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The Unexpected In ‘Little Way’

Aunt Ruthie telling Lucas goodbye for the last time [1]

Aunt Ruthie telling Lucas goodbye for the last time

My cousin told me this weekend that he’d run into a pal at a wedding the other day, and knowing that he knew me, she was gushed about how much she loved The Little Way Of Ruthie Leming [2]She told my cousin that she’d bought the book for a plane trip, thinking it would be a sweet story about St. Francisville, a town she liked. She ended up crying so hard the man seated next to her on the flight asked her if she was okay. She told my cousin that the book was so unlike what she expected, and so much deeper and more profound.

Little Way has not sold as well as we had hoped. My guess is that the lack of TV coverage really hurt sales. This book ought to have been a shoo-in for shows like The View, and anything Oprah, but they all passed. A different friend thinks this story might explain why. She writes:

Possibly this is the problem the book had, in terms of marketing; it looked like a different book. I don’t think the cover, title, etc could have been done better, but the book just isn’t what people think it is going to be; it’s something original. It’s something people haven’t encountered before.

I think my friend is onto something. So many people have told me some variation of this story: they bought the book thinking it was going to be a sentimental, feel-good tale of family, small town, and homecoming, and they discovered that it was something much deeper and more complicated. They mean this as praise, and I take it as such. In fact, a Michigan reader messaged me on Facebook yesterday to say his church book group discussed Little Way this past weekend, and they all agreed that the book starts out simply, but grows in emotional and thematic complexity.

Yesterday I received a moving e-mail from a reader in Minnesota. It began:

I just finished reading The Little Way of Ruthie Leming last weekend, and I wanted to take a moment to join the chorus of readers who have thanked you personally for sharing her tale with all of us. While I already agreed with much of the book, it drove home many important messages in a beautiful way, both simple in its telling and unfathomably deep in its implications. Because it has only the briefest glimmers of detached analysis and theory, Ruthie’s story (and your story) is in many ways superior to any attempt to spell out the lessons of her life into some sort of philosophy. Put simply, it reflects the stunning wealth and diversity that we can find in everyday life, so long as we know where to look.

The reader went on to tell me that he took the book to his younger brother’s grave, and read part of it there. That got to me. I read his letter aloud to my mom and dad yesterday at Sunday dinner, and it deeply moved and comforted them. It seems like every day brings news of someone else who was comforted, challenged, or healed by Ruthie’s story. I gave a talk the other night in Baton Rouge, at the Foundation For Historical Louisiana, and got a teary hug from a lady whose daughter and son-in-law are moving back to Louisiana with their kids after 13 years of wandering, because of Ruthie’s story. “I want to thank you for doing with this book what I wasn’t able to do in 13 years,” she told me.

“It’s Ruthie,” I said. “She did this.”

So there’s a lot more going on in this book than what many people apparently think. I’d like to ask you who have read Little Way if you agree with this assessment, and if you agree that the book has a marketing problem in that people think it’s about one thing, when really it’s about much more than that one thing. I find that most people who read the book rave about it — but the trick is getting them to read it. Come to think of it, if I were coming to this story cold, I might not pick up the book, because I would think it was a sentimental, feel-good story, instead of a deep and complex meditation on suffering, home, family, community, hope, and the difficulties of love. Mind you, I don’t know how we could have presented or marketed the book differently, but I get some variation of “I was surprised by the content” often enough that I wonder if without meaning to, we concealed this book’s virtues. What do you think?

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33 Comments (Open | Close)

33 Comments To "The Unexpected In ‘Little Way’"

#1 Comment By Josh McGee On July 1, 2013 @ 12:18 pm

It is a wonderful book. Will there be an opportunity to do any marketing with a paperback release or does all marketing go into the hardback release? (Or are most sales digital now, so that paper doesn’t matter?)

Hmm, it is difficult for me to wonder what some might have thought about the book – I knew what it was about from following the blog.

