Sell The Story or the Storyteller?

During Aggie Con, a group of writers and artists rallied together in the corner of a dark hotel bar to discuss the puzzling and energy-sucking issue of all creative people trying to make a living off art: marketing.  In a time of publishing derailment, how do we sell our work?  Which angle do we focus on:  pitching the story or the storyteller?  The art or the artist?

From Google Images

Authors have become a “brand,” blogging about their personal endeavors (or at least the endeavors of their author persona), to gauge the attention of readers on a personal level. For instance, a respected and talented author I know among the circle of those gathered at the dark hotel bar writes relationship articles under her published pseudonym, and when posting such articles, gains interest of readers, which is then redirected toward her books.  My inclination is to say: whatever gets people reading! But, my question is, in this blog-friendly age, must every author maintain a blog or web site, with updates on their personal lives/ideas/opinions, apart from their fiction, to reach a wider audience?

“Publishers confess that branding is becoming a more conscious marketing activity. And authors are their central brand equity. ‘This is clearly a collaborative process,’ Brown explains, ‘where all the parties involved work towards establishing and then maintaining the brand identity. The process starts as soon as the author begins to establish their identity as a writer. The core values of the author’s brand clearly grow out of their personal value system/interests, etc.'”  (http://www.brandchannel.com/features_effect.asp?pf_id=137)

Another author at the table rebuked: he’d rather spend his time crafting new fiction than documenting what he thinks are boring intricacies in his day-to-day experiences.

Growing up, the author/reader world was very separated.  I knew as much about R.L. Stine and Madeleine L’Engle as the book jacket revealed.  And even then, I didn’t care who they were, which places they’ve visited, or how many cats they’ve adopted.  I wanted the stories! Now, the author/reader link is tighter.  An author can preview an excerpt of a story that’s not even published via podcast or video blog.  The relationship is personal. How personal, then, should the marketing become?

Google Images

James Patterson, no matter how sucky his books are, stays ranked at number one on Best Selling lists.  The man produces like nine books a year.  In different genres!  His tactics are such: write for your market.  He’ll curtail the setting of a story if that population, based on polls, reads more often.  Also, to maintain such productivity, he’s hired “co-authors,” which he even admitted on the New York Times article, translates to ghostwriters.  He doesn’t even write his own damn books and he’s doubling Stephen King’s income!  Where is the heart in this?  The integrity of art?  And why the fuck are people still buying such crappy, methodically written novels?

I’ve stopped listening to people who advise “best sellers,” because every time I convince myself it might be worthwhile, I close the book in a fit of fury and cry out, “Why! Why! Why!” James Patterson. Stephenie Meyer. Nicholas Sparks.  The writing BLOWS!  The only person who has successfully captured my attention who has a similar cult following is Chuck Palahniuk, author of Fight Club, because his storytelling is entertaining, witty, honest, and dark.

Patrice Sarath, a local Austin writer, ranted in a recent blog: “My bestest writing partner and dear friend doesn’t think I’m making a wise career decision about my work. Well, you know what? He’s right, yes, but there’s a time where it’s not about the goddamned market. Sometimes you have to write the story that wants to be written, and fuck the industry. And I’ll be damned before I write to market, because we all know that means vampires. Fucking vampires. I’m not going to do it.”

And why should anyone?

This topic is open for discussion.  As a reader, do you buy books based on the author’s persona?  As an author, do your blogs hurt or help sell your fiction?  Please– comments with suggestions, links, personal stories.  I’d like to hear feedback from those with different/more developed opinions than my own.


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About kimmerlyaj

Hey, there! Thanks for reading my blog, Polished Pear Creative Editing. My name is Amanda Kimmerly, and I devote my time and talent to making manuscripts publisher-ready. If you have an unedited book, or have started one of any genre, please connect! www.polishedpearcreative.com. Cheers!
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16 Responses to Sell The Story or the Storyteller?

  1. Catana says:

    Frankly, my dear, I don’t give a damn — about authors’ personas or their private lives. Unless it’s central to their books, why should anyone care? I haven’t published yet, but my platform, such as it is, is based strictly on writing, story-telling, and how I’m progressing as a writer. The rest is nobody’s business but my own. Either people like what they’ve seen of my unpublished work, or they don’t. I write for myself and for the (probably few) readers who enjoy the kind of stories I tell. And, like the Austin writer you mention, “I’ll be damned before I write to market….”

