Death By Promotion: Getting Real About the Costs to Authors and Readers in the Current Marketing Environment
My name is Heidi Cullinan, and I’m here to write stories and publish books.
I’m not here to market. I’ll do a little of that because one must, because there is no cultural bulletin board right now my books can exist at, especially not mine as I’m a bit niche and still largely in my own pond. I strive to lift awareness of not just my work but works like mine, the whole LGBT romance pool, but even that is not the main purpose of why I’m here. I like to thank bloggers with ad purchases and guest posts and ARCs. I’ve made a forum for fans to chat, and if you link/@ reply me on social media and I’m able to see it, I’ll do my best to reply or at least like your post. I don’t buy reviews. I don’t ask people to buy books on a certain day at a certain hour at a certain place to game the system. I don’t send mass invites to “events” on Goodreads or Facebook. I don’t add people to newsletters who haven’t asked to be, and in fact I try to parcel out sub-newsletters for the truly die-hard to get ALL THE DEETS and those who just want release dates to not be spammed. I don’t cold-email other authors and ask them for pimpage or, even crazier, give them book recs. I don’t copy other people’s work because I can’t think of my own stories or hump sideways on someone else’s work because I’d sure like to scrape off some of their overflow. I don’t run around to ten million social media sites making sure I comment on every blog post, every review, every single mention of my work. I don’t join every new social media site and work up a huge presence there. I don’t stick my nose into reader conversations unless invited, and even if invited, sometimes I might decline. Because I’m a writer. I write books. I try to write a lot of books. That’s why I’m here. That’s what I do.
You would think, you really would, that such a declaration would be rather like stating the obvious. Except every goddamn day that passes, I feel more and more like the last unicorn, and even though I can’t find anyone actually turning the screws, I feel more and more pressure every day to market, promote, to be a flaming brand across the literary horizon. It’s killing me, and I think it’s eating a lot of our souls.
Once upon a time if you’d told someone all the nonsense that goes on in the book world right now, they would laugh and tell you that would never happen. But once upon a time, the world of publishing and the world of reading was a very different place. Seventeen years ago when I first began to say, out loud, that I wanted to be a published author, the road to that goal was straightforward and relatively simple. Write a book, submit it to an agent or publisher. It would take a long time to get one of those people to say yes, so you joined writing groups and RWA and SFWA and the like and attended conferences and kept trying. You improved your craft, you honed your skills, you did your time. Some people got lucky on one of their initial passes, but they never got it easy–everybody did their time one way or another. You hoped and dreamed of a nice midlist career, maybe even something a little shinier, but everybody knew you’d likely never quit your day job, and the sky was full of stars.
But that was 1997. The Internet was a thing college students and techie people did, and a few intrepid authors. There was no social media. As the century turned over we got Yahoo groups, which was definitely something, and ebooks showed up, but by and large the game was still the same. Getting published at all was a huge coup, and as houses combined and lines narrowed, new authors were chosen less and less. Promotion, if it happened at all, was cute. Maybe an author would get your name from some RWA list and mail you a bookmark. If you went to a convention you’d get some lip balm or a button, but none of this slick Vistaprint stuff and nobody had heard of Cafe Press. Mostly promo was books. Maybe you put an ad in RT. Probably your publisher did. Maybe, maybe you were big enough for a book tour, but that was rare. Promotion? Who has time for that? Who knows how to do that? Published authors were busy writing their next book, because my God, the publishers were cracking down! They wanted at least one a year. Who can possibly write that fast?
I’m not kidding. That was a big topic at an RWA national convention I went to in the early 00s. One book a year was killer pace. As Damon Suede says, feel that fact.
Now it is not 1997. Now it is 2014, and publishing is nothing like it used to be. On the one hand, readers have never had it so good. So many books. So many broken rules, so many bodices not just ripped off but chucked in the garbage because our heroines wear leather combat suits, baby, tits tucked safely away–except sometimes are heroines are taking a break because it’s two heroes on the scene, or the heroine is with two heroes, or another heroine, or there’s an orgy and orientation labels are so passé anyway, we just love and fuck who we want. Or there’s almost no sex and the heroine’s love is part of her faith in God. Or there’s not a lot of sex because she’s kicking demon ass and that takes work and time and sex is dangerous. EVERYTHING is here. Any and everything you could want to read. If not? Wait ten minutes. It’ll be up on Wattpad.
