The Pains of Self-Promotion

19 07 2011

Nathan Bransford is  a former literary agent turned children’s book author and everyone interested in writing and publishing should be following him. His blog is filled with insights about writing, his archives full of advice about querying agents, and his audience very knowledgeable and delightfully opinionated. He’s also had quite the busy week since he posted something to promote his book, Jacob Wonderbar and the Cosmic Space Kapow. His readers pounded on him pretty hard for this piece of self-promotion and he took his post down. Though I’ve never personally been in a situation where I’ve had the entire internet jump down my throat over something, I can imagine how he felt and I can imagine it wasn’t very good. As others on Twitter reminded him, the people who have a stake in the matter and the people who are actually in the know about these things, i.e., the experts, the fact is that it’s his blog and he should feel free to post what he wants in the manner he wants. Further, if he doesn’t promote his book, who will? Now the post is back up along with another on the nature of self-promotion and it’s to this one that I’d like to contribute my feelings on the subject, primarily from the point of view of a consumer, but also from someone who has also had to promote himself at times, someone who understands that necessary evil from a lot of different perspectives and as someone who tries to see things from the author’s perspective and how difficult it can be to not only get a book written, but to get it sold.

Right now, the nature of book publishing is changing dramatically. More and more books are being published and publishing houses are doing less and less of the promotion. Their budgets are stretched so thin they can only really promote the books that are already guaranteed bestsellers, so that if you’re one of the ones lucky enough to have a book coming out with an agent and publisher and the entire traditional path, you’re most likely going to see next to nothing done to sell your book beyond its distribution and the most basic of marketing. Self-publishing, which is now and will increasingly challenge the traditional modes of publication, is entirely reliant on the authors to promote their own works.

The problem, of course, lies in the fact that nobody likes to be overtly marketed to and authors in general tend to be somewhat clumsy about actually doing their own promotion; it’s consistently referred to as the thing they’re least comfortable doing. The stupidity of it all is that we as consumers are marketed to all the time. You’re hit with advertisements everywhere you go, all day long, from faceless companies selling products that you probably couldn’t care less about. And the funny thing about it is that we don’t really complain about that at all. But the second a small voice squeaks out and says, “Hey, I wrote a book, would you be interested in buying a copy?” out come the pitchforks and torches. Why is it that we’re totally okay with companies we don’t really like bombarding us with marketing, but we refuse the same to authors whose works (or at least the idea behind those works) we love? Because we’re all jerks, that’s why. We love to kick the underdog. We need to quit that.

The other half is that authors really do stink at marketing and promotion. They’re the worst at it, which is extraordinary because they already possess all of the tools they need to be fantastic at it but somewhere along the lines it all misfires. I mean, think about it: they can write well, they’re generally capable of empathy and seeing things from multiple perspectives, but a teensy bit of self-consciousness about the prospect of promotion causes them to fumble. Ask one to promote someone else’s work and they’ll do so with gusto and flair. Force to promote their work and you get: “Eeep…. my book you buy please? I no eat have in 16 days.”

That’s why I think authors should really take the time to read up on the subject and become comfortable doing it. It’s going to become more and more of a reality for them, so might as well. There are scores of books on the subject and many of them quite good at demonstrating what I think already most authors know but could stand to be reminded of. Because there is something good about marketing, too. It’s not monolithic evil, even if it’s the dark side with which we’re most familiar. Good marketing and promotion puts good products and good writing in the hands of the people who’d get the most out of it but would be unlikely to find it any other way. If you feel good about a work you’ve written, you’re doing a disservice not getting it out there. There is more to it than just “look at me” and actually, by having a popular blog and a trusted following, Nathan has already done it. If I could recommend a couple books, I’d read anything by Guy Kawasaki (Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions would be a good choice) or Bob Gilbreath’s The Next Evolution of Marketing: Connect with Your Customers by Marketing with Meaning or read Seth Godin’s blog. None of those addresses the specifics of marketing a book, but I consider that a feature. These are the guys who understand marketing at its most simple and I think most authors are capable of extrapolating from that a strategy to market themselves. Maybe at the least they’ll see that marketing isn’t the dark side.