  2. Laura says:

    Agreed: the writing does blow. Although, as one of my profs pointed out, the people who write that stuff aren’t writing down to their readers–they’re writing the only things they know they are good at. The vampire fiction writers can’t write a literary novel. If they did, we’d laugh at them. They are commercial writers, and I don’t think there’s anything wrong with that. If you can make a living doing it, and you are okay with that, then more power to you.

    I think, as far as buying a story based on a writer’s persona, I do a little bit, but it’s more that I’ve read one of their books, really enjoyed it, and wanted to know more about the person who created that work. When I can find more biographical info on their website, or they have a blog that lets me into their personal space a little more, I like that feeling of connection. But I probably wouldn’t buy a book just because I found the author to be a hilarious blogger (cus his/her book would probably just be a published version of the blog, as most are), unless of course it were someone I knew personally.

    I think the marketing angle is really being taken too seriously these days, and good writing will always rise to the top. Personality is nice, but the writing is what will sell the book, not the author’s blog or designer postcards and bookmarks and crap.

  3. kimmerlyaj says:

    I’m there with you both. I care about the author most likely AFTER I read the piece of work. I research their lives to see how they got to where they are for my own curiosity and position as someone trying to accomplish the same things.

    Good stories *do* rise, and I think it’s important as artists (and people who appreciate and flock to art) to SHARE such good stories and authors, because the general public may not always be informed.

    Thanks for the comments, guys. Keep writing! Keep reading!

    –AK

  4. So I guess what the question boils down to is, “why do you blog?” My answer is because many readers want that personal relationship. If I like an author, I’ll check out their blog. I do this especially with nonfiction because I like to be able to ask questions about an article or engage in more discussion.

    It can get in the way of writing, though. And that’s where you have to be careful. I do know one author who spent so much time developing herself as a brand that it was hard to determine whether her books supported her brand or her brand supported her books. I hope we don’t have to move in that direction because ugh.

    • Catana says:

      I’ve been blogging for years, off and on, and about various subjects. I do it because I enjoy it, because I enjoy sharing my thoughts and getting to know my readers. I can’t imagine blogging *just* to establish a brand. It would bore me to tears, and I would always be aware that I was doing it for external reasons that had nothing to do with who I am. And far from getting in the way of my writing, I consider it *part* of my writing. Sometimes, it helps me clarify my thinking and work out problems that have me stuck in the creation of a story.

  5. I emphatically disagree with the sentiment that good writing will always rise in the market. It does not. The publishing industry is structured to identify, produce and promote a standardized, consistently repeatable product. The authors who make it through the filter are by and large those who write to this expectation. Innovation, originality, or even freshness of voice are not only lesser concerns, they are no concerns. This is not to say that innovation, originality or a fresh voice do not sometimes survive the filter, because they do–occasionally and inadvertently. To cite an example from my realm of activity, speculative fiction, for every Paolo Bacigalupi, there are tens and tens of genre hacks churning out urban werewolves, warmed over vampires and zombie plagues for major market release. A curious fact about the realm of speculative fiction–the sphere inhabited by the creatives at AggieCon–is that it was nurtured for years by tiny, marginal presses and magazines produced in bedrooms or garages. Once speculative fiction appeared on the radar of large corporate houses as a potentially lucrative market, the twin processes of product standardization and branding–both by author and genre–began to suppress the imaginative vitality that animated the field in the first place. One of the saddest effects of these processes has been increasing delegitimization of non-standard, off-brand authors within the very market birthed by their species of vision. More and more science fiction/fantasy conventions have begun to actively exclude authors who do not have book contracts with large, corporate publishers or do not publish short fiction regularly through equivalent corporate-owned magazines, a result being that more and more conventions are celebrating authors proficient at producing formulaic writing characterized by stale genre tropes. This exclusion is becoming more widespread at conventions while at the same time the events continue celebrating outlaw founders of the field who frequently worked low paying, low status day (night) jobs to make ends meet while supplying stories we now acclaim to venues publishing on a shoestring. Thankfully, AggieCon is among the conventions that have not yet completely succumbed to this market pressure. Why is this important? For better or worse, art–all art–has an economic dimension. Those who foolishly continue to believe in a mythically pure “art for art’s sake” marginalize not only their own expressions, but those of all creatives who pursue visions of heart, spirit and imagination.

