Friday, April 30, 2010

Guest Blog Post: Self-Promotion--Starting Too Soon?

Posted by Victoria Strauss for Writer Beware 

Self-promotion: a subject much on many writers' minds. All across the Internet, new authors are urged to be proactive in publicizing themselves and their books--to build a "brand." But what to do? And how much? I blogged about that a few months back, focusing on the uncertainties involved, and the fact that, ultimately, no one truly knows what works.

But there's also the question of when to start. The day after you make your first sale? When you start submitting? Even earlier? Is it possible to begin your campaign of self-promotion too soon? In this week's guest blog post, author Alyx Dellamonica takes a look at this issue.

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by Alyx Dellamonica

What would happen if you spent a day reckoning the price of everything you purchased in terms of the time you spent earning the money?

If you earned a dollar an hour, a 99-cent music download would represent an hour of your life. A movie would come to a day or two of solid work. Whatever you're earning, groceries, rent and luxuries all have a cost. This can be counted not only in dollars but--unless you're extremely wealthy--in their impact on your store of time, that precious thing you can't get back. This is why it hurts when someone cons us, and why Writer Beware offers such a valuable service: a fraud artist doesn't just make off with some abstract chunk of your material wealth. They've stolen, in a sense, an irretrievable piece of your life.

As writers, we tend to place a premium on the time we get to spend working on our fiction. This is as it should be--we write because we love it, so writing is one of the highest and best uses of our precious time. Those hours can be hard to find and jealously guarded. And yes, we all fritter them away sometimes, and lament them later.

But are beginning writers being encouraged to toss them down the drain?

Recently I've seen a growing number of my writing students pouring time into branding and marketing themselves... in many cases, before they've sold a single word of fiction. This activity is a reaction to wisdom percolating across the Internet, to the effect that you have to get your name out early, start your Twitter feed, set up your Myspace page, and market-market-market. I've seen people make web sites and even trailers for unfinished manuscripts. On the less extreme end of the spectrum, writers whose careers haven't properly begun are nevertheless counting followers, evaluating possible pseudonyms and working--hard--on their public profiles as authors.

As with any activity, the rate of success varies. Some join the thronging electronic masses, jumping up and down yelling "Look at me!" into the void. Others--Lia Keyes, for example, with her popular weekly writing discussion, Scribechat--have built themselves solid followings. Have they been encouraged to waste their time? Keyes freely admits to having devoted herself to promoting Scribechat using a carefully researched 1-2-3 punch of Twitter, Facebook and a blog... until she had to rein herself in, and put her writing time first. Does she regret those lost hours? No, because she fully expects the effort to pay off.

The idea of establishing a brand isn't coming from people who are naive about publishing. In a recent online interview, Maggie Stiefvater, bestselling author of Shiver, states that while she would have sold her novel without a web presence, she believes she would have gotten a smaller advance. Agent Laura Rennert says much the same thing on E.I. Johnson's blog, A View from the Top: marketing is important, even for writers who haven't broken in yet.

Let me be clear. None of these people is saying "Don't Write." They're just saying "Do this, too." Ultimately this question is part of the greater river of debate over marketing in book publishing. Does it work, how much energy does it deserve, and how hard should one chase that brass-ring dream of going viral? We all grapple with this. Kelley McCullough, author of the WebMage series, has blogged about the costs and benefits of keeping self-promotion to a minimum. Even if you accept the idea that building a profile is the way to go, when do you start? Before your book is written? Instead of writing a second book as an editor ponders buying the first? These are the questions that make me uneasy.

I see the allure of having a web presence at the top of your writing career. What a tremendous thing to exploit! Imagine having a solid core of fans, ready and waiting to buy your first novel before it so much as hits bookstores. And I'm no Internet hermit. I have the usual cluster of online spaces--web site, a blog, a separate blog for my book Indigo Springs. I have the Facebook page and a Twitter feed. But the lion's share of work on these sites came when I not only had a contract but a publishing date for my first book. Why? Mostly it was because I was busy with what I loved most: writing a bunch of other books. I was also following a contrary bit of advice, one I'm not seeing as widely bandied about teh Intrawebs: my editor told me flat-out that building buzz too early might be as bad as not building it at all.

