Friday, August 14, 2015

Is it the Writer or the Self that Matters?

I was at my book critique group the other night, and a few of us have novels that are incubating to the point where we to at least give a nod to marketing. All of us are over fifty. At first glance this doesn't seem important, but actually it's so damn critical that it's terrifying. None of us are comfortable with the concept of the selfie, which is basically code for promoting yourself. I have NEVER taken a picture of myself to post on my Facebook, Blogger, or any sort of social media. I have an author photo. That's it. The concept of selling myself, whether it's a book or just, well, me is so foreign that it's like someone is speaking another language. And yet every publisher who FAQS I've perused demand that you have a robust presence on social media. Not just a blog, because they are dead. And not just Facebook because that seems to be passe. But tumblr and twitter and instagram. Post away, people!  You have a fully formed "self" that actually has nothing to do with your book. In face, IMO, the book is incidental, almost an after thought.

And what exactly does a fifty-nine year old woman have to sell these days in a world that is obsessed with youth? Fuck all, frankly.

I have just finished a book. It's done and I'm about to shop it around. I'm not making money on my writing, so I basically write what I want to write. I have fun with it. It doesn't mean that I treat my writing as nothing more than a hobby or a lark, but my lack of success actually means that I don't have to please anyone but myself. I don't have to churn out a book every six months, which given that I work full time, is absolutely impossible. And the reading public need to be fed on a constant basis. Unless you're someone like Donna Tartt where you can write one book every ten years. I'm not Donna Tartt. You can't write a book every five years like I do and expect to have a writing career. This is both freeing and also extremely depressing. But that's my reality.

So yeah, I had fun with this book. I wrote it in two different POVs, both males, and young men at that. And now I'm faced with the reality that I can't market this book as is now de rigueur. I physically can't put a picture of myself on a website or the back cover of a book and expect the market whom might actually want to read it actually pick it up or click on it. Why? Because I'm a fifty-eight year old woman writing about twenty-somethings. I have no street cred basically. I plan to market it under a pseudonym, but I can't take that very far.

For the first time I actually understand why authors create these alter personalities to sell their books. And I don't mean just writing under a different name. Remember that scandal of a street kid who wrote his memoir and it was horrifying the level of abuse he was subjected to. And the book was a massive hit and he was an industry darling, and it turns out he was a middle-aged white women who had trouble selling her novels and adopted this persona because apparently abused kids who turned were selling really well.

This is a perfect example of what I'm talking about.  The book and the author are now so joined, the "self" of the author so integral to the book, that you can't say I thought this would be fun to write and lease judge this book on its merits.

Authors are now a commodity and in some ways, I think more than the book itself.


Abigail said...

Another thoughtful post; thank you for speaking such frank sense about book publishing! I am enjoying reading your blogs.

Perhaps we should back up a bit in time and blame television—because until the TV era, authors basically didn’t have faces. But I agree that social media has logarithmically compounded the problem. (Can one compound something logarithmically? My grasp of maths was always tenuous.) Publishers all seem to be living as if they were trapped in a Wes Craven movie—in a perpetual state of panic—and are flailing about to lay blame for disappointing sales. So they place increasing and improbable responsibility on the hapless author (as if their marketing acumen had nothing to do with it). “If only the author had tweeted more, while simultaneously writing a new novel every six months . . .”

Recently, after I published a short story in a collection, the publishing house asked me to blog on its Web site. The editor wanted exactly what you described, for me to establish an identity—and not just that but to become relatable as a person to readers. I can only surmise that the assumption behind this request is that readers of the blog, if they find the author likable, will feel obliged to become readers of the next book. I wonder if that notion has been tested? It seems dubious to me. (Because the publisher was not a big name, I was able to get away with publishing a series of little essays on the less-known works of Jane Austen in lieu of writing charming little vignettes of my own life, which even I don’t want to spend five minutes on!) I have no desire to humanize myself, and it feels particularly dishonest to do so for commercial reasons. Fortunately, nobody is reading my blog, so I expect I’ll be able to stop writing it soon and the publisher and I will heave unison sighs of relief.

