« Editorial

Authors, Social Media and the Allure of Magical Thinking

Editorial by Daniel Kalder

So anyway, I’ve got a great idea. Times are hard for publishers, therefore publicists should write books. No, really: they know what’s hot better than anyone. So they should write — maybe Harry Potter knock — offs like Percy Jackson, or political hate books on the villain of the hour. It doesn’t matter — just write something hot. What’s that? Writing and promoting require entirely different skill sets? Boo-hoo. Publicists will have to adapt if they want to keep their jobs. Oh yeah, and they should do this extra work for free.

Daniel Kalder

Does that sound ridiculous to you? That’s because it is — which is why I always feel slightly skeptical when I read editorials from publishing professionals exhorting writers to perform the reverse metamorphosis. Yes, these pieces are often very inspiring. Last week’s editorial by Betsy Lerner “Should I Tweet?” was excellent and contained much good advice. But to attain the right level of fist bumping feel-good magic, it is necessary to elide some inconvenient truths:

1) Authors are often very weird people.
2) As JG Ballard observed, authors are not only weird but can also be very boring.
3) Authors may be naturally retiring souls and thus psychologically unable to puff their own (perhaps imagined) accomplishments.
4) Most authors lack substantial media contacts.
5) Authors may actually have jobs and children and thus not be able to take on a second, unpaid time-consuming job.

All of the above points are substantial obstacles faced by the author hopeful of mutating into a PR and communications professional.

Tough! It’s a dog-eat-dog world out there, and authors must learn new tricks if they don’t want their books to die. And in fact, in spite of the six obstacles listed above, I agree. Publishers don’t do market research. Publicists are overworked and underfunded. Fido must learn to perform tasks for which nature never intended him. Walk on your hind legs, Fido! Dance, Fido!

Whoever said life was fair?

***

Social media, they say. Fine, but let us admit the pitfalls. Number one: social media are great enablers of the magical thinking that afflicts authors and publishers alike.

What do I mean? Well, consider the following essential truths about publishing: crap sells, except when it doesn’t. Quality never sells, except when it does. Good men die screaming in the gutter; the wicked flourish. To quote William Goldman: nobody knows anything. Given that we live in a state of total chaos, it is only natural that individuals study the chicken’s entrails for guidance. What’s that spelled out in the guts? Blogging! Facebook! Awesome! What could go wrong? Blogging is free, plus you can subvert the hierarchical media model and go direct to your readers. Wait for it, but here comes the magical thinking: Hey ma, lookit me! Any minute now I’m going to go viral and everybody’s going to buy my book!

It’s not only authors who entertain such dreams. Publishers do too. Actually, chances are that if you do write something that goes viral, it’ll be the blog itself, not your name or your book. People will read your masterpiece and a few seconds later click a link taking them to a Brazilian baby with amazing samba moves. Blink once, twice, your “viral” blog is forgotten. Believe otherwise and you are in for mucho disappointment.

Resist magical thinking.

***

Here’s something else rarely discussed in inspirational social media pieces: content. What, in fact, is the 21st century author-publicist cyborg supposed to blog/tweet/dribble about? After all, the life of most authors is mind-numbingly dull (got up, had a cup of coffee, surfed the web…). You can always bang on about books you’ve read, records you like, or slag off politicians — but this will work better if you are Neil Gaiman and have a devoted readership hungry for a sense of personal contact. It’s different if you are just some dude writing a book about (say) a hedgehog detective.

The truth is: good blogging is a skill to be acquired. I had no idea how to blog until I discovered Sunday Times journalist Bryan Appleyard’s Thought Experiments. This was a vehicle for all kinds of brilliant, whimsical, provocative ideas — fragments and sketches that wouldn’t have worked at his main newspaper gig. Appleyard’s blog was so good it spawned a cluster of similar minded sites written by his erudite and witty commenters (although he now seems to have hung up his blogging cape.)

Post-Appleyard I discovered I enjoy blogging more than straight journalism. But the results, as always, are impossible to predict. I’ve crafted some fine essays on serious topics that went completely unmolested by comments, while an interview with my own beard proved very popular. I was astonished when an interview I conducted with Robert Chandler, translator of the Soviet author Andrei Platonov — an acquired and rarefied taste for sure — briefly sent sales of Platonov shooting up the Amazon charts.

As for my books, I’ve no idea how many I’ve sold via all this work. Actually, I’ve pretty much forgotten that that was why I started doing it. I suspect that’s essential if you’re going to have any fun and attract any readers. Remember: the hard sell is TEDIOUS, friends.

***

But now we must address the third issue optimists conceal from the budding author-publicist. There are millions of unvisited blogs and Facebook pages out there. How do you draw attention to yours?

