Dress Your Darlings

by Jennifer McLean

The other day my husband and I, playing tourist, stopped in one of those downtown souvenir shops. We wandered around and glanced over the various knickknacks and jokey gifts. He found a book and was all excited about it. “You have to see this,” he said. It had the appearance of a bestseller; on the back cover was a list of accolades from notable people. On the front the title was printed in giant letters: WHAT MEN THINK ABOUT WHEN THEY’RE NOT THINKING ABOUT SEX. I took the bait and flipped through the book. It was blank. The whole thing. Blank pages.

Ha! A bestseller made of nothing but blank pages! Brilliant! Why didn’t I think of something like that? Why did I have to go and fill the pages of my book, over 200 pages, with words. Dammit! Now I’m going to have to convince people to read all these words! Although, if you think about it, even the author of the blank book would have had to convince someone, too, convince them that enough shop owners would buy the gag and believe their customers would buy it. The perfect coffee table book! The ideal gift!

Marketing. Unless your art is hustling or busking you will probably say you hate this part. You shouldn’t have to do this! This is not what you were put on this earth to do! It’s your job to write, and the rest of the world can figure out what to do with it. I couldn’t agree more. But here I am, with my book Small Brown Bird: Stories in Praise of Folly, now out in the world, flapping around out there, all alone.

Pity, I say, to myself. Have some pity on this thing.

In writers’ workshops there will always be someone who admonishes everyone to “kill your darlings.” Yes, it’s a term of craft. (And God knows, there are probably dozens of magotty darlings worming through this very article!) But the first time I heard it my reaction was NO! I will not kill my darlings! I will put a coat and hat on each of them, shoes on their feet, shove some sandwiches in their pockets, give them my blessing, send them out into the night with half a chance! It occurred to me that this was not only a stylistic school of thought but could, in fact, be my Marketing Plan.

I have given it a little more thought.

The “Dress-Your-Darlings” Marketing Plan comes in three variations, depending on how much money, energy, and clout you might have.

Consider first the moth-eaten coat. This is something you keep in the trunk of your car, or holed up in the back of the broom closet, or under the bed in that duffel bag with the broken zipper. It may not even be moth-eaten—the coat, if it isn’t wool. But we can agree that it’s dusty, moldy even, torn up here and there, not something you want to put on. You keep it “just in case.” Just in case you decide to write a book and publish it yourself, for instance. You will need something like this old coat to throw on your book in place of a marketing plan. Or—another for-instance—you might wake up in the morning to strange groaning sounds under your bedroom floor and come to realize that a total stranger has spent the night in your basement. It’s because you left the door unlocked again, you silly. Leaving basement doors unlocked or even swinging wide open is a common aspect of the neighborhood but so is having a baseball bat sitting somewhere near the front door. Just in case. So you grab the bat—feeling a little freaked out but having made up your mind to be Fair and Polite. The person in the basement might be drunk, or badly injured, medicated, or unmedicated, or all of these. My point is that you probably won’t do any shouting or calling the police—but you might not take too great an interest in the person either. You will want, most of all, that they leave. But you will not send them away in the winter without at least throwing a warm coat on them and pointing the way they need to go. In short, it cost you nothing but you gave a damn.

“Old Coat” Marketing Plan:

Email blast to 50 names (friends, family, colleagues)
$0…2 hrs
Publish on CreateSpace (see endnote 1)
$0…15-30 hrs
Book review in a local paper or magazine
$0…2 hrs
Book launch party (if friends provide food & wine)
$0…6 hrs
At least one reading at a local venue
$0…30-60 hrs

This is the least any author can and should do for their book, for pity’s sake.

I did give a damn about my book. I threw a coat on it before turning it out into the world. It’s there now, on Amazon. Done. But then I felt a little guilty and thought that I should do more. Maybe guilty isn’t the word. Loyalty is more like it. This book was more to me than a stranger I found in my basement. This person might be a child, a child I felt devoted to as if it were my own. And what is it that parents spend so much time on, invest so much money and effort in, for the sake of the child? (No, I don’t mean a college savings account.) In my time it was decent shoes that mattered most. A child’s legs will be all crooked if he does not have good shoes! And when he’s older, what impression will he give? What will people think of this young man if he’s shuffling around in cheap, beat-up shoes? He might be wearing a coat full of holes—but the shoes! That’s what counts. And as anyone knows who’s tried to find decent shoes, ones that will last you twenty years or more, it takes a lot of time and a fair amount of money. In short, you get what you pay for.

