The writer is 'branded'

Publishers and agents will sometimes ask a writer about his or her branding. They want to know what the marketability of the writer is. What the backstory is. They want to know what the publicity angle will be for a book. And, more often than not, they want the writer to provide this information, if not to develop the entire plan.

Publishers expect writers to develop their presence in the marketplace. Facebook and Twitter have become, in some cases, as much advertising spaces as social networking sites. The vast majority of writers have blogs. Obviously, I’m one of them.

Let’s be clear, I enjoy blogging. For me, it’s a way of publishing ‘essays’ without a middleman and a way of connecting with readers. And my blogs are sometimes about the books I write, but also about issues of faith and addiction. Is that advertising myself as a writer? I suppose so, since I do hope my writing here might spur some interest in my fiction and that, perhaps, you’ll buy a book. (I assume you have noticed the link to Amazon, yes?) So what I am about to say should be considered through this lens.

And what, you ask, am I about to say? Well, as a writer I admit to being somewhat disturbed by the emphasis some publishers and agents place on writers for their own marketing and publicity.
Ambition’s frantic pace, we are told, is a good thing. Publishers inform their ‘stable’ of writers that they must Twitter (God help me) that they need blogs, like this one, and Facebook pages, and fan pages. Every book now apparently needs an accompanying video on Youtube. I have one friend who has produced tee-shirts for his book. Writers are ‘encouraged’ to set up their own reading tours, and to ‘cross-market’ and brand themselves, which sounds hideously painful. Yesterday a friend told me of a well-known writer of her acquaintance who, in spite of being published by a large publishing house, felt obliged to hire an independent publicist who booked a whistle-stop promotional tour for him, for which the writer also provided the funds – gas and hotel rooms and food and so forth.

Do I need one of these for my next book?

Perhaps I date myself here, but I always thought that sort of thing was the publisher’s job, no? My job, as a writer, is to produce the very best book I can — which takes years of daily work. If you worked out the hourly pay of a fiction writer, well, I expect you’d take up another profession. Apart from that, I accept that in these times I must also make my self available for interviews of various sorts, for readings, for book fairs and festivals, and for signings. I must be presentable, pleasant, sober and be willing to travel. And unless I am a hugely successful international author, I can expect that travel to be more Motel 8 than Ritz-Carleton. Fair enough. Although book tours can be stressful, they can also be extremely rewarding. I find meeting readers a wonderful experience, since so much of my working life is spent in isolation, unsure if, in fact, anything I’m doing is worthwhile in any way. (Writer’s doubts — I’ll do another blog on that one day.)

With all of that said, however, I am baffled as to why publishers and agents — well, some of them — depend so much on writers for developing and pitching their own publicity and marketing. Self-promotion and marketing and all the rest is generally antithetical to the writer’s temperament. As writer’s we are people who like to be alone, for the most part. We are introverts (read here for the best care and feeding of the introvert in your life) or at best social introverts, able to come out and play periodically, and with joy, but for the most part we are rather reclusive. For most of us, the idea of phoning, or emailing, someone and ‘pitching’ ourselves and our work would make us psychotic. Perhaps I exaggerate here — neurotic is probably a better word, but then, many writers are pretty neurotic to begin with! At least reclusive and insecure, living in the tangled woods of our own minds — not to mention the fact that we are trained as prose experts, not publicity experts. I seem to recall friends going to school to learn marketing. Most writers I know went to different schools.

But listen, I get it. Publishing is in trouble and we can no longer depend on publishers to do the work they once did. Now, we are lucky if they will provide us with a good editor (since we can’t do brain surgery on ourselves, or at least I can’t), get us a couple of reviews in the ever-shrinking review market, and produce a quality book. As for the rest, we’re on our own. Which is a pity, since I don’t actually think this dependence on the writer to sell her own books is the best way to sell books. We don’t assume that the person who builds the car is the best person to sell the car. I suspect the person who invented the formula for Coca-cola wasn’t the person who created that iconic logo.

And while the writer is putting all this energy into her marketing plan, her publicity tour, into pitching herself to festivals and reading groups, to radio stations and television programs…who’s writing the next book? For a writer, isn’t the actual writing the most important thing? Or shouldn’t it be? Is there a difference between fiction writers and non-fiction?

You tell me — I’d love to hear your thoughts.


  1. lucky 8 on August 14, 2009 at 6:25 pm

    hi Lauren, I've followed your writing for quite a while, and there is no doubt in my mind you already have a great brand. As a reviewer said about your writing "you have candor that can strip paint".
    Just keep writing!

  2. Dory Adams on August 15, 2009 at 6:41 am

    Well said, Lauren. The majority of writers struggle hard enough just to carve out precious writing time — and many work day jobs as well, essentially working a second shift as it is.

    I think there is a difference between fiction writers and nonfiction writers in the sense that fiction writers (particularly novelists) need larger blocks of writing time to immerse themselves in the world of their characters. It may be easier to chip away at nonfiction, to leave and re-enter that writing space in shorter spurts of writing time.

    The thing I love most about blogging is the more direct connection with readers that you mentioned. It has been very rewarding to me to write my weekly posts and get feedback from readers, and I can see by my stats that I'm not simply writing in a vacuum (as it sometimes can feel when working on a novel). So while writing the blog takes away from my time for writing fiction, I feel that it is still time spent on craft, which is what we should be working on instead of marketing and publicity. Robert Frost said the role of the writer is to write — or maybe that was a lecture from poet Syd Lea; whoever said it, it's the utter truth.

  3. red-handed on August 20, 2009 at 8:18 am

    I'm going to have this problem in about a year, and already my skin is shrinking from the air-conditioned strain. I don't even like being sold to, never mind doing the selling. There must be some self-hypnosis for this, to turn me from someone who just looks at a ringing phone to someone who actually picks it up.

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