Op-Ed: Authors and Self-Promotion

This post was originally written and posted August 6th, 2014, and has been touched up and reposted here for archival purposes.

Still off the grid in Alaska. This post has been uploaded ahead of time.

Let us imagine, for a moment, that we live in a different universe. This universe isn’t very different—in fact it’s shockingly similar. But there are a few key differences. Tiny ones, but tiny ones that lead to some interesting changes.

The key difference is that in this universe more authors listen to a particular bit of “advice” that gets handed out quite often. Let’s take a look and see what happens by following the life of a woman named Naomi.

Naomi is a writer. She’s written several manuscripts for a series over the years, but has been turned down by publishers for each one of them. She continues to write. One night she is at a party with her husband, and they happen to meet Stephen King.

Ah! A fellow—if famous—writer! The perfect opportunity to talk shop and share stories! Maybe even mention her own work. Except as Naomi thinks about it, she realizes that she shouldn’t bring up her own writing. After all, as people are so inclined to often tell her, “a writer shouldn’t promote their own work.” Disappointed but deciding that those people are right, Naomi stays quiet.

As a result, in this universe Stephen King never reads her manuscripts nor takes them to his editor. They are never published, and never go on to win numerous awards. They never sell hundreds of thousands of copies. They are never mentioned in Entertainment Weekly. Naomi Novik does not go on to write many more novels of historical fantasy and become an international success.

All because she listened to one of the most common bits of advice I hear being given to new authors: that an author shouldn’t promote his or her own work.

Thankfully, we don’t live in that universe. And thankfully, neither Naomi nor her husband listened to that piece of advice, or we wouldn’t have had the wonderful series of historical fantasy novels that began with His Majesty’s Dragon. I say “didn’t listen,” because it is doubtless that at some point, she received that advice. Most new authors do. But do you know what’s very telling about this advice?

You never hear it coming from an author.

Well, okay, I’ve once or twice heard it from people who profess to be authors, but in those cases it smacks so strongly of self-interest in reducing competition it’s pretty hard to take seriously. And those individuals are, as pointed out,  professing to be an author. I’ve never once heard someone like King, Sanderson, Rowling, Prachett … well, this list could go on, but in any case, none of them have ever said “an author shouldn’t promote their own work.”

In fact, they all profess the opposite. Promote away!

So where does this weird little social nugget come from? A why do so many repeat it? And is there any logical sense in it at all? If you’re following along, you’ve already guessed the answer to that last one.

So where does this idea come from, the idea that an author shouldn’t promote their own work, or should only promote it to a select few who will then promote it to the world? Well, I have no idea; at least when it comes to whatever fool first uttered the line. Nowadays, however, it comes from the public. Not from book publishers or other authors. It comes almost exclusively from people who are not writers and are not involved in the industry at all, except as a source of revenue (ie, people that might buy books). In other words, it’s advice coming from people who, first of all, have zero credentials for offering sound advice.

But why does the idea persist? Crud, you can see it online on writing sites. People who talk about their own works are usually joked at, put down, or told to not talk about their stuff. And, well, I’ll be honest, there’s a line there of people who simply spam-paste nothing but self-promotionals everywhere they go. But that one’s common sense. The only reason it needs to be brought up is because this is the internet, and common sense is a rare commodity. But to put down talking about one’s own writing?

But there’s a bit more to this than that, easily. Writing, for some odd reason, falls under a double standard. For example, take a writing forum I hang out on. On this writing forum (which, to be sure I’m clear here, is a forum dedicated to the discussion of writing and fiction) it is perfectly acceptable by the rules to post any of the following self-made materials: Artwork, music, games, blogs, websites, and videos. Any of these will be met with a neutral or favorable response.

You know what gets people grumbling and almost can get the mods set on you though? Posting a link to your own writing without someone explicitly asking for it.

I’ll repeat that again, so you can marvel at the sheer insanity of this bizarre social stigma: you can post links to your artwork or music without complaint on a writing forum, but if you post links to your writing—again, on a forum set up for people to talk about their writing, you’ve likely kicked the anthill.

What is wrong with us?

Part of the “explanation” I’ve heard for this behavior is that “a writer’s writing should stand on it’s own,” and that if your writing is good, it’ll get popular without you ever talking about it.

That idea is 100%, pure, undiluted, grade-AAA bull. You could fertilize your garden simply by wafting the scent of that nearby. This idea comes off of some bizarre notion that somehow, improbably, a successful author’s work will become a success without the effort of the author. That somehow, without any work or promotion on their part, people will simply pick up that author’s work and immediately start telling everyone else about it. You think Stephen King didn’t tell people when he’d been published? You think Michael Crichton wasn’t casually mentioning that he was a writer back before he got big?

Now, I have heard the argument back of “well, those people are famous. Of course they’re allowed to promote their own books!” To which I’ve asked, usually to a silence, “And how do you think they got famous?” It certainly wasn’t by not talking about their work to anyone. No one walked up to J.K. Rowling one day in the shop where she worked and said “Hi, I’m an editor for a major publishing house, and I couldn’t help but notice you’ve been writing a book manuscript on napkins during your break. Could I read that? I’ll bet I’d like to publish it!”

No, All authors start at the bottom. Self promotion is the only way you get anywhere else.

