Deb: Business Creep

“I’ve always believed that one has to want in order to get, but when the want becomes all-consuming, or at least more consuming than the work itself, the process is perverted – for better or worse.”
~Betsy Lerner
I first thought of business creep as the dance of an author between creative work and the business side of
writing, especially promotion and marketing. Then I started paying attention to
the genuine creepiness that can slip in on the business side, as in the recent carjacking of a literary agent perpetrated by a writer that she’d rejected. How
had the crazy guy tracked her down? Her frequent postings on Twitter and
Facebook told where she was and what she was doing.
Creepy in a different way are writers who’ve paid for good
online reviews of their books, and the freelancers who’ve paid their bills
writing those reviews. I understand about the free market and all, but there’s still
something chilling about a guy making $28,000 a month providing fake reviews. Google
and Amazon eventually agreed, pulling the enterprising Todd Rutherford’s ads
and reviews. Now he’s selling RVs while on the side running a business that creates
book buzz via blogs and Twitter.
For as much as we hear about buzz, there must be limits to
what we’ll do to get noticed. At the same time, we can’t abdicate completely the
marketing side of the equation. “I can’t self-promote,” I’ve heard writers
say. “That’s just not me. If my book can’t sell itself, then I just won’t
write.” Harper Lee did it; J.D. Salinger did it, they say.
A handful may be able to duck out on the business end of
writing. But for most of us it’s a reality: we have to find the right balance
between what we want to do – create – and what we must do – help sell our
Much of the marketing legwork, though not all, is
electronic. With 10 million members, Goodreads is the largest site in the world
for book recommendations. Compiled using data gathered from a title that
launched with three Goodreads giveaways, a recent Goodreads post titled The Anatomy of a Book Discovery uses a color-spiked graph to show how one thing
leads to another when it comes to book buzz. What’s harder to quantify is how good
the book was to begin with: how timely, how well-conceived, how brilliantly
Beyond the scope of the Goodreads analysis: how a
“following” built before a book is published, or even before it is written,
plays into its eventual success. Among the advice passed around to emerging
writers these days is that they must make a name for themselves: get a website,
get on Facebook, get on Twitter, start a blog, get a following. At best, this
advice can be overstated. At worst, it’s a gigantic distraction that will keep you
from writing the book you must write.
Yes, buzz sells books. Yes, your Facebook friends and
Twitter followers and blog followers will be among the first to buy your book
when it comes out. And yes, a website shows you’re a professional. But you must
absolutely guard your time. Even when you’re up and running and you’ve got a
book or two under your belt, you should aim for spending no more than a quarter
of your writing time on the business part. If you’re an emerging writer who’s still
pushing out that first million words ahead of your real publishable work, you
should spend a whole lot less time on promotion. The exception: if you write
for a specialized nonfiction market – growers of heirloom tomatoes, for
instance – you’ll need to be recognized as an expert within the field in order
to successfully pitch your book, so you’ll want to spend a larger chunk of your
time getting recognized.
While electronic buzz is huge, huge, huge, don’t forget that
in the end what we’re really talking here are relationships. In that way,
writing is no different than any other business. Your online presence must
project the real you and your real book, because that’s what gets outted one
way or the other. Fake reviews may sell a few titles, but if the book stinks,
the readers won’t be back.
The profile of Emma Straub in this month’s Poets and Writers
brings this point home. After her first four novels were rejected, Straub got
serious about the quality of her work, putting herself under the tutelage of
Lorrie Moore. A small press, Five Chapter Books, published Straub’s first
collection of short stories. She has 10,000 followers on Twitter. She posts
regularly on the Paris Review Daily and on New York
magazine’s culture blog Vulture. Yet she says it’s her job at an indie
bookstore in Brooklyn that really taught her how to
market her work, which now includes her novel Laura Lamont’s Life in Pictures, published by Riverhead Books and selected by Barnes and Nobel as a Discover pick for this fall.
“I see how some writers have really great relationships with
bookstores and with booksellers, and some writers don’t. I see what happens
when a writer is a kind of dick to people who work at a bookstore. I am never
going to recommend that person’s book,” she says. “Nowadays it really is the
role of the writer to make sure that you have these personal connections with
everyone you can to help things go well – and not in a gross, networky, slimy
way; in an actual, genuine way. Relationships matter.”
As you consciously, purposefully, strike a balance between
creativity and business, consider that relationships are at the heart of both.
What you do with and for your fellow writers along with what you do with and
for your readers will come back around in the best of ways to you and your
work. And there’s nothing creepy about that.
Try This: Where do you hope to be as a writer next year? In
five years? In ten? Put those dreams on paper in the form of a business plan. What’s
your mission? What are your goals? How much capital (money and time) will you
invest to achieve them? Which relationships (mentors, peers) will guide you
along the way? How will you measure success – not only in terms of publication,
but in terms of what you’ve created, what you’re learning, and your overall
satisfaction? How often will you revisit and revise your plan?
Check This Out: In Forest for the Trees: An Editor’s Advice to Writers, Betsy Lerner with wit and wisdom prods writers to an understanding
of who they are, why they write, and how they can succeed. In the first half of
the book, you’ll likely recognize yourself in at least one of the creative
types Lerner profiles: Ambivalent, Natural, Wicked Child, Self-Promoter, and Neurotic.
Armed with self-understanding, you’ll be primed for the second half of the
book, on the business of getting published. 

Deb cross-posts at
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