Part One: Sandy
Back in the day—you young’uns need to know this—book publishing followed a predictable path: Writers wrote. Editors acquired, edited, guided, supervised, and championed writers and books, thereby carefully building careers—their own and those of their writers. Given the editors’ choices, designers designed. Publishers published. Marketers marketed.
Writers, the foundation supporting everyone else’s work, could be out and about or they could be hermits who lived in mountaintop caves and delivered revisions by homing pigeon or trained burro. Writers could be old, young, attractive, homely, or complete mysteries writing under pen names, unbeknownst even to their nearest and dearest, let alone the reading and/or media-viewing public.
While children’s writers were rarely sent on book tours, they were encouraged to visit schools and libraries and to present at teachers’ and librarians’ conferences and writing workshops to help boost their book sales. (Encouraged is the operative word here; not forced or even expected.) A book that garnered three or four good reviews automatically got an ad in the professional journals. An author who placed three books with the same publisher got even more attention. Often, invitations to present came through the publisher’s marketing office, and the publisher paid the author’s travel and lodging expenses, especially to attend large conferences, where autograph sessions at the publishers’ booth were a given. So was dinner.
Children’s books stayed in print for many years because publishers knew it took a long time for reviews, awards, and word of mouth to move a title from shelf to librarian to teacher to parent to child. Publishers also knew there’d be a new audience of children coming along every few years as each group aged and moved on. Backlists were valuable assets.
Enter the corporate “tailors.” (Young’uns, here’s where it’s all about what you’re up against. But David and me, too. We knew the emperor before the tailors took over and we’re still here.) While writing, editing, and reading have remained pretty much the same, and while librarians, teachers, parents, and children haven’t changed much, publishing has been turned upside down. Marketers now make the choices formerly reserved for editors—and then insist that writers do their own marketing.
Writers are expected to maintain ornate, enticing, and ever-changing websites, blogs, and Facebook pages. It’s strongly suggested that they create and distribute bookmarks and postcards, produce trailers for each of their books, and tweet. Maybe hire publicists or join speakers’ bureaus. Publishers pay for none of this, neither the expense nor the time involved; it’s all out-of-pocket. Oh, and there are still those school and library visits, conferences, and workshops to do, also generally unsupported by the publisher—except for best sellers, top award winners, and celebrity authors, who also get the journal ads and the dinners.
While honoraria may offset some of the PR costs writers are asked to bear, one cannot help but wonder whether they really do, and how much time is left for writing more books—still the foundation on which the industry rests. Never mind time left for family. Or health.
Meanwhile, books that do not immediately sell briskly go out of print in the blink of an eye, and writers who don’t generate enough “firepower” for brisk sales of their first and second books don’t get to build careers. So writers-who-market are under far more pressure than marketing departments ever were—they had years, remember?—to get the word out and to get it way out, in front of the hordes of other writers attempting to friend, blog, and tweet their way to fame and fortune. Or, at the very least, to earning out their advances, seeing future royalties, and publishing more books.
Is it me, or is there something wrong with this picture? It is what it is, and it’s not going back to what it was. I understand that. But, David, I have to ask whether the emperor is really wearing any clothes. Is this furious effort on the part of writers—especially the young ones—actually selling enough books to keep their work in print and their careers on track? If so, at what cost? And if not, or if the cost is too high, what alternatives do we writers have? I plan to speak to those questions next time, and I look forward to hearing what your own experiences are telling you.
Our wise friend and colleague Kristi Holl once remarked that the best way to sell your current book is to write the next one. I can’t get that advice out of my head. We’re writers. Writers write.
Part 2: David
Sandy, thanks for framing this conversation so colorfully. I’ll pick up with the growing expectation among publishers that authors work harder at marketing their own books.
I’ll start by suggesting that people who write are not generally known for successfully promoting themselves or hawking their own goods. Marketing is a profession taught at the college level. I’m sure that it comes more naturally to some than to others, which is true of writing as well, but most of us really don’t have a clue of how to make a difference.