Of course, you can comment like crazy on other people’s blogs, spew links across the face of the Internet and so on. Good luck with that. I’d suggest joining a group blog, although these can be infested with political ranting or — if they are avowedly literary — somewhat prissy. Right or wrong (and probably wrong) the truth is that “old” media, (or mega blogs which have paid staff and function like old media) are still arbiters of quality, separating the wheat from the chaff. The world is what it is, so why seek to be deceived?

My Chandler/Platonov piece first appeared on the Guardian books blog. Had I published it at my other, more esoteric venue, I doubt it would have done as well. In America especially, credentials are important. Look at the author bios on the back of any recently published book and you’ll find a list of educational achievements and media/business contacts. These days even famous writers are unctuous apple polishers eager to please teacher.

But that’s how the world works. Thus I would recommend to anyone who thinks he can subvert the entrenched world of publishing from his laptop to resist such magical thinking and pitch some ideas at a few established venues. Fairly or unfairly, a few successes will add value to your other material.

But here too there are snares and traps. If you are an author who cares about prose and original ideas, you will find that journalism is an awkward beast. You need to think of the editor’s wants, his readership and advertisers. There is a danger you will lose what makes your writing unique. You will also find that editors are very conservative because they are scared of losing money and advertisers (I have baffled more than one editor with my attempts to get surrealism and death onto his or her lifestyle pages.) You may find yourself increasingly preoccupied with scoring commissions, and dreaming up blogs. Gradually you will dissolve into a cloud of disconnected, buzzing atoms, asking yourself, as Genghis Khan once did under different circumstances: where am I in this flux?

Oh, and did I mention it is badly paid?

Here, meanwhile, is another issue: if I write about X, will it sell Y? Possibly not. Consider James Delingpole whose anti-climate change blogs at the Daily Telegraph score literally millions of hits. Does he have millions of readers for his Coward series of WW II novels? No — although on balance his high profile surely helps rather than hinders him. However Financial Times journalist Gautam Malkani’s novel Londonstani debuted in a blizzard of hype; he enjoyed massive book tours across Europe, and the US; and at the end of the day the book sold very poorly regardless.

***

My biggest publicity coup came last year, when I sent my book Lost Cosmonaut to Greg Gutfeld, host of Fox News’ 3 a.m. show Red Eye. I did it on a whim, expecting nothing. Two days later he called me and I was subsequently invited on the show twice to talk about both Lost Cosmonaut and its mutant sibling Strange Telescopes. This happened because Gutfeld is an anarchic, unpretentious, creative man who more or less does as he pleases. My (excellent) publicist immediately sent the video clips to The Late Late Show, since — like the host Craig Ferguson — I am a Scotsman living in America and I know how to crack wise in public. The emails, no doubt, died in the inbox of a 22 year old sub-sub-sub producer hoping to book Rascal Flatts. However following my Red Eye appearances something remarkable happened: I received financial statements for the US edition of Lost Cosmonaut, which had suddenly started selling after being abandoned under some rocks in the desert (sorry, I mean published) a few years earlier.

The best way to use social media is to view them not as a mystical cure for what ails publishing, or a magic sales tool, but rather as another outlet for creative energy and a more immediate means of interacting with your readers. Make sure that whatever you do, you enjoy it. That way you’re less likely to burn out over the long haul. Last weekend for instance, I completely redesigned my article archive. I did it because I view my website as an aesthetic object and also because I wanted to make it easier for readers to access my work. Afterwards I realized the improved interface would be useful when pitching articles. My brother works in communications, and has been urging me to create a Facebook page for months. I will, but primarily to create a central hub for my scattered incidental writing so that readers can access it more easily. If it helps promotion, good, but first I think about the writing and the readers — because that, after all, is why I got into the bizarre and dysfunctional business of writing books in the first place.

Daniel Kalder is the author of Lost Cosmonaut and Strange Telescopes. Visit him online at www.danielkalder.com.

DISCUSS: Do You Ever Feel Like a Failure at Social Media?

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10 Comments

  1. Posted November 19, 2010 at 7:00 am | Permalink

    I might have guessed it would be a Scotsman talking so much sense. Gaun yersel, son. I’m nodding in agreement at all of this.

  2. Posted November 19, 2010 at 8:36 am | Permalink

    So wonderful to hear a sane voice instead of the endless hype about going viral. It’s getting very weird to live in a world where almost every single person you know has a book they are promoting through social media.

  3. Posted November 19, 2010 at 10:39 am | Permalink

    It ain’t the 19th century and I think we all should be past believing in cure-alls the same way we should be past believing in leeches or phrenology. That said, before us authors start wailing over who is overwhelmed more, let’s back out of the fight. The reader has us all beat. Not only do they have a giant stack of books to get to but we keep insisting they pay attention to another every few weeks. And they’ve already got a job and family and friends and hobbies etc.

    It’s lovely to talk about the primacy of content. Content don’t mean diddly when it’s stacked up eight rows deep under your night stand. Anymore than we can pick out the best snowflake in an avalanche.

