In Defense of Self-Promotion, Part 2: A Guest Post by Ken Waldman

It was a late February 1995 episode that taught me I better get out and self-promote.

I’d recently moved back to Juneau and was freelancing. Though the title Alaska’s Fiddling Poet was yet to be coined, for months I’d been attempting to cobble a living combining writing, teaching, and fiddling. This new venture of mine hadn’t exactly been met with universal, or even local, approval. In fact, the preceding year, I’d applied to be on the Alaska artists-in-the-schools roster and been turned down. Given my professional experience, that rejection had been especially puzzling. But I pressed on. So maybe I wasn’t going to be state-approved. That didn’t mean I couldn’t induce schools to hire me as a visiting artist for a day, or two, or three.

That winter, school districts in Delta and Tok did indeed hire me, and I coordinated the trip with a presentation at an education conference in Anchorage. Before driving north out of the city, I had a free hour, and decided to stop by the office of the arts-in-education administrator, the one who’d signed the letter telling me I wasn’t going to be on the roster. It seemed smart to go in, introduce myself, and inquire what I could have done to boost my application.

When I knocked on the door, the administrator was in. Without an appointment, I clearly caught this person off guard, because once I introduced myself and queried, I only heard that, yes, the administrator remembered my application. It had been red-flagged, and ultimately rejected, because none of the panelists knew who I was; no one believed I did the work I’d claimed.

I left the office stunned, and remained stunned as I drove all the way past Cantwell, towards Fairbanks. I replayed the comment a hundred times, trying to figure out what it meant.

I’d moved to Fairbanks in 1985, lived there three years while I’d pursued an MFA. In 1988, I moved to Juneau, where I taught distance-delivery classes across the state and taught creative writing workshops locally. In 1989, I moved to Sitka, where I was a visiting assistant professor for a year at the UAS campus there. In 1990, I moved to Nome, where I was an assistant professor at the UAF campus there for two years, until I got sick, had to take a leave of absence, then had to resign my job.

Through it all, except for the worst of that illness time, I was writing prolifically, and had ten stories and over a hundred poems in a wide range of literary journals. In Nome, I’d volunteered at both the elementary school and the high school. When I met my college students in their villages in the Bering Straits region, I’d visit the schools to play fiddle and teach writing to the kids. Now here we were in 1994. I didn’t know it, but I was still six years from having my first full-length poetry collection published. Yet according to the arts-in-education administrator, I’d been red-flagged because my experiences seemed so out of line that I must have invented some of my credentials. And while surely it spoke volumes of a committee that didn’t care enough to contact references, it also told me I had a major problem. An Alaska resident for almost a decade, a writer who’d lived and worked in four communities across the state, I was so unknown that people in position to select a roster didn’t believe I did what I claimed. And what was it that I was claiming? It wasn’t like I was publishing books like Joyce Carol Oates.

So I vowed I’d start going about this differently.

And now, nearly fifteen years later, while I can point with pride to six full-length poetry collections, a memoir, and the new children’s book, I also shake my head at how the whole business—-or, really, the whole world—-seems to run.

While self-publishing has its stigma, self-promotion has its own taint. Just as “real” writers are going to have publishers, “serious” artists are busy creating, aren’t going to bother with promotion, or else will have publicists do that work.

Of course, publicists cost money—-sometimes a lot of money—-which complicates things. And, to make it even more complicated, to do something right—-and cost-effectively—-often means doing it yourself.

My 2008 memoir focuses on how I’ve gone about doing what I do; there’s no need to rehash that here (and if you’re interested in my book, I’ll give a plug to Nancy Lord’s piece from the past week, and say go get the book from your local library). But I’ve long learned that if you want people to read your writing, you can’t depend on people to find it anyway. Maybe they will; maybe they won’t. Regardless, you give yourself a greater chance to find readers if you work at promoting yourself. And if you want people to show up for your public events, again you can’t depend on people automatically attending. Again, it helps to promote yourself.

Since beginning this work, including school visits, I’ve done well over a thousand events across the continent in a wide range of settings. I’ve learned that I feel my best when I know I’ve done everything possible to ensure success. And that means I’ve learned how to best self-promote in order to augment what publishers are doing, what bookstores are doing, what everyone involved with whatever the event is doing. And that leads to the next dilemma: the more I’m involved with this part of the job, the more I understand the possibilities in self-promotion, which means the more work that’s ultimately involved. But that’s okay. While I enjoy writing and performing, I also enjoy getting my writing and performances out there, and this is part of the process. I already have eight published books, six more unpublished ones that are ready to go, and other projects. I already have nine CDs. My writing, music, and performances have a life of their own. It’s more satisfying when more people learn about that work, especially when I’ve received validation that both the writing and the performances deserve a wider audience.

I ended last week’s piece explaining how last month I managed to be on statewide radio in both Dakotas. Here’s how it happened—-complete with a few quick lessons in self-promotion.

First, the most important point, which can’t be emphasized enough: write well enough so you have something to self-promote.

In this case, last February, I received an email from the South Dakota Humanities Council (I’ve long been on their mailing list), informing me of their upcoming fall book festival. Somehow I hadn’t known about this event. Though I’ll usually email an initial query, in this case I called the office cold and asked for the director of the book festival. He happened to be in and I mentioned that this past year I had a memoir out, and one chapter included how I’d set up an 11-day tour of South Dakota. Since there was a local tie-in, I wondered if he’d consider me for the coming festival. He answered that the book sounded intriguing, and asked me to send the book, the accompanying CD, and any other materials I wanted. The next day I had a packet in the mail, and within a week I received an invitation to the festival, which included airfare, a place to stay, and a small honorarium (which I negotiated up to one that felt fairer, plus the promise that I’d be allowed to seek additional paid festival outreach work nearby).

