Sunday, December 18, 2011

Writing Advice 26—Selling Yourself

 My first signing tour, fall 2008

So you got your book done. You’ve edited it. You’ve published and seen a few reviews—now what?

My wife once compared the career of an author to climbing the Blue Ridge Mountains. Every time you think you’ve reached the top you see another, even taller ridge, rising ahead of you. It never ends. Now comes the time when you have to sell yourself. You’ve spent years learning how to write. You’ve poured hours into creating a great book, but now none of that matters as you realize you’re at square-one again. Now you must learn how to be a marketing genius and a charismatic salesmen.

Marketing, publicist, salesmen? Clearly if you had wanted to be any of these you would not have written novels for the last few years. Instead you shut yourself up in a small dark room, living in imaginary worlds because you’re a sensitive, introverted, self-conscious, shy, person likely lacking in confidence. And now you have to go out in public, jump up and down, wave your hands and shout, “Look at me everyone! I’m great!”

It sounds about as much fun as six-chambered pistol roulette.

It is awkward and scary unless you have that “salesman” gene, and you know the type, the person who loves talking about themselves to a group of strangers, but hates being alone in a quiet room for more than five minutes. Without that superpower, which few writers have—given that most of their time is spent alone in quiet rooms—promoting yourself is unnatural and most uncomfortable. 

All the writers I know (including myself) begin this stage the same way—with self-deprecation. “I wrote this book, you probably won’t like it. It’s not all that good. Wanna try it anyway?” With a sales pitch like that, it’s amazing you aren’t a bestseller. Still, it feels wrong to lie, to present yourself as something you aren’t, and you know you aren’t anyone great.

This creates a negative spiral. People are drawn to people who exude confidence, (the good kind at least—because there is a bad kind.) Confidence is most often derived from experience, (the bad kind comes from an artificially inflated ego.)  This is a problem, because everyone starts with a want of experience. You need confidence to get people to read your books, but you need the experience of people reading and liking your books to gain confidence.  So how do you do it?

First you must realize that you really aren’t being honest when you undersell yourself. You don’t really think your book sucks. You wouldn’t be trying to sell it if you did. You like your book. In fact, you should love your book. You should feel it’s the best book ever written. I’m not joking. Given that you wrote your book, given that you created it to suit your own personal taste, it is like a tailor-made suit. It should fit you better than any store bought suit and as such—for you—your book had better be the best book you’ve ever read, because if you don’t love your book…how can you expect anyone else to even like it? So recognize that at least one person in the world thinks your book is the best that has ever been written. Obviously, not everyone will agree with your sentiment. Not everyone liked Harry Potter either. Yet it is a mistake to focus on this single point. Logically, if one person in the world believes it is the best book ever, then it is very possible there could be dozens who would at least like it. Maybe more. Probably more. And who are you to judge what the person in front of you will or won’t like?

I did a bookstore signing where I stood at a tiny table near the front doors. I was a veteran by this time (or felt I was,) and I had a good idea who would be interested in my books and who would not. Big guys in football jerseys and old men, always ignored me. Old ladies in clusters, and women with lots of make-up, did too. So I was trying real hard to catch the eye of the geeky twenty-something guy wandering the sci-fi stacks even though a gray-haired gentlemen dressed like a corporate banker was glancing over at me.

The old business man closed the distance and started asking questions. He was just wasting my time, he would likely have a daughter who was trying to get published and want to talk about the business, and I needed to concentrate on attracting the geek. Of course, by this point you realize what happened. The old guy was intrigued and bought my books. Later he wrote me emails of appreciation (thinking I would not remember him—ha!) He loved the books, posted great reviews on Amazon for me and is a wonderful fan. The geek, when I did get to talk to him, wasn’t interested. So you never know what people will like. You can’t predict their tastes based on how they look, anymore than a person should judge a book by…well, you know.

