you can’t be just a writer anymore

by Tess Gerritsen

There was a time when all a novelist was expected to do was write books.  One book a year, that was what publishers usually wanted from us.  And that much, I could deliver.

I remember those good old days.  It was 1987 when Harlequin Intrigue bought my first romance novel, Call After Midnight. I had typed it on an electric typewriter.  I photocopied it, page by page, at my local office supply store, and sent it off to my literary agent. Months later, when Harlequin accepted it, my literary agent informed me of this momentous event by sending me a letter of congratulations.  By regular mail. I was living in Hawaii at the time, and I assume he thought that a phone call would be too expensive, but still — a letter!  That's how slowly things moved back in the dark ages. When it came time for the edits, my editor would mail me a revision letter, and I would mail back the revised manuscript. The copy-edited manuscript would follow, and then the galleys would show up on those continuous sheets of printer paper with the side perforations, all of it delivered by the U.S. Post Office. 

The whole publishing process moved at a stately,if glacial pace, and I learned to be patient. While waiting for my book to finally show up in stores, I'd turned my attention to writing the next story. I was raising two young sons and working part-time as a doctor, and just getting that next book written was about all I could handle. And it was the only thing my publisher expected of me.  

Fast forward to 2009. The age of the internet, faxes, email, and Youtube.

Last week, I read an interview with an editor, who was asked: "How much self-promotion should authors be expected to do?"  Her answer: "As much as they possibly can. It's essential to getting your name out there and selling more books."  

She's right.  These days, being a writer is no longer just about the books.  We can no longer slide by like those 1980's slacker writers and turn in one well-written manuscript every year.  Now we have to be novelists, salesmen, speakers, and media personalities.  

We have to have a website.  A fabulous, well-designed website. And since we're now so easily accessible, people send us email — both nice and nasty –and of course we must respond to all of it. 

We blog.  Some writers love doing it, but others do it only because they've been told they must if they want to "get their names out there and sell more books."  Whether you enjoy it or not, blogging sucks up your time — and sometimes your psychic energy as well when your blog sets off a controversy or generates hate mail.  

We maintain Facebook and Myspace pages, and this requires yet more attention and more time away from our writing.  We do it because we've been told — does this sound familiar?– that it will get our name out there and sell more books.  

We waste hours on Amazon.com and BarnesandNoble.com, checking our sales index to see how our books are moving, what readers are saying, and whether the latest publicity blitz has resulted in a bump in sales.  And now we feel compelled to blog on those sites as well, because — yes — it will get our name out there and sell more books.

We Google, Technorati, and Blogpulse our names way too often.  To collect reviews for our files and to see if, indeed, we've managed to get our name out there and therefore sell more books.

We're invited to be author guests in online chat groups, and even though we will probably devote an entire hour chatting online to only four people whose faces we can't even see, of course we always accept those invitations because we want to get our name out there and sell more books.

We feel compelled to design and distribute all sorts of promotional materials from newsletters and bookmarks to postcards and cutesy giveaways like tee shirts and refrigerator magnets. We spend hours — and hundreds of dollars — mailing these materials to people who will probably look at them and promptly toss them out.  But we never want to ignore the opportunity to get our name out there and sell more books.

We hear that book videos are now a must-have promotional tool, so of course we have to do one too.  Because everyone else is doing them, aren't they?  We hire a filmmaker and write a script.  Even more important, we write a check.  Sometimes a big check.  But it's all worth it, right?  Because it will get our name out there and sell more books.

We get in our cars and do drop-in signings.  Some of us do lots of drop-in signings.  We spend days or even weeks on the road and use up tanks and tanks of gasoline driving to stores that may have only five copies of our latest book.  We have the address of every Borders and Barnes and Noble within an 8-state radius saved on our GPS.  We shake booksellers' hands, sign books, and slap on hundreds of autograph stickers because it will get our name out there and sell more books.

We turn ourselves into glamour pusses because publishing isn't just about writing now — it's about being mediagenic. We get our hair styled and streaked, we get our faces lifted, we get our bodies toned.  We buy red high heels.  We slather on the makeup for author photos and TV spots.  We hire publicists. We want to be absolutely ready to walk on camera when Oprah calls.  We are determined to get our name out there and blah, blah, blah.   

Meantime, while we're making ourselves insane with all the driving, blogging, primping and Googling, we still have to write those stories. We still have to turn in those manuscripts. 

But now our lives are about to get even more insane.  Because publishers have now come up with the one really surefire way to get our names out there and sell more books.  It's the secret to success, the best strategy for bestsellerdom. And it's this:

We have to write more books.  The old one=book-a-year schedule just isn't enough. Authors are now urged to produce two, three, even four books a year. Because there's nothing that will get your name out there faster, or get the readers to buy more of your books, than to have more of those books on the stands.