Now, I’ve occasionally heard one last, desperate throw to justify authors not promoting their own work, which comes in the form of this idea: That it’s the publisher’s job to promote good content since they’re the gatekeepers of the literary world, and the readers should be hearing the publishers promote work, not the author.

Publishers love this idea. In fact, they actively work to cultivate it. After all, they’re in it to make money selling books, and while there are a ton of editors who really do what to see what they like go out there, there are just as many who straight-up admit that it’s a business, and they send books through based on what they can convince someone to buy. So when a publisher hears the idea that they are the ones who should be listened to with promotion, they like that idea. They hear it as the sound of a cash register ringing.

I’m not joking about them cultivating it. I was looking over Hachette’s investor presentation slides the other day (because of the whole Amazon VS Hachette thing, if you were wondering). As Hachette frequently pointed out throughout the presentation, they are the world’s third largest publisher. Anyway, there was a whole slide dedicated to talking about acting as a gatekeeper of quality, promoting materials that are quality above other materials and using that to drive sales. But this slide was split. It talked about doing this, of course, but it also talked about how customers needed to be convinced of this fact, as it would lead to higher sales.

Then, they gave their example of this “gatekeeping quality” in action. The sales of one of their largest books to date.

The Twilight saga.

Now, I won’t lie, Twilight made buckets of money. But that’s Hachette’s example of their quality and gatekeeping in the industry driven to a marketable profit. So yeah, this idea that publishers are gatekeepers? They’re well aware of the concept. And they like it. It’s profitable. They’d love it if the public continued to hold an author’s promotion of his own work as a thing to be looked down upon, because it means less competition and more control for them.

So this idea, this oft-repeated concept, that authors should not promote their own work? It’s just flat out wrong. We shouldn’t be trying to publicly shame authors into hiding their talents until some magical editor fairy comes along and declares it fit for the masses. We should be extending to new authors the same courtesy extended to new artists, to new musicians.

Now, are there deep-seated, less acknowledged reasons out there for this opinion against writers? Sure, there probably are. If I had to do a moments guessing, I’d pin it on a couple things. One is jealousy with a little bit of resentment. How many of you out there have heard someone say “Oh, I’ve got a book I’m working on too, I’m a writer! Someday I’ll start it.” Show of hands? Yeah, we’ve all met that person, on facebook or at a reunion, at work or … Well, you get the picture. The thing is, these people don’t like being reminded of the truth that they are, in fact, not writers. They’re talkers, not doers. And they don’t like the reminders that all their talk is just that: Talk. So, when they’re offered this idea that “writers shouldn’t talk about their work,” they like it. One less reminder that someone else is doing what they’ve only talked about. So they spread it.

Another core reason, I think, could be that writing is so much more difficult to both comprehend and enjoy at its lowest level. I’m not trying to sound pretentious here, but just looking for reasons that could be contributing. Music, while hard to make, is easy to understand. You can listen to it while doing other things, and even stuff that people agree isn’t some great work of art can still be enjoyable (for example, I think the Black-Eyed Peas are pretty much mass-media appeal marketing in a bottle, but I still can’t stop playing I Gotta Feeling on Dance Central). Artwork, such as painting and drawing is super difficult, but most people acknowledge this and are willing to overlook mistakes or style choices. Plus, it’s a quick look. If you look and you don’t like it, it’s all of a few seconds lost for most.

Writing, on the other hand, takes time and effort put into it from the reader’s end. Comprehension, time, all are things that are required. You can’t read a book while driving to work. You have to force yourself to do more than just listen, but identify and comprehend (audiobooks take away part of this challenge and move the medium closer to music, making it portable and easier on the reader, but that’s outside the scope for most authors at the moment). So when a reader sinks their time into something that isn’t worth their time, perhaps they feel a larger sense of loss?

That last one is only theory, but look, here’s what I’m getting at: It’s time that we as a society got off our pretentious high horses and stopped treating authors as if they shouldn’t be allowed to promote their own works. We need to stop pretending that authors will somehow “magically” find success if they don’t work for it. We need to stop looking down on authors for trying to succeed at a career they love and enjoy.

I self promote all the time. I’ve mentioned in debates on public forums over Amazon VS Hachette that I sell my books through Amazon and I’m siding with them. I’ve had sales, and presumably some of my reviews, through such interactions. I’ve plugged my books on here, and there have been a number of you who have expressed enjoyment at reading through them (and once again, a thank you to those who have purchased my work and helped support me). I’ve plugged my books in other places at well. I give out business cards with a QR code that leads right to them online. I’ve worked my way up from one sale a month to a couple of sales a week to a sale a day. Self promotion is how I got there.

You’ll never meet a real author who tells you to not share your work with the world and talk good about it. No car company tells you “Well, it’s an okay car, but I’ll spare you the details.” No film-studio sits on its social media site waiting for someone to ask about it’s newest movie. No band gets big by not playing its music and by staying quiet about its albums.

It’s time we stopped applying this foolish double-standard and let authors talk about their work alongside everyone else without censoring them. Self-promotion is where everything starts. It’s time to stop imagining that authors somehow become a magical success without it. It’s time to stop shaming authors for talking about their work. It’s time to start giving them the same treatment we give to other art forms.

It’s time to let them talk and write about what they’ve been working on.

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