How Much Is Too Much?

J.T. Ellison

Self-promotion. It has become a dirty word.

We writers are curious beasts. Some of us are hell bent on competition. Some are in constant promotion mode, plugging themselves without a care in the world. Still others spend all their time talking up other authors, celebrating the success of their friends. None of these alternatives are necessarily better, but you have to wonder which path lets you sleep at night. Lao Tzu said: "When you are content to be simply yourself and don’t compare or compete, everybody will respect you." I think this is especially true when it comes to publishing.

On this penultimate Friday before launch day, I’ve become especially attuned to the vagaries of self-promotion. It doesn’t come naturally to me. I’m much more comfortable talking up other people’s work. Yet if I’m going to be successful, am going to make my mark, I have to do some self promotion. Yuck.

Writer’s Digest had an article in the October issue about a young turk named James Boice who is opposed to doing promotion for his book. Opposed as in he wants to go the Cormac McCarthy J.D. Salinger route — write a damn good book and let it stand on its own merits. No promotion, hell, not even an interview. He finds the concept of standing in front of a group of people discussing his work nightmarish. Boy, can I relate. I read this "interview" with the reluctant author and went "YES!" I want to be him. I want to say to the whole world nope, not gonna play. Not gonna climb out from under my rock.

But I don’t have a choice, do I? Really, let’s be honest. You have to do some promotion of your own work. As distasteful as it may feel, it’s a given in this day and age. The trick is to know when you’ve become an obnoxious bore and the person or people you’re addressing have mastered the illusion of rolling their eyes back into the deepest, darkest recesses of their brains while still maintaining a smiling facade.  Dear God, don’t let that ever happen to me.

So where do you draw the line? For a debut author, how do you know when enough is enough?

I see book promotion as dating. When you go out on a blind date, just how much information do you give your partner? Do you spill your most intimate secrets within five minutes and let them know you’re ready for marriage, 2.5 kids, two yellow labs, a house in the suburbs and a Mercedes for Christmas? Or do you let them get to know you gradually, hold back your true feelings, fears and desires? Do you verbally vomit out of sheer nervousness (I worry this will be me) or do you play coy, let them come to you?

I have to tell you, it’s relatively easy to read people. Body shifting, glancing away, checking the time, looking like they may want to interrupt are all excellent non-verbal clues that you’ve outstayed your welcome. And more often than not, they aren’t really that interested in you. They may be interested in your work, or the topic on which you’re speaking. But have they really approached you after a signing or a panel to hear you talk about yourself? Or are they searching for that nugget of information that they want to glean out of your experience? Or do they just plain want something from you?

I had an . . . interesting conversation with someone recently. Let’s call her Jane. Jane was interested in getting a story out to the public, but was concerned about intellectual property rights. No matter how many times I told Jane that this just wasn’t a likely scenario, that editors and agents are LOOKING for a brilliant story, but don’t want to co-opt it for themselves, she wasn’t hearing me. She kept coming back to the worry. I quickly realized that there was nothing I could say to alleviate this fear. I tried to cut my losses, because at that point Jane had eaten up fifteen minutes of my time with a question I couldn’t answer correctly. Sensing she’d lost me, Jane blurted out the premise of the story. Now, it may or may not be a good idea, but at that point, I’d stopped listening, was smiling politely and looking for a way out.

And I felt terrible, because this person had asked my advice, I wasn’t giving a satisfactory answer, and I probably lost a potential reader because I didn’t know what else to do. I never stopped smiling, never once intimated that I wasn’t interested, but after a certain point, you realize that nothing is going to work and you have to be willing to walk away. And at that point, the idea of saying don’t forget to buy my book becomes entirely reprehensible.

By the way, in case I didn’t spell that out correctly, Jane was WAY over-promoting. Making her story into some mythical experience that the whole world was going to want to snap up wasn’t just unrealistic, it was naive. But I couldn’t tell her that either. Sometimes people need to learn for themselves.

I knew from the first that working one on one was my strong suit, and I love to do this. Talking to people while I’m signing their book is sheer joy for me. And I’m starting to like another aspect of self-promotion — panels. I did my first in New York this summer at Thrillerfest, and was surprised at how comfortable I was. This realization played itself out again this past weekend at Southern Festival. I had a ball on my two panels. With my experience fresh in my mind, I attended Jim Born’s panel with Steven James, and really took the opportunity to learn. If you haven’t been to panel to watch Jim Born speak, shame on you. He gives the best panel ever. He’s funny, and engaging, and self-deprecating, and is a wonderful writer with amazing experiences guiding his work. I learned a lot from Jim this weekend, as well as my fellow panelists, on how to seduce instead of promote. Great lesson.

I know I’m babbling on here, but this is a subject I’ve been fretting about for months. My book comes out next week. I am indescribably proud. The accomplishment has been made into a life changing experience because of all the people out there who have been willing to give me their time and effort, who have patiently guided me through the morass. I know which writers I want to emulate when I’m on the road, or doing a signing, or appearing at a conference. I just hope I can do them proud, and not trip into the dreaded BSP because of my enthusiasm. And a warning, next week, I may do just that. Only once, I promise.

So share with me,`Rati brethren. How much IS too much?


