Every so often one of my postings here hits a nerve. I'll go days without any email, and then boom! A dozen at once. This happened for the first time when I had the effrontery to suggest that the Dorothy-L listserv (an online community of mystery aficionados) has both pros and cons.
Now I have received many cheers, and some jeers, of my own for commenting on a phenomenon known as SSP (shameless self promotion) or BSP (blatant self promotion). In a nutshell, SSP and BSP come down to writers tirelessly and shamelessly or blatantly promoting their own works anywhere and everywhere, particularly online.
In my "Jeers in 2007" entry, I suggested that in-your-face, obnoxious publicity techniques by newly published writers (and some well-established ones) can be awfully crass, especially when they take the form of harvesting public lists for the names of mystery lovers, then sending those unsuspected people promotional spam that makes often unrealistic claims.
I received quite a number of emails from readers who've experienced exactly this type of unwanted advertising, and all were unanimous that the mere receipt of the unwelcome advertisement prompted them to make a conscious decision not to ever read or buy that particular book, or indeed any book by the offending writer. I wasn't surprised at this response, because I can't imagine anyone being in favor of what is the equivalent of electronic junk mail.
But I didn't expect the responses from several novelists taking me task and implying that I am somehow trying to destroy their careers, or that I somehow, without mentioning any names, held them up to ridicule here on the Internet among the relatively small number of people who seem to enjoy reading this blog. To me, this is the equivalent of my children screaming the loudest, and protesting their innocence the most desperately, when I catch them in the act.
The worst accusations, though, cast me (and all editors and publishing companies) in the role of villain. If WE (the evil publishers) spent more money on publicity, then writers wouldn't have to resort to these tactics. If WE advertised our books widely, then society at large would know about them, and all books would sell a million copies each. If WE sent more authors out on signing tours, writers wouldn't have to stump it around the country on their own limited budgets, and so on.
I really must question the sanity of people who make such accusations, along with their understanding of the industry. Why would I, as a publisher, not do everything in my power to sells as many books as humanly possible? Unless, of course, my hidden goal is to ruin the lives of aspiring novelists. I suppose it's possible (and maybe some aspiring writer out there could twist this into an interesting, if completely unbelievable, plot)....
The truth, my friends, is that advertisements do not sell books. Yes, they make the book trade aware of your book, which makes them more likely to place an order. But that is not the SALE of a book; that is a book ORDER. When Barnes & Noble orders 500 copies and returns 450 copies to us, then we have sold very few. And, what with shipping and all, we have probably lost money.
What DOES sell books? First and foremost, word of mouth and good reviews. And, of course, TV appearances--but I don't need to tell you how exceedingly rare it is for a first-time novelist (who isn't already famous) to get any TV time. Few people will actually pick up a book because they've seen an advertisement for it, unless the author is already well established. SECRET: Many times these advertisements are written into the author's contract when houses are competing for the manuscript or author. We promise advertising not because it will help sell the book, but because the author thinks it will. It becomes yet another cost of acquiring books, even though it brings us little revenue in the end.
Because word of mouth is essential, a lot of writers have taken to the personal approach to selling their work, and many do it quite successfully, making the rounds and in general being delightful, hardworking members of the community. But some overdo it, posting incessantly on the Internet, arranging for glowing reviews from friends at convenient times, and harvesting email addresses to shove their books down unsuspecting throats. Everyone knows it's true. I'm just the one who's saying it openly.
I have no hard and fast evidence, but I really think such techniques do not work. Aggressive marketing works on less sophisticated and less educated audiences. It's not effective, in general, in the genre fiction trade, where reputations are built year by year and book by book. This, of course, leads to the types of cost pressures in the industry that make it so difficult to be a book publisher in the 21st century.
So, at the end of the day, YES--I always encourage ALL my writers to be active developers of their own careers. But I also encourage them to get a reputation for being a great story teller and writer rather than one who never loses an opportunity to hawk a book. And it's easy to tell the difference. See if a writer ever posts or writes ANYTHING without an extensive signature line outlining his or her publications. That's the difference between someone who wants to contribute or take part, and someone who just wants name recognition.