My wife, however, did not. She started reading it the day it arrived, meaning I had to wait until she was finished! 🙂

I would have expected churches (church book/study groups) to pick up on this sort of book. I know it is not a ‘Christian book’ in terms of that market (which seems to me to be its own sub-culture), but it still touches on themes of faith, forgiveness, reconciliation, suffering, etc.

On a note of encouragement, I can imagine this book having a good shelf-life. The story is timeless. It is not trying to hit the latest fad of “Three Steps To…” Someone who picks it up a year or two or ten from not will likely be just as moved as someone who read it yesterday. While that may not ever translate to enough word-of-mouth to tip sales, hopefully it will be forever satisfying as a writer….

It really is a wonderful book.

#2 Comment By Sam M On July 1, 2013 @ 12:21 pm

I’d say this is spot on analysis.

There are thousands of books published every month, but there are really only a few types of books, at least in terms of commercial sales. You can see this in the proposals themselves; one of the most important things to do is compare to books already on the market. I see this as a way to weed out anyhting interesting. If you say it’s the new DaVinci Code, the publisher says that’s already overdone so he’ll pass. If you say it’s completely original, they smell a rat and say no.

It’s an incredibly frustrating industry, particularly if you are writing books to make money. Ideally, in cases like yours, there is a larger purpose, an artistic purpose. You nailed that. Yes, it would be nice to get a call from Oprah. (I am still waiting for mine!) But the book is serving its other purpose quite well.

But agreed across the board. It’s hard to market something new and different to a mass market. It has as much to do with luck and timing as with anything.

#3 Comment By Michelle On July 1, 2013 @ 12:28 pm

Perhaps because I’d read so much about the book on this site before I actually read it, I was not surprised by the content. Moved, yes. I read the entire book in a day or so, staying up late into the night to finish it. The story was compelling, but it wasn’t the treacly lessons about life and loss that so many books on this subject matter are. Tuesdays with Morrie springs to mind.

I’m not particularly surprised Oprah didn’t choose it. The book doesn’t really fit in with the kind of power of positive thinking stuff she favors. If you quoted The Secret, you might have had a better shot at Oprah. Also, I think there are things in the book that people who are not Orthodox Christians might find discomforting. For instance, as a Jew, I had trouble with your concept that Ruthie is a saint. It didn’t deter me from reading your book or for appreciating the more universal themes it contained, but mass marketers usually prefer something more bland and inoffensive (see Tuesdays with Morrie).

I don’t know that your book will ever be a best seller, but I think it will get the kind of word of mouth promotion that gets it read by a wide audience. Our culture doesn’t do well with complicated works, especially our marketing culture. If a book’s essence can’t be captured in a few catch phrases, forget it. You’ve written a beautiful book that touches people’s hearts. Perhaps it’s a blessing that the mass marketing machine doesn’t get it.

[NFR: Thanks for this. As I think I’ve said here before, my wife warned as I was writing it that a lot of potential Evangelical readers would be turned away by the little bit in the book about the Virgin Mary, and the visit to the would-be saint’s shrine in New Orleans. I had to put it in there because it really happened, and leave it up to the reader to judge. I suspect she was right, though. Some Evangelical readers may not have agreed with that, but loved the broader and deeper themes. But as my wife, who was raised Evangelical, told me, for many Evangelicals, that Catholic content is enough to render the whole book suspect. — RD]

#4 Comment By Jeff Gill On July 1, 2013 @ 12:37 pm

My congregation’s book group read “Little Way” after my weekly newspaper column about it, and the report back to me after was that many of the group found it painful to read. I’m wrestling pastorally with what that means . . . I think, for a group of largely 60-80 year old women, they encountered not a new installment of the Mitford series with Father Tim, but some pain that resonated on a personal level (I’m guessing here, mind you) with relationships so long buried they can only be re-examined with great effort and no little anguish. They respected the writing and saw the themes that I had highlighted when I wrote about your book, but the reaction was to something that, for them (I think) was a few more layers down.

In no way do I think that’s a critique of the book, but it is a challenge for that older/elderly female readership that is a big chunk of the book buying public.

