By: Paula Butturini
I got my publisher’s final, official, they-can’t-back-out-now approval for my first book, a memoir called Keeping the Feast, in June 2009. My family was getting ready to high-tail it out of Paris to take our annual summer vacation in the States, and the night we got the news, my husband, John Tagliabue, and I popped open a bottle of cheap, sparkling wine and drank a toast. Rube that I was, I thought I was pretty much done, and could go off work-free on a desperately needed vacation.
My first clue about how clueless I was came from a mystery writer, friend of a friend, who was coming through Paris with her publisher-turned-consultant husband. The couple obligingly stopped by our apartment one day to deliver a fast-paced seminar on modern publishing. They told me to move. Fast. Get a serious website, they said. Join Facebook. Get on LinkedIn. Learn to tweet. This might sound self-evident if you’re under 50, don’t consider yourself a Luddite, and have been living in the States, not Europe, for the last 30 years. But it was all news to me. They told me to start trolling those thousands of book blogs out there on the Web, to develop a blog following of my own.
But the most important thing they told me was to get myself a pitch: an elevator pitch – 30 seconds long – that would tell a perfect stranger what my book was about in a way that would make them want to read it. They suggested longer pitches too, of a minute or two, perhaps up to five; a coherent, cogent way of sweet-talking your way into a potential reader’s brain, planting the seed to make him want to read what you wrote.
When they asked me for mine, I went blank, then began mumbling a long, rambling account of the book in the style of a third grade book report, an anti-pitch of the highest order. Reporter husband shot, depression follows, memories of mom, mom commits suicide, oh and there’s food memories and shopping in Rome’s Campo dei Fiori, and there’s the Eastern European time, too …. By the time I’d finished, the couple looked dazed, clearly wondering how I had ever managed to write the thing, let alone persuade anybody to publish it. Rather than racing for the door, though, they patiently re-explained what a pitch was meant to be: punchy, to the point, persuasive. So I worked on my pitch for months, practicing it on every unsuspecting person who asked me what I was up to.
I also bought a book they recommended, called Publicize Your Book, by Jacqueline Deval, and I sped through it one night until I was dizzy and rightly convinced my own book didn’t have a chance of selling to anybody beyond my immediate family plus a few old, very loyal friends. Which put the fear of God into me, pushed my adrenaline levels through the roof, and kept me nailed to my desk chair ever since. Had I really wasted 10 years of my life working on this darn thing?
I may have been “committing” journalism on various continents for the last 37 years – for the old United Press International, for The New York Times, The Washington Post and papers from Boston to San Francisco – but in the book world I am, simply, a no-name author. And all no-name, first-time authors – even those getting amazingly solid support from their publishers, as I did – should not be surprised to find themselves working full-time to promote their books if they want to stand out from the other 200,000 or so other writers publishing books each year.
My editor had already recommended a solid website builder who specialized in authors. As I was delivering my third-grade book report version of a pitch, Steve Bennett at Authorbytes grew increasingly interested in Keeping the Feast. When he heard I once did radio spots for UPI, he told me I needed to write and record a series of podcasts to launch with my site. My ‘‘vacation,’’ I saw, was disappearing. We drew up a list of possible podcasts, each one a little pitch unto itself, and I found myself getting up at 3 or 4 in the morning to write and hone them, so that before I flew back to Paris, I could record them — not on those midget tape recorders we once used in quiet broom closets at UPI — but in a fancy recording studio near Boston.
As you’ve probably guessed, I paid for it myself. No-name authors pay for their websites, their recording time, their author picture, their domain name, their travel, lodging and food. Suck it up; it’s money well spent.
By the time I walked out of a meeting in New York with the Riverhead/Penguin team, I had officially kissed any vacation goodbye. I was going to be spending most of the next half year executing their ideas: developing essays and story ideas for long-lead national magazines; writing and rewriting a story to pitch to those same magazines; answering an endless Q&A and writing an essay about why I wrote the book, both for the press kit (which is half come-on, half bribe, offering canned info to lazy writers who can then lift material without ever having to actually talk to me or pose an e-mail question). I made a list of personal contacts for advance review copies in hopes that would produce blurbs, reviews, blogs, radio or newspaper stories. In my free time, I was also trying to slap together website content: yet another biography that talked about my life; a pithy synopsis of the book, followed by a long, detailed description; yet another Q&A; and finally, a pile of family snapshots for a picture gallery that would somehow tell the story of the book.
All of it translated into endless hours at my computer, which sits in a corner of our dining room in Paris. I have been living in this corner of my dining room for the last three years now, two years writing and revising the book, and the third trying to figure out how to push it out of the nest to see if it could fly. Only now do I see that the writing and the revising were the easy bits. Promotion is a whole lot less fun.
