This show isn’t Hollywood Squares, so, no Paul Lynde. Just a Paul McHugh.
You all are quite hep, no doubt, to this term, “early adopter.” Right?
That’s a person endowed with lofty tech savvy, avid on the uptake, swift to embrace the very hottest gear or a fresh method.
Well, I’m the polar opposite.
I’d bet, for example, that of all smart phones now aglow in Silicon Valley (here on the San Francisco Peninsula), my cell phone is by far the dimmest. And in every conceivable way.
So, now imagine me attempting to promote my newest novel via a new or high-tech means. A bit of a stretch. But hey, we’re in a pandemic! Many of our old methods don’t work so well. Or even, at all. Necessity doth make one helluva prod for a donkey, doth it not?
Who’s Zoomin’ Who? – Aretha
Thus, I threw myself at learning how to Zoom and Facebook Live. And I learned enough that I now have an opinion on how authors can enhance their virtual presentations.
But before I jump into tech aspects, let me describe a more traditional approach I used to set up my overall book launch.
See, certain things haven’t changed. Selling a story is just like old-school fishing. At the far end of your line, you need hooks. If you haven’t any, your project to haul readers in may well be doomed before it even starts.
“Hooks” in our storytelling biz indeed much resemble the half-circles of bent metal on colorful plugs that guys in overalls tie onto lines, then cast out over tannic waters.
But storytelling hooks are psychological. You must start with an angle… topical angle, culture angle, trend angle, personality angle, issue angle…
Your angle should compel interested parties to consider your allure, then imagine that any curiosity you’ve stimulated deep within them can also ultimately be satisfied by you.
Early on, I determined that simply puffing the creative plot of “Came A Horseman” wouldn’t be my first hook. Sure, I can claim that I’d reimagined the Western rather damn well. However, most thrillers do try to pimp themselves as vivid new takes on one genre theme or another. To stand out from that crowd, I had to try a wholly different tack.
My initial angle, I decided, would be location.
Localism Writ Large
I’d not only prime the pump of readership by targeting my home state of California, but also narrow its squirts down to a specific region. And once targeted there, I’d appeal to local pride.
In making such a move, I’d be aided by the fact that all action in “Horseman” takes place between San Francisco Bay and a town much further north. The bulk of my tale unfurls on a mysterious stretch dubbed The Lost Coast – a largely wild area that straddles the Humboldt/Mendocino county line.
NorCal locals take pride in The Lost Coast. Hey, if you had roadless zone of such mystery in your neighborhood, you’d brag about it too, hmm?
All right then, I had my pitch. Time to toss it out. Do you know of the Ouroboros symbol? That’s the snake-eating-its-tail, the ancient image of a closed loop. To get local coverage, you need to have a local event. To get a local event, you need a promise of local coverage. Sort of a catch-22.
A marketer is forced to hack into this loop at some point.
Your best method is to nibble a short way in at one side, then a short way in on the other. Acquire buy-ins somewhere, then you can proceed further.
The Gallery Weighs In
Thus, I persuaded Christie Olson Day, owner of The Gallery Bookshop in Mendocino to agree to a virtual event for “Horseman.” Next, I pitched news outlets in Humboldt and Mendocino counties on ways to announce this event: using the local angle.
Sure enough, the article on “Came A Horseman” that ran in the Eureka Times-Standard had the headline, “New novel features Humboldt County scenes.” The front-page bug for Fort Bragg’s Advocate-News read, “Novel set in Mendocino County.” And the Mendocino Voice, an online outlet for the state’s whole northwest region, ran a brilliant piece that proclaimed, “a new novel set on the Mendocino Coast about a fictional future that draws heavily on the ancient past.”
Christie of The Gallery proposed a Zoom event for “Horseman” on the evening of January 14, followed by a Facebook Live at noon on January 21. The latter event would scoop up those unable to get themselves Zoomed on that earlier date.
My wife – who’s been running a university fellowship entirely online for almost a year – undertook to transform me, a Zoom virgin, into something better than an online video bozo in less than a week. Which meant, we rehearsed. Early and often.