God, I miss the good old days.

 

 

31 thoughts on “you can’t be just a writer anymore

  1. pari

    Oh, Tess,This is the trend I’ve been watching for a few years now. I come from a PR background and sometime last year, I realized that all this wonderful promotion doesn’t mean squat if you don’t have “product.”

    For me, with kids and a family, that means less time on the road and internet and more time dedicated to writing. I can’t do it any other way.

    Reply
  2. neil nyren

    It’s all in the balance, Tess. Everything you say is true, but that doesn’t mean everything is right for everybody. In fact, I doubt everything is right for *anybody.*

    When working with my authors, I try to consider the whole picture. What is the best use of their time? What is actually helpful and what is unlikely to be worth their effort? Most of all, what will best support their writing? I do want them to promote and *get their name out there* and we work hard on that, because that’s a key part of publishing today — but the writing has to come first. If you don’t have a good book, none of the above is likely to matter. So you take your priorities, you balance them, and you see what works best for you.

    Reply
  3. B.G. Ritts

    “…go shoot myself now.”

    Speaking of which, I wonder how writers such as Hemingway, Piper, Plath and Woolf would have been able to handle the expectations of today’s authors?

    Reply
  4. Becky Lejeune

    I would hate to see this trend (the multiple books a year) result in even more mediocre stuff hitting shelves. I love my reliable authors and I would rather have one great book a year or even every other year than have three so-so ones all in one year. Plus, I think there is enough new stuff coming out to keep me busy between my must buys.

    Worse yet, I’d hate to see it end in an author meltdown!

    Reply
  5. Jake Nantz

    This is why I worry about working the day job. I really believe we gotta get to the point where we are cranking out AT LEAST two, if not three, a year. With grading and life in general, I (to steal from Ron White) can’t even get to “wuh…” in a year right now.

    Yeesh, bless you guys for churning out such great books under all that pressure, that I may escape into them when I feel school pressure on my end. Truly, bless you.

    Reply
  6. Stacey Cochran

    And yet, to a writer like me, I absolutely eat this stuff up.

    I’ve built a career as a writer the past five years doing all the things you mention, Tess, and yet I haven’t actually published a book with a major publisher.

    And yet this is the trend. I think young writers (35 and under) really do benefit by having a strong platform, public speaking skills, television abilities, YouTube recognition, a profitable website and audience of aspiring writers, a well-oiled marketing machine in place, etc., before trying to publish with the Big Six.

    Particularly in today’s publishing climate.

    All of this though shouldn’t come at the expense of the very real need to develop one’s craft: writing compelling characters, in a powerful and gripping setting, in a plot that readers can’t wait to talk about.

    Writing a well-crafted story is still the most important thing. It is the trump card.

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  7. Cornelia Read

    I just try to blog, email people who email me, and show up if I’m asked to do something. Along with my website. With a touch of Facebook. Anything more than that, on top of writing, and I start to feel like I’m being put through my mother’s meat-grinder to be made into Shepherd’s Pie.

    But as David Montgomery said a while back, “there’s a name for writers who don’t self-promote. It’s barista.”

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  8. J.D. Rhoades

    Ever notice how all of this stuff is, according to the publisher, what YOU need to do, not to mention pay for?

    I wonder if they’d be saying that, say, book trailers were so vital if the publishers were required by law to write, produce, and pay for them, or if they’d say “aw, why bother, book trailers don’t really sell more books.”

    And websites…you think anyone bought THE DA VINCI CODE because of Dan Brown’s website? Does he even HAVE one? How many if the people who made Michael Connelly’s last book a bestseller discovered him through his website?

    It’s easy to tell writers they need to spend their own money. But one wonders what actual market analysis would show really sells books if, that is, anyone would spring for it.

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  9. Stacey Cochran

    Well, Dusty, people don’t buy a book for one reason. Just as they don’t buy a car for one reason.

    Marketing works when it’s ubiquitous.

    Basically, if your name is everywhere… if somebody actually recognizes it and says “I want to check out this guy” then that is a success in my book.

    I mean this is Konrath 101, folks.

    Perhaps, we should even have a verb now for this… as in:

    Today’s young writers really do have to Konrath themselves to achieve career longevity as published authors.

    Reply
  10. J.D. Rhoades

    What’s the rule? It takes six mentions of your name before it takes roots in the buyer’s mind?

    I guess the trick, then, is getting your name where the bigger masses of people actually go.

    Reply
  11. Stacey Cochran

    “I guess the trick, then, is getting your name where the bigger masses of people actually go.”

