My Two Cents on Author Self-Promotion

When it comes to author self-promotion, you might expect me to be on the “pro” side of the argument.  After all, I have this website all squared up, I have my Facebook author page, and I have my Hootsuite-enabled Twitter account.

Heck, if Myspace hadn’t become the internet equivalent of a whorehouse in a war zone, I would promote myself there, too.

However, let me play Devil’s Advocate — or, more accurately, Devil’s Strategic Process Analyst — by discussing two things I wonder about whenever the issue of author self-promotion is brought up.

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MERIT OR LEG-UP?

First, there’s a cognitive bias called the Attribution Effect or (less charitably) the Fundamental Attribution Error, which leads us to preferentially attribute the behavior of others, particularly undesirable behavior, to the personality of the other person rather than to their situation.

When I hear resistance against self-promotion attributed to the “reclusive” or “nerdy” or “introverted” disposition of authors, my bias detector starts to buzz like a … buzzing, detecting thing.

Is the real problem that authors who are expected to bear the greatest share of promotional efforts — new or lower-tier authors — are reclusive by disposition, or is there a situational explanation?

Given that the number of hours worked in the US has risen steadily since 1973 (according to Bureau of Labor Statistics figures), perhaps the rising demands of the proverbial “day job” leave non-celebrity authors with very little time and energy left over for self-promotion.

Never mind that being tied to a 40-hours/week job location means they don’t have the freedom to pack up and travel from town to town promoting themselves and their books.  There’s a huge difference between being reclusive and being tired and obligated.

Now to the strategic process analysis.  In economic terms, does such a standard of expecting authors to promote themselves reward (a) the sort of authors who are likely to continue to produce good books that readers want to read, or (b) authors who simply start their writing careers with an above-average resource base?

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LONG-TERM VISION

Considering that a bad but aggressively promoted book can still profit, it might seem economically irrelevant to draw a distinction between good authors and aggressive or well-resourced ones.  However, we also have to consider the consumer feedback loop, a dynamic that has been central to economic thinking since Adam Smith published The Wealth of Nations in 1776.

It’s not just today’s book purchase that matters, but also tomorrow’s.

I rarely see serious consideration for the long-term feedback consequences of a process that selects primarily for self-promoting authors, but such feedback consequences are central to any respectable model of free market economics.  Buying a good product that was aggressively promoted will encourage customers to buy more of the like, but buying an aggressively promoted product that turns out disappointing can sabotage the trust of customers and thus undermine future sales.

I can’t count how many times I’ve given in to the aggressive promotion of a crappy book or film (the aptly named Sucker Punch comes to mind) only to have the post-purchase experience leave such a bad taste in my mouth that it negatively affected my later consumption habits.

After recently reading True Grit, I was hankering for more fiction. But I remember during my early 20s grinding to a halt halfway through a particularly awful sci-fi novel by a well-known author.  I handily won a bet with a friend of mine that he couldn’t push through it either, and I swore off fiction for over a year before overwhelming critical reviews seduced me into reading Kim Stanley Robinson’s Red Mars.

We typically think of economic feedback in terms of competition between suppliers in the same industry, but it is just as relevant in terms of competition between industries: a dollar spent on a book could just as easily be spent on a pair of shoes or a video game or an espresso machine.

Readers know this; publishing industry pros need to take it more seriously.  It’s not just about how large a slice of the pie goes to this or that publisher, or to paper vs. ebooks.  It’s also about how large that literary pie is altogether, and whether its ingredients (consumer dollars) are being redirected to some other pie.

Nevertheless, publishers habitually ignore this key strategic dynamic of economics, not only by leaving most authors to determine the scope and tone of their own promotion, but also by publishing and promoting bad books — or even recycling failed novels, *cough* Overton! *cough* — under celebrity names.

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CONCLUSION

Pairing aggressive promotion with products carefully selected, by professionals, for quality that is commensurate to the level and tone of promotion, is the only standard certain to inspire repeat consumption; this is of critical importance to the health of an industry as a whole and over the long term.

Arguing that agents and publishers are already carrying out the selection aspect of the formula when they decide who to publish is like claiming you’ve done your best as an archer by picking well-made arrows fashioned by the best fletchers.  Having a quiver full of straight arrows does not make you Robin Hood.  Promotional professionals also need to be the ones selecting specific arrows for specific shots, aiming the bow, and drawing back the string.

To dig into the analogy a bit more: demanding that fletchers have to shoot their own arrows (meaning that most archers are actually fletchers pushed outside of their skillset) will simply reduce the quality of work in both areas.  You’ll discourage and exclude good fletchers who can’t shoot, you’ll reduce the amount of time that other fletchers have to hone their arrow-making skills, and you’ll fail to develop master archers who don’t necessarily know how to make arrows.

The inestimable value of specialization was something else that Adam Smith taught us about in 1776.  Over two centuries ago.  Let’s catch up, shall we?

And, I say all this as a writer who is more than willing to promote himself.  However, that’s my personal position.

From a professional standpoint, I understand that my willingness to promote myself is not necessarily the best thing for the book trade as a community.  I am absolutely certain that there are great writers out there whose talents will never furnish their agents and publishers the fullest possible benefit simply because the pros aren’t willing to invest promotion in them.

And as a result, everyone is poorer, both financially and culturally.

Author self-promotion might be “the way things work” but that doesn’t mean that it’s the way things work best.  There’s nearly a quarter millennium of economic wisdom advising us to have publicists publicize, have marketers market, have promoters promote, and have authors … ummm … auth.

That’s not to say that writers shouldn’t occasionally go to a book signing, give an interview, or deliver a little talk (we can’t all pull a Salinger) but the primary responsibility for promotion should be with professional promoters, not with professional artists.

And pushing a less-than-optimal status quo simply because it is the status quo and not because it’s the best way to do business is, in a word, unprofessional.

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