[NFR: That’s really interesting. I’ve seen some of that in the reaction — people coming up to me and finding it hard to talk about what’s in the book without crying. These are people who didn’t know Ruthie, or any of the people in the book. They loved the book, but it’s definitely not a standard feel-good book. I mean, you do come out the other end feeling great, I think, but it’s not cheap grace. — RD]

#5 Comment By Jim On July 1, 2013 @ 12:46 pm

I’m wondering if marketing to the specifically religious might be more profitable than tyring for Oprah. I’m thinking of venues like ‘Christianity Today’ or specifically religious talk shows. You probably already thought of this, but I bring it up because it might help communicate that the book has a deeper theme.

Jim

#6 Comment By thomas tucker On July 1, 2013 @ 1:02 pm

Here’s the problem- a complex meditation about home, family, suffering, etc, is not what most people want to read these days. Those who do still read for pleasure by and large prefer sexcapades and simplistic thrillers. The market for a deep and profound book is very small.

#7 Comment By Skip On July 1, 2013 @ 1:04 pm

When you say sales are disappointing, what exactly does that mean? Compared to what?

As for expectations regarding the book itself — and perhaps this has been touched upon before and I say this both gently and with respect — I think the title is a portion of the trouble, particularly the use of the word “Little” (I think I know what you were trying to say, but nothing about the book is small). Is it too late to re-title/re-issue the book? If you did, what would you call it to maximally relay the meaning and impact of the book in the fewest words?

“Coming Home,” of course, is taken. The words that come to mind include, but are not limited to: Circle, Coming home, depth, slow, Louisiana, Leming, Ruthie, Change, Faith, Redemption, Caring, Priorities, The South. I’m sure many others, too.

“Return to Ruthie.”

“South Toward Leming”

“Redemption, Ruthie and Home”

“Saints Aren’t Just for Football in Louisiana”

I realize these are clunky. And, I’m new to the practice of commenting and am bracing myself for what I’m sure may be derision from those with more informed views of publishing (“You can’t change the title midstream!”), and/or better turns of phrase for any changes that could be made.

I offer them because I think the book deserves a huge audience, and our culture could certainly benefit from it having one.

#8 Comment By Naturalmom On July 1, 2013 @ 1:34 pm

Like some others have said, it’s hard for me to judge because I’ve followed this journey with you from the beginning, so I knew most of the book before I even picked it up, but I can see how someone who had not followed it would have a hard time knowing what to expect. Indeed, I purchased the book for our Quaker Meeting library and I had a hard time writing the little 3 sentence blurb that we put in the catalog to give potential readers an idea of what to expect.

I have to agree with Skip that the title is probably misleading. I don’t think most readers will get the reference to the Little way of St. Therese. I didn’t at first, even though I had heard of that and remembered once reminded. But I’ve never read about the saint — the title always made me think of a cute little nun living her quaint life and didn’t sound that appealing to me. I got to hear your rational for the title, and so I get what you were aiming at, but most people probably won’t. The title of your book makes one think “Little Ruthie”, which doesn’t do her or the themes of the book justice and sounds a little condescending when used in reference to a grown woman these days. Again, I *know* that is not at all what your title is meant to suggest, but that’s what it would suggest to me if I just saw it on the shelf at a book store or Walmart. I don’t know what else I would call it, but something that sounds more substantive would be a better representation of the book.

All that said, I don’t know that giving it a weightier title would get you more readers. Probably not, actually. For every “serious” reader who would then pick it up, you would probably lose a couple of more casual readers who are looking for a pleasant read and stumble into the deeper content of Ruthie’s story. The thing is, I don’t think many of the later readers will be disappointed. It may not be what they came for, but I think they will like what they get.

I’m sorry it hasn’t sold as well as you would have liked, but it’s touched so many people, and will continue to do so. And it’s sold more than the book you didn’t write, so that’s something. 😉 In some ways this was as much a ministry as a commercial endeavor, wasn’t it? Give the fruits of it over to God and listen for what he has next for you. Blessings.

#9 Comment By JohnE_o On July 1, 2013 @ 1:36 pm

Well – since you asked – I think that it is at least possible that your book didn’t get a fair shot on the TV circuit because you are toxic in the eyes of those media gatekeepers.

