Monday, August 21, 2006

Overrated

Certain things are. Like sex on the beach. Please. I don’t like sand in my bathing suit, or in my socks, or even in my shoes, so do I really need to spell out why sex on the beach has to be one of the most overrated things… ever?

There are plenty of things that are hyped up, and not at all the grand experience people make them out to be. I tend to find this happens with movies, a lot. Which may be why I pretty much ignore movie trailers now, and everyone buzzing about them. There has to be…something special in the discussion of a movie to catch my interest anymore. I’m trying to remember if I’ve been to more than one movie in a theatre this year, and I don’t think I have.

Thinking about all of this has a direct transfer to books. At what point is too much hype an issue? When did Harry Potter go from being something I’d heard a lot about to something I never wanted to read? How did The DaVinci Code make that leap? I don’t know. Oh, I know I will read Harry Potter, eventually. Just not when everyone keeps telling me too. Well, okay, not when my sister keeps telling me too. That might explain that. There’s something about older siblings that brings out the automatic rebellion in me. You think green is my favourite colour? I’m changing it to red, just because!

I differ from some people in my philosophies. I think there is such a thing as bad publicity. Ask Mel Gibson. Ask any celebrity that’s lost a lucrative endorsement contract.

I also think that there’s such a thing as laying low for too long, in some industries. Hollywood would definitely be one of them. A few years out of the spotlight and people have moved on to the next big thing. If you haven’t acquired legend status, being on the sidelines too long could be the death knell on your career.

Writing seems a bit more forgiving… Doesn’t it?

Now, personally, I think there is such a thing as too much advanced hype. And there is always a risk of feeling let down by something that’s been built up to be this great experience.

An example of a book with a lot of buzz around it this year would be Cornelia Read’s stunning debut, A Field of Darkness. Praised by numerous authors, with a lot of buzz coming from the readers as well.

What was interesting – and Cornelia could speak better to this than me – was watching the reviews come up on DorothyL. There were many glowing, positive reader reviews.

But there were a few who basically said, “After all the hype about this book, I decided to read it and was I ever disappointed.”

Which always prompted me to write Cornelia an email, reviewing the review. We writers take it hard.

And in her case, I think that for some people the hype had that negative effect. They’d probably read everything praiseworthy said about the book in every review out there, and then had the meh, it ain’t all that reaction.

And not because it isn’t a great book - it is a great book! - but because it had been built up into this phenomenal experience and for some people, no book could actually deliver that.

None of this was Cornelia’s fault. Nor was it because the book isn’t an excellent book. I’m going to keep saying that. Because I don’t want anyone to think I’m slamming Cornelia or her book. Not for a second. Definitely one of my favourite reads this year.

But it does make you wonder at what point pushing something is too much. And I’m so guilty of this. I mean, I’m nothing but a gushing cheerleader over the things I love. If it’s a song, you have to hear it. A book, you have to read it. An author, you have to worship them too. I could never sell myself as a sales person and talk up things I had no interest in, but you couldn’t stop me from promoting the things that capture my imagination, the things that speak to me.

Is that always a good thing?

I don’t think it is, necessarily. And it’s something I have to pay a bit more attention to, I think.

In thinking about my own book being five months away from reality, I wonder what the point is where it’s bad to not have people talking about it is? Obviously, advanced hype is important. Remember back to what I said on my posts about BSP and winning new readers – it sounded like some people (based on their emails) wrote me off because I’m not available for pre-order on amazon yet. Geesh, I know people who have books coming out later next year who’ve got their cover art up on their website, and a long list of blurbs. Some days, it’s downright depressing, because you think you can never do enough to promote your work. You can never be ready enough…

But you can obviously be pushed too hard.

Finding the balance is the trick. I haven’t said much about the storyline for Suspicious Circumstances. The tiny write-up on my website covers about two chapters, hardly a fraction of the book. I had to pare it down to a thirty-word blurb, which was torture.

I was discussing all the intricacies of this business with an author over the weekend, and one thing that came up that we both seemed to believe in was growing a body of work.

The author’s first responsibility is to write the best damn book that’s in them.

The publisher’s priority is to produce the best book possible.


We can’t dispute that marketing is important. You don’t just have to market yourself to customers. You have to market yourself to the bookstores. I’m not an idiot, I know how this works. I already know how hard it will be to get stores to stock my book. And in reality, I know there’s precious little I can do about it.

An author I know went through this. Poor Canadian distribution. This author worked her ass off, going to bookstores around the country, and even in the city she grew up in, where most of her family still lived, she couldn’t get the local bookstores to carry the book. And she was published by a known and established US publisher (though I’m not saying who, because then some people would know the author’s identity).