For authors? No more narrow path and gated door. Do we even want New York? Maybe, sometimes–but not always. Self-pub isn’t a mark of shame anymore, but an opportunity for those who know how to drive their own bus. For those of us who don’t even want to lift the hood, there are ten million small press, just like the old days, and odds are good if you sift through them eventually you can find one that fits your needs. Some even straddle the line between indie and NY like elegant rodeo riders. Some have forged new roads all on their own. The possibilities are endless for authors as well as readers. There’s almost no one left to tell us no.
But on the other hand. Holy shit, EVERYTHING IS HERE. The world of publishing is a big party, but three dance halls are competing and spilling drinks and lifting skirts not just to the knee but throwing off the whole kit and dancing naked saying LOOK AT ME I AM NAKED BUY MY SHIT. Everyone, everywhere, is trying to claim space, and readers wander around confused and helpless to figure out what’s going on. You can’t go to a bookstore, not was easily and not as well. You can’t read a bestseller list. You can’t even trust your Amazon recs—certainly you can’t trust Amazon bestseller lists, because they only report their sales and make no effort to hide the fact that they promote Amazon direct over traditional and small pubs. “Users also bought” isn’t bad. Goodreads is okay too–sometimes. For some people. Bloggers, thank God for bloggers, and friends who suggest recommendations. Unless your Goodreads/Facebook/Twitter notifications are awash with Who-The-Fuck-Are-You’s announcing Boring Book About Boringness, Part 6 is out! Which, they probably are.
The doors are wide open, which is great, but it’s terrible. Nobody can be heard, because we’re all shouting. And for the first time you don’t have to put in time to get a book into the world. All you have to be able to do is upload to some digital distribution service. You don’t have to proofread. You don’t have to edit. Granted, you probably won’t get a ton of sales, but to say “I am published” is easier than it has ever been.
Go to any dinner party and say you’re an author, and at least 50% of the room will tell you they too are writing a book, or thinking about it, and some weekend they’ll sit down and become Stephen King II. This is fine–it’s human nature. Everyone could be a teacher because they’ve been to school, everyone could be an author because they’ve read a book. But it used to be that if people tried to write a book they had to fight. And the truth is, that still happens, but the threshold guardian isn’t the agent/publisher: it’s the reader. Instead of ten million people trying to get through the door of publication, ten million—fuck, twenty—are exploding right into the reading pool. Everyone arrives expecting their wonderful work will by its inherent magic become a bestseller. Everyone arrives thinking “bestseller” means a quarter million dollars per book, per year. Everyone is shocked to discover getting your book into the hands of more than four readers takes work.
Some people see how much work is involved and quit–which is the same as the old days when they’d submit, get some rejections, and decide there are easier ways to make money and it’s just as fun to share stories with your friends alone. In many ways that path is a lot better than it’s ever been: some people never even try to get published. Some people simply want to share stories, and the Internet has a million was to do that. But not everyone gets off the road like that. A lot of people still want, really, really want to go all the way. And going all the way can happen. It takes skill, and it takes work, and it takes more than a little bit of controlled madness. There are so many better ways to make a living than being a published author. You have to love this nonsense to stick with the path that always aims at the brass ring of bestsellerdom. And it can be done. What you find is that you have to do more marketing and legwork than you want. You have to keep your ear to the ground and you have to balance the humors of paranoia and disinterest carefully. You have to work like a dog—you have to work so hard dogs wouldn’t do it, not for any master. You do it not for the glory but for some crazy love that smells of unwashed laundry and a garbage pail full of takeout.
But then there are the other people. They’re the people that used to have to redirect or give up because they couldn’t get over the door–or they had to grow up and learn to dance the dance the only way it was allowed. Now those rules are gone. Anything can be a book. And when it doesn’t magically become the Next Big Thing, some people don’t give up or alter their dream or knuckle down and put in their time. Some people decide they’re going to get that brass ring by absolutely any means necessary.
