In the beginning was the Word…which then developed into a sentence, paragraphs, then chapters, until finally it became a story. But in this bespoke creation myth, the seventh day brought no rest because said story had to be marketed to the masses.
No piece of writing, no matter how florid or mellifluous, has ever gone widely-read without some form of promotion. As Mary Volmer, author of Crown of Dust, puts it, “Charles Dickens would have been a tweet-happy, Facebook-posting wizard” had he the anachronistic tools at his disposal.
Having been involved in marketing in another life, I’ve developed a keen interest in how writers market their work. I’d always wonder, how do you get book signings/readings to be so much more damn interesting than they are? (For an answer, look no further than Carve’s One-Night Literary Stand!). How do you measure return on investment for all those readings?
Short of a book club endorsement by Oprah, promoting one’s writing may seem a Sisyphean task. Short stories and novels are arguably not the sexiest commodities in an increasingly non-literary world (pigs will most likely fly the day we all see a Super Bowl ad for a Joyce Carol Oates book).
Volmer, whose first novel was published by Soho Press, took to the road to promote Crown of Dust in various cities. “Most of the cost of this venture came out of pocket,” she said. “To keep costs low I slept on friends’ couches and ate cheap out of the grocery store.”
But technology has come to the rescue of authors’ frayed wallets, at least for those authors amenable to them. Peter Tieryas Liu, whose short story collection Watering Heaven, was recently published by Signal 8 Press, embraced the use of marketing tools available to him.
“Before my book, I had no social media presence,” he said. “Now, I’m on every medium I can be on. I know many people might be turned off by that prospect, especially at the onset when it can become a huge distraction. But you learn how to balance it and interact with various audiences.”
The possibilities seem limitless and encourage creativity: going viral via Facebook or Twitter, YouTube book trailers, Skype literary readings, you name it. Bloggers, comme moi, have at their disposal useful data, i.e. stats on web site visits, comments, likes/recommendations, etc.
But such knowledge may be the dastardly Forbidden Fruit for authors. NPR recently did a piece on e-readers’ ability to supply authors market research data they can then use to enhance their “product” and maximize readership.
Liu, who has a secondary passion for video gaming, likens this to game testing. “When games go through the QA process, they are torn apart and…some places record every reaction of the tester to determine what areas are hard, fun, and too easy,” he said. “Likewise, it might be useful to know where readers get bored and where readers flip the page quickly. I don’t think that should be the ultimate gauge, but as a tool, I don’t think it’s a bad thing.”
Some writers may weary of technology’s over-reach and the over-commercializiation of writing, and perhaps rightly so. But writers should note that there is a marked difference between market research that affects how writing is promoted, and market research that affects the writing itself.
In the end, it’s really all about priorities. Volmer nicely puts it this way: “My first, most important job as an author is to write a story I love, a compelling story that deserves an audience. The second part of my job is to do everything in my power to ensure the book finds an audience.”
Any which way you slice it, the writing comes first.
How do you spread the word about your writing?