Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Solutions: One Way to Deal with the Self-marketing Frenzy, Plus a Shout-out to Publishers.


Today, Sarah Prineas talks about the things publishers, editors, and marketing departments can do help their authors not feel quite so desperate and help turn down the volume on the AllMarketingAllTheTime Channel.

Solutions: One Way to Deal with the Self-marketing Frenzy, Plus a Shout-out to Publishers.

First, I’d just like to reiterate that yesterday’s post was a rant. My opinion, and the result of seeing social spaces co-opted by what I consider to be authors wasting their time promoting their books. Rant. Rant!!

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So anyway, authors are marketing their books on social media sites, and I know why they’re doing it.

It’s because writers are control freaks.

No, it’s okay. I’m a control freak, too. As a writer, it’s part of the job description. We write our books, controlling every aspect of the setting, of our characters’ lives, and then we’re supposed to just let the book go and move on to the next book.

But we can’t. We can’t let it go. Many of us spend years, maybe, trying to perfect that first novel, get an agent, sell the book. So much of our sense of self is tied up in that process that we lose perspective and feel that our debut is our one chance to make it as a writer. Our entire career is riding on it. We delude ourselves into thinking that somehow we can control not just the book, but how the book is received, how many copies it sells. If we just do enough, somehow….

I can think of two ways to deal with these control-freak tendencies.

One, authors need to understand that every career trajectory is different and success has many different definitions.

It’s true that some debut books, a very few, do take off. Some careers start in the stratosphere. And that’s what we want for ourselves. Still, do you think those stratosphere authors stress about maintaining that kind of orbit? You bet they do. The control-freak problem affects every author, no matter how far out in space she is. For the rest of us, when we don’t hit the stratosphere on our first launch, we worry and stress that somehow we have blown our one chance, that we have failed.

We—all of us, both the authors in a high orbit and the ones living down where the atmosphere is breatheable—might do better if we change our perspectives, try seeing the big picture, the long game. We need to think about our careers instead of getting caught up in the success or failure of one book.

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The next thing has to do with publisher expectations. So many of us get desperate because we have no idea how our publishers define success or failure. We think they want every book to be a bestseller. Well, maybe they do, but they don't expect every book to do that. Some books--the ones with a smaller marketing push--will succeed if they meet certain lower expectations. Hey, a book with huge expectations that sells only a few more copies than a more modest book could be a bigger failure!

The problem is that the entire publishing process is so opaque to us writers. We have pretty much no clue how our publishers feel about us. They tell us almost nothing. We get clues, little crumbs of information, and we parse these coded messages, trying to figure out what is really going on. Our editors may say nice things to us, and that makes us happy, but we generally don’t know how committed they are to our careers. Goodness knows, we’ve all heard horror stories about authors being dropped by their publishers. What if that story turns out to be about us? Ack! Nooooo! The problem is that we assume, because of our publishers’ opaqueness, that the publisher doesn't care about our books and isn’t going to promote them as much as our books deserve, so in desperation we try to make up the ground ourselves.

Incidentally, I think publishers care very deeply about our books, and they are not trying to make us crazy by keeping the process opaque. I think they see how wrapped up in our books we are, and they treat us tenderly because of it, but they don’t really understand it. Their solution is to keep us in the dark because the opaqueness keeps us freakazoid authors out of the book-making/book-marketing/book-selling process. Which is where we belong, because we are not book-makers or book-marketers or cover designers or copy editors or part of a great sales team. We are writers. We need to shut up and write, and be cheerfully available if our publishing team needs us for something.

On the same hand, for editors and the rest of the publishing team, putting out a book is business as usual. They don’t explain stuff to us because they already understand it, and it may not occur to them that we need to know all that stuff, because it’s not our job. No, our job is to, ahem, see above about shutting up and writing the next book.

But we are control freaks, after all, and we do want to know what is going on with our books. And there are things our publisher could do for us to help us writer-freaks deal with the anxiety and horror (and, yes, occasional awesomeness) of having a book published. All they need to do is be less opaque about their expectations for our books. Here are some examples of the kind of things our publishers might tell us about their expectations which would, in turn, help us to manage our expectations:

"We are putting a lot of marketing money behind this debut and have announced a print run of 100K, so if it doesn't hit the NYTimes list we'll be a little disappointed. However, if the preorders for the author's second book in the series remain steady, we'll be happy."

"We expect this debut to sell mostly to libraries. If it sells 5,000 copies we will be thrilled."

"This quirky debut novel is not commercial, but it's a house favorite and we're hoping it will find an audience. We'd love to keep building this writer's career, though we don't expect overnight success."

"This literary book feels like an award contender to us. We'll publish it hoping teachers and librarians take notice, and we'll focus our marketing efforts on them. If it doesn't win an award we probably won't do much more for it."

"We bought this novel based on a strong proposal from an established author, but the book she turned in disappointed the editor; it is not the strong book we expected to see. We won't give it a marketing plan and don't expect big sales."