    As for blogging, it has become an activity so pervasive that it is almost useless as a method of establishing public identity. Everyone and her mom has a blog. With so much chatter, no one stands out. I fail to see that blogging has moved a single worthy author from obscurity into the public eye. This is not to say it has not happened, but the rarity of such accomplishment tends to underscore the irrelevancy of the effort. Writing a blog has most meaning when it is an end in itself. Write a blog because you are an incredible blogger.

    Returning to the original question of this post, the cult of author personality is an essential feature of standardized product development, but it is largely a distraction from what should be paramount: the writing. My suggestion (and my fervent wish) is that we, as creatives, use the tools available through new, networked media to push back against market leveling and place our very best non-standard, difficult to categorize, innovative, original, fresh voices back at center stage. To rehabilitate what the Kansas humbug said to Dorothy, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.”

    • Laura says:

      Robert: I think it depends on what you view as your market. If we’re talking about the general marketplace, where all people can buy all things then, definitely, the cheapest and most easily produced crap will rise to the top. (See: WalMart, McDonald’s, etc.) If we’re talking about the independent marketplace where writers are also publishers, and thus market their own work as well as creating it, I think there’s more hope for the good stuff to make it through the genre hacks.

      The question, then, is how you DO market your own work, without coming off as hackish or more like a marketing douche than a writer. And in that case, I would think the blog would help, though probably still wouldn’t gain you more readers (as you said, everyone has a blog these days) if people didn’t already know about you, at least a little, within that sphere. I think that’s why independent authors have to do the cons and the small press fairs and as many readings in as many bookstores as they can, because that’s where they can stand out using whatever marketing techniques they’ve got, but still relate to their readers on a personal level.

      I think it’s probably more of a pain in the ass for the writer to do it this way, but that’s the price of staying true to your own work, especially if it’s just going to be dumbed down for the general market. That’s not “art for art’s sake,” to me, but the attempt to retain control of your own vision, and not let it be watered down (or completely destroyed) by a publishing industry that thinks it knows better what people want to read. Hell, they think people want to (or should!) read a book written by someone from Jersey Shore, who’s admitted she’s never even READ a book!

      • Jorge says:

        You have made a strong point. I am reminded what my art teachers, and creative writing teachers have said, “No one’s wrong or right.”

        Basically there is no true definition to art – in whatever medium it’s brought out upon. The crap that is entertaining, hot, a fad or whatever will sell, but it won’t always be there.

        Like a wave on the beach, there’s plenty more coming your way but you care about the one closest to you. That’s how it is with the media, it’s customers/audience. In reference to Jersey Shore(less), it’s a hot t.v. show with dumb sluts and meat heads. People like seeing that, so they want to “read,” that too.

        Unlike real readers that ponder ‘Nietzsche, Marquez, Borges,’ esoteric writers of who-ever, what-ever.

  6. Jorge says:

    Amen. Mr Stikmanz got a point, you can’t sell a flower to another flower or rose bush. You’ve gotta be thorny, different, probably ugly. Let’s bring in diverse, original,de-twighlighted, zombie/werewolf removed, un-potted pure fertilizer from deep in our veins – stories.

    I am tired sorry for awkward construction.

    🙂

  7. tehooper says:

    I’m not much of a serial reader, but in my experience, I’ll only become interested in a writer’s personal life if I’m already committed to their body of written work. To sell the storyteller over the story is to put the cart before the horse.

    Sure there will be examples of authors that lived extraordinary lives, but I think the common consensus is that writers live extraordinary lives with the purpose of giving them something to write about, a change in perspective that might separate them from their potential readers. Part of the appeal behind the novel is the shroud of mystery surrounding the author, where in the past the only information you could dredge up is what the publisher chooses to print on the book jacket, and even then its cursory at best. “So-and-so lives in upstate New York, with two dogs, and enjoys hiking and fishing.” You get more from a Facebook profile. More background into the author might prove a useful marketing tool, but only in cases where the real life is more interesting than the author’s body of work… which is rarely true. It is more likely that the author’s real life will fall short of their imagined larger-than-life persona, and his/her potential audience will only be disappointed.

    While writing expressly about these experiences in blog form may seem a short cut to this end, it hampers the author’s potential written work by robbing it of source material. Also, blogging is simply not as rich an environment as writing novels or short stories. It is the equivalent of producing reality TV, when you could be making an engrossing serial fiction show.

    Focus on the work, the writing, the characters, the plot. If the story is good enough, the author’s “brand” is irrelevant. The reader will fill in the blanks for themselves.

