Boulder author John Shors is marketing his debut novel one book club at a time
By Greg Glasgow, Camera Staff Writer
July 23, 2006
When he was a young man reading three books a week, John Shors always wished he could sit down with his favorite authors and ask them questions about their work.
So when he grew up and became an author himself, Shors made it a priority to make a personal connection with his own readers. Since his debut novel, “Beneath a Marble Sky,” came out in 2004, the Boulder-based writer has spoken to nearly 200 book clubs around the country, either in person or on speakerphone. He’s appeared in person at clubs all over Colorado, and by phone to readers in California, Washington, Texas, Iowa, Florida, New York and Georgia.
“Typically if readers want to connect with authors they go to book signings,” says Shors, 37, who has lived in Boulder since 1999. “In my opinion, book signings are very (impersonal) — it’s a group of 20 strangers in a room. And you have people walking through looking for books, and it’s not a very relaxed, casual atmosphere. And I don’t think it fosters the best kinds of discussions.
“I always felt like if I published a novel, I would like to make myself available to book clubs, to give something back to readers, to kind of give them that experience that I wanted, which was to interact with an author and have the ability to ask an author all sorts of questions about the book and the publishing industry in general.
“So I was very serious about trying to give that back to readers.”
The right story
Shors started off speaking to clubs attended by friends and family members. Members of those clubs told friends and family around the country, and the word spread.
On the morning of June 3, Shors spoke to a local book club on the outdoor patio at the Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse. With Boulder Creek rushing by about 10 feet away, the women sipped bright red hibiscus Champagne and nibbled at omelets and fruit plates as Shors spoke about his book.
“Beneath a Marble Sky,” which came out in trade paperback on June 6, is a work of historical fiction set in 17th-century India, as the Taj Mahal is being constructed. It also is a dual romance: The emperor’s daughter, Jahanara, the book’s narrator, falls in love with the architect of the structure; she also tells of the relationship between her father, emperor Shah Jahan, and her mother, Mumtaz Mahal, who died during childbirth. The emperor built the monument in memory of his wife.
Shors began his talk to the book club by discussing his inspiration for the story: While on a backpacking trip through Asia with his future wife, Shors went to the Taj Mahal and heard the story of its creation. He knew he finally had the setting for his first book.
“Writing as a 17th-century Indian princess is not the most natural thing for me to do. But I’d been waiting a long time,” says Shors, whose next novel, which is 95 percent done, is a love story set in modern Nepal. “I knew that I wanted to write a novel, but before I invested five years into it, I wanted to find the right story. And I was willing to be patient for that. When I was at the Taj Mahal and I heard this incredible story behind its creation, I knew I had the right story.
“Everything else just kind of fell into place.”
Shors spent four years researching and writing the book, and despite early promises from a “hotshot agent,” ended up selling it himself to a small New York publishing house called McPherson and Company. He figured if the book did well in hardback he could sell the paperback rights to a larger publisher, and that’s exactly what happened.
“We won a national award, we were on the Denver Post bestseller list for a good chunk of the summer, we sold the movie rights, and all of those things put us in a really good position to sell the trade paperback rights,” Shors says. “We put those on the market about a year ago, and Penguin Books came along and bought those rights.
“It kind of takes things to the next level, in terms of distribution and marketing and so forth. The book is in every bookstore in the country, and it gives me the ability to really hit the home run or try to hit the home run. That’s what’s good about that deal.”
Every book club, he says, wants to know about the movie deal. The rights were purchased by former “E.R.” star Eriq La Salle, whose Humble Journey Films is still trying to raise money to get the film made. No director or stars have yet been determined.
Back at the Teahouse, club members had other questions for Shors: Why tell the story through a female protagonist? What did you want people to get out of the book? What parts of the book really happened, and which parts did he make up? They’re all questions he’s heard before, but he’s all too happy to answer them, realizing that each group he speaks to represents five or 10 people who may not have bought the book otherwise.
