June 16, 2009

It was just over a year ago that my book Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever was released, and I am now at liberty to reveal a piece of information about which I have heretofore held my tongue:

Swish has not sold as well as my publisher hoped it would.

I have no idea what this means in terms of actual copies sold, since this information is more difficult for an author to get hold of than, say, the Golden Fleece. But I had lunch with my agent some weeks after the release, and the fact that the sentence that contained the word “failure” ended with “not your fault” didn’t prevent me from bursting into tears.

This is how publishing works: Each season publishers like Random House put out a number of books, each of which tends to fall into one of three categories: sure-fire bestsellers, like any book by Dan Brown or John Grisham; pretty good bets, like books by celebrities; and everything else. Publishers plan to spend a significant amount of money promoting all the books in the first two categories, but there simply isn’t enough money to commit firmly to supporting all the books in the third category. What happens, therefore, is that publishers give them all a little help so they can get off the ground. Then they wait to see which two or three catch on; once they’ve figured that out, they commit to supporting those two or three firmly, and perforce leave the rest to get by as best they can. As far as I can tell, the time a book has to catch on before the publisher has to stop paying attention to it is about six weeks. It’s hideous, of course, but it’s also exactly what I would do if I were a publishing company; given that the number of books published a year has more than doubled in the last seven years (from 135,000 in 2001 to 280,000 in 2008*), while the number of books bought a year has stayed more or less the same, I’m astonished that any company can do more than scrawl a book’s title on a Post-It and toss it out the window.

But now, back to our story. After I stopped crying, and finished a pint and a half of Häagen-Dazs Chocolate Peanut Butter Truffle ice cream, it became crystal clear what the problem was:

The title and the cover.

When the book was released and the reviews started coming in, I was delighted, because for the most part they were very favorable. But then I started to notice something, which was that almost every one said something along the lines of, “From the cover I thought this was going to be fluffy and shallow, but then I read it and I loved it.” Then people who had read the book started e-mailing me, and almost every one said something along the lines of, “From the cover I thought this was going to be fluffy and shallow, but then I read it and I loved it.”

The problem, it turned out, was that while many people saw the cover, thought the book was going to be fluffy and shallow, and bought it and read it anyway and loved it, they were far, far outnumbered by people who saw the cover, thought the book was going to be fluffy and shallow, and, since they weren’t interested in fluffy and shallow, went and bought something else (Backdraft: Fireman Erotica, one presumes).

(At least there were more people who bought it anyway and loved it, though, than people who bought it and then grew angry when it wasn’t fluffy and shallow. Seriously. A couple reviews were like, what is this? Where’s the Cher? There are hunky guys on the cover, why is he telling us about his dead mother?)

Now: I think the hardback cover is brilliant and beautiful. Since I know myself, I get a kick out of the disjunct between the cotton-candy outside of the book and the much richer chocolaty insides. Unfortunately, my editor and I forgot that the book-buying public did not know me. Seeing the unsubstantial outside, therefore, they assumed that book had an unsubstantial inside as well. It was awful. They were judging the book by its cover.

(There’s also of course the very real possibility that the reason people weren’t buying the book was that it was bad. But let’s assume this wasn’t the case, if only for the sake of discussion.)

So my publisher was about to do what was as I’ve said the only sensible thing: admit defeat, sell the paperback rights (which meant that they would at least make some of their money back), and move on.

Then I got a strange e-mail followed by a phone call from a Very, Very Famous Person, whom I can now reveal to have been Sir Elton John. He had read Swish, he said, and loved it. He said many other nice things about the book and offered to do whatever he could to help me out.

I e-mailed my editor with this information, naturally, and after a time got a reply containing the fabulous news that her boss thought they could use this as a sales hook, so they were going to go ahead and publish a paperback. Repackaged, with a new cover and a new subtitle. Naturally I celebrated by eating another pint and a half of Häagen-Dazs Chocolate Peanut Butter Truffle ice cream.

It took literally months to come up with the new cover and subtitle, but my editor’s assistant told me that I should see this as a good sign, because they wouldn’t spend so much energy on something they didn’t really believe in. (Then my editor got laid off—note, please that she had become my editor after my last editor had gotten laid off—but her assistant stayed, so I felt I could still trust her advice.)

