As you may have heard, Thomas Pynchon’s new novel INHERENT VICE was published last week, which is newsworthy for many reasons, but my favorite tidbit is that the notoriously publicity-shy Pynchon actually lent his voice to his book trailer and provided a playlist of songs for Amazon. It is indeed 2009. But other than these activities Pynchon is remaining completely out of sight as he has for virtually all of his life — there are hardly even any photographs of him.
This got me thinking about a perpetual debate among authors and publishing types: Can you be “just an author” these days, pecking away at a typewriter in a basement somewhere but otherwise completely eschewing publicity and remaining out of the public eye, Salinger- and Pynchon-style, writing in a bubble-like Platonic ideal of authordom?
I think a few authors can probably pull it off, particularly those who are already established. But it’s increasingly rare for authors breaking into the business.
Every author is a product of their time and had to deal with the realities and constraints of their publishing industry. Hemingway found his way to publication in part because he knew the right people (namely F. Scott Fitzgerald), and his success owed a great deal to his larger than life stature, a literary self-promotional archetype dating back to Byron and beyond. Herman Melville became famous because he wrote travelogues about far flung locales during a time when technology and trade was opening up the world, then crashed and burned when he tried to write novels about silly things like white whales, which didn’t even sell through its 3,000 print run.
I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the authors we most associate with seclusion and anonymity became popular in the late ’50s and ’60s, the time when counterculture and anti-establishment sentiment was running highest. Let’s face it – Pynchon and Salinger are some of our best writers, but the whole seclusion thing just added to their mystique and cred during a time when a popular phrase was “Turn on, tune in, drop out.” Pynchon and Salinger mastered the “drop out” part.
But setting aside what was true in the past, can an author today expect that they can write in, drop out and leave the publicity to the publisher?
As we all know, these are tough times for the publishing industry yada yada yada. Sure, publishers are buying fewer books, but they also have to make difficult decisions about which books will receive precious marketing dollars and the all-important “push” that can make the difference between obscurity and bestsellerdom. How do they make these decisions?
Often they go for bang for the buck. And one of the best ways to get bang for the buck is to start with an author who is doing everything they can to help out with publicity, thus multiplying the publisher’s efforts.
As Lisa McMann’s interview from a year ago describes, she received a push and lead-title status from her publisher for her novel WAKE in large part because of her self-marketing efforts. And, sure enough, WAKE wound up on the bestseller list.
This creates a self-perpetuating cycle. Authors who have platforms and who are savvy with their web presence and who are professional and composed and plugged into the industry have a better shot at receiving promotional dollars and marketing pushes from their publishers. Sure, there are exceptions, and let me state loud and clear that writing a great book is the most important thing.
But still, all things being equal, the edge goes to the plugged-in author. Take it from a real life sales assistant at a major publisher: they want you doing stuff. We can debate whether this is the best strategy or how many books blogs actually sell or whether this system is right or wrong until we’re hoarse, but the fact is: this is the way the business is right now.
And I don’t think it’s a coincidence.
Melville lived in a time when the world was physically opening up due to inventions like steam power, Hemingway and Fitzgerald lived in a time when radio and movies were helping create global celebrities, and Pynchon and Salinger became popular during a time of discontent and the rise of a powerful counterculture.
We live in a networked time. The Internet is quickly organizing itself into tribes of far-flung, plugged-in, like-minded individuals and shaping how we learn about the stories we consume. Popular books from THE SHACK to TWILIGHT spill out of highly devoted and connected small groups who then spread their passion to the population at large. The authors who engage their audience and inspire devoted clans of fans have a leg up over those who sit back and let the publisher take care of that whole promotional thing or who hope lightning will strike on its own.
There’s no such thing as “just an author” anymore, and I suspect there never was.
Just remember: even Cormac McCarthy went on Oprah.
Nathan, so bizarre, as I was reading the post the words "even Cormac McCarthy went on Oprah" popped into my head. And then I got to your last line. Coincidence or psychic connection?