For what it’s worth, I think everyone should read a couple books on marketing, not just authors. We’re all engaged in self-promotion all the time to a greater or lesser extent and if you’re not comfortable with saying anything good about yourself and what you can do, well, you’re probably going to have a hard time at your next job interview. So, maybe don’t read those two books which are a little less helpful in that regard but read something else and read Seth’s blog for sure. It’s all about realizing the value that you have in yourself and in the work you do and that you’re doing a favor to others by giving them the opportunity to be aware of it. Don’t just make it about money. We’re all more noble than that.

Finally, there’s the contingent that refuses to think that any promotion at all is unnecessary and is, in fact, harmful. To them, I kindly say “stuff it.” They don’t understand and they’re the exact reason you can’t just count on word of mouth or the quality of good writing to rise to the top simply be virtue of its awesomeness. The universe does not, in fact, take care of anyone that way and it’s exceptionally naive to think it does. One of the comments on his post actually said that. It also said that he should either charge for his blog or shut up, also known as a “false dilemma” in informal logic. I can’t stand people like that.

This, by the way, again reinforces in my mind the reason we should put more faith in the experts, those with authority, even at risk of being labelled “elitist.” The trained critic, not the Amazon reader comment, I think has the best chance of being our expert promoter of fine writing in the future, but I think that’s a discussion for another day. Suffice it to say that there are too many works and too many voices out there and it’s a sea of noise. Careful promotion that peeks out above the water has the best chance of getting the word out about the great works out there.

Two more quick notes on books

21 04 2011

First, an awesome, simply awesome thing to hear about the ‘Guys Read’ book club for 15 boys aged 8-11 in West Mercer, Washington. More of this, please. I wish there had been something like this for me growing up and I hope there’s something like that for my son. Maybe we’ll even start it, who knows?

Second, Jennifer Egan dissed “chick-lit” and now Jennifer Weiner among others are dissing Egan and there’s just too much damn lit/genre snark going on on twitter. To get started, go go here. Weiner even started an #eganfail hashtag. And you know what really fails? All of it. Give me a break.

Kindle kommt nach Deutschland

21 04 2011

More interesting/exciting Kindle news comes today with its arrival in Germany and the opening of the German Kindle eBooks store. Which is really great if you’re living in Germany and want quick access to those bestsellers. For us in the States (or in the UK apparently, or anywhere else that isn’t Germany), it really doesn’t make much of a difference, because this is what you’ll see:

The Kindle Shop at Amazon.De is only accessible for customers from Germany, Austria or Switzerland.

Visit the Amazon.Com Kindle Shop to look for titles that are accessible in your country.

Temporarily living abroad? You can change your country setting on the My Kindle page.

Thus, I could set my Kindle to German, change my address to German, maybe even set up a new account and get my Kindle on it, or I could even try setting my PC to use the free Kindle software with a different account than my regular American account, but you see the point. The point is a restriction of access.

Boo. Getting your hands on international movies, music and books has always been such a pain and I’ll confess, I don’t understand what all the trouble is with international copyrights that it results in setting up artificial barriers to trade in the digital era. Music’s a prime example of this. Early on, when iTunes first came out, you were able to purchase German titles right off the iTunes Germany page. Now, you can no longer even access that part of iTunes, even though technologically that capacity obviously exists. In fact, what we should be looking at now is an increased sharing of ideas around the world, where you can get everything instantly in this supreme global market, where technology allows us to make all of these borders disappear… but no. No, instead everything is gated and the technology goes to waste.

I can make the same complaint about regional encoding of DVDs as well. It’s not like that’s going to change anytime soon, either. In fact, you can’t even watch streaming video from Germany on a lot of websites unless you spoof a German IP address. It’s frustrating and I struggle to see how any of that does much good for normal people.

There is an upside, though. It means that International Book Import Service, this wonderful business based in Lynchburg, Tennessee, from whom I’ve been buying my German books for going on 15 years now, doesn’t have to bother with that sort of competition. Plus, over time, their website has gotten better about listing titles and allowing you to order online (used to be you’d have to call in by phone, which also wasn’t bad because Barbara seemed to remember everybody by name – an era of personal relationships that is, sadly, dying if not dead now). And, I’m definitely in favor of small businesses such as theirs not being swallowed up by larger corporations, though I’ll admit that the ease of access and convenience that goes into buying a Kindle book is something I’d welcome.

