Bill Lascher on His Journey to Eve of a Hundred Midnights

Bill Lascher’s bestselling book “Eve of a Hundred Midnights” was reissued in paperback this summer and we’re celebrating by inviting the author to our office to speak about the story and to share his experience marketing and promoting the title. Bill will be at AM:PM PR on Thursday, September 14th at 6 p.m. (2006 SE Clinton Street). If you’d like to join us you can RSVP at:

Originally published in 2016 by William Morris, the biography is a gripping true story of a young journalist working in China and the Philippines during the outbreak of WWII.

We’ve interviewed Bill to learn more about his experience marketing and promoting his book. Enjoy!

* * * *

The first thing I noticed about your book is that it must have required a massive research effort. Can you explain that process?

Research was crucial to this book for a combination of reasons: my own previous experience on research-driven reporting assignments and the academic work I did as a graduate student at USC, and the primacy both Melville and Annalee Jacoby placed on accurate and thorough reporting and research. It wouldn’t do justice to them to write an incomplete and inaccurate book. Thus, I knew I would have to do more than read the massive cache of Mel’s letters that I was so fortunate to have at my fingertips (a resource that I think would benefit many others writing about wartime China and journalism during the war). I also needed to A) track down whatever individuals I could who had connections to the story, or whose family members did, B) verify the information mentioned in my primary sources through additional sources and secondary materials, C) research the context of various events and accounts to be able to provide a more rich, credible account of what was happening during a given situation (what the weather was like on a certain day in a certain place, what else was happening in the rest of the world, what ads the subjects might have seen in a newspaper, etc.).

Though I was hamstrung somewhat by limited resources — for the first two years and then some of work on this book I did not have a publishing deal in place to fund the research and writing — I did what I could to visit university and government archives, special collections of individuals’ personal papers, and people connected to the subjects. This work actually began even before I seriously committed to writing a book. It was ten years between the time my grandmother first told me about Melville Jacoby (who, if you haven’t read the book, was her cousin) and when I finished the book. At first I casually researched the book when I had time, carving out an hour here to read about the setting, or googling some of the names mentioned in Mel’s letters there. But I got serious about pursuing this topic in the summer of 2011 when I was in the Bay Area for a fellowship. With a day to spare in San Francisco, I looked for an address of an apartment that a man named Chan Ka Yik (Mel’s roommate during his year studying abroad in China in 1936-37) rented when he first moved to the U.S. I never found anyone, but I had also been writing other family members that I found through return addresses on letters written to Mel’s family. Eventually a cousin of Ka Yik’s children who I’d reached out to through her dental practice’s comment form passed my info on to one of his daughters. She reached out to me and that began a discussion of her memories of her father’s stories about Mel. That inspired me to push further, and shortly thereafter I began work in serious.

I coupled similar detective work — the kind any investigative journalist would do on a large story — with more academic research. I visited universities, archives and museums in five states and the district of Columbia, and reached out to archivists and librarians at many more, often coupling those visits with other travels to save money. Would that I had had unlimited resources, as I know I didn’t find everything I could have! I also traveled to China, the Philippines, Hong Kong and Macau to retrace Mel’s footsteps and dig up as much more as I could under limited time, financial, and linguistic constraints. This was all on top of an immense amount of reading, scouring microfilm, calling sources and contacts (aside from the Chan family, among the others with whom I spoke at length were Annalee’s daughter, the author Anne Fadiman; the children of the photographer Carl Mydans, who allowed me to study his own private papers; and the children of Teddy White, with whom Mel worked closely and developed a deep friendship in China). Even this description isn’t quite complete.

How did you prepare to take on such a project?

Ha. I’m not quite sure I did. As I mentioned above, I had been working on it in the background here and there ever since I first learned about Mel’s incredible story. It would come up whenever I visited my grandmother (and it brought us close together). But when I finally decided in 2011 that I would make this my priority and plow forward on it I don’t think I did any former preparations. I just started working. I don’t know if there is a way to prepare. You just start and feel lost and overwhelmed the entire time. Right? Right?

How long did it take to write the book?

One answer to this is about four and a half years between making this book my priority and its publication, but it was more than eleven years between the point I first knew this story and when the book was released. At first, whenever I visited my grandmother and we looked at the materials she held connected to Mel we’d talk about it and say I should write a book on it some day. Then, in the late summer/early fall of 2011 I realized I was having trouble figuring out where my focus should be as a freelancer, and I was having a tremendously difficult time pitching freelance stories. It sucked, and it was taking a toll on my identity. At the same time, I had been digging a little deeper into Mel’s story. Meanwhile, my grandmother was 85 years old, and while she was healthy and lucid, I realized she wasn’t getting any younger and wouldn’t be healthy forever (it turns out she is now about to turn 91 and remains just as lively), so I knew I had to get started while I could still talk to her about this story. I began working on the idea in earnest by the end of the year, and in early 2012 launched a kickstarter that I thought I would use to fund this story and project and get it off the ground. That didn’t work out because I asked for too large a sum ($25,000, to help pay for professional editing, design, rights, etc.), but the fact that I was able to still get support for more than half of that told me that there was interest in this story. From that point forward I kept working on the book full-time. I finally finished the first draft in the summer of 2015, and completed rewriting, revising and copy-editing in the spring of 2016.

What was the editing process like?