Leaving aside that question – I’m reminded of another book that started off to very slow sales but eventually reached a very large audience because of word of mouth and discussion groups.

You may have heard of it – Jonathan Livingston Seagull

[NFR: You may be right about my toxicity. — RD]

#10 Comment By mongupp On July 1, 2013 @ 1:37 pm

I was introduced to your book via a tweet from Eric Metaxas. I thought the title didn’t reveal much about the book and ordinarily I would bypass it. However since I really value the work and opinion of Eric Metaxas, I decided to read it. I was overwhelmed and completely drawn into the story. When Ruthie passed, I was genuinely shocked. All the imperections and perfections of your characters, knowing they were real people, just made the story resonate deeper. I wish I could go home like you di
d. Oprah is missing out on a lot by not endorsing your book. However, I think word of mouth, or tweets, are the best marketing tool.

#11 Comment By skrifari On July 1, 2013 @ 2:30 pm

During the thread about movie possibilities, someone commented that Little Way would go well on the Hallmark Channel. I remember thinking “now, there’s a person who judges a book by its cover.”

#12 Comment By thomas tucker On July 1, 2013 @ 2:34 pm

@JohnE- also “The Shack.”
It could happen.
Slow but sure wins the race.

#13 Comment By DS On July 1, 2013 @ 3:04 pm

The book is easy to describe if I’ve got a few minutes, but it doesn’t make a tasty sound bite: “It’s about his sister’s cancer, how she dealt with it, and how it changed him.” That’s not going to draw a lot of readers, because it takes a lot more time — as we’ve seen in the book’s reviews — to show that it’s an uplifting and meaningful book.

I looked for it in an independent bookstore while on a recent non-Southern vacation. It was not in “New and Notable” or “New Non-Fiction,” but then neither were the bestselling Duck Dynasty books. (Some anti-Southern or anti-rural prejudice there, but that’s for another post.)

Then I tried to figure out where to find the book, and here’s where I see the problem. It wasn’t in Religion, or Death and Dying, or Memoirs, or anywhere else I could think to look. Even if it was, someone looking for a memoir is unlikely to pick this book, because they’ve never heard of you or Ruthie. And for various reasons, it’s not the kind of book that someone that will be grabbed by someone who’s just browsing in Religion or Medical or wherever. It is, like Alpe d’Huez, hors categorie.

It is a word of mouth book. It will sit there looking like it’s dormant, like so much old-school Jiffy Pop on the hot-plate, and then the tinfoil starts to rustle and foomp! and suddenly it’s everywhere. “You need only to be still.”

#14 Comment By Ann On July 1, 2013 @ 3:52 pm

Yes, I thought the same thing. I thought it was going to be all about your hometown, and to be honest, I wasn’t that interested in that, as wonderful as it may be. It’s also not about cancer. I bought it because I enjoy your blog and decided to take a risk on it.

In my very humble opinion, what it is about is sibling rivalry…between the ones who leave home and the ones who stay. Which is the story of so many families isn’t it? Maybe it’s a story of migration in a sense, the gains and the losses.

#15 Comment By Church Lady On July 1, 2013 @ 4:13 pm

I think this criticism of the marketing plan is very true. The presentation of the book is very much along the lines of one of those feel-good, tell-people-what-they-want-to-hear conservative sacharine fables most everyone is very sick of. It’s safe, conflict-free, and focused on the sense of loss, exemplified by the empty chair on the cover.

Whereas the actual book is really not so much about Ruthie’s death and the loss her family went through, as Ruthie’s life, and the conflicts she went through, fought, and even created. This is what makes the story so meaningful, and even her death so emotional, because her life was full of emotional conflicts and struggles.

The number one rule of story-telling is that conflict is the one essential ingredient to grabbing the reader’s interest. I think the book does that quite well, but the marketing of the book does not. It shies away from those conflicts, and presents the books as if Ruthie’s life were one of those fake, conflict-free saintly lives. Boring and dull, literally by definition.

