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When Marketing Can Be Too Much

December 14, 2010 Fiction, Opinion, Publishing, Writing 26 Comments

By Robin Black

It’s almost New Year’s resolution time.  I have a few this year.  All the usual ones about less food, more exercise, of course; a new one about buying only cruelty-free meat and poultry; and I am resolving this year to try to keep at the forefront of my consciousness the reasons I started writing in the first place.  Which oddly enough didn’t have to do with selling books.  Didn’t even have to do with getting an agent.  Or having twitter followers.  Or much of anything beyond an urgent desire to convey to some imagined, listening world, what I had observed in the preceding four decades about human interactions, human nature and how it is that we all manage to go on from day to day.

But it isn’t so easy.  Not at any stage in a writing career.  At a recent conference, I was disheartened to realize that for every question a participant asked me about writing, I received at least a dozen more about writing careers.  How to get an agent.  How to get a book published.  How to build a following before writing a book.

And then, last week, in case I imagined I had transcended such concerns, Amazon made it possible for authors to check their sales figures weekly.  The graphics are weirdly compelling.  You can play with them in all kinds of clever ways.  Mesmerizing.  Emotionally gripping.  I feel as though I have become both video game and video game addict all at once.

For anyone, it is distressingly easy to slip from being a career writer to being a career careerist.  For me, those compulsions to strategize and monitor have absolutely nothing to do with why I initially began to write – except that they share with that impulse a kind of desperation, a sense that there is a way in which this thing over which I am obsessing may make me happy if only. . .if only. . .if only. . .  But there is an illusion at work, of course.  An illusion when it comes to sales figures making one happy; and an illusion when it comes to writing doing so, either.

Writers are by nature insatiable.  Insatiable and dissatisfied.  It is in large part what keeps many of us going, an oddly precious, motivating discomfort.  A day of writing may bring a feeling of content; but reading the results the following morning is likely to shatter that.  And so we write again.  The work is never perfect, in part because language, which gives so many gifts, also presents us with the dubious advantage of infinite possibility.  And in part because the urgency that drives so many of us to write, that sense that there is something (something!) that must be conveyed, cannot be extinguished.  Not even through the act of conveying.

But I am beginning to suspect it can be transferred, that because we are always prone to feeling that we having failed, we writers are exceptionally vulnerable to the danger of obsessing over empirical measures of success.  If the act of writing can’t guarantee satisfaction, maybe the right number of twitter followers can.  Or the prestigious agent.  Or the book contract.  Or the Amazon ranking . . .  And, of course, the nature of the internet is that there is now no limit to how much time we can devote to this quest.

I don’t want to seem rude or ungrateful for the honor of being consulted, but I sometimes want to suggest to the people who ask me for career advice that instead of inquiring about querying an agent, they should instead ask what I’ve been reading lately, so I can ask them the same.  There is so much excellent, practical advice online about query letters and such.  It’s much harder to come by conversation with a colleague who has genuine interest in your work. Not interest in publishing it.  Not interest in whether one day it will make you famous.  Not even interest really in whether it’s good – whatever that means.  But interest in what you are writing and why you are writing and how you find time to write and well, you.

It only gets harder as you go on.  That’s what I have learned this past year, since publishing a book.  Harder and harder to focus on the work, to remember that this should always remain more art than marketing task.  Those early worries one has about getting an agent, getting published, they don’t disappear without a trace when those things come about.  They morph and multiply in shocking ways.

Which is why we need to find as many sacred spaces for ourselves as we possibly can.  Spaces in which we discuss narrative strategies twelve times more than career strategies and in which we feel awe at the power of prose rather than that of social networking.  We need to conspire against the forces that conspire against our identities as artists, turning us into crafters of pitches and builders of platforms and wooers of followers.

Or anyway, I need that.  Because if truth be told, for every thought I have about writing these days, I probably have a dozen more about my writing career.  But I am resolved to reverse that over the coming months, to get my insecurities back into the work – where they can do me some good.

And as solitary a task as writing is, I would love to have some company.

Marion Ettlinger

Robin Black’s collection If I loved you, I would tell you this (Random House, 2010) was a finalist in the Frank O’Connor International Short Story Prize and an O. Magazine Summer Reading pick.


Currently there are "26 comments" on this Article:

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by emmastraub, Sirenland Writers, Nichole Bernier, Karen Palmer, Harvey Freedenberg and others. Harvey Freedenberg said: RT @Karen_Palmer Robin's the best. RT @emmastraub @robin_black says writers are insatiable. @ Beyond the Margins. […]

  2. Joe W says:

    Robin, as both a witness to and participant in this tumultuous journey, I think you’ve stated all this beautifully. I’d discovered its entirely possible to be overwhelmingly grateful to see a lifelong dream come true…and completely panicked that the center will not hold.

