Just before my latest book, Home Girl, came out in June 2008, the Random House promotion team invited me in to discuss strategy. There, in an office reassuringly lined with blockbusters, we covered the usual terrain. Did I have contacts at television networks? Know any reviewers at the Los Angeles Times? We went over a list of who might blurb.
Then the marketing lady asked about my friends. I sheepishly admitted that I didn’t have many intimates, maybe ten or so on my A List. But no, I had misunderstood. She meant friends as in Facebook. How many did I have?
“I’m nearly fifty,” I sputtered. “I don’t do Facebook.”
“Get on,” she counseled. “There’s no book tour.”
Unlike the old days, an appearance on the Today Show is no longer enough. If I wanted this book to become a best-seller—or just sell, for God’s sake—we had to create online buzz. I should e-blast every acquaintance since childhood to drum up word-of-mouth. Random House also wanted an author Web site and blogs. Because the book straddled various genres—it is a funny memoir about our street in Harlem when it was a narcotics bazaar—we would hit the blogosphere from real estate to politics. The marketing lady produced a list of fifty-one sites to bombard, along with the traditional media.
But wait. There was more. We also needed a video trailer that would give a virtual tour of the house and characters featured in the book. “You must get Salami,” the marketing lady said. Salami is a manic crack addict who spends much of the book threatening to invade my house. His antics, such as doing chin-ups on traffic lights, might attract readers. We would post the video on YouTube.
“Wow,” I gushed. “You do all that?”
The woman eyed me, puzzled. “No. You do.”
Thus was I jolted into the cyber age. Until the book, I had resisted any attempt to go digital, beyond the odd e-mail. I was raised on typewriters, sent my first foreign dispatch by Telex, and hell if I was going to stop editing by pen. My first-grader son sent text messages for me. I thought a “stream” had water and “viral” meant AIDS.
I fondly recalled the day, only a decade ago, when I published my first book, Fragments of a Forgotten War. Back then, people still asked if you had e-mail. The antediluvian promotion by Penguin involved actual face-to-face interviews. I gave readings in brick and mortar bookstores and was profiled in publications that used actual paper. What was all this nonsense about Internet celebrity?
Yet, I did want to sell this book. I was aware that newspapers were closing or shedding book sections. And so I enlisted my six-year-old son Anton to help set up my profile. He got me on Facebook, and then for good measure on Plaxo, Hi5, LinkedIn, Shelfari, Goodreads, Amazon.com, and the Harvard Alumni Association. (Anton urged me to join a Yu-Gi-Oh! chat room, but even I knew that was not the right demographic.)
Once I signed up, things didn’t look that bad. I reconnected with people I hadn’t seen since college—people who still liked to read books. Heartened by this brush with the twenty-first century, I found a young woman to design the Web site. My idea—author photo and text—was deemed “too 2007.” She assured me that she could whip up something cutting edge in a week, and flipped through her Mac to show me sites where images danced and sang. Then she mentioned XHTML.
Me: What’s that?
Her: It’s like Hyper Text Markup Language—same expressive range, plus it conforms to XML syntax, a more restrictive subset of SGML.