or…The ins and outs of marketing as I understand it.

I think a lot of authors, when they’re just starting out, dream of making it big, being discovered through a sort of grass roots movement kind of thing.

I know I did.

There are people who make it fairly big that way, but the odds are heavily stacked against you.

What I’ve learned in the thirteen years that I’ve been published now, is that the American marketing machine pushes for its own interests and the books that it pushes for are the ones that tend to appeal to the lowest common denominator. And you can’t really compete with that.

This might seem self-evident, but it bears stating.

I had thought if you write a good enough story, it shouldn’t matter if the publisher is big or small, American or Canadian, people will *find* you.

Um, not so much.

Of my first three books, two of them were, I consider, outstanding: The Roses in My Carpets and Dahling if You Luv Me Would You Please Please Smile.

They were both initially acquired by a small Canadian publisher that has since gone belly up.

The Roses in My Carpets though, was co-published by Holiday House, and I suspect that’s why it got reviewed in many American journals.

Thing is, the way to publicize children’s books is pretty standard in the biz. There are the major review journals (in no particular order and off the top of my head (forgive me if I miss any obvious contenders)): Kirkus, School Library Journal, VOYA, Publishers Weekly, Horn Book.

That means there is a limited amount of space in the review journals and tons and tons of books to review!

It’s not surprising that my books, being published by a small Canadian publisher, had a hard time elbowing their way in to the journals.

In Canada the review space is getting even smaller. Newspapers like the Globe & Mail, who once heavily reviewed books, no longer do so because of fewer readers.

Frankly getting a book reviewed in Canada does not ensure good sales. And it’s all for reasons of demographics. Canada is 1/10th the size of America in terms of population spread out over a land mass that is second or first (I forget) in the world. Even homegrown hits like Tim Horton’s donut franchise and Cold FX (a fabulous cold remedy that nips a cold in the bud–I highly recommend it!) get short shrift in the States.

Add to that the fact that Canadians have a notorious inferiority complex and don’t take artists seriously until they’ve made a splash south of the 49th parallel, then you’ll understand the kind of difficulties that are involved in terms of drumming up any kind of grass roots support for your books–Robert Munsch excepted.

I realized pretty early that in order to get noticed I had to get the American publishers to push FOR me instead of AGAINST me.

Uh huh. Easier said than done!

In order to even get an American publisher to look at my work I needed an agent. (The contracts with American publishers can be cuthroat so you really do want an advocate who knows the loopholes, in your corner.)

So I shopped around and eventually landed Charlotte Sheedy, a high power New York agent who represents Lemony Snicket, Christopher Paul Curtis and other illuminaries.

You’d think I would have been set.

Again, not so much.

Then you have to write to please the agent and a peculiar thing happened right after I submitted the novel she’d asked me to write about immigration and racism. (That’s what she told me. “You should write a novel about immigration and racism)

I mailed it on Sept. 10th, ten years ago. The next day was Sept. 11th.

Thing is, when you’re writing the light breezy popular fiction, um, you can’t be scared for your life. You can’t go back, emotionally, to a time when you were frightened to go to the corner store in case you were going to be attacked.

Naively, I had thought the racism that I grew up with was actually gone.

But racism doesn’t die.

It goes underground in good times, and pops back up in bad.

Looking back, I realize that it changed my whole trajectory.

I spent many years revising that novel to death. I still haven’t abandoned it. In fact the trip I took to South Dakota a few years ago was research for what it will eventually become insha Allah.

I kind of look at this period of time as a second apprenticeship.

Where I both succeeded and I failed at writing for pop culture. (The success: Big Red Lollipop and Wanting Mor, the failure: Many Windows.  (Many Windows is too *nuanced* for pop culture. It’s less straight forward and I think it takes more thought to understand.))

And what I realized is that this whole high level of pop culture, where people constantly check their listings on Amazon and the New York Times bestseller lists, comes with an incredible amount of pressure!

When publishers give you a huge amount of money and your book doesn’t take off with a huge amount of sales, you’re basically done.

They will look at your new project in light of how your old project sold. That’s what it comes down to.

Gone are the days that a publisher would nurture and groom an author.

If you want an analogy, think of the American Idol winners. They work their butts off to make it, and then with the exception of Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson, most of the other idol winners fizzle.

I suspect they’re all burnt out, having given their best work–for free–during the course of the competition.

Basically it comes down to with great money, comes great expectations.

