Self-promotion sucks. Maybe you’ve heard a writer or two say that before. This is because, for the most part, writers want to write, they don’t want to sell. If they wanted to sell, they’d get a real job pushing iPads at the Apple Store or Civics down at their local Honda dealership.
It isn’t that we’re filled with self-doubt. Despite all our well documented insecurities, deep down inside, most of us firmly believe that what we write is better than all that other dreck out there, and you should be reading us instead of that other guy right now.
But how to express this opinion without sounding like a narcissist in a bragging contest? That’s the trick.
Some authors know how to soft-sell their work to perfection. Their self-promotional efforts state all the positive facts relative to their writing (”award winning,” “bestselling,” critically acclaimed,” etc.) in a professional, straightforward manner that achieves the desired effect of drawing a reader’s interest, rather than his ire.
But the delicate balance between confidence and hubris isn’t an easy one to strike. Many authors either err on the side of humility and do next to nothing to publicize their work, or they say far too much far too loudly, holding up their every four-star review and glowing cover blurb as proof of their indisputable genius. When members of this latter group go on the self-promotional attack, their ads and online announcements hit you like a mallet-head to the skull. There’s more subtlety and nuance in a car bomb.
Self-published authors have always run this risk of bombastic self-promotion because they’ve got no one else to handle publicity for them, and, left to their own devices, they over-sell. Say what you will about the value of a big traditional publishing house, but most know how to create an effective print ad or press kit that doesn’t read like something put together by Charlie Sheen for Charlie Sheen.
However, with e-books fast becoming the default way to publish, more and more authors, with and without the support of a traditional publisher, will be dabbling in their own promotion, and so will face the dilemma of balancing plain truth with bravado.
On one of my favorite writers’ blogs, I recently came across an ad announcing a forthcoming short story anthology produced by twelve very smart and competent crime writers. The ad was graphically striking and professionally executed. But the copy featured the following descriptive flourishes:
Master storytellers at the peak of their powers
Writing so sharp that it will draw blood
Now, once upon a time, a reader could see an ad like this and think, “Wow, that publisher’s really in love with its author — but damn! That sales pitch is way over the top!” All the blame for the copywriter’s rather comical bent toward overstatement would be reserved not for the author in question, but for the overzealous publicity department of his publishing house. In other words, the writer would get a free pass.
But what happens when such ads are the creation of the author himself, as they increasingly will be when the product in question is an e-book? With the curtain yanked aside to reveal the writer behind all the hoopla, are readers likely to be as forgiving of ad copy so blatantly self-aggrandizing?
Does the chest thumping carnival barker approach to advertising still work? If so, wouldn’t Hollywood still be selling movies that way, with trailers chock full of supers and voice-overs promising “The Most Incredible, Fantastic, Awe-Inspiring Experience in Cinematic History”? I suspect it would, and that the reason Hollywood doesn’t is that times have changed and the innocence that once made filmgoers susceptible to such bold, grandiose claims to greatness no longer exists. Filmgoers (and readers) are a more sophisticated bunch these days, and they don’t have the affection for hot air advertisers used to rely upon.
Aside from how effective the “Hyperbole On Steroids” method of self-promotion is in selling books, however, there’s the question of what such ads say about the writers who compose them. Personally, I believe everything an author writes — from his laundry list to his Tweets — offers clues to the quality of his prose. If Bob’s Facebook posts tend to be cogent and thought provoking, the chances are good his books are much the same. Conversely, if the announcements he posts on blogs and online message boards touting his latest novel are reminiscent of an old Texaco Star Theater radio commercial, that to me is a strong indication that said novel will probably not remind anyone of Raymond Chandler writing “at the peak of (his) powers.”
Getting your work noticed in an e-book world that’s becoming more competitive and glutted by the day is no simple matter. And there is plenty of truth to all those idioms about squeaky wheels being the only kind that ever get greased. But there is also a good deal of truth in the expression, “All things in moderation,” and among those things, in my opinion, should be the bluster with which an author promotes his own work.
Unless, that is, he doesn’t mind leaving readers to wonder if he isn’t just trying to sell them a Colossal! Stupendous! Fantastic! Astounding! bill of goods.