I’m pissed as I write this. Not Brit-pissed (it’s morning and I’m at a coffee shop so… not likely) but American-pissed. Royally.
A writer-friend of ours posted an adorable family photo on social. Cute and casual. In it, one of the family members was reading a well-known and beloved children’s book. But after a handful of “This is adorable!” comments, someone (another writer-dude) put up a comment that basically said, “My new book such-and-such is better than this book for reasons XY&Z.”
And I’m all like, WTF???
After biting back the urge to call him out right then and there (which would only further ruin the post of the adorable family pic), I tried to figure out why in God’s name someone might do this. If it was an ill-advised attempt at humor, I could semi-sorta get it, I guess. Maybe. (As John Scalzi points out, the failure mode of “clever” is “asshole.”) But there was zero humor in it—this was just a blatant attempt by the dude to insert a plug for his book into a decidedly non-business post. (And slamming someone else’s much-loved book in the process, no less.)
This is by no means the only case. You’d be hard pressed on any given day to read a popular article in School Library Journal or Publishers Weekly and not see someone blurt out in the comments, apropos nothing at all, “My book ‘Three Ways to Trim Your Nose Hair’ is available on Kindle now!!!”
Look, I get it. Publishing is a tough business, maybe more so these days than ever. It’s no longer enough to just write something other people want to read. An author is also expected to do a lot of the publicity for their own work. (Which we’ll address in a future post.) And of course the rise of social media has magnified this paradigm by a thousand. And for those writers who are their own publisher, they’re solely responsible for virtually all of the publicity, sales, and marketing of their work. All while seeing what their peers are doing to try and sell their books. And of course, most of the writing “news” that other authors post is heavily weighted toward the relatively-rare good news about book deals and best-seller status and awards, etc., further fueling the FOMO flames licking at indie authors’ backsides.
So yeah, I get the pressure to keep up with whoever you imagine is your competition. (Tip: It’s actually not anyone else at all. It’s you.)
But don’t do it! Three reasons…
1. It’s just wrong. That’s reason enough right there. Friends don’t spam friends. Or see them as “sales opportunities.” Or piggyback onto their popular posts which have nothing to do with their book whatsoever. Or hijack a congratulatory comment thread about someone getting a nice promotion within the publishing industry. Or in any way insert themselves where they’re not invited.
2. It doesn’t work. Consider the goal of all this desperate spamming: in theory, it’s to generate sales. So, in an insanely reductive fashion, some writers think the answer is simply to shout “Buy my book!” as loudly and as often as possible. But, as should be intuitively obvious to even the most casual observer (my dad’s favorite phrase when I didn’t get something), this is so wrong-headed as to be laughable. Because—at some level--all business is personal. We tend to give our business to those we like and avoid giving it to those we actively dislike. Duh.
So don’t make us actively dislike you. Double duh.
It’s sort of like literary cat-calling. With the same results. (Like, when in the history of humankind has it ever worked for some knuckle-dragging loser to whistle at a woman in the street and yell lewd suggestions at her? Spoiler alert: Never.) Same with hijacking a thread to blurb your book. It’s an absolute failure path. It’s even worse—career-wise—than doing nothing, because besides (1) alienating your few remaining friends and (2) actively discouraging people from buying your book, there’s the added problem of...
3. It kills your rep within the industry. What do you think an agent or editor or publisher will think of you when they see you trying to hawk your book in the middle of someone else’s affair like a drunk uncle trying to convert everyone to his politics at Thanksgiving? Yup, pretty much exactly that—they’ll tag you as a flaming ass-wipe, to be avoided at all costs.
Similar to cat-calling, it shouts from the literary rooftops: I’m desperate, I’m self-centered, I’m driven by peer pressure, and I have no clue how real human interaction works!
So, what should we do to engage potential readers in the online sphere?
For starters, try to act like you’d want a guest to act if they were invited into your home: Be kind, be thoughtful, and above all resist the urge to see every conversation as an opportunity to sell yourself or your product.
Try to be the best version of your writing self. Consider the following…
Recommend other authors’ books. Everyone (every reader, at least) loves honest book recommendations. But we automatically discount anyone who recommends their own book, for reasons that should be obvious by now.
Signal boost worthy people and causes (without getting all didactic, hateful, or preachy, because who likes that?). Like the above, we want to learn about good people and good causes, as long as there’s no conflict of interest and we’re not being spoken down to or lectured.
Try to give helpful tips to fellow writers. Because it’s a nice thing to do. Because helping others succeed doesn’t hurt your own chances one bit. Because it increases ‘community’ and decreases ‘competition’ among writers. And because freely offering something of value (as opposed to “buy my book!”) is how you garner honest engagement.
Be an inspiration, not a frustration. Have you noticed how, with some people, you usually feel better after reading their posts? (Maybe grateful, maybe inspired, or maybe just lifted by a smile or a chuckle?) And with others, most of the time it leaves you either bummed or annoyed or demotivated?
So… which of the above feelings do you want others to associate with you?
Try to be that.
This is where I write about things that are of interest to me and which I think may be of interest to you. I’m assuming most of you are here due to an interest in reading, writing, editing, publishing, etc., so that’s the primary focus.