Last night, as I have one summer evening for the past four years, I made my way down to the Mysterious Bookstore in lower Manhattan and watched Gerald Elias give a master class in author performance. Elias, the author of the Daniel Jacobus mysteries set in the world of classical music, is well-qualified for the job: He’s spent the last thirty-plus years performing and teaching the violin with the Utah Symphony most of the year and the Boston Symphony at Tanglewood during the summer.
His mysteries, each beginning with the letter D, are the names of musical pieces: Devil’s Trill, Danse Macabre, Death and the Maiden, and now, Death and Transfiguration. The first, Devil’s Trill, started as an instructional book for young musicians, and it evolved over the course of nine years to become a Barnes and Noble Discover New Writers pick when it was released in 2009. He was my first client, after Simon Lipskar let me loose on the edits to Devil’s Trill; and my first sale.
In the years between Devil’s Trill and Death and Transfiguration, the strategy—particularly for crime fiction writers—for marketing new books has evolved. It is no longer practical and good bang for the publisher’s buck (if it ever was either of those) to send authors (particularly before they are best-sellers) on the road in front of live audiences. There are too few people per appearance to sell a material number of books, and it’s expensive to pay for an author to travel and stay in a hotel on the publisher’s dime. Often a publisher will support an author if he or she wants to put together a set of appearances on his or her own dime. But the days of the ten-city promotional tour are largely in the past.
Now most authors, particularly in genres like mystery, science fiction and romance, spend their time and energy on line, marketing themselves through guest-blogging, writing endless Facebook posts and tweets either subtly or not-so-subtly urging their carefully and relentlessly gathered followers to buy their book. This is not a bad thing—it’s inexpensive except for opportunity cost, targeted at the specific market most likely to buy the book, and can be done in one’s drawers.
At my agency, we spend a very significant amount of time training our clients in the most effective ways of promoting themselves online. We help set up websites and Facebook pages, discuss strategies as to the number of updates per day to make and what the best times of day are to tweet. And some of our authors take to it like naturals. They write articles peripherally related to their projects so their names become familiar to readers through their blog tours. They comment on other people’s posts, and support each other’s efforts without (mostly) appearing craven.
And then there is Jerry Elias, who isn’t buying it. “I’m a performer,” he said to me. “I get up in front of people so they can see me, and I feed off their energy. There’s nothing to feed off in 140 characters; it’s all too remote. And what does anyone care what I ate for breakfast?”
When I watched Jerry last night, I understood what he meant. Death and Transfiguration is about the relationship between an orchestra and a conductor, and particularly an old-school, despotic conductor. In his half-hour talk, Jerry gave a bit of a history of how conductors ruled their orchestras; how it’s changed a bit in a PC world; and what the feeling is when a conductor takes up his baton (and Jerry, who frequently guest-conducts, took out his own baton and waved it around.). He also punctuated his talk, as he always does, by taking up his own violin and playing short sections of the pieces mentioned in the book.
There might have been 30 people at the Mysterious Bookstore last night, and most of us there knew Jerry. It was not an enormous money-maker for him, for the book store, or for the publisher. But it was a spellbinding hour, and illustrated with absolute clarity, the limitations of the online marketing strategies we rely on. There is no question Jerry could sell more books if he were to spend a couple of hours a day becoming as proficient on line as he is on stage. But watching him in front of us—teaching, regaling, playing, performing—it not only reinforced the futility of trying to change his ways, but made me not want to. Jerry Elias will be coming to a number of bookstores in the coming weeks and months, on his own dime. If he passes through your city, with his baton and his fiddle and his stories of conductors and orchestras and an old, blind, cranky music teacher, go on out and see him—live, not streaming.