There are two main ways that authors market themselves: through their body of work and as a person
This has been something I’ve thought about more and more as I’ve blogged and started to realize people were paying attention to what I was doing. It hadn’t really occurred to me, because my online activities were very much recreational/blowing off steam outlets for a long time. Then, suddenly, I was gaining recognition as a writer, an editor and now, soon, an author.
I thought about this a lot at Harrogate, particularly because of some negative experiences, but also because of some positive ones. And this is the potentially controversial post I was going to put up on Killer Year on Wednesday. But I decided to put it here, for a variety of reasons, one of which being that if anyone did take offense to it (and people have taken extreme offense for far less) the fall-out would be on me alone.
At Harrogate, I really connected with Martina Cole through her talk. I’ve never read anything by her, but was struck by certain things about her life that corresponded with mine. We made different choices, but the path she took so easily could have been me, it was eerie. Not that I think I have the strength she possesses. Martina is a damn impressive person. If I’d made different choices it likely would have killed me. Instead, she seems stronger for it.
On the other side of the equation, there was an author I won’t name that left a very negative impression on a group of fans. My friend I was traveling with was one of them, and she recounted the incident. A group of fans who’d traveled from Ireland, all over England and as far as NYC were having photos taken with authors. George Pelecanos graciously accommodated the ladies and posed, but an author waiting for him heaved a sigh in such a physical manner - expressing annoyance at being kept waiting - the fans noticed. And they commented on it to me.
Uh, do you think those fans – willing to invest serious money in traveling to see authors they love – are going to hunt down books by that author any time soon? Well, they told me they were turned right off. I can’t say I blame them.
Now, not all fans would care. Some people will read a book by an author, regardless of whether or not they’re a jerk. After all, if people stopped supporting movies or television shows because actors are jerks, there’d be a lot less crap out there. Some “celebrities” out there are people I’d never want to spend time with, personally. I had a friend who’d been put in prison for attempted murder, and I’d pick his company over some of these self-indulgent stars in a heartbeat, though we’ve lost touch over the years.
My husband has spent so many years working in business, he knows this backwards, forwards. “A happy person tells one person. An unhappy person tells seven.”
I’m probably one of the exceptions to that, at least when it comes to authors.
Not when it comes to businesses. Just after we got married, Kevin bought me a computer. It was a PC company, that’s all I’ll say. The hard drive crashed in the first month. They replaced it. Within a month, crashed again. Now, my husband’s spent years as a software developer, working for companies like Telus, AT&T and Wolsely, and he knows a few things about computers.
As in, the problem wasn’t the hard drive. And he explained to them what the problem was. But they wouldn’t fix it. They kept sending hard drive after hard drive. What are the odds three in a row would be faulty? Uh, not very damn good.
In the end, after repeatedly having the thing fixed, it disappeared to a shop for over a month, leaving me without a computer, and when it was returned it wasn’t fixed.
Sandra got on the phone and went medieval on their ass. And when they hung up on me, I tracked every company email address I could find online and sent them emails until they begged me to stop. But I had a valid customer complaint and by this time, the clock was ticking on the warranty. There was no way I was letting them off the hook by putting me off until it expired. And believe me, turning super-bitch on them finally produced results.
They gave me my money back.
Now, I have a mac, which has always been my preference anyway. And Kevin is forbidden to buy anything from that wretched company. So don’t think I’m always overly nice. Certain buttons get pushed, I can dig my heels in and fight like a bear.
But I always try to talk up the people I admire. Part of the reason is that my natural inclination is to be very negative. I was raised by a judgmental, critical person, and that’s part of the reason I’m never happy with anything I do. All those years of hearing that I was lazy, useless, not as good as… You start to believe it. Oh, I’m exceptionally driven, always working to shake off the demons, but the longer I live the more keenly aware I am of the fact that I’ll never be satisfied with anything I accomplish. It will never be enough.
My friends weren’t the only people who had a negative experience at the festival. I was with a group of people – you know how it is. People come and go and people have little side chats and then group chats intersect and different people start chatting… One author introduced themselves to every person in the group.
Now, it could have been because I was a woman. Except another woman joined the chat and she merited an introduction. Maybe it was because she wasn’t an author? Or she didn’t have a “commoner’s accent”? Or because she was pretty. I certainly don’t rate on the knock-out scale, not that I particularly care about that.
The thing was, I wasn’t particularly surprised to be treated like I didn’t exist.
I actually think it’s a better thing for authors to put the real them out on a blog. If a reader is the type of person to not read an author because the author is a jerk, it’s better to know that right off. Simply put, it’s one thing to turn off a prospective ‘customer’ but it’s quite another to turn off someone who’s admired you and invested in your product. If they then meet you and dislike you intensely, to the point they won’t read you again, they’re more likely to tell those seven people about their bad experience, and then some.
I’m actually not one to be turned off completely by the person. After all, the book isn’t the person. Just like Braveheart isn’t Mel Gibson. I grew up around a lot of musicians, and if there’s one thing I know it’s that people with artistic temperaments are often not the best at socializing. I doubt most authors start writing because they think they’ll be on stage some day.
But the reality is, there are ways we attract an audience, and if we blow one approach, we greatly lessen our chances of reaching those readers. I don’t typically read reviews. Plus, some of these authors don’t have great distribution in Canada or any distribution in Canada. The chance of selling me a book was much greater when I was standing outside a bookstore actually carrying it.
And that author completely blew the positive personal impression opportunity with me.
Chances I’ll read Martina Cole? Almost 100% certainty. Chances I’ll read this other person? Almost nil. Because they’re going to have to impress me with their body of work, and I don’t know how they’ll do that now that I have a bit of an aversion to their name.
