One of my daughters was reading Anne of Green Gables and left it sitting around, so I picked it up and read a couple of pages and somewhat to my surprise I was instantly hooked.
Now you have to understand that I grew up in Prince Edward Island and have been surrounded by Lucy Maud Montgomery and Anne of Green Gables pretty much all my life. I’ve seen the stage production at the Charlottetown Festival at least three times. I’ve seen a spoof of the official version a couple of blocks over called “Annekenstein” (it was pretty good). As a media student, I was privileged to sit in on an audio mixing session of the original Kevin Sullivan movie version (spoiler alert: that day they happened to be mixing the scene a certain beloved character died). I’ve seen the Sullivan movie a couple of times, and I recently watched and enjoyed the first season of Anne with an E.
So I thought pretty much knew Anne of Green Gables.
But I didn’t. Not until I read the book, which I finished yesterday. Somehow, even after being exposed to so much of Anne throughout my life, I had not met her face to face. No disrespect to Kevin Sullivan and Anne With an E showrunner Moira Walley-Beckett and all the rest, all of whom I think came as close as they could to authentic takes on Anne of Green Gables, but the fact is, to really get to the heart and soul of the story you have to go directly to the source material.
The actual book was a revelation. The writing is sublime on so many levels: vocabulary, dialogue, story structure. It’s so funny… despite knowing what was coming, I still laughed aloud at the pickles Anne got herself in. And the character of Anne herself: she just pops off the page, living and breathing as authentically as any of our favourite literary characters. As do Matthew and Marilla. Especially Marilla, my favourite character, through whom (more than any other character, I think) we come to love Anne.
If there is one tiny flaw, it’s a flaw in Anne herself, acknowledged frequently by Marilla (and, consequently, Montgomery). Anne does go on. But that may just be a question of personal preference, a feature, not a bug, for true fans of Anne.
I was rather astonished to learn that Anne of Green Gables was Montgomery’s first published novel. I’d always imagined it was, say, her twelfth novel, the work of a mature, accomplished professional who’d learned a trick or two over the years. Nope. It’s the work of someone with story and character in her blood, with a natural flair for humour, and a deep understanding of human nature.
I do think I’ll be reading more of Montgomery’s work. About time.
Welcome to the fourth stop on the Great Bookshelf Tour of 2020, which I hope you find a bit of a distraction during these unusual times.
First up on today’s tour we have the books of illustrious Prince Edward Island based author Susan Rodgers. Susan Rodgers, you should know, is my sister, younger than me by one year, one month, and three days. I call her Sam because her initials are Susan Ann Mahoney, or at least they were before she married that Rodgers guy.
I could write an entire book about her, and our fabulous childhood together, including that incident where she heroically defended me from a pack of bullies who had stolen my mittens, and the time we got trapped on a cliff-face together (she made it off first), and so on, but that’s not what this tour is about. This tour is about books, and if you want books, Susan has written something like eighteen of them. I’ve lost count. My wife and I once marched into a bookstore and bought all of them, back when there were only nine. There, we’re done, we’ve supported her, we thought. Then she promptly wrote nine more. We’ve yet to pick those up. But we will. Maybe. Someday. Anyway, if you like angsty books about love and relationships and music and Prince Edward Island, you will LOVE Susan’s Drifters series (and related books).
Sitting in front of Susan’s books is one of my favourite books, Orbiting the Giant Hairball:A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving with Grace, by Gordon MacKenzie. A few things about this book. It was a thoughtful gift from a friend, which makes it special. I love everything about the design of this book, the illustrations in particular. If you look inside you will see that it is positively littered with the craziest drawings and sketches, all speaking to the nature of the content. I’ve long wanted to produce a book myself in this style. The book is about creativity and leadership, and it has many sage notions about all of that. There isn’t a much in the way of information online about MacKenzie himself. He’s a bit of an enigmatic figure, but video of him does exist. The books is based on a talk he used to give, which you can see online (and when you do, you’ll see just how much of the book is based on the talk). Curiously, despite the cult status of this book, hardly anybody has viewed MacKenzie’s online talk (145 views as of today). Something else I love about the book: it was originally self-published before Viking (Penguin) picked it up.
Next up, Robert J. Sawyer‘s Rollback. Rob has written even more books than my sister, and has known great success. I’ve known Rob since before he published his first novel, Golden Fleece (which I understand wasn’t actually the first one he wrote). I met Rob working on an episode of Ideas for CBC Radio. He was a guest contributor and I was the tech. He told me about his upcoming publication and that he wanted to be a professional science fiction writer. Little did he know that it was actually ME who was going to be the professional science fiction writer! Unfortunately, I turned out to be a lazy slug of mediocre ability, whereas he is a juggernaut with a big brain and actual talent. Which explains why he’s written so many successful books and I’ve written two, one of which COULD be considered successful if you fudge the criteria for success a bit.
