To Promote or Not To Promote: An Existential Question

Zen-cartoon-web-writing-tips-1It’s no secret that publishers do little these days to promote most books but that there’s an infinite number of steps authors can take to fill the void, from DIY to hiring an outside publicist. Nor is it a secret that even the most exhaustive efforts can potentially get you….almost nowhere in terms of sales.

This may be why many authors opt not to do much promotion if any aside from what their publishers have planned (typically mailing out galleys and ARCs to reviewers) and to focus their energies instead on what they really love: writing.

That’s a perfectly understandable and admirable choice.  As agent Donald Maass wisely noted in a comment to my last WU post, “The better bet [rather than spending too much time or money on promotion] is to write a killer Book #2.”

In an ideal world that’s what we’d all do.  That world would be delightfully zen, free of the complications that come with drive, ambition and a desire for recognition.  Free, too, from any need or desire to try to make a living from our craft.  Our next book might be that killer or it might not; in the end its destiny is something we don’t control.  But it wouldn’t matter and we’d be content to keep on writing.

In reality, though, most of us need or yearn for more.  We certainly need to pay the bills, and would love to see our writing play a role there.  We may have spouses or partners who are eager (read: impatient) to see us ‘taking action’ beyond drafting and revising to make that happen.

More importantly, though, we also crave some form of recognition and have deep-seated desire to interact with readers, to share with them from that wondrous, visceral place where our inspiration was born.  It’s only human.  Otherwise, why would we choose to publish at all?

A bizarre catch-22 can even lead writers to lose inspiration altogether in the absence of reader interaction.  Not just readers from our inner circles and critique groups, but the total strangers we hope to reach and touch.  Pouring our heart and soul, our energy and time into an endeavor we can barely share leaves us utterly drained. We start to wonder:  Does our writing matter?  Does anybody care?  And if not, how can we define ourselves?  Does our writing — do we — exist at all?

On the flip side, unexpected feedback in almost any form — from reviews and feature articles to tweets and thank-you notes from people we don’t know — can lift our spirits until we’re giddy with joy and hope.  Then suddenly — voilà! — we’re able to solve a disheartening plot-line problem in our new WIP, or the ending shifts into focus.

And that’s where promotion adds immeasurable value.  If you crave or thrive on interaction, if you get a buzz or simply profound satisfaction from seeing your book’s cover in print or online and knowing that somewhere out there at least a handful of strangers are seeing it too; if you feel that a big part of the writing journey is spending time with readers out in the world — whether at bookstore talks, conferences or on blogs — and if this nourishes your creative spirit in the way you need to keep on writing, to keep on striving for Killer Book #2 — I’d say that even if it means investing time and resources, your choice is clear.

The same goes if you feel you’d have no real peace of mind or sense of closure if you didn’t proactively do what you could to spread the word about your book, giving it and your writing career more of a chance to suddenly take off.  Though rare, this does happen.

If you hire outside help, promotion can bring other gifts as well: support and mentorship, hand-holding, and the comfort of knowing that you have an ally in the often lonely and confusing world of publishing.  For self-published authors, this can be a life-saver.

Of course, if simply having an agent and / or an editor and time to write is all you need, consider yourself blessed, get offline right now and get back to work on that Killer!

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About Sharon Bially

Sharon Bially (@SharonBially) is the founder and president of BookSavvy PR, a public relations firm devoted to authors and books. Author of the novel Veronica’s Nap, she’s an active member of Grub Street, Inc., the nation’s 2nd largest independent writing center, and writes for the Grub Street Daily.

Comments

  1. says

    I believe most writers are uncomfortable promoting themselves or their work. I can’t cite any studies. This is just my opinion. And, yet, in this brave new world of publishing, the onus is on writers to market their work. It is a real conundrum because, like many writers, I would prefer to spend my precious time writing. As you point out, though, a writer who works with others, builds a team, and makes an effort to reach out to others will receive feedback and support. The downside is that it takes time. It’s a balance every writer must find: how much time to devote to the work as opposed to engaging with other writers and readers. Thanks for a thoughtful post, Sharon.