There’s a lot of psychological stuff that goes into writing, and a lot of people write for validation. Probably all of us do in some way. The world is a dark, angry, lonely place, and the only way to survive is to find something of meaning and cling to it. A lot of people decide that’s writing. A lot of people get the bit between their teeth and begin to feel they will only be okay if their work is celebrated publicly and with financial reward attached—significant financial reward, mind you. But some people, when the magic doesn’t happen, game the system. They buy reviews. They rig lists—or try to. I’m still not entirely sure that actually works. They spam people. They harass people. They fill every inch of the world with noise in the deluded belief that noise equals sales. My favorites are the blind recs of their own stuff on Goodreads or the Facebook launch invites. Really? Really? In all this noise you think simply waving your title in my face with a release date will make me buy it? Do you understand how many thousands of those I get a month? Do you know how many more legitimate recs I get from Amazon, Goodreads, Twitter, bloggers—in one day? What in the world could possibly make you, someone I’ve never heard of, click through just because you poked my ass? Some of you multiple times?
I’m a little lucky because the LGBT reader/author community is very tribal, and I don’t get much spam from that quarter. New authors are more likely to strike up a conversation with me and find common interest. On Twitter I’m more likely to meet authors from all over the map, and most people are incredibly cordial and friendly and professional. I have and do read new authors who I find personally charming. I absolutely run from those who come off as rabid squirrels. And you know what? This is all true of readers.
I will get more readers from writing an honest blog post than I ever will from blind-spamming people. The closest I come to that is buying ads on blogger websites. Here: my cover. Hot guys. Good logline. That’s marketing. That’s the cover, which the marketing team of my publisher worked on. That’s the logline I suggested and my editor and marketing tweaked. That’s the slick ad production by my publisher. It’s just sitting there, an invitation. With a click-through link. No pressure. Maybe the cover sticks in your head and after you see it for the fourth time you decide what the hell. Maybe you keep seeing ME and so you try me. Maybe you find me witty/funny/something on social media and you think, why not. That’s how I found one of my favorite authors, Neil Gaiman. I read his blog for years before I picked up a book. I figured, well, if I enjoy his blog so much, maybe I’ll like his work. It turned out that I did.
But I think sometimes there is too much social media. There is always another author group invitation, usually in six different social media sites. I get pressure every day from all kinds of people to promote other people’s work, usually people I don’t know. There’s a new social media site every day. There are people hawking their buy-a-review business and there’s stuff like this. For that last link she’s since added a retraction, and I totally applaud her for her professionalism and openness. I’ll tell you, though, that post still keeps me up at night. Because I know a she’s not the only person who feels/felt that way. I know that everywhere I go there are people who expect more of me as an author. I know this is just the thing that has floated to the surface, that beneath it everyone has an expectation of me as an author, of all authors, and I know who we have to blame.
Ourselves. We’ve all bought into this crazy-juice, we’ve all decided it’s okay for authors to never sleep and never engage unless it’s promotional and always be present on all the social medias all the time to see all the comments, to answer all the email and be at all the cons and still do enough outside things that we can post clever pictures to Instagram.
THIS IS MADNESS. We should stop. We should stop right now.
Authors, it’s okay to not promote all the time. It’s okay to say, “I’m really good at pinning, but that’s about it.” Go be a fucking fantastic pinner, and maybe work in a way to add some quotes from your book, or always post the cover art, or make your brand THAT, how well you use Pinterest. Maybe you are queen/king of Facebook or Tumblr. Maybe you write a great newsletter. Maybe you are so old school your schtick is that you write good books and that’s about it. Maybe you kill at the library. Maybe you ARE a book tour. What you aren’t, though, is Superman or Superwoman. What you are is human, and you need to sleep. Exercise. Do something that doesn’t have market value. More than once a month.
Readers actually don’t want us to be crazy. Oh, there are always some who truly are Annie Wilkes, but most readers only go there because we send out an invitation. Many, many readers just want more books and would prefer we shut up and wrote. All kinds of people love talking with us, but never at our expense, and they’d never want interaction to come at the expense of our sanity or family. Most readers are incredibly generous. Since I’ve begun blogging my food struggles, it’s become a thing to send me food in the mail or bring it to me at cons. People go out of their way to share recipes with me. They want to help. They love us, and they want to buy our books and just hang with us a bit.
I think as authors we have to start respecting that. In the same way we would tell close friends we’re too tired to see a movie, sometimes we need to say, “Hey, I gotta go dark for awhile.” We need to stop thinking that every action and every sentence is promotion. Well–it is, but we don’t have to promote all the time. Because the truth is nobody can be Stephen King or Nora Roberts. Not by work or design, and certainly not by losing our minds to marketing. We need to cop to some uncomfortable truths. What is a “good career” in publishing now is not what it used to be, and that’s not going to change. The waters are more diluted, which is fantastic for readers who want variety and bad for monopolizing focus and maximizing profit. It isn’t 1997, and it never will be again. That’s not even a good thing or a bad thing. It’s just truth, and it’s not going away.
