Promotion, self-promotion, and all that jazz

See, here’s the thing – nobody likes a shill for their own stuff. For very excellent reasons. If a person – an artist – a writer – doesn’t seem to be capable of uttering six straight words without beginning the next sentence with “In MY book…” – well – there is only so much you can take of THAT. Young and naive and terribly terribly enthusiastic writers do it a lot – they have to be patiently and politely told that gatecrashing other people’s conversations at convention parties, for instance, with gushes about their own new! shhiny! work is kind of icky. Most get the message.

In general, talking about your own stuff in any kind of self-aggrandizing terms is seen as vaguely icky, period.  many writers tend to just shy away from the whole prospect, period – because we DO find it hard to kind of sit there and announce, here, look, I’ve written a book and it’s SO award worthy, you lnow. Many of us, I would even venture to say most of us, tend to look at our own stuff and rather than see it as utterly perfect and worthy of every award being offered out there all we see are the problems and the imperfections and the stuff we could have improved or done differently if we had to do it over again. For many a writer an award nomination, never mind a win, is enough to occasion said writer to burst into tears – because SOMEONE ELSE FOUND IT WORTHY. Somehow the work that the writer himself or herself actually brings to anybody’s attention is inferior by definition – because it was not do brought by an independent third party.

It brings to mind a phrase whose provenance – place or author – I can no longer recall (if anyone knows please do enlighten me). I won’t even quote it directly because I don’t remember it precisely but the subject was Queen Victoria, and her having actually proposed marrage to Albert instead of being in the fortunate position of having him propose to HER as tradition and propriety demanded. But then, she was Queen, or she was going to be Queen, and there are certain proprieties that do go out of the window in the circumstances. And many an author finds themselves, sooner or later, in the same position, eventially – having to propose the marriage of their work to a reader (or an award nominator) instead of being in the fortunate position of waiting to be asked.

There is a LOT of reading material out there. Much of it simply falls through the cracks. In today’s straitened economic circumstances, in particular, any given reader is even less likely than they might have been in the days of yore to take financial chances on an author whose work, or at the very least whose NAME, they already don’t know well enough to expect that they will like the newest offering. Many new authors are left in the dust by this because nobody CAN know their name yet, and fewer readers might be willing to give them that first all-inportant chance than they might want, need, or deserve. And yet, if they ever so much as pipe up with “Well I wrote this thing…” they get squashed by the self-promotional recoil juggernaut and even some of those who might have liked their work if they had read it are turned off by the manner in which they were made aware o fit.

Particularly at certain times of the year, like right now, when the awards nominations are in full swing, authors find themselves caught between the rock of simply staying quiet and the hard place of doing at least a single simple blog post of a list of their eligible works for that year and letting those chips fall where they may. Mostly, I don’t bother with it. This year, I’ve a bunch of short stories out there, so I put out that blog post. But ambivalently, and with trepidation, and wondering whether I was simply doing more harm than good to begin with. Would those who haven’t read the stories not read them anyway because of the way they now learned about their existence (in which case I really haven’t lost that much) or would they have read them if only they’d found those stories BY THEMSELVES (which I jave no clue how many did) or would they only have been deemed eligible if they had actually been recommended somewhere else by somebody else? And in the latter case does the identity of that “somebody else” matter” Because most of us reach a point where we acquire a fairly wide circle of writerly friends and acquanitances who ALSO write. So, if not touting oneself, is touting works by such friends and acquaintances permissible by current etiquette or is it also tainted? Is a list of stories worthy of potential award nomination, for instance, only really acceptable if it is produced by people who absolutely do not personally know or have any remote connection with the authors of said works?

What if you wrote something that is really very very good but just hasn’t been read by enough strangers? And no, don’t tell me that something that is that good WILL HAVE BEEN. Sometimes strangers read the buzzworks and not the lost great gems which they simply never trip across. Sometimes we have the Oscar-clump situation – you know, a work, or perhaps a handful of works, gets simply ALL the available attention for any given year and it’s like nothing else even exists out there in the vacuum because that one work wins EVEYRTHING (think of the years of the blockbuster Oscar winners with the same movie winning practically every award in the running, or at least every award that anyone cares about – I know they give Oscars in technical categories but few people other than those who receive them actually know or care, the big awards of the night are the big splashy ones like best picture, best actress, best actor…)

Sure, like the good Queen, it is best if you are sitting over here and someone comes over on bended knee and proposes (an accolade) to YOU. But is it remotely acceptable, and if so in what circumstances, for the Queen to propose? For the writer to sit up and say, these are the things that they have creaated, that they believe worthy of your attention – and these are the awards that are floating out there in search of a winner – and no, they are not buying your vote or attempting bribery and corruption they are merely offering a matchmaking services for the reader to take advantage of or not as they choose?