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  2. says

    I’m not sure if I can convey it properly, but I’ll give it a shot. This question reminds me of leash training my four and a half month old lab puppy. She’s at the age where she’s way to strong and determined to simply let her wander around at the end of the leash. She’s a big girl now, ready to behave as such in public. The harder she tries to get out there in everyone’s face, the more she repulses the very public she is trying to share her exuberant love with. The more I try to restrain her, the harder she pulls – and the bigger an ugly display she makes. People offer false smiles and turn away. Nobody wants the obnoxious interaction she craves.

    Of course, doing nothing is not a solution. She needs to get out there, and I need to train her. In the early phases, we are bound to make mistakes. And we are bound to look foolish. But a few good souls will bend and hold her in place and give her the strokes she yearns for. But more importantly, she’ll finally start to see that when she reins it in, and offers a calmer, more subtle approach, more will be interested.

    There’s a zen-like balance required to getting there. The initial effort is more about the cumulative effect and long-term success than initial results. So I can’t fret over our lack of progress yet. Every spastic encounter is one closer to her being the calm and competent, and the accepted and well-liked, member of the community that I know she has the potential to ultimately become. (How’d I do? Does the metaphor work?)

    Thanks for getting me thinking about an important issue. It’s one I am sure to need to confront if I want to ‘get myself out there,’ and not be a recluse in my own fenced yard. I’m sure to be an overly exuberant spaz at first, but I’m in it for the long haul.

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    • says

      Vaughan, in those early days of bounding and careening four-feet first into promotion, you could always wear light-colored garments so the drool doesn’t show.

      Loved your reply. For my next book, I’m going to hire your dog to run through Manhattan wearing a skirt of my tear-off bookmarks.

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  3. says

    Very important issue, Sharon. While I agree we have to write killer, well-crafted books, there are many good books literally buried on Amazon and remain “undiscovered” because they are just floating in the dark. Realistically, I think that book promotion is part of being an author in today’s publishing climate. Readers are important–who can deny that? We have to believe in our books first so that others will follow and that good energy flows forward to create a wave in the sunlight. A marketing person told me to do a 70-30 cut: 70% writing, 30% promotion. Takes discipline! But so does writing that killer book #1 and #2 and #3 … etc.

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  4. says

    Sharon–
    You know whereof you speak, and I thank you for an intelligent commentary. I’ve never trusted people who claim to write only for themselves, who say they feel no need to be read by others. Of course people keep journals for themselves, and Flannery O’Connor said she wrote in order to discover what she thought. But for the great majority of us, submitting oneself to the rigors of writing novels and short stories stems from a strong wish to be understood by others.
    This fact (enabled by new technologies) has led to the burgeoning indie movement. With it has come the sudden appearance of many putative “experts,” coaches, mentors, hand-holders, etc.
    For myself, I get what community I need from excellent websites like this one. What I want from a book marketer is true expertise, someone who won’t just tell me what I should do, but who knows what s/he needs to do in order to give my work a leg up in the overcrowded marketplace.
    In recent years I have hired two marketers, one of them very well-known. The results have been more than a little disillusioning. If I want help with craft, I pay for the services of a first-rate editor. I’m doing that right now with my new novel. I have yet to have an equivalently valuable and convincing experience with a marketer.
    In his comment, Vaughn Roycroft speaks of a Zen-like condition free of grasping, ambition, etc. I don’t wish for that. What I wish for is a marketer with enough confidence in his/her ability to distinguish marketable work from all the rest. This best-of-all-possible-worlds marketer would require a modest up-front fee, and would then contract with solid writers for a share of future royalties to make up the bulk of the marketer’s fee. In other words, the savvy, capable marketer would operate in the same way literary agents do.
    But I’m not holding my breath.

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  5. says

    I struggle with promotion of any kind, especially being self-published. Yet, somehow, I’m getting an Amazon royalty deposit every month. I have no idea who’s buying my books. For all I know, it’s my mother. This knowledge doesn’t exactly make me feel like a success, but I don’t quite know how to be a success at promotion yet. I’m not sure the answer is in a book.

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  6. says

    Great issue! Something I’ll have to keep in mind when I do get published. Personally, I thrive on human interaction so I think at least some promotion for me is in the stars.

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  7. says

    Thanks for your thoughtful piece.

    In this business, for most of us, there are no guarantees. I believe we have to do whatever we are capable of doing in order to increase our chances. Of course, this will mean different things to different people.

    We inevitably grow by challenging ourselves, whether that means utilizing feedback for the first time, or taking on a little promotional work despite being insanely introverted.

