Jan 14

 

I've had marketing and promotion on my mind lately, as for whatever reason I've been finding examples of it in a lot of areas in my life.  My band is starting work on its second album, and still trying to sell the first; gotta promote.  I've just had an academic book come out; gotta promote.  My first novel is due out next year; it's early, but in this business, gotta promote.  I've got this site called Rewritten Reality, see, and…

Well, you get the idea.  Gotta promote.

I'm not necessarily opposed to the idea of self-promotion in theory.  There's over six and a half billion people on this planet (damn, bro, that's a lot of people), and a lot of them are doing the same kinds of things I'm doing.  Not all of them, and not exactly the same things, and certainly not all of the same things at the same time…but close enough.  And of course I'm in a temporal game, too; if I were a pro football player, I'd only really be up against a little over a thousand people who could do what I do at that given moment.  Sure, if I want a crack at history I'd need to be much better…but just to draw a paycheck and be successful at my position I would only need to be better than others in my peer group, which in that case would be pretty darn small (er, in total numbers, not size.  These are big freaking guys.  If you're one of them, you're big, and I'd appreciate it if you not go after someone who, well, isn't.).  But there is no potential plagiarism or staleness in that model; if I'm a great running back, and run for 150 yards and three touchdowns a game, no one is going to yawn and say "yeah, but seriously…I saw Barry Sanders do that in a game once too…what's the big deal?"

This, unfortunately, won't wash in writing or playing music, where my output is always getting measured not just against contemporary work but against everything which came before it.  I've got to deal with countless numbers of people who have written books and played and recorded music in the past in addition to the current crop of said artists, which makes standing out from the crowd even more difficult.  So I've been seeking out information about how I might stand out more (and legally, of course…standing out through illicit activity isn't too tough), and made a horrifying discovery:

THE SELF-PROMOTER WHO CAME FROM THE DEEP.

Hmm…kind of catchy.  Hyperbole aside, TSPWCFTD is a scary thing.  The term refers more to a type of individual than one specific person (although I have a couple in mind), and has a couple of clearly discernible characteristics–I note them here as a warning for future people who might be drawn into TSPWCFTD's spell.

1.  TSPWCFTD is not a writer.  He/she was a writer at one time, certainly, though what was written is immaterial.  Cookbook, memoir, mystery, romance…it doesn't matter.  What matters is the book was finally written and must now be promoted with the fury of a thousand suns.  (That would also be a cool title, so don't steal it.)  Promotion is now the number one job: t-shirts, pens, postcards, stress balls must be purchased; book signings, one a month at least, must be scheduled; online message boards must be spammed; websites must be designed (more than one); contests must be run; famous authors must be contacted and begged for attention and blurbs.  All available funds must go towards promotion.  All bookstores in a hundred mile radius of the author must be contacted, as well as all newspapers, radio stations, and schools.  There is no God, only Zool.  *SLAP.*  Sorry.  Anyway, you get my point; writing has faded into the background here.  All that matters is promoting the book to anyone who will (and even those who won't) listen.

2.  TSPWCFTD has learned through experience, as he/she will sagely tell you, that publishers cannot and will not promote for you.  It's up to you.  Besides, you know better than anyone else what your book is about, so who better than you to explain its benefits?  And TSPWCFTD is nothing if not sure of him/herself, kids; the strength of his/her belief is often directly proportional to his/her desperate need for this book to succeed.  I suspect that like most true believers, there is something else going on below the surface with the TSPWCFTD…much more is tied into the book than just its pages and cover.  

3.  TSPWCFTD loves to suggest group activities.  "Why don't we do a group book signing?" he/she enthuses.  "That way we can save costs and have fun at the same time!"  And it seems reasonable; it would be cheaper, and it does sound fun, and often it is those things.  But just as often, unfortunately, the kind and friendly person who made the suggestion in the first place will quickly turn into TSPWCFTD in the presence of potential customers, and all of a sudden what seemed like a pleasant experience with a few fellow writers has become a Republican presidential debate, where no holds are barred, no quarter given, and no advantage unseized.  Afterwards, when leaving the scene, TSPWCFTD will revert to his/her charming self:  "Wasn't that wonderful?" he'll/she'll say.  Try not to let your jaw hit the floor upon hearing this (it can be painful).    