Nathan Bransford says
The latter. We are networked by brain!!
Sonia Ayoub says
But Oprah's not returning my calls
Well … when you make it back, Nathan, you really make it back.
I was at the Willamette Writers conference last weekend, and some fellow writers and I had a good chat about brand equity.
The basic formula: An author is a type of brand, and a brand needs equity, and you can't build equity without marketing. (To put it in 2009 bizspeak.)
It's hard to write a book, and harder still to get it noticed when it's competing for attention against thousands of other books. So Willy Loman was right: It's contacts, Biff, contacts!
Any author who wants to be successful (and that's a truism, right?) ought to keep that in mind.
Ryan Potter says
Thanks for this Nathan. As a soon-to-be published first-time author (novel release in early 2010), I'm learning first-hand just how important it is to be doing all that I can from the promotional end.
In fact, I just posted a blog entry on this same topic less than 5 hours ago!
As you imply, the marketing and publishing edge goes to the author willing to get out there, but some writers feel the writing edge stays sharper by staying at their desk and off the phone. I suppose it's rare for writers to be totally reclusive, but it seems pretty common still, if less common, for writers to prioritize the work over selling a public persona and even over selling their work. Among my small collection of literary autographs is a letter from one of my favorite writers declining my request for an interview because she "just didn't have time." (I wasn't asking just as random fan — I had actual press credentials, and she would have gotten legitimate publicity.) Her publisher probably hates decisions like that, but I definitely love the work she produces.
When my agent signed me she visited my blog and was thrilled to see that I was, to quote her, "young and cute." Perks when writing for teens, apparently. The day of the invisible author truly is over, as you said.
And frankly, I think it's exciting. I look at authors like John Green, who manage to build entire communities of like-minded fans, and it's genius. A lot of work, but the idea of books connecting people like that is a wonderful thing.
I don't know. I don't go on author blogs anymore. When I do, I'm disappointed. When I read a book, I want to read a book — not have the author's real life persona popping into my head.
Using John Green, as someone above me stated, as an example — It's made me stop reading his books. Because after reading his blog I came to realize his main characters were Gary Stus. Seeing the writer in their work exposes the machinery of it and makes me not care. But it's not just John Green, it's many other authors as well.
Book tours, signings, or reading reviews, sure. I'm all for it. But a daily presence of needing people to think you are funny/brilliant/profound, through blogging, twittering, and a round robin of every moment of your life being recorded for all of the internet to witness… it just feels gross to me after a while. The same kind of gross I feel when someone is trying to sell me something I don't want by convincing me it is something it's not.
Isn't anyone's BOOK enough for anyone any more? It can't just be me…
I think these are excellent points. You're right – we all need to deal with the time and the culture that we are dealt. Actors used to be able to live in isolated mansions, wear sunglasses and remain mysterious. Not in these days and times; every intimate detail is up for grabs.
There's another way to look at this, too. Which is that we're lucky to have so much access. Free marketing opportunities abound on the internet. Just a couple of decades ago, it was very difficult to get information out. Now,there are so many ways to connect. Authors and publishers are lucky in that way – information channels abound.
I do think a new profession will spring up because of this. Marketing experts that authors can hire, especially authors who self-publish, because not every author is going to be good at marketing; many will not be. So, what do you do when you're not good at something? Hire someone who is.
None of this contradicts the fact that publishers should put more money into marketing by actually hiring experts to do it, but a smart author will deal with reality as they find it. Reality for now, anyway.
Interesting topic, Nathan. Thanks.
Nathan Bransford says
I agree that not all author blogs are created equal, but they're really just one tool in the shed, so to speak. The book is really important, but there are a lot of really good books languishing in obscurity. It's all about getting the books to the people who want to read them.
Some of this, as I alluded, is self-perpetuating. The author self-promotes, the publisher then decides to promote more, book catches on, who is to say which element was the biggest factor in the success of the book?
More important, in my mind, is that publishers now expect it. It's kind of a fait accompli.