"To our surprise, this book received starred reviews from Kirkus, Publisher's Weekly, Booklist, and School Library Journal. Our expectations for it are changing and we're going to add a little more marketing push in hopes of seeing bigger sales than we initially expected."

Wouldn’t it be great to have that kind of information up front? To have a clear, straightforward explanation of the publisher’s expectations for a book? It might not be nice to hear “we don’t expect a bestseller,” but wouldn’t it be good just to know?? That way we could chill and, you know, go write the next book.

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That is all! Thanks for reading.

Sarah Prineas is the author of the hugely popular Magic Thief books, the first of which was an E. B. White Read Aloud Honor Book as well as an NCTE Notable Children's Book and has appeared on numerous state lists and has been published in twenty-one different countries. She has a PhD in English literature and has taught seminars on science fiction and fantasy literature. Her next book with HarperCollins, WINTERLING, will be out in 2011.
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Thanks everyone, for participating in this lively discussion! See you all next Monday!  

16 comments:

charmingbillie said...

I've surprised myself at how much I care about other people's numbers (advances, date this happened vs date this other thing happened, who talked to who and when, pub dates, etc).

And while knowledge of some of that stuff can be really useful, comparisons aren't. They're just crazy-making.

So I'm working on giving the desire to rank everything and everyone up. Really. Working hard on it.

Wild About Words said...

"We need to shut up and write, and be cheerfully available if our publishing team needs us for something."

I need to paste this to my forehead sometimes.

What wonderful and timely posts (and replies). I've been thinking a lot about this, spending too much time worrying about how I can positively affect book sales instead of diving deep into a new story world, which after all, is what I love most to do.

I hope we all find our balance points . . . and shut up and write the next book with great joy and verve.

Eleven Eleven said...

I would love to be kept in the loop like that, but I suppose they don't tell most writers for the same reason you can't always be honest about a way an outfit looks on your friend. Better off oblivious than emotionally crushed, or even pompous and over-inflated.

It only works if the feedback doesn't go straight to the writer's head.

Lisa Schroeder said...

I do think somewhere along the way, we've forgotten that it is NOT our job to sell books. It really isn't. It's our job to write the best damn book we can.

And I think what's sad is that our blogging community that used to be about friendship and community has drastically changed. Hardly anyone comments anymore. Is that because people stopped reading because so many blogs became like billboards? I don't know. But I miss the way it used to be. Things have changed a lot over the past few years.

Now, I think what happens is we see some authors feeling a strong need to sell, sell, sell and talking about their books a lot, and so then we wonder, should I be doing that, and so we begin to, and before long, it's just a lot of loud noise!

Now, having said that, when authors talk about their books, it doesn't annoy me (99% of the time). They are excited. And I want to be supportive of fellow authors, the way other authors have supported me over the years. Does all that talking get me to pick up the book? Usually not, unless it's something I really wanted to read in the first place.

R.L. LaFevers said...

charmingbillie, I wonder if that rampant curiosity is just part of the writer/voyeur syndrome? Especially because, as you say, the comparisons are so crazy making.

Wild About Words, yes! I'll join you in that wish!

Eleven Eleven, I'm not sure that that the relief of solid knowledge wouldn't outweigh the potential emotional blowback. :-)

Wow, Lisa. So well said. And what a great point about the gradual encroachment of our concerns on selling taking over what started out as a social medium. I read blogs, but it's what I do when I'm too tired to write any more, so I often don't leave comments.

Lois D. Brown said...

I liked today's blog better than the last one. I appreciate your view and agree that authors would probably be a little more calm if their expectations were on the same page as the publishers. Thanks for your insights.

Mike Jung said...

I love these "publisher expectations" examples - I agree that they'd be very helpful to hear from the publishers themselves, but as someone who's not yet at that point, it's helpful to see them so clearly articulated in any forum.

We definitely all have different balance points for how much social media activity we can (and should) do, and ultimately we each have to make our own individual deicion on where that point lies. I think the control freak point is very valid - it's one of the things I like most about being a writer - I have that whole book clutched right here in my fist! - and yes, it's a challenge to unclench our fists sometimes.

I want to thank both Robin and Sarah for a very stimulating pair of blog posts (and ensuing discussions). A rant can definitely provoke emotion, but sometimes you need that when having a meaningful discussion.

Anonymous said...

I understand why publishers probably got into the habit of avoiding that kind of dialog, but I think what they don't realize is without it some authors can whip each other up into a frenzy of pressure about what they should or shouldn't be doing. The contagious fear from the author-on-author rumor mill is not something to be dismissed! Lots of authors are spurred on by pressures from people within the author community to do promotional things outside of their natural comfort zones or against their personality types, or simply things that don't pay off or make sense for a particular title or career trajectory, and the result can be a waste of time and resources.

It is important to be savvy about where our energy goes. I once stopped going to a particular author group because the focus was mostly on promotion, not on work, and many of the promotional ideas were sort of dubious too.

Also, we all know that well meaning friends and family can and do make absurd suggestions for promotion that while easy to dismiss, add to the atmosphere of pressure.

