You will notice that I have not punctuated the title of this commentary. I don’t know whether to make it a question or a declarative sentence.
I hadn’t heard the word “noise” used in the context of PR until a few months ago. I was talking to one of my daughters. Nina happens to be the editor-in-chief of Budget Travel. She offhandedly asked my how the sales of The Flight of the Sorceress was going. I told her that I was on fourteen Yahoo Groups, five Amazon discussion groups, that I had a blog and also a website. That I had put so many promos on Facebook I was surprised that I hadn’t been universally de-friended. Shunned. Cast out of the electronic community. I shook my head and said “eh.”
“There’s a lot of noise out there,” she replied with a bemused twinkle in her eye. Nina’s got a finely sharpened stiletto of a wit and some people don’t get it. It can pass for snarky or condescension, but it’s not that at all. She gets to the nub of things with a few spare words. Until she said that, I had been a faithful believer in Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. I began to reassess his thesis.
If you’re an author and you have a book out there, chances are purer than the old 99.44/100% pure Ivory soap ads that you’re self-promoting your asses off. And if you’re like me, you’d much rather be writing, researching, creating, sharing ideas, reading stuff to one another, talking about what you learned. You’re not a salesperson. You probably are pretty shy. Self-effacing and fragile about your skills, Are you any good? Really. Can you believe what people tell you about yourself? Are they just patronizing you? Can you trust your friends?
You are not alone. I don’t know if it does any good to say that. It’s a kind of misery-loves-company sort of thing. But I know a lot of artists, writers, actors and musicians. They all feel the same way, despite how they present themselves. We are a moody bunch, we obsessively creative types. And the truth is that we see the cracks and crevices, the bad work and the poorly-formed phrases in our own work better than others. For us they are emblazoned in neon and ten feet high. We know we can do better and we are pissed that we didn’t see or foresee. And when that happens we tend to think our lives are in ruins. We are humiliated. Your number one job at that moment is to stave off depression. You can’t sell anything if you look like a haggard and harried wretch.
Now, in the current environment, it is we, perhaps the least qualified among us to toot our own horns, who find ourselves wandering the virtual wilderness in droves to promote what we have written. Unless you inhabit the rare pinnacles of commercial success, you are flung out by your publishers, your elbows poking against one another in desperate paroxysms to get some space.
Every day, I receive somewhere between fifty and one hundred promotional emails from authors much like myself, trying to be heard, seen, appreciated, invigorated and validated. True, some of us are not all that talented, but there is really no way to tell that until you actually read the work. And you have to really want to do that.
I think of myself as a discriminating reader. I have to be with all the noise out there. So I don’t generally select my reading material from email promotions. Yet there I am pounding the keyboard, adding my own little cacophony to the general noise. What the hell am I doing?
If you are anything like me, you’re close to wearing out your delete button. You’ve got so many filters working that it remains amazing anything at all gets through. But there they are every day, fifty, sixty, seventy promos.
I have a number of author friends. I hear their laments and disappointments at their own numbers. This is not a business where a sane person can expect to get rich. Sometime you’ve got to wonder whether you are sane. Sometime you can legitimately question whether, from the author’s perspective, it is even a business. Especially when you end up eating the cupcakes you bought for the crowd that didn’t come and all you get is fat. “What kind of American dream is this?” you cry.
As I said, I didn’t bother to punctuate the title. It’s a tease. I don’t have any answers. I don’t have an MFA and even if I did, I’d probably need an MBA to make money at this gig. (Plus a very crass and cynical personality that would disqualify me on the creative end.) I don’t like PR people. I find them disingenuous and mercenary. I am skeptical of their ability to deliver. I think that if you looked at the results, client by client, and not simply their three or four testimonials, the truth would tell a very different tale. Every day, on every group and every blog, I see them trying real hard to sell to a market that is primarily us. That’s enough evidence for me.
I’d actually prefer to deal directly with authors. But the fact is that skills do not necessarily cross over. You don’t want a proctologist doing your brain surgery. Michael Jordan was the best basketball player of all time, but he couldn’t play major league baseball. And that is what authors across the board are being asked to do. What a conundrum.
What do I do when I get into this funk? I remember when I was in college. I was a varsity athlete and when asked what position I played, I said “bench.” While some thought I was being funny, it was actually sarcasm, which really isn’t funny at all … but then it is. I am a firm believer that it is way better to be on the bench than in the stands. Sometimes— every once in a while —you do get to play. More importantly, getting to bench means you know how to play. It means you’ve worked as hard as the starters. It means you’ve sweated the same pints that they have. And it means that even though you might not be the best, you’re head and shoulders above the rest. You are not in the stands. You are actually playing the game, and that puts you in a very special minority — the people who seriously try and do not lead a Walter Mitty life. I take encouragement from that, a residual faith in a kernel of Tipping Point truth and a little bit of lottery fantasy. What the hell else is there? When you boil it down, the American Dream is to get struck by lightning.
But that doesn’t happen to most of us. So let’s all face the truth. Nearly every publisher, for nearly every author, with only a few notable exceptions, is de facto a vanity publisher. They may give you an advance. They may pay you for the rights to your work. But they can’t pay you even minimum wage for a good novel. And that’s nothing compared to the time you’ll have to put in, away from all of the other things you love to do in life, trying to sell your work. Beyond that, if you paid someone to do that shit for you you’d need your own personal government bail-out just to keep food in your stomach. So in every way, we authors are subsidizing our own works.
I knew all of this when I began the unpleasant task of promoting The Flight of the Sorceress. I think it’s a great book and I get positive feedback that reinforces that belief. But empirically I know that reviews, great blurbs and internet promo won’t sell a lot of books. There is just too much noise out there. We are suffering from a wealth of creativity, all of our own damn making. And the noise that does get heard gets made by big budgets. If you’ve got a big budget, my recommendation is that you buy real estate now while prices are low and the rates are good. You’ll certainly be glad you did. Don’t spend it on a book promotion budget.
Yet I still flail and thrash. What else can be done, I ask. My book is too good to get lost in the slush. I write reviews for Goodreads and Amazon. When I hear from people who read the reviews and like the way I write, I write them back, one person at a time. Perhaps one or two may even buy a book or join my blog. I try to write things that interest people, or at least I’d like to think I write things that interest people — sometimes I’m not so sure. I reject give-aways because it devalues the product and diminishes the work. I won’t do that. I write because I want to. I take solace in the fact that a publisher will invest anything in me. It has to be a sign that I am doing something right— or to be more accurate, worthwhile. Yet another reason to keep the faith baby.
I’m sorry. I’ve got no panaceas here. I’ve got no special “how-to” gimmicks or 50-item check lists or power-point presentations. That’s probably because I’m not selling anything — other than my book that is. (Don’t forget, after you read this, to be stunned by my writing abilities and hypnotized into buying a copy from Wild Child Publishing.) And if past history is any predictor of future performance, I’m not likely to do very much of that.
Writing is, and really should be, a labor of love. It should be a gift to civilization from a grateful member of society — a way of teaching and an encouragement to our posterity. We write because we want to be a person who writes. We want to say something that we so strongly believe needs to be said that we will put aside a large part of our lives to do it. That is primary. I do believe we should do our best to promote, but without bringing on utter depression, despondency and desolation to our lives and those of our loved ones. Most of all though, we should continue to do what we love, to write and to take our gratification from the creation rather than the royalty check. Otherwise we’ll be the worse for it. Glenys, one of the heroines in Flight of the Sorceress speaks for me when she says: “Even if only one single person reads it a century from now, couldn’t that make a difference?” That keeps me going.