Here’s a scary story for you. Imagine laboring on your novel for seven long years. Finally – it’s complete. You deliver your finished work to your publisher, who, at that decisive moment, closes his business. As far as the marketing of your book goes, you are on your own. And you don’t know the first thing about book marketing or promotion. What would you do? That’s what happened to author Janey Bennett. Since that time, she has become a marketing dynamo, selling thousands of copies of her book, The Pale Surface of Things, and garnering seven book awards.
Janey Bennett has enjoyed colorful and varied careers, from radio announcer to horse trainer and drama critic. She spent five winters teaching English to Buddhist nuns in Thailand. Her writings on architecture have been published in the United States and Finland, where she held a Fulbright research fellowship. She has been writing fiction for eight years. We spoke with her recently about her book and what she had learned about book marketing. These days, publishers expect more of their authors when it comes to marketing and promoting their titles. Janey Bennett’s story should give every author hope and the confidence to successfully promote their work.
FPP – Can you give us a brief overview of the story told in The Pale Surface of Things?
JB – It is a fast-moving novel in a Cretan village-kidnaps and killings, prayers and healing, ethics and ritual: When a young American archaeologist flees his impending marriage and secure future, he lands in the traditional world of a Cretan village, where he must confront feelings he’s always avoided: rage, fear, envy, and shame, as he becomes the central pawn in a vicious family vendetta. Years prior, in World War II, the village suffered horribly at the hands of the Nazis; now, its priest labors to heal the lingering wounds from that time. It’s a story about love, loyalty, power and death pass set in western Crete. I’ve been told that in many ways, it is a book that reads like a movie.
FPP – What motivated you to write The Pale Surface of Things?
JB – Most novelists, I think, write to figure out some puzzle about human behavior. In my case, it was the contrast between the joyous enthusiasm of my students in Thailand, young Buddhist nuns who had left their villages and ordained as nuns to learn skills to support themselves, and (the reason I was there) to learn to speak English and to read – contrasted with the dour self-pitying complaints from the well-heeled backpackers from the West who stayed at the guesthouse where I lived. I wondered if a life of material success doomed us to chronic complaint and dissatisfaction (my students were happy and they had nothing!) or if there was something else. It occurred to me that what freed the young nuns to be happy was that they belonged to a culture that defined who they were and what their lives would contain. Wherever they went, they carried their village and family traditions with them. They didn’t have to invent themselves. So the idea rose: what lessons would it take to bring a young, comfortable but insensitive American to a place of integration and social connection if he were thrown into a traditional village life.
JB – I was enchanted but puzzled by the traditional life I saw in Thailand. Crete is specific in its traditions, and although I spent years researching those traditions, I knew they could be seen. If I were to create an image of the two locales: Thailand is filled with leafy deep shadows, and Crete has hot sunlight on hard rock. Emotionally as well as physically.
FPP – Who/what has had the greatest influence on your writing?
JB – I didn’t grow up wanting to be a writer. I have read all my life and I learned to think because of the books I read. Since for me, writing is puzzle-solving, I think I was influenced by plays, movies, and all kinds of stories that taught some glimmer of information about how life works among us humans. Also, I was influenced by living abroad, in another culture, seeing how other places support different lives than ours.
I loved the writings of Paul Scott, especially The Raj Quartet, and The Piano Tuner by Daniel Mason, because both writers allowed their locations to direct their stories, as locations DO direct our lives. Many other writers have delighted me, as well, of course.
FPP – Marketing and writing seem like such vastly different endeavors. How did you orient yourself to the marketing role after being so immersed in writing the book?
JB – Simple. I gave up writing for the first year of promoting the book. I became the book’s guardian and that was my full-time job. Now I’m back writing on the next novel, and it’s much harder because every time I stop to do something for Pale Surface, it shatters my story-generating concentration. I may need to postpone the writing a bit longer. They are two different jobs altogether.
FPP – How did you go about organizing the marketing for your book?
JB – I had no plan when this started. My publisher went back to graduate school and I took over the task of marketing and I simply did everything I could think of to do. I respected the book. I respected the markets. I showed up wherever I saw the possibility of introducing the book to new readers.
FPP – Which of the various marketing efforts has been the most effective? The least effective?
JB– It’s hard to make a direct correlation between a marketing effort and a result, because they all feed the buzz about the book. My advice is make every effort you can. You never know what’s going to link up to something big. I’m not sure I would take a booth at all the bookseller tradeshows again. I’d be there, standing near a group display, but the booths were a lot of money for attention that might have come anyway with a lesser expense. But I’d go to those shows, for sure. Nothing is wasted. No effort is a total dud. Do it all.
FPP – What marketing techniques would you like to try, but haven’t yet?
JB – I don’t know. I’ve tried every one I could think of, and I’m sure I will think of more as the months roll by.
FPP – What is personally the most difficult aspect of marketing your book?
JB– Redesigning graphics for posters, postcards, ads, etc., on short notice. I’ve done much of the graphic design – I have training in it – but I don’t do it daily and I am slow at it. I know what I want but I forget how to ask InDesign or Photoshop to give it to me. I don’t like accounting much, either. I didn’t like cleaning my room as a kid, either. Lemme do the fun stuff!! Meet the people!! Talk about the book!! Share ideas!!
FPP – What would you do differently, knowing what you know now?
JB – I would have hired my book marketer sooner. I didn’t know that such people existed until I met her. She has saved me hours of effort by knowing how to do some of these things.
FPP – You have said your book reads like a movie. If it were made into a movie, who would you like to see play the roles of the leading characters?
JB– I’m so glad you asked!! I would like Tom Hanks to play Fr. Dimitrios, the village Greek Orthodox priest, who is the mentor for the young American and who has to uncover dark secrets in his own family’s past. I would like Keanu Reeves to be the young American, because he has the range to move the character from numb through shaken to compassionate. And I would like George Clooney for Spiros, the Cretan bully. I know that’s casting against type, but he’d be so good at it, and I think he might like to do it for a change. That’s enough dream-casting for now.
FPP – What is your next writing project?
JB– I’m two-thirds through writing a tale of domestic crisis set in central California,–in Big Sur and the Carmel Valley, where I used to live. And I’m starting research for a sequel to Pale Surface of Things, which will involve saving the village after the young men all move to the city for work. I don’t know how they WILL save it, but that’s the joy of writing: learning what might be.
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