Our Top Online Video Findings:
- Wear no “busy” patterns on your clothing – no checks, plaids, stripes. Or, for gosh sakes, dots. A blend of simple shades is best, although these can and should only gently contrast with each other.
- Perform before a well-thought-out background that also isn’t busy, not jammed with a ton of detail, a background that’s also somewhat less well-lit that you are.
- Digitally rendered lighting on Zoom right now seems to default to a washed-out, bleachy starkness. Try to add warmer lights for a more honeyed glow. We threw a yellow bandana over an LED spot for the side of my face.
- There oft seems a bit of a lag on Zoom between lip movement and sound. The visual and audio sides occasionally lack synch. To compensate, speak more distinctly and slowly, as if trying to make something quite clear to a rich yet dying relative who’s gone rather deaf. (To ensure he spells your full name correctly on his will, say.) Clear facial expressions can be a part of this process. But use only a few hand gestures, and those down at the lower corners of the frame.
- I have to tell you, one big surprise, my most pleasant, was watching so many friends and relations crop up in niches on that live Zoom grid, once it had filled out. Pals cuddled together on the screen like cooing lovebirds in a dovecot. That’s a benefit of writing on and about your native turf. Hey, right out there so close you can almost touch ‘em, are your homies, man!
Facebook Live, Alive-O!
The Facebook Live thing a week later was a bit more challenging.
For this event, I’d come up to Mendocino in person, go into the bookstore, and be on a first cell phone dialed into Facebook while my interlocutor supposedly used a different phone, at the other end of the store.
That was our plan.
But as it turned out, only a single phone was utilized. Meaning, my interlocutor had to sit a scant yard away from me. Whereupon, I had to keep my mask on as I spoke. Which was a rhetorical challenge for which I’d simply not practiced.
Three takeaways from that experience.
- If you thought you had to be careful with your diction on Zoom, dial that up about 5X to orate through a mask and then into a smartphone mic. To visualize this, I’d recommend: think of yourself as William Jennings Bryant or Clarence Darrow or Daniel Webster on the floor of the Senate – with your mouth full of saltwater taffy. And it’s truly tasty taffy, so you’re not about to spit it out. Instead, somehow, you must manage to orate around that big, succulent gob.
- The Facebook video feed looked crisper and better defined than the one on Zoom.
- My other takeaway was, if a mask seems to limit what you’re able to accomplish in the way of communicating by just shifting your eyes around (as well as that tiny patch of skin above your nose), welcome to attempting to learn in just ten seconds what Arab women have had to teach themselves over a run of centuries.
Get Your Report Card Signed
Observers did award my appearances positive reviews.
“We consider it a big success,” Christie Olson Day said. “Almost 50 folks showed up for the Zoom event, a third of whom bought books. Those are solid numbers by any measure.”
The store’s events coordinator, Rob Hawthorne, said more viewers next showed for the Facebook Live; indeed, many of them being people who’d missed out the Zoom a week before. That reveals the advantage of a follow.
Digital media may ramp up its data stream in years to come. Currently, it doesn’t seem very high-def, especially Zoom. This must be taken into account by anyone planning a pro virtual appearance. I’d say the best antidotes for a presenter to apply these days are: stark clarity and calm emphasis.
On my end, I think I’ve got room to improve on my lighting, diction, pacing, wardrobe – all elements that go into making an effective show on this sketchy medium.
As the Good Book Says – There’s Bigger Deals to Come
And I’m planning a few more events right now. Since it’s coming time for me to shift regions, and so expand my outreach. Good bloggers have written about “Horseman.” A top reporter up at Lake Tahoe interviewed me about this book, too. So, next up on my tee are the Bay Area and points East. (If I was gonna try for points West, I’d be talking to fish…)
Each launch event is a pebble flung into a great pond. The aim is to get the ripples to spread outward through the English-speaking world. And beyond that, in authorized translations, to all other nations on our planet. And afterward? To the outer rim of the galaxy.
I mean, aliens should have a chance to enjoy a good Earth book too, yes?