So the marketing of the book should have concentrated on how conflicted Ruthie was, how much of a struggle her life represented, and how her “little way” was not some panacea for the conflicts of modern life, but an active struggle with them. Sell the conflict, not the “answer” to those conflicts. Sell the struggle, not the resolution of that struggle. Because honestly, even the ending of the book doesn’t actually resolve the struggle or answer the conflicts, it just highlights them and leaves the reading wondering what they should do, how they should live, rather than being given a cookie-cutter plan for how to live.

For the cover, even from the beginning, I would have liked to see that famous picture of Ruthie and her daughter just after learning she had cancer, maybe with some artistic rendering of it, since the photo itself wasn’t the highest quality. Now I see why I prefered that photo – because it showed Ruthie in pain, struggling with life and death, and yet also, her daughter’s love shining through that. That image summarizes the conflict that was central to her life, and to the book. Whereas the empty chair in an idyllic setting, beautifully photographed, doesn’t convey much sense of conflict or struggle. It says “this book is a boring homage to a lovely woman”. Nice, but not what readers are looking for.

Another reason why traditional publishers and their marketing is often not worth the trade-off. They really don’t know what they are doing much of the time, and yet make it look like they do with their “professionalism”. One thing Rod knows is how to do is highlight conflicts and stark contrasts. I’m guessing that if he’d done things his own way, out of sheer instinct, the marketing would have been very different. Maybe even the editing of the book too. Or maybe not. I’d be curious to know.

[NFR: Church Lady, I really appreciate this thoughtful and detailed analysis. Thank you. — RD]

#16 Comment By Kathleen Danuser On July 1, 2013 @ 4:44 pm

I am an evangelical Christian and I read your book. I became interested due to your blog. Your discussion with your niece Hannah on your way to visit the Shrine in New Orleans really resonated with me. I would have asked the same question she did ” why not just go to God for help”. I loved your explanation. It became very real to me. So I stopped reading and asked my Grandparents and Father n law who are in heaven to petition God’s healing. I am not healed but I felt better at the time. I will now always pray to the “Saints” in heaven. When I mention it in Sunday School/Bible Study, I’ll give you the credit!

Also, as a stoic Midwestern Presbyterian, I would normally not have picked up your book. It is Way to emotional for me. I did read it but only a little at a time because I would have to stop so I would not cry. I’d pick the book up a couple of days later and continue on. It is a wonderful book . Word of mouth will be your best marketing tool.

#17 Comment By Sam M On July 1, 2013 @ 4:59 pm

Question: What would an interview on Oprah even look like? Would there be the time and space to really roll it out? I think the answer might be “no,” much to the book’s credit.

You know, when you are pitching a book they always ask, “Why shouldn’t this be a magazine article?” In this case, the correct answer is because that’s not enough space to roll it out fully, like you wanted and needed to do.

But then the marketers come in and ask for the 30-second elevator pitch. Can it make you lose 25 pounds in 25 days? Will it teach you to invest in gold? What’s the TAKEAWAY?

When the bookers at Oprah realized that the takeway was not that everyone should move home, and that the real message was a lot more complicated than that, they probably realized it was too hard. Again, much to your credit.

Hour-long TV sells books. But it does not lend itself to extended, serious discussion.

#18 Comment By Peterk On July 1, 2013 @ 5:10 pm

the sales will grow as people who’ve read the book tell others about it or gift their friends with a copy.

#19 Comment By Sandra in L.A. On July 1, 2013 @ 5:40 pm

Just to add another possible reason–the book doesn’t cover cancer according to the by-the-numbers inspirational model the media loves to present. I’m not saying there aren’t inspirational moments in the book, but shows like The View, etc., like to present cancer victims, especially young women who get cancer, as Role Models For Us All who get sick, go through treatment while training for a marathon, realize they’re better people for getting cancer and end up finding successful and rewarding new careers. They don’t die from their cancer. Nobody likes that.

I came to the book through Andrew Sullivan’s blog and found it extremely powerful. I’m from Los Angeles, have never lived in a small town, have no religious upbringing at all–probably not the “typical” intended reader for the book. (though I am a cancer survivor). I liked it so much I chose it for my selection for our book group this month. So there are a few more sales!