    Totally.

    There probably is some Marketing Law (or should be), which states “Given the choice between two equal products, most consumers will choose the product that they are more familiar with.”

    So yes, we should all aspire to a prime-time TV show on NBC or CBS where our name is in the title and repeated no less than 37 times in each episode.

    Reply
  12. Tom

    Thanks, Tess.

    This is a big part of why I stopped the WIPs. The day job keeps getting harder and time with my wife is less available and more important.

    And I’m lousy at PAs.

    Then last week my garage-office was burglarized, and he got the MacBook Pro with all the work on it. Yes, there are three back-ups of everything, but it sorta felt like a message (part of which was, “Bring the laptop from your office to the bedroom if you expect to keep it).

    Reply
  13. J.T. Ellison

    As much as I love Joe K., I don’t think new writers need to Konrath themselves to get ahead in this industry. Listen to what Mr. Nyren just said – promotion must support your writing.

    Work with your house on the right balance, because without the quality, quantitative promotion is like shouting inside a very empty warehouse.

    I have a comfortable but somewhat limited internet presence, do limited touring, work on this blog and focus, really focus, on producing high quality work daily. When your promotion gets in the way of your writing, it’s time to pull back.

    And remember, promotion, especially conferences, is all about connecting with readers, not hanging with friends. That’s a happy by-product, but it shouldn’t be your goal.

    Write first, promote second. Always, always, always.

    And I think Hemingway would have ended it sooner, sadly.

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  14. Gayle

    It would be interesting to see a study of what works when selling books. I am a prolific reader who does not depend on web sites, Facebook, or author signings to influence my reading. I think much of reading is by word of mouth. I have friends who read and we recommend books to each other. I’m not sure that people who send a lot of time on the internet are buying lots of books. And I can’t imagine that there are too many authors out there who can crank out 3-4 books per year. I’d rather wait for 1 good book than read 4 mediocre books. Until an author is “high profile” my guess is that they still need a day job to pay the bills. And there are many “high profile” authors that I don’t read because all they are doing is cranking books out and there is no meat to them. I’m all for reading what I like to call “pablum for the brain” sometimes, but I don’t want a steady diet of it.

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  15. tess gerritsen

    Neil Nyren is right, of course — there comes a time when a writer just has to call a halt to the madness and decide what really matters. I have been learning to say the word “No” a lot more, and have been cutting way back on my travel to conferences and speaking engagements. It’s a hard thing for a writer to learn — that word “No.”

    I wrote this blog because I do see an upswelling in panic among many writers that they aren’t doing enough this, enough that. And a lot of uncertainty about what really WORKS. The problem is, we don’t really know what works.

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  16. Stacey Cochran

    Tess, Neil, and J.T., you’ve raised a great point about balance.

    I think we all have to choose what works best for us and what we’re comfortable doing to help build our careers. I do think that a strong story that is original, has an exceptional voice, and speaks to something universal in all of us will win out.

    All this other stuff is icing.

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  17. Jim

    I find it interesting that so many people seem to believe that “fast” books (2 or 3 a year) must automatically imply that they are “mediocre” or are being “cranked out.”

    My view is quite the opposite. The faster a writer can do it, the better, because the compressed timeline helps the author keep the facts, plot and characters in better memory, which in turn not only eliminates rereading, but also allows the author to play better off what has already been written.

    At 10 pages a day, an author can write two 400 pages books in 80 days. Lots of people can do that quite comfortably.

    But getting to the topic of promotion, my view is that the best way to sell an existing book is to write a new one. That simple act will always trump a thousand hours of blogging and internetting and brown-nosing

    Reply
  18. M.J. Rose

    Read Virginia Woolf’s diary. There was no Twitter or Facebook but the pressures to succeed and the difficulties and frustrations she faced getting published and dealing with her writing career made me realize how little has changed.

    Just because there are a million ways for us to drive ourselves crazy doesn’t mean we have to do any of them. I agree with what Neil said.

    No one can do all of it… we just need to choose the which and what of it we can do and do it. For everyone who takes Path A and succeeds there is a writer who takes Path B and succeeds.

    Not every one needs to Twitter or do a video. Not every one needs a publicist or to be beautiful. Not every one needs to be a CIA agent with a platform.

    For every author who does it all or tries to there is one who does very very little and succeeds just as well.

    I guess I’m surprised by the idea that this shouldn’t be so hard… it’s always been hard.. and will always been one of the the tougher gigs to make work. Artists don’t have it easy – never have – never will.

