SHY EXPLORER SERIES: Asking the Experts by Judy Clement Wall
I’m on a quest, asking the experts – people already in the industry – for publishing advice to writers…
This is the last interview in the series, so I went big: 6 amazing authors, 7 questions about self-promotion. I picked authors that I knew to be smart, funny and successful, because I wanted to hear what they had to say on the dreaded topic of self-promotion. Their insights, candor and humor didn’t surprise me. What surprised me was their humility and the willingness with which they shared their thoughts. I think the real lesson in this interview lies there, in their generosity and their absolute refusal to take themselves too seriously.
j: How much do you hate self-promotion? (Please be graphic.)
Susan Orlean: Compared to poking myself in the eye with a sharp stick? Or, say, compared to — never mind…
Karen Palmer: For my twelfth birthday, I invited several girls from my seventh-grade class over for a slumber party. We set up sleeping bags in the living room, ate pizza and ice cream, danced to records, played games. Periodically one or two girls would peel off and disappear. I noticed this, but didn’t think anything of it. By 3 a.m., nearly everyone had passed out. I was curled up by the fireplace, drifting, eyes closed, when I heard three of my friends whispering. The words sounded vaguely familiar, and then distinctly familiar, and then I realized that this was because they were my words, my words from my diary, which, being an only child, I kept unlocked in my bedroom. That’s where the girls had been disappearing to. The adrenaline rush at that moment of exposure felt like being electrocuted… That’s how much I hate self-promotion.
Laura Zigman: OK, I hated it so much that I lost a lot of ground with my career. If I hadn’t been so conflicted and ambivalent about “Self-Promoting-Myself” (redundancy intended) (conflict and ambivalence obvious), then maybe I would still be writing novels. When Animal Husbandry came out, way back before Facebook and Twitter, self-promotion consisted of going on a book tour (if you were lucky enough to be sent on one) and doing a few interviews. For me, it also meant emailing my parents’ friends – mostly their Temple friends – to come to my readings (most of their Temple friends didn’t buy books – they took them out of the library – so it was kind of a waste of time, but that’s another story). I was okay with that. My biggest fear – every author’s biggest fear – is having a reading in an empty bookstore.
Julie Klam: I don’t think of it as self-promotion, I think of it as being weighed in the middle of a packed Giants Stadium.
Susan Orlean: I think of self-promotion as a necessary evil. Not all evil, but definitely necessary.
Allison Winn Scotch: Does it make me a total narcissist if I say that I don’t hate all aspects of it? I think there’s a way to do it where it can be fun for both you and readers. I certainly don’t love asking people for their money or showing up for events (I’m a mom, I can barely make it to my own events), but that’s part of the deal these days. On the flip side, I’ve come to really love interacting with readers on Twitter and Facebook, and now that’s a big part of self-promotion, even when it’s not conscious or intentional self-promotion. So there are upsides to it too.
Joe Wallace: Honestly, I have mixed feelings about self-promotion, because it’s not just one thing. It can be exhausting and stressful, soul-numbing. Embarrassing. I get plenty of anxiety leading up to events and being “on” all the time. But there have also been some wonderful, unexpected benefits. My recent experience is a perfect example. It was a reading/signing with novelist Randy Susan Meyers at WORD Bookstore in Brooklyn. Without self-promotion on Twitter, I would never have met Randy (a real friend now), never have been invited to WORD, never had the pleasure of meeting several other Twitter and FB pals there. The whole thing was pure pleasure, and a direct outgrowth of my jumping into the shameless-self-promotion pool.
j: You’ve done this amazing thing – written a book and gotten it published. Why is it so uncomfortable to make noise about that?
Julie Klam: You never want to be the one telling people what you’ve done is good, they tend not to trust the source. It just works out better if someone else does it, though, truthfully, I don’t like tweeting or facebooking good reviews – I do, but I try very hard not to make people as sick of me as I am of myself.
Laura Zigman: Back when I was growing up, you didn’t toot your own horn. You didn’t praise yourself, or boast, or blab about how great you were. There was a word for that: “bragging.” There was another word for how annoying and obnoxious it was: “unseemly.” But now, there’s a word for that: “blogging.” And “networking.” Euphemisms for how we all constantly call attention to ourselves and our work.
