Guest Blogger David Ramseur | Selling the Ice Curtain

Alaska Governor Steve Cowper and his then press secretary, David Ramseur, in Chukotka, USSR, during a 1989 trade mission across the Soviet Far East.

My lifelong obsession with Russia was about to be realized: the book I’d been contemplating for decades and to which I devoted almost three years full-time researching and writing was nearly in hand.

My publisher, the University of Alaska Press, announced the release date: June 1, 2017. To accommodate the frenzied demand I was certain would greet Melting the Ice Curtain, an immediate book launch was required along with a fist-full of quick-flowing pens for all those autograph seekers. Ah, not so fast.

I soon discovered that marketing my book was nearly as difficult and inventive as writing it. And doing so in Alaska presents unique challenges. Starting with getting the book here.

UA Press distributes its books through University of Chicago’s Distribution Center, so trucking and barging hundreds of pounds of books from a Midwest printer takes weeks. My plan for a June 1st Anchorage release party was quickly nixed.

The owner of Alaska’s major book distributor, Todd Communications, warned me against scheduling to sell a single book until they physically arrived in Anchorage. Orders get screwed up, books wash off the barge, forklifts spear your treasured work, he said. Too excited to get my book in the hands of friends and family, I ignored him.

Sure enough, even after pushing back my big launch to mid-June, the order apparently got lost. Facing the prospect of a launch party with no books, the publisher and distributor graciously expedited delivery of an initial batch.

The June 15th launch event went beyond expectations, thanks to many friends and the host, Blue Hollomon Gallery, which supports Alaska authors and artists. Scores crowded the gallery to munch snacks from Fromagio’s Artisan Cheese, hear an introduction from former Governor Tony Knowles, and stand in a long line to get more than 100 books signed. This success has prompted UA Press to order a second printing.

I suspect all these early sales were the easy ones. My bigger challenge is reaching readers I don’t know personally.

My strategy is two-fold: generate publicity wherever possible and speak to any gathering that will have me. I’m thankful Alaska Dispatch News carried a chapter excerpt the Sunday before the book launch. I’m now working on other media outlets across the state as I plan visits to their communities.

As this blog installment gets posted, I will have presented to two Anchorage Rotary Clubs, at Palmer’s Fireside Books and Turkey Red Restaurant, and interviewed with Charles Wohlforth’s Hometown Alaska public radio program. Numerous other presentations are in the works as I gear up to travel the state.

Book sales at business meetings seem to start slow, even with the 8-foot-tall advertising banner I erect in a conspicuous spot. But after a nearly 30-slide PowerPoint with historic and funny photos I assembled for the book, I’ve managed double-digit sales.

Another unexpected skill I’ve found necessary to master is accounting for book sales. At the suggestion of other authors, I bought a credit card Square which makes transactions at events such as Rotary Clubs easy and trackable.

I’m finding business and civic groups are often looking for speakers, so I’m booked for Rotary Clubs and the World Affairs Council in Juneau and the Chamber of Commerce and Historical Society in Sitka in July. Juneau is installing a new statue of William Seward over the July 4th weekend, so Hearthside Books there has scheduled a public library talk and book signing at the bookstore. My plan in each community I visit is to try for a local newspaper story and broadcast interviews.

One unique Alaska challenge is that many of us don’t want to be inside on summer days. So, my pleas for events in Fairbanks, Nome, and the Kenai Peninsula were pushed off to the fall. Even with my book hot-off-the-press now, I hope to keep it timely by capitalizing on historical fall events, such as Alaska Day on October 18th.

I’m also calling in favors with contacts in Washington, D.C., where I worked for six years for Senator Mark Begich. I’m fortunate one of the nation’s top Russian think-tanks, the Kennan Institute, will host me for a book talk in mid-September.

A social media novice, I’m relying on the guidance of a colleague for my website and regular Facebook postings. I barrage contacts with emails in advance of heading to their hometowns. I’m told Sundays is the most-read day for Facebook, so for months I’ve been posting a countdown of updates about the book. Good-natured friends tell me they’ve only received six or eight reminders of the various books events.

I stopped by the Anchorage Barnes and Noble recently for a book on an entirely different subject I heard profiled on NPR. Spotting my own book on the shelf made all the continuing persistent work worth it.

David Ramseur is a visiting scholar in public policy at the University of Anchorage’s Institute of Social and Economic Research. He served as press secretary, communications director, chief of staff, and foreign policy adviser to Alaska Governors Steve Cowper and Tony Knowles and to Anchorage mayor and US Senator Mark Begich. He has visited the Soviet Union and Russia more than a dozen times starting with the Alaska Airlines’ Friendship Flight in 1988. 

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