  8. I missed this opportunity at AggieCon42 to join the conversation, though I am sure I would have spent far more time listening than contributing.

    The ultimate goal of marketing is to capture the attention of a potential reader and convince her or him to buy what you are selling; even better is to keep the reader coming back for more.

    Who are our readers? Where are our readers? What do they like to read? Where do they seek information? How should I capture their attention? How do I keep their attention? How do I make a sale? How do I keep a reader as a true fan, generating more sales for me? How do I expand my market beyond my local area? These are some fundamental marketing questions (I am sure there are others) we must answer as authors.

    I feel a blog can be used as a somewhat effective tool for marketing. Once I have gotten a potential reader’s attention, I can bring him or her to my blog to read about my (and my co-author’s) writing, interviews we have had, reviews of other authors’ works, stories about our cats, and other tidbits of content along those lines. When I visit the blogs of authors whom I do not know, I look at their events, status of their latest writing, and maybe look for some humorous anecdotes of their experiences writing a previous book. I could care less about how they spend their day (non-writing time), their political views, or their religious views. I am one of those who cares more about the work than the author / artist.

    Related to blogs, I sometimes participate in discussions on professional networking sites, such as LinkedIn, where I am a member of numerous writing and publishing groups. I used to spend more time on LinkedIn, but I soon realized that my market did not come here for information. These groups were playgrounds for book writing and publishing coaches, sleazy service providers, and authors who were just getting started or who liked to prey upon those just getting started.

    I instead switched the time I would spend on LinkedIn to Goodreads, Shelfari, and other reader sites, particularly with the reader discussion groups within our genres. When I contribute to conversations, people will often check out my profile, and when they realize I am an author, they look me up. I don’t have to spew out “buy my book” or whatnot, though most groups have a discussion thread for self-promotion. Ideally, our readers will rally others to our banner. The big question is, how does one achieve that ideal?

    Let’s see… what other marketing tools do we have at our disposal? Contests. I have X number of books I will be giving away, signed by me, and I will pick random names from a pot of people who could answer correctly the challenge question. Oh, and if you win, please write a review when you are done and post it here, there, and there. Is this effective? How do I drive traffic to my contest? Is it worth the investment? Is it better to do a contest by yourself, through a fellow blogger’s/author’s, or through a readers’ site (like Goodreads)?

    Lets see… interviews, guest blogs, virtual book tours, internet radio interviews… chats, virtual book readings… These are all useful tools, but like your book, these events need to be marketed so as to attract audiences. Sure, some regular audience members, those who usually tune in to the particular medium or site, might be there, but what about your readers? Use your blog? Your mailing list?

    Meet-and-Greet events are my favorite, but they are also expensive, as all of you well know. It is nice to be face-to-face with potential and existing readers, to answer questions for them, to provide information in how we wrote the book, humorous anecdotes… many of the same things I like about authors’ blogs… though this is in real-time and face-to-face. We are generally not asked about our home lives or hobbies, unless I bring something up which I feel might sweeten the conversation in favor of their interest. Of course my primary goal is to get something into their hands so they can look us up later; of course my ultimate goal is to conquer the world through the writing and sale of vampire’esque novels, but you won’t tell our readers, will you? I also enjoy these events because I can physically stand in front of a potential reader, make eye contact, and get that opportunity to pitch my work… you can’t do that effectively on-line… too much buzzing.

    There is a place for blogging, contests, interviews, meet-and-greet events, and whatnot, but a balance has to be maintained between marketing and creating (lest we not forget business management, dependents, and day jobs (for those of us who have them). Marketing should be targeted, not scattered, unless a scattered approach is called for in order to attract your audience. Be aware of your audience, and seek them out, where ever they are.

    Cheers!

    Christopher

  9. herocious says:

    i participated in a secret santa thing. thousands of people exchanged books.

    my secret santa gave me a very nicely packaged gift from amazon.

    it came with a card that said something like ‘i sure as hell wasn’t giving you my beat up copy.’

    i was expecting this gift to be a good book. a really good book.

    the kind of book that you carry around with you, if not physically than in your mind & heart & body.

    i tore through deep-sea blue wrapping paper and saw a paperback.

    scanning from top to bottom, which is probably the way i scan everything, i read:

    NATIONAL BESTSELLER

    “[A] deliciously disturbing literary thriller… You’ll be spellbound from start to finish.”-People

    AWAIT

    YOUR

    REPLY

    A NOVEL

    DAN CHAON

    NATIONAL BOOK AWARD FINALIST
    Author of You Remind Me of Me

    in short, this novel meant nothing to me. i was expecting it to be a really good book, the kind that is oddly exciting and realistic at once, and if it were a really good book i’m confident i would’ve heard at least a smidgen about it.

    having said that, it was very thoughtful for my secret santa to give me this gift. i promised to myself i’d read it out of integrity for the game.

