Creepy in a different way are writers who’ve paid for good online reviews of their books, and the freelancers who’ve paid their bills writing those reviews. I understand about the free market and all, but there’s still something chilling about a guy making $28,000 a month providing fake reviews. Google and Amazon eventually agreed, pulling the enterprising Todd Rutherford’s ads and reviews. Now he’s selling RVs while on the side running a business that creates book buzz via blogs and Twitter.
For as much as we hear about buzz, there must be limits to what we’ll do to get noticed. At the same time, we can’t abdicate completely the marketing side of the equation. “I can’t self-promote,” I’ve heard writers say. “That’s just not me. If my book can’t sell itself, then I just won’t write.” Harper Lee did it; J.D. Salinger did it, they say.
A handful may be able to duck out on the business end of writing. But for most of us it’s a reality: we have to find the right balance between what we want to do – create – and what we must do – help sell our books.
Much of the marketing legwork, though not all, is electronic. With 10 million members, Goodreads is the largest site in the world for book recommendations. Compiled using data gathered from a title that launched with three Goodreads giveaways, a recent Goodreads post titled The Anatomy of a Book Discovery uses a color-spiked graph to show how one thing leads to another when it comes to book buzz. What’s harder to quantify is how good the book was to begin with: how timely, how well-conceived, how brilliantly rendered.
Beyond the scope of the Goodreads analysis: how a “following” built before a book is published, or even before it is written, plays into its eventual success. Among the advice passed around to emerging writers these days is that they must make a name for themselves: get a website, get on Facebook, get on Twitter, start a blog, get a following. At best, this advice can be overstated. At worst, it’s a gigantic distraction that will keep you from writing the book you must write.
Yes, buzz sells books. Yes, your Facebook friends and Twitter followers and blog followers will be among the first to buy your book when it comes out. And yes, a website shows you’re a professional. But you must absolutely guard your time. Even when you’re up and running and you’ve got a book or two under your belt, you should aim for spending no more than a quarter of your writing time on the business part. If you’re an emerging writer who’s still pushing out that first million words ahead of your real publishable work, you should spend a whole lot less time on promotion. The exception: if you write for a specialized nonfiction market – growers of heirloom tomatoes, for instance – you’ll need to be recognized as an expert within the field in order to successfully pitch your book, so you’ll want to spend a larger chunk of your time getting recognized.
While electronic buzz is huge, huge, huge, don’t forget that in the end what we’re really talking here are relationships. In that way, writing is no different than any other business. Your online presence must project the real you and your real book, because that’s what gets outted one way or the other. Fake reviews may sell a few titles, but if the book stinks, the readers won’t be back.
The profile of Emma Straub in this month’s Poets and Writers brings this point home. After her first four novels were rejected, Straub got serious about the quality of her work, putting herself under the tutelage of Lorrie Moore. A small press, Five Chapter Books, published Straub’s first collection of short stories. She has 10,000 followers on Twitter. She posts regularly on the Paris Review Daily and on
New York magazine’s culture blog Vulture. Yet she says it’s her job at an indie bookstore in Brooklyn that really taught her how to market her work, which now includes her novel Laura Lamont's Life in Pictures, published by Riverhead Books and selected by Barnes and Nobel as a Discover pick for this fall.
“I see how some writers have really great relationships with bookstores and with booksellers, and some writers don’t. I see what happens when a writer is a kind of dick to people who work at a bookstore. I am never going to recommend that person’s book,” she says. “Nowadays it really is the role of the writer to make sure that you have these personal connections with everyone you can to help things go well – and not in a gross, networky, slimy way; in an actual, genuine way. Relationships matter.”
As you consciously, purposefully, strike a balance between creativity and business, consider that relationships are at the heart of both. What you do with and for your fellow writers along with what you do with and for your readers will come back around in the best of ways to you and your work. And there’s nothing creepy about that.