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The Siren Call of Hysterical Self-Promotion

I sold my first novel back in 1998 (though this historical romance came out in May of '99), and at the time, I was eager -- make that obsessed -- with doing everything within my power to make certain it succeeded. Part of this was due to the fact that I had some time on my hands. Though I was working what would become my second book, the long lead times and the infusion of energy from *finally* getting The Call, along with my introduction to a fresh-faced and equally manic number of other young writers, combined to convince me that self-promotion was the key.

I pulled out all the stops and threw myself into a phase I've come to call "Hysterical Self-Promotion." I built my own website, spoke every place that would have me, lined up signings out the wazoo, penned articles, dredged up enough cash to place an ad in Romantic Times, and forced myself (not easy, since I'd mostly been in the closet about writing) to tell as many people as I could about my impending *authordom*.

I hope this fervor was regarded with the fond smiles of forbearance one would reserve for a large and overly-enthusiastic puppy. That's the way I look at it when I see other new authors succumbing to the same siren song. And to be fair, all this gushing excitement is WAY more attractive than those cynical and jaded hacks who rain all over everyone's parade with their torrents of bitter disappointment. (Note to self: Quit the business before crushing hopes and dreams of starry-eyed newcomers.)

A dozen sales later, I still do some self-promotion. In the competitive world of writing single-title, mass market paperback romantic suspense, I feel the pressure to do something to help get my name out to both readers and others working in the industry. Such activities have their place, but that place, IMHO, needs to be the back seat to the continued production of damned good stories.

Over time, I've developed a few rules to help guide my efforts:

Never again will I blow my entire advance (and then some, in one particularly dim-witted case) on more self-promo than I can afford. These days I set a strict budget, which amounts to no more than 10% of my advance. Less, when I feel I can get away with it.

Never again will I do stuff I sincerely hate doing. (Namely, in my case, aggressively "pushing" my books on the profoundly-disinterested. I'd never make a decent living in used car sales either.) If you're so shy, you stink at booksignings, don't do them. The results will be painful for everyone involved. If you despise public speaking, you probably won't be good at it. (As a former teacher, I love teaching, so I don't mind at all speaking to groups of writers. But even so, I have to honestly ask myself what's in it for me each time I'm invited.)

Never again will I dis-count my own time as part of the cost factor. This is the one that still gives me the most trouble. I frequently forget that my time on this planet is not an endlessly-refilling well. Time spent on self-promotion activities takes time from my writing (which had better be a priority), my family (which really is a priority), my other obligations (my next life needs to come with a staff), and my chance for rest and relaxation. If I cut short any one of these at the expense of self-promotion, my quality of life -- as well as my work -- suffers.

So how much self-promotion is too much? Are you finding yourself feeling pressured to spend hours "friending" folks on MySpace or spend your hard-earned earnings on schemes of questionable value? Where do you draw the line on the pressure to package not only your work but yourself for the consumer? And do you ever long -- as Dean Koontz's wonderful character Odd Thomas puts it -- for a simple life selling tires to folks who need them?


Joni Rodgers said…
Colleen, you are so absolutely right about this. The pressure to self-promote is full-on these days because of the massive number of people trying to be their own publisher, but after ten years of hysteria, I hereby resolve to step off, shut up, and let the PR person assigned by my publisher do her job. I'll do whatever she asks me to do -- you have to be a cheerful participant -- but my job is writing books. Thanks for reminding me.
Unknown said…
My first book hits the shelves in exactly one month (or sooner, knowing how those book store employees like to shelve us early). I've driven myself batty second guessing every decision re promotion. If I spent the money/time, was it worth it? If I didn't, did I just shoot myself in the foot? ARRRRRGGGGGHHHHHH! as the cave wall in Monty Python says.
Sandra K. Moore said…
I'm with you, Colleen. For me, promotion has to take a back seat to the things that actually matter -- family, close friends, and the actual writing.

That said, if I can get a fantastic piece of promotion that'll take maybe an hour of my time to work on, then I'll spend the hour. Or even the occasional event that involves truly interacting with people, like giving a workshop or doing a book group Q&A, where I feel like I'm giving and receiving in somewhat equal measure.

But good heavens, please don't ask me to do another book signing!

Thanks for a great post.
Thanks for all the great feedback. You're right, Joni, about cheerfully responding to requests from the house publicist (when we're blessed enough to have his/her attention.)

Congratulations, Kalen, on your debut. It's an exciting time, but also scary. I remember being petrified that I was going to neglect to do (or couldn't afford to do) the *one* thing that would assure my success. But that one thing's really been done already. You're written the best book you can, a book good enough to garner an editor's enthusiasm and a publisher's efforts. It's time to stand on the dock and wave you hanky as it sails off into the world for its adventures. (I know, I know. Easier said than done.)

I don't do many signings anymore, Sandra, but when I do, I make a conscious effort to try to have fun. (Also easier said than done when people are all but running past you, refusing to make eye contact.) I like doing a signing with one other author (no more than that or you tend to cannibalize each other's sales and intimidate customers) so we can chat or signing after a speaking gig, where people have gotten to know you well enough to take a chance. I hate driving a long way to go someplace where I don't know anyone. I also hate feeling I'm twisting people's arms and making them feel obigated to attend. (I absolute love those that do and never forget the effort!)
Jen said…
This is such a great post! I haven't yet written or published my first novel, but I've already decided I'm not going to drive myself crazy with promotion, even if it means less sales. Yes, I want to be successful, and yes, I want to be well-known. But I refuse to do what I've been doing (not so much for the purposes of promotion, although part of it is to "keep connected" to people in the business, but also just for fun), spending way too much time on the Internet, participating in MySpace (but I've already cut down on the stuff I do there), being on too many Yahoo! Groups (I've decided to drop them all soon), posting on message boards, etc. I need time to read and write! Thank you for sharing that I'm not the only one who's decided promotion can drive you crazy, and it isn't worth it to promo yourself nuts!
Julie Ortolon said…
It is a constant balancing act, but sadly self-promotion is something we can't ignore. How we promote our books seems to be changing, though. Up until recently, it was books marks, book signings, contests on our websites. Now it's all about being active in the online community that's emerging through MySpace and blogs. The old way cost more money, but the new way costs us a lot of time.

I guess the best advice I'm hearing is to budget my time as strictly as I once budgeted my dollars when it comes to promo. Either way, I always feel like screaming "ARRRGGGGHHHH!!! I can't keep up!"
Christie Craig said…

Great post. Having my first book, (in a very long time) released in December has me thinking about all kinds of promotion. But as you said, we can become overwhelmed.

Thanks for the reminder!

Glad you stopped by, Jen, Julie, and Christie. I'm glad to know I'm not the only one who has trouble finding balance.
Anonymous said…
My debut novel released March 1, and I held my promo to 10% and bought bookmarks and magnets. Not easy to keep from going overboard with so many promo items available and trailers being the rage, but I figured web presense (website, blogs and myspace) would work for me 24/7 where as magazine ads are a one shot deal. I did my website and my space myself, so the cost was much less.
Great blog, Colleen!
TJ Bennett said…
Hey, Colleen. Yes, this is a timely post indeed. I'm about to have my first book released in a year, and already I'm thinking what I need to do to prepare. Luckily, my publisher says it will place ads for me in all the "biggie" publications for buyers and readers, so that's one less thing to worry about. Still, I worry...sigh.


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