Yesterday was the fourth anniversary of the release of my first novel, Kitty and The Midnight Hour. Which also means one of the best pieces of advice I ever got came four years ago. First, some background.
Like Lynn, I have some publicity and self-promotion rants brewing. But whenever I start writing the essay, I end up spewing paragraph after paragraph of irate rambling nonsense. We’ve already seen that Lynn and I pretty much agree on the value of spending oodles of time and money on self-promotion. Which is to say — WRITE THE BOOK. That’s your job. Do it well.
Here’s the biggest question I always think about when I hear about an author spending loads of time and money pursuing endless routes of online marketing, hiring a publicist for thousands of dollars, and so on: Have I actually heard of this author? I mean, apart from the fact that they’ve spent oodles of time and money on self-promotion. Can I name a title that they’ve written? Have I ever heard anyone recommending their books? All too often the answer is, “No.” How useful then is all that time and money spent on self-promotion?
A couple of things I’m grateful for: Starting out poor, and a piece of advice I got early on.
I started out too poor to fall for any publishing scams or publicity machines. When I was trying to get published, vanity presses or pay-to-play agents were out of the question because I didn’t have any money to pay to get published. I didn’t even have the $300 to go to the local writer’s conference. I’m really glad about that. I never felt pressure to do an in-person editor or agent pitch. Spending money to get a leg up was never an option. This saved me a lot of stress and agony in the long run. And when you have no money for movies or outings, you stay home and write. Awesome.
My goal was always to make a living at writing. Not just writing, but writing fiction, as much as I was told that was a near-impossible task. But what do you know, I’ve done it. I even have health insurance. (It’s a high-deductible catastrophic HSA plan. But I have it.) Because I’ve always used my writing income to pay my bills — my mortgage, my utilities, my food — I never considered using any of it for high-priced publicity plans. I sure as hell wasn’t going to blow a significant percentage of my first advance — $7500 — on something like a book video or hiring a publicist. I had student loans to pay off! (I used part of my most recent advance to pay off said student loan. Huzzah!)
So there you have it: I’m a New York Times bestselling author who has never hired my own publicist or paid more than a few hundred dollars a year on publicity. I even maintain my own website. (With a friend’s help. I take him and his girlfriend out for steaks after a big website overhaul.)
My conclusions: You don’t have to spend a lot of time and money on promotion. Even more important to keep in mind: Spending a lot of time and money on promotion is absolutely no guarantee of success.
And now for the piece of advice. My original agent, Dan Hooker, passed away about a month after my first book came out. It was devastating, because he’d done such a good job for me and I’d been looking forward to a long working relationship. In one of the last conversations we had, I asked him, “What should I be doing? What can I do to promote the book?” I asked because I was overwhelmed, because I saw all the possibilities and was daunted at all the work I thought I was going to have to do. I’m shy — I didn’t want to go into bookstores to sign stock. I didn’t want to call people. I didn’t want to set up book signings. I still had a day job eating up half my time.
Here’s what Dan said: “Write the next book. Make it the best you can.”
This was brilliant because that’s what I wanted to do — that’s all I wanted to do: write. It’s worked so far. And I’m still grateful to Dan for saving my sanity at a critical moment.