Saturday, 12 June 2010

The Trouble with Marketing?

The trouble with marketing is that it requires a broad brush approach to something that might be as complex as mesh wire studded with tiny pieces. People ask me how come 'Porlock the Warlock' hasn't been picked up by a big publisher? or why don't I send it out to them more often? and so on and so on. My reply is that it falls between stalls.
On one level, as something kept just simple enough for eleven year olds (or at least ones who read a lot) to read, it can be classed as a kid's book. On the other hand however, its inspirations were historical documentaries and the more popular history books such as Michael Wood's In Search of... documentaries, and C.V. Wedgewood's 'The Trial of Charles I' or Christopher Hill's seminal but highly readable 'The World Turned Upside Down'. Also J.R.R. Tolkien's 'The Hobbit' (like countless others, but at least very aware of the debt/homage), H.G. Wells' 'The Time Machine' as much as Dr. Who, and Richmal Crompton's Just William series (all 38 books of them). Those were its antecedents.
Its inspirations in terms of what the book is about however, are weaving together the destiny of two very real and ancient artifacts: The 3rd Millennium BC Epic of Gilgamesh, from ancient Mesopotamia (modern day Iraq) etched on clay tablets and 'discovered' in the ruins of the Library of King Assurbanipal in the 1800's, arguably mankind's oldest story and obviously predating Homer's Iliad and Odyssey - and the 1,000 old Exeter Book, chief among the four codices of Anglo-Saxon poetry that we have left, and the largest collection of Dark Age pre-Christian work, and the oldest written example of what we would now recognize as 'English' in existence. It is worth more than the Cathedral and probably the whole of Exeter, and both are arguably of equivalent significance for literature as Stonehenge and the Pyramids are for monumental architecture. And finally adding some Viking culture taken straight from the oral history later recorded in the Medieval Icelandic Sagas. I.e. writing about three of the things I love best - the Exeter Book, The Epic of Gilgamesh, and the Icelandic Sagas.
Add some genuine astronomy, locally produced quality food, an environmental skein, moments of high comedy and plenty about what it means to destroy heritage, and you have 'Porlock the Warlock' - a historical time travel adventure? a kid's book? A historical adventure that kid's can read as well? Sci fi? Fantasy? Or a book about the moment of inscription, the elusive and mythical instant when the oral became the written, when poetry that had been spoken and handed down for generations, travelling with scops and skalds, singers and tellers across kingdoms and continents, became recorded by scribes on the orders of quixotic kings, seeing farther into the future than their fellows, or church authorities on a whim to catch up the past and passing savage age they felt themselves to be replacing...
Hang on - moment of inscription? That sounds either academic or some piece of text artist whimsy...doesn't it?

When people buy it and read it, they seem to love it or even if they don't like adventure novels or it's not their usual fare, find it 'addictive' and 'a good read'. Others have called it 'so poetic', 'captures the sensations of the past', 'we loved our journey to Saxon England and Ancient Iraq - where are you taking us next year?' 'she loved it - learnt a lot too!' and so on. Most buyers have been adults, with only about a quarter buying it for their children or to read aloud to their children, but everyone who has got back to me (and let's face it, most folks when buying anything just walk off with it once they've paid and you don't ever see them again), has said they liked it a lot or loved it.
But, like 'The Hobbit' and the first book in the Earthsea Trilogy (and many others) the first 30 pages start simply (author thinks; got to keep language simple for target younger market). By page 30, you, like many others before, have got really interested, know where this is going, have it all mapped out, have fallen in love with all the characters and have taken off writing a novel - not for kid's or for anything, just a novel, the one that's been desperate to get out and fly onto the paper. Except of course that it's the first 30 pages that agents and publishers ask for...and the pages are fine - perfectly good as a set up to what happens...but representative of the book as a whole? Well, kind of, but only that. When I've threatened to change the beginning, people who like it have threatened me back. And to be honest, I haven't the time, and there's nothing 'wrong' with it.
The Harry Potter books and the 'His Dark Materials' books are read by people of all ages, as are 'The Hobbit' and 'Just William' - the last of which are much funnier as a grown up! But how can you market something for 'everyone', when the publishing mainstream industry needs to categorize things in specific groups? So if the query letter is the most important part of any submission, and you're not sure how to frame it in a short space (before the agent/publisher loses interest and throws it in the slush pile, i.e. 90 seconds), then maybe (despite folks saying and believing it could sell as a mass market paperback) you should stick to issuing it yourself. So I do, pretty much. Having written, proofed, edited, typeset, and printed it, it's enough work selling and promoting it, let alone thinking of 'the right thing' to say in not more than a paragraph for the lottery of mainstream publishing as well...(given the many tales of one MS. being picked randomly from each pile of twenty or more). If I could think of a broad brush phrase for the slightly complex recipe that is 'Porlock' I would, but...hey I've got forms to fill, gigs to rehearse for, book stalls to hold, workshops to.... And yes I've visited Query Shark, but you have to have a succinct query letter to submit to begin with. (Succinct? You mean LESS than a page?!)
Anyone have a better idea? Answers on a postcard please.

Marketing is simpler face to face when you're yelling 'wonderful historical adventure novel! All ages, lots of local links! Saxon Exeter! Exmoor! Crediton!' at festivals in the summer. THEN folks come and part with cash. And guess what? You get to keep the profit! Unlike big publishers and their £1 a book if you're very lucky...

The trouble with marketing is...not having a quality product, but getting folks to hear about it. Mainstream publishing is really useful at that point as they have the marketing machines and the money, but if you have to be great at marketing the work to them in the first place...might as well try it yourself. 'In the meantime' or otherwise.

1 comment: