July 9, 2007

Obsession of the moment: The Elm Creek Quilts saga

Jennifer Chiaverini

So first, some confessions: that I have not actually read any of the ten novels that make up the "Elm Creek Quilts" historical-fiction saga by Madison, Wisconsin-based Jennifer Chiaverini, nor can I imagine that these socially conservative family dramas will be of much natural appeal to the typical drug-taking, robot-worshipping reader of this website. But after randomly stumbling across one of Chiaverini's books at my neighborhood library this week, and visiting her website on a whim, I have to admit that I've learned of a big reason why you in the underground should pay attention to her and her career...

A graduate of both Notre Dame and the University of Chicago, Chiaverini is no typical Oprah-appeasing dummy; and when she found that her first novel, written simply as a personal ode to her newfound love of quilting (a habit she picked up in the mid-'90s), had in fact gained a national cult audience, she ended up parlaying that into a series of related activities and products, all of them naturally cross-promoting the others in ways that save a ton on traditional marketing costs. There are the fictional books themselves, for example, published in hardcover by Simon & Schuster and in paperback by Plume; then she also has two nonfiction books out as well, full of quilt patterns that are based on the ones mentioned in the books; and then as a quilter herself she also makes physical versions of them all, which can then be used for special-event fundraising purposes.

Oh, but it doesn't stop there: she's also the designer of a series of fabric patterns based on the Elm Creek stories; she maintains her own blog; she's run her own viral marketing campaign before; has cut her own commercial (and has had Simon & Schuster cut her one too); and of course is on the road with the regularity usually only seen with people like James Brown.

Yeah yeah, I know, you intellectual, you're tempted to laugh at all the things I just mentioned, but consider this: that out of 28 customer reviews at Amazon for Chiaverini's newest Elm Creek novel, The Quilter's Homecoming, 27 of them are either 4 or 5 stars out of 5; oh, plus the novel just hit #19 on the New York Times bestseller list. Yeah, who's laughing now, college boy? No matter what you think of the books themselves, Chiaverini deserves your respect and attention for so naturally crafting a little self-led media empire for herself, one that's fundamentally based on just the things she naturally likes, which is why it's so easy to maintain and so popular to boot. And she deserves your admiration for taking it all on herself, and for not sitting around waiting for some publicist or other handler to do it for her.

There are lessons to be learned here by the various underground artists out there trying to sweat out a living these days: that the best business activities are the ones you find most naturally fascinating to begin with, and that in one way or another can help promote the others so that money can be saved on advertising (which for new small-business owners can easily be the number-one money waster of their entire budget). Take a cue from Chiaverini when it comes to all this, and you never know -- maybe one day the project you started just to amuse yourself will be on the New York freakin' Times bestseller list too.

Filed by Jason Pettus at 8:05 AM, July 9, 2007. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Profiles |