BOB GARFIELD: First-time author John Shors knew he had a problem. It's the problem that confronts all first-time authors, especially novelists – no name recognition, no fan base, and, barring the unlikely intervention of Oprah's Book Club, no way to cut through the clutter created by all the other first-time novelists. So the 37-year-old scribe has taken a cue from retail politics and is pitching his book one reader at a time, wherever readers gather. Often these days they gather in living rooms, as KUNC's Nancy Greenleese reports.
NANCY GREENLEESE: Like most book clubs, the 11 women crowded in a Denver duplex realize the importance of food and drink before setting out on a literary adventure. They huddle around a table as Ashley Seymour describes the steaming spread of Indian food.
ASHLEY SEYMOUR: [ENTHUSIASTICALLY] This is navratan korma, my favorite! [LAUGHTER IN BACKGROUND] It is vegetables in a yummy cream sweet sauce. And here's the nann, which is the bread. [OVERTALK/SEVERAL AT ONCE]
WOMAN: Oh, this is too crazy.
ASHLEY SEYMOUR: It's so good! You're going to love that.
WOMAN: The women devour the buffet, selected to reflect the Indian setting of Shors' novel, which centers on real-life 17th-century princess Jahanara, who recounts the building of the Taj Mahal and the civil war that ripped apart her family. At the Denver roundtable, book clubber Toby McPhale takes on the role of Dorothy Parker as she rips into the passionate princess.
WOMAN: I don't know. I mean - [OVERTALK]
TOBY McPHALE: She had that kind of higher calling of not just her parents but the kingdom. [SEVERAL AT ONCE] Which I kind of got pissed at her for.
WOMAN: I did too! [LAUGHTER]
TOBY McPHALE: She was always, like, the right thing, the right thing, which ultimately, I was - [OVERTALK] -- one of those things where the right thing isn't the right thing. Stop!
WOMAN: Right! [SEVERAL AT ONCE/LAUGHTER]
NANCY GREENLEESE: Shors takes a sip of his Jack Daniels and Coke and enjoys the show. It's a familiar one for the tousle-haired Iowa native. He's visited more than 170 book clubs from Boulder to Boise, Tallahassee to Tacoma, sometimes in person, most via speakerphone. He's delighted to give readers what he didn't get growing up in a house where his father put a lock on the TV.
JOHN SHORS: And so I grew up reading two or three books a week my whole life. And oftentimes when I was finished reading, I would be kind of musing over the book and thinking that it would really be nice to actually be able to communicate to the author, to ask him or her a couple of questions.
NANCY GREENLEESE: His friends could dangle over the dugout and snag autographs from baseball stars, but there was no place to meet his heroes, so he started writing letters to authors.
JOHN SHORS: Larry McMurtry wrote me a really nice letter, and I was really blown away. But, unfortunately [LAUGHING], he's the only person that ever got back to me.
NANCY GREENLEESE: Shors took a page from McMurtry and responded to his readers. Friends began asking him to appear at their book clubs, and he gladly attended, spending hours dissecting the book. Word spread, and before long he was calling up to three book clubs a night.
JOHN SHORS: To me, it's a no-brainer.
NANCY GREENLEESE: These chats were cheap, just a nickel a minute, all he could afford, since he'd drained his measly 1,000-dollar publicity budget. But it did stoke sales, and eventually Penguin picked up the paperback rights. Shors put a letter in the Penguin edition, encouraging readers to e-mail, and they have. His goal is to speak to 1,000 book clubs in the next year, and the sooner, the better, because, as any author knows, new books are ditched faster than a harlot in a romance novel.
CRAIG BURKE: After about six weeks, if a book's not selling extremely well, the publicist, out of necessity, has to move on to other books that are being published.
NANCY GREENLEESE: Craig Burke is a vice-president at Penguin and the director of publicity for several book lines. He says the industry recognizes the power of book clubs. Already, nearly every publishing house provides readers' guides, and while it's unlikely that John Updike or Toni Morrison will ever appear in a living room near you, young novelists may soon be lining up out of necessity. New York University marketing professor and former Simon and Schuster VP, Al Lieberman, calculates a new author's chances of success.
AL LIEBERMAN: [LAUGHS] Very low. Honestly, very low. About one percent of the books printed each year represents about eighty percent of [LAUGHS] the sales. It doesn't leave much room for the others.
NANCY GREENLEESE: It's no wonder that hunky author Sebastian Junger used a sultry back cover photo to reel in readers for his book The Perfect Storm, while Shors peddles his warmth and accessibility. Lieberman says authors have to sell themselves as much as the book.
AL LIEBERMAN: And if you [LAUGHS] kind of come across as reasonably dull, hard to imagine that people are going to be able to overlook that.
NANCY GREENLEESE: Hiding in the shadows once lent authors a certain mystique, but not any more. J.D. Salinger, a famous literary recluse, once said, "It's all in the book," but even he might struggle to reach a second printing today. Shors, back at the book club, knows that to succeed with readers, it helps to interact with them.
WOMAN: Did the secret passage in the closet actually exist?
JOHN SHORS: That did not exist. [LAUGHTER] There were passageways out of the Red Fort.
WOMAN: That worked really well.
JOHN SHORS: Yeah, I think - [WOMEN LAUGHING, SEVERAL AT ONCE] Yeah, I couldn't figure out how Jahanara and Isa were going to hook up. [LAUGHS] I just - [OVERTALK][LAUGHTER]
NANCY GREENLEESE: Book club members Ashley Seymour and Toby McPhale say that having the author there really elevated the discussion of the book.
ASHLEY SEYMOUR: It took us to a level of, like – [OVERTALK]
TOBY McPHALE: An actual book club.
ASHLEY SEYMOUR: Yeah! [LAUGHTER] Beyond just, like, girlfriends that drink wine and eat yummy appetizers. [LAUGHS] We became something more tonight.
NANCY GREENLEESE: What's the normal book club like, without John Shors?
WOMAN: Bathroom potty talk. [LAUGHTER]
WOMAN: More sex. [LAUGHTER]
NANCY GREENLEESE: Many of the women say they plan to buy copies of Shors' book for family and friends and tell others about his book club appearance. They begged him to return when he finishes his next book – if Oprah doesn't book him first. For On the Media, I'm Nancy Greenleese. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: And finally, we invite you to check out the show next week, when we celebrate the 40th birthday of the Freedom of Information Act. We'll have some history from Bill Moyers, who was there when LBJ signed it.
BILL MOYERS: And the president was not known for his openness. He was not known for wanting to fling wide open the doors of the closet and say, come in guys, and look around and see what you can find.
BOB GARFIELD: We'll also have some music - [MUSIC UP AND UNDER] - and cake. Well – maybe not the cake. [MUSIC UP AND UNDER]
BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week's show. On the Media was produced by Megan Ryan, Tony Field, Jamie York and Mike Vuolo and edited – by Brooke. Dylan Keefe is our technical director and Jennifer Munson our engineer. We had help from Claire Peters and Noah Kumin. Our webmaster is Amy Pearl.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our senior producer and John Keefe our executive producer. Bassist/composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. This is On the Media from WNYC. I'm Brooke Gladstone.