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The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Self-Promoter

February 27, 2011 at 8:05 pm

This is a topic I've been meaning to post about since last May.  (Not sure why it has taken so long for me to do so, but the most likely culprit is my general fecklessness when it comes to keeping the blog up to date.  *cough*)

Self-promotion is an important part of an author's job.  (And it's no secret this is the thing I dislike the most about writing.)  Which isn't necessarily a good or bad thing, but just a reality of the publishing landscape.  But I've come to realize that we writers aren't the only folks who struggle with self-promotion. 

Maybe it's endemic to all creative endeavors.

When you strip out the highly successful folks, those statistical outliers who populate the high energy tail of the distribution—the J. K. Rowlings, the Bela Flecks, the John Jude Palencars of the world—you find the bulk of the population is just regular Joes trying to get by as best they can. 

This was driven home for me last spring, late one night while making my way to Kansas City for the Conquest convention.  I split a taxi fare with a musician I'd met on the plane, and we had a really fascinating (and, for me, eye-opening) conversation during the ride to the hotel.  (I could tell he was a musician because he was traveling with a keyboard.  I'm shrewd like that.)

His name was Steve Weingart.  I thought at first that perhaps he was on his way to attend Conquest, since he was flying in the night before and headed to the same hotel.  But no.  In fact the hotel was just a stopover for Steve during months of touring.  That led to a discussion of the similarities between how writers and musicians struggle to build their careers.

Of course, if I'd had the tiniest smidgen of a clue, I would have known immediately that Steve was being a little bit humble.  Once I went online I found that Steve is an acclaimed musician who has played with just about everybody under the sun.

Even so, he spends months at a time on the road.  In the US, in Europe, in Japan.  Steve's keyboard skills are in very high demand among touring musicians of certain styles.  (What those in the writing world might call genres?)  And Steve isn't flying to these gigs in his own personal G5.  Dude was sitting right next to me in the cattle coach class seats.  And when he's not flying all over the world, or sleeping in a van as his mates drive all night to the site of their next gig, he's trying to spread the word about his work in other ways.  Social networking, selling CDs on his website, doing whatever he can to keep his name and music in front of people.

(Again, in Steve's case, his talent seems to speak quite well for him.)

I realized that this was really very similar to the situation in which many writers find themselves.  I'm going to as many conventions as I can manage—all in the hope that I'll make a good impression on a handful (at best) of folks.  And when I'm not doing that I'm trying to write, trying to get more "product" out there, in the hopes it will find its way to interested readers.  And I've even been posting to the blog with something approaching regularity the past couple of months.  My absence from Facebook and Twitter is glaring and perhaps even self-destructive in this age of social networking.  But I can only take so much online interaction every day.  And I can't get myself motivated to try to shout above the noise.  I'd rather spend my energy on other endeavors. 

But I'm lucky.  I don't have to spend months on the road at a time.  I can sleep under my own roof most of the time.  And I'm fortunate in that I don't have to support myself through writing.  (If I did, I would have starved to death a long time ago.)  

Even so... It was an interesting taxi ride.  Here was a guy, by all outside accounts a very well-regarded and hardworking musician, and a generally pretty successful one at that, talking about how much of his energy goes to the simple problem of trying to get his name known to more people.  Steve is an artist who has devoted his life to mastering a completely different endeavor from writing fiction, and yet it turns out we're struggling with the same thing.

Many writers are introverted.  God knows I am.  I do my best to be a personable and interesting guy.  But it's hard.  It's not something I do naturally.  Or, frankly, very well.  Promoting myself is a task that I dread and loathe.  In a perfect world I'd be able to concentrate on stringing words together and the rest would take care of itself.  But it's not a perfect world.

I take comfort in knowing that it's not just writers who shoulder this burden.


