Digging for Words

One writer's quest to bring the past to life through imagination


5 Comments

Shouting in a Crowd

Written in support of Stuart Lutz, The Last Leaf: Voices of History’s Last-Known Survivors, Stephanie Cowell, Claude & Camille: A Novel of Monet, and all my other friends who have, will, or long to be published.

What’s it like to be an author today? To be sure, the days of rarified literary isolation are over. Authors in the 21st century are expected to be our own biggest advertisement, shouting loudly and clearly from the highest height at the top of our lungs for attention, recognition and, most of all, sales.

No longer is publicity the realm of a professional publicist. Old school publicity methods, like press releases and pitch letters, are losing steam. Blogger Jonathan Fields lays out the new landscape in a strident but accurate gripe in The Huffington Post about the dismally ineffective methods of one unnamed career publicist whose pitch Fields immediately and repeatedly deleted as spam.

Truth be told – no publicist, for almost no amount of money, can dedicate the time, expertise, creativity, energy and intimate awareness of your work to properly promote the creation of your literary heart and soul. Any publicist assigned by a publisher, however well meaning and enthusiastic, is also working on several other authors’ books that are equally pressing (and hopefully just as worthy).

They will promise to do their best, but they will most likely follow a prescribed formula, reaching out to standard media outlets: newspapers (whose review sections have shrunk or disappeared), magazines (whose pages have literally halved to match their dwindling ad revenues), a short list of radio talk shows (God bless and keep you, NPR!), television morning shows (for that solid gold 60-second pitch), and of course, Oprah (ah, to live the dream!).

But beyond that list (which, by the way, nearly everyone uses), publicists simply don’t have time to handcraft a marketing and publicity scheme. Even if you hire someone, you might get a bit more attention, but the bang for your buck is mostly likely going to have to come from you.

Publishers know this and increasingly rely on it. Authors are expected to be expert entertainers, artful networkers, personable, presentable, articulate and with any luck – yes, it counts – attractive. Maybe even funny (no matter if our work is of a deadly serious nature).

Long before our books are ever in print, we find ourselves swimming in the ill-fitting publicist’s shoes, developing our websites, marketing materials, ads, booking library talks, readings and signings for our own mostly self-financed book tours. [The D.I.Y. Book Tour, NY Times, January 17, 2010] We blog for anyone out there who’ll let us. If given the opportunity, we will happily tap-dance naked in Times Square, if only someone would look our way.

How can it help but feel like we are all shouting into the same abyss – like the Grand Canyon itself lined with authors, actors, artists, musicians, dancers, playwrights, TV producers, video game creators, Ipod App developers (anyone I’ve missed?) begging for someone to notice our creation and make it the next big thing.

The likelihood that we’ll get any notice at all feels (is) pretty small, so when we get a little feedback, it’s as if we’ve won the Pulitzer. Yet our interaction with the public is no longer professional, it’s personal. There’s no packet of letters carefully screened by our editor or agent. Instead our inbox is laced with emails requesting advice, correcting our facts, critiquing our work, and once in a while – yes, bless them – praising our words. [The Perils of ‘Contact Me’, NY Times, January 10, 2010.]

We are expected to find time to tweet, social network and blog. We’re expected to be a part of the conversation. It’s a valid demand in the world where virtual socializing is more prevalent than face-to-face. But all of this takes incredible amounts of time. [Memoirist Vicki Forman on Book Publicity, http://lisaromeo.blogspot.com, January 19, 2010.]

Many writers I know simply give up hope of actually writing when they’re gearing up for the book launch. Beyond the strict reality that there are only 24 hours in the day, the effort to be so completely out-in-the-world contradicts the literary necessity of digging deeply inward. The two are incompatible. Better not to fight the split

Maybe it’s a good thing. Most authors I know bemoan their lonely state. (One reason I originally began teaching was, as many of you know, to be around humans other than my family for longer than the time it takes me to drop off or pick up my kids.)

But must the contrast be so extreme? And how many of us – savvy, articulate and ambitious as we are – are really equipped to take on this incredible burden?

Honestly, I’d love to hand over my publicity to someone else. I’d love to trust that it would take care of itself so I could sink down deep into my office chair and slip utterly into my newest tale.

But for all the work I put into my most recent creation, who better to sing its praises? Who better to honestly enthuse about the topic for which I sweated, cried and bled? Who better to know just where to find people with similar passions?

Writing is our agony and our joy. Sharing even that bit of experience draws us together with anyone else who struggles for rare rewards. Every time I cry into the abyss and hear something back, I know that, this time, it’s not an echo. Someone out there has really read and understood what I meant.

Finally, I know I’ve been heard.