Recently, I read an article in The New York Times called “How Writers Build the Brand.” It begins,
“As every author knows, writing a book is the easy part these days. It’s when the publication date looms that we have to roll up our sleeves and tackle the real literary labor: rabid self-promotion.”
My friends who are writers seem to fall into two categories when it comes to self-promotion. Some of them enjoy it and do it almost instinctively. Some of them, the majority, seem to dislike it. I was talking to a friend recently and said to him, “If you’re serious about a writing career, you need to actually work on it. How do you think you might do that?” He said, “I don’t know, write more?” I think many writers believe that: if they simply write more, submit more, the writing career will come. But the friends of mine who actually have writing careers don’t do that – or not just that. They do in fact write more, but they are also the ones who publicize themselves and their work.
The article goes on to say,
“In this era when most writers are expected to do everything but run the printing presses, self-promotion is so accepted that we hardly give it a second thought. And yet, whenever I have a new book about to come out, I have to shake the unpleasant sensation that there is something unseemly about my own clamor for attention. Peddling my work like a Viagra salesman still feels at odds with the high calling of literature.”
I think many writers dislike publicizing themselves for two reasons. The first is that they are genuinely introverts, and publicizing yourself takes different skills than just writing. Skills that don’t necessarily come easily to introverts. When you publish a book or story, you put your work out there. It’s in the public sphere, but any response you get will be to the work, and it will be indirect. Your work will be reviewed, commented on, but you will not necessarily see those responses unless you seek them out. And they will not be about you. When you publicize yourself, the response will be direct and it will be to you. If you do a reading, people will come or not, laugh or not, applaud or not. When you join facebook or twitter, people will decide whether or not to friend or follow you. When you write a blog, they will decide whether or not to read what you have to say, and they will comment. When you write a book or story, the response cycle will take six months to a year. When you write a blog post, the response cycle will take a day.
For someone who’s an introvert (which, by the way, I am), it’s difficult to make yourself and your life so public. Perhaps it’s less difficult for me, because a long time ago I decided that when something scared me, I was going to do it, on principle. That gives me practice.
The second reason is that we’re taught there is something unseemly about publicizing yourself. This comes from the days when writers were ladies and gentlemen – indeed, writing was one of the few ways a lady could make serious money while remaining respectable. We like to think of writing as a high calling. Which is why it’s good to read an article like this one, in which the author tells us,
“In such moments of doubt, I look to history for reassurance. It’s always comforting to be reminded that literary whoring — I mean, self-marketing — has been practiced by the greats.”
You see, the great writers have always publicized themselves. As the article tells us,
“Hemingway set the modern gold standard for inventive self-branding, burnishing his image with photo ops from safaris, fishing trips and war zones. But he also posed for beer ads. In 1951, Hem endorsed Ballantine Ale in a double-page spread in Life magazine, complete with a shot of him looking manly in his Havana abode. As recounted in ‘Hemingway and the Mechanism of Fame,’ edited by Matthew J. Bruccoli and Judith S. Baughman, he proudly appeared in ads for Pan Am and Parker pens, selling his name with the abandon permitted to Jennifer Lopez or LeBron James today. Other American writers were evidently inspired. In 1953, John Steinbeck also began shilling for Ballantine, recommending a chilled brew after a hard day’s labor in the fields. Even Vladimir Nabokov had an eye for self-marketing, subtly suggesting to photo editors that they feature him as a lepidopterist prancing about the forests in cap, shorts and long socks. (‘Some fascinating photos might be also taken of me, a burly but agile man, stalking a rarity or sweeping it into my net from a flowerhead,’ he enthused.) Across the pond, the Bloomsbury set regularly posed for fashion shoots in British Vogue in the 1920s. The frumpy Virginia Woolf even went on a ‘Pretty Woman’-style shopping expedition at French couture houses in London with the magazine’s fashion editor in 1925.”
I want to find that fashion shoot! According to the article,
“But the tradition of self-promotion predates the camera by millenniums. In 440 B.C. or so, a first-time Greek author named Herodotus paid for his own book tour around the Aegean. His big break came during the Olympic Games, when he stood up in the temple of Zeus and declaimed his ‘Histories’ to the wealthy, influential crowd. In the 12th century, the clergyman Gerald of Wales organized his own book party in Oxford, hoping to appeal to college audiences. According to ‘The Oxford Book of Oxford,’ edited by Jan Morris, he invited scholars to his lodgings, where he plied them with good food and ale for three days, along with long recitations of his golden prose. But they got off easy compared with those invited to the ‘Funeral Supper’ of the 18th-century French bon vivant Grimod de la Reynière, held to promote his opus ‘Reflections on Pleasure.’ The guests’ curiosity turned to horror when they found themselves locked in a candlelit hall with a catafalque for a dining table, and were served an endless meal by black-robed waiters while Grimod insulted them as an audience watched from the balcony. When the diners were finally released at 7 a.m., they spread word that Grimod was mad – and his book quickly went through three printings.”
Did you think we had invented publicity? A hundred years before Anne Rice went to signings in a coffin, the actress Sarah Bernhardt was sleeping and being photographed in one.
Why do writers do such mad, bad things, all to publicize their work? Because writers, and I mean great, dedicated, innovative writers (like the above), don’t care about being safe or genteel. If they did, they wouldn’t write the way they do. They care about their work, about making it the best it can be and getting it before an audience. The popular counter-example is of course J.D. Salinger. Who, intentionally or not, came up with the best publicity stunt of all by refusing to publish and becoming a hermit for thirty years. That sort of stunt works best when you have already been on the cover of Time Magazine.
Ultimately, if you’re a writer, how much to publicize yourself is your decision. But I will be blunt: the friends of mine who have writing careers, actual careers rather than simply writing, publicize themselves and their work continually, almost without thinking about it, as though the publicity were simply part of the job. As, nowadays, it is.
(I consulted the magic of the internet, but found only a photograph of Virginia Woolf that had supposedly appeared in Vanity Fair:
For the record, if Vanity Fair ever wants to photograph me, even in this unflattering sort of get-up, I’m available.)