    Many people decide they “just can’t do” something before giving it a real shot. Or they write-off the possibility of it being helpful, without understanding either the nature of the business or the potential of the tactics.

    At the same time, I also believe that we should let nothing come between us and our writing!

    Anyways, thanks for your article!

    — A

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  8. says

    I’ll agree with Mr. Maass on this one. That first book isn’t going to sell itself. But the second, third, and tenth books will create a demand for your earlier works. Patience is a vital element to this business, whether you self-publish or go the traditional route. But you can help yourself out with a good newsletter and just enough social media presence to keep your face out there without it becoming a distraction. There’s no easy button in marketing, but every writer should figure out what works best for him or her. And if you really need the help, by all means, it’s worth your nickel.

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  9. says

    Thanks for this post, Sharon. Happily, it’s not either/or — we can promote our work AND write a good next book. Lots of choices and time management involved, and we’ll all make mistakes along the way — partly b/c it’s often not possible to know whether a specific appearance or event will sell books and help trigger word of mouth.

    I appreciate that you point out that positive reader interaction is not only personally rewarding, but can give us the impetus we need to solve a plot problem or get going on the next book. When I do an event, I try to link it to my WIP or a future book by asking myself “What from my experience can I give to my characters?” I make a little game of looking for at least 3 things. And after spending the weekend at an arts festival, selling books and chatting with readers, I’m eager to get back to work!

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  10. says

    Sharon,

    I am 100% with Donald Maass on promotion, particularly as that advice applies to book number 1. Write a book that is so good it generates word of mouth hype, which means taking extra years if need be before you launch a writing career that might mean writing a book every 1-2 years that are consistently better than the first and build your fan base.

    But for all the importance of giving your prose top priority, I think promotion can be just as refreshing if approached with the healthy attitudes you mention in your post today. I am not published, but even so I enjoy taking a break from revisions or fresh word-smithing to connect with others who are enthusiastic about the process. Rather than waiting until I’m published with readers to connect with, I decided to start now, years beforehand, so that I can connect to a supportive community to help not just with promotion when the time comes but also to help me stay vital and inspire me to push to the standards I want to have for my debut. That, to me, is valuable promotion, win-win, no-strings-attached. It’s the kind that succeeds and the kind that helps me feel like I’m doing more than hiding in a closet writing a book I hope will eventually take off.

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  11. says

    Thanks for the very helpful post. So many writers I know really struggle to keep a balance between promoting and writing. We can so easily get sucked into the online promoting and spend hours there that should be put to writing.

    I did love your comment about why it is so important to make that contact with readers. How writers “crave recognition and have a deep-seated desire to connect with readers.” Nothing gives me more pleasure than to get a note from a satisfied reader, and I have never met another writer who does not feel the same way.

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  12. says

    As a debut novelist at a small press who had some strokes of good fortune—like being an Indie Next pick—I can attest that some promotion is beyond even the most energetic self-marketer. And putting yourself out there can prove disappointing if counting direct sales is your measure of success (talking to two readers at a branch library, for instance).

    If selling yourself and facing (more!) rejection makes you feel queasy, it may be helpful to ask yourself why you put all that work into writing.

    Was it sales? Adulation? Proving something to yourself?

    Sales is about moving products off the shelf. Marketing is about the long game and building relationships that translate into sales over time.

    Think about what you want most out of the author experience and direct your non-writing time there. You’ll do a better job and have more fun.

    For me, the enriching part has been making connections with readers, booksellers and other writers. That more sales may result is the bonus.

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  13. says

    I don’t look at promotion as a choice; I’d be worried that, if I put zero to minimal effort in promoting my work, my publisher wouldn’t offer me another contract. I also don’t think authors having to spend huge amounts of time promoting their work is anything new.

    There’s a sweet and funny essay written by Barbara Kingsolver nearly twenty years ago called “Postcards from the Imaginary Mom.” She was already successful at this point, having published The Bean Trees and Animal Dreams. Her publisher was sending her out on a month-long national book tour where she visited a city each day: radio interviews, television interviews, book signings. Her frustrations and laments in this essay sound like every other authors’. Here are some quotes:

    “Why isn’t the author’s written word enough? Why must she follow her book out into the world like an anxious mother, to hold its hand and vouch for its character?”

    (and on “What’s your book about?”) “If I could say my piece in a glib sentence or two, why on earth would I have spent years of my life on it, and all those pages?”