Karen Palmer: In our family, bragging was frowned upon. My mother was religious to the point of fanaticism, and the only valid judgment of one’s worth was God’s. Noise was unseemly, immodest, even sinful. I’m agnostic now (the weenie position, but I’m sticking to it: never say never), but the prohibition against self-aggrandizement stuck.
Susan Orlean: I don’t think it’s so uncomfortable, to be honest. I really, really want people to read my book, and I feel like I’m promoting my book, not really myself; that makes it a bit easier.
Joe Wallace: I’m not that uncomfortable making noise about Diamond Ruby. I’m proud of the book, of course, but I’ve also found that people are interested in the backstory, in how the book came into being. That’s the kind of noise I don’t mind making!
Allison Winn Scotch: I don’t find it wholly uncomfortable either, but I’m one of those people who thinks that if you do something and do it well and – and this is the MOST IMPORTANT part – share that success in a non-egotistical way, that it’s entirely fine to enjoy your accolades. What makes me twitchy is kind of what I alluded to before: not publicizing my book, per say, but intimating that I’d then like people to go out and do something to support it. I never have any expectation that someone will actually buy a book or even read it, and I’m truly always pleasantly surprised when someone does.
j: How do you think social media (especially Twitter and Facebook) is changing the way books get sold?
Karen Palmer: Social media increases the number of people you can reach, no doubt about that, but it’s hard to tell what it means in terms of sales. I’m moderately active on both Twitter and Facebook, but don’t use either to promote — mainly because I don’t currently have a book out. What I enjoy about social media are connections with people who love books and the opportunity to speak with interesting folks I’d never run across otherwise.
Allison Winn Scotch: I think it’s changing almost everything about the way that books get sold. Word of mouth has always – perhaps second to a review in People or on The Today Show – been king, and now, it’s never been easier to get that word of mouth viral. Books, movies, TV shows can be completely catapulted (or decimated) by Twitter word-of-mouth, for example. Add in the fact that readers can get to know you, and thus you can establish a certain loyalty which then inspires purchases, and it’s a whole new ballgame.
Susan Orlean: People hear about books before they’re in stores, and they get to know authors as something more than a thumbnail-sized photo on a book-jacket flap. I suspect people might be more curious and perhaps more inclined to buy books they’ve come to know from authors they’ve come to feel some connection to.
Julie Klam: Social media provides a way to reach people without a middleman –you don’t have to get a publicist to arrange for you to tweet, so there’s that.
Laura Zigmann: And the personal computer made everyone a writer! Now, everyone’s a publicist! Facebook pages! Fan pages! Twitter streams! Websites! Blogs! Tumblr! (ßI still don’t know what that is!) Which is great – authors can now help their publishers get the word out about their books and help their books find their audience – which truly is a great thing. Authors are no longer relegated to the sidelines – to being passive (aggressive) complainers about how badly their book is being handled. Now they can have some control over how badly their book is being handled!
Joe Wallace: You could write volumes about how Twitter (especially) and FB have changed the way books are sold. In my own experience, the most important issue is that they brought me in touch with other writers, book bloggers, and independent stores all across the country. The writers provide enthusiasm, friendship, support; the book bloggers all these things, the chance to write on interesting subjects, and reviews; and the bookstores…well, they made my book an Indie Next pick and hand-sold it with enthusiasm. I can’t imagine what would have happened to Ruby without all of them. It all started with Twitter.
j: Everyone talks about the balance on Twitter – the ratio of tweets that are intended to engage versus those intended to promote. Do you struggle with that? Do you have a rule of thumb?
Susan Orlean: I have no idea what that even means! So I guess I don’t struggle. I sure don’t have a rule of thumb. Should I?
Karen Palmer: I don’t struggle with it, again because I don’t have a book out. I’m primarily looking to engage, but must confess that some posts go up solely to amuse my own damn self. Theoretically, 10–15% promotion sounds about right. If your voice is interesting, people will check out the work without ten links a day to that good review at the Times.
