What It Takes

What It TakesWriting Wednesdays

Horror Stories

By Steven Pressfield | Published: December 8, 2010

[Continuing our “What It Takes” series, an inside look at the process of publishing and promoting a book in 2010-11 … here’s Post #3:]

The first book signing I ever did was for The Legend of Bagger Vance. It was at a Books-a-Million store in Lakeland, Florida. I flew 3000 miles from Los Angeles.

Nobody showed. Not a soul. I felt terrible for the store manager, who had set up a beautiful table with stacks of books and even a poster-sized photo of me. We were there at seven in the evening, all alone. It was like a scene out of the life of George Costanza. The manager and I wound up dragooning innocent customers in the aisles. We were lucky we didn’t get arrested.

It got worse. The next day I drove to the Golf Channel to do a TV interview about the book. I walked in to the reception area, introduced myself and took a seat. I could see the receptionists speaking uneasily into their headsets as they relayed the info back inside. After a few minutes, a producer came out. “This is gonna sound odd,” he said to me. “But who are you and why are you here?”

The producer who had booked me had been fired the week before. He had neglected to tell his successor about me–or me or my publisher about his own departure.

I can honestly say that, of all the promotional tactics that have been employed on behalf of my books, only one has ever really worked:

A rave in the New York Times.

What exactly is the Problem?

The reason for this blog series is that there is a problem. The book business–like the music biz and the movie industry and the newspaper and magazine business–has been turned on its head. What used to work, doesn’t work any more. Writers and publishers are thrashing around, trying to find something that does.

The core overthrow for publishers is the demise of the book review. Michael Connelly wrote a great op-ed for the L.A. Times in 2007, citing all the papers across the country that have down-sized or eliminated their book review sections–the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Chicago Tribune, the Dallas Morning News, the Raleigh News & Observer, the Orlando Sentinel, the Cleveland Plain Dealer, not to mention the L.A. Times itself. We must have lost a boatload more since then.

And no online alternative has yet taken their place.

Reviews were how readers found out that a book existed. Even a lousy review was a plus because at least it got the word out. When Gates of Fire came out in 1998, it got not one but two reviews in the New York Times and a dozen in other prominent media. It was off to the races.

Now there’s nothing. When The War of Art came out four years later, it got reviewed in two places–Esquire and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Every writer has horror stories like these. What success The War of Art has found since then is due entirely to word-of-mouth.

Promotion.

Publicity.

Marketing.

I never imagined I’d have to involve myself in these arcane arts. But these days it’s do or die. Nothing is more depressing than to work for two or three years on a book, get it as good as you can get it–and then watch it be published and sink without a trace because no one even knows it exists.

My core readership is military. When The Afghan Campaign came out in 2006, I went to speak at West Point. The book had been in the stores for six weeks already, but virtually no one at the U.S. Military Academy–“my base,” as George W. Bush would say–even knew it was on the planet.

A brave new world

That was when I decided I had to do something.

That’s what this series, “What It Takes,” is about.

What can we writers, artists, musicians and entrepreneurs do today to help ourselves? We can’t count on publishers or labels or galleries. Their hearts are in the right place and they do their best, but it ain’t enough. It’s up to us.

We have to be creative. We have to work smart. We have to come up with ideas that nobody’s come up with before.

If you and I were Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and we were bringing out a new cereal, we’d throw $60 million against it. We’d have to. That’s what it takes. We’d also have a sales force already in place; we’d have money to buy favored positions on the supermarket shelves. We’d use everything we’ve got to make our audience aware of our new stuff.

But you and I don’t have sixty mill and we don’t have a sales force.

The video below was my first attempt at using new media. YouTube. I did it in 2008 to support the publication of Killing Rommel. I convinced my allies at Doubleday (my publisher) to scrap the usual undernourished ad campaign that nobody sees anyway–and instead give me the budget to do a video. I kicked in my own money too, more than I’m ready to admit.

Did it work? No. I had no platform for it. No way to make anyone aware of it, or of the new book.

Which brings me to this blog, to this site. I still don’t know what I’m doing. I’m still thrashing like everybody else. So far the only thing I’ve figured out is you have to give stuff away. You have to share your experience, your wisdom.  As I and Shawn and Callie write these “What It Takes” posts, we hope it’s helping a little.

One thing I have learned (and I have no idea how this pays off, if it ever does) is you have to go with the fun. The video above nearly broke my bank, but it was a gas to do. I scouted the desert with my girlfriend (the location is Dumont Dunes, an hour south of Las Vegas), shot the video with a dear old friend (and made some new friends), cast it with the men and vehicles of the Long Range Desert Group Preservation Society (who had as much of a blast as I did), camping in the cold and eating beans out of the can for breakfast.

The lesson of that video to me is that you have to try. To be passive is to die. You have to put the energy out there, and you have to keep pushing it. Speaking only for myslef, if I didn’t, I’d be so depressed I couldn’t even begin the next book because I’d know it would be D.O.A. for lack of publicity, marketing and promotion. But when I do do it … when I do push and I do think and I do try, I’m okay.