    ‘it’s not about me’, i thought, ‘it’s about the game.’

    but ballantine wasn’t a promising publisher of really good books. and the book smelt slightly shitty, not like ‘best behavior,’ by noah cicero, but ‘the firm,’ or ‘along came a spider.’

    and 324 pages? that’s a lot of ‘await your reply’ to read when you don’t care a lick about the novel or the writer and think ‘literary thrillers’ are best left alone.

    but in the acknowledgments’ section, dan chaon says his wife died of ovarian cancer shortly after he finished this book.

    she was his primary editor, a teacher from his undergraduate days, her notes were still in the margins of the manuscript.

    tomorrow they will still be there.

    the idea of her marginalia made me shake my head and feel a nameless thing inside me that was me.

    i don’t know if i’ll read this book. that’s being honest.

    i don’t think this book can teach me anything even though it’s not about vampires or werewolves.

    the thing is, writing market fiction includes a lot more things than just vampires and werewolves.

    market fiction is anything that ‘wants to be consumed.’

    there are some books that don’t care so much about being consumed. all they really care about is being read/digested. these books strive to be like water, not crack.

    these are the only books i will spend my time with because, in the end, ‘time spent reading’ is a statistic, just like ‘time spent making love.’

  10. SandySays1 says:

    When you go through the hallowed doors of B&N next time, look at those book jackets. It’s normally the authors NAME that is the prominent eye catcher, in larger print, color distinguished, etc. The powers that be, want the easy way out. Give them a name. Look at TV personalities and books they’ve “written.” GW all the way. As the industry uses larger bulldozers to bury itself, less and less thought goes to story, plot, pacing, etc., etc. R.I.P.

    • (this is Chris, as Heather also uses TriscellePublishing)

      That is an excellent observation, that at B&N, many fiction books feature the author’s name over the title, or even the cover art. I’m not sure that is the case with fantasy, however. The series I have read the most, the Forgotten Realms series (TSR/Advanced Dungeons and Dragons novels) prominently displays, on the spine, the Forgotten Realms logo, the title/series title, sub-series title (if applicable), and the TSR publisher logo… the author’s name is not listed on the spine. However, I just glanced at a reprint of an FR book I own… this reprint, published in 2000, *does* bear the author’s name. In fact, the FR logo is much smaller. Interesting…

      Ah… here is a 1992 version of Michael Crichton’s The 13th Warrior (previously published as Eaters of the Dead), and both the spine and the cover feature the author’s name twice as large and twice as bold as the title.

      Anyway, excellent point, SandySays1.

  11. Shiloh says:

    I must confess that whenever I read advice from marketers on how best to “brand” myself or my writing, I want to curl up into a little ball and hide in a dark corner until the bad man goes away. Of course, any level of publishing demands at least some form of marketing — how else will readers find your work? — but at a certain, hard-to-define point, it crosses the line into the type of thing described in the article Amanda linked:

    “Authors become brands if they write a certain kind of book. They build up brand loyalty – you know what you’re going to get when you read one of their books. By the nature of their craft you won’t get something wildly different. You know what you are going to get.”

    That last part is what rubs me the wrong way: “You know what you are going to get.” Personally, I don’t WANT my (mostly hypothetical) readers to know what they’re going to get. If I end up writing the kind of fiction that can be easily classified, quickly summarized, and “branded” with buzz words and catch-phrases, I have, in some way, failed in my goal to create something unique. If the whole point of branding is to assure readers they “won’t get something wildly different,” my gut reaction is to run away screaming before dark Cthulhu swallows my soul.

    But that’s just me. I realize this kind of thinking makes me a marketer’s nightmare, and, if I intended to make a living from writing, my own worst enemy. Thankfully I have outside employment to make up for that, and probably always will, unless I can figure out some way to survive on my current writer’s income of approximately $23 per decade.

    This has been a great discussion, by the way!

  12. Jorge says:

    Rock on Shiloh, 23$ from writing in a decade is more than I’ve made. 🙂

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