Elaine 'still writing' Smith says
Oprah, or Ellen, tricky choice but one I'd be happy to make!
I've made tee-shirts for my cold readers! Start that publicity early!
Nathan, there's lots of opportunity out there for us to self-educate on how to do this kind of promotion, but it would interesting to have a post from yourself or another expert sometime on what the state-of-the-art is — sorting out the obvious ideas, from the goofy ideas from what publishers are finding actually works.
Dawn Maria says
I agree with the points here that you can't "just write", but I also feel like it's too easy to get caught up in the marketing side and lose sight of the goal- writing the best book you can.
I struggle with time management between creating and promoting. I blog, on my own site and somewhere else, I use Twitter, I follow industry news, but I still need to keep writing and creating new work. With a job and a family and promotion, that gets tricky.
The balance equation for me will be different for someone else, but we all need to find it.
As for author blogs, I love them. Haven't found one yet that I don't enjoy.
Nathan Bransford says
Let's try that again.
It may have gotten lost in the post, but this link from Pimp My Novel is a great summary of things authors can do.
Regan Leigh says
I love the link that describes Lisa McMann's self-marketing efforts! I think she has it completely right. When you put in the amazing amount of energy it takes to write a book, why would you NOT want to self-promote? I'm especially surprised if authors don't jump at the chance to do their own part of the marketing process, when the internet makes it so convenient. And this is coming from someone that is used to self-marketing in another career field and HATES it. 🙂
It's hard to sell yourself as a brand or persona, but I can imagine it's a little easier to sell your book as a product.
I keep waiting to figure out which stage is the hardest. First it was Completing My First Draft. Five more rewrites got progressively harder. Trying not to check my email for agent responses is killing me.
Nothing posted here makes me think it will get any easier for a looooong while. Ah well. I'd rather keep at it than chuck my MS in a drawer.
Yvette Davis says
Did you ever see the movie, "Haiku Tunnel" by Jacob and Josh Kornbluth? https://www.imdb.com/title/tt0273253/
The line "just a secretary" seems to apply here.
Is anybody just a secretary or just an author?
Also, the lines, "Go back to your desk, settle down, focus, and catch up!" could apply as well. Especially for authors!
Fascinating topic and discussion. I'd love to believe I could be "just an author," but I do know better. And as a bonus, some of this social media stuff can be fun. And I agree with Dawn Maria – I love author blogs. They're often hilarious and almost always compelling.
Misssy M says
Right now it's not a huge worry ..in fact because I'm not published yet, so it's a worry I wish I had but I don't want to turn my blog into a sales pitch for my book if it ever happens for me. Because nothing kills a blog like a blogger with a book deal banging on about it all the time. I've seen it happen hundreds of times, somone whose writing you loved starts making all their posts about their book, what's happening with their book, why you should buy their book, and it becomes tedious.
People came to my blog because they found it funny and they enjoyed reading my stories. they'll soon go elsewhere if I start bleating on about getting published. So I'm going to be very careful about how I use my blog if I ever have to promote a book.
I'd like to think that if I keep writing my blog like I always did that I won't have to be all "buy buy buy" and "here's me signing books in Borders" all the time. With the right approach my readers (both blog and book) will migrate to the other medium because I've kept the quality in both up.
I enjoy reading other blogs. I especially enjoy reading how long it took other authors to get published. It helps keep things in perspective.
Great links. And I agree.
Besides, who would even 'want' to be just an author anymore?
I personally am looking forward to the self-promoting and marketing and getting myself out there. I don't think I would like to be an author and not be able to connect with those who are reading my book.
Though I do like the mysterious aspect sometimes.
Word Ver: desty = an adjective describing someone who has self-promoted and is bound for destiny? hehe
T. Anne says
LOL you managed to squeeze Cormac McCarthy in at the last second.
Yes, what you say is true. We must step into our 'authorhood' and connect with the masses if at all possible. An Oprah appearance wouldn't hurt either. Just sayin'…
I'm curious about what everyone else has to say.