So the paperback was released today. It’s called Swish: My Quest to Become the Gayest Person Ever and What Ended Up Happening Instead, it has a beautiful cover (click the image below to enlarge) that more clearly implies the material inside, and it’s graced with a foreword by Elton John. Of course I hope it will become a smash hit, but mostly I’m just grateful that the book has gotten a second chance.

swishcoverblog.jpg

*These statistics don’t include the 285,000 books self-published in 2008, which number represents an almost 500% increase from 2006.

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20 Responses to It was just over a year ago that my book Swish

  1. That’s great. “Best book about being gay I’ve ever read.” That’s a really cool thing of him to do. Good luck.

  2. Stephen Carden says:

    Congratulations! I’ve read all of your posts and never commented, but I am so happy for you I’ve been shaken from my lurking tendencies.

    Best of luck!

  3. Lauren says:

    I so endorse this approach.

    A couple months ago, I was having dinner with a ballerina in SF and telling her my story about the nutcase in NYC who put me in the acknowledgments to his book and then stopped speaking to me as soon as he no longer needed a proofreader. “Oh, what book?” she asked. I told her. “OH!” she squealed. “A friend of mine was reading that just last week!” “Oh? Did he like it?” “I’m sure he did – – he’s GAY,” she said, in case I thought it was a straight male dancer reading _Swish_ in San Francisco. Then her umbrella came to life and gouged her eyes out.

    Er, anyway, a less-fluffy cover seems more accurate.

  4. TED says:

    I am concerned about orphaned half-pints of ice cream languishing unloved in your freezer. They bespeak a lack of commitment.

  5. lee says:

    I love fluffy and shallow. I am fluffy and shallow, especially fluffy, and getting more so by the day. Imagine my distress when I bought your book.

  6. Matthew says:

    Yep, that was me — I picked up the book at a book store because of the eye-catching cover, but which also made me think it was fluffy and shallow. The sense of humor in the first few pages was what hooked me, but it wasn’t until I got further into it that I discovered its surprising depth.

    I still love the original cover, though.

  7. Jeff says:

    Well this is wonderful! And I think it means you’ve been vicariously knighted.

    Is that you on the cover?

  8. People in the Sun: I know, right!?

    Stephen: Thank you, and welcome.

    Lauren: I actually stopped speaking to you because of your e-mail of 1/22/08. But I’m glad you like the new cover. I do too.

    TED: E.S. had eaten the corresponding halves. What do you take me for?

    lee: You obviously didn’t read carefully enough. The depth and sagacity of the book is really just a mask for the fluff and shallowness deep down.

    Matthew: Oh, I’m glad!

    Jeff: Yes, that is me on the cover, circa 1979.

  9. Charles says:

    Is it wrong that I want to go buy the book again so that I can appreciate the new cover and the foreword by Sir Elton?

  10. Charles: That is exactly the response I hoped for from people who’d already read the hardcover. So not only is it not wrong; it’s perfect.

  11. chuggle says:

    I agree with Matthew a million per cent (which I’m rather happy about seeing I had to by the book through Amazon as it wasn’t available here in Australia… it would have been a bit disappointing if I didn’t like it). Only thing I’d say about the new cover is that the title is a tad unwieldy and difficult to identify as a title. But I truly do love the pic of you, especially having already read the book. And I’ve recommended it to everyone I know. Just love it.

  12. Justin says:

    So I picked up the 1 of 3 copies the Yale Barnes & Noble had tonight. You’ll be pleased to note that the two people I had to ask to go fetch it from the back called dibs on the two other copies.

    In addition, while I was getting your book, I picked up The City and the Pillar and read the Rolling Stone Lambert interview.

    I think I need to pace myself a bit more in my gayness….

  13. Nikki says:

    I just received my copy of Swish from Amazon and read the foreword. Could a foreward be more complimentary? Essentially, SIR Elton John calls your book the best ever written. I think this is a need-to-know fact for all your blog readers!

    P.S. I heard “Saturday Night’s Alright for Fighting” and thought of you. (Bet nobody has ever said that to you before.)

  14. Convivia says:

    In addition, while I was getting your book, I picked up The City and the Pillar and read the Rolling Stone Lambert interview.

    I think I need to pace myself a bit more in my gayness…

    No, sir! Put the pedal to the metal and go for the all-out homosexualist BURN!