I lost my shit this week when Facebook stopped letting me unfollow posts. It’s been hard push after hard push for over six months for me, and I keep trying to do things I don’t actually have the energy or focus to do. My health is fragile and I’m not managing it because I’m too busy trying to promote correctly, to be present and available, and it’s killing me, and it’s making me mentally unhealthy. Because Facebook took away the ability for me to not get notifications all day when someone tags me in a huge post or closed group, or at least made it difficult, and it made me lose my mind—and that’s not right. Or rather, that’s not the actual issue. It was the last straw, the one that made me nuts. It really wasn’t that big a deal, in hindsight. Twitter @ replies are kind of the same, but I like Twitter. Twitter doesn’t fuck with my head the way Facebook does. I’ve never liked Facebook, ever. I love the people, but the interface is bad for me. But all the data says people are there, not Twitter, so I felt compelled to go. I feel compelled to go EVERYWHERE, because I want to sell my books and take my career to the next level.
Except In a given day I receive 50-200 emails, personal and professional. I receive 15-50 notifications on Facebook, 20-100 on Twitter. When I actively pin or use Tumblr those notification numbers go up, but I don’t use them much so I’m pretty safe. When I instagram it’s one of my cats and I think I follow twice the people that follow me–and I think I follow 40 people. Or less. I forget. I have four Snapchat friends and all but one are related to me by blood. I made a forum so I could do concentrated promotion for fans–and I love it–and they help me by picking favorite quotes and giving me ideas and helping me brainstorm. There aren’t a ton of people there and we don’t post all the time. But all these things add up. All this noise is not writing. It might be promotion…but if I’m too stressed to write, if I’m too overwhelmed to work, if I can’t get my dishes done because I’m making sure nobody send me a PM on Goodreads—what is this all for?
I get caught up because I enjoy it. Sometimes I like to go pin stuff. I love reblogging stuff on Facebook. I absolutely worship at the altar of twitter. The problem is, when I show up on social media I haven’t exclusively reserved for personal use, I’m also engaging. I can’t ever let my hair down. If I pin something offensive, I could lose sales. If someone has sent me a message on Facebook and I read it, they will see that I’ve read it–damn your ass, Facebook–and if I don’t respond, they don’t necessarily know it’s because I was reading in the grocery store and now have to go to the doctor and when I get home there are fifty more emails. And they shouldn’t have to know that. It’s not a reader’s job to make my life easier. It’s mine to set boundaries, to make limits for myself and to protect my sanity and my work and my family.
So I’m trying something new. I took Facebook off my phone. Or rather, I logged into my personal account, not my professional one, and I shoved the app into the back forty on my home screens. I’m not allowed to go to either account but twice a day, and never on the fly unless I know I’m interacting with someone who doesn’t send email but only uses Facebook message. If I never pin or Tumble again it’s okay. If I blog once a month it’s okay. If I only read my email once a day unless I’m at a crisis moment of a project, it’s okay. It’s all okay, because what I need to do is write books. I keep Twitter open because I really, really love Twitter, but when I’m writing I close it. I might adjust my boundaries and change my own rules, but I’m setting them. I’m drawing a line in the sand, and if I miss an opportunity because I was protecting myself? So be it.
We all need to do this. Every author needs to be free to be sane. Every author should put creation over promotion. Every author needs to set their own scales of balance, but they need to be set and they need to be reassessed often. We need to trust that it’s better to promote our works with the same quality we create them—we need to get rid of the idea of quantity and omnipresence. We can’t be everywhere. We can’t do everything. We can’t be everything. In this new world of publishing, everything is possible, but runaway success is much less probable. We are more likely to alter those odds by writing more good works. Not by checking our Facebook notifications or posting another tweet.
My name is Heidi Cullinan, and I’m here to write stories and publish books. I think I’m going to have to tell myself this every day for six months to get it through my head, but I’m going to repeat my mantra, because I’m worth it, and so is my work, and so are my readers. Come back to the quiet corner with me, authors. The WiFi sucks, but man, the peace of mind can’t be beat.