So it is great to have conversation here that turns down the volume, not ratchets it up - and explores the perspective of various types of sales expectations and different markets for different types of author careers. What is sensible promotion for one author/book/career/market is not necessarily sensible promotion for another.

m said...

God, I wish publishers would give us information like that! It's absolutely maddening having no idea what's going on. I'm truly sick of it.

Gregory K. said...

I certainly agree more communication from publishers (and agents and authors) would be great. Authors should advocate for that in public, like you've done, and by talking to their own team. I think, though, that while it would help with author expectations, I am not sure how it helps with the marketing question. Unless, that is, you are planning to let the publishers do everything for you... in which case, it doesn't matter if they're doing a lot or a little. Also, good marketing starts long before a book is out, and in many cases, I suspect that's long before the publishers know exactly what they're planning to do. Still, information is good.

I disagree, though, about the control freak analogy. Yes, there's certainly an element of that in most writers, but as for why one would take time to pay attention to marketing? No way. For me, I think about this in one simple way: I am responsible for my career (just like a publishing house is responsible for their overall business not just my book). If I can give myself an edge, why wouldn't I? Also, this might be a difference between a focus on a career vs. a single "job" (aka - one book!).

Now, this speaks to an earlier point where we both agree - if you don't have a plan and clear goals, you'll probably only waste your time marketing in social media. But goodness - if you're not gonna do everything that you can to help your own career, who is? Is that being a control freak or is that taking control of your life? Or put another way, do you rely on your doctor to keep you healthy, or do you try to eat right, exercise, sleep enough, etc. while knowing your doctor is there as a safety net. (Perhaps those who are only online saying "BUY MY BOOK" are the same as those ignoring healthy choices but taking one miracle supplement???)

To me, again, all this speaks to different perspectives about social media and about the changing publishing world and an author's ability to make a living in it (or a publisher's ability for that matter). It's early days, for sure, but I think authors and illustrators should be figuring out how they can do more for themselves, not being frustrated with those who are trying (though feeling free to "unfriend" those who annoy - since that is, as always, our choice!).

thespectacleblog said...

I liked both your rant and this post. Very interesting points, and a lot that I agree with.

However, I do wonder how/if your views on the subject would change if your publisher hadn't put a big marketing push behind your series. Because the way I understand it there are some books that get very little to no help from the marketing dept. In the case of those books, I can understand why the author is forced to be a "control freak"--because that author's marketing really is in her own hands.

And thanks for sharing those publisher quotes--very enlightening.

--Parker

Dot said...

Lisa S.-- As you maybe know, I was offline for more than a year. I have been STUNNED by the changes. There are so many more people talking vigorously online than there used to be. I think it's more a matter of that -- so many blogs, people on Twitter, FB, etc. That's why people comment less and less often -- there's so much more to read.

I was fascinated by both of Sarah's posts. I also have long loved the social part of socializing on teh internets and found my flesh crawling when it seemed someone was just using everyone else for networking, horn-tooting, etc. On the other keyboard, every single pub professional I've heard speak at a conference (and I've been to . .. more than one) stresses the importance for all writers to do as much self-promo as they are comfortable with, and in venues they enjoy. ESP. in this current economy.

I have a number of friends whose books did not get a big marketing push from their pub, and I don't think they feel they can wait for word-of-mouth like your example of MWT. Not with most debuts, that is.

Maryanne Khan said...

I rather liked the control freak analogy! It felt strangely comforting.

I'm a debut author who in a past life was a professional in sales promotion. Imagine the contortions my mind goes through in trying to dream up ways of promoting my book (can't help it, I've done promotions for local musicians and artists, worked in an art gallery and am therefore very conscious of things I can do to help my (eventual) book getting noticed.

My novel is set in Pakistan, so I sit in trepidation watching another potential player in eventual success or failure, that country itself. Now there have been the floods, and I have an auction paired with its eventual release to raise money for victims. But first I need a book.

The opacity of publishers is something I'm experiencing for the first time. They know exactly what they're doing and it's their set of expertise and they don't assume that writers have a clue about how a certain cover is designed (I'm also a designer, so more potential control freakishness ahead) or any of the other mechanics of the business. I try to remember that when I was an account executive in the Agency, I didn't explain how a proposal had been arrived at, that was why the client hired us.Betcha publishers regard it that way as well.

N. R. Williams said...

Hi, I found you through Patricia Stoltey. Nice post and one that both writers and publishers should notice.
Nancy
N. R. Williams, fantasy author

Kristan said...

Again, I've got nothing to add but: YOU SAID IT! Thank you.

Mary said...

Very interesting perspective - as of now I have only made it to the literary agent stage and I think the same comment about opaqueness applies to agents. While I understand the rant about authors using (abusing) social media, I still think that today's authors have to go beyond writing to be successful. In order to derive value from the time and effort spent writing, we authors should complement our creativity by entrepreneurship. I wrote a post about the lifetime value of an author which might spark further comment. It's at www.onewritersvoice.com - cheers.