Buy my books! (The gentle art of self-promotion)

By Caitlin Kelly

malled cover HIGH

Here’s an interesting discussion, from The New York Times Book Review, about whether or not authors should run around promoting themselves and their products books.

Here’s James Parker on why it’s such a bad idea:

She must explain herself. He must sell himself. To a gifted minority it comes naturally; to the rest, it really doesn’t. Hence the tremendous awkwardness that often attends these sorties into the national mind. Author photos, for example, are invariably ghastly: pouting, bedraggled or staring down with blazing eyes from the spire of genius, the author is basically saying (or trying to say): “Trust me. I’m worth it.” As for media appearances, any interview in which the author doesn’t swear uncontrollably or break into loud sobs must be considered a public relations triumph.

Having written two non-fiction books, one before the age of social media — “Blown Away: American Women and Guns”, published in 2004 — and Malled, in 2011, I’ve been around that block.

He’s right.

People who choose to write for a living generally prefer to withdraw into their own heads and work at their own pace.

If we were super-chatty extroverts, we would have gone into PR.

If we really loved having our photo taken or being witty in two-minute soundbites, we would have chosen a career in television. Trying to boil down nuance into seconds is difficult and scary as hell — and I’ve done a fair bit of television and radio promotion for my books, whether BBC radio and television, NPR or Al Jazeera America.

And “the public” can be brutal, (see: amazon “reviews”), ignorant and brutally ignorant of what it takes to even get a book commercially published. Authors often get asked to speak at someone’s lunch or alumni group or women’s club, unpaid.

Yet if your book sells poorly — fewer than 10,000 copies — your odds of an agent repping you, or any publisher touching  your next attempt shrivel very quickly.

So we feel compelled to sing and dance and do blog tours, even if that’s about as appealing as gum surgery.

Here’s Anna Holmes taking the opposite view:

Book promotion can offer a feeling of agency for authors trying to find their way in an industry that can seem otherwise fickle, opaque and unmeritocratic…

And the readers, really, are where it’s at. There’s nothing more rewarding than taking — or making — opportunities to connect with potential readers face to face or, thanks to the rise of the Internet, pixel to pixel. In fact, I consider book promotion as much of an obligation as proofreading a manuscript. Writing is, in itself, an act of engaging with others, of seeking connection over mere expression. If you were to put a book out into the world, which would you rather have — conversation or silence?

Holmes is being super-polite; “unmeritocratic” is Times-speak for:

How did that piece of shit ever find a publisher?!

I have two friends who head the publicity departments of two major American publishers. I love them as friends, but to hear their insiders’ view of this business is blood-chilling. One told me recently she read a proposal so incompetent she said, “Not a chance.”

Yet the house bought it for a lot of money, because the writer already has a huge following for her website — i.e. demand for her product.

I was intrigued when I started to follow writer Sarah Salway’s British blog, Writer in the Garden, and decided to follow her on Twitter — and read the bio’s of the many highly-accomplished UK writers she follows. Their self-presentation was almost uniformly witty and self-deprecating, a style I used to employ when I moved from Brit-inflected Canada to the U.S. — and to chest-thumping New York City, aka Braggarts ‘r us!

If you’re shy and quiet and reserved about your work here, hang it up kids, because you’re probably going to stay invisible and powerless.

In our noisy, crowded, you-only-get-six-seconds’-of-my-attention culture, introverts can have a tough time getting their books attention, reviews and sales.

I have to say, on balance, I side with Holmes. I’d rather initiate a convo with my readers than sit around waiting for someone to find my books.

27 thoughts on “Buy my books! (The gentle art of self-promotion)

  1. As an independent author, I’m usually the one who does most of my advertising. It’s hard for me not to talk about my books, because I really want people to read them. It’s not always easy, but I do it anyway. Occasionally it even gets me a sale or two.

  2. I have to say, your blogging itself could be as much marketing as anything else. I think in this day and age people want to feel like they know the writer/artist/musician/actor/photographer/etc they find themselves following, and than ultimately purchasing something they created. I still love sitting down with a a good book when I can find longer than six seconds in which to do so….So, I think the fact you give readers a constant window to your world and thinking in the form of these short articles is enough to lure them in to eventually buy your book 🙂 ….heck i’m almost there. hehe.

