Friday, November 03, 2006

Where’s The Love?

Last night, I had a great 3+ hour phone conversation and it prompted a whole chain of thought. The person raised a question that someone had asked them, about whether or not they were having fun.

Think about it. Here you are, someone who’s dreamed of being published, of walking into bookstores and seeing your book on the shelves, and it’s about to happen. All the papers have been signed, the book’s been delivered, handed back with big red marks all over it, fixed, sent back (repeat however many times it takes to make it perfect), a cover’s been designed, the ISBN numbers are registered, copyright is in place and there’s a delivery date.

You’re going to see your dream come true. But you’re so busy worrying about extraneous stuff that you never stop to enjoy the moment.

I’ve talked about that before, about the feeling that I never actually celebrated my success this year. There is a legitimate whirlwind of activity that comes after you sign a deal. There’s an enormous learning curve. I used to naively think you wrote a book, you sold it, and it went to the stores. The end. Cue audience laughter, right?

The truth is, if you listen to everyone out there, you can get to the point where you feel you can never do enough to market yourself, you start setting mental targets on how much you have to sell, you start worrying about what you’ll do to gain a PR advantage so that your book does well.

Last summer, I attended Harrogate Crime Festival. As much fun as I had at Bouchercon, Harrogate is still the best. There is no “us” and “them” with a line that divides the multi-million bestselling authors from the fans. There is no high-pressure sales agenda that goes with attending. People hang out in the bar. You have fun. You meet people. You remember people. If you get four business cards given to you, that’s a lot.

You go home, having been nothing more than a name, a reader of books, and email authors to say it was nice to meet them, and they email you back. Not an agent or other appointed person. They actually reply and say, “It was great to meet you…” and ask what you thought about the events.

Like they actually care. And like they actually have time for people.

That was my first experience with authors at a festival, and it’s always going to stick with me. I came home with positive impressions of people I’d hung out with.

People who also happened to write books.

When I went back this year the two special guests of honour were George Pelecanos and Ian Rankin. You know what it was that struck me about both of them?

They both had lower sales with their early work. Neither made an instant splash on even the national stage, never mind global. They struggled.

Both of them have talked about personal issues fueling the writing. What I remember George talking about was getting a bit angry. About writing a different kind of book, really tapping into the emotion, the frustration.

And the result was having a publisher who said this was the book they’d been waiting for him to write.

They got behind him because he’d shown them something with his work.

Not with his innovative marketing idea. Not with his gimmick costume or fancy paraphernalia. Not because he invested every cent of his advance in self-promotion.

They got behind him because of the writing.

Now, the reality is, the world of publishing is a bit different today. I’m not disputing that.

But when I started working on Suspicious Circumstances my dream was to be an author. Not a ferocious promoter. Not an innovative marketer.

All I know is that, for me, somewhere along the line external pressures to promote-promote-promote started to override everything else. And what might surprise people is that it didn’t come from my publisher. I didn’t get emails every day telling me to do more-more-more.

When I talked to this friend last night, it galvanized my conviction that had been growing over the past few months. The realization that I was killing my own dream by losing focus.

That might sound like an odd thing to say, because I’m still getting published. It’s just that over time, through both subtle and obvious pressure to do all the things all the others were doing, on some level the dream was no longer to be published but to be published with a certain amount of sales, positive reviews, etc etc etc.

Are you having fun?

I never thought being an author was like climbing a corporate ladder, yet that’s how it seems, from a certain perspective.

What I find really interesting is that my favourite authors – Rankin, McDermid, Billingham, Lippman, Kernick, MacBride etc. – aren’t heavy-duty self-promoters. They never have been.

They let the writing be the focus and let their work be what made the difference. Other than Stuart, all of them have built up a readership over 5+ books. It took time.

Do I want to still be writing books ten years from now? Yes. Do I want to be selling well enough to still be published? Yes. Would I complain if I sold really well? No. Of course not.

But I’m going to make a point of remembering to do some things that are fun.

I’m going to remember to have a good time, and enjoy the ride.

The truth is, you never know how long you’ll have in this business. You might have one book, you might have four, you might have fourty.

And the one thing I do not want to think, looking back years from now, is that when I was realizing a dream I’d had since childhood that I was so consumed by other pressures that I never stopped to enjoy the moment.

