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.

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.

Bad Writing

4 04 2011

From the Self-Publishing Review:

At the risk of sounding like a snob: non-sophisticated readers will not care if writing is non-sophisticated, and there are a lot more non-sophisticated readers than sophisticated ones. That’s millions of potential readers.  Publishers might like to believe that they have the finger on the pulse of what sells – or what should sell – but when mediocre writing is becoming a bestseller, this pretty much renders the slush pile meaningless.

I couldn’t agree more, though many of the comments there correctly point out that bad writing makes its way through the publishing houses all the time. The difference, I suspect, is that in most of those cases, such as with Snooki or the various Tumbler to Book Deal conversions, these represent just a money grab for the publishers. You can’t really fault them for that. They need the money or they’ll go under like any other business. The more serious literary imprints and presses aren’t doing that and, consequently, they don’t bring in the big money, either.

I also saw the point made that great storytelling trumps great writing. I am not so sure. I’d even venture to say it’s impossible to have anything more than the barest kernel of what could potentially be a great idea for a story without having it written down and stories, my friends, are made in the telling of them. It might be a really grabbing concept, but it’s not done until it’s written and half-thought out ideas are compelling and worthless at the same time. I might have a really great idea for a painting that would knock your socks off. Unless, however, I somehow find the talent, dedication and time to put that image onto canvas, the idea isn’t worth anything. Technique and craft matter, at least as much and sometimes even more than raw gifts. What makes a great story is, frankly, a great story in all of its magnificence and splendor, a great idea perfectly massaged onto the page, be it pixels or paper. That’s inseparable from the writing.

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.

HarperCollins Puts Its Funeral Procession Into Overdrive

26 02 2011
2007 Disney Weekends #4: Darth Vader

"I'm altering the deal. Pray I do not alter it any further."

Just when you thought the publishing world didn’t need another fiasco, here one gets thrown in everyone’s lap. HarperCollins has elected to change the deal that they have with libraries in a mind-bogglingly myopic display of poor decision making. See, HarperCollins did allow ebooks to be distributed through Overdrive, which is a very clever system for treating ebooks like real books. A customer checks out a copy of the book via the Overdrive service, has that copy on their device for 3 weeks or so, and then the copy is removed and back on the virtual shelves for check out by another patron.

And it’s a system like that that has the potential to help libraries and publishers make the transition to the new digital world of books.

That is, until HarperCollins decided to go crazy and play the DRM card, as they announced that they will be limiting downloads of the book to 26 before nuking the copy completely. The library then has to buy another digital copy as we all pretend that 26 is the magic number of times that a physical book can be checked out before becoming an unreadable mess of tattered pages. The Overdrive scenario already employs the simulacra in allowing only so many simultaneous checkouts as the library owns, but this next step of treating the digital apple like a paper orange is too out there. Honestly, how much of the overall dollars going from libraries to publishers is from replacing books that they’ve already bought once before? I’m going to reckon that’s a pretty small piece of the pie.

Libraries and publishers need to be working together during this period of very rapid change or they’re going to kill themselves off. Overdrive is a great way that flows with the change and begin to define a space for libraries in the digital environment and that’s always been good for publishers, who need libraries because libraries produce readers. In other words, libraries overall are going to produce more value for publishing houses and books and reading than they’ll take away by checking out copies to patrons.

Instead of going with the change and looking for ways to make it better, however, HarperCollins appears to have gotten spooked and now stands with its arms outstretched against the oncoming train. This is not good for libraries and not good for them either. If you try to rein in change, you’ll just get flattened. DRM, folks, is bad. Real bad. What better way to encourage reading and readership than to strangle libraries with crippleware. Meanwhile, you can almost hear Amazon giggling in the corner, because they’ll be the big winners in all of this (especially since they’re the ones trying to actually make it EASIER for readers to read books).

Also, the entire fiasco is playing out over twitter now under the hashtag #hcod. Enjoy.

E-Book Publishing Ideological Battles?

4 01 2011

Everyone and their cousin spent most of 2010 wondering, and in many cases worrying, about the changing face of publishing and how it’s going to affect those seeking traditional publication via an agent and publishing house versus those many adopters of self-publishing through ebooks, Amazon, CreateSpace and Smashwords. The feeling I immediately get now, as those prominent names who weigh into the discussion have as much meaning associated with them as the positions they espouse, is that the debate is taking on an unfortunate ideological character that undermines the chance to really get to the heart of the issue itself.

