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!!


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.


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.


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.

Thanks everyone, for participating in this lively discussion! See you all next Monday!  

Monday, September 27, 2010

I Will Be Your Friend, But I Will Not Be Your Fan: A Rant About How Authors Use Social Media For Self-Promotion

One of the upsides to Twitter is that you sometimes get to meet fabulous people you might not run into otherwise, which is how I came to meet Sarah Prineas. Turns out we had a lot in common, not the least of which is how we feel about people misusing social media. I stumbled upon a discussion on her blog a while back and asked her if she’d come over here and share some of her thoughts on the misuses of social media here with us on Shrinking Violets.

I Will Be Your Friend, But I Will Not Be Your Fan: A Rant About How Authors Use Social Media For Self-Promotion

A couple of months ago, I posted a blog entry in which I asked commenters to share their opinions of authors’ use of social media.

By social media I mean places on the Internet that would seem to exist for social purposes. Not places where you make business connections, like Linked-In, and not places where you sell your stuff, like Ebay or Craigslist. Specifically I mean Twitter and blogs. (I’m not counting Facebook because…you know, it’s Facebook. Ugh.)

We are, of course, still negotiating the boundaries of social media, figuring out how to create a public persona, learning to be friendly with people we’ve never met before, deciding what personal details to share and what is too private. We’re also trying to figure out what community is online and how best to build a sense of community with the friends, acquaintances, and random strangers that make up our social circles on the Internet.

Ideally, I think, social sites are for friendly conversation and debate, for sharing good news and bad news, for meeting new friends, for posting amusingly captioned cat pictures. The community we’re building is a community based on friendship. Now, we humans have verrrry sensitive antennae when it comes to our social interactions. We can tell when somebody is being friendly versus when they’re trying to sell us something. When authors intrude on social spaces with their self-marketing it can make our antennae twitch like crazy.

Granted, if you’re a writer and you’re blogging about your life and what you think about, of course some of your blogs or tweets are going to be about your book, or about your happy book news. That’s fine. That’s not what I’m talking about.

No, I’m talking about the blogs and twitter-feeds that may be partly social, but which pollute the social ether with self-promotion and book marketing. They exist, mostly, to sell books.

Unfortunately for them, author shilling does not sell books.

It just doesn’t.

You know what does? Sometimes it’s a top-down effort by the publisher. The big push. Just as often, it’s word of mouth. Almost like the book is speaking for itself! Or it’s a combination of the two (publishers, often enough, get excited about publishing good books that readers love!).

I know what you’re thinking. What about when a book isn’t getting a big push from the publisher? Shouldn’t the author pick up the slack and market herself? Won’t that be kind of like word-of-mouth?

No. Because…I’m sure I’ve heard this someplace before…author shilling does not sell books.

Still, it’s true that social media can sell books. My favorite example of this is Megan Whelan Turner. As far as I can see, the woman does almost no social media stuff herself, yet Conspiracy of Kings was a New York Times bestseller. It's the fourth book in a great series, and while MWT was not out herself urging people to buy it, the book had tons of enthusiastic readers spreading the word via twitter, their blogs, and a lively discussion group. Hey, I even blogged about it myself. MWT didn't have to push people to do this. They did it because the books are great and well loved. That is how social media should sell books. Not via authorial top-down selling, but via true fandoms.

It seems to me that authors who shill for their books online might be trying to replicate this phenomenon, like what we saw with MWT’s book. But I don’t think that kind of success is something within our control.

Okay, but what if the author’s editor encourages her to blog or join Twitter, or basically to create a more public, social persona online in order to market her books? Well, frankly, I think said editors should think more about what they’re asking their authors to do. There is this sort-of received wisdom in publishing that online marketing is the new big thing, the best way to get the word out about books. Also, publishers have this throw-spaghetti-at-the-wall approach to marketing. They work hard, do a lot of stuff, and hope that it sticks.

And really, truly, this particular approach doesn’t stick. Here are some of those non-sticky things that authors do that might make the social antennae twitch, things that might not be building friend-community, but some kind of more perniciously commercial space.