    But one thing I know too well and am sadly reminded of every single day, life is way too short to do spend it being miserable. As far as I’m concerned, if I can’t enjoy this for all its difficulties then it’s not worth it. The world doesn’t need another book… at least not from me…

    Reply
  19. M.J. Rose

    Read Virginia Woolf’s diary. There was no Twitter or Facebook but the pressures to succeed and the difficulties and frustrations she faced getting published and dealing with her writing career made me realize how little has changed.

    Just because there are a million ways for us to drive ourselves crazy doesn’t mean we have to do any of them. I agree with what Neil said.

    No one can do all of it… we just need to choose the which and what of it we can do and do it. For everyone who takes Path A and succeeds there is a writer who takes Path B and succeeds.

    Not every one needs to Twitter or do a video. Not every one needs a publicist or to be beautiful. Not every one needs to be a CIA agent with a platform.

    For every author who does it all or tries to there is one who does very very little and succeeds just as well.

    I guess I’m surprised by the idea that this shouldn’t be so hard… it’s always been hard.. and will always been one of the the tougher gigs to make work. Artists don’t have it easy – never have – never will.

    But one thing I know too well and am sadly reminded of every single day, life is way too short to do spend it being miserable. As far as I’m concerned, if I can’t enjoy this for all its difficulties then it’s not worth it. The world doesn’t need another book… at least not from me…

    Reply
  20. Allison Brennan

    Balance is the single most important thing. I didn’t do much of anything for my first few books, and they did pretty well. I have a nice website, I go to conferences (sorry, JT, I go to socialize . . . promoting is secondary. Why? Because I’m an extrovert in an introverted job and I need the human connection with like-minded people or I’ll self-destruct.) I don’t tour (being in mass market, this would be a waste of money, IMO); I don’t do many signings. For me, promotion is a time vs. money thing. If it takes time, I rarely do it. If it takes money, I weigh the benefit. Is this something that is going to advance my long-term career? My publisher does a great job with individual books; I need to do a great job with career building. That means answering all fan emails. Maintaining a website that includes information on my backlist, current and future titles. And attending reader functions ONLY IF they don’t take away from writing time. To this end, I’ve accepted a few speaking engagements. But I have learned to say no.

    I love writing. I would write if I weren’t published. I love writing three books a year. I would much rather write three books a year than two books and promote more. Or one book and tour for six weeks.

    Reply
  21. Emma Lee

    Whilst it’s true that faced with a choice of two identical products, the consumer will pick the one that’s more familiar, it’s also true that there’s no point in promoting a book where your readers and/or target audience aren’t.

    I’m a published writer. I also have a full-time day job to pay the bills, and a family. I’m a poet so my publisher has marketing budget of zero. I’m more likely to sell my books at readings/ signings than via shops. But I have to pick and choose as I can’t be everywhere.

    The pressure to do more will always be there, but just because book videos work for Writer A, doesn’t mean they’ll work for Writer B. It’s down to playing to your strengths: if you like readings, do them; if you prefer blogging, blog; but don’t feel forced into doing a blog if you know it’ll get in way of your writing. The next best thing isn’t necessarily best for you.

    Reply
  22. Nicole

    It’s pretty much like that for any entreprenuer, no matter how large are small the pay-off.

    But don’t you guys (at least those of your caliber) have publicists, or at the very least, personal secretaries, who can do some of this for you?

    And, I must say, I think the publishers are making a mistake. Even at one book a year, I see very accomplished authors loosing their “edge”. It’s the old problem of coupling business people with artists.

    Readers will hang on through one let-down, but not usually two. Especially if they are consecutive

    Reply
  23. Donna Lea Simpson

    From Tess: “I wrote this blog because I do see an upswelling in panic among many writers that they aren’t doing enough this, enough that. And a lot of uncertainty about what really WORKS. The problem is, we don’t really know what works.”

    Man, it is so nice to know I’m not alone. For the first time in my life a due date (for first editorial queries on the ms of my August release) slipped past me. I simply forgot, and I’ve never forgotten a proessional obligation in my life.

    But… I’m writing a book that is due February 28th, and I just finished the first draft. (Yikes! It’ll need at least two more drafts to be in any shape at all.)And I have to do all the writing (and that is taking way more time than I expected) for my new domain site that MUST be up by March 1st because…

    My first book with a new publisher is out April 1st, and the publicity department of my new publisher has lined up lots of promo for me for March and April (I agreed ahead of time to do as much as they could get) because…

    Tess again.. “We do it because we’ve been told — does this sound familiar?– that it will get our name out there and sell more books.”

    The whiny part of me is whining, and the rest is saying, “You are so freaking lucky to be published! Do what you gotta do.” But I still don’t know what’s working, what’s not, what I should stop doing…

    Sigh.

    Reply

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