarked it. But who wants to go looking things up, even before purchase? Bah.

You can see where this is going.

So many authors are intent on writing good books, that they think little about marketing them until, the publishing industry not being a charity, they find themselves having to take on the role of bookseller. This is how Louisa May Alcott had to learn to sell—literary quality be damned–she had a family to support. It happened to me. And honestly, I’m not so much interested in selling everyone my book, as I am in simply making it visible to them. It sure isn’t everyone’s cup of tea, and that’s cool. But I’d like potential readers to at least have the choice. “Never heard of it at all” is harder for me to take than “Not up my alley.” Because there should still be thousands out there whose alleys it is, er, up.

Which brings me to my own little production, Clotho’s Loom.

Start with covers, and titles. As I perambulate the aisles of my local, modern, and oversized brick-and-mortar bookseller (take a guess,) I don’t really see a section headed “Literary Fiction,” per se. There’s “Contemporary,” there’s “Fiction,” and there’s “Just Published,” and between them, if you already know an author’s name, you can find something to interest you. Otherwise, it’s choose by binding and title, an even dicier game than cover image. And what are those images? Near as I can tell, anyone with pretensions to highbrow fiction goes with a simple nature photograph. A farm, maybe, some wheat. Horses are good in the deep background. Trees and flowers. Look at all of Cormac McCarthy’s novels, for example. If you hadn’t heard of him, you’d think he was a cross between Ansel Adams and a park ranger. And how about that cover on The Road?–best thing since AC/DC’s debut album, Back in Black. So, at least the cover of Clotho’s Loom was taken outdoors–in Baltimore’s Druid’s Ridge Cemetery, in fact–though it’s of a statue, an object. Not exactly clear whom of, either. And the title names her, but. . .can I really put a footnote about Greek goddesses on the cover?

Open the book, reader, give it a shot. Okay. Well, there’s something going on here that’s trying to resonate. Decent vocabulary. Plenty of detail. A little slow. Nah–where’s that YA vampire section?

So now you know I wasn’t patting myself on the back with this comparison, because it’s not the author Melville I’m referring to, so much as the failed literary agent of Melville–like so many of us, that person happened to be, as Thoreau put it in another context, “our own scurvy selves.” Paradoxically (given the lurid subject matter,) the YA vampire books are safe—one knows, the talent bar fluctuating a bit, pretty much what one is getting. And you can spot them from 50 yards away.

What’s the solution, for the more ambitious of us? How do we find our readers?–How do they find us? Simple. But not easy. Disambiguation. Among works, yes. Also, within one work.

Moby-Dick is about whaling. But think harder. It’s also about. . .travel? Sure. Think about the characters, not just the plot and setting. Ah. . .revenge! Well done. Also, distinguish among the characters: why, there’s a philosopher, a pragmatist, an oracle–it’s a whole blessed microcosm! And look at their names. Ahab, Starbuck. Kinda go along with Ishmael. Keep going.

The 30-second elevator pitch is just not going to work for this one–or, to the extent that it does work, it only scratches the surface. But at least we have the beginnings of a list. Today, Melville could “tag” Moby with those. He could create a Listopias. They’d probably make concise tweets. And yet, will those be enough? Well, no, but they are a start.

Clotho’s Loom has two protagonists, a man and a woman: Will Wyrd and Nexus Wyrd (yeah, yeah, the names signify something.) They share equal stage time. He’s drafted to serve in the military overseas, while she, abandoned, must birth and raise their baby alone, amid the trials of a harsh environment–both home and workplace. That’s my standard line.

Already, the book proceeds along two very different plotlines, at intervals–though I tried to thematicaly parallel and even unify them. It also has action and suspense, male and female bonding, and a few philosophical conversations. Like a stew, as Huck Finn says: the juices swap around, and everything tastes better than the sum of separate ingredients. At least, that’s what the cook was going for. But it’s hardly disambiguated. Is it a military novel? A Jason Bourne clone? Or women’s cozy fiction? Both? REALLY?

