I knew I wanted to be a writer from a fairly young age—sixish or so. From that time to the present, I’ve done my best to hone the skills I thought important to my pursuit: to love words; to craft muscular, evocative prose; to form flighty, fickle ideas into vast and imposing architectures of character, plot and theme that, in the balance, create the strange beast we call a story. What no one ever told me—perhaps, what changed as I marched through the wilderness of apprenticeship on my way to journeyman status—was that there was another set of skills that I should have been honing at the same time—another set of tools that I should have been adding, piece by piece, to my scribe’s toolbox.
Come to find out, I should have learned to be a salesman.
It may sound silly, but I never thought of selling a book to a publisher as ‘being a salesman.’ Experience has taught me that I hate salesmen (sorry, feminists, salespersons) and I hate being a salesman. Granted, this has a lot to do with what I’ve come to define a salesperson as. While a clerk, a sales rep, or a customer service technician (pick the bland euphemism of your choice) might make themselves available to answer your questions and facilitate check-out, the salesman sells to you: endlessly, forcefully, relentlessly. That distinction is, perhaps, what makes me appreciate helpful customer service reps but makes me loath salesmen (sorry, feminists—this particular pronoun insists on a masculine gender—I tried): when I’ve been the former, I simply felt I was helping people; when forced to play the role of the latter, I feel that my job description suddenly shifts to bilking my customers in a desperate bid for every bit of loose change in their pocket.
I’ve done my time in the retail trenches, and let me be perfectly clear on this: except for the short time that I spent selling books at Borders (alas, poor Borders, I knew her, Horatio…), I hate selling anything. Experience has taught me that, in our feverishly consumerist culture, being a ‘salesman’ means you manipulate strangers to get them to buy things they probably don’t want and certainly don’t need. Being the sort of consumer who simply decides he needs something, researches it, then goes and acquires it, I’ve often found myself profoundly uneasy being approached by a salesman, or having to play the part of one. Usually, approaching me on a sales floor and chatting me up is the fastest way to get me to leave the store. Because I know what those ‘salesmen’ want: to always be closing.
But here I am, a struggling writer in a new world where selling stories to magazines or selling books to publishers is no longer as simple as writing something worthwhile and getting it in front of potential buyers (maybe it was never that simple, but I swear, that’s how simple most of the writers I grew up reading made it seem). In the present climate, where magazine slots for fiction are scarce, publishers want out-of-the-gate blockbusters and waste no time grooming a promising author in the midlist, and the internet offers all sorts of opportunities for both the sublime and pernicious to sound their barbaric yawps over the roofs of the world, an author is expected to sell themselves—to ‘brand’ themselves—even though they may never have sold a book. They are expected to have Facebook pages, Twitter accounts, a website and/or a blog, an email list, and an army of devoted followers just itching to pay good money for their literary produce even if nothing said writer has produced has been purchased or traditionally published. When not ‘building their platform’ or ‘managing their online persona’, they are expected to go to conferences and press the flesh, to ‘network’ (which amounts to chatting up people you don’t know, and may not like, in the hopes that they may decide to now buy the same manuscript they turned down last week, simply because now, they ‘know you,’ which apparently makes your writing better than it was just a few days ago). Today’s writers are expected to keep as many stories in rotation as possible, seeking homes with magazines; to research markets, publishers and agents in order to better focus their marketing efforts; oh yeah, and somewhere in there, they are supposed to actually write something worth selling. Meanwhile, since they are probably making no money as a writer, they’ve got to have a day job that pays the bills. And maybe some quality time with their spouse. Or their kids. Or their goldfish.
That sounds suspiciously like being a salesman to me.
Thus, my quandary: finding the time for all these administrative literary duties is hard enough… but ‘branding’ myself, ‘selling’ myself, ‘networking’ (dear God, I hate that word!) comes about as naturally to me as humility and honesty do to career politicians. I’m a writer, fer cryin’ out loud! My brand is Awkward Introvert; my product, angst; my network largely digital, and even then, usually kept at arm’s length. I was the outcast egghead who developed his one useful skill because he never got picked for the pickup baseball team, didn’t like to go outside and get dirty, and found himself tongue-tied, sweaty, and deliriously incoherent when trying to chat up a cheerleader or model/actress at a buddy’s barbecue. I write precisely because I’m trying to crash the service entrance of the Confidence Club and avoid direct engagement, the need to ‘sell’ (and thereby justify) my existence to those who are already inside enjoying their mojitos and mint juleps. Even if I had the time to devote to all these duties, why would I want to do them? The work should be the thing, shouldn’t it? The words on the page? The finished story? The polished novel?
Well, yeah. They should be. Heck, they are. But, the simple fact is, we live in a world where we are expected to sell ourselves—to make our persona as well as our product part of our ‘platform’ so that we ‘add value’ to our ‘brand’, thereby sweetening the deal for any publisher willing to take a chance on us and put our books out there as collections of bound pages at the local Barnes & Noble.
Put another way: in these financially uncertain times, publishers want to see that they’re buying a product with some legs; something that promises to immediately connect with some audience, somewhere. The internet and your social network (be it digital, analog, or a bit of both), are your labs, your audition spaces. Like troubadours trying out new material in smoky coffee houses or stand-up comics testing new jokes on the two-drink minimum patrons at the local Improv, our networks are the places where we—the writer—test our marketplace mettle.
True, there is the sad fact that marketing, branding and networking—even when done skillfully and with gusto—do not equal selling. The very precious time we spend trying to do this side stuff could probably be used for better purposes, like actually writing, or catching a nap because the newborn woke us up at two a.m. We may Facebook to empty air. We may blog into an abyss. We may Tweet, but no one may woof in reply. Do we then consider that time and effort—that hard work and dedication to branding and building our platforms—wasted time? And how on earth do we gain any comfort with it, when we naturally have none?
Reticent as I am to admit it, I suspect that all these snipe-hunts serve a useful purpose. Like eating vegetables or going to the gym, they may not be easy, and they may not come naturally, but they can, potentially, force us to see that our work as writers is more than just our writing: it’s us. Though the novels, the stories, the words are the ultimate aim of all our efforts, our product is the sum of all those parts: our product is us. Our persona, our brand, our sense of pride, accomplishment, purpose and professionalism as human beings. So, in the end, I suppose there is only one way to confront this bugbear: you have to meet it head on. As a wise therapist once said to me: if you’re not uncomfortable, you’re probably not growing.
I always hated it when she was right.
Still, the question remains: if I must sell, how should I go about it? How does the introvert grow comfortable ‘putting himself out there’? How does a social network grow to encompass a professional one?
We will explore the answers to those questions (and others) next time…