Of all the conflicting advice I could have gone with, why was this the piece I took? Obviously, it was coming from someone I know and trust, someone I have met face-to-face, someone who has far more experience in the industry than I. But this concern about starting the hype well before I had a book to put in readers' hands also made intuitive sense to me. It may be hard to gain the fleeting attention of the Internets, but it takes energy to keep it, too... and you're only shiny and new once. Having someone ask "When can I buy your book?" and having to reply "In two years, I hope" ...well, that's a bucket of cold water on their hopes and yours. Unless it's your Dad, they may eventually stop asking.

So is the answer to write, write, write and ignore the internet entirely? No. If you're getting fiction written and you're enjoying the blogging and networking, I'm guessing you've achieved a good mix. But if you've got a well-built web presence and you're frantic about finding writing time, or you have nothing to put in front of your eager fans and well-wishers, then it's maybe worth stepping back to evaluate where your energy is going.

Alyx Dellamonica is a graduate of Clarion West. She writes novels and short fiction, mostly in the science fiction and fantasy genres, and also teaches writing online.Her first novel, Indigo Springs, is available now. Alyx lives and works in Vancouver, Canada.

36 comments:

Ty Schwamberger said...

Totally agree with this. A web presence is definitely a must these days!

Mike Jastrzebski said...

I agree with what you say. I am not published yet and when I spoke with friends who are they suggested that now was the time to start. So I started to blog. Fortunately I have two published writes who blog with me.
I don't know if this is worth the effort or not, but it certainly takes time away from working on my book

Tracy Clark said...

I agree that having a web-presence is a good thing. I think the key to starting BEFORE you have anything to sell, is to be personable. Interest people in who YOU are, not what you hope to someday promote. Then, when the time comes, you will have people who actually care a bit about you and who will ride the wave of your good news with you. Great post!!

Leila R said...

I set up a website, targeted at teachers, librarians and readers after my first (children's) book was published. I've recently started another, with a blog, which is targeted at people who might like to attend a writing course or who are looking for a MS critique. I don't tweet yet!
I think it's absolutely possible to start self-promotion too soon, and very possible to be sucked into using it as a displacement/ procrastination activity. Blogging, twittering, etc. are seductive because they're a lot easier and more fun than slaving miserably over yet another draft that isn't working. Also, you get faster gratification. You can wait six months for a form rejection, but it takes two seconds for a friend to comment enthusiastically on your blog post. If your aim is really to be read, rather than to write and publish a book, then blogging is possibly a better option anyway.
Bottom line though: if you want to have written a book, you have to write a book. And writing takes a lot of time. I have heard it said - and from my own experience would agree - that it's only possible to have two out of these three: day job, social life, writing time. (People with children must have an even tougher time fitting things in). My advice is get the important stuff - writing - done first, then blog and tweet and so on, if you want to. Because in terms of investing time, nothing is a better investment than the time you spend working on your writing. That investment will be repaid with a better book, and the better the book, the more likely it is to get published and the more likely you are to get a high profile anyway.
Afterthought: it may sound a bit harsh, but until you have at the very least got a complete manuscript you're proud enough of to submit, raising your internet profile only advertises the fact that you haven't written a book - is that a good thing?

Anonymous said...

This has been a hot topic lately. I'm no expert, infact I'm pretty much an infant when it comes to how and when to build a web-presence, but I'm trying to approach building it in a slow and steady way, in a way where I make connections with people as opposed to promoting myself. In way that is fun and engaging.

I didn't start my blog until after I signed with an agent last month and my book went on submission. Instead, I focused on my writing. I know it takes tremendous time and energy to write a book and then rewrite it until it is of a quality that people start paying attention to it.

The best part of reaching out online has been meeting all these great writers at different stages of the journey. I don't think there is a right or wrong way to go about building a web-presence but I don't think it should come at the expense of writing, especially if you don't have a book coming out.

I've heard lots of people say you need a web presence to attract an agent. I had a big fat zero in terms of web-presence but I received five offers of representation.

And I totally agree with Tracy's comment above. If you choose to build a web-presence before you have a book deal, make it about who you are and the relationships you have with other people instead of trying to promote a WIP that may never sell.