Writing for your own pleasure is pretty much all you can do unless you’re someone with a Following. And how icky would it be to have to serve a Following? Talk about Wes Craven time. That said, I hope you continue from time to time to post here about the publishing world as you see it.

Claire M. Johnson said...

@Abigail. I would love to read your blog! Please send me the URL:

I've just finished (for, um, the umpteenth time) re-reading Tony Tanner's Jane Austen (which if you haven't read I HIGHLY recommend), and he spends an inordinate amount of time defending the "lesser" works and makes an excellent case for why Mansfield Park is so much more than it seems. Aside from the fact that it has one of the sexiest characters in fiction (aka Mary Crawford) and also the most odious (Mrs. Norris).

I think that the lionization of the writer began with Hemingway (and all those spreads that Life magazine did of him attending the bullfights and killing animals in Africa and marlin in the Caribbean--the man loved to kill things). Then segued into the post-war bunch, with Vidal, Capote, Mailer, and Williams, who made it a habit of going on talk shows, etc. Yes, you're right. It DID start with television and then the whole social media thing has made it positive obscene.

A friend sent me a link the other day to an editor who basically said that if you don't have a hook, i.e., a niche you can exploit to sell yourself, that it's doesn't even matter how good the book is. Because, basically, it's not the book that is generating the sales, it's the author and how well you like them.

Don't you think that's why so many books are being written with truly awful protagonists? Because it attracts publicity. Like Gone Girl. Either the story or the author needs to create a buzz.

Of course, the flip side of this is if you find yourself disliking an author on a personal basis, then you find you can't read him/her again with the author's personality intruding in on your read. I've met several well-known authors, and the majority of them are really nice people (mystery authors are a collegiate bunch!). But, naturally, there are a couple of stinkers and now I refuse to buy their books solely because I don't like them as a person, and I can't divorce them from their work.

Personally, I find myself thinking about what I'm going to write and how if I can't find a publisher, then what makes the most sense to self-publish. Obviously, it's niche markets that cater to readers like Janites. But what I think when we start thinking solely in terms of niche markets, then the market starts cannibalizing itself. There's little crossover and readers settle into what is comfortable as opposed to the old publishing model where if you saw a book published by Scribners, then chances are it would be a damn good read. And you might take a chance on reading that book by a no-name author. Those days are gone.

I don't know what publishers are thinking these days. I do know that the current market is unsustainable largely because everything is stolen the minute it hits the internet. My wee little Austen pastiche? You won't BELIEVE the number of sites that have torrented that book from amazon. They probably belong to amazon prime and downloaded it for free, and now they are selling it. And it's almost impossible to stop these sites as they are largely anonymous. A self-published book!

So if these trolls are stealing my book, how many sales are the big publishers losing to these sites? I suppose they have the staff to go after them and try to shut them down, but I would imagine it's like the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dyke.

That to me is the biggest issue facing authors AND publishers. And yet no one is talking about it. The very technology that brings you a book to your Kindle is also the biggest culprit in stolen sales.

Abigail said...

How dreadful to have your book pirated like that! I'd heard of it being done when Austenesque authors put writings up on the Web for free, but a copyrighted, published novel?? Aak! I don't even know how to go about looking to find out if such a thing is happening to mine. I was weirded out just by seeing resellers trying to sell it for ridiculous sums--$33 for a book that can be had for a third as much on Amazon? I'm such an innocent about this new world, despite having worked as an editor my entire adult life (mostly freelance, so that might account for it).

I was amused by what you said about not wanting to read authors you dislike; I was reminded of Charlotte Heywood's disparaging comments about Burns's private life in Sanditon—“poor Burns’s known Irregularities, greatly interrupt my enjoyment of his Lines.”

I went with a small local publisher instead of self-publishing, but that was little more than a fig leaf. They offered some skills I lacked, including an excellent designer, but sadly, neither of us had any grasp of marketing and publicity! They published my book mostly because they wanted to cultivate me as a copy editor, I believe.