A Canadian novelist once said to me that the difference between a writer and an author is that a writer writes, but an author writes and represents her writing, when it’s done and edited. But when I started out writing, over twenty years ago, I thought you wrote something, sent it to an agent, and then got it published. Now, I know from experience, if you write something which fits into a specific niche, or genre, then this could be the case – if you’re lucky, or connected, or a rare exception. Literary fiction, the ‘genre’ my agents placed my novels into, is not such a simple equation.
We are implicitly taught, conditioned, to think this way: the literary writer should have nothing to do with the actual publishing of a book, and very little with the marketing of their work, save giving the odd reading, or interview. Basically, the business side of writing is not our business. That’s for agents, publishers, reviewers, bookstore owners.
I don’t accept this view any more. Simply compare our industry to the other creative industries: art, music, film. Most other artists are always open to new ways of selling or representing their work. But not so writers.
Over the years, nearly every month at La Muse, the writers’ retreat I co-direct, I talk to writers about promoting their work. What I notice is you can have a very eloquent writer who pales the second the conversation comes to contracts, websites, optimization, sales. And if you continue they get agitated, say they have to get back to their desk or go for a hike.
If anything, it’s us literary writers who need to do the most work to find readers. We are in competition with every Nobel laureate to have ever lived, but what is even more threatening to us is that genre fiction far outsells literary fiction.
Genre writers do represent their work. They have good websites. They have automated basic social media accounts where their readers can contact them. These readers who get in touch then become what they call ‘advance teams’ for writing Amazon reviews, or getting the word out there about their work.
Without entering into a debate about what is literary (serious) and what is genre (the act of self-mutilation) writing, we need to start opening our eyes to this need of getting involved in selling our work. Mine, because of conditioning, were closed for over fifteen years. I was reluctant to have a website for many years. The fact that I’d written five novels and had two powerful agents in Los Angeles and New York for two of them, never convinced me I was an ‘author’, because I hadn’t that traditional rubber stamp of approval, of being published. So I only put my website up about five years ago, and I was embarrassed to do so because I still hadn’t traditionally published any of my novels.
This relatively new epiphany of mine doesn’t come from reading articles and assessing statistics, even if I was a researcher in a previous life. This comes from watching genre writers come on retreat together and support each other for the last sixteen years I’ve been a director at La Muse. As literary writers sometimes do, they tell each other about competitions, awards, residencies and become reciprocal beta readers. But they are also not afraid to talk about stuff like social media, contracts and blogging.
Trusting others – be these publishers or agents – shouldn’t be the only way to promote our works. Other people are not going to build us a website, or even push our book for long unless we have landed a huge advance. Publishing is like the music industry, they pour most of their marketing budgets into a couple of books a year, the pop music of their industry, hoping for a huge return. All the rest of us are left with little, and very often no, marketing budget. Why do you think agents and publishers sign people with big social media presences (or to use their moniker, ‘influencers’)? They want ROI – return on investment.
So, how do we come to terms with this tension between being writers but also having to represent ourselves? My suggestion is to see it differently: we are representing our books, not promoting ourselves. Yes, there are more than enough egomaniacal fools out there hashtagging and promoting their books to death. You don’t have to do that. Simply set up a WordPress website with a domain name in your own name for under $20 a year and blog there. Set up a Twitter account if you feel like it, but better again, a Facebook Author Page, because Facebook ads are effective. Invest in your work.
You do not have to create ‘content’ for a blog, simply do what you love doing anyway, write. And only write about what you are actually passionate about. Over the years it will amass into organic ‘content’ that hasn’t been created to promote you, but is representative of stuff you genuinely care about. Blogging does not need to be blatant marketing.
The way I see my blog and my website, they are places where, when my books do eventually get out there, people can read about my work and contact me in response to it, ask me for an interview, or find out about my other books.
There are so many other wonderful tools out there for authors: mailerlite (free email capture tool with great free automation), Bookbub (amazing tool for getting new readers for your back catalog – here’s their stats), Amazon (even if you traditionally publish paperbacks, don’t give away your erights. Become a hybrid author – you can get seventy per cent of profits as opposed to the much smaller cut a publisher will give you) and Patreon (better than the other crowdfunders, because people support you by subscription – many of our writers get their rent paid every month from Patreon).
How long do we spend on writing a novel? Two years, three, ten? We are so busy trying to find solutions to story and character arcs, space and time to write, that when it comes to representing the work we’ve put so much time and energy into, we can feel already spent. However, this is when we need to take a break, and afterwards, realize the work is not completely over. Let’s say we spend two years writing a book. Can’t we spend two weeks trying to represent it? That’s not even two per cent of the time we spent writing. Isn’t it important to honor all that effort, to let people know our book exists?
John Fanning writes novels and co-directs La Muse artists and writers retreat in the south of France. He’s also recently started La Muse Books, a small independent press, whose first books are by Australian writer John Clanchy. You can follow him on Facebook and Twitter.