Blog tours and contests. The commenters to my entry agreed, by the way. Blog tour interviews are boring. How often do you actually read more than one of them? And the contests. What about the ones with the complicated rules, like that you have to comment to enter and tweet about the contest and post it on your Facebook page, and get a tattoo of the book cover on your face? To be the author’s street team—to do the marketing for her! How lovely for you, reader, to not only have your social space co-opted for marketing, but to be co-opted yourself!

Or the contest where the winner gets a bookmark or a postcard or a crappy magnet with the book cover on it. Sheesh. A contest where the prize is a marketing tool! Genius!

Or the “fan” page on Facebook. I don’t know about you, but every time I get an invitation to be somebody’s “fan” it’s an automatic delete. As in, I delete the social connection. I will be your friend, but I will not be your fan.

Or the twitterers who re-tweet every single freaking mention or review of their book. Boring!

Oops. That got ranty. Sorry. See title, above. This is a rant.

Anyway, the sad thing is, anybody who is using their blog or twitter to market their book is wasting their time and energy. Who are their books’ readers? Do they read the author’s blog? Maybe a few of them do. Is selling to those very few people worth annoying the many more people who are reading the author’s blog for social reasons? LiveJournal and blogs are an echo-chamber, an insular community, and so is Twitter. Authors who self-market are not reaching new readers via social media. They are reaching the same very relatively small group of friend-people over and over and over again.

This is especially true for writers of middle-grade fiction. You might reach a few gateway readers—teachers and librarians. But your kid readers are, for the most part, not reading your blog or your twitter-feed. A few kids will find these places and want to interact socially with you. But most are not online all that much.

Now, there will be rare exceptions to this rule. People who manage to use their blogs or twitter-feeds to successfully self-market their books. Props to them. They are still annoying.

So how does an author know if she is getting marketing all over the social spaces? She must ask herself: “Why am I on Twitter? Why do I blog?” If the answer is, “because I like it and to make friends,” then the author is probably doing okay. If it’s “because I desperately need to help my book do better,” well…

There you go.

The best writing advice I ever heard was from an extremely successful writer of MG and YA books, and it was about self-promotion. The advice was, essentially, this:

Don’t bother. Just write the next book.


To sum up, there's more to lose, I think, than gain through authorial self-promotion. As the comments to my blog make evident, lots of people are annoyed by it. We’re authors, we’re not marketers; we seem amateurish and desperate when we do it. Maybe we just need to quit self-marketing and write the next book.


(Still, I get why authors self-market. If you’re annoyed by this rant, do tune in tomorrow, because I have further, less ranty things to say about that.)

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.

Hopefully that will give everyone some food for thought as we begin our online persona workshop next week. One of our first tasks in that workshop will be to determine the reason we're online and what we want to achieve with our online interactions.

Also a big, whopping thank you to everyone who added a comment to last week’s post on offering encouragement to discouraged writers. I’ll be compiling them all in a page (as time allows) and will announce when that link goes up. However, I did want to announce our winner who, according to Random Number Generator is Number 10! Earthsdivide! If you will email me with your info, I will get your prize out to you this week!

Monday, September 20, 2010

For Those We Lose Along The Way

Publishing is not for the faint or tender-hearted and yet the very nature of writing often calls to sensitive souls. It can be an uneasy, often painful combination and the truth is, we lose a lot of authors along the way,  many before they’ve even published a word. The long hard slog toward publication simply becomes too much. But there are others we lose after they publish their first book. Perhaps the disconnect between the reality of ‘being published’ and their dream of what it would be like is too great, or the demands of being published are too hard, or they are crushed when their first book does poorly or if they received harsh reviews. I know of three authors who simply gave up after their first book, completely disillusioned and demoralized by the publishing process and the lack of support they got from their publisher, the lukewarm sales and reviews their book received.

What if a discouraged new author doesn’t have a good support system or a professional ally such as an agent or a second book contract to force them to keep going? How easy is it to just let the dream be crushed and retreat?

A few weeks ago I learned of yet another author who had fallen by the wayside after the publication of their first book and it made me long to sit down and have a heart to heart with them. To tell them all the things I could think of to make them realize they shouldn’t give up or feel embarrassed or defeated.

In our society, there is a strong sense of shame and embarrassment associated with not succeeding, even in areas where we have little control. There is sometimes a prevailing sense that the less successful have somehow earned that lack of success by not trying hard enough or by some lack of their own. Authors, in particular, bear the weight of a failed book. Even though publishing is a team effort comprised of a dozen different functions and components, it is authors who bear the brunt of poor numbers or bad reviews.