When my first book was rejected I was happy to have that second book, and when that second book was rejected I was happy to have that third book.

Sandra Ulbrich Almazan said...

I think many writers, myself included, blog about writing. It's a good way to network with other writers and learn more about the craft. However, someone who is interested in reading but not writing may not be interested in that type of blog. We writers can get so wrapped up in talking to each other that when the time comes to connect with readers, it's hard to make that switch.

(BTW, Alyx, I loved Indigo Springs!)

Rachna Chhabria said...

Building a web presence is very important nowadays, but, it does eat into the writing time. If one can strike a balance then its great, if not, all one has to do is make the priorities clear: writing before anything else.
Lia has struck a perfect balance, writing her book, hosting #Scribechat, adminstrating Scribblerati as well as blogging.

Jennifer said...

I do some web presence stuff, but I consider it *personally* unethical (Personally because others might disagree) to promote a WIP that is not going to be published.

I want to start an author blog, but I have very little to put in it right now...sure, I can announce my short story sales there as well as Facebook and Twitter and maybe talk about publishing a little.

But I only talk about my unpublished novels with my friends and writing buddies, who understand they may turn out to be vaporware. Its dishonest to offer something and then not deliver the service, so I'm not going to talk at length about a WIP until I have a publication date.

YMMV.

Lia Keyes said...

Getting a handle on social media before publishing is not only a good idea because it takes time to build a significant enough following, but because it's an important part of understanding what it takes to be a published author, as a career. Once your first book is published, you'll never again have the luxury of 'just writing'. You'll have to organize your day so that you can write your next book, and blog, and tweet AND promote your first book in person. It's good to know if you can handle that from the outset.

Ashley said...

Agree. This is partly why I started my blog http://labirdsnest.com.
I want to get myself out there so when I do have something to sell there will be more interest. Also, it keeps me writing and I've found I have more ideas which means more to write. It's a win win!

Emma D Dryden said...

Terrific and important post for writers at any stage of their career. Having an on-line presence has become a necessary marketing tool for every author, whether they're brand new or long established. This is something I discuss at length particularly with authors who are as yet unpublished but who recognize the benefits of generating interest and establishing a following early on. What publishing houses have traditionally called "buzz" marketing -- generating interest before a book's even available -- is something publishers have less time and money to do for their authors; the social networking platforms such as FB and Twitter, etc give authors an easy way to generate their own "buzz" now.

Mike Jastrzebski said...

I agree with Tracy, that's why when I set up my blog I took a little different tack. The other two writers in the blog are published while I am the voice of the novice looking to get where they are. We also tried something a little different. All of the writers on the blog are either living on boats or have lived on boats, hense our blog name, Write on the Water.

Janet Morgenstern said...

I'm working on my second novel, mostly because the old writer wisdom about your first novel being worthless turned out to be true. I'm excited about the new one, the first in a trilogy. My product is a lot better. I'm nearing the end of the first draft, maybe a chapter or so away.

I have to agree that a web presence is important, but I also find that Leila has a very good point regarding making promises before the product is complete. I've taught for several years and have had a bad habit of blurting out ideas to the kids before they are fully formed or thought out. I've either been stuck following through with a bad idea or disappointing them by not doing it. Bad juju, dude. Bad juju. I'd imagine the same would be true on the Web.

I starting blogging years ago, but as of yet have no followers. Overall, I have problems marketing my writing. I'm extremely introverted and feel most comfortable behind a keyboard when taking risks. Having others examine one's work is extremely risky to one's ego, but even non-face-to-face contact is scary for me.

I realize I will someday have to borrow some balls and do this. I'd just rather have a polished product when I do.

A.M. Dellamonica said...

I like what you say, Lia, about learning to handle the time-juggle before you have a book out... that does make sense to me.

Group blogs are a great way to go, Mike, and I think it's terrific that yours is sailing-themed. And Leila, your afterthought is really thought-provoking. I wish I'd said it!

(Sandra, I'm thrilled that you enjoyed the book!)