    “Early on, when a publicist first apprised me of my promotional duties, I whined, ‘I thought an artist had the privilege of being a recluse!’ She firmly replied, ‘A *starving* artist has that privilege.'”

    Anyway, at least we know we’re in good company. ;)

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  14. Terry White says

    Reading your post, the essence of this sentence has nagged me all morning:

    “More importantly, though, we also crave some form of recognition and have deep-seated desire to interact with readers, to share with them from that wondrous, visceral place where our inspiration was born”.

    So here I am, coming back several hours later, to say that I realize how right you are, and that, in my case, writing is much about satisfying a “craving” I have to interact with others; and, staying on topic, I tend to see “promotion” in the same light.

    I don’t know what that means and offer nothing more than that. I don’t know what else I could say anyway that would add to the excellent comments made by others.

    For what you’ve stirred within me I offer no analysis except this: for some weird reason (that I can’t put my finger on), I’m glad you did.

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  15. says

    Promotion is unavoidable in today’s publishing climate — probably it always was important — to help with discovery. Potential readers have so many demands on their limited free time! I think the 75%/25% rule is best: 75% writing time/25% everything else time, including promotion. At least, that’s what I’m doing, to save my sanity.

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  16. says

    I run hot and cold on promotion. Sometimes it seems worthwhile, and other times it makes such little immediate difference in my sales that it feels like a waste of my time. It seems as though I’m continually experimenting with various ways to get my series noticed.

    I agree with Ron Estrada when he said, ‘…the second, third, and tenth books will create a demand for your earlier works. Patience is a vital element to this business…’ With three books published, I’m already seeing that at play, and I’m hoping that with each book (my fourth will be out later this year), my fan base will grow to the point that promotion becomes less critical.

    For some reason, the marketing part doesn’t feel like real work and I always feel guilty neglecting my writing to promote my finished books.

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  17. says

    All my life my dream job has been writing… and all my life my nightmare job has been sales and promotion. I know I’m not the only author for whom this is true. But recently I’ve realized that out of all the possible things I could be doing to market myself and my books, there are some that actually feel like an expansion of why I write in the first place. For different people perhaps different things may feel like that, but for me it’s doing classroom programs with schoolchildren. I write because of the joy of sharing curiosity, imagination, worlds, and words… and when I do programs with kids I’m doing the same thing and I really enjoy it. Plus, many of those kids then go off to the library and sign out my books and I’ve succeeded in gaining new readers, too. Other types of promotion remain sheer torture, and I’m sorry to say that I don’t do much with them, dooming my popularity to remain pretty local – after all, people can love my books only when they know they exist! Still, my point is that you can probably find at least one kind of marketing that feels like an extension of your writing instead of time wasted in opposition to writing.

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  18. says

    Promotion is a very necessary part of selling books. At my last check, Amazon was selling over 32 million books. How does an author compete with that many books???

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  19. says

    I feel as thought I’m living this article – the promotion is great, but it’s also exhausting. It feels like publishing – even self-publishing – a book comes with so many expectations. I host a writing podcast where we discuss promotion a great deal (because me and my co-host are learnign about this), but I think it’s also time to start discussing the other side: not promoting, and simply wriitng/publishing for the love of it.

    Great article!

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  20. says

    And then there is the flipside, where you write but you push your marketing so hard and see so little, that you give up. Or, at the very least find yourself at the bottom of a deep hole where the light of day cannot reach. When you’re there, even a few wonderful accolades and reviews by strangers cannot pull you out.

    I think the main key is being realistic. Promotion will only get you so far. Finding the balance, and keeping your head out of the clouds is the key. Yes, we crave accolades and feedback, but those can be fleeting in our “don’t have much time” digital world. I’ve seen amazing artists with huge audiences complain they don’t *hear* enough from their fans and they end up frustrated and depressed.

    After being on the verge of throwing in the towel, I sat down and realized that writing is in my blood. Thankfully, I do have a few loyal (and more importantly vocal) fans to keep me going. I do promotion, but it is minimal. Enough to keep my work out there and give people a chance. I evaluated all of my promotional efforts and found the 1-2 that had the best payoff and decided to focus solely on those. So, while I still promote, I focus primarily on writing in the hopes that more people will discover it on its merit. Foolish, probably, but brought back my much-needed sanity.

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