Popular Book Club Picks

Readers: There is a discount offered at the end of this blog post!

What makes a popular book club pick? By now, everyone knows that the Oprah seal of approval will skyrocket any author’s book sales–no matter if that author turns out to be a sham or if the writing is more voyeuristic than literary. But of course, many of Oprah’s recommendations are utterly fantastic works of high merit (Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout comes to mind). Outside the big-name promos and who’s-who lists, how are the bulk of loosely organized book clubs around the country selecting their books?

Word of mouth plays a huge roll. Think of the last ten books that you read. How many of them did you read because someone told you about it, gave it to you, or because you saw it mentioned several times through various media outlets? Repetition and a trusted endorsement still go a long way in the book marketing world and I’m glad for that. Sure, actual face-time word of mouth recs may travel slowly compared to tweets, but they still move and if a writer is patient, the sales may eventually add up.

The other criteria is often
emotional subject matter. People want to see part of themselves in what they read–even if they’re reading about nonfiction subjects or fictional worlds that are far, far from anything they’ve personally experienced. Good writing always opens a door for a reader and somehow connects to the universal. Some of the most commonly selected stories are stories of survival against all odds (think of memoirs written by sexual assault survivors, extreme outdoor experiences, adults who overcame poverty or alcoholic parents, etc.). Other favorites are love stories, stories of illicit affairs, or stories that involve ordinary characters making prolonged moral decisions that ultimately feel extraordinary due to the context (think of novels that feature frustrating yet likeable characters who can’t seem to do right or learn fast enough…but ultimately succeed or learn in the end).

And sometimes, a book is selected because the author is local or the subject matter is timely. This afternoon I got to meet with a group of North Carolina readers who selected Flashes of War as their book club pick for November. Since this club meets just a hop, skip, and a jump away from my home in the Airstream, I also got to enjoy the luxury of knowing my audience ahead of time. The organizer brought homemade gingersnaps. Another member brought pumpkin bread. The hostess offered coffee and wine. And I brought a bouquet of flowers.

I also brought my folder of “source material.” These are all the notes and images that I gathered during the 2 1/2 years it took me to write Flashes of War. Along with my laptop, which I used to show a 3-minute video on my creative process and a slideshow of photos that inspired my work, we had plenty of things to discuss as the members of the club arrived and asked me to sign their copies of the book.

I loved getting to talk to people about my work who I ordinarily only see in another context (at gallery openings, at the grocery store). It was so special to relate reader to writer, curious mind to curious mind. It helped me feel more “known” in my own community and, in turn, bolstered my confidence as I told the story of how I worked my way from barista to grad school to full time, self-employed writer. The added bonus? I got to tell personal stories of victory and disappointment that aren’t public. Who wants to post a Facebook update about a missed opportunity, a behind-the-scenes conversation that went awry, or a publicity omission that cut to the bone? No one. But give a writer a roomful of soft ears–and remember that that writer is used to working alone and keeping the nuances of her business to herself–and it’s kind of lovely how the opportunity to share face-to-face leads to real connection.

To that end, I’m inviting readers of The Writing Life to please consider bringing Flashes of War to your book club. Your word of mouth vote will have a direct professional, financial, and creative impact on my business and therefore my life. Between now and the end of the year, if your book club orders 6 books or more directly through me, I’ll send a bulk mailing of the autographed books and waive the shipping fee. Message me through Facebook for details, and let’s get this started!

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