Authors, don’t throw in the towel when it comes to self-promotion

young woman covering her face with her hands
Photo courtesy of Abigail Keenan

Just about every author is daunted by the prospect of participating in a book publicity campaign. Often the writer’s fear of ridicule or rejection is disguised as disdain for self-promotion. But when one writer points to another and says, “Look at that shameless huckster,” what I hear is, “Someone beneath me should do that dirty work on my behalf.” Really? Is that what writers are taught to think? ‘Cause, as a matter of fact, that sort of arrogance is downright unbecoming—even more so than a bungled publicity campaign.

Who made sour grapes so trendy? There was a day when the fox was recognized as resentful and envious, and the fable was a warning to anyone who thought foolish rationalizations weren’t completely transparent.

While contemplating their misery at being forced to go in search of readers, at least writers can remain sympathetic toward each other. Unfortunately, when too much of the echo chamber of self-pity is exposed, it can look an awful lot like an ivory tower to potential readers and fans who don’t happen to understand the subculture of creatives who spurn homegrown publicity. Grumbling and griping in public are cute and self-effacing up to a point, but what readers really want to hear from authors is something else—for example:

  • “It means a lot that what I wrote affected you that way.”
  • “I’ve learned so much from readers’ interpretations of my work.”
  • (Maybe even) “Thank you.”

Being acutely observant and seeing the bigger picture and cultivating an ability to get outside one’s own head are the hallmarks of a fine writer—as is thinking of the reader.

In a perfect world, an author should be able to hire a publicist to do the grunt work, right? Actually, maybe spending one’s own money isn’t seen as the ideal solution. Perhaps book publishers should invest thousands of dollars in the creation of an author’s shiny public image, the development of which (knowledgeable folks would agree) takes at least several years. Exactly where does anyone get the money to pay those hard-working, under-appreciated publicists and social media coaches, whose services can be justifiably costly? Assuming a publicist is paid $50 an hour, what volume of book sales will it take to defray the expense? And why would anyone assume a bestselling author’s sales ought to subsidize the promotion of a book by a writer who’s less popular yet utterly unwilling to pitch in and help with publicity?

Like it or not, self-promotion is the most inexpensive means for any author to garner attention. It takes time, of course. It takes a writer’s focus away from writing. But in the long run, if done well, it might boost book sales enough to afford an author the luxury of enlisting the services of a publicist, or a little extra time to write.

What’s more, self-promotion-by-hanging-around is not only the easiest method, it’s arguably the most successful. A writer can hang around by participating in a Q&A, contributing a guest blogpost, joining a discussion in an online forum or community, commenting on blogs, mentoring new writers, reading to children at libraries or older people in nursing homes, and simply showing an interest in what other people are doing. Cathy Day offers more examples of what she terms “literary citizenship.” Chris Brogan calls it “being other-focused,” and he blogs about how to do it. Blessed are the folks to whom being other-focused comes naturally. It emanates from true humility and generosity, and it doesn’t call attention to itself. It doesn’t need to.

The best publicity strategy of all is to be among the first to try something new. After everyone begins promoting books in the same way, whatever that way is becomes much less interesting. Once a method of attracting attention is widely used, people are less tolerant of and less amused by anyone who falters and steps on it. In the early days of any new media adventure, everyone’s willing to help each other out and show the way. It’s a good time to get involved. Being an innovator takes courage, but it’s easier than being a latecomer.

I hate to see authors throw in the towel when it comes to the marketing aspects of their writing careers. Over the years, I’ve posted and linked to all kinds of publicity tips for book authors. On Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, Dinty Moore has listed “a few guidelines for the sharing of literary success.” Writers who want people to read their books shouldn’t turn up their noses at any opportunities to promote their work—until the day they’re so wealthy and sought after that they need to hire spokespeople to tell everyone, politely, that they just want to be left alone.

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