Remember that. Whatever your dream is, when it’s starting to happen enjoy it. Cherish it. And don’t let people – however well-meaning and well-intentioned – rob you of that joy.

Marketing doesn’t have to be an all-consuming evil, and for you it doesn’t even have to be the marketing that’s the problem. You might be a natural at marketing – for you it might be other things. Standing in front of people, reading your work.

Whatever it is for you that sucks the life out of you, try to put it in a box and keep it from contaminating everything else. Do your best with it when you need to, and then let it go.

The only thing you can change by worrying is your level of enjoyment. Well, and possibly the dosage of your ulcer medication.

Wherever you are right now, you only get to be there once, whether it’s approaching the release of your debut novel or celebrating the 20th anniversary of the birth of your series. Promise yourself you’ll take a few minutes to enjoy it.

Have some fun.


Jack Ruttan said...

One problem I've got is that though I'm doing well with the career, and I'd be delighted (and feel vindicated), if, 20 years ago, I knew I'd be doing what I'm doing today, I'm still the same person I've been all this time. The neuroses and problems and self-doubt, not to mention the driving force, don't suddenly vanish.

Sandra Ruttan said...

But maybe it takes maintaining the same mix of what it was that got you to the point you are in order to keep you in? Add in some common sense and the benefit of experience, of course.

I just have this feeling, that if I ever stop being a bit nervous when I start a book, that it means I'm coasting. Maybe that's just true for me and not others.

I don't know.

JamesO said...

It's quite daunting for an unpublished author to look at some of the stuff writers do to promote their work. The piece in Spinetingler about Barry Eisler and J A Konrath and their epic trip across the US is terrifying in many ways. I just want to write, do I have to do all this too?

And the answer is, of course, no. Different people suit different approaches, and some people do very well with barely any publicity at all.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I agree with you James. It can be daunting, and discouraging. The thing is, it isn't even about the marketing and self-promotion, really. It's that if you let any part of this undermine your love for writing, it doesn't really matter how well you sell.

At least, not to me. The untarnished process of creation. Sure, pressure on myself to write better, to improve, but within that just the love of storytelling with words. If I lose that I don't know what the point would be anymore.

Anonymous said...

For me, I like the variety of thinking about promotion, and possibly even doing promotion. I could never do a Konrath-style blitz, mostly because of my responsibilities to my family, but perhaps someday I will give it a try -- just to see if I could more than anything else.

I want to write first and foremost, of course, but I guess I've worked in design and marketing long enough to know that the best product on earth can die a sad, lonely death if left to its own devices. Promotion always struck me as part of the deal, even if I don't want it to overwhelm the writing itself.

So, for myself, so far, I AM having fun. And I expect to have fun when I finally hit the road a bit in the spring to do a little arm-waving. I've been to enough author events to know it's most likely going to be me, a bookstore owner or worker, and someone who wandered in to buy "The DaVinci Code," but that's okay. It will be new and different, and then it will be over. I'll still spend a LOT more time writing than promoting in the end.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Promotion is part of the deal, but it isn't the be-all and end-all of the deal.

That, for me, is the point. When the promotion starts to overtake the other stuff to the point you can't even focus on writing... that can be a problem.

I have to take Joe's blog in very small doses. It's one of the things that's freaked me out the most over the past year. I'm not blaming him (he does give some great advice... not on everything imho, but on a lot of things) but it's just the idea that this is the dominant part of the career. It's the way people interpret it, I guess, and you see the trickle-out on other blogs from people saying, "You must do this this and this to be successful."

There is no formula. And not everything works for everyone. We do have to afford people some space to do what's comfortable for them, is all, instead of pushing everyone to do the same things others are doing...IMHO.

stevemosby said...

The problem I have with Joe's blog and general attitude is that I disagree with his end conclusion without being entirely sure I could disagree with any of his premises or logic. I have a nasty feeling that he's quite right, in that all the marketing can't guarantee success, and doing no marketing at all won't guarantee failure, but you're stacking the odds in your favour by doing as much as possible. However, I stubbornly refuse to accept it. I will do publicity, but I won't be what I, with the greatest respect to him and his sales technique, see as an annoying bastard in a bookshop.

But I think you're right that the most important thing is to enjoy the writing above all, and whatever works for him works for him. He's still writing, still publishing. Each to their own, and he gives some excellent advice.