This could be a point where I launch into a tirade, about how consumers don’t get all the options out there. My book will be distributed by Ingrams. Excellent reputation, standard return policy, same as a zillion other books out there. Same for other authors I’ve known.

I went through this a few months ago, trying to order a book. One thing I’ve learned about the big chain stores in Canada is that if you order online, they charge you shipping. So why bother? Go to amazon, right? Right.

I was in the bookstore, looking for some books, and found one I was after. Two I still couldn’t find. I decided to order them there, to the store. No shipping charge, for one thing.

It was no trouble for me to order Dublin Noir. It was quite another story for me to order Steve Mosby’s The Third Person. And this pissed me off, to no end, because in Canada Steve’s book comes out through Orion. They publish Ian Rankin, so it isn’t like they’ve got a distribution problem here.

But they told me I couldn’t order Steve’s book into the stores.

What the fuck?

Oh, it wasn’t just one impatient customer service chick. A manager as well. They never rushed me or brushed me off, and it took ages to deal with this order, because they could order Dublin Noir into the store, but not Steve’s book.

Anyway, long story short, they ended up not sending me the book, I complained, and then I got two copies.

But since then, Steve’s made the jump from the online computer system to the store computer system. I’ve been in three of the big chain stores in the past week, and guess what? There are his books.

That I paid an extra $8 to have shipped to me. Grrrr.

And people wonder why it’s harder and harder to make a living selling books.

Some days, I just want to crawl into a hole and forget about all of this stuff. Talking up your book, getting all those good blurbs, having an eye-catching cover, all the gimmick stuff… It feels like such a competition sometimes.

When was it just wonderful to know you were going to be published? Because it’s not enough – you have to be a success. A smashing success.

And then, when you are a successful author, you’ve always got that pressure on you, to live up to what you’ve done before.

Unending.

None of this helps me sort out in my head how much advanced hype is too much, or at what point you’ve risked missing the mark for building up the anticipation for your work.

Today, I feel exceptionally bummed.

24 comments:

S. W. Vaughn said...

Commercialization and competition are the big C's now, when it used to be just plain content. What is in the book should matter more than anything else.

Agents and editors alike continue to insist that it is all about the writing. Yeah, tell that to me after I've gotten my 253rd rejection. Some industry pros have admitted outright that not all books deserving publication are picked up. Why? No platform, no recognition, not enough of a market to justify the expense.

I'm not helping you feel any better here, am I? Guess I'm bummed too...

Okay, SW, say something hopeful. Um... writing is life. So what if other people don't initiate us into the Club of the Famous. We are blessed simply because we have written, and will continue to write.

People who are not writers never get to experience the sublime act of creation we enjoy so much. We get to live a hundred lives during our time on Earth, and discover things no one else has time to bother discovering.

So...I guess it is still all about the writing.

angie said...

I noticed the negative reactions to Cornelia's book, but didn't take it too seriously. Why? Because it is simply impossilbe to please everyone. From what I've seen and heard, the response has bee overwhelmingly positive. So the real question is what to focus on - the few who will always be dissatisfied with some aspect of your writing, promotion, personal hygiene, hair color, verb usage, whatever, OR the huge number of readers & other authors who say "wow! that book kicked ass! gotta run out and buy a bunch for Christmas, Hannukah, birthday, halloween & Thanksgiving gifts." I'd rather focus on the latter.

What's that old saw about marketing/advertising? Only half the dollars I spend work - I just can't figure out which half? So I guess the real answer is, do the best you can, learn what you can and keep moving forward. Not all that different than the writing process. Except that one is a private enterprise & the other is disturbingly public.

:o)

JamesO said...

Gauging the right level of self-promotion is notoriously hard. It's a bit like the late Colin Chapman's approach to building racing cars. He worked on the principle that if a part broke it was too light, and if it didn't break it was too heavy. So if you're getting signals from people that they're tired of hearing your voice, you've already gone too far, and if you're not, then you've not shouted enough yet.

It's frustrating that authors have to do so much promotion these days, especially when it would be far better left to the professionals. Perhaps my only advice (and it's something you do already, btw) is to change the record from time to time. Nobody likes to hear the same old tune over and over again. The more and varied ways you can come up with to remind the world of your existence, the less likely people are to think you overly pushy in any one.

That said, some people will take exception to the tiniest bit of hype, whereas others need to be beaten about the head and neck with it just to notice. You can't please everyone.

Now go read Harry Potter. It'll make you feel less bummed.

Andrea at Lochthyme said...

Honestly I don't know that you can have too much advance hype. Sure people say Dan Brown's DaVinci Code was way overhyped. But hey he's laughing all the way to the bank. :) Same with Harry Potter you may be sick of hearing about it but it's a mega franchise and the author is again laughing all the way to the bank.