“When I touch one person that’s excited about the book club program, she will go out and tell her eight friends about it and they’ll go out and buy the book,” he says. “So it kind of gives me a nice bounce in terms of my sales numbers because all I have to do is excite one person about the opportunity, and instead of selling one book I’ve just sold 10 books.
“I think I’m giving something back to readers, for sure, but it’s also good for me. And that’s one of the reasons I’m doing it.”
The Oprah effect
Book clubs always have boosted sales for authors, but their true power became evident in 1996 when talk-show host Oprah Winfrey started her own virtual club, recommending books such as Jane Hamilton’s “The Book of Ruth,” Toni Morrison’s “Song of Solomon” and Jacquelyn Mitchard’s “The Deep End of the Ocean.” Oprah’s seal of approval meant huge jumps in sales.
Winfrey is now credited with creating a huge boom in book clubs, whether they’re informal meetings between friends or family members, groups sponsored by book stores or schools, or online.
The concept has even taken over whole cities: Locally, the “One Book, One Boulder” program is now in its second year; Julie Otsuka’s “When the Emperor Was Divine” is the 2006 selection for a community-wide reading and discussion project that culminates in October with art exhibits, a film series and an appearance by the author.
“Book clubs of all sizes — from five friends sitting around a dinner table to an entire community adopting a favorite book — have become incredibly important when it comes to spreading the word on a book and author,” Craig Burke, vice president and director of publicity for Penguin’s New American Library division, which released the paperback edition of “Beneath a Marble Sky,” writes in an e-mail. “Books that have become major bestsellers in the last few years, like ‘The Kite Runner’ and ‘The Secret Life of Bees,’ were embraced by reading groups and ‘one city, one read’ programs.”
Word of mouth
Katy Ferris, a member of the club that had breakfast at the Teahouse, said Shors’ appearance was a highlight of her five years in the group. Usually they just read a book and discuss it, but to actually have a dialogue with the author made it a whole different experience.
“That was completely unique. It was a treat, because we’ve never done that before. We’ve never had an author come to our book club. It’s so fun,” Ferris says. “…I actually wrote down questions while I was reading (the book). Typically, if we bring questions it’s after the fact and someone got online and printed them out.
“This was nice because you actually thought of things at the time, and I would jot them down, knowing I would have the opportunity to ask him later. It made it such a unique experience.”
Shors is taking that unique experience to the next level with the paperback, which includes an author’s note at the end inviting readers who enjoyed the book to contact Shors about speaking to their book clubs. So far, he says, about 15 people have taken him up on the offer.
“John is the kind of author publishers dream about — he’s dedicated to finding interesting and innovative ways to promote his book,” Burke writes. “John had success calling book clubs and reading groups when the hardcover edition of ‘Beneath A Marble Sky’ was published, so as we geared up for the paperback publication, he understood how important these groups can be to the longevity of a book.
“John has made reaching out to his readers a real priority, and participating in book group discussions by telephone offers him the opportunity to interact with readers all over the U.S. without having to travel. Today’s readers are looking for ways to connect with an author, whether it be in person, on the phone, or over the Internet. That’s why we’ve seen a huge rise in interest for author blogs, online discussion boards, and author and book pages on such popular Web sites as MySpace.”
Shors cites bestsellers such as “Cold Mountain” and “The Kite Runner” as books that started off slowly but gained popularity through word of mouth. Of course, he hopes the same thing happens with “Beneath A Marble Sky.”
“If people didn’t like the book, then none of this would work,” he says. “But people like the book, so the whole issue is getting information out there that this book exists. My whole thought process has been to generate this grassroots buzz, and that’s why I’ve done the book club program. … When people read it, they want to tell other people about it.
“And a lot of books, that’s how they get going and how they become bestsellers.”
Contact Camera Staff Writer Greg Glasgow at (303) 473-1342 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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