Allison Winn Scotch: I don’t struggle either, because I rarely post a 100% self-promoting tweet. When I have a new book release, sure, I do. But for the most part, I tweet about my life and my observations on life. What matters in social media is that I form relationships with readers. When and if I toss up a self-promotional tweet, they forgive it (and sometimes support it) because they know that 95% of the time, I’m happy talking about other things. Again, I really, really, really think that the best way to “self-promote” is, well, to SELF promote. Not your books, but yourself. That’s often what gets people into the store to pick up a copy of one of your books.
Julie Klam: I try to entertain myself, if I’m bored by what I’m saying, I don’t say it. Also, if you’re an author, you aren’t publicizing your work 12 months a year; there are chunks of time, and then SHUT UP! Someone told me if you’re entertaining, then people are willing to sit through the commercials.
Joe Wallace: When I have good or exciting news to share about my book, I share it. When someone else has good news, I’m happy for them, and tell them. If someone tells a funny joke, or gives me room to tell a terrible pun….well, life is sweet. I just talk on Twitter, and it’s worked out pretty well so far.
Laura Zigman: That ratio you mention – it’s like pornography for me: I know it when I see it. And when I see it – a Tweeter or a Facebook “Friend” who does nothing but RELENTLESSLY SELF-PROMOTE – it’s a huge turn-off. I barely ever blog – or, “Brant” as I call it (brag+rant) (ha ha) (conflict and ambivalence obvious), so it’s easier for me – there’s very little I have to promote these days – but on the rare occasions that I do blog, I usually only post the link once on Twitter.
j: There are a lot of ways to self promote – Twitter, Facebook, writing a blog, blog tours, readings, contests, giveaways… which do you think are most effective? And if you’re not sure, which are most fun?
Laura Zigman: I have no idea what most of these things are – I still don’t really understand how a “blog tour” works and I’m way too lazy to do a contest or a giveaway. What would I give away? And to whom? And why? If I had a contest or a giveaway, what if no one entered? Why would I want to set myself up for that kind of rejection?
Karen Palmer: Contests and giveaways sound exhausting. On the other hand, people do like schwag.
Susan Orlean: I don’t happen to think contests and giveaways do much. As for the rest, I really don’t know — and I’m not sure anyone does know. We’re all trying to figure it out.
Allison Winn Scotch: Some contests are good, and some of them aren’t. You need to just be sure that you come off as having fun and not being desperate. This is so tough. I agree that no one knows the answer yet. I’ve found that a lot of book promotion is kind of like throwing stuff against the wall and seeing if it sticks. Certainly, Twitter and Facebook are great because you’re reaching people who already have an interest in you – that’s why they’re fans or that’s why they follow. So they’re more likely than the average person to buy your book. But I can’t discount blog tours either because they may reach readers who have never before heard of you…you can tweet and tweet and tweet, but at the end of the day, you’re more or less tweeting to the same group. Blog tours gets your name out there in a different way.
Joe Wallace: I love the face-to-face contact of signings/readings, though I’m always terrified no one will show up.
Karen Palmer: Meeting readers is a gas, though the success of bookstore appearances is notoriously unpredictable; every writer has a story about reading to rows of empty chairs. I don’t know what to think about whether blogs help — I don’t read very many — but as with Facebook and Twitter, if your voice is engaging and/or unique it can’t hurt.
Joe Wallace: Writing for book blogs gives me the chance to talk about things I otherwise would have no forum for. Facebook is great for showing off my photographic “skills,” for telling stories, for hanging out occasionally. But Twitter is exciting, exhausting, infuriating, essential. To me it’s the most fun, the most stimulating. No question, it’s made the greatest difference for Diamond Ruby.
Julie Klam: I think they’re all equally effective or not, it just depends on how well you can do them. I really have no idea if any single thing sells books, it’s a combination, and certainly the higher profile the medium, the better it is.
j: Do you miss the days when writers wrote and promoters promoted? (Were there ever days like that?)
Julie Klam: I wasn’t born then.
Karen Palmer: The midlist author has always had to pick up some or even most of the burden herself. It would be great if we all could just focus on the writing, but Emily Dickenson notwithstanding, I suspect something important is lost by shutting yourself away, by imagining yourself unable or unwilling to promote. No one cares about your book as much as you do, and it’s worth the time commitment and potential embarrassment to connect with readers. Where would we be without them?
