As I prepare for RavenCon, I’m listening to “The Gambler” by Kenny Rogers. And watching Monty Python videos. The combination seems very appropriate. See, one of the panels I’ll be on this year is “Self-Promotion and Social Anxiety Disorder”. And while I’ve been on promotional panels before, and I’ve been reading voraciously on the topic for three years now, I still don’t really believe I have the foggiest freaking idea what I’m doing. But I have solidly learned a few items, which I’ll tie into the song lyrics just for the hell of it (not all of them, but a few particularly apt lines) and punctuate with links to Monty Python videos to avoid being too serious about all this:
On a warm summer’s evening, on a train bound for nowhere/
I met up with the gambler; we were both too tired to sleep
Writing can feel like a career bound for nowhere, and hanging out with other writers at a convention is remarkably like meeting a fellow gambler on a train. And by Saturday night, we’re almost always so tired and so wired that we can’t sleep.
He said, “Son, I’ve made my life out of readin’ people’s faces/
And knowin’ what their cards were by the way they held their eyes.
This is also called “picking up on social cues”. Every writer hoping to promote themselves effectively must learn this above all else; you can be a self-marketing genius and still piss off the people you really need to impress, thus dooming all your efforts in the long term. This also applies to online conversations, unfortunately, where the cues are much harder to read. More on that below.
If you’re gonna learn to play the game, boy, ya gotta learn to play it right
I’m really good at Othello: simple moves, limited pieces, infinite patterns. I’m not so great at chess, because there are so many different pieces and so many possible moves that result in so many variations; but if I get in the groove I can hold several moves ahead in my mind fairly well.
Planning a marketing career, though, kind of feels like playing 3D holographic chess where the computer keeps crashing and the pieces keep switching sides and the rules have been changed recently but there’s no new instruction manual to tell you what you’re supposed to do. Meanwhile a mad Pomeranian is chewing on your ankle and a parrot is screaming obscenities in your ear.
The point is … the point is … well, the point is that a writer should never own a parrot, nor a Pomeranian. But the actual point I’m attempting to make is that it’s more effective to figure out what your strengths are and build your plan around those. Fads change, rules change, options change, opportunities change. Who you are doesn’t change nearly as fast, and if you know who you are and what you want, you’re in a better position to take advantage of whatever’s on the table at the moment.
And now for the fun chorus lines:
You got to know when to hold ‘em
You will lose faith in yourself, your writing, your agent, your publisher, your editor, your mom, your spouse, and even in the likelihood of the sun coming up in the morning. There will be times when everyone is telling you that you made a series of terrible mistakes, and that you really should pull that submission back and hire a lawyer to get out of that contract and fire that stupid editor and are you quite sure the sun’s coming up tomorrow, dear, because Fox News said just this afternoon….
Yeah. If those well-meaning folks don’t know anything about the publishing industry–or worse, if they’re just involved enough to know a little bit–it can sound right and be so, so, soooooooo wrong. And it’s sooooo hard to tell them to back off and that you know what you’re doing. But you got to hold ‘em. You have to trust that things are gonna be okay, even if the fear and the uncertainty are making you absolutely psycho crazy. You have to–very important here–you have to stay off the message boards, even your favorite totally-friendly-on-my-side-forums, when you’re freaking out. Because there is no way to phrase “I’m freaking out and I don’t trust person xyz” that doesn’t sound, by the time you’re done, just like “DON’T TRUST PERSON XYZ” . So in addition to sandbagging whoever you’re talking about, if you then take a swipe at someone wiser who tries to stop you from making an ass of yourself in a public forum, you’re in for a fast-escalating firestorm as everyone and their brother jumps into the fight. And when it’s over, you’re stuck with a ton of PR damage that’s not going to go away. Evahhhhr. Because those comment threads are all public record. So know when to hold your mouth shut, too, on and offline.
Know when to fold ‘em
There will be the exact reverse: times when a deal or situation just isn’t working out, whether that’s a partnership or a convention appearance or a publishing contract, times when everyone around you is saying “go go go!” and your instinct is saying “screeching brakes stop.” There will be times you have to trust yourself to say, “I give up. Count me out. Lesson learned.” The trick is to meet those moments will grace and dignity, because if you stomp off in a hissy fit or, again, rant all over the message boards, your blog, or Facebook…see previous paragraph for how that winds up.
Know when to walk away and know when to run
There are times for a polite, tactful withdrawal or sidestep. I’ve turned down offers to submit a story to some anthologies because they just didn’t seem the right fit for me at the time. Other people are very happy with those anthos and reportedly making very good money through them. I walked away. I don’t regret it a bit. I’ve turned down invites to conventions, same thing. Nothing wrong with the antho or convention in question; they just weren’t a good fit for me at that time. I can only do so much in a year, and that means saying no sometimes. I’ve also fended off the inevitable “Oh, you’re a writer? I have this novel I want to write, why don’t you help me write it and I’ll give you a share of the proceeds, because I’m positive it’s going to be just an awesome movie blockbuster mega hit!” (My capacity for tact occasionally strains at the seams on this one.)
There are times when a slightly faster backpedal is advisable. If you’ve already started a flame war without meaning to, or you’ve jumped in the middle of someone else’s fight, cut your losses and get out of that mess. Stop reading that thread, stop answering that person’s calls, whatever it takes. Go offline for a week and only pick up the pieces that are most important to you when you return. Actively refuse to engage in pointless confrontation, because sooner or later you’re going to lose your temper and then….see previous paragraphs. Private message or email a brief apology to the relevant people for going off the rails and stay quiet until the argument settles down. It doesn’t matter if someone’s badmouthing you or your publisher. Apologize for your part in setting things off, then shut up and stay shut.
You can’t recover ground if you never get out of the hole in the first place.
You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table/
There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done.
Agonizing over every dollar you spend on self-promotion will make you totally crazy. Forget it. Sure, self-promotion is important, sure, the money you spend on it needs considered. And there is nothing wrong with wanting to make money as a writer. But don’t obsess over it. Money isn’t the point. If money is ever more important than the actual writing itself, as I’ve said before, you’re in the wrong job.
As a semi-side note in the “lessons learned” column: don’t talk about the behind the scenes stuff unless someone asks, and even then, only if they’re persistent–because other people have said and are saying the same things you want to say, only better and with the benefit of more experience behind their words. Keep a list of informative web sites to hand out to people who ask you about the details of publishing. Steer discussion to you and your books, not to your publisher or your royalty checks or your contracts.
Just because you have one self-published book out there, or a book out through a small press, doesn’t mean you know what the hell you’re talking about regarding industry-wide trends and such. The truth is, beginners like me just don’t know enough to open our mouths on the subject. I try to avoid being on the “small press published authors” panels these days; I’m painfully and belatedly aware that I’m ignorant as hell compared to the real professionals.
Self promotion is about you. So get out there and talk to people face to face instead of posting on message boards. Share a meal with other convention attendees at the hotel restaurant. Go to book club meetings and local writer nights, go to art show openings and museums and nature walks. Write stuff that hasn’t a chance in hell of selling. Live a life. Love what you do. Have fun with it. True joy is the best self-promotional tool you have; it’s infectious.
Sit down at the table. Pick up your hand. Play the game, and don’t count your winnings or losses until you’re done–also known, to me, as “the day I file my taxes”. Put a new year-ahead plan together based on that, draw your cards, and set off again.
Without the Pomeranian. A parrot actually looks kind of cool. Especially if it’s an ex-parrot of the Norwegian Blue variety.
‘Cause every hand’s a winner, and every hand’s a loser…
And I would add that a bit of silliness and laughter helps considerably when dealing with anything serious.