But I do see a great deal of over-promoting happening these days, too, with newer authors. Which might be a good blog post for the future. I used to be guilty of this myself, but I've pulled back. I was starting to annoy myself. And there are is list of new authors who are starting to annoy everyone.
And yes, I'm anon with this. I don't want to be lynched.
I think a novel would have to be BEYOND genius for the reclusive writer act to work nowadays. How else to avoid the critique of, "Who do you think you are, J.D. Salinger?"
Although… the Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series has gone bestseller, and the author (sadly) simply isn't around to be anything but the author of those previously-written words, so obviously the words on the page are enough for those books.
We were talking about author advances on my blog today (with links back to some of your old posts incidentally), and this ties in fairly well. Marketing and publicity are important for a new author, so much in fact that I would forgo a large advance to get more promotion.
We live in a connected world, and naturally readers want to feel that personal connection to authors.
@ CKHB – Although sometimes the death of the author adds to the mystique and popularity of the book.
I loved Lisa's interview which gives hope to introverts like me. Thanks!
Andrea Cremer says
Great post, Nathan. I'm in the midst of this reality at the moment, just got a book deal and am now building an author web site to join up with my blog. It's an unexpected publicity adventure for this introverted girl…
gumbo writers says
I think that now more than ever it is so important as an author to stand out among other aspiring authors. Your book may be great, but with so many other books to sift through, you need a hook. Great post and so true…
Steph Damore says
Mira- I agree with you; there's two ways to look at this – every intimate detail is up for grabs, but we're lucky to have such access.
I for one am plugged in. To me, it goes with the territory and increases my chances of finding an agent and becoming a successful published author.
Plus, I've found that I love writing a blog (and the marketing side of publishing). Who knew I thought about publishing and writing so much? Seriously, a new blog post pops in my head every hour. It's madness I tell you, madness!
Book Maven says
Ah, but MeganRebekah, the marketing budget, at least in the UK is in direct proportion to the size of the advance. i.e. the bigger the advance, the bigger the promotional budget.
Sad but true and we need to be realistic.
Ack! I just vlogged for the very first time and then began reading your post. DELETE! DELETE! DELETE!
Oh but wait a minute. Being "plugged in" is a good thing. Phew!
You know, you could really write articles for the paper. I don't know why you haven't?? When is your book coming out by the way??
Book Maven –
That's part of the problem though isn't it? Publishers are paying more for books than they can actually afford. So they focus all their attention on the "big" books they acquired, almost like a Hail Mary pass, hoping that the gamble pays off and they can recoup some money. But only 3 out of 10 books earn out. It's crazy!!
I think blogs need an "I like this" function now. Great post.
So as an agent do you want to know someone's marketing plan? For example my family owns a billboard company; would that make a difference on whether you took on a client? Would it make a difference to a publisher?
I live in Portland, Oregon along with a large number of successful authors. There is something about the constant rain that forces a lot of people to hide behind their computers and fervently type. Every single published author I know puts serious effort into their own marketing. Many writers spend just as much time promoting their books as they spend writing their books. The only exception to this rule that I know of is Chuck Palahniuk. Chuck is only an “author” on Thursdays. The rest of the week he is a “writer”. If people want to talk to Chuck Palahniuk the author, they have to find him on a Thursday. As far as I know, this one day per week limit to his self promotion didn’t come into play until after Fight Club made it onto the national library’s 100 best books of all time list. So for aspiring authors, I think the equal time to writing and promotion figures are a lot more practical.
Nathan Bransford says
Not right away. It all starts with a great book, so we can talk about the marketing once the whole "great book" thing is pinned down.
I did have one other thought about this. As authors become better at marketing themselves, and e-books and more accessible self-publishing options rise up, this will increase author independence from publishers. I don't know if publishers have thought about that aspect of things…..
Vacuum Queen says
And now it seems that even if the author doesn't have presence, the marketing team sure should. My daughter is ALL OVER anything Fancy Nancy and just this morning she asked if there's going to be a t.v. show of it because it would "be stupendous and marvelous!"
