Subterranean Press Magazine: Fall 2010
Article: Notes from the Underground #2: How Not to Market Your Work, by Kelley Armstrong
There was a time when I believed that the sole job of a novelist was to write books. If they were good and they were marketable, they would sell.
Then my first novel came out and this person called my publicist gave me things called interviews and readings. The former required me to speak to people, which is bad enough, but the latter actually required me to speak in front of multiple people. I wondered what I’d done to piss off my publisher so much that they’d resort to torture so early in our relationship.
I’m a writer for a reason—it’s the way I communicate best. The temptation, then, was to bow out of these speaking things. Sorry, I can’t do that interview. Can’t give that reading. Can’t speak at your library. Can’t sit on panels at your convention. Trust me, everyone will be much happier if I just stay at home and cultivate my aura of authorial mystery.
Except, well, as good as my in-house publicists are, they can’t do these events for me. If I skip them, people may not hear about my books. And unless I can conjure up bookstore poltergeists, name-recognition is the best way to make my novels leap off the crowded genre shelf and into a readers’ hand.
So yes, I promote. A dirty word for some authors, but that’s a topic for another column. The point is that I’m not nearly as freaked out by the concept these days, at least not if “promotion” means penning a free online story or sitting on a convention panel with authors who make me fan-girl squee.
Writers who do promote will inevitably find themselves on marketing panels. After participating in yet another of these, I was having dinner with a group of authors and someone said, “You know what we really need? A panel on how not to market your work.” Conversation turned to horror stories of promotion gone awry, and instances where novelists would have been better off staying in their writing caves.
While there are extroverts in this profession, most of us are introverts. Yet we’re tossed into the world, with no media or public speaking training, and expected to dazzle prospective readers with our wit. Not surprisingly, accidents happen. Terrible, highway speed accidents that capture the attention of readers and writers everywhere.
So I’m going to steal that fellow author’s idea and give this “panel” myself. Here are just a few ways authors can shoot themselves in the foot. If you’re an aspiring novelist, these may be tips to keep in mind for your big literary debut. If you’re a reader, perhaps I can help you understand what went wrong and forgive the author left bleeding on the roadside.
Resist the Urge to Respond Publicly to Criticism
So you finally get your novel published. You find it on Amazon, proudly check the reviews and see… One star? Seriously? Okay, the book isn’t perfect, but one star? And the review… Grade school writing? Lame characterization? Ludicrous plot? The reviewer can’t understand why this dreck got published, when there are excellent novels that don’t—Ah-ha. Clearly this reviewer is a bitter unpublished writer, so you’ll use that handy comment space to say so and point out all the good reviews your book—
Step away from the keyboard.
Seriously, anything you say in that space will not be a good marketing move. At best, you’ll look like a deluded diva who thinks her books are perfect. At worst you’ll look like a demented harpy, hovering over Amazon, waiting to screech at critics.
Not everyone will like your book. Some just won’t care for it. Some will hate it. That’s a given. All classic literature has one-star Amazon reviews. All genre fiction does, too. You can take it personally or you can say “Apparently I didn’t write the kind of book this person wanted to read” and leave it at that. My personal favorite is a one-star review from a reader who liked my novel well enough, but felt the need to complain, at length, about the fact that I don’t depict my werewolves having sex in wolf form. A valid complaint, if that’s your thing. It’s not mine.
So why do authors get so worked up over bad reviews? Think of it this way. Where you work, you may get an annual performance evaluation. You’re called into a closed-door meeting where your evaluation is discussed with your immediate supervisor. Now imagine if you walked into work to see that evaluation posted next to the reception desk. Would the criticism sting worse? Would you feel a greater need to defend yourself against it?
Reviews are an author’s annual performance evaluation made public. Bad ones sting. We can tell ourselves that the good ones should balance it, but somehow, that logic never works. The best we can do is try to manage the hurt privately, assimilate any constructive criticism, vent to those we trust, and move on.
Your Fellow Authors are Not Competitors or Stepping Stones
Writing is a very solitary profession. Conferences and conventions may be our best chance to meet others who can understand the angst and anguish of a twenty page edit letter for what we thought was our best novel yet.
At these events, you may meet another writer who loves your books. Really loves them. Her first novel is coming out soon and she’s super excited and super nervous. Would you have time for a coffee? Sure, you understand what she’s going through and you’re happy to help.
