Twenty-first century writers suck.
Not at the craft – not all of us, anyway – but at presenting ourselves as sympathetic characters.
Many of us have become media whores, slaves to the 5-star rating system, players of the ever-evolving Amazon game, and in the pursuit of success we’ve become insufferable. Virtual book launch parties, author platforms, review swapping, cover reveals, phony author interviews, incessant “book birthday” announcements, hashtags, hashtags, hashtags… never before has the author been so personally responsible for book marketing, and it’s glaringly obvious that most of us are no good at it.
Sure, there are a precious few shining stars among us who are both excellent writers and savvy marketers, and they’re the ones who have a real shot at becoming the fabled success stories. The rest of us, on the other hand, are bumbling around with beginner-level marketing techniques, spamming our readers and anyone else who will listen with a constant wail of “reeeeaaaadddd mmmmeeeee.”
Now, before you start organizing a lynch mob to come after me with torches blazing in defense of your “platform,” I want to add that this is not (entirely) our fault.
With a new book being published – traditionally or independently – roughly every 30 seconds, the publishing industry would be blind not to notice the influx of new writers all clamoring to hop on the book-making machine. And although many of us may cry foul, the industry just wouldn’t be part of an inherently capitalist system if it didn’t look upon these new arrivals as a gift of free labor – thus, we’ve become cogs rather than creators. The business end of books has fallen to the author, and those of us who want our work to be read are obliged to play along.
No more will the publishing houses take primary responsibility for the marketing and advertising of books, and for many new authors it has become impossible to even attract the attention of a traditional publisher without a pre-built audience ready to slide across the table alongside their manuscript. Because there are so many of us and so many books all vying for attention, traditional publishers have taken a page out of the self-publishing business model and adopted a ‘do it yourself’ attitude.
Authors – whether traditionally or self-published – cannot count on having access to the advertising dollars and expertise of a publisher, and this change has necessitated a new breed of writer: the prolific, unedited social media whore.
These authors – generally of the indie persuasion, although I hate to stereotype – pump out books at break-neck speed, never slowing down to edit, reflect, or proofread, because that’s what the Amazon machine has taught them to do. In the self-publishing world, an extensive back catalog is life and quantity wins out over quality every day of the week.
When they’re not writing, this new breed is marketing their hearts out because they know that every ounce of success or failure they taste is dependent on the amount of blood, sweat, and tears they pump into the machine. There’s no room for laziness in this brave new world, just like there’s no room for editing, so every day authors sally forth with a new batch of tweets and posts and pleas and cries of ‘read me.’
And the vast majority of us – the ones without book deals or Top 100 Amazon rankings – are doing nothing more than shouting our atonal siren songs into the void. Readers definitively do not care about our virtual book launch parties, our author platforms, our cover reveals, our book birthdays. They don’t care about the discordant lines we post on Twitter as “teasers” for our works in progress.
We’re spending all our energy catering to audiences that aren’t there because we think it’s the only way to achieve success, according to the new rules that the publishing has set for us. We’ve been sold a bill of goods by the many, many self-proclaimed content marketing experts, who promise success and Kindle sales beyond our wildest dreams if only we build the perfect platform, run our social media accounts with an iron fist, and spread our literary legs wide in the name of promotion.
But none of this behavior builds a fan base comprised of anything but commiserating writers, and it’s not how audiences are built. Show me a single study – hell, I’ll settle for a convincing anecdote – about how it’s not discipline, practice, and persistence but the constant extruding of our souls through the marketing machine that produces successful authors, and I’ll eat my book.
The good news is that we don’t have to follow these rules. We don’t have to exhaust ourselves with the tedious task of pimping our platforms, only to realize we have no gas left in the tank to write. We can reset the game.
How? By refusing to play it.
For a brief and beautiful window sometime around 2010, self-publishing was a way for authors to make their own luck after being turned down or jaded by the traditional publishing industry. Ever since then, though, it’s been dragging us all down into the muck of opportunism, greed, and shameless self-promotion. Shouting into the void should not be the objective, but indie and traditional authors alike are being pulled in so many different directions that they’re doing anything but writing and editing and honing their craft – the only thing that really makes a successful writer.
It’s not how many Twitter followers we have.
It’s not our newsletter subscribers.
It’s not our Amazon ranks.
It’s not the number of hours we spend marketing yourself.
It’s our bodies of work.
Collectively, we need to stand up and demand better of ourselves. If self-publishing is ever going to be more than the Great Slush Pile in the Cloud, indies have to stop putting every little piece of garbage they write on Amazon in pursuit of the Almighty Dollar. If traditional publishers are ever going to pick up the marketing slack again, it’s the authors who need to demand that change, not slavering over the promise of a book deal and agreeing to whatever terms are thrown into the contract.
If any of us has a chance of being heard over the cacophony emanating from the book-making machine, we all must help thin the herd by demanding better writing and accepting less bullshit marketing.