The few bad reviews for Cornelia's book...well as someone else said there is always someone in a crowd who won't like your book. Don't worry about it. Everyone has different tastes so maybe it just wasn't their kind of book and nothing you could do could change that.

As James said maybe "change the record" once in a while. But I don't think you are over hyping at all. Just write what you love, write the best damn book you can and then let the readers decide. But for them to decide you have to let them know your book is out there. And the more they see your name out there the more likely they are to remember you when they go in a bookstore. I think you have been doing your "hype" just right.

Erik Ivan James said...

Samdra,
My perspective is, that if you weren't bummed, there may be a sign that you weren't a true and dedicated writer.

When we work at a "normal" job, we go to work, give it our best and keep a little of us for ourselves. We punch-out and go home.

When we write, we give everything to the work we are attempting to create. We never "go home" and leave the work behind. We carry it with us 24/7. Sometimes, it seems, others want more from us when we've already given everything we have to give.

Dumb comment, huh.

Sandra Ruttan said...

SW, I love the way you summed that up. One thing I know is that the content is the only thing I have control over. And it still is the most important thing.

Angie, I love that saying. And I think that, whenever a book is popular, there's a risk of jealousy factoring in. There are some who've slammed Cornelia's book for no other reason.

James... change the record. Huh. I do that? Mostly I just whine about whatever's on my mind.

Andrea, they certainly aren't complaining when they go to the bank, are they?

Erik, I liked your comments. At least you tried to make me feel like how I feel is normal.

I'm hanging with the kids today, so I'll be very sporadic online. Dashiell's trying to steal my credit cards. Sneaky one-year-old...

DesLily said...

Well, I'm an outsider here but I do have thoughts on promotion and "over-promoted".

I've heard (consider here that I need a hearing aid!) that there's no such thing as over-promotion. The reasoning being: no matter how promotional hype a book or movie gets, the bottom line is "the bucks", and is it being spent? The answer is almost always "yes"!

So.. You bought a book, or saw a movie you didn't think lived up to the hype... but.. you still spent the money for the book or ticket. Ka-ching! $$ ! To the marketers it doesn't matter that you didn't like it.. it just matters that you bought it!

And it can even work to your advantage (hopefully, anyway).. someone who "might not" have bought your book did, just because of the hype... and liked it! Ooooooo, now you have a new reader!!

It's surely a double-edged blade.. but no matter how it's done the more people that buy that book or see that movie, the more likely you are to get a new fan in the process. (ka-ching!)

Now.. as jameso so cutely put it: "Now go read Harry Potter. It'll make you feel less bummed." (maybe read it because it's out of your genre of writing.. maybe you need to read something that's not even closely related!)

Tanginika-Simone said...

I am with you on the sex on the beach: totally overrated. Nothing fun about having sand making sensitive places all uncomfortable.

Tanginika-Simone said...

You are right on the money.

Eileen said...

When I signed my deal there was a part of me that was sad that it was going to be a mid list book. No hardcover, no major marketing slam. The publishers pick a couple books a year that get the HUGE push and mine wasn't going to be one of them. There is another part of me that is glad I'm not a media darling. (I make a lousy darling) I think it will be easier to build a career then to come out with a splash.

Sandra Ruttan said...

DesLily...I just want the people who spend money on my book to like it. I know, I'm silly...

Tanginika, thanks for backing me up on that. I wasn't sure if that went over everybody's head!

Eileen, I'm with you. Grow a career - it's the smart thing to do. Instant stardom comes to few, and a lot of those few fall hard afterwards. Slow and steady wins the race...right?

Bill, the Wildcat said...

I think "Snakes on a Plane" has probably proven that overhype does exist. All things considered, that movie made a pitiful opening compared to what everyone was expecting.

mai wen said...

I always found the marketing aspect of writing so contradictory to the writer's character, for myself anyways. I'm a social person, but not outgoing to the extent of "selling" myself, hence why I shied away from Sales and Marketing as a profession. I don't even like trying to convince someone to buy a service or a product, let alone Me and My Product! I also hate being in front of a crowd and tend to be modest when discussing my accomplishments, and if I'm Not modest, usually I'm joking or making fun of myself. To display any accomplishments at all makes me feel shy and exposed and I get the distinct desire to run and hide and just write and be left alone.

I took a Literary Marketplace class my senior year of college and it was hilarious, you couldn't find more fishes out of the water than a bunch of writers trying to learn about publishing! Our teacher included, who was a published author. The students were bewildered and frustrated and my teacher reacted with equal bewilderment and frustration, but he tried to enlighten us to what little he understood about publishing and marketing, etc.

They should have people do that stuff for writers... oh wait they do, but they won't waste their time on beginning writers or non-bestselling writers. Sigh.

