Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Be a tortured artist, but don't be a spoiled writer.

You’ve written the book, and it’s good. It’s even published—whether by you or by a traditional publisher—and now you want people to read it.

But you don’t really want to have to think about how to GET them to read it, because you’re not a publicist or a marketer—you’re a writer. You spend minutes, many of them, searching for the perfect word (Work? no…Toil? nooope…Labor? yes! labor!). You craft your sentences with purpose, intentionally choosing words with a certain number of syllables (and maybe some assonance, too), and you place your commas (or refrain from placing them at all) very deliberately, all of it working together to draw the reader into the scene or the narrator’s mind and mood. You’ll even spend days—days!—pondering a character’s name—Paulo? Chadwick III? Bob?—until you find the perfect fit for your protagonist’s second cousin. How could you, an artist, be asked to—*choke*—sell your own books?

I say this in the nicest possible way: get over yourself.

Writing (or, writing well) is indisputably an art form, and serious writers do, in fact, spend a lot of time—and for good reason—trying to find the right word, the right name, the right way to pull a reader into the life of the character. It’s hard work, it’s artistic work, and it’s beautiful and fulfilling and infuriating work. But why should any of this excuse you from being responsible for selling it?

It would be grand to be the kind of writer whose books publishers spend millions advertising, reviewers scramble to read, and celebrities carry around like teacup Chihuahuas. But very few writers are that fortunate, and in fact, even bestsellers have to do some selling. John Grisham makes irregular appearances on talk shows, James Frey had to do all kinds of interesting things to sell his book before, during, and after his appearances on Oprah, and even J.K. Rowling has to do book signings.

“Yeah, but that’s all fun stuff,” you say.

Maybe to you. Maybe not to someone else. But like it or not, it and other marketing tasks are part of the process: 1. You write the book 2. you publish the book, and 3. you believe in the book enough to try to sell it by creating a blog, writing to reviewers and radio programs and local newspapers, making a website, being an active online participant wherever readers hang out, contacting local book stores for signings or possible book club inclusion, etc.

There are probably many musicians who would rather rely only on studio-produced CDs to make all their money for them—can you imagine performing the same show over and over again, or singing a song on a morning program, one you’ve already sung (and heard) three hundred times, or answering silly questions about your hair color or choice of T-shirts for snippet interviews in entertainment magazines? They do it because they’re taking an active role in getting their music to their audience. They have to. If they want people to listen to it, they can’t just make a CD in their home studio and then stare at it and wait for people to find out about it by magic.

I know it would be a lot more fun as a writer to snack on ideas and sneeze witticisms all day long, but unless you have the cash to hire a publicist, or unless you truly are content to simply produce written work without trying to sell it—and many are; there’s nothing wrong with it—you’ll very likely have to play an active role in promoting your own work.

You’ll get no argument from me that it’s almost impossible to balance marketing and the kind of creativity that lends itself to writing. So, if you want your writing to sell, simply manage your time. Write for a week, and then market for a week. (For example.)

“I’m not a marketer, I’m an artist” may have worked back when publishers were not only releasing fewer books, but releasing fewer ready-made bestsellers written by (or ghostwritten for) famous people. The times they have a-changed—yank out the cob pipe, wash your hair, and put on an energetic—and often exhausting—“I’m fabulous!” smile and stand behind your work instead of hiding inside of it.

- Lyla P.

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