So you go to coffee and have a nice chat. A week later, you get a package from the newbie’s editor. Hi, my newbie author met you at convention X. As you know, her first novel is coming out soon. I’ve enclosed a copy. We’d love it if you could offer a few words for the cover…
Um, no. Not only “no,” but you’ve pissed me off, newbie author. I was happy to donate some free time to making your debut less stressful, but it turns out you didn’t want my advice. You were only cozying up to ask for a bigger favor. And the sad part? Had you stopped before the coffee invitation—just introduced yourself and told me about your book—I’d have read your manuscript. But no one wants to feel like they were used, authors included.
At these conventions, you may meet another type of author. The whiner. Can you believe he hit the New York Times? She got a major deal? He got a movie offer? She won an award? There are such better and more deserving authors out there. Like me.
The first situation I understand. Some agents and editors tell their authors to cozy up to big names for quotes. The second one confounds me. Bitching about another author’s success always looks like sour grapes. And their success doesn’t impede yours. In fact, it might help.
Sure, Steig Larsson has been taking up a lot of real estate on the bestseller lists and in the bookstores lately. So did Stephenie Meyer before him and Dan Brown before her. But how many people who hadn’t read a book in years picked up theirs, discovered this reading stuff is kinda fun, and went in search of more?
I’ve only encountered one instance where another author’s book prevented a sale of mine. I was doing school visits in Vancouver, and one pre-teen girl told me that my young adult series sounded really good, but she doesn’t read anything except Twilight, because that would be like cheating on Edward. I think (hope… pray…) that’s an extreme and extremely rare example. Far more common are those like the woman I met while signing stock in Ottawa. She had two toppling stacks of YA novels on the counter, and was asking the clerk for more recommendations. Her daughter had just finished the Twilight series and they were the first books she’d ever read cover-to-cover. Now her mom was spending hundreds of dollars on anything remotely Twilight-esque in hopes of keeping her daughter hooked on reading.
Anything that helps the genre helps all books in the genre. Other authors are your colleagues, not your competitors and not your stepping stones. Support them and treat them as co-workers, and you’ll reap far more benefits than if you cut them down or climb on their backs.
Remember That Readers Pay Your Bills
Being a full-time novelist is a dream for most writers. If we achieve that goal, it is thanks to our readers. And we’d damned well better remember it.
I’ve been on “what do authors owe their readers” panels, and my answer is simple. We owe them our respect. That doesn’t mean we need to write the stories they demand. It doesn’t mean we need to miss a deadline to answer reader email. It means that if we walk into a signing and see a lineup, we should thank God we have such devoted readers, not grumble to the store staff. Or call our publicist and refuse to stay more than an hour. Or respond to reader conversation attempts with a brusque “there are others waiting.” These are all tales I’ve heard, sometimes about more than one author. Readers, store staff, publicists and media escorts all tell stories of authors behaving badly. That’s not good publicity.
What is good publicity? Stories of authors behaving graciously and generously. These stories are passed along with equal fervor. Like the one about a Toronto signing Anne Rice did years ago, where she refused to leave until every book was signed, even for those who didn’t have wristbands. Or another, about Sherrilyn Kenyon who—when the store closed before she was finished—signed books on the curb out front. Those are the authors I have enormous respect for. The other ones? I’ll guarantee you I’ve never bought or recommended their books since.
Only the biggest selling authors may ever face the problem of long lineups, but for the rest of us, if we have any online presence or an accessible email address, we’ve encountered readers whose comments beg for a response that is…less that respectful.
In the early days, I showed off my werewolf-worthy snapping and snarling in my online forum a few times. I realized it made me look bad and vowed to stop. So when I got emails—like one beginning “I saw that in your acknowledgements you thanked readers for their positive and encouraging messages, so I wanted to let you know how much I hated your book”—I answered with mock-polite sarcasm. A slight improvement over snarling, but not exactly taking the high road.
I’ve since realized that some emails can go unanswered. Like the occasional ones from readers who discover I’m Canadian and email to rant about the evils of my socialist country. Or the one about a character who was dealing with past sexual abuse, which prompted a tirade about how it was “only rape” and “not like she’d really been hurt or anything.” I figure if I could delete that last one without responding—or, at least, without mailing my response—I have my temper pretty much under control. “Pretty much” being the key phrase there. Poke me hard enough and I’ll still snarl, but I’ll take time to think about it first and decide whether it’s really worth it. Sometimes it is.
So those are a few simple guidelines for avoiding trouble when we authors venture from our writing caves. Simple stuff, isn’t it? Kindergarten rules, really. Mind your temper and treat others with respect.
Yet accidents still happen. We’re human. We screw up. I’ve screwed up. If you make a misstep, accept the blame and move forward. If you’re a reader and a favorite author screws up, but gets back on track, I hope you’ll forgive them. I’m sure you will. As much as we all like to watch a train-wreck, we love redemption stories even more.
Until next time, happy reading and happy writing!