My first effort, waaaaaaaaaay back, was to concoct a simple little flyer to hand out wherever I had a chance. I went through my files, pulled some background that seemed fairly impressive, and took it to a printer. I came home with 1,000 copies, confident that I would need more soon. That was probably thirty years ago. I threw out the remaining copies a few months back. There were a lot left.
About the only other thing I ever thought to do was have some business cards printed. These I shyly placed in a small stack at the corner of the table when I was signing books. So much for visual aids. Oh, wait! I dabbled in overheads too! But I soon tired of carrying around files of overlays to put on the machine and tinker with until people in the audience behind me started creaking their chairs. Besides, no one past the third row could read them, which only underscored my amateurism.
Over the past few decades I’ve grown increasingly aware that some authors can brag on themselves and some cannot. I don’t know about you, but my parents would not approve of a son who beat his chest and leaped around like Captain Marvel telling the world what a writing genius he is. I have met a few Captain Marvels in our industry but most of us are Walter Mitty types.
Sandy, I know that you have been involved in technology longer than I have but this recent life-changing transition from flyers and business cards to websites, blogs, tweets, and the rest is drastically underscoring the difference between those who can and those who cannot tout themselves.
When our son went into computers, I was proud of him but cautioned that computers are only a tool, not an end. Boy was I confused! I have, over the last three years, taken measures I never dreamed of to bolster my sense of what marketing myself might be.
First came the website. I got a good one, which cost a lot more than flyers, I can tell you that. Then came the blog. A blog doesn’t cost much money. What a blog demands is what a writer cherishes most and has least of to spare: time. Give a writer a stage, he may or may not be comfortable speaking from it. But give him a magic tablet that he can write on every day for folks everywhere to read, and he’ll go for it.
For nearly two years I rarely missed posting on my blog on a daily basis. My wife, the one who asks pertinent, practical questions, asked why I was spending two or three hours a day blogging instead of writing. She asked if my books sales were up. She questioned the time on Facebook and Twitter. Now that stung because I don’t know if my book sales are seriously tied to any of it. And the original reason I got involved in these technological opportunities was to promote myself and my work.
Kristi Holl is a friend, a smart lady, and a good writer and teacher. She’s right. We’re writers and writers write. But these days there is a caveat in that truism. Writers write with the time left after blogging, tweeting, Facebooking, and in general spending time in front of a screen.
Sandy, I’ve recently taken a hiatus from daily posting on my blog. I enjoy doing it and have met many fine people in the process. But right now I have more than a dozen book projects on my desk with deadlines flashing toward me. When these books are written, maybe I can figure out how to help promote them. For now I have to write. No one else will do that for me. And to speak to your point, when writers stop writing, it causes problems from the bottom up.
I’m rereading my remarks and wondering if I’m sounding more discontent than I am. The issues we’re discussing are real for sure. But I’m lucky. Not everyone gets to do what they love most. Writers participate in the hallmark activity of our species—communication. One way or another all humans reach out to others. We dance. We sing. We paint, invent, keep records, teach, and by hundreds of other means express how we feel and seek responses to verify our existence. I think writers are the luckiest of all because we use language itself to touch readers in their hearts and minds. Years ago when Boyds Mills Press published its first titles, publisher Kent Brown took a box downtown, set them on a table, and stopped people on the sidewalk to promote his new line. When I feel sorry for myself, I remember Kent and figure, “What the heck. Maybe I could do a little more.”
Sandy, back to you!
Part 3: Sandy
David, I think you put the key to sorting out our feelings about this writers-as-marketers situation right there in your Afterthoughts, where you said, “But I’m lucky. Not everyone gets to do what they love most.”
Many moons ago, Beverly Cleary became a much-discussed legend among teachers, librarians, authors, and event planners, not only for her wonderful books but for her absolute refusal to speak to groups of children. Finally, she wrote a piece for the New York Times explaining why: As a child, she’d loved a series of books—until the author showed up at her school and completely ruined them for her. As an adult, she had no desire to come between her readers and her stories.
