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
WRITERS AT WORK
Topic 10 – REGARDING THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES
Part One – Sandy
REGARDING THE EMPEROR’S NEW CLOTHES
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.