In Amazon forums, the Amazon staff routinely nuke posts made by people whose only response to any topic or a plea for reading suggestions is “Well, I wrote this book…” – and yes, it can get wearying indeed to read post after post of those particular attempts at attention grabbing. But sometimes – even while you’re irritated and annoyed at the brazenness of it all – you can also sort of see the point of view of the writer who might have been published by a small press with little or no resources to devote to extensive publicity and who has joined the discussion on, say, somebody asking for recommendations for new fantasy to read, and who can see post after post telling people to read George R R Martin (who, let’s face it, hardly needs the publicity…) but even though their own book might be absolutely apropos to what the original asker of the question might have wanted they are prohibited, by protocol and by Amazon fiat, from mentioning their own work. And it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy because nobody reads their work because nobody knows it exists because nobody has read it to talk about it because nobody knew to look for it because…

People cannot read things of whose existence they have no inkling – it has been said that the greatest enemy of any writer is not so much piracy as obscurity. The conundrum of how to break the wall of silence before you gather enough momentum for those oh-so-valuable strangers to be doing your promotion for you… remains a conundrum.

How about it, readers? Are you utterly and completely averse to reading anything at all, if you first heard the author of that thing speak of it? Word of mouth is the most valuable but also the most unpredictable  and unreliable publicity that any author can ever hope for. But where does it start? And if it starts with the author, for instance, posting a list of eligible stories during the awards season… does it also end there…?

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  1. 1. Kari Sperring

    I can’t do it: it just doesn’t feel safe or proper. I’ve taught myself not to mind when others do it, because I accept that in this world such things are necessary. But I can’t take that final step.

  2. 2. Elias McClellan

    Off topic but only slightly. The maddening aspect of this is you quickly find that if you do write it, edit it, peer review it, and get the courage to submit it, you best be ready to pimp for it. Hard. Or your little tome will NEVER see a bookshelf.

    To answer your original question; I first read Connie Briscoe after going to a read-along-and-sign session, same for Michael McGarrity. So, no, I don’t hate a writer pitching their book by their own website, blog spot or other means of self-promotion. Often I’ve preferred those books to the this-is-your-kind-of-book books inflicted on my by people that obviously don’t know me. Cough ~mom~ cough. I think the trick is to understand, as you pointed out, a little of this bit goes a long way.

    Worse than the shill, is the angsty, “I’m not here to entertain you/sell you, I’m an AUTHOR,” act. I watched David Foster Wallace, play this bit out in a meet and greet sponsored by the only bookstore in Houston that “got” his work. It turned me off reading his work.

  3. 3. green_knight

    I’m facinng this problem right now – I am trying to further my freelance career, and going out and telling people how awesome I am feels… wrong, somehow. I’m good, but I fail to be convinced of my awesomeness, and I certainly couldn’t tell that to other people.

    I am, for complex reasons, looking to self-publish one or more novels in the coming year, and self-publishing means that there definitely won’t be any publisher’s website or marketing department or publicist. If I won’t tell the world that the book exist, the world definitely will never know… and I’m trying to wrap my head around this _now_ in the hope that when the time comes, I’ll have stopped wibbling.

    As a reader, I don’t mind the occasional rounup post – because we read so many things in a year, a reminder of ‘oh, yes, I read *that*, too, and I loved it, I didn’t know it was eligible’ is a service rather than a chore to me, but then, i want to see my friends to well. Constant self-promotion, on the other hand, is offputting – if you want to talk about your book, you need to give something back, and talk about the writing of it, or the challenges you’ve faced and overcome, or how to write better books – and if a writer talks sense, I’m much more likely to check out their books. If they just say ‘buy my book’ I’m highly unlikely to.

    Personal reccommendations are most important to me – if people whose taste I trust say ‘I liked this book, go read it’ chances are I will, and I wish that more of my friends would talk about the small press and self-published titles they’ve discovered. I’m unlikely to have discovered either Alma or Kari if it weren’t for the Internet – and oh, what books I would have missed.

  4. 4. Stephen Hope

    As a reader:

    Promoting stuff for awards on your own blog – go right ahead. Or on those comment threads like the ones John Scalzi is running right now, were that is specifically what it’s for. I like that – my memory is good when I’m reminded of something – I’ll decide if I liked it enough to nominate then. But I suck at remembering what things I should be remembering, if that makes sense.

  5. 5. Katharina Gerlach

    Same boat — more difficult because I’m from Germany. Many readers assume that a “foreigner” can’t write good books that would be of interest to a US audience. Also, I’ve been raised never to praise myself or my work (like most Germans). It’s ver hard to overcome that barrier.

    I found that being true to myself (on- and offline) is the best way to reach other people. Twitter helps a little, and so dies Goodreads. I’m still trying to find out how to juggle all these sites and my writing time though. It’s a tough job for sure.

  6. 6. Adele

    It depends how, where and how much it’s done.
    I quite often buy books on discovering people i’ve been happily chatting to for months on twitter/forums etc have actually written one, just ont he grounds that if you pass the pub test you may well merit a place on my shelves.
    I find relentless self pimping or the turning of every conversation to your book, especially at conventions where the vast majority of people have a completed manuscript somehwere and many are better known and more successful than the self pimper, to be distracting and off putting.
    Of course it’s not a dilemma I face and I will happily and forcefully pimp books I love as a reader.