“Good Shoes” Marketing Plan:

Do-it-yourself website: annual hosting fee, you do the rest
$100…20-50 hrs
Google ads: wide range of budgets
$100…5-10 hrs
Do-it-yourself press kit (digital and hard copy)
$50…10-30 hrs
Book stocked on consignment (2 stores, 5 books each)
$40-$60…6-10 hrs
Book reviewed outside Asheville (20 books, postage)
$160-$320…4-10 hrs
Pay for a review by Kirkus or similar
$425…2 hrs
Buy a decent mailing list
$500-$800…4 hrs
Direct mail advertisement (at least 1,000 pieces)
$280+…10 hrs
Your own ISBN
$125…2 hrs
Move from CreateSpace to for-fee pub. (see endnote 2)
$300+…6 hrs
  • $2,200–$3,000
  • 80-200 hrs

What I haven’t included in my marketing plan is a Facebook page. I know, I know, everyone should have one! Social Media is it! In fact, I probably have one or two Facebook pages and Twitter whatevers that I started and abandoned. I can’t think of anything I’m less inclined to do than the non-stop posting, blogging, tweeting, and all the other ways to throw out generic messages into the ether in the hope of attracting electronic “friends.” And, supposedly, you have to do this constantly or it doesn’t work. You have to “be on it” every damn day. After so much drudgery, I might have collected a few hundred very nice people who would really rather trade recipes or share pictures of their dogs. Seriously, if my book were about food, beer, wine, or health and fitness it would make sense to cast a wide net. I don’t think my readers are the general public or even a large chunk of it, and even if Facebook or something like it could help me develop my niche, I’m not willing to risk investing all that time into it without even a hint of what the return might be. Social media is precious time lost forever. Time I could spend writing my next book.

If I could, I wouldn’t stop at putting Small Brown Bird in some decent clothes. I’d love to put him in a nice car and not one that he has to drive. A uniformed chauffeur will recognize him by his good looks (and those well-worn but good quality shoes) and hold up the sign with his name printed. Mr. S. Brownbird. “This way please, sir.”

And why stop there? Why not buy him plane tickets? Why not buy him the plane?

This isn’t about clearing the runway for takeoff, it’s about owning the airport.

“Airport Limo” Marketing Plan:

(Since I don’t know what publishers or publicists actually do, I am just going to have to make this all up. I have no idea how much any of this costs. Probably a lot.)

  • Logo and slogan designers, jingle writer
  • Ads in 10 big city newspapers
  • Bottle of liquor, with script of interview questions, to 10 radio stations
  • Make that 100 radio stations
  • Outrageous prizes for trivia contest announced on radio stations
  • Pay to roadside buskers in costumes appropriate to book
  • Pay to daredevil for highly visible and dangerous stunt at news hour
  • Gigantic cloth banner, a la Christo, wrapping a 10-story building
  • Promo sandwich wrappers and coffee cups at major U.S. coffee shops
  • Fee to name sandwich at national chain of coffee/sandwich shops
  • Audiobook recording, stories read by kidnapped celebrities
  • Kidnapper’s fee
  • A good lawyer
  • Fee to designer of Oscar nominee’s dress, patterned with your book’s logo
  • Gazillion copies of the book, enough to stock every airport newspaper stand, airplane, and airplane limo (Stuck at the airport or on a plane, one will read anything)
  • Ghostwriter’s fee for: Getting Your Book on the Plane: the Airport Limo Marketing Plan

I exaggerate. I do hope, however, that something approaching the Airport Limo Plan will be possible for one of my books one day.

But to answer the question I was probably supposed to answer in writing this article: Would I have self-published if I had known what I would experience? Is it something I can recommend to others? No. And . . . No. I would have tried to get an agent, and if a hundred queries or a year later had not succeeded I would have then pursued self-publishing as my Plan B. That would have been the more logical course of action. But I understand why I needed to go ahead and publish the book myself. The goal I had in writing my first book was simply to get it done. I didn’t want to sit on it, pick at it, and then let it slowly die. I wanted to cross the line so I couldn’t wimp out. I’ve done that. There is no returning. I am a published writer. My book is out there for people to enjoy, criticize, or ignore. It is not in a milk crate in my office.

Sure, I will work a little longer to try to get some decent shoes on Small Brown Bird—but not much longer. It is not my intent to be a marketer of books—simply because there just isn’t time. I have a novel to write and a few more waiting impatiently in line behind it.

I think it comes down to the same question for any writer: What is it I need to do so that I am able to write these stories? The answer is probably different for each of us. For me, I know that toiling away on Facebook or firing off rounds of query letters month after month is not going to make me want to keep writing. What will keep me writing is an attitude of service to my art.


1. I found this to be a straightforward process, just many rounds of proofing and uploading. The only difficulty I encountered was creating my cover art and making it usable for CreateSpace’s production process. I would advise fellow writers to pay the money to have the cover done professionally by someone who has worked with CreateSpace’s requirements. Theoretically you can proof everything online but you’ll probably want to order a hard-copy proof for a small fee.

2. With CreateSpace you pay no upfront costs and need not carry any inventory since it operates as print-on-demand. Although your book will be available to retailers through the usual large distribution services, the chain bookstores may turn you down. One reason is you are not working with a publisher who is able to accept returns (unsold books). Other self-publishing services to look into are Random House Publisher Services and Lightning Source, which offer a suite of for-fee services. Some of the smaller bookstores take issue with self-published authors who publish through Amazon/CreateSpace. Small Brown Bird was refused by one local bookstore (citing the objection to Amazon), while two others happily carried it. Go figure! Every book buyer will have his/her own policies on self-published books.

Jennifer McLean, a native of British Columbia now living with her husband in West Asheville, has traveled through countless cities and towns on several continents, covering an equal breadth of occupations, projects, and pastimes. She is the author of Small Brown Bird: stories in praise of folly, most of which she wrote while a student in the Great Smokies Writing Program.