“People I care about are readers … particularly serious readers and writers, these are my people. And we do not like to yak about ourselves."
This quote from the ever cranky Jonathan Franzen, in a 2012 Guardian article, was aimed at those who use Twitter to talk about books, or to cultivate an audience for their books. And while there’s plenty to critique about social media, when writers like Franzen dismiss it outright, it feels like someone pulling up the ladder to the treehouse.
I work as a social media and marketing consultant, so my enthusiasm about these platforms is a given. I’ve also been a book publicist, and in that job I spent my days reaching out to the kinds of storied outlets where Franzen is more or less guaranteed coverage (The New York Times, NPR, etc.) This was a very hard job, despite the fact that I was working for a venerable publishing house (Doubleday). The expectations were high and the odds of success, even in such a privileged position, were still low for all but the most flashy and established authors. If Doubleday was the top of the heap, what did that mean for everyone else?
Enter social media. It takes dedicated, consistent, creative work to build a following online, but what social media has over traditional media is that it’s accessible. Anyone willing to do the work can find and connect with their particular audience, directly, without an institution giving them the green light. It’s no secret that systemic racism and misogyny run rampant in publishing—both books and newspapers—usually in the less blatant but still insidious form of non-inclusion. This isn’t just my impression, the VIDA count does the diligent—if depressing—work of running the numbers each year. For writers who will never be taken seriously by The Establishment because what they write about doesn’t fit the narrow definition of what’s considered serious or worthy fiction, accessibility counts for a lot when building a career.
This is why I love social media. This is also, I suspect, what makes it so easy for some writers to be dismissive of it. Without gatekeepers, they fear, the system that has propped them up so successfully will crumble into utter chaos. And though engagement with social media is more and more widely considered part of one’s job as an author, as I’ve seen, Franzen is far from alone in his attitudes.
In every social media class or panel I’ve done, there is always one. Sometimes they even seek me out deliberately, spoiling for a fight. It’s usually a man (sometimes, but only sometimes, a woman), and I know what they’re thinking when they look at me: what do you know, cheer-squad?
This guy just wants to write his books. He doesn’t want to go on Facebook and Twitter. That bullshit is for teenagers. He wants to hole up in his writing garret and await the adoration that he knows he deserves. Like Hemingway. You remember Hemingway: had four marriages, a drinking problem, and ended up killing himself. No one ever forced that guy to learn about Instagram.
Part of the irony here, of course, is that Hemingway was, by all accounts, a dedicated self-promoter with a meticulously-crafted manly man image. It’s just that this type of author branding happened to mean something quite different in the 1930’s than it does today. To pretend that Papa Hemingway’s beer ads were somehow more pure of heart than an Instagram campaign is both convenient and ridiculous.
The work I do in my day job is centered on helping authors take control of their marketing efforts, educating them on how to be good community members, online and off. I hope to make it feel manageable and even fun. When I meet authors (both aspiring and published) at conferences and through classes I teach at my local library, I often see palpable relief when I tell them that self-promotion isn’t what they think it is. But, then there’s that one guy.
Sometimes he’s stuck in the aspiring stage for some reason (and mad about it), other times he’s published several books and feels bitter and cheated that his work hasn’t sold better. But whatever the case, he is not having it with what I’m saying.
On some level, I can empathize--I’m a novelist. I know how hard it is to create your work, endure years of rejection, only to be faced with a never-ending to-do list of marketing tasks; all while likely maintaining a day gig. But that is the job: if you don’t like it, do something else.
Some days, I’ll try to unravel Mr. Hemingway’s logic; others, I’ll just focus on the students with better attitudes. Regardless, here’s what I’m really thinking about Hemingway: Why do you think you deserve an audience? Why do you think you’re above having to convince people that they should listen to you? That they should spend their precious money and time on a story that you made up? What is so special about you that you feel that agents and publishers and critics and readers should come flocking to your door without you lifting a finger? The world is chock-full of talented writers, what makes you such a special snowflake?
Because after all, that’s the subtext of their complaints. I shouldn’t have to learn to use these tools that you’re talking about, I shouldn’t have to be friendly to bookstores and be a good patron for them to want to carry my books, I shouldn’t have to read other authors and support them in order for them to support me. I shouldn’t have to come up with a compelling hook, figure out my place in the market, and convince agents and publishers to pay attention to me by showing that I will make every effort to help them support a book they’ve chosen to pour money and resources into it.
If these folks are already published, they often trot out one of my other favorite tired chestnuts: “My publisher didn’t do anything for me.”
Oh no? Your publisher didn’t do anything? They didn’t, perhaps, give you some money for your work up front, then give you a professional edit copyedit and cover design? They didn’t provide sales support, and distribution into bookstores, and copies of your book in print? They didn’t write you a press release, send your book to media outlets, attempt to find you audio or foreign publishers? Do you know what the real world value of all that is? I do. You’re looking at a minimum of fifteen to twenty thousand dollars for the things on that list, were you to do them on your own. I’m sorry that they weren’t able to convince The New York Times to review your book, out of the other approximately one million books that the book editor received that week. But they did nothing? Come on.
Again, I sympathize. And I do hear the occasional horror story of a publisher really derailing a book’s publication. Some writers do get screwed, just like some people in all professions get screwed. But more often when I hear someone complaining about their publisher, I listen with the same credulity I would when listening to a guy who says his ex-girlfriend is “crazy”. Oh, crazy, really? Did she threaten your life or stalk you or something? Oh, no? Oh, but she cried a lot so…
If they’re not hating on social media specifically, then the Hemingways are likely bemoaning the unfairness of “luck.” They’ll look at a John Grisham or a Cheryl Strayed, and rather than seeing the five am mornings in the law office writing A Time to Kill or the years of scraping by and missing mortgage payments before Wild hit, they see luck. Is there luck involved in these success stories as well? Sure, but the ‘lucky’ authors I know worked hard, without recognition or gold stars, for years in anticipation of that luck so that when it came, they were ready.
I understand the fantasy of being able to simply write your books and send them out into the world, where they’ll receive unequivocal adoration. I get it. And I recognize that not everyone is preternaturally disposed to the hustle. But when that fantasy becomes an expectation? What you’ve got there is a heaping pile of entitlement.
So, my dear Hemingways, I see you there in the corner giving me the side-eye. You don’t want to hear about how you can be a good part of the publishing community, about the work you can do to support your books and your dreams. You are not buying what I’m selling. And that’s okay. I don’t suspect anyone’s buying what you’re selling, either.