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July 26, 2004



gee, m.j., this is depressing, but i'm not sure anything a writer's ever said, typed, etc. about her book has made me read it. i read indiscriminately, though, and chances are if i am reading a writer profile, i already have some level of interest in the writer's output or subject matter, so did the statement make me read a book i would not have otherwise? hard to know.

what i can say, with some degree of confidence, is that i enjoy hearing stories about people's processes - always hoping to mine something useful for myself, and feeling a little predatorily guilty about that, but what are you gonna do? - and i am relatively equally turned off by self-importance and insincere self-depradation.

most of all i like knowing the gem - the seed - the one look, or event, or question, or color, or whatever that started the process for the book in question.


um - that would be - "self-deprecation."

friends don't let friends type uncaffeinated.


Frederick Reiken was interviewed by Bold Type after his first novel appeared, and made the point that "absence is the most natural of phenomena." As I read his elaboration, I decided to buy the book as soon as I finished the interview, because something in what he'd said resonated with me.

This kind of example may not be helpful in a promotional sense, but an author grabs me most not when I learn that their background and mine are similar, or they have some particular expertise in a field that interests me. What grips me is realizing that an author is asking questions close to questions I'm asking, in a way that wouldn’t have occurred to me, and the opportunity to follow their trajectory toward the possibility of answer.

Conversely, if an author promoting a book focuses on how much research they’ve done, or what their credentials are in telling that story, I’m usually turned off. All of that’s important, obviously, but is second (in my mind) to a need to ask questions and use a story to do so.

M.J. Rose

Thanks for both those answers - see I'm getting helpful advice already.

I love this:

>>What grips me is realizing that an author is asking questions close to questions

Yes, what a prefect description of writing.


i swear i hadn't read your entry at confessions of an idiosyncratic mind when i wrote the above, about finding out the gem, or seed of the book. but lookie there, you gave it to me anyway! thanks, m.j. that's a hell of a story, and kudos to you on the upfront-ness! i hope you like the way your day is turning out - i'm enjoying it. virtual book tour. kevin is a genius.

Caroline Leavitt

For me, MJ, when I get a sense of the person beneath the author, that's when I really want to buy the book. Your talking about your novel and the difficulties of publishing and the obvious respect you have for your readers makes me want to buy everything you write--even your laundry list. When authors elevate themselves from their readers, my initial response is, "why should I read YOU?"


Mark Billingham told me that in his latest novel he wanted to explore the evil in men and see what his character would do when he was faced with a moral dilemma. Would his character allow the things to continue or would he intervene? I like that an author may not know where he/she is heading when they start writing and to see where they end up. Did they answer the question? Did they learn something from the journey about the character? themself?


I have two quite different answers:

1. I love the sex therapist anecdote at Sarah Weinman's site! So it's definitely true that a memorable anecdote might prompt me to search out a book--the more perverse, the better. (If I were you, I would have left it a mystery why you sought out the sex therapist--but hinted that an answer might be found in the novel itself....)

2. I wish that instead of blurbs from well-known writers--which supposedly create a sort of picture of the book's demographic (i.e. I plot with my British publisher to enlist Louise Welsh, Alan Warner and Margaret Atwood to write blurbs), but which often have more to do with who could be wrangled into doing it--you would learn on the back of the book what novels the writer loves most. NOT what books the novel is most similar too--this is often misleading. Rather, what are the 2-3 favorites of the author--this often tells me the most about whether or not I will read something. For instance, if someone chose ULYSSES and DeLillo's UNDERWORLD, I would put it right back on the shelf. If they instead mentioned Rebecca West's THE FOUNTAIN OVERFLOWS (my favorite novel of all time) and Kazuo Ishiguro's THE UNCONSOLED, I would buy it without even looking at the opening paragraph to see if I liked the writing. This is why blogs are such good marketing tools--really, finding points of contact between your own taste and the writer's...


To me, it's a matter of being given just enough details for me to construct this 3-D version of the book in my head. The tag line on Sean Stewart's latest book cover for instance, does it: "a novel about Texas, ghosts and perfect pop songs." That's just enough for me to want to inhabit that space.

