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The great American novel is nothing without marketing

There is accumulating evidence that keeping our brains active as we age is just as critical to our well-being as staying physically active.

Many of my friends have taken up bridge, which is surely an excellent way to keep the neurons firing. Others do crossword puzzles or Sudoku, while still others are challenging themselves by learning a new language or taking art classes. Some have even begun new careers.

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I wrote a book.

Let me be clear. I didn’t embark on this project because I thought it would preserve my mental acuity, such as it is. Indeed, I figured that the skills I already possessed as a longtime journalist would readily transfer to my new role as an author. It seemed a natural and realistically achievable step for me to take.

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To a large extent, that proved to be true.

But filled as I was with naive enthusiasm, I didn’t realize that researching and writing would be the easiest parts — or at least the most comfortably familiar. When I began, I was blithely unaware of my gargantuan ignorance about book publishing.

So this old dog has had to learn some new tricks just well enough to get the book published, which I finally, thankfully, with great relief have achieved.

It is due to be released in October. I will share more details about my experiences, and about the book itself, in upcoming columns.

For now, suffice it to say that what I’ve learned through this long, excruciating process is that if anyone has any hope of succeeding as an author — or in any field these days, for that matter — they must look at themselves as a brand.

This should not have come as a surprise to me. Publicity hounds rule our world.

As I write, The Los Angeles Times’ editorial page lies open beside me, with opinion pieces about the possibility of one television star challenging another former TV celebrity in the next presidential election, and about the propensity of city officials to name buildings, parks and other landmarks after themselves.

They’re far from alone in their prolific use of self-promotion. Real estate agents, plumbers, chefs, doctors, coffee purveyors and gardeners (who now go by the more bankable term “landscapers”) are all hip to the marketing game.

I have written columns lamenting education’s embrace of marketing, and how that development has deeply influenced our views regarding the value of schools.

Gone are the days when aloof ivory tower academics remained far above low-brow commercialism. Our perceptions are now shaped not so much by facts and expertise as they are by sophisticated messaging.

It’s all about the brand, folks.

So I should have known better. Yet I was stunned to discover that quality matters far less than the publishing industry’s assumptions about a book’s marketability. And the perceived marketability is based largely on the author’s brand — or what the industry refers to as a “platform,” which is an individual’s already-established ability to reach audiences. It includes everything from one’s professional standing to the number of followers on Twitter.

If you’ve got a hit YouTube video, you will get a book deal. If you were involved in a sensational crime, you will get a book deal. If you’re famous for anything — anything at all, even the 15-minute type of fame — you will get a book deal.

I’m not sure the Kardashians can read or write, but they can get book deals. I’m pretty sure their dogs could get book deals.

The biggest exception I’ve noticed to the need for a solid platform is what I’ll call the right-place, right-time phenomenon. Say California is hit by a mega-earthquake tomorrow (I hope not, but just for argument’s sake), and I happen to have a book ready to go about how to survive the aftermath of the big one. Publishers would be lining up at my crumbled doorstep.

What this means is that many very good books stand little chance of being published through traditional channels. Many authors these days go directly to self-publishing, but that’s a tough route too because the key is still — you guessed it, marketing.

I’ve attended writers’ conferences where industry insiders deliver the depressing news, shattering the dreams of aspiring authors who have poured their souls into their works. At one such event, I consoled the woman sitting next to me who wept with frustration.

“It’s so hard,” she sniffled.

Don’t I know it. After finishing my book, I thought I could relax a little. Then I found out I needed to compile a 30-to-50-page proposal detailing my platform and marketing plans if I was to have any chance of getting published.

Even now that I have a publishing deal, much of my focus remains on marketing.

At one point, I was asked to suggest a two-sentence sales hook for the book. I turned for help to my son, who has a business/marketing degree. He schooled me in the use of catchy words and phrases that might appeal to a certain readership.

I’m still figuring out how this all works and I hope the effort results in some measure of success. Sure, I feel a little crass for turning a labor of love into a marketing pitch, but at least I’m learning something new. I can almost feel my brain growing.

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