Authors, Social Media and the Allure of Magical Thinking
So anyway, I’ve got a great idea. Times are hard for publishers, therefore publicists should write books. No, really: they know what’s hot better than anyone. So they should write—maybe Harry Potter knock—offs like Percy Jackson, or political hate books on the villain of the hour. It doesn’t matter—just write something hot. What’s that? Writing and promoting require entirely different skill sets? Boo-hoo. Publicists will have to adapt if they want to keep their jobs. Oh yeah, and they should do this extra work for free.
Does that sound ridiculous to you? That’s because it is—which is why I always feel slightly skeptical when I read editorials from publishing professionals exhorting writers to perform the reverse metamorphosis. Yes, these pieces are often very inspiring. Last week’s editorial by Betsy Lerner “Should I Tweet?” was excellent and contained much good advice. But to attain the right level of fist bumping feel-good magic, it is necessary to elide some inconvenient truths:
- Authors are often very weird people.
- As JG Ballard observed, authors are not only weird but can also be very boring.
- Authors may be naturally retiring souls and thus psychologically unable to puff their own (perhaps imagined) accomplishments.
- Most authors lack substantial media contacts.
- Authors may actually have jobs and children and thus not be able to take on a second, unpaid time-consuming job.
All of the above points are substantial obstacles faced by the author hopeful of mutating into a PR and communications professional.
Tough! It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, and authors must learn new tricks if they don’t want their books to die. And in fact, in spite of the six obstacles listed above, I agree. Publishers don’t do market research. Publicists are overworked and underfunded. Fido must learn to perform tasks for which nature never intended him. Walk on your hind legs, Fido! Dance, Fido!
Whoever said life was fair?
Social media, they say. Fine, but let us admit the pitfalls. Number one: social media are great enablers of the magical thinking that afflicts authors and publishers alike.
What do I mean? Well, consider the following essential truths about publishing: crap sells, except when it doesn’t. Quality never sells, except when it does. Good men die screaming in the gutter; the wicked flourish. To quote William Goldman: nobody knows anything. Given that we live in a state of total chaos, it is only natural that individuals study the chicken’s entrails for guidance. What’s that spelled out in the guts? Blogging! Facebook! Awesome! What could go wrong? Blogging is free, plus you can subvert the hierarchical media model and go direct to your readers. Wait for it, but here comes the magical thinking: Hey ma, lookit me! Any minute now I’m going to go viral and everybody’s going to buy my book!
It’s not only authors who entertain such dreams. Publishers do too. Actually, chances are that if you do write something that goes viral, it’ll be the blog itself, not your name or your book. People will read your masterpiece and a few seconds later click a link taking them to a Brazilian baby with amazing samba moves. Blink once, twice, your “viral” blog is forgotten. Believe otherwise and you are in for mucho disappointment.
Resist magical thinking.
Here’s something else rarely discussed in inspirational social media pieces: content. What, in fact, is the 21st century author-publicist cyborg supposed to blog/tweet/dribble about? After all, the life of most authors is mind-numbingly dull (got up, had a cup of coffee, surfed the web…). You can always bang on about books you’ve read, records you like, or slag off politicians — but this will work better if you are Neil Gaiman and have a devoted readership hungry for a sense of personal contact. It’s different if you are just some dude writing a book about (say) a hedgehog detective.
The truth is: good blogging is a skill to be acquired. I had no idea how to blog until I discovered Sunday Times journalist Bryan Appleyard’s Thought Experiments. This was a vehicle for all kinds of brilliant, whimsical, provocative ideas—fragments and sketches that wouldn’t have worked at his main newspaper gig. Appleyard’s blog was so good it spawned a cluster of similar minded sites written by his erudite and witty commenters (although he now seems to have hung up his blogging cape.)
Post-Appleyard I discovered I enjoy blogging more than straight journalism. But the results, as always, are impossible to predict. I’ve crafted some fine essays on serious topics that went completely unmolested by comments, while an interview with my own beard proved very popular. I was astonished when an interview I conducted with Robert Chandler, translator of the Soviet author Andrei Platonov—an acquired and rarefied taste for sure—briefly sent sales of Platonov shooting up the Amazon charts.
