WRITERS AT WORK: Regarding the Emperor’s New Clothes, Part 1

Hi everyone,

As promised, Sandy Asher and I are back with a new series of discussions this month, this time focusing on how authors struggle with the challenges of marketing our own work. Sandy goes first.

We hope that you will join in our informal chat by adding your comments and questions at any time as we go. As of now our January schedule for WRITERS AT WORK includes my remarks on the 10th, Sandy’s second set on the 17th, and my second set on the 24th. There are five Tuesdays this month so we’ll see what develops from reader comments that might lead to a good way to end the month.

Hi, Sandy. The floor is yours.

Hi, David. And away we go!

January 3, 2012
Part One – Sandy


Back in the day – you young’uns need to know this – book publishing followed a predictable path: Writers wrote. Editors acquired, edited, guided, supervised, and championed writers and books, thereby carefully building careers – their own and those of their writers. Given the editors’ choices, designers designed. Publishers published. Marketers marketed.

Writers, the foundation supporting everyone else’s work, could be out and about or they could be hermits who lived in mountaintop caves and delivered revisions by homing pigeon or trained burro. Writers could be old, young, attractive, homely, or complete mysteries writing under pen names, unbeknownst even to their nearest and dearest, let alone the reading and/or media-viewing public.

While children’s writers were rarely sent on book tours, they were encouraged to visit schools and libraries and to present at teachers’ and librarians’ conferences and writing workshops to help boost their booksales. (“Encouraged” is the operative word here; not “forced” or even “expected.”) A book that garnered three or four good reviews automatically got an ad in the professional journals. An author who placed three books with the same publisher got even more attention. Often, invitations to present came through the publisher’s marketing office, and the publisher paid the author’s travel and lodging expenses, especially to attend large conferences, where autograph sessions at the publishers’ booth were a given. So was dinner.

Children’s books stayed in print for many years because publishers knew it took a long time for reviews, awards, and word of mouth to move a title from shelf to librarian to teacher to parent to child. Publishers also knew there’d be a new audience of children coming along every few years as each group aged and moved on. Backlists were valuable assets.

Enter the corporate “tailors.” (Young’uns, here’s where it’s all about what you’re up against. But David and me, too. We knew the emperor before the tailors took over and we’re still here.) While writing, editing, and reading have remained pretty much the same, and while librarians, teachers, parents, and children haven’t changed much, publishing has been turned upside down. Marketers now make the choices formerly reserved for editors – and then insist that writers do their own marketing.

Writers are expected to maintain ornate, enticing, and ever-changing Websites, blogs, and Facebook pages. It’s strongly suggested that they create and distribute bookmarks and postcards, produce trailers for each of their books, and tweet. Maybe hire publicists or join speakers’ bureaus. Publishers pay for none of this, neither the expense nor the time involved; it’s all out of pocket. Oh, and there are still those school and library visits, conferences, and workshops to do, also generally unsupported by the publisher — except for best sellers, top award winners, and celebrity authors, who also get the journal ads and the dinners.

While honoraria may offset some of the PR costs writers are asked to bear, one cannot help but wonder whether they really do, and how much time is left for writing more books — still the foundation on which the industry rests. Never mind time left for family. Or health.

Meanwhile, books that do not immediately sell briskly go out of print in the blink of an eye, and writers who don’t generate enough “firepower” for brisk sales of their first and second books don’t get to build careers. So writers-who-market are under far more pressure than marketing departments ever were – they had years, remember? — to get the word out and to get it way out, in front of the hordes of other writers attempting to friend, blog, and tweet their way to fame and fortune. Or, at the very least, to earning out their advances, seeing future royalties, and publishing more books.

Is it me, or is there something wrong with this picture? It is what it is, and it’s not going back to what it was. I understand that. But, David, I have to ask whether the emperor is really wearing any clothes. Is this furious effort on the part of writers – especially the young ones – actually selling enough books to keep their work in print and their careers on track? If so, at what cost? And if not, or if the cost is too high, what alternatives do we writers have? I plan to speak to those questions next time, and I look forward to hearing what your own experiences are telling you.

Our wise friend and colleague Kristi Holl once remarked that the best way to sell your current book is to write the next one. I can’t get that advice out of my head. We’re writers. Writers write.

11 comments on “WRITERS AT WORK: Regarding the Emperor’s New Clothes, Part 1

  1. Sounds a little scary for a new writer to attempt a career. It is probably a good thing that writing is so personally rewarding. I really enjoy the articles so please continue them.

    • It is scary, and yet people are finding their way, some quite cleverly, and a few are writing books about it to help others find their way. So glad to know you’re enjoying Writers at Work, Don. I’m encouraged!

  2. Hi Don,

    Sometimes it seems that way, but you are absolutely right: the reward for writing is writing. Onward and upward!


  3. Your article is so true! I thought you might like this quote I posted about my crash course in marketing after self-publishing my book last year. “I now can tell you…a Tweet doesn’t come from a bird, a Post isn’t on a porch, being Followed is good, and you can never be Liked by to many people…”
    I will start following your blog in-between my multi-media posts, paper marketing, & school, library visits ; )

    • Hello, Katie,

      Thanks for joining us and for your timely comment! We’ll post the second, third, and fourth episodes on the 10th, 17th, and 24th so come back then too.


  4. I have to wonder what will happen eventually when writers who prefer the hermit life must either perform or perish. I guess an advantage of a computer-driven-lifestyle is one can still maintain a degree of anonymity. But what about the people-to-people marketing??

    • It’s a puzzlement, for sure, Meryl. Ebooks, print-on-demand, and self-publishing may provide solutions. By eliminating the pressure of work going out of print, one could market happily enough from one’s mountaintop.

  5. When you love to write, you write. When you love children and adults you are out among them to share what knowledge you have. Word-of-mouth is a great way to promote yourself and your writings. Thanks Sandy and David for sharing your knowledge.

    • Dang! I was just composing a reply to you, Mary Nida, via gmail and it disappeared — just as David’s reply popped up. Where’d it go?

      As I was saying: My pleasure — and a huge part of that pleasure is knowing that readers like you are out there. Thank you for taking the time to write and let us know.

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