All of this probably seems more funny than anything else.  What's the big deal with promoting one's own work, after all?  So some people go a little overboard…who's it hurt?  But the problem, you see, is that self-promotion is not in fact a victimless crime, and on a lot of levels TSPWCFTD does much more damage than you (or even he/she) might think.

1.  Your job is to be a writer, not a promoter.  I like stress balls as much as the next person, but let's be honest: no amount of squeezing some rubber for anxiety relief is going to cause books to magically fly off the shelves to your readers, at least in the amount you're able to produce them.  The Random Houses and Penguins of the world can afford to make promo items like this recognizing that there will never be any one to one relationship in terms of stress ball received / book purchased, because they're buying them in bulk and because they know the more the author's name recognition goes up the more books they can ultimately sell.  But they also know it's not just this book they're selling, but your next one and next one and next one.  They're building you into a brand, and they can't do that if you haven't written anything else…which you won't be able to do if you're spending twenty, thirty, forty hours a week or more on promoting your first book.  The moral of the story?  You should be building a career where you, and everyone else, expects your next book to be as good or better than the first one, not trying to promote your one and only great work.  Both publishers and readers want staying power from the authors they read.  Besides, you're a writer, not a salesperson; there are people who do that latter job very well (and if you have that much fun doing it, you should become one–the world needs better salespeople and publicists (and I'm not being sarcastic…it's an extremely important job).).  Authors promote books; publishers promote authors.  It's an important distinction.

2.  It's true that publishers will no longer (if they ever did) simply take your manuscript, go forth with it and make millions while you hole up in your secluded cabin working on your next great work.  You do have to be proactive in promotion.  But that may mean you need to hire an independent publicist, or you might have to go to some conferences and book signings here and there; it does not mean that you need to hit every bookstore, sign every copy, or go door to door like you were selling vacuum cleaners out of the trunk of your car.  First of all, legitimate publishers have better contacts and better distribution options than you do; if they didn't, you simply would have self-published and kept every cent of the money for yourself.  Most authors don't do that because they know the way to get their work in front of the largest possible audience is to trust the people who have been doing that for more than a century: the publishers.  Second, publishers (usually, not always) know how to run promotional campaigns without making them feel like Nigerian E-mail scams.  No one wants to be seen as "that guy," but that's exactly how TSPWCFTD comes across–amateurish, desperate, and annoying.  And just like the spam which shares these characteristics, people like this get ignored, dismissed, and sometimes actively rejected by readers who want to be enticed into reading good work, not worn down into buying an author's book just so he/she will leave them the hell alone.  What's worse, other authors end up getting lumped in with these people…so that readers start avoiding authors altogether.  That's obviously bad for all concerned, including you.             

3.  And that's the most important facet of all this: you.  What does being this desperate, begging, and ultimately ineffective figure get you?  Ostracized, very possibly; marginalized, quite likely; humiliated, almost certainly.  No one wants this.  You want your books to sell, you want people to turn to you as a source of entertainment, intellectual stimulus, and ideas, and you want to make a mark on your little part of the universe.  Losing friendships, contacts and group affiliations just so you can sell an extra book or two (and that's really what this comes down to…none of the activities of TSPWCFTD has any large selling impact, because the scale just isn't large enough to make that happen) isn't even remotely worth it.  

None of this is meant to suggest you shouldn't have an active presence out there, and that you shouldn't be letting people know about your book (and why it's cool, and it obviously is, right?).  But it is meant to temper the enthusiasm of the first time author a trifle and remind him/her that the best way to promote a first book is by writing a second one even better than the first.  Your job is to write.  Do so, and leave TSPWCFTD to their stress balls.  They'll probably need them more than you in the long run.