Allison Winn Scotch: I’m sure, pre-social media, that a lot less was asked of writers, but I can’t speak to that time. Would it be fabulous if publishing houses totally knew and understood how to promote a book WITHOUT us? Sure, I suppose. But that’s just not how things go, and to be honest, as I said, there are aspects of the promotional end that I enjoy. So I just take the PR and promo as part of the cycle of publishing a book and have that be that.
Susan Orlean: As much as it’s more work and sometimes soul-puncturing and exhausting, I almost prefer knowing that I’m in control of what happens with my work. I’ve always been frustrated by leaving promotion to someone else; I’m rarely satisfied.
Joe Wallace: For the first couple of decades of my career, I did just that: Wrote and let the rest take care of itself. (Except for some radio and TV interviews and occasional signings). The new world of promotion can be completely overwhelming, and I definitely am struggling to regain the focus I need to keep writing. It’s a hard balance to maintain, but I don’t think we’re ever going back to the old ways, so adjustment is the only option. I think what I most need to learn is that if I disappear for a few days, all my friends won’t completely forget me. (You won’t, right?)
Laura Zigman: Writers always say they wish they could go back to just being writers but it’s not because they hate self-promotion. It’s because they hate writing.
j: If you could offer one bit of advice to writers on the subject of self-promotion, what would it be?
Joe Wallace: Don’t try too hard. Support other writers. Be the best version of yourself you can be, but forgive yourself if you slip sometimes. Everyone will understand. Don’t only talk about the book you’re trying to sell. (Okay, that’s like…six bits of advice.)
Laura Zigman: A little self-promotion goes a long way. A lot of self-promotion is unseemly and obnoxious.
Julie Klam: You’re actually being self-promotional if you’re engaging and entertaining people, you don’t have to include an amazon link.
Allison Winn Scotch: PLEASE do not take yourself too seriously and PLEASE do not shove self-promotion down your readers’ throats. I really so firmly believe that the most important aspect of self-promotion is interacting and engaging with your readers, and then, if they like you, they are so much more inclined to buy the book.
Susan Orlean: Write a book that you’d want to read if you were a reader and not the author. And then take that desire and make people understand it, so that they want to read the book, too. Also, pack light on your book tour.
Karen Palmer: Have faith, be brave, dig deeper.
Allison Winn Scotch is the New York Times bestselling author of The One That I Want, Time of My Life and The Department of Lost and Found. Her fourth book, The Song Remains The Same, will be released by Putnam Books in early 2012.
Joseph Wallace is the author of nonfiction books on dinosaurs, health and medicine, and baseball history; several noir short stories; and now a novel, Diamond Ruby, which Library Journal called “a keeper…a literary gem.” He lives north of New York City with his family, a large dog, and a put-upon cat.
Julie Klam is the New York Times bestselling author of Please Excuse My Daughter and You Had Me At Woof. She lives with her husband, daughter and (at least) three dogs in Manhattan.
Karen Palmer is the author of the novels All Saints and Border Dogs. She is currently at work on a memoir titled White Wedding.
Laura Zigman’s novel Animal Husbandry was made into the movie, “Someone Like you,” starring Hugh Jackman and Ashley Judd. She lives in Newton, the same town she grew up in, with her husband and 10-year-old son, and is (sort of) at work on a memoir, Still Life With Braces, and a novel, The Sleepover.
Susan Orlean is an author, a staff writer for The New Yorker, a dog owner, a gardener, a parent, a frequent lecturer/speaker, an occasional teacher, a very occasional guest editor, a once-in-a-blue-moon movie inspiration, and doodler. Her latest project, a biography of dog actor Rin Tin Tin,will be published this year by Little, Brown.
Please note that the opinions in this piece do not necessarily reflect those of the Indie Book Collective. We are firm believers in an author being their biggest and best promoter and our programs support this effort through teachable, reachable promotion practices and goals. We encourage an atmosphere that includes other opinions, however, and publish interviews like these to create a dialogue.