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.





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.





Depressing Bookstore Doom

17 08 2010

I think the title of this article by Brett Arend says it all: “Get Ready for the Bookstore Massacre”.

There’s not too much new here, but it’s probably the most down to earth expression of the situation surrounding books, physical bookstores and e-books that I’ve seen yet. Barnes and Noble’s stock is languishing despite the recent proxy battles, trading around $15 a share (down from $45 five years ago) and for the price of a cup of coffee a day, you can either save a starving third world kid or piss the money away on a share of Borders.

What makes me feel bad about the whole thing is it really does paint a dismal picture for rummaging around a bookstore and discovery via browsing, like Arend says:

I will be sorry to see the bookstore go. I love browsing for books. You’ll find titles you weren’t expecting or didn’t know existed. I love discovering an out of print gem in a second-hand bookstore.

Even today, if you make the full use of money-off deals and coupons at places like Borders you can often get paper books for less than e-books. And there’s a limit to how much you can carry, so there’s a limit to how much you can buy. I’ll admit I’m getting fed up with technology. I dislike computers. I’ve even taken to reading an old-fashioned newspaper again.

But it’s “progress.” We’ll have to deal with it.

Or equally dismal:

As for the book industry: About 125,000 people still work in book stores and news dealers, according to Labor. How many of them will still have jobs in two years? Another 75,000 work in book publishing. When writers self-publish in electronic format, how many publishers will still be left?

Amazon is going to make out like a bandit, though and Farhad Manjoo even predicts a $99 Kindle coming soon.

My gloom-filled view is that this will happen sooner than we expect and a whole hell of a lot faster. I just don’t see the big chains being able to provide any real reason for people to come into their stores anymore and e-readers are just going to become increasingly mainstream. Most independents are dead or dying. It’ll just be Amazon. It’s a real pity in a way. Where will people gather to be around books? It probably won’t be libraries much longer either. Will it be Goodreads? I mean, they’re already thinking they’ll kill all newspaper book reviews.

Am I just being pessimistic? I realize it sounds like I’m holding up “The End is Nigh” sign and proclaiming the end of the written word. I don’t think it’s all bad. It will lead to a democratization of the publishing world in the sense I think we’ll see far more self-publishing and self-promotion in the future as the publishing houses also start to fall by the wayside. That will be a huge increase in efficiency and a lot of good new voices will be heard. Democratization, however, brings its own set of problems. With so much slush out there (and I mean a lot of it really must be crap also), can you imagine if it were all just suddenly “out there” competing for the attention of a flighty cyber e-book buying audience? I don’t really always trust the public to pick out what’s good and what isn’t. Hell, look at the bestseller lists. It’ll be rough going without some kind of credentialed editorial voice in the production chain somewhere. Goodreads, as much as I’m a fan, probably won’t be it.