Irish writer Nuala Ní Chonchúir wrote in a blog for the Irish Writer's Centre:
The promotional end of things is not always fun for writers. We are often, by nature, solitary beings, preferring our own company and that of our fictional friends to that of real people. We are OK with being on our own, tapping out imagined lives on our computers. But once the book is written and published, there is a whole slew of other stuff that we have to take part in and that can be daunting. These include readings, appearances, signings, book tours, interviews and, sometimes, amusing photo shoots.
She is right. It is often hard for writers, who have been trained to do solitary work and who are often introverted by nature, to switch hats once their books are bought and published and sing their own praise. It can be uncomfortable. It can feel like speaking a foreign language. It can, at its worst, cause much stress and anxiety.
Says Jincy Willett, author of Amy Falls Down:
The path to publication, which was always fraught and rocky is much steeper now, and it's all mixed up with marketing. Like Amy, I've not had to grapple with all of this, because I rose from the slush* in the olden days. But I've witnessed the struggles of younger writers, and I feel bad for them. They're actually expected to think like marketers - to answer questions like, "Who's your book in the tradition of?" For God's sake, it's in the tradition of me.
She, too, is right. Now more than ever, writers are expected to do a heck of a lot of self-promotion. But writers have always had to, it seems. A New York Times article describes how Ernest Hemingway created an extremely "inventive self-branding" by posing for photographs (meant to promote his books) taken on safaris, fishing trips and even war zones. He also posed for beer ads! In 1951, he was featured in a double-page spread in Life Magazine advertising Ballantine Ale. It is also said that Walt Whitman wrote his own anonymous reviews. "'An American bard at last!' he raved in 1855. "Large, proud, affectionate, eating, drinking and breeding, his costume manly and free, his face sunburnt and bearded.'" Writers could be found working hard to self-promote as far back as 440 BC, when the Greek author, Herodotus, paid for his own book tour through the Aegean.
This is not to say that publishers don't promote their writers' works. They do. And they do it well. They all have impressive marketing and publicity departments filled with people who work hard to create promotional campaigns and materials. But it is expected that writers will also take a part in promoting their own books.
How do they do it well? And how do they do it in a way that they can sustain? These are the critical questions.
From The Guardian: "Literature is a commodity, but can't be marketed as such. Writers need to either acknowledge this and assign themselves a PR detail, or refrain from unleashing themselves on Twitter if they lack the skills to operate it a book is too inextricably linked to its author to be promoted flat-footedly and without nuance. That said, it can be done."
However, if you are not a tweeter, there is no need to open a brand new Twitter account. If you hate to blog, you needn't create a blog that you will feel guilty about leaving dormant for months at a time. Life is short, and writing takes a lot of time and energy. Adding work that you resent on top of that is a recipe for disaster. Yes, marketing has to be done, but there are ways to market that are creative, fun and specifically designed to utilize a writer's wheelhouse skills and interests.
Curious City, owned by Kirsten Cappy, was "formed to tackle projects that forge a stronger relationship between children and the literature created for them. Curious City designs and implements creative theme-based marketing for children's authors, illustrators, and publishers." Kirsten's work is pretty incredible. She follows marketing and publishing trends, so she knows what is hot at any particular moment, and she is up on new technology, and knows just how to use it as a tool for marketing. But she remains committed to her vision of a unique marketing approach for each book/author she works with. Her marketing plans are story-based; in other words the marketing platform mirrors, or compliments, the plot or themes of the books. She recently worked with a Sudanese rap artist who wrote a song for The Good Braider, by Terry Farish, a YA novel about a young Sudanese girl and her mother as they settle into their new life in Portland Maine. The rapper also created a music video promoting the book.
This is a great example of innovative, cross-platform, fun marketing. And writers can do and do do this kind of advertising without a marketing consultant like Kirsten. Publishers welcome it, and writers even have fun with it.
In the end, whether a writer enjoys marketing or not, it is just a reality that comes with the territory. And the end is worth the means. Books are put into the hands of readers. Readers absorb the stories. Writers and readers connect. That, after all, is the ultimate goal.
As Jincy Willett says:
I hope that readers will nod their heads and think, "Yes, that's exactly right." This is why we write, and this is why we read. It's an act of communication, and if what you're communicating is trueif you haven't screwed it up (and there are so many ways to do that)the response of your ideal reader isn't "Wow! What a fabulous sentence!" or "Wow! I did not know that!" It's "Yes. Exactly. I felt that too once, and I forgot it until now, and I thought I was the only one."
by Tamara Ellis Smith
BookBrowse Editor and Writer of Children's Middle-Grade Fiction
Look for Tam's book Another Kind of Hurricane coming from Schwartz and Wade in August 2015.
*Slush refers to the notorious unsolicited manuscripts that are sent to publishing houses. Many houses do not accept unsolicited manuscripts anymore, and will only take a manuscript if it comes from an agent or colleague. But some do accept them. And if your manuscript is one pulled from the slush pile, read, and bought well, that is an exciting event indeed!
This article was originally published in July 2013, and has been updated for the
July 2014 paperback release.
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