I always tell my students: when a problem is too complex, you must analyze (break it down into smaller parts). This can be done in mathematics (as with factoring in algebra,) chemistry (using a tool like a centrifuge,) as well as in logic and rhetoric. It can always be done. What we need here is to know the ingredients–we need a recipe!

In recipe books and blogs, there’s usually a photo of the succulent end-product. But the real recipe always starts with components the cook has to buy and gather—not the tasting! Or, if you prefer another metaphor, we can “reverse engineer” our own books for simplification—very similar to the way Cliff’s Notes and SparkNotes work.

Dramatis Personae:

Will Wyrd, a 39-year old man, a former Marine sniper, now a college professor

Thalia, Will’s teacher and soldier for a Middle-East nation at war

Amad, Thalia’s brother

Colonel Mingo, U. S. officer in charge of reacquiring Will and other veterans

Jim Poland, an FBI agent

Nexus Wyrd, a 40-year old woman, a lawyer and, for undisclosed reasons, never before a mother

Dr. M–, her suitor, and successful capitalist

Thomas Wright, founder of the law firm employing Nexus

Mr.Domino, Wright’s partner

Sage, Nexus’ friend and guide

Dramatic Situation:

Will is “reactivated” (drafted) 20 years after his enlistment ends. But instead of complying, he flees the country and embarks on a mission to end the war his own way.

Meanwhile, Nexus discovers that she’s pregnant and must birth and raise the child amid much danger, both at home ,and in the workplace of her law firm.

Complication: the two, while compatible as mates, were not equipped for a successful marriage when they wed. How can the enforced separation prepare them better to reunite? (Here, no doubt about it, as I put it this way I see that I lifted the complication straight from the Odyssey.)

Elements: irony, foreshadowing, symbolism, allegory. As this is a blog post and not an actual handbook, I’ll stop here.

I think that’s plenty for any potential reader to go on.

CONCLUSION: 1) Authors of plain old fiction and genre fiction have two initial tiers of audience:

The primary audience tier: family, extended family, friends and colleagues.

The secondary audience tier: Potential readers who would love your book, but need to discover it as a better example of its kind.

2) Authors of literary fiction, unlike genre authors, have an additional tier:

The tertiary audience tier: those readers who would love your book, if only they knew how really profound it is, but more importantly, just what it was about.

For everyone without an established reputation, the primary audience will have acquired the book within a few months, leading to a sales slump, unless the author can “promote through” to the second tier. And I think all the blog posts, tweets, book tours, celebrity endorsement blurbs, trailers, and paid advertisements in the world will not be effective until the specific audiences for that story can be identified and targeted.

For authors of literary fiction, there’s no point in crying out how really great a writer you are. If you can gain discoverability, the issue of quality will take care of itself, as you accrue reviews and word gets around.

The remaining question: what is the book about? For real? As Ahab says, “STRIKE THROUGH the mask.” NOT—how great is it, what are its ephemeral trappings, what are its gimmicks, which famous person pretends to love it, where does one buy it and at what bargain price?

Moby-Dick is really the story about a ship’s captain who, having been crippled by his prey in the course of whaling, kidnaps an entire crew and enlists them in quest of a single beast, who he imagines to be the incarnation of all the world’s evil. He will sacrifice anything: men, money, and material to this egomaniacal pursuit of cosmic justice. Further, using the sea as a conceit, and by presenting the alternative reactions of members of the crew, Melville investigates a long list of philosophical questions regarding humankind’s relationship to the natural universe.

Clotho’s Loom is really the story of a man and woman who met and married before they were ready. They are torn apart just at the moment when they should most be together, her mid-life pregnancy. The next year is devoted to adventures that mature them, while they seek reunion. While all events, like Will’s military reactivation, appear to conspire against them, StJean questions whether the forces of chance and so-called Fate, as well as ignorant human will, are not actually working together for ultimate good.

Well, I never wrote it up like that before. Quite a shifting of priorities. And no longer ambiguous. The description also makes clearer who the best audiences are.

More on that, later.



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