Good for her! Knowing herself and her limits, she bucked the prevailing author visit trend and went her own way, doing what she did best: writing books for children. Of course, she’s Beverly Cleary, creator of Ramona, and, gossip about her though they might, nobody else could come between children and her books, either.
You and I love to write, David, but we also love to visit with children, teachers, librarians, other authors, and anybody else who wants to talk about writing and books and young readers. So that part of marketing is a nice fit for us. But sharing what we do and know and love is one thing, and tooting our own horns is another. The latter makes us very uncomfortable. You rarely distributed your brochures; I made several stabs at designing one, but never printed any copies.
I actually do have experience in PR. My first job out of college was copywriter at an advertising agency. So I’ve got plenty of ideas. Not all of them fit me very well, though, and those that don’t rarely get done.
The question has become, “Are we having fun yet?” And fun, for me, is promoting the entire field, with myself as one small part of it. Hence, my ten years as SCBWI Missouri Regional Advisor, organizing annual workshops at Drury College (now University) that brought in other authors and editors to talk to emerging children’s writers. Hence, also, the America Writes for Kids website, which began small as Missouri Writes for Kids, and has grown to include links to the websites of nearly 500 published authors and playwrights.
And, David, remember our brief period of TV stardom? Fifteen, 30, and 60 seconds at a time? As you’ll recall, after being interviewed on TV for some event or other and not passing out from sheer terror, I found myself thinking about how TV could be used to bring Missouri children closer to Missouri authors. School and festival visits with young people had shown me how much they adored having “their very own” authors and how they went on to read books by authors they’d met with a real sense of friendship and ownership. It seemed important to me that young readers realize more authors than the few they met in person were neither dead nor stranded on a distant island, but living and writing nearby in hometowns just like theirs.
But could I see myself going on TV alone to advance this cause? Absolutely not. So I ended up in your office, laying out my plans, and you hopped on board. Together, we read excerpts from other Missouri authors’ books (and, now and then, from each other’s books), gathered books from authors to give as prizes to kids who wrote to us about their favorite authors, went library-to-library giving after-school programs about Missouri authors, and roped a few of our colleagues into doing 15-minute TV spots themselves when they visited Springfield.
We offered our idea—free—to other authors in other states, receiving much approval but no takers. Nobody else opted to do all the work we were doing—also for free. But we were having so much fun! I don’t know about you, David, but it never seemed like work to me. How many retakes did we do because we couldn’t stop laughing?
Trading blog spots with you is also great fun. And I’ve just recently created a Facebook page and am enjoying reconnecting with old friends and making new ones. But what motivated me to join Facebook? The possibility of promoting my husband’s blog, my son’s editing service, and America Writes for Kids, along with my books and plays.
I am who I am, and marketing pressures notwithstanding, that has to be taken into consideration. I have a friend who recently published a book and went whole hog with the self-promotion bit because the small publisher he’s with no longer has a marketing department. He’s invested a good deal of time and money in a publicist, a book trailer, Facebook, etc. When I asked if sales were affected by his efforts, he said he couldn’t be sure. Then he added that HE was being affected, negatively, with feelings of anxiety because he felt he was supposed to be a writer and writers write, they don’t crow.
We may have been left on our own to market our books, David, but we’ve also been left on our own to nurture our writing, which means nurturing ourselves. So I’ve reached some conclusions that seem right for me and may be helpful to others:
1. Life is short.
2. I need to write. Emphasis on the “need.” Not “should write.” I need to write because I am very unhappy if I don’t write. (Ask my husband.)
3. Marketing, as my play publisher once said, is a happy thing. It means you have something to market. But it’s not a happy thing if it means doing something that makes me seriously unhappy.
4. The answer is to find—or invent—ways to meet the demands of the current publishing situation that are fun. Fun is energizing. That energy can then be used to fuel the writing.
You’re the one with the science background, David. What say you about my recycled energy theory?
Part 4: David
Good grief, Sandy! Recycled energy theory? I’m going to need help from readers on this one! But off the top I’ll say that I love lists and yours is brief, to the point, and provocative.
