Columns > Published on August 30th, 2017

Overcoming the Shame of Self-Promotion

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Being a debut author these days, with or without the backing of the Big Five, means doing whatever you can to get the word out about your book.

The interwebs are full of advice for newbies trying to wrap their heads around this reality, and articles range from the practical to the humorous to the frankly overwhelming. But many posts on this subject echo a common refrain: Self-promotion is an odious but necessary evil, so let's all just hold our noses and get it over with (so we can get back to writing).

I take issue with that approach for a number of reasons, not the least of which is this: self-promo is not some brief period of debasement to which we must subject ourselves to make it in this day and age, but rather, a critical and recurring set of activities that we'll have to engage in again and again.

Which means that if you can't find a way to turn the promotion of your own work into something that seems even marginally enjoyable—and something you feel even marginally good at--you're going to wind up doing a whole lot of something you hate.

As an author with a background in marketing and publicity, I do realize that I'm an outlier in terms of my relationship to selling. But there are some principles and best practices that I think more authors should be aware of—if only because they will make the necessary feel significantly less odious. 

1) It’s not about you 

Wait, you say—this is a post about self-promotion. How could it possibly not be about me?

Well, basically, because this: Unless a potential reader is related to you, shares a bed with you, or is a good friend of yours, they do not care about your book just because you wrote it. The only reason anyone outside this privileged group will be interested in your book is if your book has something to do with them—their interests, their values, their lives.

How many authors do you see trying to promote their book as a "great read!" or a "page-turner" or some other manner of literary cliche? And yet, there are so many great reads and page turners in the world that I and you and everyone we know will never have time to read them all. We want the books that will mean something to us personally, and in order to find those books, we have to know, for starters, what the hell a book is actually about.

So, number one, it's not about you, it's about the book. But number two, it's also about your reader.

I wrote a novel about eco-activists coming of age in the Southwest, and I consider it my job to reach the people who might want to read that sort of thing. Feminists, natural history geeks, outdoor enthusiasts, people who've lived in or loved the Southwest, current or former activists, current or former campus radicals--the list goes on.

All of these people are my people. All of these people will see themselves reflected in my novel. And none of them will find out about Hot Season unless I make an effort to let them know about it. (See what I did there?)

By way of contrast, consider this post, by a woman who wrote a book about chronic pain—which, I think you’ll have to agree, is a far more universal subject than anything you'll find in my snappy little campus thriller, and one much farther down on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. And yet she considers posting about her book on social media embarrassing and “uncool?”

Think of how many people suffering in silence would take comfort in this book—think of how many of them would feel legitimately seen, heard, understood, and would perhaps even physically benefit from reading this book. If that was my book, I’d be on a friggin’ crusade with it.

2) Don't fake it

If you come from a place of service, as far as I'm concerned, you don’t have to shuffle your feet as part of some fake "promotional persona." You can just be who you actually are, albeit with a few key talking points.

You can just be who you actually are, albeit with a few key talking points.

Who are you, really? What do you care about? What drives you crazy? And what's your story with this book? I'm not recommending that you share anything with the public that you'd rather keep private, but I am talking about your real journey to publication, the struggles you went through with the material, with the process, and what you cared about so friggin' much that you couldn't let this thing go, even when your significant other had forgotten what your face looked like when it wasn't reflected in the light of the computer screen. No book reaches its pub day without a struggle, and no book is born without some ferocious love beating at its heart.

That too is a story—the story behind your story—and it's part of what will make complete strangers want to read your book. People who've endured the same kinds of struggles that you have will see your book as a triumph, and people who love what you love will want to connect with what you've created. (If you write fiction or poetry, what you love includes the authors who've inspired you.)

In the marketing world, people call this authentic marketing, a term sure to turn the stomachs of English majors everywhere. But before you step into the ring, don't dismiss it until you've consider the following: Are you presenting yourself as who you really are as an author? Or are you trying to come off in a way that you think an author should be?

A fakely polished persona that reflects your idea of a "successful author" is not what's going to get complete strangers interested in your book, nor is a persona based on superficialities and evasions.

Promoting a book, for better or worse, means answering questions about yourself, so before you get there, think about the real story, the real you, behind this book, and how you might speak from that real place. 

3) Don't be embarrassed to draw attention to yourself 

Many of us, by temperament or training, are reluctant to find ourselves in the spotlight. But what is that, really? The memory of some childhood trauma, a moment where someone singled you out to make fun of you? The fear of making someone else feel bad (because they're not where you're standing)? Or—what? Whatever it is, perhaps it bears interrogating.

This reluctance seems to afflict female authors especially, perhaps because we're taught, well, basically from birth not to try to "look smart" or act superior, or any in any way, under any circumstances, make anyone feel bad. Also, let's face it, there are dangers associated with drawing attention to yourself on the Internet as a XX chromosome (particularly if you're taking on Pepe-the-Frog MRA wingnuts/Sad Puppies/Gamergate dudes, or posting nude selfies).

But drawing attention to your work as an author? That's pretty much just par for the course, a thing everyone who aspires to write for a living has to do. Think of it less like being the one person who's always raising her hand in class and more like acing the oral report. Your "class" is composed solely of authors, and everyone has to get up in front of the class and do this at some point.

And if doing so still makes you feel uncomfortable, just remember, it will all be over soon enough, as the news cycle for new releases is shorter than the periods of calm between 45's tweetstorms. Before you know it, you'll be vying for a place on that stage again.

Now it's your turn. Authors—what are your thoughts on self-promotion? Aspiring authors—what are some examples of "authentic marketing" from authors that you admire?

About the author

An author, editor, and educator, Susan DeFreitas’s creative work has appeared in the Writer’s Chronicle, Story Magazine, the Huffington Post, Daily Science Fiction, and Southwestern American Literature, along with many other journals and anthologies. She is the author of the novel Hot Season, which won a Gold IPPY Award for Best Fiction of the Mountain West, and holds an MFA from Pacific University. She divides her time between Santa Fe, New Mexico, and Portland, Oregon, and has served as a freelance editor and book coach since 2010.

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