Alright, enough of the serious stuff. Here are some of my favorite shots from this past weekend at the Southern Festival of Books. A great time was had by all! I have to admit, in a weekend of nothing but huge highs, the highlight was Jim Born showing Kinky Friedman my book, and carrying it around in his back pocket. Now that’s friendship! (BTW, just after that, Kinky called my husband Spartacus. If he only knew…)


After our great panel, Sex and Violence: Is too Much Ever Enough? Tasha, Marcus, Robert Hicks and I hammed it up and did a couple of interviews for the local news. If Al Gore hadn’t won the Nobel, we would have made it to air…


Killer Year takes on Nashville! From left to right — Derek Nikitas, Marcus Sakey, me, Tasha Alexander, and Toni McGee Causey were guests of the Middle Tennessee Chapter of Sisters in Crime. Our panel, Tips and Insider Secrets to Getting Published, was well attended and could have gone on for another couple of hours.


And the best photo of the weekend. Hubby shows Marcus his version of The Blade Itself…


To compliment our coverage, more great news!

My dear friend Derek Nikitas launched his incredible debut novel, PYRES, this week. Full disclosure, I loved it so much that I blurbed it. Here’s my opinion:

"Nikitas’€™s story is literary and smart. His effortless prose and genre-melding style is reminiscent of John Connolly, his ability to tap into the
disturbed teenage psyche as masterful as Lisa Carey. PYRES is a must read. I couldn’€™t put it down."

So go out and get this amazing book today!


Wine of the Week: 2002 Dunham Selection VIII Cabernet Sauvignon

11 thoughts on “How Much Is Too Much?

  1. Naomi

    First of all, I must say–what an attractive group of writers!

    And about self-promotion: you need to find your right formula. I was getting so wiped out from my promotional speaking events that my husband mentioned that maybe I need to be more myself. So on the last couple of gigs, I’ve been more informal and less performance oriented. It worked out a lot better.

    The self-promoters I find complete bores are the ones who go on and on about their book and their awards and show no interest in anyone or anything else. The world is much bigger than that, and I find people who are so disconnected from larger society really sad and somewhat dangerous.

  2. Dana King

    A couple of things. I don’t think you gave Jane an unsatisfactory answer. You told her the truth; it was only unsatisfactory to her because that wasn’t what she wanted to hear. That’s not your fault, or problem.

    I also think there’s a delicate semantic issue here. Self-promotion implies you’re promoting yourself; you’re not, not really. You’re promoting your book. Most readers probably don’t care much about you, personally. They’d rather like you than dislike you, but their primary interest is in how you write a book, or certain things in your experience that helped you to create the story. The literary equivalent of “2.5 kids and two yellow Labs” is probably of interest to a minute percentage of your potential readers.

    You owe your readers your best effort as a writer, and a courteous and enthusiastic appearance when you meet them, whether in a panal, a signing, or sitting next to one on an airplane. Beyond that, I wouldn’t expose any more of yourself than you’re comfortable with.

  3. Jacky B.

    Cormac McCarthy doesn’t self-promote?

    Sure he does. The old fashioned way. He writes great fucking books.

    J.T. What an exciting time for you! Hope this is the begining of a long and happy run.

    Jacky B.

  4. Louise Ure

    JT, I just want to know what wine you’re saving for your release date?

    Too much BSP? Just introduce yourself and your book. From that point on, think of it as a conversation (not a monologue) and you’ll be fine.

  5. JT Ellison

    Naomi, I agree! I was surrounded by luminous stars all weekend, what a blessing! I hear you about being yourself. Since I have absolutely zero performance ability, it should go okay.

    Dana, you’re absolutely right. Promoting a book is different than promoting yourself. At least it should be.

    Tom, thank you for that.You gave me a couple of ideas for my tour!

    Jackie, that’s my point. Write the book, to hell with the consequences. LOVE that idea. But without the massive promotional wheels of X publishing house out there, even damn good books languish.

    Louise, wait until next week. I’ll have it there…

    See, I want it to be a conversation. I want to walk in, say hi, and have actual discourse rather than me lecturing. I’m not going on the road to lecture. I don’t want to teach. I want to have discussions with readers and writers about reading and writing. And that’s what I plan to do.

  6. pari

    J.T.,I’m not sure there’s much to add here. You need to do what’s comfortable for you — because then you’ll be natural and you’ll enjoy yourself.

    There are so many formulas and how-tos and the longer I’m in this business, the more I firmly believe that you’ve got to:1. Write the best books you can2. Respect your social talents and your limits3. Do the things — promotionally and otherwise — that bring you joy far more than those that make you uptight or miserable

    If you do those three things (oh, yeah, there are probably many more . . . but three is an easy number), you’ll be fine, effective, and you won’t burn out.

  7. Alexandra Sokoloff

    You’ve come a long way, baby doll! I remember not so long ago when you were so nervous about an upcoming panel you were using words like “medication” and “fainting spell”.

    I have no doubt you’ll always know how much is too much. You wrote the following – obviously you GET IT:

    “I have to tell you, it’s relatively easy to read people. Body shifting, glancing away, checking the time, looking like they may want to interrupt are all excellent non-verbal clues that you’ve outstayed your welcome.”

  8. JT Ellison

    Alex, I was so proud of myself this weekend, I actually forsook the meds and did it cold. And I was FINE. Much ado about nothing, eh?

    And Pari, isn’t it the coolest book you’ve ever seen, next to yours of course????Made all the better by your endorsement! Having your name on my book is an honor.


    Hi J.T.,

    I went to one of Kinky Friedmans book signings in Dallas when he released Elvis, Jesus, and Coca-Cola. He had everyone in stitches the whole time. It was certainly one of the best book signings I’ve ever attended.

    For anyone who has never attended one, I highly recommend it. You will not regret it.


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