    So we insist authors promote. Not because they should be doing someone else’s job but because some one needs to go through the very basic step of telling readers why they should move any book to the front of the queue. And I promise you the answer is not “it’s good.” Ask any reader in the world. We are drowning in a tsumani of “it’s good.” How about “it’s good and it’s about a Jewish Guy with an Irish first name who gets to go on tour with Public Enemy? Then I as the reader this time know its not only “good” but precisely the right book for me.

    And that’s all promotion at its heart is. Spelling out what ya got. The day we insist authors shouldn’t have to bother is the day we think authors are above communicating frankly with the people who support their endeavors.

  4. Posted November 19, 2010 at 9:45 pm | Permalink

    What an incredible blog entry. I am a PR person who was a journalist and had to eat so I went from being a hack to a flack and I am good at flackery because of hackery and you do what you do to eat and feed your kids.

    Just tonight I thought of a great book (since publicists should turn into authors but that’s all I ever wanted to be anyway, but at least, I SAW ACTION IN THE BLOODY STREETS OF PUBLISHING and still do). So my idea for a book is Horror Stories of the Working mother.

    If I had truly been an author, unless I was on the 20% list of bestsellers (or Danielle Steele, which er, that’s ok), I would have needed A LOT MORE CHILDCARE than I really had in real life. Which sometimes took me from my desk and one time got two of my children hit by a car thanks to a babysitter’s carelessness, and no ladies and gentlemen of the jury, she was hired with references.

    This is real life. You have to work and you have to take care of yourself and your kids and some people hit the lottery. They have been proven scientifically to be the most unhappy people when their unknown relatives come out of the woodwork. As far as authors, it’s always a shame when a good book doesn’t find an audience — like all art. Like so many actors and singers and dancers and directors, writers have to stare down some heavy odds.

    And like great books, great publicity doesn’t always work (but it works more than quality books do, I think); both industries are hurting, and both are completely in major transition. In PR, that means social media disease, which as Daniel rightly says, you have to have fun with it and have a real rapport. Daniel got me hooked on him with this column, particularly the great paragraph about how some good books sell and some don’t. That was poetry; you have an audience of 3 or 4 commenting folks so far- but I know a lot of people who would like how you think so I think Ill just use your paragraph in MY blog, and twitter you out to my world. Absolutely great. Thank you for reaffirming my faith in on-the-ground publishing and marketing reality as opposed to magical thinking. As always there’s a middle path called Magical Reality– which describes putting all the effort in and out comes money. But then there’s one more thing. It’s worth even more than money when you love what you’re writing or publicizing or tweeting or blabbing about.

    Thanks Daniel…

  5. Kaye V. Madison
    Posted November 23, 2010 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    Daniel,
    Excellent blog–great information and well organized. And that may be part of the problem: So much excellent writing at our fingertips (literally), on every subject, every moment. For FREE! And so many of us willing to give so much for free. So, in a sense, writing has become a hobby–an unpaid activity people do fun.

    And yet, when it does work, sell, find a lovely reader, well then it is magical.

    I wish you all the best!

  6. Kaye V. Madison
    Posted November 23, 2010 at 9:40 am | Permalink

    …obviously meant “for fun.” (Sorry–no edit button.–And that’s another problem in the industry, the elimination of editors doing editing instead of marketing…)

  7. Graeme K Talboys
    Posted November 23, 2010 at 11:20 am | Permalink

    To your original list of inconvenient truths you could add: being disabled.

    I have had agents and editors very excited about my work cut me off the minute I’ve mentioned I am virtually housebound.

    Social media is great for keeping in touch with your friends and passing n personal news, having the occasional rant, but apart from that… well, I’d rather waste my time writing and polishing my craft.

  8. Posted November 29, 2010 at 10:26 pm | Permalink

    Thanks to all for the thoughtful comments.

  9. Posted May 13, 2011 at 8:03 pm | Permalink

    This is a brilliant and very funny article! And, it is so true. Anyone who puts in the [unpaid] hours to create a blog on really any topic, must be under the spell of magical thinking. And yet millions do it and then pray for a comment. But the huge leap of faith is that any interest in the blog will convert into sales of a book.

    But what else do we have at this point in the evolution of the publishing industry. We simply don’t know what else to do and we tap away at our laptops in the hopes we may get noticed. A lot of work has gone into the technical design of social media tools which everyone is only learning to use.

    Seriously though, while we have all these new tools, has anyone figured out how best to use them? I think it’s early days.

  10. Posted November 11, 2011 at 1:21 pm | Permalink

    Doing your own PR using social media is a lot of work. But it works, if you are persistent. I write niche market books (advice for Germans moving to the U.S.), and because of being active on relevant message boards and maintaining a blog about life in the U.S. for many years, I’m selling enough books that I can afford to only have a part-time job. So, at least for non-fiction it works. (It might be much harder for fiction.) One thing to consider: If you are able to build a community around your books, you will look much more attractive to publishers.

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