Column: Speaking at a Rotary club is the most fun a writer can have
I got more than I bargained for last fall when I addressed the Rotary Club of Springfield, Massachusetts, USA, about my latest book, "Clearing the Bases: A Veteran Sportswriter on the National Pastime." Members gave me a standing ovation when I approached the podium and another when I finished my talk, asked good questions, and bought some books. But the real highlight came later, when I was approached by then-club President Laurie A. Rosner, a business professor and department chair at Bay Path University.
“I so enjoyed listening to all of your baseball stories,” she said. “It felt like I was right there. You are a great storyteller!”
That Rotary moment left me as happy as anything I’ve experienced in promoting 20 books over three decades. This may seem strange, since in past years I’ve done interviews on radio and television, and my books have been reviewed and discussed in newspapers, magazines, online, and in alumni publications. To explain Rotary’s appeal over these worthy outlets, let me lay out some modern realities about book publication.
Standard U.S. publishers turn out around 800 books per day: Already, you have 799 competitors. And that’s just for openers. Bowker, the U.S. agency that issues International Standard Book Numbers (ISBNs), figures more than twice as many books appear through alternate publishing venues such as e-books, publishing on demand, work-for-hire contracts, self-publishing, co-publishing, and hybrid publishing. All of which adds up to more than 1 million new titles a year.
Even if you scour book-review sections, attend author events, and catch writers online or on the radio or TV, you might be familiar with, at most, several hundred of these new titles. Any way you look at it, most authors struggle to get exposure, much less praise, much less impressive sales for their books. Working below the radar, these writers beat on, boats against the current, to borrow from the famous last line from "The Great Gatsby."
There’s more grim news. Lacking a substantial advance and a publisher’s plan to foot the bill for promoting your book – a declining, almost extinct culture – an author’s work is rarely cost-effective. I have a friend who published a great novel, spent $20,000 to promote it, and sold 550 copies in a year. Though we hear about blockbusters, most books average fewer than 250 sales in their first year of publication; authors who slug it out for five years may peak at a couple thousand. That’s barely enough to cover your expenses, much less turn a profit. As Lincoln Michel writes on the "Electric Literature" blog: “Writers should absolutely write with an eye toward art, not markets.”
So let’s table fame and filthy lucre. Writers still write. First-time authors thrill to seeing their names in print for doing something they find worthwhile. I write because I enjoy the process, have something to say, and hope my ineffable wisdom connects with readers. “I keep writing because I like to think I’m still getting better, and my mind needs to be occupied by something besides Washington politics,” says Michael French, author of more than 20 books, including the 2016 novel "Once Upon a Lie."
To be sure, talking at a Rotary club isn’t the only way to promote books. I created a flyer with an order form that I sent to some 30 acquaintances; posted excerpts from my book on seamheads.com, a terrific baseball site; and sent free copies to some of the most active members of the Baseball Book Club, a subset of goodreads.com. Two of them mentioned the book favorably, one giving it a five-star review on Amazon. But where was the ka-ching!? Where was the mass readership? Where was there any sense that any of the 500-odd other Baseball Book Club members were buying the book, much less reading it? I was lost in cyberspace.
A nice note or comment from a reader is worth a hundred sales to people I don’t know and never hear from.
You start to see why the human interaction of personal appearances is the most fun part of book promotion. A nice note or comment from a reader is worth a hundred sales to people I don’t know and never hear from. That’s why I schedule as many appearances as I can, especially at Rotary clubs, where members are so kind and receptive.
I give talks to other organizations, too, but they’re rarely as much fun. For one thing, there’s no guarantee of a good turnout. I told the director of a duplicate bridge club to remind members that I would be talking about my book at the end of play. A few people said, “This looks like a good book” – and they left the building! And a publicized library talk drew only the librarian and a member of her board. By contrast, at any given club meeting, I know I’ll get at least 15 enthusiastic Rotarians.
Any first-time speaker preparing to address a Rotary club would do well to be informed what the club stands for. In his satirical novel Babbitt, Sinclair Lewis painted Rotarians as materialistic, small-time, small-town hypocrites, boosters, and conformists, an impression that persisted even though Lewis later met Rotarians, studied this magazine, and concluded, “You have made me approve of Rotary.”
In addition to the business leaders, insurers, financial analysts, bankers, and others you might expect, my club in Northampton, Mass., boasts the city’s social services CEO, a chiropractor and strength coach, a foreign-language school head, even two ink-stained wretches of the Fourth Estate. This group will be receptive to virtually any speech subject.
What kind of speakers and other presenters are clubs looking for? The standard 15- to 20-minute talks, with time for questions afterward, typically address informational, educational, or public-awareness issues. Rotary casts the net wide enough to include local business, charitable, and elected notables, as well as authors and entertainers.
As a journalist, I’ve found these talks to be a godsend. After hearing a man speak about his book on the late Silvio Conte, Massachusetts congressman par excellence, I wrote a newspaper column about it. And often Rotary talks are pure fun. Hilary Price, who writes the newspaper comic strip Rhymes with Orange, gave a humorous address at our club and asked if we had ideas for her. Another member and I gave her some that she used.
What makes for a good Rotary talk? This isn’t rocket science, so start with something light. For instance: “As Yogi Berra might have said, thanks for making this talk necessary.”
Your audience is as interested in you as it is in your subject, so don’t be afraid to make it personal. In a March appearance at the Rotary Club of Santa Fe, N.M., I spoke to about 85 members and guests. I told the crowd that everyone who writes about baseball rather than playing it owes an explanation, at least to himself. In my case, it was simple. In the 10th grade, I was a substitute on the ninth-grade team. Not only that, I was so slow my teammates called me Snowshoes.
Tell your listeners where the talk is headed before they get bored or confused, and use anecdotes and examples to illustrate general points. Third baseman and manager Buddy Bell once told me, “The best thing about baseball is, you never have to grow up.” This was the perfect lead-in for my story about the time I entered the Red Sox clubhouse during a rain delay and found the players enjoying a golf game they had invented using bats, balls, cups, and towels. They were in seventh heaven: little boys creating a new game.
To paraphrase playwright Lillian Hellman, don’t tailor your views to fit the fashions of your audience. Rotarians are open-minded people who will respect your frankness even when they disagree.
Finally, leave your listeners with a happy thought to take home: I tell Rotarians that like many failed hardball players, I segued into softball. Early one evening I was standing in center field counting the daisies when a long fly ball headed in my direction. For once, old Snowshoes was off at the crack of the bat. I ran the ball down and made a spectacular one-handed catch. It was the last out of the evening, and as I jogged back to the infield, players on both teams were on their feet cheering me. It was unreal, it was otherworldly, it was magical. It was the kind of thing you’ll experience if you give baseball a chance.
Kind of like speaking at a Rotary club.
• Jim Kaplan is a member of the Rotary Club of Northampton, Massachusetts, USA, and a former Sports Illustrated baseball writer. His book "Clearing the Bases" came out last year.