Now I just gotta figure out how to make this stuff work.

[Friday, we’ll have Post #4 in this series, Shawn’s follow-up to his post of last week. Stay tuned. No more horror stories for today.]

Posted in What It Takes, Writing Wednesdays

32 Responses to “Horror Stories”

  1. December 8, 2010 at 1:57 am

    Thank you Steven-your humble willingness to share your insight is why I keep coming back.

    That and I love your books.

  2. Paul
    December 8, 2010 at 4:14 am

    Just bought “The Legend of Bagger Vance.” Score one for your new media.

  3. December 8, 2010 at 5:28 am

    The journey is both frightening and exciting. Thanks for sharing your experience and reminding us to always try. Be fearless. As you said, “To be passive is to die.”

  4. December 8, 2010 at 6:30 am

    Sir — keep up your good work promoting. If it hadn’t been for your blog, I wouldn’t have known that Bagger Vance was actually a book not just a movie. And I would have missed out on The War of Art! Keep doing what it takes! My life is richer for having read your books.

  5. Josh Tatter
    December 8, 2010 at 6:32 am

    I found out about you through word of mouth. My friend saw that I was in the midst of reading David Gemmell’s first Troy book and suggested that I read Gates of Fire. As soon as I finished the book I was reading I went out and bought Gates. After that I was permanently hooked.

  6. Bill Todd
    December 8, 2010 at 6:49 am

    Thanks for sharing your experience. It is so easy (for me, at least) to assume that we know what goes on behind the scenes. Your candor about the process encourages me. Maybe those of us who are still scrapping away are not so far from those who have “made it”, whatever that means.

    Pax.

  7. Janet L.
    December 8, 2010 at 6:56 am

    Great post, Steven. I agree that writers have to push themselves to try blogs, videos, new media in all its shapes and gimmicks — because that is where people are learning about movies, books and music these days. It takes being clever and breaking out of the box. It’s not easy to keep up with everything out there, but it is fun if you learn something new and sell more books.

    Thanks!

    Janet

  8. December 8, 2010 at 7:11 am

    You’re on the right track here, definitely.

  9. Larry Kiedrowski
    December 8, 2010 at 7:17 am

    I appreciate your work and hope that you find workable marketing strategies. About the video. Although great, much too long for most attention spans, no mention of the book until the last few seconds. Would have been better if you had left more details out and teased the viewer with “find out the true story” book plugs throughout the clip.

  10. December 8, 2010 at 7:23 am

    Your video worked for me! My father-in-law will be getting Stopping Rommel for Christmas this year.

    Steve, honestly, we need you to plow the road on this marketing stuff. I’m pressing hard but getting no where. Help!

    I’ll be reading.

  11. michael c.
    December 8, 2010 at 7:25 am

    I found you through Bagger Vance. When I went to the bookstore looking for Gates, I asked for the new Stephen Pressfield book. “You mean the Bagger Vance guy?”

    Seattle P-I, R.I.P.

  12. December 8, 2010 at 10:33 am

    Steven,
    I love the War of Art! and enjoy your blog. This new series is fantastic. Your energy and enthusiasm are inspiring. Thanks so much for giving back like this.

  13. skip raschke
    December 8, 2010 at 11:53 am

    hang tough…semper fi…ive read all of your books and you Are the best!

  14. December 8, 2010 at 2:24 pm

    A terrific example. Your director is superb and the editing and camerawork are exemplary. Somehow, two vehicles became many. Would have liked to see credits for that work, but I’m geeky like that.

    I agree that it’s too long for most purposes, but it’s too short for others. I can see this becoming a Discovery or History Channel piece. Perhaps it can be placed almost as is with PBS, but I’m thinking they don’t use shorts as often as they once did.

  15. December 8, 2010 at 2:47 pm

    Yes, it’s a brave new world out there. The good news is writers are no longer dependent on publishers to get their work out there. The bad news is we are all having to learn a whole new skill set which has only minimal overlap.

    I’ve spent 3 years learning the ins and outs of online marketing to get my book out there, and it’s finally starting to pay off. It’s every bit as much work as the writing was…more actually.

    Love ‘The War of Art’. It’s one of the all time great writing books. I recommend it all the time.

  16. December 8, 2010 at 2:47 pm

    As a musician I’ve found that I have to learn how to write in order to connect with the people who might like my music. I guess in this way you have an advantage in that you are already a master storyteller. And so far your own story is as compelling as the ones in your books. Many thanks!

  17. December 8, 2010 at 4:42 pm

    Great stuff Steven. I can tell you this: people still want the books. That much we know. I just finished my first and I can tell you that folks who hear about it – want it. But the question becomes, how does the word spread? The problem I have with the internet is that it rarely produces results. At least that’s my experience. Pros are the only ones who can get it done, and the internet is mostly amateur at this point. Everyone goes to facebook to make their own prescence known, but no one goes there to buy anything. I honestly believe that TV and radio are the best way to go because the artist has a direct way to speak to the audience (with the help of pros who produce the show). And it gives credibility that the internet just doesn’t have right now. Just my two-cents.

