The video was more straightforward. A friend of the Web maven knew something about cameras and we rounded up the book’s various characters to star. They all enjoyed their Warholian moments. Despite a bad hair day, the local matriarch agreed to hold forth. My son proclaimed me nuts on camera. Salami was especially keen—he showed up days in advance to get my advice on what to wear. (He was also confused about the nature of the video, muttering: “You tell Hollywood that Denzel Washington should play me.”) Another crack addict—a literary fellow who likes to borrow books from us—recited an impressive stream of Latin, then got stage fright and hastily excused himself, mumbling something about a blocked toilet. My aged mother drove in from Queens to demonstrate her formidable parking skills, terrorizing the local drug thugs in the process.

But the filmmaker ultimately decided to leave these scenes on the cutting-room floor, as it were. He edited in some snazzy Klezmer music and uploaded the video on YouTube (

Within days we got hundreds of hits, and e-mails from strangers chortling over the display. But few mentioned the book, which made me wonder about the video’s impact on sales. The answer lay in my Amazon rating, which I checked so many times a day my husband suggested a twelve-step program. When I wasn’t sneaking yet another peek, I struggled to learn Dreamweaver in order to manage my site. For someone who didn’t know how to burn a CD, this process was even more excruciating than learning Russian grammar. Meanwhile, Random House lobbed the book at litblogs, which, I was assured, were as effective in shaping tastes as The New York Times Book Review.

“Readers Love Home Girl!” proclaimed the marketing lady, attaching sample reviews from something called LibraryThing. Great. Now I had to worry not only about Publishers Weekly, but also what Paperdoll and Bookmama had to say.

Even so, I appreciated this virtual populist revolt again the tyranny of the elites. Anyone with a laptop, apparently, could become a book reviewer. These citizen readers didn’t care what The New York Times Book Review thought—they liked what they liked.

Greedy for more virtual coverage, I approached an online publicist, FSB Associates, which had created best sellers via Web buzz alone. Among its trophies: the wildly popular The Prosecution of George W. Bush for Murder by Vincent Bugliosi, which no mainstream press would touch initially. Could FSB work the same magic for me?

The publicist assigned to me, Julie, was nothing short of industrious. In ninety days, she placed sixty-eight online reviews and features, ten podcasts, and about a dozen syndicated reprints of essays linked to the book. Quite a show!

Yet, once the novelty wore off, my skepticism reemerged. I realized that online fans of Home Girl didn’t necessarily embrace my best interests—making money. The ultimate betrayal came from Upfromsloth, a self-described “reluctant debutante turned aspiring punk rocker turned Stepford wife.” After extolling my writing, she recommended that readers get library cards. Library cards. “It’s all free books!” she trilled. “For free! You don’t have to buy them first!”

Day-by-day analysis showed that, minus a mention on Instapundit, the biggest sales boosts came from the traditional media—especially an appearance on Fox and Friends, followed by an excerpt in The Financial Times and a profile and review in The Washington Post.

After that, it becomes murky. Did a glowing review in The Christian Science Monitor account for one particularly good week, or was that because of an e-blast to twelve hundred people? Did anyone actually buy a copy based on the recommendation of Librarymeg?

I’ll never know.

Judith Matloff is a contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is a veteran foreign correspondent, who teaches a course on conflict reporting at Columbia, and is the author of Fragments of a Forgotten War and Home Girl.