    Good luck with your current project! (And to paraphrase a famous literary seasonal saying: “Good luck to us, every one.”) I have faith that you’ll end up creating something superb.

  3. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Backspace, Randy Susan Meyers. Randy Susan Meyers said: Craft vs Promotion–does one crowd out the other? Are we too concerned with promo? @robin_black on Beyond The Margins […]

  4. Wow, what a great analysis of what it is to be a writer today, and how distracting all the “platform” stuff can be. Thank you for putting this into words, and for pointing out what’s really important-the writing.

  5. SJ Rozan says:

    This is terrific. Thanks, and especially for reminding us that writers are NEVER satisfied, and that’s why we do it. No level of successs will make us feel okay. So you’re right; the best thing we can do is focus the dissatisfaction on producing work, not Facebook friends.

  6. marta says:

    Thanks for saying this, Robin, again and again and again. You have such a generous soul, and it makes a difference, at least to this novice writer!

    It feels so tricky though, because one can’t completely give up thoughts of having an audience, you know? In that way it’s sort of like dieting, as opposed to, say, giving up cigarettes, or alcohol. Difficult as it is, giving up cigarettes or alcohol entirely is at least possible, while one can’t just give up food, right? So if one wants to be healthy and fit, one must learn new ways of living with food, of enjoying it even — and the kicker, of course, is that one must do this day in and day out. A steely resolve isn’t enough for such a life-long quest for balance. It seems to me that “audience” is a lot like food in that way for a writer. Because even if having a book contract, or an agent, or any of the other usual trappings of success as a writer are not, primarily, why we write, in some fundamental way, being heard is. Knowing that somewhere, somehow, someone is going to read what we write is, of course, at least part of why we write. That conversation among us and the text and the reader — it requires us to at least imagine a reader. Wondering who that reader will be, and where, and when — I find it really daunting to find a healthy balance, especially as a novice writer, who has only ever shown my work to a handful of readers. As compelled as I am to write, it’s easy to feel foolish sometimes. And as you say, with the internet, there are way too many opportunities to obsess about it in unhealthy ways — all out of proportion to the real and fundamental ways that “audience” does actually matter in our work.

  7. I’ve spent the last 3 years either trying to create a platform for my book or editing it to appeal to my agent and/or to potential publishers. I’ve never felt more distant from myself as a writer, and have had trouble getting into writing another book. I hope I’ll one day feel the immense joy of being a published writer with a prestigious house. But I more look forward to sitting in front of a computer again and writing a story that makes my soul sing.

    Thanks for this piece!

  8. Robin – wise words, well said. But I think there’s a broader underlying issue to remember: having an agent and a publishing contract is inextricably linked to marketing. Agents are looking above all for what THEY can sell. They work on sales commissions. And publishers are thinking very much about what booksellers will buy. Agent Rachelle Gardner summed it up very well in this blog post: And we all know that much of what makes a book “publishable” today is about how well it fits the criteria of being “sellable,” mainly to booksellers. In the same post, Rachelle quotes Timothy Fish as saying, “it is a business decision, based on what publishers believe readers want to read.”

    So the moment a writer enters into an agency or publishing contract, writing becomes a business endeavor. And as we all know, business endeavors need marketing.

    Perhaps the only way to be genuinely true above all to your writing and not get side-tracked by marketing imperatives is to not seek publication, or to self-publish for the simple joy of celebrating and sharing your work. But of course, most writers don’t really want either of these options: what we want is to be agented, and published. Approval-stamped, and paid.

    What a set of contradictions. I spend a lot of time wondering what it will ultimately mean for the quality, the honesty and the integrity of books.

  9. Stephanie Ebbert Stephanie Ebbert says:

    Geez, and it took me so long to give a damn about Twitter! I’m guessing that many writers obsess about marketing because it’s the part that doesn’t come naturally to us. (The writing sustains us. The querying does not.) But all this social networking and self-promotion tools can distract from actual writing – while giving you the illusion that you’ve accomplished something for your writing today. I heard a piece on NPR yesterday about a device used to turn off social networking sites so people can actually get work done. Now we need tools to turn off all our tools!

    I have a feeling though, that writers have always been obsessed about their reviews. We are an insecure bunch by nature. I think there’s also so much insecurity right now about the decline of books and the transition in publishing that it amplifies writers’ concerns about their relevance. Yes, we need to be savvy with marketing and do our best to get our work out, but we can’t control the changes in the industry or convince ourselves that we’ll be best sellers if we just tweet enough. This is a good reminder that the work is what really matters, not the pitch.

  10. Erika Robuck says:

    “I sometimes want to suggest to the people who ask me for career advice that instead of inquiring about querying an agent, they should instead ask what I’ve been reading lately, so I can ask them the same.”

    This is very beautifully stated, and should be a mantra for “use” of social media.