Now that I had the one job (and not just any job, but one vetted by a state humanities council), I set to work, and contacted every arts council, presenting organization, and university English department in both Dakotas, and mentioned I’d be in Deadwood the first days of October. First, an arts center in Rapid City invited me to do a general concert one night for a guarantee. Then, the Rapid City Library, which was right across the street, invited me to do a children’s show and children’s poetry workshop on another night, also for a guarantee. I was also invited to Dickinson, North Dakota, several hours away, where the English Department sponsored a major reading series. The guarantee for the residency was more generous. There, I’d visit the high school, visit three English Department classes, meet with faculty, and do a public event.

Though I contacted newspapers and radio in the vicinity of the South Dakota book festival–and knew I was instrumental in having the newspaper story in the Rapid City newspaper—-the freelance journalist covering the children’s show and general concert for South Dakota public radio was a surprise to me. But it wasn’t completely unexpected. Not only had word gotten out in the media that I was doing three separate events in the region—-all with very credible presenters in the community—-but the book festival was a statewide story. In this case, I felt lucky since the reporter had taken the initiative after hearing about the events and pitched the story on her own.

The North Dakota interview happened differently. Though the reading series director had made prior contact with the radio producer, I’m not sure I ultimately would have been interviewed if I hadn’t independently contacted the radio station myself. Though the producer said that he’d been meaning to get me, it’s also true that any producer of a statewide show invariably has several good interview options for any one day; in this case, my email spurred him to reply. And even then, I had to follow up repeatedly to make sure the timing worked. Because I was scheduled to visit a class at the same time as the show aired, we taped the “live” interview earlier that morning instead of doing the interview “live” over the phone.

In this case, too, it helped that Dickinson State University has brought in writers regularly, which made for a good story—-and my press release mentioned that this was to be my first public visit anywhere in North Dakota (though I’d mentioned, too, that one of my books had been favorably reviewed in North Dakota Quarterly, which meant that I did have some connection to the state, albeit slight). It didn’t hurt that Dickinson is a relatively isolated community, but has its own full power station in the statewide public radio network. I imagined there might be a need for a story from that region of the state—-and in this case I guessed correctly.

So what’s the point?

At least in North Dakota, some people came to my evening event specifically because they heard the interview on the radio. And, even better, afterward when I contacted another North Dakota presenter and mentioned the interview was archived on the station’s website, she said she heard it when it was originally aired. While there’s no guarantee that presenter will ever hire me, I have to think my chances are better since she heard the 40-minute interview. Ultimately, I find, just as one poem, or one story, points to the next one, so does one event lead to another. And the more effectively I self-promote an event, the more apt I’ll draw more people. We had a good turnout in Dickinson. Afterward, I sold $350 of books and CDs, which for me is a good night of sales. And, of course, all across the state, more people were introduced to my writing and music.

And here’s one final bit of advice about self-promotion, which may be
obvious: occasionally search for yourself online. While you may have friends—-or publishers!—-looking out for you, I haven’t been so lucky. It’s one more thing I’ve learned to do myself. Just the other day I found an article which I would have missed, from the Eunice, Louisiana daily paper, about my event this past week. And if I hadn’t done that kind of snooping earlier this year, I would have certainly missed learning that my book, Are You Famous?, had been chosen as one of the picks of the month by The Reader’s Cove, an independent bookstore in Fort Collins, Colorado. Kevin Grastorf, the store manager, wrote, “If you have ever seriously considered pursuing a career in the music business or any other like profession where you must travel and self promote, this is a must read.”

My next time in Colorado, I’ll certainly schedule an event at the Reader’s Cove, where I expect a ready audience (yes, I’ll be doing my part to promote the event) and support from a friendly staff.

5 thoughts on “In Defense of Self-Promotion, Part 2: A Guest Post by Ken Waldman”

  1. Christy Pinheiro, EA ABA

    This post is great– it's true that authors have to do more and more of their own promotion these days.

  2. good solid advice–because while telling of his artistic achievements, Ken tells HOW to self-promote (too many folks get lost in me-me-me and forget the how-to part)–I have reserved Ken's memoir at the Anchorage library and thank Ken for this real look at the realities…..

  3. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    Wow. Of the many lessons you shared here, Ken, the first that grabbed me was that it can be beneficial to contact even the people who have "rejected" us to find out why. I'm more shy by nature than you are, but I hope to learn by your example.

    Thanks for another helpful post, and if you have any more to say about how to develop a thicker skin and a more outgoing/assertive/resilient nature (all top professional assets), I look forward to reading about it!

  4. Just looked through the Poets and Writers magazine that Andromeda mentions today in her post. There's a great piece there (in magazine only, not on-line–I checked) that very much complements what Ken writes here. It's "Confessions of an Author Nomad: Promoting Your Books at All Costs" by Stephanie Elizondo Griest. Check it out. Also, know that Stephanie will be on the faculty of the Kachemak Bay Writers Conference in Homer in June.

  5. Andromeda Romano-Lax

    I thought of the Griest article as well! It's really worth reading, and I'm happy to know she is coming to Alaska. Thanks, Nancy.

Comments are closed.

Scroll to Top