Scott Denning February 28, 2011 at 10:49 am
Or so most people quote Andy Warhol as saying. The actual quote (from a 1968 gallery showing catalog) is slightly different: "In the future, everybody will be world-famous for 15 minutes." When he spoke of it later, Warhol sometimes modified it to: "In the future, everyone will have the opportunity to be famous for 15 minutes." A bit of back-pedaling that perhaps reflected his anxiety over an approaching future? And later in life, after he wearied of being asked about the line, he changed it to a snarky: "In fifteen minutes, everybody will be famous." I ponder this quote, and how it morphed, fairly often. Because, I feel, it has been subsumed into our culture as a meme. It seems a whole internet-facilitated generation bears this meme. They believe without questioning that not only will they have an opportunity to be famous, but that they *must* be at least briefly famous or be failures as representative of their generation and as individuals. Only, sadly for them, several obstacles face them. One is having talent or skill, things traditionally associated with achieving a measure of fame. Another obstacle young people face is that they are but one of many -- with a whole generation seeking their 15 minutes at the same time, there is a lot of turbulence in the pipe. Right now *is* Andy Warhol's future. And sorry kids -- the 15 minutes have shrunk to 7. One worrisome result of this culture-wide bid for fame is a further blurring of the definitional lines between *fame* and *infamy*. Lack skill or talent? Do something outrageous, rude, or outrageously rude. Warhol was prescient, not only in the original quote but in all of its forms as it morphed. The opportunity to be famous is embodied in instantaneous world-wide communications. The existence of these communications has fueled the belief that it only takes 15 minutes to become famous. And why shouldn't they believe it? We see it over and over again -- people post a blog or a video that activates some mental switch in a threshold number of people and it "goes viral" and then we see it over and over again. Yes, kids, you really *can* become famous in 15 minutes. But it will last for only 7 and then you are back on the heap of ignominy/anonymity, the very fact that you have had their minutes making more minutes less likely. You beat the odds millions-to-one to get your face time; few people hit the lottery twice. So what does this gloomy observation mean for authors and other professionals for whom "fame" is a necessary part of a steady paycheck? I've spoken with quite a few authors about the need to self-promote and how they approach it. And there is a consensus with which I agree, a belief which approaches a philosophy, a philosophy which one hopes may counter the consensus reality described above. That belief/philosophy is: quality still counts, and persistence pays off. But they have to work together. Quality is not enough -- lots of quality out there, undiscovered. Persistence is required, to keep slipping the quality under people's noses. There is a temptation to not only exploit the media used by minute-seekers but to also adopt their tactics. This can be a slippery slope. There is in business a concept that many people ignore to their woe: If you cannot compete in a market, stay out of that market. A professional of quality *cannot* compete successfully with minute-seekers, for *success* would require that he become one of them. Far better to focus on competing with other people of quality, people in it for the haul beyond 7 minutes. Which is a much smaller subset of humanity, and (for anyone concerned with quality) a group one would rather be identified as a part of.
Andrew February 28, 2011 at 12:23 pm
Unlike some of my fav OWW writers now authors (point, tickle, wave), I'm still floundering with many an excuse, including my inability to 'Let it go" and "move on". But the world of self promotion ) crosses social-genre like nothing else. More I read the more I go, "Whuu-aat?" Recently I read, "Fishing on the Edge" Mike Iconelli book (fishing is another passion of mine). And half the book is devoted to self promotion. Here though there are tournaments in which you win you make it... We're talking Bass fishing. Bass Fishing!!!! Then there's an older book; Mick Foley's "Have a Nice Day:a Tale of Blood and Sweatsocks". Professional Wrestling!!! At least this kind of self promotion is a little more truthful to the whole promo logic... You work real hard, you skimp and bleed and eventually you will be recognize by a heirarchy who write the paychecks and give out a chance at the "seven minutes" of fame. What's the difference between being a middle man or a star? How many bumps your willing to take. Its better than the music biz where threats to top stars are given contracts to prevent them from challenging. From my view ontop of the redwoods, it seems that writers are somewhere between Musicians and Professional wrestlers... maybe more like the pro-bass fisherman-- hahaha. I dread the prospect of the self-promotion days.... But first i need to take the bumps.
Ian February 28, 2011 at 10:10 pm
I think you'll shine when it comes to self-promotion, Andrew. You're a friendly, personable guy and hella interesting besides. I'd say you already have the problem licked. I don't know why (I'm not much of a fisherman) but I really like the notion of writers as pro bass fishermen. Makes things seem so much more exciting...
Ian February 28, 2011 at 10:25 pm
I couldn't have said it better. Or half as thoughtfully. I cling to the hope that quality and persistence will prevail. But then I wonder how in the world I'm supposed to tackle that "quality" thing. (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance went far over my poor hollow head.) As for the minuters and the ceaseless hunt for 7 minutes of infamy, I commend Wondermark #697 to your attention. Fitting, no?
Tengland March 1, 2011 at 4:34 pm
"Writers as pro bass fisherman": Fishermen hook with bait, writers hook with opening paragraphs. The Internet gave us Justin Bieber, who (with the help of handlers) makes sure he's everywhere despite being just another pretty face. He waltzed into the Grammys expecting to be named Best New Artist but got blanked by Esparanza Spalding, a little-known jazz singer & bassist. Bieber's fans were outraged (as he was, I'd imagine), but is consensus enough to determine who gets to be famous? (I, like a lot of people, are unfamiliar with Ms. Spalding, but from the glimpses I've seen, she's definitely worth learning more about. Bieber? Meh.) We need more Spaldings and fewer Biebers.
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