Marketing can go both ways, though. Is it wrong of me that, even though I know his name, if I was faced by a Konrath book and an unknown author's, I would go straight for the unknown? Honest reaction. Maybe it's a British thing, but I remember your point in your religion post a few days back: if you're confident, you don't need to shout. Despite his (no doubt) good intentions, I feel like I hear Joe shouting a lot, and it puts me off.

Duane Swierczynski said...

"They got behind him because of the writing."

Amen, Sandra. Whenever I get caught up in the business/promotion side of things, I look at the piece of paper tacked to the inside of my skull that says, "It's the Work, Stupid." How someone (not naming names here) could list priorities for a writer and not have "writing" as number one boggles my mind.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Steve, I have heard that about a few authors. After a panel at Bouchercon someone else in the audience (a reader, not an author) said to me: X sold me on their book, and then unsold me on it.

It's a very fine line. I look at people on blogs, listserves, forums. If they're interesting, I'm more likely to check out their book. Look at John Rickards - one of the most understated authors out there, and probably one of the best still to be discovered on a wider scale. I decided to buy his books because of his blog, and he hardly said much about the books... ever.

And his new one is solidly on my list of most anticipated reads of 2007, because he's a damn good author.

One thing I disagree with Joe on, and others, is that I think there is such a thing as bad publicity. You can push too much, too hard, be too omnipresent. It's hard to think about that if you do something where your goal isn't marketing - I've had a hard time with forums/DL etc because I never joined them to market myself. Mostly, I learn from them, about what people like, don't like, hear about new books etc. But even just participating in the discussion too much can be viewed as self-promotion.

Readers have told me they don't like that, when I did the BSP posts back in the summer. And they've named authors who've turned them off their books entirely.

So, to me, I guess it's everything in moderation. I could never be a super salesman. Here, I'll go on and on about what I like. Sometimes it influences people. But if I talked about Rankin's books on a weekly basis, people would just tune it out.

Which is why I've said nothing about the latest...

Sandra Ruttan said...

Duane - I completely agree. 100,000%. I'm copying your note.

SAND STORM said...

An excellent post Sandra and great comments! Do what you can do as long as you are comfortable with it and as Duane said "It's the work". If the writing suffers you can market till you're blue in the face...You may sell this book but good luck with the next one!

Sandra Ruttan said...

Thanks Sand Storm - something to think about.

Sandra Ruttan said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
David Terrenoire said...

As usual, I agree with you and Duane.

It is all about the work.

S. W. Vaughn said...

Sandra. You have no idea how right-post-right-time this is for me.

Thank you. I must find a tissue now... I really, really needed to hear this, right at this very moment.

Have you been reading my mind again? :-) *sniffle*

Sandra Ruttan said...

David, it's like you just admitted in writing you always agree with me. ;)

SW... I'm glad this helped. Really, sometimes I think you must be on the psychic wavelength.

Not that I believe in psychics (Steve). But, well, that's just freaky how often we're thinking alike!

Anonymous said...

Well, just to reiterate, while it is true that I am so far enjoying the promotional stuff and expect to enjoy it in the spring when it ramps up a bit, ultimately (to quote myself), "I want to write first and foremost."

Sandra Ruttan said...

Nothing wrong with that Bill.

For others, it may not be the promotional stuff that gets them down at all. It may be their reputation as a walking innuendo.*

Or something else entirely.

* Inside joke.***
*** Don't read too much into that.

Anonymous said...

Sandra - I thought this was a particularly good blog entry - very interesting.

It is all about the writing. If the writing isn't working, the rest of it will be a big waste of time.

I can't imagine a point where none of it is fun; I suppose I'll have to come back to you on that in a year or two...

Sarah H

Sandra Ruttan said...

Sarah, I hope there never is a point where none of it is fun. I'm, unfortunately, a glass half-empty person, so perhaps it's easier for me to see the negatives.

But do ask in a few years... it will be interesting to look back and mark the occasion and see where I'm at!

Patry Francis said...

So glad you wrote this, Sandra. Yes, we need to enjoy and to KEEP WRITING first, last and always.

Sandra Ruttan said...

Thanks Patry - I didn't realize how much this would hit home with others.

Guess it's true that when we're feeling alone, usually we aren't. We just don't see it.