As for my books, I’ve no idea how many I’ve sold via all this work. Actually, I’ve pretty much forgotten that that was why I started doing it. I suspect that’s essential if you’re going to have any fun and attract any readers. Remember: the hard sell is TEDIOUS, friends.
But now we must address the third issue optimists conceal from the budding author-publicist. There are millions of unvisited blogs and Facebook pages out there. How do you draw attention to yours?
Of course, you can comment like crazy on other people’s blogs, spew links across the face of the Internet and so on. Good luck with that. I’d suggest joining a group blog, although these can be infested with political ranting or—if they are avowedly literary—somewhat prissy. Right or wrong (and probably wrong) the truth is that “old” media, (or mega blogs which have paid staff and function like old media) are still arbiters of quality, separating the wheat from the chaff. The world is what it is, so why seek to be deceived?
My Chandler/Platonov piece first appeared on the Guardian books blog. Had I published it at my other, more esoteric venue, I doubt it would have done as well. In America especially, credentials are important. Look at the author bios on the back of any recently published book and you’ll find a list of educational achievements and media/business contacts. These days even famous writers are unctuous apple polishers eager to please teacher.
But that’s how the world works. Thus I would recommend to anyone who thinks he can subvert the entrenched world of publishing from his laptop to resist such magical thinking and pitch some ideas at a few established venues. Fairly or unfairly, a few successes will add value to your other material.
But here too there are snares and traps. If you are an author who cares about prose and original ideas, you will find that journalism is an awkward beast. You need to think of the editor’s wants, his readership and advertisers. There is a danger you will lose what makes your writing unique. You will also find that editors are very conservative because they are scared of losing money and advertisers (I have baffled more than one editor with my attempts to get surrealism and death onto his or her lifestyle pages.) You may find yourself increasingly preoccupied with scoring commissions, and dreaming up blogs. Gradually you will dissolve into a cloud of disconnected, buzzing atoms, asking yourself, as Genghis Khan once did under different circumstances: where am I in this flux?
Oh, and did I mention it is badly paid?
Here, meanwhile, is another issue: if I write about X, will it sell Y? Possibly not. Consider James Delingpole whose anti-climate change blogs at the Daily Telegraph score literally millions of hits. Does he have millions of readers for his Coward series of WW II novels? No—although on balance his high profile surely helps rather than hinders him. However Financial Times journalist Gautam Malkani’s novel Londonstani debuted in a blizzard of hype; he enjoyed massive book tours across Europe, and the US; and at the end of the day the book sold very poorly regardless.
My biggest publicity coup came last year, when I sent my book Lost Cosmonaut to Greg Gutfeld, host of Fox News’ 3 a.m. show Red Eye. I did it on a whim, expecting nothing. Two days later he called me and I was subsequently invited on the show twice to talk about both Lost Cosmonaut and its mutant sibling Strange Telescopes. This happened because Gutfeld is an anarchic, unpretentious, creative man who more or less does as he pleases. My (excellent) publicist immediately sent the video clips (clip 1, clip 2) to The Late Late Show, since—like the host Craig Ferguson—I am a Scotsman living in America and I know how to crack wise in public. The emails, no doubt, died in the inbox of a 22 year old sub-sub-sub producer hoping to book Rascal Flatts. However following my Red Eye appearances something remarkable happened: I received financial statements for the US edition of Lost Cosmonaut, which had suddenly started selling after being abandoned under some rocks in the desert (sorry, I mean published) a few years earlier.
The best way to use social media is to view them not as a mystical cure for what ails publishing, or a magic sales tool, but rather as another outlet for creative energy and a more immediate means of interacting with your readers. Make sure that whatever you do, you enjoy it. That way you’re less likely to burn out over the long haul. Last weekend for instance, I completely redesigned my article archive. I did it because I view my website as an aesthetic object and also because I wanted to make it easier for readers to access my work.
Afterwards I realized the improved interface would be useful when pitching articles. My brother works in communications, and has been urging me to create a Facebook page for months. I will, but primarily to create a central hub for my scattered incidental writing so that readers can access it more easily. If it helps promotion, good, but first I think about the writing and the readers—because that, after all, is why I got into the bizarre and dysfunctional business of writing books in the first place.
First published at Publishing Perspectives