Then I realized that even better than just me saying something encouraging, I should tap into the Violet Collective and ask for YOUR words of wisdom for these bruised and battered authors. As a community of introverts, SVP blog readers are some of the most insightful, compassionate, and supportive  people I know. What if we were to compile a list of advice and insights new authors could turn to when they were discouraged? 

What would you say to a debut author whose sales tank? Or whose book never takes off? Or for whom the realities of publishing are simply overwhelming or underwhelming or whose dream has been too out of step with reality? What could we say that would prepare them for that reality so they wouldn’t be so shell-shocked when they run into it?

There are two things that I would like to tell those who get discouraged. The first is, more often than not a book’s success or failure has very little to do with the quality of the writing and a lot more to do with timing, luck, distribution, exposure, and connecting with the right readers, most of which is outside the writer’s control. The second piece of advice I would give  those authors is to explain that this is why finding some sort of joy or fierce satisfaction from the writing process itself is so important—so when things tank, you will still have had the experience of joyfully creating, and nothing can take that away from you.

What about you? What piece of advice would you give a discouraged author or a pre-published author to help them avoid being crushed along the way?

Leave your suggestion in the comments and I’ll compile a whole list of them and we’ll make it a permanent page here for people to find. Everyone who leaves a suggestion in the comments will be entered in a drawing to win an awesome writing journal (that you might just want to use for one of our upcoming workshops!) and a lovely, carry with you everywhere, book of poems on Solitude. (It's makes a great decoy when you want to look like you're reading so people won't bother you. Not that I would ever do anything like that.)

Monday, September 13, 2010

We’re Baaaack!

And very happy to be so! I hope you all had a hugely productive summer. In fact, we would love to hear what you’ve all accomplished over the last couple of months! As we all straggle back in get settled into our fall routines, we’d love to have a Milestone Monday and learn what everyone’s been working on, accomplished, any breakthroughs people have had. You know the drill.

I’ll start. I actually (finally) finished a manuscript I’ve been working on (off and on) for four l-o-n-g years. Boy, did that feel good! It is my first YA and I am very excited about it.

As for Mary’s milestone, well, there is some good news and some bad news. And the bad news is actually more bittersweet. Mary has radically unplugged. Over the summer she deleted her Twitter and Facebook accounts and is going deeply inward for the next year and taking a year’s sabbatical from SVP.  ::sob!::

I am hugely proud of her that she is honoring her introverted needs and process, but I will sorely miss her presence here throughout the coming year. The important thing is, that if any of you have been feeling a similar need, do let Mary’s decision be a gentle nudge in that direction. She reports that her stress has been reduced by 75% and her muse is happy, happy, happy with the decision.

The good news is that we have lots of exciting things on the menu for you in the coming months. By popular demand, we will be running both a Discover Your Online Persona workshop as well as a Shrinking Violet Bootcamp. We’ll be starting with the Persona workshop on Oct. 4. The Bootcamp will probably begin sometime after the first of the year. We also have a bunch of inspiring, educational, eye opening, and perspective challenging guest posts on the horizon, which I also hope you’ll enjoy.

Also, if you are a regular Shrinking Violet reader and have a new book coming out in the upcoming year, drop me a line, will you? We’d love to celebrate your launch here as well as get your picture up in our sidebar.

And lastly, I’d like to point you to a terrific article, The Revenge of the Introvert, in the current Psychology Today by Laurie Helgoe, who has been a frequent guest poster here on SVP. The article also features Nancy Ancowitz, yet another frequent guest poster here. Do take a moment to read this terrific article.

Look forward to hearing all about your milestones!

Monday, September 6, 2010

Summer Hiatus: The Final Week!

Try an experiment for a week. Every night before you go to bed, write down on a piece of paper something for your subconscious to work on while you sleep. It can be a plot problem or the outline for the next day’s scene; it can be one of the obstacles you constantly run into while trying to find time to write. Whatever needs solving. The point is to give your subconscious an assignment and see if it comes through for you. 

Be sure and check back next week! We'll be back from our Summer Hiatus and ready to rumble! Or grumble! Or . . . something.  ;-]