I used to work for a writer who was very successful and had rabid fans. He was good at working the personal magic and making people not only want to read what he was writing but feel like they just had to. I learned a lot from observing him in that respect.

He always sounded excited about and interested in whatever book he was talking about. (That sounds obvious, but sometimes writers have this awkward plot synopsis they give no life to when they tell you "what the book's about.") Anecdotes about the writing of it don't hurt -- what was easy, what's hard, but not in too much detail. But the main thing was that he would always pick two or three really cool concepts/things in the book that the readers brought their own baggage to and toss those out. Again, in my opinion, this allows the reader to construct an idea of your book that makes them want to read it. Too many specifics can kill that sense of involvement and intrigue. Too few and it doesn't stick.

Well, that was clear as mud. May as well have said holograms are good.


I have a little variation on the question: What has a writer said about another book that made you go out and get it? Craig Clevenger was incredibly enthusiastic about "Kiss Me, Judas" by Will Christopher Baer, writing about it in his blog and in essays. So I (and many other fans) ordered it online immediately (I found a copy at Powells but it's being re-released this Sept), and I'm very glad I did. It's a mesmerizing, incredible piece of work.

Jennifer Colt

Hi again M.J.,

I don't believe there are any magic words or phrases to induce buying the book (unless it's, "Buy it or I'll shoot!")

I think what you're doing is very effective: Going online and connecting with readers, offering up interesting personal observations, and posting a sample of Halo Effect. The sample pages are what really sell the book, along with the precis (and I have to admit, the cover).


Jennifer Colt

M.J. Rose

Thank you all so much.

Bob I have another question - for anyone really - you say the author's enthusiasm - but what do you mean specifically - we can't just tell you how much we love our own work???:)


it seems bob was referring to authors plugging other authors' works. my take on his point is thus: say you go out and in an interview start talking about, oh, i don't know, karin slaughter's indelible (chosen because it's on sarah's site and i just saw it). your insights into the writing life, the genre, the author, and the book itself are going to mean a lot to someone who likes your work, and that is going to propel them towards a sale. or maybe i should have done this vice-versa - say it's karin giving the interview mentioning you? if i'm reading bob's comment correctly, then my expounding above can be taken as my vigorous assent. i don't generally allow critical reviews to create a judgment in my mind as to whether to buy or not, but if it's an enthusiastic "get thee to a bookstore, now!" from a writer i admire, then yes, it can make me buy a book i would not have otherwise purchased. our favorite writers become like extensions of our critical selves, or little gurus of the bookshelf.


The most effective pitch: "You're going to buy my book, right?"

The runner-up came while I was lingering at a reading and the author, whose book I'd already purchased and read, asked: "Who would you like me to inscribe this to?"

Clearly, I'm a pushover. Aside from coercion, however, I respond most to an author's passion and point of view. I often find myself buying books on subjects that I'm not necessarily interested in if the author is sufficiently enthusiastic about what they write. This is especially true of nonfiction. Fiction writers who appeal to me, however, have that same sense of excitement about their work. People like Sherman Alexie can charm you with personal charisma, but a thoughtful interview with someone like, say, Dan Chaon (who could be charismatic, I don't know) can work just as well.

Lastly, the one thing that a writer can't tell me is often the most important: Is the book well written? If someone tells me that about a book--regardless of the genre--I'll check it out.


Oh, my comment was nothing against a writer pushing their own work. (By the way, visit my site!), I was just adding a little twist to your question. Reading reviews is one thing, word of mouth is one thing, and getting a push from the actual author is one thing, but when you talk to an author who you love, and that author praises the work of another writer (even more than their own work), then that endorsement is going to be important to you, since it's coming from someone whose own work you know and love.

M.J. Rose

Thanks for the clarification, Bob. I agree, an author being enthusiastic about another author is effective.

And I love this: Thanks for posting it -

The runner-up came while I was lingering at a reading and the author, whose book I'd already purchased and read, asked: "Who would you like me to inscribe this to?"


"I can die now."

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