Today I had lunch with a fellow author, Ellen. Her book will be published next September, and she is dreading the promotional activities that will be expected of her. She wants to stay at home and write. I want to stay at home and write, too. So did Dickens and Twain, and probably William Shakespeare. With the exception of Emily Dickinson, there’s always a public face on a writer, but nowadays, writers are being bullied and frightened by their Facebook pages and email, which confidently announce the “Seven things you need to do to be a successful writer” or “20 ways to attract readers” and on and on. By now, the litany of promotional activities is familiar — do guest posts on blogs, go to writers conferences, blog regularly, keep up your website, engage online in various ways with other writers and readers, always offering a service to them instead of expecting something of them. It has become so much blah blah blah, and frankly, none of those things is notably successful in raising book sales (though I must admit that radio interviews have been).
What have other authors done? Dickens and Twain spent years of their lives lecturing, traveling on dusty trains or stagecoaches or whatever was the transportation of the day. It must have been exhausting, but they made a lot of money that way, and they were also prolific writers. Doing a reading in a bookstore that is likely to net you perhaps 20 sales does not inspire the kind of effort these two titans put into their public appearances, unless you like that sort of thing (I like that sort of thing). You can count on one hand the interviews that Cormac McCarthy has given, yet he admits that privacy led to poverty. Self-help authors spend time engaging with the public they are trying to help. Their blogs and websites are troves of information on whatever expertise they have written about, and this engagement can lead to greater sales, of course.
Our culture rewards writers who also have a savvy marketing sense. The tales of millions of dollars made by creating 9-second Youtube videos or serviceable blogs act as bludgeons on the author who does not care to spend the kind of time necessary to achieve overnight internet success. The closest we are coming to allowing writers to stay home and write is the traditional publishing route, where promotion, getting book reviews, booking appearances on radio and tv, etc. are done by publicity professionals employed by the publisher. Traditionally published authors say that much of the publicity even for traditional publishers must be done by the author, but self-published authors also spend hours and hours every week on their social media, yet the top selling books of 2014 were all published by traditional publishers. They must have an edge somehow.
In my opinion, writers should be discerning about how much time they spend doing the “7 [or 5, or 20] things you need to do to be a successful writer.” The best sales tool is word of mouth, and that takes some time to develop. We cannot allow ourselves to be bludgeoned by the naif who tells us how much money can be made on Facebook or Twitter or LinkedIn or Youtube, or even our own websites. The first thing a writer has to do is write, and if you did all seven [or 20] things, and did them well, you’d never finish that next book.
This is an age-old story, but today I’m feeling prickly about having to submit to lectures from people who do not realize how much time it takes to create a decent blog post, or to find the place on the almost-infinite internet where you can approach book clubs, or bookstores, or reviewers, or readers. It makes a person want to go inside and lock the door and just write.