by Janis Susan May/Janis Patterson
I’m distressed. Not long ago I went to lunch with a well-known publicist. We all want lots of sales, and anything that helps sell books is all to the good, right?
Now I’m not sure. The more I listened to the publicist, the more distressed I became. With the energy of a televangelist she spoke of how in order to be noticed a writer had to Tweet several times a day, Facebook just as often, join and participate in several new social media groups (as one never knew which one would turn into the next Facebook), grow a mailing list for regular newsletters, attend at least one book club (but several were better) both in person and online in order to get to meet readers, do readings and signings and all manner of public appearances, have an interesting and up-to-date website… Oh, and you’re supposed to have a blog – or several – which you update regularly and often, as well as guest blog. Blog tours are also recommended.
Then she got really depressing and predicted that within a very few years we wouldn’t be selling books at all – that all content would be free, like movies and tv are free on the internet today. (I haven’t seen any actors, actresses or producers working for free lately, though, and I doubt if many professional writers want to either.) When asked how we would make our money, she gleefully announced, “Through marketing!” Yes, we’re supposed to sell mugs and tote bags and God-only-knows-what, each with a tie-in to our books and characters. Apparently some writers are already doing this, but there was no explanation of when they found time to write, let alone lead a life or be with their family.
That’s when I tuned out, totally overwhelmed. We’re supposed to do all that? And write, too? To say nothing of dealing with real life, such as emergencies, family obligations and even the constant necessities of the dishwasher and the laundry…
Most writers have families, and jobs, and obligations. And, yes, they have to write. Most writers I know are already stretched to the max. No writer of whom I am aware sits around on a chaise eating bon-bons and wondering how they will fill the empty hours since they finished their last opus. In fact, I venture to say most of us barely get done what is already necessary.
So where is all the extra time going to come from for us to tweet and FB and attend all those book club meetings and gather every reader we meet into the fold of personal friendship? My days are full, but I’m selfish – I like getting at least five hours sleep a night, and that’s just about the only time I’m not busy.
Another, equally vocal, camp says that we should all be self-publishing, that self-publishing is the best way to gain fame and fortune. Well, I’m self-published and if this is fame and fortune…! I know that there are authors making bazillions of dollars from self-pubbing, and I know there are other authors with equally good books who even after several months have not yet made back their expenses. Most of us fall somewhere in between. Whatever the financial rewards, self-pubbing just adds to the workload. Now you not only must deal with edits, you have to find and hire the editor. Same with the cover and the artist, as well as the translator if you decide to publish in foreign languages. A lot of authors do their own formatting for the various vendors – more time gone! Then, once the book is out, you must deal with any legal matters that crop up – copyright questions, piracy takedown notices, excerpts – and before you know it, an entire morning or even a day is gone and not a word written.
Everything I’ve mentioned, from formatting to laundry, can be hired out or, if you have helpful children or a supportive spouse, handed over to them. If you do hire someone that becomes self-defeating in a way and can backfire badly. You can pay a virtual assistant to tweet and FB and Instagram and whatever for you, but if part of your goal is to be a friend to your reader, how is that friend going to feel when they find out (and they will, believe me, they will) that the lovely personal notes and friendly posts you’ve been making to your fan friends have been done by a hireling?
If there was one thing this marketing guru harped on, it was personal contact between the author and the reader. “Make the reader your friend,” she crooned; “go to places where you can meet the readers.” Now instead of writing, we are supposed to join book clubs – both physical and on-line, where the readers can get to know us as a person and regard us as a friend. We are supposed to start street teams, where our fans publicize for us and we reward them with advance books, goodies and our attention. “Stay in contact with your readers – always answer any communication you receive from a reader/friend. Talk about your personal life instead of your working life when you blog. Be open. Be receptive. Keep them appraised of what you’re doing.”
Why? Why force or feign a friendship where one doesn’t spring naturally? We all know about some readers who want to have a personal relationship with their favorite authors – not just because they admire their work, but because being ‘friends’ with a real author somehow makes some of the glamour rub off on them. I don’t understand that particular line of reasoning, but I know it exists, sometimes to the point of dangerous stalking. Most people don’t need to be friends with someone in order to appreciate their talent or artistry. I have met readers and a few of them have become friends, but it is because of whatever magic that makes two people become friends no matter how they meet, not because I want to hang their scalp from my belt as a fan. To treat every fan you meet as a special friend is really doing them a disservice, for while everyone can be friendly, friendship is special. I do believe in friendliness and politeness to all readers, but not the cold-blooded stalking of them for fans.
And for that matter, where did this position of ‘you have to make friends of your readers’ start? As far as I am concerned, readers becoming friends isn’t part of the professional equation. Writers write books. Readers read books. That’s all either should expect, other than the common courtesies that are part of a civilized society.
So, I ask again, where is the time for all this involvement and friendliness supposed to come? I guess it would work well for someone who has written a single book, maybe two, and is doing nothing but trying to sell them. For the rest of us, we have to have time to write. It has never made sense that readers expect you to be their best friend and still have you write X number of books a year.
There are jokes about writers working in an empty room filled with imaginary people. They’re funny, yes, but they also underscore that writing is at heart a very solitary business. Some writers dream of a quiet room where they can be alone with their computer and their stories for hours and hours, but I also know many writers who write best in a crowded coffee shop, or who turn out scene after scene in the dentist’s waiting room or while at their daughter’s soccer practice or even sitting with the family in front of the TV at night. I applaud them for writing whatever their personal process is, but wherever they sit while putting down words, writing is still a solitary business. No matter how many people are around, writing still boils down to just the writer and the words and the people in that writer’s head.
Just the writer and words – and it take time and concentration to get those words, to make a story come alive and touch people. On my computer I have a little saying that I read every morning before starting work – “Write, don’t talk.” Originally it meant that a story should be written and not talked to death being shared with all and sundry, but it fits just as well to mean one should be writing instead of chatting with friends. Beside that phrase is another one, “Writing is easy – all you do is stare at a blank screen until drops of blood fall on your forehead.”
Good writing is work, and like all work, takes time. There has to be a balance between writing the books and publicizing them. I think the majority of a writer’s time should be spent writing the best book she can. And another. And another. Writers should write, and readers should read. That’s the equation.