Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Book Promotion Rehabilitation

Sherwood Smith offered some thoughts here on the obnoxiousness of authors tooting their own horns unrelentingly in interviews:

Too many read as if the person was interviewing themself, examining why I'm the greatest, and my novel is the greatest, from every angle in the mirror. The interviews don't look outward, talking about other things.

This brings to mind a panel topic at Westercon, "How To Promote Yourself As A Writer Without Being Obnoxious." That we even need to discuss the social etiquette of career building is significant in itself. We aren't born knowing how to communicate our enthusiasm for our creative efforts. In the world of science fiction and fantasy, like any other genre, there's a wide variation in social skills. Aforementioned skills are not necessary to write brilliantly, although an ability to observe them in others is useful. I've known writers who were so painfully shy, they'd rather undergo a root canal without anesthetic than go up to a stranger and try to convince him to buy their book, and other writers who do just that, over and over again.

Many writers would be just as happy to remain in their own little rooms, happily typing away on their stories. Once upon a time, it was much easier to do just that and let the publisher handle the publicity. Books would stay in print and in bookstores long enough for (print) reviews and word of mouth to drive sales.

I think the shift from that model to faster turnover (books may stay on the shelves only weeks or days), print runs determined by pre-orders, and the buying practices of chain bookstores (where one buyer might make the selection for many stores) have all contributed to pressure the author to take a more active or pre-emptive role in book promotion. I can't decide if the internet, with its potential for very fast communication, makes the situation better or worse. "Generating a buzz" or "going viral" on the internet seem to have taken the place of slower, more thoughtful and personal recommendations. 

I'm going to set aside the question that building up an internet readership (as in the more popular blogs) and connections ("Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who's got the most ReTweets of all?") takes time and a certain knack. Instead, I'll ask, what is being promoted? A specific book? A body of work? The writer himself?

If it's a specific book, I submit it's far more effective to communicate what's cool and nifty and heartbreaking about the story itself, rather than the greatness of the book. ("Orphan goes to wizard school, where he and his friends battle trolls in bathrooms, outwit three-headed dogs, and play magical chess with life-sized pieces" is much more likely to elicit my interest than, "Harry Potter is the greatest book of all time.") This is harder when describing a body of work, but the same principle applies: specific details ("A crusader-turned-monk uses keen observation and insight into human nature to solve murders, while wrestling with internal politics at his monastery, the shifting sides of England's civil war, etc." works better than "The Brother Cadfael books are historical mysteries." 

As for the author herself, I come back to Smith's comment about looking outward and talking about things of interest. We don't write books in order to be loved; at least, I hope we don't. That's not what either writing or relationships are about. So if we set out to promote our work, it should be our work and not ourselves we are offering to the world. (The corollary here is that when a story is rejected, it's the words on the page that are being refused, not ourselves as writers or as human beings.) One of my pet peeves is authors who refer only to their own (all too often, unpublished) stories when discussing larger topics. There is a place for "stories about stories," as long as the content itself -- the ideas, the adventures-in-writing -- remain the focus point.

Here's Deborah's Theory of Promotion. I'm appreciative of the honor of someone reading my blog or coming to hear me on a panel or writing me an email. There's no price for admission. Instead, I try to offer something of value, whether it's my considered opinion (or my insane off-the-cuff commentary), or adventures that have meaning for me, or a free story. It's how I hold up my part of this far-flung conversational community. I believe that if you like what I have to say, you'll be more inclined to pick up one of my books. I try to make it a friendly and easy process to check out what they're about.

One of the best things about the ebook revolution is that the success of any given book, or my work in general, does not depend on what happens in the few weeks pre- and post-release. With an ebook, a readership can develop gradually and organically. I have a sense of spaciousness of time. Time in which to write my best. Time in which to develop connections with people who want to read what I love to write (and vice versa, to discover wonderful authors).

Pull up a chair. Have a cup of tea. Let's talk about books and ideas and life. And may we each come away enriched and inspired by one another.

The illustration "Facebook man" is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution

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