And sometimes it seems that the schtick is what helps the sale. Can it be a series? Can it have game cards involved? Will there be an interactive website? All of these are super cool, especially in kid lit, but it seems that maybe they don't have to be spectacular writing, but rather a spectacular package. Of course, it's all subjective as to what is spectacular.
And anything that keeps my kiddos reading makes me happy.
Steve Fuller says
Anon @ 12:58,
I completely agree with you. What Nathan is saying is true (and sounds similar to my contest submissions that lost twice…you'll be hearing from my lawyer, Bransford), but in the age of social networking, there is a fine line between skilled self-promotion and annoying the crap out of people. I have dropped Facebook friends because all they do is promote their book, movie, etc.
I am actually planning to interview a social networking expert here in Cincinnati soon and asking her those questions. People have to be studying this stuff right?
If you guys are interested in her answers, let me know and I'll post the link after I write up the interview.
You know Nathan, I know you're right. The publishing market has changed, the world has changed as well, but I still don't like the fact that these days the author has not only shape a perfect book (work enough) according to the recent trends (completely unpredictable), but also has to do something that seems to be of the publisher’s responsibility. Marketing, really?
Fact is, it does not good to complain and of course I’m facing our reality and working on the famous platform, and once I get a contract I obviously will do everything I can to help the book marketing… I think I just needed to vent out my disagreement on the extra burden our times put on the authors shoulders. Sorry about that.
Jamey Stegmaier says
I wasn't going to post because I just mentioned TypeTribe on your blog the other day, but then you brought up Seth Godin's Tribes, and I couldn't resist. Below is a blog entry about what I believe to be the future of promoting your own work in a way that engages readers before your book is released. It's just a concept right now, but the real site should go live this fall.
For all those authors who are willing to be more than just authors, I'd be interested in your thoughts about this concept.
So then what? I guess the average publisher is still the best method to push a book, but self-promotion is more important than ever. What are the best self-promotion ideas?
I'm one of the masses when it comes to being a reader. My arm was twisted into reading Harry Potter, Twilight, all the Dan Brown books ect. I'm not like most of you out there. Unless the subject of the book is something that interests me…I'm not interestedin the book at all. If the marketing, the buzz, and the publicity wasn't out there, I don't think I would be even writing a book. Ten years in retail sales makes the extra portion of the business exciting for me. Count me in!
Hey Nathan! Such valuable info. I was proud after reading it-I'm putting all the pieces in place I possibly can to better my chances of representation and a book deal. All the hours in front of my laptop feel validated after reading this post.
Kristin Laughtin says
I agree; it might be easy to stay out of the public eye now if you established yourself a while ago, but it's going to be harder, if not impossible, for new authors to do so. I'd venture that the ease of remaining low-profile will be inversely proportional to the popularity of one's book.
I feel like the last person to know Cormac McCarthy went on Oprah (I work when her show is on, so I have no idea who goes on it), and now I rue having missed it.
Vegas Linda Lou says
Okay, so authors who have a platform, or are willing to build one, have a better shot at receiving promotional dollars from their publishers. But let's step back in the process a bit–how much does the author's platform matter to an agent considering a project for representation?
But don't most of the wannabes' blogs have, at most, a couple of hundred readers? And that seems like the high side. So is that really a "web presence" that matters? I mean for having somewhere to contact you, fine. But that isn't marketing; that's getting an agent-ing. People seem to spend A LOT of time on their blogs, and then leaving the perfunctory comments ("Great post! I love it!") on other people's blogs to get them, you know, to keep commenting on your blog. This cannot be the self promotion of which you speak?? To maybe get 50 books sold?
Plus it seems a little dangerous–for example, when a blogger accidentally reveals her racism. There's no way I'm buying her book. Not. Ever.
What are the introverts of the world to do when one of the most isolated and gloriously solitary vocation is requiring all this networking stuff…
Rick Daley says
Just as pertinent:
The myth of "Just an Agent"