    1. I think you may be right. But many writers have no time, skill or interest in blogging. The truth is…writers just want to write. I’d be delighted to do nothing else for a few years but write only books…but the pay is awful do my other writing work has to subsidize it when I do. I enjoy blogging, but by now could have produced 3 books or more with the time spent here hoping…

  3. themodernidiot

    Read her books, b$&@”es. I did, so now I’m smarter than everybody else.

    Wait, that’s not right is it? I’ll work on it…

      1. themodernidiot

        Ah excellent. My work here is done. Feel free to use that on your promo materials.

        If you’ll excuse me, I have a children’s literacy campaign to work on. Maybe I can just fiddle with the syntax a bit, save me some time by recycling (note to self: do not use words that rhyme with duck).

  4. I’m with you and Holmes, it’s part of the gig when you write books that you have to promote them. And I would add, to promote them in a way that you’re not lining your twitter stream with ‘Buy me!’ ‘Buy me!’ ‘Buy me!!’ tweets (which all too often I see on authors streams). You can’t JUST talk about your books, but you must talk about your books. Find a balance. Like anything else in life, there is a happy medium.

  5. Ana. K

    I agree, that promotion is important, but for a first time writer (i.e. that first book or looking to get their foot in the door with that first book) it can be difficult considering the web is filled with billions of websites now and the reality of web traffic is more daunting now (to penetrate that level of traffic). It’s not easy to start a blog and then, if one has the time to update regularly (new writers usually have other jobs to pay the rent), to update it and expect for that to work.
    But if a writer earns their living through writing, has established contacts, then yes, it’s their full-time job and promotion is attached to that. But if an individual is still breaking through, juggling one or two jobs, does not necessarily come from a literary milieu or rarely has time to socialise/interact with the literary milieu what type of self-promotion can they have or have time to accomplish, and this is where I find fault in the NY Times article.
    The reality is that if a writer does break through and establishes a relationship with a publishing house, then the promotion aspect will be somewhat easier – somewhat, because one is only as hot as the work that they publish, that sells, etc. But for a writer relying on social media, it may be more difficult and it just may be worthwhile to consult a PR firm or get out there and into whatever bookshops exist.
    A good example I know is Australian writer Matthew Reilly. He invested his money to print his first novel and put it on bookshelves himself. The booksellers didn’t have anything to lose if it failed to sell (no warehouse to post to, no publisher to deal with for refunds/credits ,etc). It so happened that his work was noticed by someone who worked for a publishing company who was intrigued by the book and its status as a seller, and the author went on to be signed up.
    But that was before the rise of Amazon. Now many authors who self publish on Amazon can point to similar success? While it is easy to self-publish now, it is considerably more difficult to reach thousands of readers. That needs time. How is it possible to get readers to notice one book out of the millions on Amazon?
    The article on the NY Times makes valid points, but I can’t help criticising it because while it may state the obvious, it fails to provide writers with real strategies to get their work noticed.
    If a writer is established, had a few books under their belt, then yes, a website may be sufficient, but if a writer does not have that experience or is not a writer by profession (journalist, freelancer etc, in terms of being connected to those in the industry), then their need will differ and attempts at self promotion may be more difficult or unsuccessful.

    1. “But if an individual is still breaking through, juggling one or two jobs, does not necessarily come from a literary milieu or rarely has time to socialise/interact with the literary milieu what type of self-promotion can they have or have time to accomplish, and this is where I find fault in the NY Times article.”

      The fact is that everyone who publishes a book is going to need to treat it as a full-time job. There is no “literary milieu” — there are media outlets that may, or may not, review your book or do an in interview with you. There are thousands of potential readers to seek out. There are librarians who need to buy your book (so you need to be reviewed by the two major journals they read and from which they make their decisions.)

      Publishing a book commercially (i.e. NOT self-publishing, which I don’t do and do not address) means making a serious multi-year commitment to writing it and then marketing the hell out of it: creating and updating a website, social media, speaking engagements — ALL of which are going to come from the author. The publisher does little in that regard.

      You want it, or you don’t. With all due respect, any would-be author needs to fully understand the marketplace and how it functions, and play the game to win, or understand how others are playing it. Self-publishing sounds alluring but it offers many pitfalls as well. Attending a few conferences very quickly makes clear the realities.