  15. Kevin says:

    I bought the first edition, read it, loved it, lent it to someone who never returned it. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. That means I bought four copies. Now I’ll have to buy the paperback so I’ll have the new cover and the forward by SEJ. At question: must I also buy new paperback copies for each of the four people to whom I lent my hardback copies? If my original intent was to share my delight in finding an unusually literate and engaging book, would it be miserly for me to suggest that everybody buy their own?

    Good luck with sales. I think you shouldn’t worry about this, because the book is generally considered an unusual achievement of unusual quality. That means it will be in print for a long, long time.

  16. Anna M says:

    I love the new cover. I also love the old one. I have to agree though that it does not do your book justice in terms of the weight contained within. Not that I’m saying your book looks fat. I checked it out from the library, but I may need to buy a copy just to show your publisher a thing or two.

    I am not yet finished but I will post a review to my blog when I am done (see, learning from your example). My review will start like this:

    “I reserved Swish from the library so that I could read it, pick my favorite part, and thus gain access to the author’s Super Secret Blog. As I read it, I keep thinking ‘This is my favorite part.’ And then ‘Oh, THIS is my favorite part.’ “No wait, it’s this part.’ Faustus is really taking me on a ride here, despite my not being his type. Plus, I’m learning all sorts of things about sex that I’ve wondered about for years.”

  17. Kasey says:

    I just picked up “Swish” at A Different Light in SF, and I love the new cover. Not only am I easily distracted by shiny objects – the gayer the better – but I was immediately intrigued by the title. As someone who has learned to take pride, to some extent or another, in being called “swishy,” it seemed just superficial enough to hold my interest during my commute to work. Plus I’m always trying to find more gay knitters because we seem to be a fairly scare breed. My partner, on the other hand, was mostly intrigued by the endorsement from the aforementioned Very, Very Famous Person, who is essentially his idol. I guess this is all by way of saying that, a) the new marketing strategy is working, and b) it’s possible that I will spend the next two weeks stalking you via archived entries on your blog.

    …And now I’m going to go huddle in a corner and try to fight the crippling anxiety that comes from posting on the blog of the guy whose book I’ve been speed-reading for the last several days, because you could think whatever I’ve just said is stupid and the fact that I’ve posted it in the first place is really weird. I don’t know what horrible fate will befall me if you think my attempts at humour aren’t funny, or if you nitpick my grammar and punctuation for an hour after reading this comment, but I’m sure it’ll bother me for quite some time to come.

  18. chuggle: Thank you. And since about a week after publication I’ve been regretting that I didn’t call it Swish etc. etc. “and What Happened Instead.” Damn you for not telling me this six months ago.

    Justin: I agree with Convivia (comment 14). In fact I think that you need to go faster. Next time I think you have to add some Ronald Firbank.

    Nikki: You’re just saying that so I’ll give you the information I’ve owed you for five months now, aren’t you?

    Convivia: I agree wholeheartedly. Life is too short.

    Kevin: Will you marry me?

    Anna M: I have now forgotten most of what I wrote about sex.

    Kasey: I love you.

  19. Kevin says:

    Marry you? Of course. In my imagination I’ve already married you a couple times. Then we got divorced and were best friends forever after. What the hell. Fairy tales can come true, and so forth. Your turn.

  20. Ryan says:

    Hi Faustus,

    I bought Swish roughly one year ago while browsing Barnes and Noble in Walnut Creek (CA) with my partner. We both read it and enjoyed it thoroughly. Your story inspired and moved me, and of course induced lengthy bouts of laughter and side aches, since it is so friggin’ hilarious. Being a straight man, I did get the expected comments from friends and family members who would see the cover and make the obvious remarks, but I displayed it proudly, anyway, because I just love your book. And of course it saddens me to hear that it hasn’t sold as well as was hoped, so I hope the new cover and help from Sir Elton John will remedy that. I’ve grown to love the original cover but if the new one gets your book read by more people then it is a success in my mind.

    I also wanted to tell you that my partner and I recently moved to Australia for a year-long hiatus and to experience a bit more of the world (we’re in Sydney, currently). After selling most of my possessions, I brought very little with me to Australia (it all fits in two suitcases, including clothes), and only about ten books; Swish is one of them.

    Cheers,
    Ryan

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