So the answer to the author’s self-promoting dilemma, as you say, is to discover ways to promote ourselves that feel comfortable and are fun to do. Hmmm. Well, everyone is different and comfort levels are going to differ too. A list of options that are available to enterprising and energetic authors isn’t all that long. One can visit schools; speak at PTAs and other local groups; hand out business cards and flyers; attend conferences to meet, greet, and sign books; get interviewed on local radio and television stations; be reviewed or interviewed by local magazines and newspapers; and ask at local book stores and libraries about signing and speaking opportunities. The list should include sending letters and e-mail notes to those who might like to know about an author’s latest accomplishment. One can also enter a variety of contests and, for the higher rollers, there’s the possibility of renting a booth at conferences and selling wares directly to the conference attendees. That’s a little like standing behind a fruit stand hawking your own melons, but what the heck. For some, it’s the very ticket.
And these days there’s a host of Internet-based social media options: websites, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, blogs, podcasts, videos, YouTube, Skype and so on. Sandy, so far I’ve tried several of these so let me tell you more about my experience with blogging.
When Kathy Temean created my website in 2009, I was proud of the way it looked and glad to finally join the rapidly growing number of authors who present themselves to readers who routinely search the Web for people who write and illustrate books. When Kathy urged me to establish a blog presence, I said no but it didn’t take her long to persuade me to give it a try. I never imagined how time consuming and exhausting it can be to maintain a decent, ongoing blog.
For one thing, writers write. So give us a blog, it’s like handing out free paper to write on each day and share with an audience of mostly anonymous readers who might or might not drop by to check out what we have to say. It doesn’t take long to begin to feel pressure to make the most of the opportunity. This isn’t Twitter. You have more than 140 characters. It isn’t Facebook. Blog readers don’t want to know what movie you like this week. A writer’s blog is about content and the merit of the content says a lot about the writer. I may write my blog in my pajamas and robe, but I want what I write to be decently dressed and have its hair brushed.
Early on I established a series of interviews of people I know or want to know who are in the business of writing or illustrating or editing or publishing or agenting or teaching or professoring. It has been a fascinating experience and I’ve learned much along the way. But fun though it is, interviewing someone is neither simple nor quick. So far I’ve done about five dozen and look forward to adding others when my time is less restricted than it is at the moment.
I also started a program for poets of all ages called Word of the Month Poetry Challenge. Until recently, I recruited judges who agreed to read entries and select their picks for monthly winners. These days, poets continue to post their work on my blog but we’ve dispensed with judging. In addition, I’ve posted writing tips on poetry, fiction, and nonfiction and, of course, you and I have engaged in several months of chatting in our Writers at Work series.
All of this takes time—hours of it. Sandy, you may observe that these blog activities have little to do with promoting my work. Like you, I usually find it far more comfortable to cheerlead for others than to wave my own baton and hope there’s a parade behind me.
The benefits of social networking (yes, I also tweet and have a Facebook page; sigh) include the meeting of many fascinating people. If you call this a “circle of influence,” then I suspect that mine has grown. I hope that some of my words and those of others who have appeared as my guests or left comments have been beneficial to readers who drop by.
Am I selling more books as a direct and measurable result of my blogs and tweets and LinkedIn connections and Facebook friends? Sandy, it beats me. I want to say yes but I don’t have a yardstick (blogstick?) for this situation. I think the answer is yes. Certainly I’m busy with books to write. I’ve made meaningful contacts with additional publishers. My publishers know that I’m out there trying to do my part. The price of the effort? It can be hours a day. I’m fortunate in that I have no “second job” to go to and can spend up to twelve hours on good days working at my trade. But not everyone can afford to give up an hour or more of their writing time to add Internet-based efforts to their marketing campaign.
So, my friend, we’re back where we started. Every author is expected to help promote his or her work. The trick is to choose ways that feel comfortable and fun so that it generates energy. Then, according to Sandy Asher’s theory, we can use that energy to fuel more writing! I’m good with that.