Now, I have wondered about how I handle my blog and myself and given it a lot of thought over the past few months. And in thinking about this experience, I have to say I actually think the author did me, and themselves, a favour. It isn't like I don't have more authors than I could read already on the TBP and TBR lists.
I could look for many reasons to discount the impression this person made on me. I didn’t introduce myself either, but I didn’t introduce myself to anyone. They introduced themselves to everyone…except one person.
Why didn’t I introduce myself? I’m bad for this, and I need to work on it. Truthfully, I always seek out the people I know because I’m horridly shy with people I don’t know.
In a way, the worst thing about blogging is that people never believe me when I say that. I seem so open online, even bubbly according to some.
But my philosophy is that nobody has to read my blog. Nobody even has to read an email from me. They can delete it unread and I’ll never know the difference. This is why if people ignore me in the comments on their blog all the time (assuming they’re the type to reply to comments) I’ll stop commenting. I assume they don’t want to read my remarks.
If people don't respond to my emails, I assume the same. Three not responded to and I'll likely never email the person again. Just like if I ask someone for an interview and they don't answer, I assume they don't want to be interviewed. Simon Kernick did the best thing by saying, "Yes, but can we wait?" And I let him pick the time and we only failed repeatedly to put it together, but I never doubted he wanted to actually do the interview. Finally getting that after a year felt damn good, and I looked forward to it all the more. But no response? Next.
When I came home, I had a long talk with Cornelia and I at least know I’m in good company. We talked about people not responding to emails, about the incredible fear that we left someone with a bad impression of us after an event when we didn’t hear from them.
Truthfully, emails give that illusion of instant gratification. And it's hard for people to accept that it might be a few weeks before they get an answer. For the people I actually correspond with - that I can't throw off quick three-line answers to - it takes a while. And they know this, because I get so many emails I often don’t respond as quickly as I’d like. I’ve had people email and say, “I haven’t heard from so and so” and I’m jumping to explain immediately, because I know that person’s really busy right now. I mean, if I email Cornelia, I never get uptight if I don’t hear from her for a bit. I know how busy she is.
That’s also part of the security of having a solid friendship with someone. I could phone her tomorrow and she’d listen to me cry. I know that about her, but she’s a rarity for me. Truth is, I’m friends with more ‘readers’ and ‘aspiring authors’ than authors, so I completely relate to that sense of awe some readers have when approaching their favourite authors.
I always feel if I’m standing in front of someone, there is that polite obligation to tolerantly listen to whatever I say, even if it’s written all over their face that they’d rather be anywhere but there, talking to me.
So maybe I should give this author my congratulations. For likely being the most honest person I didn’t meet at Harrogate. They obviously thought I was nothing more than shit on a shoe sole they couldn’t wait to scrape off and be rid of.
But maybe the truth is that I’m too sensitive and what I know to be true for myself, I forget can be true for others. Some conversations are painful for me, and it isn’t even because I don’t want to talk. Myself and a friend had an opportunity to actually sit down and have a chat with an author we both read and admire, and my friend chastised me afterwards for being so quiet. But faced with a chance to talk to someone I had a lot of respect for I didn’t want to hear the sound of my own voice. And I seldom do feel comfortable enough to chat freely with people I’ve never met before.
Last year, I was completely intimidated by Mark Billingham. It’s amusing to think of now, in a way, because he’s such a fantastic person and has become someone I think of as a friend. But it wasn’t funny a year ago. I’d get an email from him and my stomach would twist into knots. I can only say it now because I’ve told him. I mean, if you’ve met Mark, you have to know how ridiculous it is.
Still, that’s how it was for me. Never stopped me from reading his books or talking about them, though.
And despite the fact that I know the problem was with me, I left Harrogate this year feeling the same way about someone I met. I’m destined to go through the same thing all over again. The only difference being that I might not stay in contact with this person, as I did Mark, which means I may never overcome that feeling with them. And it's someone I genuinely like, but am convinced does not like me.
I actually have a list of people I’m terrified of meeting. I seriously considered canceling BoucherCon because the thought of the event makes me nauseous. If it wasn’t for the fact that I’ve got something to do with Val McDermid and actually get to hang out with Cornelia and half of the Killer Year crew…
Maybe it will be easier to hide in the crowds. I don’t know. But I'm incredibly conflicted about going because I'm scared.
I left Harrogate thinking I’d given someone the impression I was a snob.
On the average day, I talk to my husband. A few days a week, the ladies at the post office when I’m picking up packages or mailing parcels. And the cashier at the grocery store. I talk on the phone usually no more than twice a week, other than calls with Kevin.
I’m starting to realize that I need to get out more. If for no other reason than to be more mindful of how I interact with people so that I can handle public events.
This is what nobody teaches us how to do. And in reflecting on the bad impressions a few people made on myself and others, I’ve realized my behaviour will always be under scrutiny. Again, I don’t think you should fundamentally change who you are in order to sell.
But you might want to consider working to make sure you treat people in a way that leaves the impression you want to leave. Which means I have to get over my insecurities and learn to do small talk with people.
I think, without a doubt, the toughest thing in this business is the socializing for me. And being too sensitive. I over-analyze emails, I read into everything. People don’t respond and (unless I know them as well as Cornelia I assume they hate me.
Now my question for you – would an author’s behaviour put you off buying their books? And if you are an author, what’s been the hardest thing in the business for you to deal with?
Oh, and fyi – if in the rare event I don’t email back, I do always read my mail. Always.