The problem, of course, is that there’s never any way to totally escape ideology, especially once you get the market involved. Market capitalism has a way of gumming up most things just as we appear to be close to understanding them. Because the debate concerns only the financial viability of publishing in the long-term, we fail to consider whether that’s a good thing or not. The latter question, I’d argue, is the more important one, but we all know how that debate plays out: market concerns trump everything. The market has the air of infallibility. The market rules and values itself only.

The grounds for the debate have never been more clear, however. With ebook sales outpacing printed sales to a staggering degree and the mind-blowing press release from Amazon that the Kindle has become their best-selling product of all time, selling more units than Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, it’s no wonder that we will have to look back on 2010 as the year that e-readers have come into their own. And, we haven’t seen what 2011 has in store.

Which is why the topic of whither the publisher is going to become increasingly relevant this year. This morning I came across an  E-Read’s post by Richard Curtis, which asked the question of whether authors make good publishers. He cited Cory Doctorow, Seth Godin and, apparently, used an out-of-date quote by J.A. Konrath. I found the information by Doctorow very interesting, as his is a name that could sell just about anything, but his feeling is that it’s not worth the time he loses to creation when he must set aside a large portion of his day to marketing, distribution and the other million tasks that traditional publishing houses take over for authors. Konrath’s point is even more interesting, however, as he responds separately to Curtis’s post and underscores how deep in trouble traditional publishers are. With authors like Amanda Hocking selling over 100,000 ebooks in a month…. well, it’s hard to argue with the market. I think a lot of authors could feel happy about that.

The question that’s skipped over, however, is how Amanda Hocking fared versus those published by traditional houses. The answer? Pretty damn good. The first book of her trilogy, Switched, is currently #12 on the Kindle sales ranks, right behind Suzanne Collin’s The Hunger Games and Cross Fire by James Patterson. Of course, that doesn’t include how many print copies both authors sold via Amazon and I think it a rather safe assumption that the gap is probably a bit wider, but nonetheless, as the volume of book sales switches to an electronic format, that number and that rank are going to be increasingly relevant.

Still, it’s not surprising which side Konrath is on the calculus of publishing’s future. He’s become a voice for self-publishing in the new environment and is Amazon’s poster-child for the success of their product and their future hopes to muscle their way into the publishing market. Konrath coming in on the side of self-publishing is no more surprising than Rush Limbaugh shaking his fist and proclaiming that labor unions are some huge conspiracy. The name’s as good as the argument. Similarly, the commentary on Curtis’s post is pretty interesting, though-provoking and probably correct, but again, not very surprising. Curtis took a half-hearted stab at self-publishing and he reaped the whirlwind when the “Self-Publishing Emergency Response Team” jumped in like the SWAT to take him down. Necessary? Maybe. Classy? Not so much. It’s clear where the passion is, though.

Which all resulted in Curtis’s updated post this morning and underscored that he’s not really feeling much like the traditionalist (picture the pitchfork-bearing crowd screaming this in the same tone as heretic) that some of the commenters were making him out to be.

Again, that’s not to say that all of the comments there were bad. Some, even most, were pretty good. A few were borderline rude and a few (most comments that said he’s just a publishing house shill) were pretty useless. I think we should strive as an internet to be more respectful, considerate, imaginative and thoughtful in our discourse. Good luck with that, I know.

However, back to the topic at hand, we’re still only settling for the low-hanging fruit of the best method for selling genre fiction. That might be good enough to sink the traditional publishing houses in its own right, but there are larger things to consider. What about those services that traditional publishing houses do provide? Personally, I see the market eventually demanding more and more quality work done by professionals, designing covers, doing marketing and publicity, not to mention editing, as opposed to self-taught authors taking all of that on themselves. I’m sure some authors are much happier editing themselves. As a reader and bit of an amateur critic, I’m more than a little less sold on that particular idea.

Furthermore, if anyone can just upload their novel, what’s to prevent the same flood of bad fiction that chokes up publishing houses’ slush piles from gumming up the Kindle store? The market may be the one that chooses the winner, but the market isn’t very discriminating. Left to its own devices, the market does little to promote creativity and instead produces more and more clones of more and more accessible quality. It offers few surprises. It offers more young adult urban vampire fantasy. It punishes cruelly those who take too many risks. What is needed is the role of the professional critic far more than the opinion of random person #12,196 writing his or her Amazon review. That’s me being snobby. Forgive me, I just want more people who know what they’re talking about in the driver’s seat and I suspect that the market rather always chooses the path of least resistance. I do understand, however, that we’re fast approaching a pure democracy of words out there and, honestly, I’m not totally in love with the idea.

Of course, when I looked up and saw that Snooki’s book is due to come out today, I wonder really if both publishing routes aren’t completely lost to the market already anyway. That’s Simon and Schuster, folks. If publishing houses are willing to so easily give up their role as the “gatekeepers of quality literary production,” who are we all to argue with them?

