Last week, Robin Abrahams, etiquette columnist for the Boston Globe
and author of the new book Miss Conduct's Mind Over Manners
, wrote on her blog
that she was asked three questions at a recent speaking engagement:
1. Has anyone told you that you look like a female Spock?
2. Can you explain why you don't want to have children?
3. Are you going on a book tour?
As an etiquette maven, Robin was bound to declare that generally speaking, the first two questions are rude and the third perfectly appropriate — even a thoughtful expression of interest in another's life and work. But as a regular person, she says, "The first two questions delighted me beyond all measure, and the third made me miserable." Why? Well, like many first-time authors, Robin found that her publishers didn't think a tour would "make sense," and like many authors at all stages of their careers, she doesn't have "the temporal, financial, or organizational resources" to arrange one herself. Thus, the seemingly innocuous book tour question only reminds her of "the discrepancy between [her] dreams of greatness and the adequate but not stellar present." Sing it, sister. Marianne and I did choose to self-fund a tour, which has been a blast, but if one more person tells us we ought to go on Oprah, I'm going to lose it. Oprah, really — you think that would help move books? I'll just give her a shout, then.
As someone who started working in the publishing industry at 22 and only left it to pursue a career as a writer, I've been around authors for most of my adult life. Most folks haven't. Which means most folks have no clue that the average first-time author isn't offered a chance to tour on the publisher's dime, or that she probably blew a substantial percentage of her advance on drinks the night the book sold, or that if sales aren't good right out of the gate, she might never become a second-time author. People assume that if you've published a book, you've arrived — as though every publishing contract comes with a legally binding promise of three more, a six-figure check, a suite at the Ritz in a dozen cities, and Oprah's cell number. The reality is more like this: Marianne and I were extremely fortunate first-timers. Based on the strength of our blog traffic, we had our choice of agents, sparked a modest bidding war, and snagged an advance that kept the lights on for longer than 15 minutes. But we still didn't get a fucking tour. We will still not be on Oprah. We still have to work our fat butts off to sell this thing if we want there to be another.
And if we are lucky enough to publish a next book or books, chances are, it will go pretty much like that every single time. The number of authors who break out of the so-called "mid-list" is laughably small, relative to the number of books that come out every year. Our friend Robin Marantz Henig has published eight books, and a couple of weeks ago, she sent me this video by Dennis Cass, with a note that said, "Watch it and weep. It's kind of like watching The Office for writers, it's that kind of cringe-making." If you want to know the difference between fantasy and the reality of the book biz, go watch that. Then watch it again. Then never let the name "Oprah" escape your lips in an author's presence again.
This means, among other things, that authors have to become shameless self-promoters to survive. A corollary is that we also become shameless promoters of our author friends, knowing they've got our backs, too. If you've read Lessons from the Fat-O-Sphere and are thinking the name Robin Marantz Henig sounds familiar, it's because she gave us a blurb — blurbs from people you know are the rule, not the exception, in the industry. As Courtney E. Martin put it in Publishers Weekly back in April, "Let's be honest. Rare is the blurb that genuinely evolved from an established writer sitting down with the manuscript of a new writer (not a former student, best friend's child, or shared agent's new golden boy) and being inspired to offer a few words on the quality of the work." (For the record, I am not friends with Courtney at this writing, though we do run in the same bloggy circles.) And hey, if you happened to notice that that video by Dennis Cass (whom I also don't know, though I do appreciate that he wants me to be more awesome) was also linked from Robin Abrahams's post? That's because I sent it to her, after the other Robin sent it to me. Abrahams is a friend, too. And you'd better believe that when I started writing this, I thought, "Oh, that post Robin did would be a good beginning — and hey, it's a chance to flog her book to a new audience!"
This is what authors do, for each other and ourselves, because we know too well that no one else will. Courtney Martin's latest pick for her "Not Oprah's Book Club" video blog series, for instance, is J. Courtney Sullivan's new novel, Commencement. After acknowledging that both Courtneys are currently co-editing an anthology, and thus Martin is reviewing Commencement "with absolutely no objectivity," she goes on to give a ringing endorsement — so ringing, in fact, that I immediately ordered the novel. Because it sounds awesome, and I don't think Martin's personal relationship with Sullivan is evidence that her opinion shouldn't be taken seriously — with a grain of salt, perhaps, but not unseriously. Friends help each other out, but at the same time, friendship can't be the only criterion for a plug; if any of us promoted crap books just because we liked the authors personally, our own reputations would suffer. And as your reputation goes, so go your book sales.
As it happens, in that Publishers Weekly article, Martin's nowhere near as blase as I am about friend-blurbing; she thinks the system should be overhauled to ensure that emerging writers can get a lift from established ones even without a personal connection. She's probably right, but also idealistic to a degree I just can't match. My feeling — developed in the trenches of small press publishing ten years ago and only reinforced when I saw my own publisher's publicity and marketing plans — is that, for better or worse, part of an author's job these days is to beg, borrow, and steal for media attention, call in every possible favor, and work every possible angle to promote the book. (And if you're a decent person, you do the same for your friends whenever you can.) Since our book came out, I've taken some heat on this site for such nervy, selfish acts as giving my own book a five-star rating, requesting that my blog readers who enjoyed the book leave positive reviews and mark negative ones thumbs-down, and admitting that I reported one particular review to Powell's as inappropriate, because it blatantly lied about the book's contents (suggesting we don't cite our sources). Some people see that as an unethical attempt to game the system and create a false perception of the book's popularity; I see it as a part of my damned job. A tedious, unpleasant, and somewhat embarrassing part of my job, but a part nonetheless.
The good news is, sometimes the biggest benefits of tedious, unpleasant, embarrassing acts of shameless self-promotion (and/or self-protection) are unexpected. That comment I reported to Powell's? Well, it's still there, because it didn't fit their (totally reasonable) criteria for deletion. That particular attempt at damage control failed, on its face. But it also led to a conversation with a Powell's representative, which led to an invitation to guest-blog here for a week. Squeaky wheels may be irritating, but if I hadn't been one, Marianne and I wouldn't have gotten this opportunity to engage with a whole new audience. We've both had a terrific time being here this week, and we can't thank the fine people at Powell's enough. Now go buy lots of books from them! Even if they're not written by us or our friends.