Each week in Bookends, two writers take on questions about the world of books. This week, James Parker and Anna Holmes discuss whether they find the demands of book promotion — author photos, media campaigns, Twitter feeds — frivolous or necessary.
. . . .
[from James Parker]
Authors have to promote their books, and they have to be flashy about it. Especially these days. You can’t imagine anything less frivolous, and more painted in grim necessity, than an average midlist bookstore reading in 2014. The audience is hushed and minuscule, the shattered-looking author can’t believe he’s there — the whole thing has the last-ditch solemnity of a persecuted religious rite. Oh sure, there have been good reviews; there has been polite acclaim. Fellow authors have kicked in with the blurbs and the boosts. A prize might have been won. But as regards this book, and this writer, the great sleep of the culture is unbroken.
So: You find new formats, new gimmicks, new shows to be on, new ways to prickle or perforate the oblivious disregard in which America holds you, the dark night of your unfamousness. The problem of course is that it’s all so, you know, unliterary. Anti-literary, really. In the promotional moment, what has hitherto been an inward enterprise (the writing of the book) is turned outward overnight; the author, that nose-picker and thief of light, is all of a sudden on display. She must explain herself. He must sell himself. To a gifted minority it comes naturally; to the rest, it really doesn’t. Hence the tremendous awkwardness that often attends these sorties into the national mind. Author photos, for example, are invariably ghastly: pouting, bedraggled or staring down with blazing eyes from the spire of genius, the author is basically saying (or trying to say): “Trust me. I’m worth it.” As for media appearances, any interview in which the author doesn’t swear uncontrollably or break into loud sobs must be considered a public relations triumph.
. . . .
[From Anna Holmes]
Writers are prone to take themselves very seriously, which is fine, except it also means they sometimes find the self-promotional aspects of their craft distasteful, if not downright excruciating. Writing is about the journey, not the destination, right? (Answer: It can be about both.) And bookselling is such an inexact science, it would be near impossible to prove that more publicity necessarily translates into more sales.
Except it often does. Sure, there are veteran authors who have to do nothing more than hit “send” on a manuscript before the Time magazine cover gets scheduled and the royalty checks start pouring in; others, thanks to whatever particular combination of timing and talent, seem to skyrocket into the public consciousness out of nowhere. But they are the exception, not the rule.
Then there are the rest of us. As the editor of two well-publicized but by no means best-selling books, it would make sense for me to deem aspects of book promotion “frivolous” — sales of my first book were proof that multiple appearances on high-profile public radio and morning news shows don’t always move the needle — but I do believe promotion is a necessary, if often exhausting, endeavor.
For my first book, a cultural history of the female breakup letter published in 2002, my contacts — and the book’s provocative subject matter — combined to help secure coverage in numerous media outlets, including a coveted appearance on the “Today” show. Even so, my book didn’t sell many copies.