Fast forward a few years (ahem; that would be a Sawyer pun there, if you know the man’s oeuvre). I decided to make a radio show featuring science fiction called Faster Than Light. I asked Rob if he would host it, and he agreed to. The pilot was wildly successful, but the network didn’t pick it up as a series, the Director of Programming at the time telling the Acting Head of Radio Drama that “if we put a show like that on the air, we’ll never get it off.” Oh well.
Fast forward a few more years. Rob writes Rollback. Some of the novel involves the CBC. Rob asked me to read the third draft of the novel to fact check the CBC bits. I did, and was surprised to discover that not only was the main character based on my profession at the time (a CBC Recording Engineer), but I was actually a character in the novel! So you can see that this is kind of a special book for me, beyond being an excellent story, well told, of a man restored to youth, and the impact on those around him.
And sitting beside Rollback up there is another Sawyer novel, Hominids, the first in his well-regarded Neanderthal Parallax series. I’ve actually read many of Rob’s excellent books, though not all of them are on this bookshelf (I do have other bookshelves in the house, and at the office), and I heartily recommend them all.
One day when I was about twelve I had just finished reading a good book and was looking for another of comparable quality, so I asked my father if he could recommend one. He led me downstairs to one of his bookshelves and picked out Cappy Ricks or the Subjugation of Matt Peasley by Peter B. Kyne, published in way back in 1916. What a yarn! I loved this tale of a crusty yet loveable shipping/lumber magnate and the feisty young sailor Matt Peasley he puts to work and torments on one of his boats. I’ve read it many times since. Kyne, incidentally, also wrote The Valley of the Giants (upon which the movie is based), among many other books.
And finally, kinda hard to make out there at the far right, we have The Lost Millennium, by Floren Diacu. This is a fascinating book, exploring the premise that history might be off by oh, say, one thousand years. That what we think of as the dark ages might be dark because they actually never happened! Whether this is true (spoiler alert: it’s probably not) this terrific little book provides great insight into how history is actually recorded and conveyed to the rest of us. It’s nowhere near as straightforward as you might think.
Of course, you don’t have to put any effort into selling your book if you don’t want to. You can just throw the book out there and hope that by some miracle it will get discovered because of its intrinsic value. There are writers who have had some success this way. But if you choose this path, I think you will be waiting a long time.
I feel an obligation to work hard at selling my novel A Time and a Place. For one thing, I spent a long time writing it. I’m happy with it. I think that it’s worth reading. Is it everyone’s cup of tea? Why, yes. Yes, it is. But I do think that there’s an ideal reader for this book and it’s up to me to find them.
My publisher, Five Rivers Publishing, invested in me and this book, financially and otherwise. Five Rivers artists and editors and book designers put their time and imagination into it. They deserve something in return for all that.
Thinking about what I owe my publisher and the book itself gives me the strength and will to overcome certain misgivings I have about selling my book.
What misgivings? Why should I feel bad about selling A Time and a Place?
Because doing so is somewhat at odds with my general philosophy of life. Apart from certain contexts such as work and family, I don’t expect anything from anybody. The world doesn’t owe me anything. If somebody gives me something—their time, a gift, a favour—it must be of their own free will. I don’t want anyone to do anything for me out of guilt or obligation. I will do the same for them. If I do something for you, it’s because I really want to (um, either that or because of some deep-seated unconscious psychological impulse influencing my actions that I am neither aware of nor can be held responsible for).
What this means is that nobody, not family, friend or stranger, is obligated to purchase A Time and a Place, or read it, or review it (or review it positively), or talk about it, or do anything at all to support it.
Nobody owes me or my book anything.
Because I feel this way, I feel a little funny about trying to convince people to buy it, because I don’t want to talk someone into buying it who might not have done so otherwise. Who might buy it out of charity or a sense of obligation towards me. I would prefer that people buy A Time and a Place because they’re actually interested in it, who might really enjoy and appreciate it.
Now, this is not to say that I don’t appreciate the support that I’ve received so far, whatever the motives may be. Support that has been legion, and that I do truly value.
In fact, I will never forget it.
All that being said, because I do feel an obligation toward the book and my publisher, and because I genuinely believe in A Time and a Place, I am doing my best to market and sell it.
The challenge now, I think, is to make A Time and a Place known to a wider audience. I fancy that amongst this wider audience there are people with whom it might truly resonate. A readership that might (dare I hope?) appreciate it on its own terms.
But how to reach this audience?
A Time and a Place is published by a respectable micro-publisher with limited resources. They are not in a position to mount an expensive advertising campaign. Nor can they afford a print run that will place physical copies of the book in brick and mortar stores across North America. And the print version is rather expensive. Finally, I don’t have the time or money to do a book tour.
On the other hand, A Time and a Place is available everywhere online as an e-book at a good price point. And it was very strong out of the gate. The book launch was a huge success, selling quite a few copies. In fact, it was Bakka-Phoenix Book’s (Canada’s top science fiction bookstore) best-selling Trade Paperback for the month of October 2017. A Time and a Place received a glowing review from Publisher’s Weekly (a prominent international publishing magazine), a review that was subsequently distributed to every major bookselling platform, including Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and more. The novel received some respectable media attention (CBC Charlottetown), and it has received excellent independent reviews on Goodreads and Amazon, where it’s currently rated at 4.6 out of 5.