Kindle and Overdrive = Hooray for Libraries

20 04 2011

I’ve said a number of times on this blog what a huge fan and how supportive I am of libraries and today, I’m just really feeling impressed with Amazon coming around and offering up their format to Overdrive. I know there are some, like the article I link to, who’ll say that it’s just Amazon bowing to the inevitable. To that point, I’ll say only two things, really.

First, are you sure that it was all that inevitable? In the vast scheme of things, Amazon is a big player now. Libraries still are, too, but there’s the impression that they’re waning, especially when cities and states balance their budgets during the recession. You just never know, but Amazon on the whole might have more clout and staying power than they’re given credit for. On the other hand, it helps to sell Kindles, which is their money making baby.

Second, Guy Gonzales said it better than I could:

Funny how pundits always give Apple benefit of the doubt, rarely to Amazon, though the latter is arguably more innovative and experimental.

I’m all for shaking my fist at big capital when it comes to publishing, as has been well documented. I don’t like it when a single retailer controls so much of the market and even less when they begin to dominate the almost the entire chain of book production; writers gotta write still, but after that, I can imagine a dystopia in which Amazon becomes the one and only source for the written word. I think the reasons for that dislike are probably pretty clear.

But credit where it’s due. This is a *good* thing Amazon’s doing, even if self-interest is involved. It’s hard to see how this isn’t a win for everyone and, especially, for books and libraries.

On the other hand…

7 04 2011

Caught this much more optimistic interview in the Atlantic with Marjorie Garber, the author of The Use and Abuse of Literature:

I don’t believe there’s a necessary divide between highbrow and lowbrow or whatever. I think that the habit of reading is intensely pleasurable and it’s also hard. The pleasure of it is partly the pleasure of detection, the pleasure of recognition, the pleasure of response. I think you can probably tell from the book that I’m very optimistic actually about the future of literature and literary reading—I’m far from despairing and I don’t actually feel that there’s a crisis. What we need is to continue to show the power of reading, the pleasure of reading—and, again, more people experience that than we are sometimes aware of.

It’s nice to read something more up-beat and positive and focused on the act of reading of itself, as opposed to the publishing side of the discussion, which is sometimes so drenched with Kool-Aid on either side, one would think Congress has better chances of working together smoothly. Also, I think the last couple posts I’ve made have put me in the position of being a little snobby, but that’s not a position I really want or mean to take. I like to read for entertainment. I will buy every novel George R. R. Martin writes in the Song of Ice and Fire series without question (even though the 4th book just left me a little disappointed). I’m not saying that pleasure is all bad.

I do think, however, that truly meaningful works do more than just entertain. I think we can find those experiences in everything, but I do worry that left to just a mass-market, works with meaning and depth will be seen as “too hard” and will suffer diminished value to an even greater degree than they presently do. It’s the path of least resistance. In other news, people also don’t really go to see many independent and foreign films, they seldom go to art exhibits, and water is also wet. I find that a shame.

Garber’s focus on teaching “the power of reading” is what provides the ultimate glimmer of hope. That is, if it’s not neglected. It seems really important.

One part of the math

30 03 2011
Cover of "To Kill a Mockingbird: 50th Ann...

Cover via Amazon

I dig Laura Miller so much. She’s rapidly becoming one of my favorite people in the book world.

Today she writes about the “particularly symmetrical bit of revolving door ballet” between the amazing self-publisher Amanda Hocking, who has signed on with St. Martin’s and Barry Eisler, who is leaving St. Martin’s to self-publish his own. Hocking sees the big houses as an opportunity to get a little help with the proofreading, editing, marketing and distribution of her works, thus giving her more time to write. Eisler sees the self-publishing route as a way to deal less with the hassles of big publishing and bring his novels more quickly to market, thus giving him more time to write. There’s plenty of Kool-Aid to drink on either side, by the way, but this little conundrum pops up and hits you in the jaw.