  7. 7. green_knight

    Adele, related to that is the profusion of Jane[or John]DoeWriter (or ‘author’) accounts on social media. I hang out with writers and people who like books. I expect a good number of new people I meet to write – because of where I meet them, because of the interests we share.

    I haven’t seen any other profession do this. I cannot think of a single JaneDoeProgrammer (or plumber or vandriver or…) account – it just seems to be writers, with the odd ‘editor’ among them. I lie – politicians do this as well, but they have a different reason to maintain a public profile.

  8. 8. Jaime Lee Moyer

    I agonize about this. Pushing my own work has always struck me as tacky and something I should avoid at all cost. Yet at the same time, I happily shout to the world about my friends’ books and stories. I have no problem promoting my friends.

    I also know that if I don’t find a tasteful, and interesting, way to talk about my work I will never find a wider audience. I need a balance between starting every sentence, blog post, or Tweet with “Well in my novel, Best Book Ever…” and total silence.

    And I think, at least for me, self-promotion is a constant WIP. Not sure that I will ever be comfortable with any of it, but if I want a career I need to be able to self-promote to some degree.

  9. 9. Sam Graham

    Self-promotion is a very fine line to walk, the way I view it is that if the only thing you’re contributing to the conversation is “I have a book and it’s awesome” then I’m just going to ignore you, not just your work but probably everything else you ever say too.

    If you’re recommending other people’s work as well as your own, or if you’re contributing other useful info in addition to suggesting your own work, and the speil you’ve come out with is relevant to the conversation (rather than an obvious pre-written memorized sales pitch) then I’m a lot more inclined to listen.

    The other big way to get my attention via self-promotion is just to be interesting and talk about interesting things, and have the fact you’re an author with a book be sideband information: much like this blog… you post about interesting stuff and I think “well that was interesting, oh look, they have a book, I wonder what that’s like”. Harder to do in conversation unless you have a t-shirt saying “Oh by the way, I’m an author and my new book is: ___”

  10. 10. Jessica Meats

    I think Elias has it right unfortunately. You have to pimp your work or no one will read it.

    I got my novel into bookshops by walking in and asking to speak to whoever was responsible for stocking their sci-fi department. If I hadn’t done that, none of those shops would have stocked it because it was my first novel, published by an obscure publisher and they’d never heard of me.

    Sam has a point though that it’s a difficult line to walk. You simply have to promote your work to get it noticed, you can’t just stand there going, “I’m great! I’m great! I’m great!” You have to add something to the conversation, make sure you’re talking about the book to people who are actually interested.

    I had a colleague ask me about my book to find out if it would make a suitable Christmas present for his father. I probably broke several laws of marketing when, after talking about what books his father normally reads, I said, “No.”

  11. 11. Sam Graham

    “I got my novel into bookshops by walking in and asking to speak to whoever was responsible for stocking their sci-fi department.”

    I think that’s clearly a situation where a sales pitch is expected, it’s not the same as trying to interject it into every normal conversation. A gutsy move, but I think it’s clearly on the acceptable side of things.

    “I probably broke several laws of marketing when, after talking about what books his father normally reads, I said, “No.””

    But on the other hand, if you ever write something his father would like, your colleague will now be much more inclined to listen to you than if you’d said “Yes” this time even though it ended up being something his father was clearly uninterested in.

  12. 12. Doug Dandridge

    I am a shameless pimp for my work, but am trying to do it the right way. There are several awesome books out there on how to promote on the net. I see people on twitter doing it the wrong way, post after post about their book, their reviews, how they are the second coming, and nothing else. Others post things of value to others, and then slip in a couple of mentions a day about their book. I liken self promotion to other aspects of show business. To give an example. In the 1970s Kiss didn’t get on stage and apologize that they weren’t as popular as the Rolling Stones, or as technically proficient as Led Zeppelin or Yes. No, they got up there and started playing and prancing, the ultimate Look At Me. In the circus or magic acts they gesture and smile, and let you know they deserve your attention. They don’t compare themselves to other acts, and neither should writers. They should present their work in the best light to attract readers. Then the readers will make the decisions as to whether they will recommend to others.

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  1. SF Tidbits for 1/6/12 - SF Signal – A Speculative Fiction Blog
  2. My take on promotion, self-promotion etc « Growing Fins

Author Information

Alma Alexander

Alma Alexander is a novelist, short story writer and anthologist whose books include High Fantasy ("Hidden Quen""Changer of Days"), historical fantasy ("Secrets of Jin Shei", "Embers of Heaven"), contemporary fantasy ("Midnight at Spanish gardens") and YA (the Worldweavers series, the Were Chronicles). She lives in the Pacific Northwest with her husband and two cats. Visit site.

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