The Vanishing Half: Book Review

The Vanishing Half, by  Brit Bennett, deserves the attention it’s received as a New York Times bestseller and a nominee for the National Book Award. The novel begins by introducing Desiree Vignes a girl who had left home with her twin sister fourteen years ago in 1954. She is now back, with her daughter in tow. They arrive in Mallard, a town where “Alphonse Decuir in 1848 . . . stood in the sugarcane fields he’d inherited from the father who’d once owned him. The father now dead, the now-freed son wished to build something on those acres of land that would last for centuries to come. A town for men like him, who would never be accepted as white but refused to be treated like Negros. A third place.”

The story itself becomes “a third place” where characters who are outsiders to the white, straight, attractive majority around them look for acceptance. Some characters like Jude, Desiree’s dark-skinned daughter, find that acceptance, even if temporarily, through connections with others who willingly embrace them for who they are. However, other characters, such as Stella, Desiree’s twin who passes as White, are accepted only if they maintain the façade of what they want others to perceive them to be. Bennett accomplishes a difficult task by fleshing out other options about her characters’ identities and whether they will be accepted in the community.  What begins as an exploration of race,  finishes as a larger consideration of identity and what role personal choice has in the creation of who we are.

Through the narrative voices of Desiree and other characters connected to her, the novel explores the complexities of identity—How does a person “become”? Is it through our genetics that race and gender arise? If “nature” is overpowered by “nurture,” are we largely products of our environment? What role does an individual play in deciding their own identity, one that may be contrary to their upbringing? These are heady questions, yet the author controls the narrative so that it isn’t overwhelmed by the existential questions that arise.

Dream On!

It takes a lot of hard work to write a book. Most of us invest months or years, tons of research, and racking our brain to get it just right. Then after it’s done, you spend weeks and months rewriting, editing, and reworking what you already wrote. The old expression from Winston Churchill’s speech in 1940 applies to writers: “I have nothing to offer but blood, toil, tears, and sweat.” That definitely describes the writer’s life.

The expectation is that once the book is finally finished, the author’s work is done. However, there are two appropriate words in response to this concept: Dream On!

If your purpose is merely to write the book, then yes, you’re done. Fini! But if you actually want people to buy your book and read it, then there’s more to do, because whether your book is traditionally published or self-published, book selling these days increasingly relies on the efforts of the author. There’s no way to get around this fact.

Take best-selling novelist Louise Penny, for example. She writes great fiction, sells a lot of books, and has a loyal fan base. But she also puts a lot into her marketing efforts, too. Newsletter, speaking tour, book signings, website, Facebook, and more.

If you want to do well as a seller of books, not just a writer of books, you need a strategy too. There are lots of books about marketing methods for authors, and I recommend that you consider reading two or three. But here are a few ideas for you.

1. Create a “One Sheet” for your book. You might need to do an online search to find out what this is, but it’s essential. And once you have designed it, you can email it or print it off and send it as part of your marketing strategy.

2. Use social media to let people know about your book, using at least two platforms: Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Twitter, TikTok, YouTube, WeChat, Vero. There are new social media sites popping up all the time. Pick two or three, and use them to help people find out about you and your story.

3. Take advantage of a website that doubles as a blog. Every post should have a title, a category, and several tags. This is how people find you when searching for what they’re interested in. And being found is essential for authors. Your weekly blog post can be about a character, the plot, one of your themes, or even about you as the author. At times you should write about some of the research you did, or perhaps related issues that are important to you.

4. Enter your book into writing contests. It’s amazing the number of authors who got their start through a contest. By simply participating, you learn a lot and start to get some visibility. And if you win, you open yourself to greater notoriety and maybe even a publishing contract.

5. Provide a free pdf of your book to selected friends and family, and ask them to write an endorsement blurb or a review. Then, ask them to share their comments on their own social media. This has the potential of exponentially increasing the number of people who know about your book. They can also post the same write-up as an Amazon book review.

6. Visit local bookstores and libraries, offering to do a book reading or writing workshop. Ask if they are willing to carry your book. Many independent bookstores are glad to feature local authors.

7. Join a writers group. Not only can this help you improve your writing skills, but this increases your exposure to potential new readers, as well.

8. Write a monthly newsletter. This is an important way to build your platform, develop relationship with your readers, and keep people interested in what you write. Consider using a newsletter app such as TinyLetter, EmailOctopus, Benchmark, MailChimp, ActiveCampaign, or Constant Contact, to send emails and get signups with mobile apps. There are dozens of apps these days. Or, you can develop your own method using your email.

9. Advertise. This can be digital or in print magazines, and there’s a huge difference in what it costs. You can do Facebook ads yourself. Plus, there are a lot of firms who will do online advertising at a pretty reasonable cost.

10. Volunteer to speak at service clubs, libraries, bookstores, churches, businesses, conferences, schools or colleges, and other groups. Hey! You never know who might say yes to having a new author speak to their group in person.

11. Conduct a webinar, or plan a live Facebook session where you discuss your book.

12. Create some videos to post in YouTube or on your website.

This is just a sampling of what you can do to get the word out about your book and about you as an author. Many writers simply don’t want to be involved in marketing. They just want to write. I understand that. Believe me, I do!

But the realities are, well, realities. And without adequate marketing, your beautiful, well-written book will sit there on the shelf or in someone’s online catalogue and never make it into people’s homes, ebook readers, or eyes. And the potential income from book sales will never materialize.