#20 Comment By Geoff Guth On July 1, 2013 @ 6:18 pm

I’m sorry to hear that sales haven’t been as good as hoped. I’m glad to say that I bought a copy (my first hardback non-textbook since before I can remember…I usually buy paperbacks) and think it’s some of your finest writing.

Unhappily for your publisher, but perhaps happily for you, sometimes these things take a while to take off. Plenty books (and movies too for that matter) we now recognize as classics didn’t do so well at their initial release. It may well be so in this case.

#21 Comment By JonF On July 1, 2013 @ 6:27 pm

Re: For instance, as a Jew, I had trouble with your concept that Ruthie is a saint.

That’s something that shouldn’t bother evangelicals at least because they are critical of using “saint” in a more restrictive way when the New Testament applies the label to all Christians.
Yesterday at church (I’m Orthodox like Rod) we had a sermon on this. The saints are not just those folks up on the iconostasis, they include all of us too. (the punch line was that we should all start acting more saintly and show the world that Christ dwells in us)

#22 Comment By Naturalmom On July 1, 2013 @ 7:48 pm

Sandra in L.A. has a great point here. I found the book terrifying in that sense. Dying (of anything) while my children are young and still need me is one of my greatest fears in the world. I almost can’t even bear to think of it, and I will admit that some of my tears as I read the book were tears of my own fear of this fate, in addition to my tears of empathy for Ruthie’s own family.

I have a friend who recently lost her husband in an accident. He was in his late 40’s. She commented on how she can sense people’s fear — how they almost seem to be swimming through it in a brave attempt to reach out to her. No one wants to contemplate being her, the young widow with a young teenage son who just lost his dad. They don’t want to think of their kids being her kid, or their husbands dying senselessly. It is so, so hard not to be able to deliver the happy ending. 🙁

This is why, when you posted that picture a few months ago, Rod, of Mike and the girls (at a bowling alley, maybe?) enjoying a family outing, I stared at it for a long, long time. They are smiling. They are living. They are going to make it. I wanted to soak that in to alleviate my fear of leaving my kids through untimely death. I found it very comforting. There was some of this comfort toward the end of the book, in your conversations with Hannah, but the photo was so important to me. If you ever put out another edition, I’d love to see it included.

#23 Comment By farleydoodle On July 1, 2013 @ 7:51 pm

I don’t think you’re toxic to the media. Most people and the mainstream have have never heard of you. I’m an agnostic (bordering on atheist) liberal, but I would never have picked up this book if I hadn’t been following your blog for years. I loved the book. You (or someone) picked a title referencing a saint no one has heard of or cares about. The cover shows an empty rocking chair. Huh? Ruthie wasn’t ready for a rocking chair. Your subtitle too would have turned me away. The last kind of book I’ll read is a feel-good memoir about the secret of a good life. But I love to read a messy personal memoir that doesn’t have Hallmark answers. Your only hope, and I wish you only success, is word of mouth. This could well be one of those books that is more popular five years after it’s published.

#24 Comment By Scott H On July 1, 2013 @ 8:31 pm

Rod,

After reading your post, I decided to buy your book. I’ll be sure to enjoy a couple of those Boulevard Single-Wide IPAs you’re so fond of while I read it. Thanks for providing such interesting commentary on a daily basis. Have you considered giving a book talk in Kansas City?

[NFR: Thanks so much! I would love to come to Kansas City, but somebody’s got to host me. Preferably somebody with a taste for Boulevard beer. 😉 — RD]

#25 Comment By SuSanFran On July 1, 2013 @ 8:55 pm

I think a recent post of yours might provide a view into attracting more readers – it’s the story of unresolved, and now unresolvable, sibling conflict, and that story speaks to so many of us, religious or not, small town denizens or not. I loved the book, although I have to say I didn’t cry when I read it. I also find myself thinking from time to time about how angry I am at Ruthie, even more than I was moved by her deeply sad story, for her inability or lack of willingness to treat you with the same loving kindness she found for so many other people. My compassion, after reading the book, is for you, Rod.