    I started all of this social media stuff because many, many publishing professionals encouraged (insisted?) that I do so. At first it felt like a chore, but then, I started finding like-minded people with similar interests. I found people linking to blogs that interested me, conferences and workshops I might want to attend to improve craft, or just another voice out there at 1 AM to comfort me in those wee, lonely, raw, emotionally rich, awesome writing hours. Once I stopped looking at social media as a tool and started looking at it as a way to find friendship, it made all the difference in the world.

    For me, some nice contacts have come from social media, but they’ve developed organically. I’ve even met some of my online friends in person. It’s fantastic to put a living, breathing face with an avatar I’ve been chatting up at 140 characters for several months.

    Thanks for this great post and perspective, Robin!

  11. Such an interesting question, and juggling act. There’s almost certainly a point where the time spent networking on social media has diminishing returns, because there’s diminishing writing getting done. But I think it’s also a problem of diminishing attention spans–multitasking and distractibility. Incoming email: shiny object! I laughed when I first heard of Freedom (the software, not the book). Not laughing anymore.

  12. Robin Black says:

    Thanks so much to everyone who commented here!

    I really do think it’s a balancing act. As Sharon said, commercial publication is a function of the marketplace and participation in that system is inevitably “marketing” in some way or other. That’s why I never say here that I would swear off the selling parts of being a published author. Really I just think that for me and maybe others the balance gets skewed, a kind of tail wagging the dog phenomenon.

    (But I also love social networking. I have met extraordinary people – like the BTM folks!)

    For me, maybe it’s about anxiety. The bulk of my anxiety that has to do with my writing should be about the quality of the work and not its reception – and it is all too easy to have it be the other way around. Maybe that’s true because in some way it is easier to worry about things that can be quantified than about things that cannot be.

    Anyway, I am really grateful for all the responses and feel like just having this conversation is helpful to me. So thank you all!


  13. Jenna Blum says:

    Is it ironic that I tweeted this piece?

    I’ve had some extremely invigorating debates with beloved writer-friends lately as to the value of social media. As a writer who travels about 300 days out of 365, social media has become invaluable to me as a way to stay connected–it’s my community in my back pocket, and that can be really useful to a girl on the road. As a writer writing (which I’m not doing right now but have, in what seems like a galaxy long ago and far far away), I exercised a little more control over social media, like paring down to 2 hours a day. That was pre-Twitter, though. Now I feel that social media has become hard-wired in–I’ve gone from Luddite to addict–but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, as long as it’s not hurting you in other areas of life (and you’re not tweeting to the Twitterverse what was supposed to be a Direct Message, ahem). It’s all about the individual writer figuring out what’s best for him / her.

    I love hearing from my beloved Facebook friends/ Tweeps. I also utterly agree with what Robin says about finding and protecting sacred spaces when the twittering fades away and you’re hearing the beating of your own heart, as if you were underwater in a swimming pool. That’s where the stories are. For the purity of those moments, I’m craving my Writer’s Protection Program. And I’m panting to get back to teaching the master novel class at Grub Street Writers, when all we discuss is the writing itself. Those moments are so pure, they seem to make us all levitate.

    Thank you for a thought-provoking post!

  14. Robin Black says:

    I think that teaching is a great antidote. I always feel more excited about writing after a class than at just about any other time.

  15. Randy Susan Meyers randysusanmeyers says:

    Great discussion–thanks for engendering it, Robin. I think (for me) it’s trying hard to realize “every time has it’s season.” A time to write. A time to sell what one has written.

    I’d encourage writers still working on their book to back off from social media if it distracts, not to worry about agents until they are wholly satisfied with their book–and it’s been vetted by a writer’s group or other critical eye.

    On the other hand, I’d urge those with contracts received from those excellent books to realize they will have much responsibility for getting the book to the reader’s eyes–but they should find the manner to do that which will incite and excite their passion–the same passion which they brought to the page.

    For me, I am in love with writing posts, visiting blogs, etc as a way to get word out–how else could one do that while in their pj’s? But it’s a slippery slope to hanging out all day w/friends on the web–and we can have SO many of them.

    I keep my weekends mainly Twitter and FB free so I can write (and read!!) in a less frenetic “must check, must check” fashion.

  16. Tracy Seeley says:

    Robin, I’ve been feeling so much this way myself lately; thank you for saying it so clearly. I like social networking much more than I thought I would, but it is hard, I find, to know when enough is enough, especially for a first-time author (I have a book coming out in March and spend so much of my time preparing to “market” it). I would love to join you in some sacred, quiet, writerly corner, and I would love to share your resolve.

    There’s a structural problem here, though. Until publishers can put publicity for their writers at the top of their agenda, it’s going to be tough for writers to find enough quiet space, especially if we want our books to find readers. I wish I were smart enough to solve the economic puzzle for publishers–they should be selling our books for us, and the budget just isn’t there.