Guess we're screwed.

Flood said...

Someone mentioned Snakes on a Plane and you mentioned content, in the comments above.

Let's say that a novel has no redeeming social value. Let's call it brain candy. If the content makes me believe, for one moment, that snakes on a plane are worrisome or a killer leaves behind obvious clues and I can pretend to be in that moment with a writer, then it's a good book! That has to be enough for an author to press on and it has to be enough for the house backing the book.

Authors shouldn't give up on their fans that think you are so good that they are willing to recommend you, reread you, give you as gifts, lend you, and sing your praises to others.

Sometimes, you can't let the industry shit on the big picture. I have to believe that, Sandra, and you do too.

anne frasier said...

"Sometimes, you can't let the industry shit on the big picture."

hehe! i love that! thanks, flood.

sandra, i know what you mean. i worry that i jumped in and started talking about my book way too early. it's not even out and i'll bet many are sick to death of hearing about it. and some people think it came out months ago. but i also know most people will never hear about it. so you have this small area of saturation, then nothing. i dunno. i have no answers. i guess i hope a small bit of it sticks to somebody's shoe and they walk around and then that small bit falls off in a new place. what the hell am i talking about???

Sandra Ruttan said...

Bill, I am SO sick of hearing about Snakes on a Plane - and I don't have a fucking clue what it's about and I don't care. If I go to Crimespot and see Snakes on a Plane referenced in the bit there, I skip the link. I'm sorry. I love some of you guys, but arrrrrg!

Mai Wen, you're dead on the money about that fish out of water stuff. If I wanted to work in marketing, I'd work in marketing. And make real money.

Flood... is it that simple re being a good book? Be very very careful and remember what you emailed me earlier! But you've hit on it - I think the only thing that the writer can really do is put out the best book they're capable of. If the fans love it, word will spread. If they don't, it won't. It's just how to get to those vocal fans that's tricky. Obviously, I'm a good person to win over. :)

So Anne, you've taken the 'spread the dogshit around' marketing approach? Seriously, I think you've done a very good job marketing on the blogs. It will be interesting to see how it pans out - many of us are watching, curious!

ivan said...

I agree with Erik.
Working,working.
All the time.

Goethe looking down at the woman's
beautiful back.

Working, working, all the time; gotta get it down.

Patrick Shawn Bagley said...

"I am SO sick of hearing about Snakes on a Plane..."

THANK YOU! Enough about this lame-ass movie already. Five months from now it will be as old and forgotten as "Make my day," "Where the beef?," and "Frankie say relax."

Sandra Ruttan said...

Ivan, Erik is a smartie!

Patrick... Frankie who? :) Thank GOD somebody's with me on this one!

Dana Y. T. Lin said...

If you're gonna read or watch Harry Potter, I suggest book #3 and movie #3. The others aren't necessary, especially book #6. (I only started reading those books because my sister makes me read everything my nephew reads to make sure he's not fibbing on his book reports. I know, the things I do for my family!)

Amra Pajalic said...

I used to feel desperate to have my novel published. Now that I know more, I'm content to take my time and enjoy the small sucesses I've achieved. But I think part of the problem is also that to be a writer means that you need a challenge and constant stimulation. While, as you said, it's the one gig that you can take your time in, it is also a gig that you can't coast in.

John Gooley said...

I haven't read Harry Potter either. Mea culpa.

James Goodman said...

So, is today better? I hope so, I'd hate to have to drive all the way up there just to tickle you out of being bummed...

Anonymous said...

I don’t want to make your mood worse Sandra – but I think there are two myths at work here:

One - The publisher's priority is to produce the best book possible
Two – It is all about the writing

One – It really is NOT the publisher's priority to produce the best book possible. Publishing is a BUSINESS. Even at the nicest, most touchy-feely publishers, it's ultimately about the bottom line and the publisher’s priority is making money (or at least NOT LOSING money). This frequently means that they do NOT produce the best book possible. They produce the most cost-effective book possible. Authors should really be under no illusions about this...

Two - For authors who aspire to be published – it is not 'just about the writing' and to say that it is disingenuous. If it is 'just about the writing' why do authors seek to be published in the first place? Why don't they simply write for themselves? I'm sure that for every author your will get a different answer, but I would guess that generally it involves validation (you're not an 'author' until you’re a 'published author' right?), sharing your work, the possibility of being paid (however little) for doing something you love, the lifestyle (working from home/ being creative etc), and in some cases (although not all) the recognition and the potential fame.

I think all aspiring authors should be aware that being a published author is a JOB and that comes with certain benefits (that you want) and, in turn, certain responsibilities (you might not want).

Writing purely for the sake of writing is called a ‘hobby’.

Sorry... I'm grumpy this week...