The whole Jodi Picoult, Jennifer Weiner, NYT Franzenparty thing

25 08 2010
Lightning Strikes NY Times Building

Image by Johnia! via Flickr

When Jodi Picoult started tweeting about how un-surprising Michiko Kakutani’s glowing review of Franzen’s Freedom was and how the NY Times book review is only interested in “white male literary darlings,” I’ll confess to having become intensely interested in this topic because it brings so many issues about the book world all together. I mean, just look at it: You have criticism against the relevance of a single publication’s book review, as high falutin’ as they may be, in an era when book reviews aren’t even that important anymore (so sayeth Goodreads); you have the entire commercial versus literary fiction debate and whether the NYTimes should be covering that; and you have the really hot and steamy sexism (and I guess race, too, although that’s even sillier) charge. I’ve even seen it thrown in there that the NYTimes only likes authors with MFA’s. That’s all good stuff. It’s like Jerry Springer for book nerds.

I think the sexism charge is outright ridiculous and we really need to knock that one off. As PWxyz’s Jonathan Segura blogged, even a quick glance of the Sunday Book Review shows that there are of lot of books being reviewed that were not written by over-educated white dudes from Brooklyn. It’s just a dumb card to play and it comes out way too early in the “game.” Can men do anything at all and not be accused of being favored due to their sex? Is there any such thing as true accomplishment for a guy? Who’s the one being sexist here?

It’s tempting to see it all as just sour grapes. I’m willing to concede that Picoult doesn’t have sour grapes and was just expressing her (however misguided) opinion. But oh, the poor others who haven’t been similarly acknowledged by the NYTimes. That’s the point of “chick-lit” Jennifer Weiner’s #Franzenfreude hashtag and the reading list that it has been generating. I agree, let’s celebrate those well-written family novels as well. But does that mean we can’t stop for a second and look at Franzen’s without going all ape-shit about it? Maybe this guy is right and the charges of sexism are just a smokescreen for resentment of the literary writers by those who actually make a decent bit of scratch writing successful commercial fiction. Personally, I think that Weiner’s opening tweet is the lamest of them all: “Carl Hiaasen doesn’t have to chose between getting a Times review and being a bestseller. Why should I? Oh, right. #girlparts.” Or is it because she is a bestselling author of “chick-lit”? The Times clearly doesn’t review genre. She’s been playing that tune for years now, too (see her rant in comments to this 2007 post on the Times’  Paper Cuts blog). Which is it?

And that issue doesn’t even touch the merits of Franzen’s writing, which, in all of this is only a tangential, teensy-weensy sidenote to the whole drama. That’s why the argument has headed off into the absurd. It’s become about who is deserving of acclaim based on so many extra-literary features and very little is actually said about whether or not Franzen might just be a pretty damn good writer. I started reading The Corrections last summer and got about a quarter of the way through before getting distracted by something else, but I thought it was brilliantly written and I’ll confess it did have that whole modern-day Buddenbrooks feel to it. I found Chip to be a very compelling character, pathetic and simultaneous over- and underachieving, exposing a lot of uncomfortable fears I have about myself. That’s the sign of literary fiction’s focus on character. That’s not the sign of bad writing. Is it not possible that NYTimes is just interested in reviewing well-written books?

Mostly, it’s just disappointing. I understand Franzen’s not the most likable guy. I rolled my eyes at his blowing off author videos while making an author video. I look at him and all I see is ego. Are you surprised? An egotistical writer? It’s not like that never happens. But he’s no LeBron James either. And I guarantee you more people care about LeBron. And LeBron makes a hell of a lot more money. This is overall a silly debate. I think it’s far more important that we have a book that actually does make a little noise once in a while. That we celebrate an accomplished novel by an accomplished writer and be glad that we still have that. Anything that draws attention to books, big books, is good, right? And who gives a damn who writes them as long as they keep doing so (and that goes for Jennifer Weiner, too).

Eventually I will get around to reading Freedom (and The Corrections), but because I appreciate his writing. But not before I’ve read the Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. Or Cherie Priest’s books. I probably won’t read Jennifer Weiner anytime soon, because she doesn’t write about experiences that I think I can ever really appreciate. Audrey Niffenegger is okay, though. See, because not only do I not generally care what naughty bits the authors have, I don’t usually think too long on whether I’m reading genre fiction or literary. In fact, I’d like to see the whole separation of the two go away, since it serves very little purpose other than to limit ideas and, more importantly, it keeps people from reading promiscuously. More than anything, though, I’m mostly bored with it and think we should just move on.