#26 Comment By Scott Snider On July 2, 2013 @ 1:14 am

I am a fan of the blog and have followed you since your NRO days and the arguments with Jonah G. I bought Crunchy Cons the first day it was available at the local book store. I still haven’t purchased your latest book. Why is that I ask myself? The answer ….. I think is your religious choice of a Orthodoxy. Since I think that choices is kinda nutty, I can’t bring myself to trust your narrative and the conclusions you might draw. I say this in spite of the fact I read your blog daily. I enjoy your writing and viewpoint. I realize this is not consistent. I understand why mainstream media passes on the book, it is the same reason why I could never recommnend (loan my copy of) the book to my Evangelical friends, the Orthodoxy stance is too much – it is an automatic “not Christian”.

#27 Comment By Education Realist On July 2, 2013 @ 3:20 am

I have followed your writing on and off for a long time, since you were back at National Review. I haven’t bought your book, and I thought I’d tell you why because I think the reasons might be relevant.

At first, I didn’t buy it because I am generally uncomfortable with books that are overtly religious. This I consider my failing, not the book’s.

As I read the various reviews you linked in, I had a whole nother reason for not getting it–because, as you are starting to point out more regularly, it clearly is about a brother and sister. I have two of each, and our relationships are just as complicated as yours with Ruth. Yet I love them all to pieces, and I flinch from reading a book about losing a sibling to cancer.

I’m sorry to hear that it’s not selling.I think your readers are correct as to why it’s not selling “well” (whatever your expectations are). That is, it’s marketed somewhat simplistically, so the people who would be interested are misled. But the people who are interested is a smaller group, as many people (like me) are not going to take the journey because the time spent will be painful.

And I just realized that my sister’s birthday is Sunday, and she *is* overtly religious. So I’ll add to your sales by getting it for her.

#28 Comment By Gina On July 2, 2013 @ 9:57 am

I agree with most of the assessments here about the unintentionally misleading cover, etc. of the book.

Unfortunately, though, I think “Little Way” has a more fundamental construction problem: the book is ostensibly about Ruthie’s life and her journey with cancer (as narrated by you, her brother), but in reality, it’s all about you–your struggle to come to terms with your sibling relationship and occasional estrangement, and with your background, life choices, and grief over Ruthie’s suffering and death.

That’s not a bad thing–in fact, it’s a powerful, humble, and deeply moving story. But I think the book would have been a lot stronger and found a more universal appeal if you had embraced, “owned” and marketed this as YOUR story (which it is) and simply let the light of Ruthie’s witness radiate through the book of it’s own accord.

Sometimes during the book, you let this happen, and there, the narrative is strong, sure, and engaging. I’m thinking especially of the bouboullaise (sp?) incident, and the chapters following Ruthie’s death. Even though these chapters seem to be about you, Ruthie’s presence and character suffuses them, and we glimpse her strength, passion for life, and sheer goodness, in and through her broken humanity.

In other places, however, such as those biographical chapters on Ruthie’s youth and early marriage (where it seems most of the information you’re giving is second-hand, since you weren’t there to experience it for yourself) the pace slows or feels off-kilter. As a reader, I felt I had lost you as my personal guide during these chapters, and was instead reading a nice obituary in the newspaper about a woman neither I nor the author knew terribly well. I think it would have been much more powerful to let the gaps in your knowledge of Ruthie’s life speak for themselves–as your readers, we could have accompanied you through the interviews following her funeral as you tried to piece together the details of her life that you had missed out on when you left home…

Again–sometimes this happened, and sometimes it didn’t.
The book thus had a slightly schizophrenic feel to me, as if you couldn’t quite decide if it should be an autobiography of Ruthie, or a personal memoir.