Meanwhile, Laura Miller raises the point that always resonates most with me:

With all due respect to Hocking and Eisler (and I’ve got plenty for both), I’d rather have “To Kill a Mockingbird” than any of their novels. Even though they are much better at interacting with their fans and orchestrating their careers than Harper Lee is, Lee (in my opinion, at least) is the better writer. Today’s conventional wisdom, in both traditional and indie publishing, decrees that someone like Lee might as well not bother; however good her book is, it won’t find an audience unless she’s willing and able to make hawking it at least a part-time job.

What this means for readers is troubling. Even if the next generation’s “To Kill a Mockingbird” gets published, the author’s inability to promote it effectively may prevent it from reaching the millions of readers who would otherwise embrace it. And while Harper Lee never published a second book, I want the writers whose work I admire to have as much time as possible to write as many books as they wish. As Hocking so astutely points out, the hours spent in self-promotion are hours spent not writing.

Miller is no doubt correct that this is a problem. One need look only at Jonathan Franzen’s non-trailer book trailer that was kind of about Freedom but mostly about how he hates book trailers to see shades of the disinclination and “profound discomfort” that some novelists have had towards the promotion and marketing business. I think that the artistically inspired and talent novelist’s reluctance to self-promote, which they’re obligated to do whether they self-publish or publish through a Big 6 house, is only part of that problem, however. The larger culprit : nobody will buy the good stuff. Good stuff isn’t commerically viable and the book market is a business. The market, on the whole, is not very good at picking quality. It’s very good at picking what provides the most entertainment value. These are not one in the same. Even when we have a Franzen moment (and no, I still haven’t read Freedom, but I swear I’ll get to it), I imagine that a part of the enthusiasm has less to do with Franzen himself and more to do with a nostalgia towards good writing.

This is where the division between a book market driven just by self-publishing (and its eventual king, Amazon) and one in which large houses still exist present very few good answers. Ideally, both remain viable on the long-term, but publishing houses at least put some of these works on the rolls and get them out in paper to sit on a library self until they’re discovered. I’m pretty concerned that the self-publishing, fast-to-market crowd will drown them entirely, but won’t even know it, presenting this curious, circular logic:

  1. The good stuff will rise to the top!
  2. So-and-so is a selling the most, so her stuff must be really good.
  3. How do you know it’s good? Because it’s selling the most.

The problem? So-and-so is going to be writing stories about vampires falling in love with werewolves for YA audiences and nothing more than endless variations on that theme. Just sayin’, if you want to sell books, that’s what does it. The idea that just writing better will result in these artistic works coming to the top, however, is a pipe-dream. The market just don’t play that way.

A minor update

28 03 2011

I’m very aware that I’ve taken a few weeks off from posting here and, for no reason other than my own desire to make a goal and stick to it, it’s no small source of guilt for me. Without going into too much detail, as I think there are some things best kept to myself and away from those nasty Internetses, but I’ve found work and I’ll soon be back to teaching in a very exciting environment and I’m extremely happy about it. This all happened pretty fast, so as my mind placed all available mental and emotional resources towards the good of the one opportunity, my thinking here suffered. Rightly so, I’ll add, but it doesn’t mean I don’t also miss thinking about books and find that, after a while, I’m drawn back to them.

Blogging hasn’t been the only thing to have suffered somewhat during this time. I’ve not been writing or even reading much, though that’s already changing.

My current pleasure geek read is A Feast for Crows, the last book in the Game of Thrones series and I plan on having that finished before the series airs on HBO on April 17. I’m extremely excited about that. My wife and I have been dying for a good show to watch since Boardwalk Empire ended and while Being Human on Syfy has temporarily fit the bill, I’m really just not feeling it just yet.

On the development side, I’ve just started reading Enchantment: The Art of Changing Hearts, Minds, and Actions by Guy Kawasaki. I forget where I came across the title at all, to be honest and was surprised when I got the email from the library that my hold request was waiting for pick-up. It must’ve been from Seth Godin’s blog. This past year has had me reading so many things outside my standard areas of history and fiction. That’s a good thing.

Writing is, well, slow and intermittent.