I am so glad this is stirring up some conversation! And I'm also very gratified to have had a chance to be part of Writer Beware. Thank you for having me, Hosts!

arlee bird said...

I don't know that there is any one right way to approach this--it is a house with many doors and it's just a matter of getting in one of them. Persistence, patience, and attitude are all very important. And it helps to have a solid base of people who have at least heard of you and hopefully solid supporters as well.

Sheryl Gwyther said...

Thanks for your well-considered post, Alyx. And well done, Lia Keyes for keeping up her online presence (and helping other writers from far afield to do the same) as well as doing the REAL stuff as well, writing stories. :)

Mad Scientist Matt said...

As a nonfiction author, my book isn't out yet and will not be for several more months, but I'm aware of a few hundred pre-orders placed through an affiliate program. Nonfiction is probably a bit different from fiction, though. I can sell a book through branding and self-promotion because my co-author and I have already established a reputation online as experts on our book subject. It probably also helps that part of my job description is, in fact, sales and branding.

I'm not sure how much that applies with fiction - to sell a novel, I'd think the best "branding" you would want would be a reputation as someone who writes good novels.

Dennis Latham said...

They say the average blog gets read three times, if you're lucky. A friend of mine went to the ITW (International Thriller Writers) gathering last year, and he said it was a horrible experience. People, including very famous writers, promoting themselves to the point of sounding insane. A new generation of writers is going to have to learn to live without publisher promotion, so now it's going to take something bizarre to get noticed.

A.M. Dellamonica said...

I'm not sure I believe that the whole "publishers don't promote midlist books" thing is all that new a phenomenon. I know it's an ugly jolt for new writers, but it's certainly something I've been hearing for as long as I've been around.

Does that make any kind of difference? It might mean that people who've been selling for awhile have picked up some great self-promo tricks, but with the Internet facilitating shiny new ways to seek readers all the time, keeping up with the game is always going to be something of a chase.

D. G. Hudson said...

Enjoyed this post very much. When I first began my blog, I felt the same way about the idea of too much too soon. I wrote a post in May of 2009 on my blog called 'Pressure drop on New Writers'. BTW-I've had marketing training, and I take my cues from what I learned there.


Blogging I enjoy, but that's the extent of my internet presence. I don't currently feel the need for the other social networking avenues mainly because I am very jealous of my writing time.

Thanks for this post and for the links to Alyx' site. I'm from Vancouver as well, but hadn't heard of her before your post.

JaxPop said...

Now this was very good advice based on uncommon common sense. Every investment, time or money, should result in some form of satisfaction for the investor. Prioritize & then ask "What's In It For Me?" before jumping in. Sounds selfish, but reverse it & ask "What's In It For Them?" Most of the time "they" have more to gain overall from "the investor's" poorly planned actions.

Blogging is great - you meet some cool people & get lotsa good ideas (satisfaction), but those sites devoted only to self promo - they get old real fast.

Nice job Alyx - good luck.

Kat Hooper said...

I am not a writer, but I edit the website fantasyliterature.com so I tend to see (via Twitter, facebook, email, comments on the site, etc) the activities of many aspiring authors who are promoting themselves before selling their work.

I know that some of these will become popular authors some day, but I have to say that there are so many of them that for now I just lump them all together as wannabees (sorry) and assume that they won't be published until they prove otherwise.

I am interested, however, in authors who have sold their first fantasy novel to an SFWA-approved publisher and are now working on their internet presence during the publication process. They definitely get my attention. The others are just, as you say, jumping up and down shouting "look at me!"

I agree with the sentiments here: be yourself and be interesting because you're an interesting person, rather than trying to promote something that may not ever be.

(BTW, we enjoyed Ms. Dellamonica's book.)

Laura Rennert said...