Six weeks before the launch, a Penguin-organized virtual book tour of online bloggers began writing reviews of the book for their readers and floating it out on the Web. I was responding to questions and comments on a dozen book blogs, writing talks I would deliver on my homemade book tour, plus e-mailing anyone I could think of who lived in striking distance of places where I’d soon be speaking. Fear got me working. The idea that I might have to speak to rows and rows of empty chairs was enough to keep me slogging away, trying to induce old friends and neighbors, colleagues, acquaintances, grown-ups I’d once babysat for, former teachers, friends of friends, my parents’ very elderly friends, not to mention several generations of family to come out on a frigid February or March night and listen to me talk.
Mounting a cattle-class sort of book tour had its virtues: By speaking only in cities and towns along commuter train tracks where family or friends would lend me a bed, feed me, and drive me to all my radio or newspaper interviews, I’d unwittingly organized a built-in core of people who would show up at my talks and encourage their friends and family to do the same. Still I was prepared for the worst. At my first talk, at the magical bookstore called RJ Julia, in Madison, Connecticut – a town I had perhaps been to once in my life – I lined up, from Paris via the Internet, a small ‘‘crowd’’ of old reporter colleagues, a few childhood and high school friends, who all promised to show and pay the $5 entry fee. When I entered, every single chair was taken, and nearly 100 people were waiting to hear me speak. I had failed to take into account the clout of RJ Julia’s e-mail list.
The Internet has certainly upended book publishing. I know how it impacted the response to Keeping the Feast. All those months I sat in my dining room in Paris typing e-mails to old friends across the Atlantic paid off in spades. My little high school’s Facebook page brought out women I hadn’t seen since our graduation more than 40 years earlier. E-mails from my hometown’s neighborhood association drew friends from grammar school. The old girls network at my alma mater, Wellesley College, got the word out by Internet and publicized my appearances, too. Family, old friends and acquaintances across the country heard me speak on NPR thanks to live streaming.
My decade spent with UPI also proved invaluable. I worked for UPI in Dallas for five years back in the ’70s and ’80s, and had kept up my connections. I found one old Unipresser colleague on LinkedIn, just as he and his wife were packing in Kansas City to come to Paris for Thanksgiving. They had no idea we’d been in Paris for a decade; thanks to the Internet, we had an amazing 30-year reunion five days after reconnecting. Months later, when they saw The New York Times Book Review piece on my book (a rave, thank heavens), they sent out the link on their Facebook pages unasked to 450 people. Two days later, when NPR’s “Morning Edition” ran an interview with me, my husband’s army of brothers, cousins and adult nieces and nephews passed it along to people they knew. Facebook postings popped up.
The wildest Internet ride came during that three-day period when The Times’ review was followed by the “Morning Edition” interview: Friends all over the States began e-mailing me constant updates on the book’s spike in sales on Amazon.com, monitoring its jump from around 8,000th position before the review, to somewhere in the 200s afterwards. It was an exhilarating way to learn how the Internet takes word-of-mouth advertising, mathematically speaking, to a higher power. But that was three days of fun out of a 10-month slog.
My return to Paris was utterly deflating. Not a single English-language bookstore in the city was stocking my book. Two of the bookshops basically told me they’d judged the book by its cover — a photo of the church domes of Rome — and surmised it was a travel book about Italy that wouldn’t fly in France. Another bookshop owner, finally persuaded to order books for my reading at the American Library in Paris, arrived with a grand total of six copies (Let’s see, six times $29.50 … Not good.) Luckily my publisher and I had dozens more for readers eager to buy. My favorite wake-up slap in the face came when I visited the sub-agent in Paris, the person who I’d imagined enthusiastically pitching my book to local publishers for translation. Not only had she not yet read it, but she pooh-poohed even my New York Times review for focusing on the food aspect of the book. “The only thing French people hate more than an American writing about food,” she said tartly, “is an American writing about a personal journey.”
“Not Eat, Pray, Love, not Under the Tuscan Sun, a biting memoir about depression and food as salvation.”
By the way, here’s my 30-second pitch: Even though reviewers in the States seem to push the book as if it were a cousin to Eat, Pray, Love or Julie and Julia or Under the Tuscan Sun, it was always meant to be the family companion guide to William Styron’s chilling jewel, Darkness Visible, which parsed in elegant prose his own personal descent into madness. Keeping the Feast parses our family’s dive into depression, and traces, with hope, its zigzagging path back to the surface.