Philly writers taking the book club route to recruit readers

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Fifteen years ago, when Nomi Eve published her first novel, “The Family Orchard,” she became something of an expert on hotels and airports.

“Showing up at bookstores, doing a reading, doing a signing, and jetting to the next city,” said Eve. “There was a lot of jetting to the next city.”

By the time she published her second book, “Henna House” in 2014, the world had changed. No more jet-setting book tours. Now she has become something of an expert on book clubs.

She vowed to visit 100 book clubs within six months of publication, driving within an hour of her home — including clubs in public libraries, synagogues, country clubs, high schools, restaurants, and electronically through Skype. She once flew to Boise, Idaho, to visit a library club.

“Friends circle book clubs, in living rooms — that’s the vast majority. You’re invited into somebody’s home,” said Eve on the occasion of her 91st book club visit as she sat in the Rydal, Pa., living room of Sharon Rhodes, the host of a 3-year-old book club.

It being a mild evening in late spring, the half-dozen ladies in the club decided to take their mimosas outside by the pool to talk about “Henna House,” a novel about early 20th century Jews in Yemen, wherein women meet to give each other henna tattoos.

“Having visited 91 book clubs, we have a sisterhood,” said Eve to the women seated on patio furniture. “Book clubs are a henna house. Book clubs are 99.9 percent female. This fills that need for that gathering and being together.”

Eve gets marketing support from her publisher – Scribners – and still goes great distances to cultivating her audience, one glass of white wine at a time.  Many authors do it out of necessity as publishing companies – even major houses – have shrinking marketing budgets, leaning on authors to make up the difference.  

Cultivating reader friendliness

“Good books with rave reviews aren’t enough,” wrote Merry Jones, a Philadelphia mystery writer, in an email. “Authors must build hungry, book-buying ‘communities’ and ‘followings’ to appeal to publishers. It’s not what many of us signed up for, but it’s the only option.”

Jones aggressively chases readers, on many fronts. She has surreptitiously slipped copies of her books on waiting room tables at doctor’s offices; sent everyone she knows invitations to her characters’ weddings or (as is often the case for mystery writers) their funerals; and bought etours – promotional packages sent to bloggers and reviewers.

She once penned a novel under a man’s name – a nom de plume – and sent her husband out to impersonate her at speaking event.

“He did fine,” said Jones. “Probably better than I would have.”

Jones also joined the Liars Club, a group of writers in Philadelphia that combines resources to promote one another’s work. Sharing email lists and marketing tips, they stage events to attract readers. They came up with Noir at the Bar, wherein mystery novelists read their work in bars for a drinking crowd. The idea has been replicated in other cities.

The Liars Club once went after a most captive audience, by printing their logo on toilet paper, and replacing the rolls in all the restrooms at a writers conference.

By the book, and beyond

Kelly Simmons writes “women’s fiction.” (A “charming title,” she said sarcastically.) Her last novel, “The Bird House,” was published in 2011 by Simon & Schuster. She used to work in marketing, still taking on freelance work in between writing novels.

“Even though I’m good at thinking up ideas – I come up with all kinds of crazy ideas and some I even execute – but that’ doesn’t mean they are going to work,” said Simmons, a Liars Club member. “I don’t have unlimited budgets to throw at the problem like some of my clients do.”

Like Eve, Simmons has done a book club marathon, visiting more than 200 clubs within a three-hour drive of her home in Bryn Mawr. She said it nearly drove her crazy.

“I learned a lot about women and what they like to read, but it creates a false sense of being a celebrity,” said Simmons. “You’re answering questions and traveling to places, and you feel like you’re doing really well. That doesn’t mean that you are.”

Simmons once trolled for readers by printing long excerpts of her book as brochures and handing them out on the Amtrak train between Philadelphia and New York. Then she would sit down with passengers for an impromptu book discussion during the commute. It didn’t work so well.

“Most of the people on the train were men. I hadn’t thought about that,” said Simmons. “I met a lot of men and told them to take it to their wives. Stupid, but it’s clear my kind of writing doesn’t really appeal to the men riding the Amtrak train.”

Simmons’ next novel, to be called “One More Day,” will be published early next year by a small independent publisher, Sourcebooks. They have already started thinking up marketing ploys.

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