As an agent, I think that a smart and savvy web presence, blog, and a targeted, carefully orchestrated campaign of self-promotion through social media are exactly what authors, whether new or early in their career (or later in their career, for that matter) should be doing. This kind of a campaign should not be at the expense of writing that great book, of course, and it has to be carefully calibrated and executed to be successful. However, it is not a coincidence that the most successful authors are those who have built this kind of an online platform, who participate in ongoing dialogues with their readers, and who are active in the online world. I have gone out with a number of outstanding middle-grade, young adult, and cross-over books and the fact the author had already built this kind of online presence and created a following pre-publication definitely made the difference between a fine deal and a stellar one with incredible house and marketing support. This has been a factor in Maggie Stiefvater's (SHIVER) and Jay Asher's (THIRTEEN REASONS WHY) success -- from the publishing excitement they generated when their books were at auction, to the way their publisher's view them as real partners in the process and a very smart investment. There is already editorial interest in my client Lia Keyes' work both because of the glimpses of her outstanding writing that some editors have seen and because she has so successfully built this kind of web platform for herself in the course of creating a dynamic writing community.

A.M. Dellamonica said...

Thank you, Laura--I agree, if the writing is getting done and there's time to do this well, it can be great to have a ready-made profile and demonstrable PR skills.

jongibbs said...

'None of these people is saying "Don't Write." They're just saying "Do this, too."'

I couldn't agree more :)

Michael A. Banks said...

There exists in the minds of many an assumption that if you go through the motions (tweet, blog, have a Web site) then success is automatic. Not so. The publishers of books about how to make a million dollars, Euros, zlotys or whatever online would like you to believe that, to invest in the idea and be motivated to buy their books. But it is not true that just going through the motions of promotion yields automatic success.

(As someone here or at the SFWA Web site put it, there is no magic button you can press for sucess. At least, I haven't found a button labled "Click Here for Success!" that worked.)

I started promoting books online for Baen and others in the mid-1980s, and I promoted one of my non-fiction books (about the online world) to sales of over 200,000 copies. But all the promotion wasn't done exclusively online. I've also had a book sell tens of thousands of copies without online promotion.

If you want promotion guaranteed to sell books, buy billboards and network television spots.

Successful promotion is always anchored by a quality product, and is but one element in a larger effort.
--Michael Banks

A.M. Dellamonica said...

Well put, Michael--your perspective is really appreciated!

LTM said...

I have a following of readers as a news writer, so when I wrote books and started pitching them I started a blog in response to the "demonstrate a platform" advice. I did find daily posts sapped my creative writing energy--esp. b/c I'm still unpublished as a novelist, so I have to keep up my other writing jobs for $$. I found setting a 2-day/wk posting schedule helped me. The other benefit of blogging--I've met other writers through it. Food for thought. All the best~

A.M. Dellamonica said...

Yeah--it's really all about balance. If you're not writing fiction, there's no balance.

Middleclass Millionaire said...

Several writers have gotten a book deal through a blog--going the blog to book route. It is great to build an audience and a following and have a web presence, but in order to do that you need some talent. You need two things to really make it. The first is talent; the second is good marketing.

Tara Deliberto said...

I am a non-fiction writer and a Ph.D. student who wrote 75% of my book, then the proposal, and am now just building a solid website. The idea is to have all of the material ready so that I can strike if the iron ever gets hot.

Similarly, before I launch my new website, I am pre-writing a lot of material so that I can post regularly.

This has been a three-year process and I think I have at least 1.5 years more to go. Talk about long-term gratification!

Schumes said...

Well worth my read. Thanks!

Maia said...

I really, really wish I could remember exactly where I read that the authors who spend the largest amount of time and energy self-promotion have the least success with their books, and those who spend the greatest amount of time writing, the most. It was definitely somewhere on this site!

I honestly think the problem is that the opportunities to market yourself and publish your book have increased by about a millionfold, yet the number of good books seems to be a constant. That having been said, it applies to me, too. I wrote three books several years ago that just wouldn't go anywhere no matter how much self-marketing I did. The truth is that they just weren't where they needed to be as fics. They needed more editing, and they didn't get it before they were put out there. This is a very, very hard thing to admit, but the more truthful we are with ourselves, the better off we are. Anyone can market in this way. Few can write a genuinely good book.

A.M. Dellamonica said...

Maia,

If you ever find the data that you're talking about--about writing versus promo--I would love to have it.

Victoria Strauss said...

It's here, in my discussion of a recent survey of self-published writers. Certainly suggestive, but not conclusive.

A.M. Dellamonica said...

Thank you for the link, Victoria!!