  18. December 8, 2010 at 5:44 pm

    Steven, Thanks so much for your candor and willingness to share your own experiences. I’ve been grappling with all this stuff too, and I am sure many other artists will appreciate your thoughts. Regarding “giving stuff away”, that’s the marketing mantra I’ve been picking up on the web. You have to be remarkable, give your stuff away to build your tribe which becomes your market niche. Thanks again for picking up the sword and leading the charge into this new frontier. You’re certainly remarkable.

  19. December 8, 2010 at 6:19 pm

    Love your blog. Until this post, I had you on a pedestal. Not that you’ve fallen. On the contrary, this post made you human and approachable.

    This post made me feel that it’s possible if I keep at it.

  20. December 9, 2010 at 12:04 am

    Thanks for all the valuable information.

  21. December 9, 2010 at 5:44 am

    I enjoyed this blog, the movie and your latest book. I’ve also given some thought to innovative marketing strategies for writers. When I tell friends I’m going to rent out the Minneapolis Metrodome for $400 an hour for readings, they think I’m crazy. That tells me it’ll probably work. So, the solution may be to do something completely unexpected, something totally outlandish, without getting killed or arrested. You’ll make the news.

  22. December 9, 2010 at 8:28 am

    This was great – I tweeted it and will link it on my blog once I get a chance. Thanks for sharing!

  23. Angela Lee
    December 9, 2010 at 9:51 am

    Thank you so much for this series,Mr.Pressfield!I think you were ahead of your time with that video:) In the last year,I have noticed a trend among authors is to put out an accompanying “book video trailer” to promote a new book. They are usually short & have a pace like a movie trailer. Often times the author reads an excerpt(Whip Smart by Melissa Febos is one example).
    And as you have observed already the arrival of the ipad signals even more changes & opportunity in publishing.

  24. December 9, 2010 at 10:29 am

    Thank you very much Steven, for the honest heart and encouraging thoughts. As I read about your ‘disappointments’ along life’s journey … I could certainly relate.
    My husband is always saying, “Enjoy what you do and if it isn’t fun, don’t do it.”
    I have to remind myself that I paint because I love doing it. I’m not an artist because I want a bank account. Your point about ‘DON’T GIVE UP’ is very encouraging. “Thank you.”

  25. December 9, 2010 at 12:28 pm

    Hello Steve,

    What a cool video – I really liked it! The editing and the props betrayed the effort that must have been put into it. I’m sure to pick the book up at Amazon.

    I know you’d have read this post by Seth’s as he is a good friend of yours (he quotes you all over the place), but for others looking to get a grip on the new rules of publishing, this is timely:

    http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2006/08/advice_for_auth.html

    Thank you for your warmth,
    -Shashi

  26. December 9, 2010 at 1:58 pm

    Loved the video. My wife is an artist and we can so relate to your comments that we had to LOL at every point about Giving away work and the “fun” comment because our motto in retirement has always been “If it ain’t fun, don’t do it”. The wife has worked on her book for 8 years with the same nothing results! I was 6 years old when I turned on the Radio to listen to FDR tell us we were at war! Looking at all the faces of the adults in the room scared me because I had never seen expressions like that before on their faces. We will be reading all posts as you bring them online and keep it up please! Regards, John and Gracia!

  27. December 9, 2010 at 2:37 pm

    The War of Art pushed me into making the transition to “professional painter”. Now the book remains my personal trainer when I’m faltering. Looking forward to your “what it takes” posts to help me keep all these paintings moving out of my studio.

  28. Ines
    December 10, 2010 at 8:54 am

    I appreciate your transparency:

    “I still don’t know what I’m doing. I’m still thrashing like everybody else. So far the only thing I’ve figured out is you have to give stuff away. You have to share your experience, your wisdom.’

    Thrashing….

  29. Gary Reed
    December 11, 2010 at 8:29 am

    Steven,
    Amazing, powerful video. I recommend listening to Seth Godin’s recent talk on the future of book publishing. Might be too late to enact his ideas with this book, but could be very helpful when starting the next one. http://sethgodin.typepad.com/seths_blog/2010/07/the-new-dynamics-of-book-publishing.html
    Gary Reed

  30. December 12, 2010 at 8:49 am

    A friend shared your book “The War of Art” with me, and before I finished it, I ordered one for someone else…thank you so much for sharing your brilliant insights! I am a painter who just turned pro…long overdue. And I am purchasing “Stopping Rommel” for my husband for Christmas…we both loved “The Legend of Bagger Vance.”

    • December 12, 2010 at 9:05 am

      “Killing Rommel” sorry, looked at someone else’s post and got the title wrong!

  31. December 15, 2010 at 5:15 am

    Buying every book of yours we do not own for my husband for Christmas AND and after reading they will go alongside The Bible in our home — The War of Art.