It seems publishing houses no longer have the capacity to provide the kind of promotional efforts on a writer’s behalf that they would have done only a few years ago. Market pressures have combined to put far more of the responsibility on us, the writers.
Like it or not, we have to blow our own trumpets these days, and I don’t enjoy that. I’ve been a little luckier than some, with solid efforts from in-house publicists when each new book comes out. But I’d be stupid if I didn’t also work on increasing my public profile. Website, check. Facebook fan page, check. Blogging on Writer Unboxed, check. Online forums, check. Add to that appearances at literary festivals and genre conventions, presenting workshops and occasional signings. I still do a lot less than some other people who’ve posted here about their self-promotional activities. That’s because I know I’m not a fast worker, and when it comes to the crunch, writing the novel always comes first. Also, I need eight hours sleep a night.
A lot of advice has appeared on Writer Unboxed and elsewhere recently about the huge amount of time and energy you, the aspiring writer, need to put into getting your name and brand out there. Good advice. But becoming a public figure is not all beer and skittles. It comes with a darker flip side.
Here are some of the things I do (and a couple I don’t do) to stay in touch with existing readers and garner new ones. With each point comes some cautionary advice.
A professional-looking website
My website contains all the info about my books, with a gorgeous look created by a professional designer who maintains the site for me. It includes cover art, free downloads of short fiction and reading guides, links to podcasts, and links to galleries of fan art.
Pros: a one-stop shop for readers to get all the info on your work. All writers who plan to be professional need a good website. But not before you write your first book.
Cons: can cost a bit to set up, less if you keep things simple. Time consuming if you maintain it yourself.
Availability to readers by email / snail mail
There’s an email address on my website, and I reply personally to all messages. Readers are told before they email that:
– I may take a few days to reply
– I don’t enter into long exchanges because of lack of time
– I don’t critique readers’ work
Pros: Readers really like my availability. The email address has brought me in contact with some fascinating people, some of whom have become personal friends. It allows fellow professionals to find and contact me easily. Quick feedback from readers bolsters the spirits during difficult patches.
Cons: Time consuming. People ignore the caveat. People want to be your best friend and expect you to be fascinated by the minutiae of their daily lives. People are not always tactful in their criticism of your work. People send you their own work to comment on even when you spell out in big letters that you do not provide a free critiquing service. NOTE: When young writers contact me asking for advice, I do reply with general tips and encouragement. I am not completely hard hearted!
A cautionary tale: When my first novel was published I was featured in a press article that included the name of the suburb where I lived. That plus my unusual surname was sufficient for people to work out my street address and phone number. I started getting weird calls and packages in the mail from people who wanted me to read their ms / help them write their novel / join their religious cult. That’s why my number is now ex-directory, and my address a PO Box.
My Facebook Fan Page is relatively new. Approx 3300 readers are listed as ‘likes’.
Pros: the immediacy of Facebook appeals to people who want quick replies to questions and the ability to post pictures, links and comments. They like the fact that I check in at least once a day and comment on their posts. It’s a handy place to post general info. Visually nice, with readers regularly contributing art work and photos. Easier to update than a website.
Cons: Spam. Technical oddities. Occasional inflammatory or discourteous comments by readers. If you set up a fan page you need to be on top of this.
Online discussion groups
Pros: Readers can chat about the writer and her work, and also about all kinds of other topics of their choice. Readers feel more ownership (and security) than they do on Facebook. Readers can post creative work in a sub-forum. Allows polls and competitions.
Cons: The forum needs good administrators who will act quickly on any abusive or offensive posts. One disgruntled person can create havoc on this kind of site. NOTE: If your forum has a fan fiction section, or a section for readers’ creative writing, don’t read it. This is a legal minefield as people can sue you later for pinching their ideas. Sounds wacky, but it has happened.
I’ve chosen not to have one because I can see it sucking up time and creative energy better applied elsewhere. If you have plenty of interest to write about, a personal blog can be a great tool for reaching potential readers. If all you blog about is what you had for breakfast or your cat’s last trip to the vet, less so.
Some love it, some think it a waste of time. I’m in the second group.
I’ll be back another time to talk about the non-digital side of self-promotion: public appearances in the flesh, from school visits to international writers’ festivals. Should you be out there spruiking your work, or would the time be better spent getting on with writing?