      1. Ana. K

        Of course there is a literary milieu. A reviewer on the NY Times or in a scholarly journal is part of that milieu, as are agents, publishers, editors, journalists, academics and librarians. Everyone that works within the writing profession [generally] is part of that milieu and if a writer is within this sphere, they have more knowledge about publishing. And if they live in a major publishing city (NY, London, etc), there is that advantageous layer to consider as well, as opposed to living in an out of the way city.
        Pascale Casanova’s study, ‘The World Republic of Letters’ explores this very subject with respect to the literary space.
        Yes, writers are expected to promote their books, and sometimes for a considerable time (I think Vikram Seth had to spend 2 years promoting one of his novels), but not all publishers expect their prospective writers to know everything about the publishing industry. It is not a reasonable expectation to have and in my experience, more smaller publishers -financially limited- had a tendency to expect that much from their writers (and in some cases, expect writers to take royalty cuts as well).

      2. But you make it sound like some exclusive club you can’t join — no time, no physical access. You make your place in that world, as many of us do, by showing up and carving it out. It might take years. A few people gain quick access to some of this info by studying writing at a prestigious workshop or MFA program — many of us do not.

        There are no “reviewers on the NYT”, for one thing! The paper employs three staff writers whose full-time job is reviewing books; all the rest of the reviews (and I have reviewed for them) are written by people with no formal affiliation to the Times. Do we know someone who can assign us a review? Maybe. Maybe not!

        “not all publishers expect their prospective writers to know everything about the publishing industry. It is not a reasonable expectation to have and in my experience, more smaller publishers -financially limited- had a tendency to expect that much from their writers (and in some cases, expect writers to take royalty cuts as well).”

        Why is the expectation of professional behavior — from a would-be author — “not a reasonable expectation”? Of course it is! I will be teaching two college classes this fall and I am fully aware of the many potential pitfalls that await me, so I am speaking to my dean, to other professors there and to other writing teachers I know, so I can be as prepared as possible — and for a part-time position that will not lead to anything full-time. You take your role seriously, or you don’t. I have little sympathy for would-be authors, wishing to publish a book, who flap their hands in dismay at the REAL demands of doing so in a professional manner. If you find those demands (so) overwhelming, it might be a poor choice for you.

        You can choose to see the publishing industry as difficult-to-impossible and find it all just too much. Or you can do what many of us do: attend every possible conference; read every possible blog and book on the topic; join smart, experienced writers in associations and on-line forums (NONE of this is hindered by geography) — and learn a lot. That’s what I did. That’s what many of us do. But if you prefer to enter a complex and ever-changing business (and it is very much a profit-focused business) with little to no understanding of its inner workings (do you know what a P & L statement is?) — then, good luck!

  6. No question that online platforms are where its at for authors these days. Today, in fact, I heard from the social media expert at my publishers. I am certain that blogs, twitter, facebook etc do not sell directly. But they are selling the personality of the author, insofar as that can be revealed through those media. Which helps discovery – always the first hurdle.

  7. i think there are some very valid points here, caitlin. it seems that many/most? artists of all kinds, (including wordsmiths), are wonderful at creating, though horrible at promoting themselves. many are introverts, and while they have an incredible insight into the world, they struggle when having to be a part of it in some ways, including selling their work. this is where the outside help comes in – publicists, agents, etc. – it’s an ongoing challenge to find a balance, i’m sure –

    1. The challenge of hiring experts to promote us — which some of us do — is $$$$$.

      The average book advance is lousy and you get only 25% of it, minus 15% to your agent — so digging up the dough to hire additional experts is tough, even if we really need their help. When I was invited to do the full hour of the Diane Rehm show (NPRs largest audience, live) I hired a speaking coach in DC the day before. It helped a lot.

      1. yes, and therein lies the rub. having the dollars to shell out in advance to hire these people is an issue, since you haven’t yet made your author’s fortune. by the way, i just bought your book on amazon, so you made something off your self-promotion today. my daughter worked retail for a bit and i know it was a living hell in many ways, can’t wait to read it. )

      2. Wow! Thanks…I’m delighted you’ve done that…and I suspect much of it will ring true. I’ve gotten many emails over the years telling me that my experience echoed others’.

  8. I see myself in everything you wrote. I grew up under the code that it was wrong to brag about myself and I will never break through that barrier. It has resulted in being trusted by people who know me but it has also resulted in taking a long time for people to get to know me. (Or my books)

  9. If publisher’s marketing budgets are shrinking except for “A” list authors. Choices must be made as to how to get your book recognized by the masses. Social media is the obvious choice. However, just blasting away on Twitter or Facebook will get you more negative results than anything. The trick, it seems, is to obtain the notice of a few individuals with large social media footprints and get them to put the word out. Come on Oprah, call me back. 🙂

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