Most authors think they’re ready for it. They yearn for it.

But if such fame comes about unexpectedly, many find it quite traumatic.

Basically at that level, you have a whole industry behind you, pushing for you, and they’ll only push for so long before they stop.

And what anybody in that position has to realize is that the publishers are not standing still while they’re pushing you. They’re trying to find the next ‘big’ thing–your replacement–when you inevitably grow cold.

It’s not personal. They’re just hedging their bets.

It’s a business.

But when you’re lower on the totem pole, but still in a large publisher (like I was with Viking), they’ll put a book out of print, but because they spent less on you, they might, just might, keep you around a bit longer. And then, when your book makes it big, like Big Red Lollipop winning several large awards, then you’ll start seeing the marketing dollars.

Kenneth Oppel once told me that his publishers only started publicizing his books when he no longer needed them to. (they had won so many readers’ choice awards and were taking off on their own)

Some authors decide they’re going to put their own money where their mouth is.

I heard of one author funding her own author tour to the midwest and west coast. She convinced her husband to sink I don’t know how many thousands of dollars into a scheme where they drove to the major centres all across America, introduced themselves to the bookstores and tried to peddle their books.

When she told me about that it reminded me of the scene in Coal Miner’s Daughter where Loretta Lynn’s husband drove around to the radio stations and gave them demo records.

And it reminds me of those pageant moms who spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on pursuing their child’s fame.

That only works in the movies.

Save your money! Be practical! Be pragmatic! I’m not the first person to say don’t quit your day job!

Many years ago I met a person in a writers chat room who claimed to be a household name but wouldn’t divulge his identity. He told me that if I was lucky, in twenty years I might have a modest following in Canada.

It devastated me when he told me that! I don’t WANT a modest following in Canada! I want some real success!

By the way he’s also the guy who told me that I might actually have potential because I’d been kicked out of a writers’ workshop, one of those college courses. (He had no use for writers who were products of writing courses!)

So many years later, I can actually understand what he was saying.

I still think he’s wrong, that I’ll make a much bigger splash than that insha Allah, and yet I live my life, and prepare my life, for the lesser option.

And having been quite poor I am quite stingy when it comes to spending money on promoting my career. And yet I do spend money where I feel it’s wise to do so.

My day job is being a storyteller. And luckily I’ve arranged it so that my storytelling promotes the books.

What I spend money on in terms of promotion is mailouts to all the schools in the greater Toronto area.

This is a corridor that contains between 1/6th of Canada’s population and it’s very multicultural!

Because of my mailouts and the efforts of my booking agency, I visit about eighty schools a year.

And the income this generates helps support research into the new books I want to write.

But as a day job, the advantage is that the presentations also promote the books! So there’s a double whammy effect.

Remember that movie Selena, the one that made Jennifer Lopez’s career when she played that doomed Hispanic singer?

I always remember something the father character said in there.

His tactic was not to try to get his daughter Selena into the mainstream music industry. He went back to his roots and promoted his daughter’s career within the huge Hispanic community across the Southern States and northern Mexico.

He basically built an audience before he put her into mainstream.

It was shortly after Selena recorded that song “I Could Fall In Love With You…”, when she was finally wooed by the American music execs because they saw that she had appeal, that she was murdered and the whole thing came to naught.

Same thing kind of happened to Bruce Lee. After being so bitterly disappointed in his dealings with Hollywood (where he was Cato/Kato (not sure how it’s spelled) the sidekick and second fiddle to the boring guy who played Green Lantern) Bruce went back to his roots and became a big star in Hong Kong martial arts movies. That proved he had appeal.

Of course that tactic won’t work for me because Muslim audiences and Pakistani audiences tend to have even bigger inferiority complexes that Canadian audiences!

You really have to make it in New York for them to take you seriously!

So I have no choice but to make it in New York.

And yet something in me says, despite the overwhelming odds, it’s possible.

It’s because I look at the big writers out there and I can’t help thinking to myself, what do they have that I don’t?

I have an imagination just like them, and I have a curious bent that leads me to research and learn about the world. If they can do it, so can I.

But I’m definitely not willing to pauper myself in the process!

And the ironic thing is that in the process of all this, I’ve really learned that it’s the story that matters.

Not the fame. Not the glory, but the story!

That’s what’s really important.

And even if I never get any bigger than I am right now…that’s okay. Because I don’t have the pressure!