The Writer’s Toolbox – marketing and other horrors

Kate Paulk

Like Sarah said yesterday, things are changing, and changing bloody fast. If you blink you’ve missed an entire shift in the way books are happening – or at least it feels that way.

One change that I suspect will be with us for a long, long time – if it really is a change – is that we writers won’t have the luxury of just writing. Editing and proofing has been getting less… well… edited and proofed. The kind of editor who would do the clever nip and tuck and build a writer’s skills has gone with either the dinosaurs or the dodo, and even the copyediting isn’t doing too much in the way of proofing – with sometimes interesting results. We could, if we’re earning enough, hire someone to do this for us. There are editors for hire who do very good jobs – go visit Kris Rusch’s site for more information about that aspect of things. Writers tend not to be too good at editing their own work: it’s far too easy to see what you thought you wrote instead of what actually ended up on the page.  That’s actually the easy bit.

Marketing is probably the one task that gives more writers the horrors than anything else, and yeah, I’m one of them. Face to face, I’m about as introverted as it’s possible to get without becoming my own personal singularity (I’m actually not joking, here – on the Myers-Briggs test, which I’ve done multiple times for various reasons, I always score 100% Introverted. Always.). Worse, the idea of telling people – strangers – how wonderful my stuff is makes me want to crawl under my desk and stay there until doomsday. Besides, when someone tells me how wonderful their stuff is, I want to run the other way. Those relentless self-promoters who find a way to weasel every conversation to how wonderful they are and look, their latest book has an off-hand remark about that very thing are just… Suffice to say my opinion of that is not fit for any kind of society, no matter how low.

This is just as well, because it doesn’t work.

Yup. Advertising – either pushing yourself or being pushed by an ad campaign – is one of the worst ways to get your books into other people’s hot little hands and get them handing over their nice shiny bits’n’bytes (the modern substitute for cash). The best, and consistently the best, is word of mouth.

Okay, I can see someone scratching their head and thinking “But aren’t they the same thing?”. Nope. Word of mouth is your friend telling you how much she loved Dave Freer’s latest book, and here, why don’t you borrow it, because it’s got a dog in it, and a dragon, and you like dogs and dragons. It’s als0 slow, because the books have to be available for a while before there are enough  people out there who have read them to tell their friends about them.

There are ways – reliable, at least for me – to speed things up a bit, and that’s where I’m aiming at. Don’t worry if the thought of doing any of this is like fingernails on a blackboard. What works best for each person is different, but the basic principle is the same: you build a reputation of sorts as an interesting/fun/entertaining person.

Some people can do this by twittering away all over the place. Others blog about all sorts of things. I can’t really do either of those well, although I try to blog regularly and push to facebook and twitter in the vague hope that I’ll catch someone’s interest. What has worked for me, consistently, is going to conventions and (cue dramatic shudder) talking to people. For me it’s an effort – but as those of you who’ve seen me “switched on” might have noticed, if the topic hits any of my many interests, I can babble on for ages, and I have a weird sense of humor that people seem to enjoy. What I do is follow a few simple rules.

When I’m at a convention, if I’m not in my hotel room, I’m “on duty” – I’m “the Author”, even when it’s a pure fun con like the Discworld convention this year. I still dress “author” (I have a set of author clothes that don’t get worn except for cons), I don’t leave the hotel room without the full war paint and hair styling, and – most important of all – I carry bookmarks of my novel (this will of course be novels once I have more than one out), and conversation starters. My current starter piece is a simple badge. I hang the con membership off it, so attention is drawn to it, and people read the lovely gothic font that says “DRACULA NEVER SPARKLED”.

If the conversation leads Impaler-wards, so much the better. If not, it doesn’t. Either way, I don’t talk about how wonderful the book is or how great I am, but how interesting it was to research that time period and what a fascinating person Vlad was. And I try to remember that person’s face and give friendly waves or chat to them again the next time I run into them. The result is that I get a good size sales bump for Impaler – and my shorter works – after each con I go to. Each bump translates to more people reading my stuff who might love it and tell all their friends.

It’s a slow process. I’m expecting that. But it works. Eventually, there’ll be enough people out there who’ve read this Kate person and think their friends would like her stuff that there’ll be a kind of critical mass effect (where it becomes self-sustaining and I don’t need to ‘feed’ it any more) – if what I write is good enough and appeals to enough people. Given that there are millions of people out there and Sarah kicks me if I start doubting my abilities, I think I’ll get there in time.

Which is of course the final item for any writer’s toolbox, and the most important of all of them. Patience.

Right bloody now.


  1. Hey, Sarah? Put this on the point of one of those fabled shoes:
    I finished “Born In Blood”. And have started “Impaler”.
    Me, the rabid Butcher-fan who stopped reading Dresden mid-book and never went back when the vamps took center-stage.
    The writing IS that good, Kate. And the treatment IS that intriguing.

    I have to agree whole-heartedly with the abject terror at the prospect of trying to self-promote. I can wax poetic about how great your handling of Vlad is, or how enthralled I was by DST, and cheerfully point out the nuances I loved about of Dave’s world-building in “Dragon’s Ring” … but *my* work? The snippets from workshops at Cons, sure. But the “finished” pieces, even the published ones … I really pray they speak well for themselves. Because I can’t seem to do it.

    1. Stephen, that glow in the sky, in the vicinity of Philadelphia? That’s my face…

      Seriously, that’s about the highest compliment you could possibly have paid me (the only one higher is “You bitch! I was reading your book all night because I couldn’t put it down!”), and as for being in the same company as Sarah and Dave? Well… That’s walking with giants.

      So far I’ve found that it’s a lot easier to talk about how much fun I had researching something, or what an interesting subject it is. I can rave on for ages about the ways I like to twist mythology into neat pretzel shapes (although I can’t do it anything like as well as Dave) and what a fascinating person Vlad was – and support it all with odd bits of trivia, mostly the kind of thing that’s new to people. (“Isn’t it neat that this cool stuff happened and people believed that…”) I’d rather hear about how Sparta became Sparta because all the acreage around there is vertical than how wonderful Esther Friesner is for writing about Sparta in a YA book (She is wonderful, and she has written YA set in Sparta – but that’s not the point).

    2. Yeah, I suck at promoting. Someone at my blog said, you know, saavy agents could make out like bandits promoting shy authors. I don’t THINK they should steal from the authors, but I would totally pay a fee for an agency that Just promoted my work. There just aren’t enough and they aren’t very effective…

  2. Kate – I won’t use that language but … I finished “Born In Blood” at about 11:45 PM the other night. Since the alarm goes off at 5, I try to be asleep by 10:30 …

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