It was as much a marathon as the writing. At first, my editor at Morrow, Henry Ferris (who resigned from the company earlier this year), gave me a long leash to write the first draft of the book. He definitely made himself available to any questions I had and to provide feedback, but he preferred to see the completed work so that any suggestions he made would be consistent. When I did finally complete the manuscript, he and his assistant, Nick Amphlett (now himself an editor at Morrow) went through the entire work chapter by chapter. Their suggestions were definitely for the better, and I radically rewrote the second and third drafts of the entire book. Then there was an extensive copy-editing and fact-checking process that dialed it in even further. I’m not sure there’s anything out of the ordinary about this process — I haven’t written any other books — but I did value its thoroughness.

Did you ever get burnout? How did you manage to work through it?

Oh my god, yes. I managed through it with the knowledge that I had already committed so much to this project. Had I quit, I would be aimless and no further along in my career than I was before I started. Meanwhile, so many people deserved to hear Mel’s story, my grandmother and her sister most. Had I not finished this, I would have let them down, and those others who showed their support in me to help me continue to work on it (through financial means, or by giving me a place to stay while traveling to do research, or through any number of other ways) when I didn’t have a publisher. Additionally, I knew it was a wonderful story and that people would love to read it, and that knowledge was pretty motivating.

In what ways did your publisher prepare you to market and promote the title?

There wasn’t a great deal of formal preparation. A few months before publication I was asked to fill out a survey on what I thought would be ideal venues for the subject and to inform the publicity and marketing departments of any contacts I had that I thought would be worth reaching out for. They also had me help prepare various publicity-related documents like one-sheets and descriptive text. Additionally, when I happened to be in New York for some other reasons they brought me in to record an interview for a podcast they do with authors. But as far as getting ready for any publicity or promotional activities, it was on me to either prepare myself or to ask for any help I thought I needed to get ready, and that was a challenge because I wasn’t quite sure what I needed to ask about.

What are some marketing tactics that worked well for you?

It’s difficult for me to quantify what was effective and what wasn’t. That said, there were some interviews, excerpts, and reviews in newspapers, blogs and radio outlets (OPB’s Think Out Loud, in particular) that seemed to help generate interest. I also tried to identify relevant podcasts and blogs that focused on China or World War II. Two in particular: the amazing Sinica podcast and an interview in the Los Angeles Review of Books’s China Blog with the author Paul French helped push the book during fall doldrums.

Another marketing tactic that I think worked well, but I don’t know if I could quantify, was sharing Mel’s photos and even some snippets of motion picture film he shot during his travels in China on Instagram and Twitter. People just love old photos, and having this trove available to me has at least been able to stoke audiences’ imaginations. Whether that interest has translated to sales is something I don’t know how to track. Moreover, these campaigns are my own doing, and I didn’t have a very specific strategy, so I wonder what a knowledgeable marketing professional could do with the same material and a more complex, strategic plan.

What marketing tactics fell flat?

Anything on Facebook. Again, this is promotion I’ve had to devise on my own, and I find that Facebook work just seems to reach people who already support me. I don’t feel I’m as skilled there at reaching new audiences as I might be on Instagram or Twitter. The one exception is promoting specific book-related events such as readings and signings, but even those are usually drawing people already in my network (but Facebook works better than Twitter for promoting events, at least in my experience).

Another marketing tactic whose impact I feel was uneven was a radio “tour” my publisher arranged early in the release cycle. Many of the stations targeted were small stations in mid-level and small markets, or stations near larger markets but not within them. While many of the hosts of these stations who interviewed me were great, some seemed to just be reading copy from pitch sheets sent to them and hadn’t actually prepared for the interview. That said, there were exceptions with tremendous interviews. I still don’t know if that translated to sales, though.

My physical book tour was also uneven, but I think that could have been changed with a more strategically planned schedule of readings. Those events that were effective were those where both the hosts and I were invested in the events. I feel like more advanced planning for readings and coordination between publishers, bookstores, and authors could lead to events beneficial to all three.

What have you learned from this experience that you will apply to your next book release?

I would try to work with the publicity team at my publisher earlier on, and more consistently. I think authors need to have everyone involved excited about the book and enthusiastic about sharing it with others. Publicists and marketing teams need to know the book inside and out, what makes it stand out from other works, and where it fits in genres. That requires them to read it, but it also requires the author to communicate with their publishing team where the book may have an audience that the publisher can’t know, simply because it’s not as embedded in that world as the author is. Meanwhile, authors should ask as many questions of the publisher about how he or she can be involved with promoting the book better. I’ll be more proactive about asking my publisher where I can contribute and where it’s okay for me to let them do their thing. But if I’m not sure, I’m going to ask, because I don’t want anything left to chance.

What advice would you give to someone preparing to market a book for the first time?

Get to know as many reviewers, bloggers, interviewers, etc. as possible. But don’t just do so selfishly. Engage with them. Communicate with them about subjects that aren’t related to your work. Be familiar with them. Be part of the conversation, so that when it’s time to promote your book they know about you and are excited to read and share your work. We throw around this term “engagement” so often when we discuss marketing and particularly social media, but I don’t think many of us know that it means more than metrics of who clicks on this or how much time someone spends watching that. Engagement is not quantifiable. Engagement is not about pushing your content, or your product, or your service out to the public. Engagement is about authenticity, about actually listening to other people, about contributing your own perspectives thoughtfully, and about sustaining your connections over time. If you are truly engaged with other people and what they have to offer, other people will engage with you and your work.