Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Self-promote or be damned!

Agent Colleen Lindsay posted on her blog recently about authors who don't want to do the self-promotion necessary for literary success.

We pause to ponder the irony of artists who must dip their hands into the filthy swill of commerce in order to gather unto themselves enough filthy lucre to be free to pursue their art.

Okay. Pause over.

Colleen's point, illustrated with at least one actual example (Tad Williams), is that no matter how much you hate self-promotion, you must do it. I'm certainly not going to argue with her about the necessity of self-promotion. But for many of us, self-promotion remains something monstrously unpleasant and maybe even impossible. I don't think that's because we all think we're above such grubby concerns and the world should see the brilliance of our genius shining in the darkness and come to us instead of requiring us to catch the world's attention. I think that for most of us, it's simply a matter of personality.

We were the serious kids in school. We thought about things, we read about things, and usually we wrote about things. We were bright, even brilliant, but in the vast majority of cases, we were not outwardly notable. Meanwhile, the beautiful but not brilliant kids were capturing the world's attention by virtue of their surface. Some of us - okay, many of us - okay, most of us - kinda sorta resented that. A lot. We did tend to think that the world should notice our inner beauty. Damn that world! It refused to! A lot of us tended to make a virtue of not being showy. Given our personalities, most of us couldn't have been showy even if we had to.

But now, years later, we learn that we have to be showy and on display in order to sell our books. Holy cow! We're still in high school! Those who are able to smile and shake hands and push themselves into the limelight will succeed, and the rest of us will continue to be ignored! It's just not fair!

I'm sure I'm exaggerating. Somewhat. I've done a bit of the book-publicizing thing, and it was hard. In some cases, it was more than that. For one book, I approached a number of writers I know, mostly local people whom I've socialized with for years, and asked them for cover blurbs. They were all kind enough to supply me with the blurbs. They were understanding and friendly about it. I was squirming inside with self-loathing the whole time. Couldn't help it. I still feel embarrassed at the memory. What was/am I embarrassed about, exactly? I dunno, it's just, eeew, you know? When I run into those writers at local events, they're friendly, but I keep thinking that they must be thinking, "Oh, hell, he's here. I hope to God he's not going to ask me to blurb another book!"

(Curiously, I've occasionally been asked to provide blurbs, and I was always pleased and flattered to do so. Impostor syndrome at work there, I suspect.)

I forced myself to do it, anyway. But I still want one of my novels to become a humongous bestseller all on its lonesome, with no promotion required on my part. That's wildly unrealistic, but I can't help wanting it anyway.

In conclusion, I have no conclusion, except to say that it's not immense ego and an overblown sense of self-importance that makes writers dread and avoid self-promotion. No, the avoidance is caused by precisely the shy, retiring, inhibited, introverted personality that made them gravitate toward writing in the first place.

Ironic, as a writer might say!


Kristen said...

To promote Homefront, I made a website, a myspace page, fliers, asked for blurbs, asked for reviews, and put my name and the book's name as many places as I could. I ended up feeling gross, sick of myself, sick of my name, overly "out there," and exposed.

One time? At a book signing on a military post? Sitting at the table was worse than giving an oral report in school. People walked by, and I wondered why they weren't stopping. People stopped to buy a copy, and all I could think was, "I have no idea what to say to you." I also thought, "Why would they want MY signature in this book? I'm just me. What am i supposed to write in here? My name? Is that all? some profound message? Something cool? I have nothing cool to say!"

Another problem with marketing, I've found, is that it shifts focus from the creative (which, I believe, is a zone one must enter to immerse oneself in one's work to the degree that is necessary to create something we're proud of) to the business. Instead of thinking about characters and details and next scenes and subtexts, I'm thinking about another thing I should have done to push the book, what tricks I might be missing to sell my stuff, why people aren't buying, and why - after a nice jump in sales - they slacked off.

I thought yesterday about what movies say it was like in the "old" days, when companies nurtured and protected their "artists" because they wanted their artists to be bothered with nothing but their creation - they wanted them to make something good.

that would be nice.

David said...

Thanks, Kristen. For a moment, after I posted, I wondered if I was the only one. But now I know there are at least two of us, and I'm sure there are many more.

In the post I linked to, Colleen Lindsay says that it's always been the way it is now, and that authors are kidding themselves about a past time when artists could concentrate on creating and publishers handled the promoting. Well, I look forward to a golden age, then. I hope it comes.

Chris said...

You know, David, you're right. We ARE brilliant.

TGirsch said...

I'm actually outgoing, and don't mind rubbing elbows and schmoozing at all. Maybe that's why I'm a crappy writer... :)

TGirsch said...

P.S. If it's all about self-promotion, then what the hell do you need an agent for?

David said...

TGirsch: So, er, were you a golden boy in high school?

It's ironic, but you need an agent to sell your book to a big publisher so that you'll have something to promote. Without that, self-promotion doesn't do anything.

Except for those rare people who are able to make themselves celebrities in the sense of "people who are famous for being famous". Then they can sell books for big bucks because publishers increasingly want celebrity books. Nice work if you can get it.

TGirsch said...

Is it really "ironic?" Ironic, to me, would be if the act of hiring an agent actually harmed your chances of being published.

Anyway, no, I wasn't a golden boy in high school or anywhere else. I was a skinny little nerd -- I lettered in math for the love of Pete! (Who's Pete, and why does everyone love him? I digress.)

Anyway, all of the social skills I developed were developed primarily for self defense. I've always had the "gift of gab" -- my grandfather used to say I was the only kid he knew with a sunburned tongue -- and I just used that to my advantage. I was the skinny little nerd that the cool kids didn't mind, and I used to be very good at self-effacing humor, such that I'd preempt them on the teasing front.

David said...

Hmm. You're right. I bitch about the misuse of "ironic" and now I misused it. "Contradictory" would have been better. It's a Catch-22.

Your school memories strike a chord. I lettered in competitive speech. Fortunately, I was smart enough to put the letter away and not wear it on anything to school.

That's a great line about a sunburned tongue.

David said...

Chris: Yes! And writing is what we should be doing. In the best of all possible worlds, anyway.

TGirsch said...

Well, letters were typically worn on a letterman jacket, and I was nowhere near cool enough to have one of those. Never got a class ring, either. But to be fair, I never wanted either one.

And if it makes you feel better, your use of ironic is at least (barely) defensible, because one would (or might) expect your agent to promote you, when in fact that's not what she does at all. But to be truly ironic, she would have to march into publishers' offices and convince them NOT to buy your stuff. :)

David said...

Even more than your agent, you would expect the publisher's PR or marketing people to promote your book. Some of them do, but many don't. That's partly due to personnel cutbacks at publishers, but even before that started happening, they were focused on promoting the books for which they had paid big advances, to make sure that those books sold well enough to justify the upfront outlay. (That's a neat phrase!)

The misuse of "ironic" that I notice most often is on the part of local TV newscreatures, who use it as a synonym for "coincidental".