So what does all that mean?
It means that I have a good book and a good foundation upon which to build. It means that I don’t have a huge media conglomerate behind me. It means that my publisher and I must do what we can with what we have.
It means that selling and marketing A Time and a Place is a bit of an uphill battle.
But that’s okay. I’ve been experimenting. And learning.
Early on, I did a Farmer’s Market in Summerside, Prince Edward Island, shortly after being interviewed by CBC Charlottetown. The table, which I shared with my sister, Susan Rodgers (author of the Drifters series), and Sue Campbell (author of Two Bricks Short: My Journey With Cancer) cost me ten dollars. I sold eight copies that day, three a direct result of the CBC Radio interview.
Summerside Farmer’s Market with sister Sue and new friend Sue
I spent a day at a Chapters in Oshawa. Sold nine copies there. But Chapters takes a huge cut (45%). Factoring in what each edition costs me (purchased from my publisher), I was forced to charge an exorbitant amount for each copy to make even a miniscule profit, so I will never do that again, at least for A Time and a Place.
I was invited to two Book Clubs, but only one of them followed through. Several members of the Book Club that did follow through purchased copies of A Time and a Place and actually read it before I showed up to talk about it. This was a lot of fun. Great food, great questions, and great company. My only regret is that I talked too much. I was just so excited to have the opportunity to talk about A Time and a Place to people who actually seemed interested in it.
And I’ve done a few other book-related events, but never sold more than three copies at any of them.
The most success I’ve had selling the book has been to friends, family and colleagues. Cutting out all middle-men allows me to charge the least amount for the book. And in every case they’ve approached me, so I don’t feel like I’m twisting anybody’s arm. I have a couple of rules around this. If someone happens to mention in conversation that they’re interested in purchasing A Time and a Place, I always follow up. As I mentioned before, I owe the book and my publisher that. If they’re still interested, I sell a copy or two. But if I follow up and nothing comes of it, I never mention it again.
I believe that many of these types of sales have been a result of making the book visible. To promote my book launch, I posted posters about the book all over the Broadcast Centre where I work. As a result, everybody who knows me there knows I wrote a book. Also, up until recently, I made a video every weekend that I posted on various social media accounts, such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Goodreads, and Linked In. Sometimes the videos were directly about the book, sometimes they weren’t. But they all put me out in front of people. A surprising amount of people I know have watched these videos (usually via Linked In or Facebook). The existence of these videos, I am certain, has prompted sales.
A word about the videos. Every now and then I break out in a cold sweat, certain that I’m completely embarrassing myself with the videos. My friends assure that I’m not, even though it’s obvious not everyone gets my sense of humour. But I strongly believe that if you’re considering producing similar videos, some thought and craft has to go into them. Don’t just hit record and talk. I started by doing that and quickly realized that I owed the people watching them more than that. When I resume making videos in a few weeks, I plan to ramp up the quality even more. It’s also more fun to make well-thought out and produced videos.
Speaking of social media accounts, I’ve paid a lot more attention to them since the launch of the book, especially Twitter. By using the app Crowdfire, I’ve grown my Twitter following from four hundred to over fourteen hundred since Christmas. Has this resulted in any sales? I know of at least one (thanks Jim!) And I’m pretty sure Jim has loaned A Time and a Place to a friend, who showed up on Goodreads planning to read it. Word of mouth is extremely important. In fact, perhaps the most important.
Goodreads is something else I’m paying a lot of attention to, curious to see how it can help. Recently, I mounted a campaign to make A Time and a Place the number one book about teleportation on Goodreads. It wasn’t very difficult, as not a whole lot of people had voted for that particular list. But I noticed a slight uptick of sales following this campaign. I’m also trying an ad campaign on Goodreads, but a week into that has resulted in zero sales—in fact, zero clicks on the advertisements, so clearly some tweaking is required there. I plan to experiment with Facebook next.
I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s about selling one book at a time. After a while, the numbers add up. I’ve been very lucky with the support I’ve received from friends, family and colleagues, but for the book to truly succeed it has to break out of that group into the wider world. A Time and a Place has yet to do that to any meaningful extent. But I’m not giving up on it. Everything I read about marketing and selling books tells me that the single best thing I can do to help sell my books is to write more of them. So that’s the next big step. I am well into the second draft of a sequel to A Time and a Place.
If you have any advice on how I can do better, let me know in the comments.
Oh, and if you’re interested in a copy of A Time and a Place?
Assorted Nonsense Episode VIII: My brother-in-law (and fellow author) Brian Wyvill and I visit the Blue Shank Road outside Summerside PEI, where Barnabus J. Wildebear and Doctor Peter Humphrey first return to Prince Edward Island following their trip through the gate in my novel A Time and a Place.