All this is fine, but it isn’t really going to help you the first time you have to go to a bookstore to do a cold table signing, or a convention where you man a vendor’s table, or even the first time you do a reading where you and maybe two other people are there. And how miserable might you be on a panel, sitting beside five other authors, all of whom have more experience than you? How can you be confident when people ignore you, when they sneer at your books. The answer is simpler than you might think.

You fake it.

You see, humans can’t smell fear like hyenas. You just pretend that you know what you’re doing, that your book is great, that they are missing out on the story of a lifetime if they pass this opportunity by. It isn’t a lie, because as far as you personally are concerned, it’s true. You aren’t afraid to tell a friend to go see the movie you really liked. You don’t fumble over words and say, “Well, I liked it, but you probably won’t.” No. You say, “Wow, that was a great film, you should watch it! You’ll love it!” Why is that so easy, but selling your book is hard? It’s because it is your book, your creation. So for that brief moment, pretend it isn’t. Pretend it’s someone else’s book and you’re just selling it. Instead of saying, “What I was trying to do here was…” say, “The book is about…” as if you just found the thing on a shelf, read it that moment and had to tell someone how good it was. Maybe they won’t agree, but hey, you’re entitled to your opinion.

The thing is if you act confident, and if you pretend long enough, it stops being a pretense, because somewhere along the way you actually pick up enough experience to be genuinely confident. So your first few tries at anything will be disasters. Even if they aren’t, you’ll feel they were. You’ll be terrified, nervous, embarrassed, and awkward. And the only thing you’re certain about is that everyone looking at you knows this. Each one is suppressing laughter out of polite kindness, but none of that it actually true. What people see is an author—a published author. For what it’s worth, that’s still a rank with privilege. People will grant you respect. They will be impressed even if they haven’t heard of you. There are a lot of famous authors that people never heard of—you might be one of those. They don’t see a person fumbling with words, shaking, sweating and repeating themselves. They see an accomplished author, standing in front of people speaking, talking fast because they are so smart, or slowly to help the audience understand their genius. Of course they are a genius, they wrote a whole book.

Occasionally you might run into another author, or a serious aspiring writer, and they will see through your charade, but they above all people should be sympathetic. Authors rarely criticize other authors, because we know, we’ve been through it, we’ve worn those shoes and know how that feels. Besides, there is never a shortage of people willing to try and destroy what others have built. When you live in tornado alley, you don’t rip down your neighbor’s walls.

It has been my experience that when you take a chance, when you stand up and hold out your work, people are far more likely to applaud than to throw things, and it has nothing to do with the quality of the story or the writing. Contrary to what we are often led to believe, most people are generally very nice, kind, understanding, compassionate, and empathetic.  They realize the risk, they see the vulnerability, and knowing how hard such a thing would be to do, they respect the person standing there, for doing that, for having the courage to stand in the open and reach for an impossible dream.

Looking back you might catch a glimpse of that respect and suddenly, you’ll discover you’re feeling a lot more confident. Maybe you’re worth something after all. In that moment, the negative spiral reverses itself. Positive begets positive. Invisible gifts are exchanged. And while you’d still rather be writing, well, it isn’t so bad after all.


  1. I don't have the salesman gene, but I do have the speaking experience. I spent eight years working for Dell, four of them as a technical trainer traveling the world.

    It was my second book signing at a flea market when I learned that a potential customer could be anyone. Unlike a signing at a bookstore, a LOT of people at a flea market simply do not read and will never buy your book. However I quickly learned that just because they do not read, they don't know someone who does. Getting in that second chance after asking if they would like to look at your book was hard after they shake you off and say no.

    Same thing happened at my last book signing. Being at a bookstore, everyone coming in read, but many did not care about a sci-fi, time travel, "what is Steampunk" book, but if you could get in that second chance, they had spouses, kids, friends etc that were into it and bought it for them.

  2. Thanks for this post. I have a tendency to downplay my own writing and this is a much-needed antidote to my self-deprecation.

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