#29 Comment By Reader On July 2, 2013 @ 11:11 am

I recommended the book to several friends, but I don’t any problems which it has had are really the result of marketing. What is best about the book is its intelligence, complexity, refusal to give simple answers, or even take any answers for granted, it’s willingness to admit the unknown, to accept hard truths without soft-peddling how hard they can be. These are all tremendous qualities. They’re also not especially marketable. I’ll put this another way: this is a book about an intellectual who left the small town where he grew up….by an intellectual who left the small town where he grew up. It’s Ruthie’s story, but still very much Rod’s book. And this is not a criticism of the book, at all. That is part of the complexity which makes it so powerful and admirable. And also less marketable. I think the book should be assigned in all kinds of university courses and reading groups. But I can’t see how what’s best about it would have ever gotten very far with the ladies from The View.

#30 Comment By Church Lady On July 2, 2013 @ 12:28 pm

I could never recommnend (loan my copy of) the book to my Evangelical friends, the Orthodoxy stance is too much – it is an automatic “not Christian”.

See, this is the kind of attitude I just don’t get among “Christians”. Maybe it’s because I don’t much cotton to any of the organized Christian sects, but if I did, the best one of them, theologically at least, is the eastern Orthodox Church. I think Rod made a good choice, or fate just delivered him there. In either case, I don’t see how membership in any of these organized sects amounts to either bragging rights or any real claim on Jesus’ grace, much less the right to exclude anyone else. Where in God’s name does all that come from? Not Jesus, I know that much for sure.

#31 Comment By Gina On July 2, 2013 @ 12:57 pm

Sorry, I meant a biography of Ruthie, not autobiography…

#32 Comment By JonF On July 2, 2013 @ 6:25 pm

Scott Snider,

The Orthodox content of Rod’s book is very minimal. It most certainly is not a book about how he became Orthodox. There’s far more Catholic content and as Rod’s wife notes, that’s more likely to trouble the sort of Evangelical who does not get out much.
And Orthodoxy not Christian? Huh? Your friends sound more like rock-ribbed fundamentalists of the Bob Jones sort than the Evangelicals I’ve known.

#33 Comment By Gretchen On July 3, 2013 @ 1:03 pm

I just ordered a copy. I didn’t at first, because I thought it was all about Ruthie’s illness and death, and involved every mother’s worst nightmare, leaving her children while they still need her. Then I read that it involved difficult relations between siblings, and the difficulty of fitting in and finding one’s place in the world. Who hasn’t dealt with that? And then I read the part where she wouldn’t eat something your wife cooked and thought “this isn’t the idealized story of some plaster saint. She’s a real person with flaws”, and I was still more interested. I started thinking I should get it for my sister-in-law. She has four children, one of whom is a very conservative Catholic – natural family planning, traditional marriage, health care bill as an assault on our religious liberties traditional. Her other daughter married her girlfriend in Massachusetts last weekend. Talk about family conflict and siblings not understanding each other. And there are two more siblings somewhere in between.
I also started thinking my book club might be interested. One member is a psychotherapist who only reads biographies, and is of course most interested in relationships. I worry that, while a couple of members are fairly religious, a couple more are atheists with no interest in religion, so I’ll have to assess the religious content with them in mind.
I agree that the first impression of the book doesn’t seem accurate, although I haven’t read it yet. But I think more people are interested in memoirs of family relationships and figuring out your place in life. And people reading about cancer are hoping for a happy ending in hopes that their story will have a happy ending too.
I think it may have a long life with people dealing with illness in themselves or their families, but those people don’t buy such a book until the situation arises. But the situation arises for someone every day of the year, unfortunately, so it may have ongoing sales in these situations.
And I think it may have a word of mouth element that results in steady sales. As I say, I haven’t read it yet, but it may be one of those books that has slow but steady sales over years.

[NFR: Thanks for buying a copy of my book. One consistent thing I get from readers, and have from day one, is an appreciation for the emotional complexities of the narrative. I was at a media event for the book in NYC, pre-publication, and a couple of journalists who had read it took me aside and were nearly in tears talking about how it spoke to situations they had dealt with in their own family. Plus, I find too, now that I’m a year away from having completed the manuscript, that for me, the issue of family division and sibling misunderstanding looms much larger than it did during the writing process. — RD]