  17. Necee Regis Necee says:

    “For anyone, it is distressingly easy to slip from being a career writer to being a career careerist.” Love this line, and I agree with all above who talk about finding the right balance. The yin and yang of social media? I’m trying to find it. Like Jenna, I travel lots and then work at home, and so my friends and connections in this cyber-universe are sustaining as well as distracting. Funny, just thinking back 5 years ago–or even 3–how did we live? And what’s in store for us by 2015? As long as I can hold onto what Robin calls our sacred spaces, I think I’ll be fine. Thanks for a great post.

  18. Stephanie Ebbert Stephanie Ebbert says:

    Necee, I think what’s in store for us in 2015 will be entirely different than what it is now!! Which is a good thing to keep in mind as we think we finally figure out today’s media!

  19. Kathy Crowley Kathy Crowley says:

    Robin —
    I love what you say about sacred spaces — finding, creating and protecting them. I would say, ironically enough, that I have found some sacred space through social media. Not the underwater-beating-of-the-heart experience Jenna describes, but the community of a shared love of books and reading. The rest of my life takes me away from that feeling much of the day — it’s nice to “come home” to places like BTM and my twitter writing friends and find that again.
    Thanks for great post and discussion.

  20. Robin Black says:

    Just to be clear: I LOVE SOCIAL MEDIA!!

    What I worry about is my own – and other writers’ – natural inclination to obsess over signs of success and failure. Social networks isn’t inherently bad at all. I’m a big fan. But it does provide another means of “measuring” and more ways in which one can worry and for that reason it falls into the category of thing that can interfere with the work.

    But in no way is this a manifesto against social media! I consider Facebook my cyber-stetl and Twitter the 24/7 cocktail party I most enjoy. And yes, also where I have learned more about books and writers than possibly from any other single source.

    Just worrying (obsessing?) that this reads like and anti-social media post.

    Thanks again everyone for the comments! And as ever to the BTM folk for this wonderful blog and community.


  21. Robin, this is such a key issue, and you’ve addressed it so well here. I think the key to a good experience for any writer delving into social networking is to think of it as something you’re making. Not some pre-existing Thing that’s making _you_. We can use Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr (which looks really fun, actually) to do what we want. Research, moral support, and all the other positives that you’ve cited in the post and in your comments.

    I’m interested that many of the comments have addressed the sacred spaces theme in your post. There’s been less comment on the problem of beginning writers who are focusing more on platform than on craft. I’ve heard a lot of this kind of talk, and it worries me to see people insist that beginning writers need to shape their work to the market. Of course we work for a market. We want to sell our books. But I hate to see writers closing doors for themselves and their imagination and forcing themselves to write what they think the market will want. There’s too much of that advice going around–surprisingly. I hope your post can serve as a corrective!

    Thanks for writing this essay on nothing less than the condition of the modern writer.

  22. Richard Nash says:

    As someone who is not a writer, but a publisher and book pimp, I’m going to fully agree, albeit provocatively, by noting that by doing as Robin suggestions, connecting with your fellow writers around the writing itself, you’ll do a far better job of marketing your work than if you talk to writers and marketing. In a sense, Robin, you’re giving classic athlete advice, akin to ‘catch the ball before turning up field” or “follow through on your stroke.” The only reason anyone gives a shit about your writing is your writing. Social media isn’t for marketing it is for communicating and if you communicate honestly around things that really matter deep inside you, and your fellow writer/readers, that will pay off in your writing and in the way you connect to your fellow humans.

  23. […] of the short story collection, “If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This,” (Random House, 2010) wrote a blog post on how fretting about the different ways to measure her book’s success has overshadowed why she […]

  24. […] of the short story collection, “If I Loved You, I Would Tell You This,” (Random House, 2010) wrote a blog post on how fretting about the different ways to measure her book’s success has overshadowed why she […]

  25. […] are giving up a lot of other things you could be doing instead, such as earning a decent living. As Robin Black said of herself, most writers feel “an urgent desire to convey to some imagined, listening world, […]

  26. […] Robin Black’s “When Marketing Can Be Too Much” at Beyond the Margins […]

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Robin Black

Robin Black
Robin Black's new novel LIFE DRAWING is forthcoming from Random House, July, 2014, and Picador UK, April 2014. It has been called "a magnificent literary achievement," by Karen Russell, and "a riveting story about the corrosive effects of betrayal," by Alice Sebold. Her story collection IF I LOVED YOU, I WOULD TELL YOU THIS, was published by Random House in 2010 to international acclaim by publications such as O. Magazine, The Chicago Tribune, San Francisco Chronicle, The Irish Times and more. Robin lives in the Philadelphia area with her family. Read Full