I’ll begin with a disclaimer. I’ve always experienced considerable tension between my writer-self and my book-promoting self. However you approach the task, when you promote your books you inevitably take residence in the kingdom of niceness, where the drive to please prevails. I smile more when I promote my books. I seek agreement more. I often try to present as the kind of person whose company, and by inference whose book, will please you. Sometimes, if say I suggest myself for a public event, I even talk myself up a little. In short, I do all the things I take pains to avoid in my writing.
As a writer, I try to follow the advice of the editor Gordon Lish who thinks that writers should convict themselves, dig a hole for themselves. I’m drawn to writing that explores darkness and courts controversy. I know that endearing yourself to others is one of the most counter-productive urges for an artist, and that the more you promote your books, the more your promoter’s persona is likely to invade your writing too. Once you wear the people-pleaser’s outfit, it starts to stick.
And yet the unfortunate reality is that today, unless you are Elena Ferrante, promoting your books is a necessity if you wish to prolong their shelf life beyond the initial flurry of interest you may get upon their release (if you’re lucky). And to be honest, I don’t have it in me to be Ferrante even if by some magic I could. I’m talking about her choice of anonymity, not her brilliance. The embarrassing truth is that to some extent I enjoy promoting my work. After the years of solitude and self-doubt that the writing of each of my books entails, getting a little spotlight, being in touch with the public, is enjoyable, even if this contact also leaves me feeling uneasy.
I don’t think I’ll ever resolve the tension I feel between the writing and the promotional work I do, but I’ve developed some strategies that help me to minimise the gap between the two as I try to keep my books alive. Let me share these with you.
Have a conversation, not a sales pitch
This is probably my main suggestion. I’ve heard too many times authors speaking in public respond to questions by saying things like ‘You’ll have to buy my book if you want to know that’ or making other requests to audiences to purchase their work.
I don’t know whether this approach helps the sales, but in my view a more ethical, and possibly also more effective, way to get people to read your books, be this via media or at public events, is less direct. I prefer to think of such engagements not as opportunities to ‘move stock’, but to continue the conversation I began in my books about issues urgent to me enough to have spent years writing about them. Thinking of promotion as a continuation of my writing helps me to enjoy it more. I also believe that treating my audiences not as potential buyers but as thinkers and interlocutors shows respect for them.
But how do you even reach audiences in the first place?
Social media is probably the worst place for artists to be. Here we are exposed to the noise of the world – noise of instant opinions, selfies and easy sentiment. Yet unfortunately today, at least moderately active, presence on social media is also probably the most powerful way to prolong the lives of our books.
Social media is excellent for networking, particularly with event organisers, book bloggers and booksellers. I’ve gotten many speaking engagements, blog and media interviews, and reviews of my books because I’m present on Twitter and Facebook. And quite a few people who follow me buy my books, sometimes also recommending them to their followers.
The trick with using social media as an author is once again not to treat people who follow you as your customers and, definitely, not as your fans. Direct requests to buy your book are an immediate turn off and don’t reflect well on your work either, showing you as a businessman rather than an artist.
When I’m on social media, I try to engage with people by giving them something. I tend to keep the number of promotional posts, such as notifications about my events or reviews of my books, much lower than that of my other posts where I share stuff that stimulates me intellectually or aesthetically – works of other writers, images of paintings, music clips.
It’s best not to refuse any invitation for public speaking, big or small. The numbers of your audience aren’t indicative of the number of books you might sell. I once spoke to a crowd of several hundred people and sold two books, and I’ve spoken to five people and sold three books. And anyway, it’s not all about sales. There is also the snowballing effect – the more authors appear to be active in the public sphere, the more they are likely to be invited to speak again. To create this sense of activity it’s also good to post images from your past events on social media. And it’s also good to be proactive and contact bookshops, festivals and libraries yourself to suggest an event. Many will say ‘no’, but almost always someone will say ‘yes’ and keep that snowball rolling on.
Another way to keep your book alive way past its prime is by chairing events and doing Q&As with other authors. If you’re a good chair, the audience may get interested in your work too. And you’ll be also giving something to your peers, contributing to the literary conversation in Australia.
Many authors have blogs. But blogging is time-consuming and if you don’t have something burning to say outside of urging others to purchase your book, I don’t recommend doing it, particularly as this isn’t the most effective way to promote your work.
More effective is approaching other bloggers, only those with significant audiences, who do book reviews, or blog about literature and writing, or themes your work engages with. You can offer a copy of your book for a review or to write a guest post. Many bloggers, myself included, have regular spots for guest posts. When you pitch, I suggest thinking of your posts as yet another opportunity to further the discussion of issues you care about, or to talk about the writing process. Such writing, to complement your book rather than talk it up, can be also good to offer to online and print publications.
If you, like many writers, teach writing, your teaching presents more opportunities to keep your book in people’s consciousness, particularly if you do one-off workshops that continuously expose you to new audiences. It does no harm to mention your book when you discuss the writing process or even use some examples from it to demonstrate writing techniques, and most organisations will allow you to have your book for sale during the workshops. But don’t overdo it. As teachers, we have a certain power we shouldn’t abuse. I know some writers who teach predominantly from their work or explicitly urge their students to buy their books This is a line I’d never cross. I suggest if you mention your work, do it only when it’s necessary for teaching and only alongside examples from other writers.
Finally, humour and storytelling
I believe humour, particularly of the self-deprecating variety, is our best tool. As you promote your books, admit your vanity. Talk about your failures. Write or tell an amusing story about the process of writing your book. Really the best way to find readers, I think, is by doing what we writers do anyway. By spinning entertaining tales. If you make your audience laugh, or gasp, or think deeply, then they’re more likely to read your work.
So, have I sold you my book yet? It’s available today on special…