Six impossible things

The Business of Writing: Public Relations

Before we get to today’s post, I wanted to mention two things: first, some time in the next month I’m going to be changing servers. In an ideal world, this will be completely unnoticeable to all the readers of my blog and web page, but how often does everything actually go that smoothly? So if you have difficulty getting  in at some point, that’ll be why. Second, I just uploaded added a couple of map pages to the Frontier Magic section of the web page, for anyone who’s interested in where things are.

6. Public Relations – This has to do with the relationship between a business and the public in general – both the business’ current customers and all of the rest of the people who aren’t customers now but who may or may not become so at some future point.

Public Relations is subtly different from Marketing, in that PR is about the business as a whole, while Marketing is about one specific product. Obviously, there’s a lot of overlap, because both of them involve the way customers and potential customers see the business.

Full disclosure: Public Relations/Publicity is probably my least favorite aspect of running a business, right up there with Sales and Marketing. So if you’re looking for good tips and tricks, this is not the best place for them. This is just a basic overview; if you want to get really into this stuff, find somebody who’s a natural and/or who really likes it, and ask them for advice.

For writers, PR is a lot more personal than it is for most businesses. The closest thing a writer has to a brand name is their own name on the book cover; this means that “self-promotion” (which many people are uncomfortable with, and which some other folks frown upon as “showing off” or “not being about the books”) happens to some extent, whether one wants it to or not.

Being aware of this is half the battle, because PR becomes more and more relevant the more books one has out, the larger one’s readership, and the longer one writes – and until they invent practical time-travel, you can’t go back and fix any minor mistakes you made early in your career that snowballed into large problems as time went on.

For the un- and newly-published, PR is usually indistinguishable from Marketing. When you only have one or two books out, everything you do in public tends to be targeted at selling those titles, and larger implications seldom get considered. Also, when one only has one book out, one doesn’t usually get invited to do the sorts of things that would fall under general PR as opposed to marketing a specific book. This gives the writer a chance to ease into the PR stuff, attending conventions as a pro and getting used to doing panels before having to worry about being Guest of Honor at a Worldcon or giving TV interviews on one of the major networks (unless of course your first book is a mega-hit bestseller, in which case you’d better learn fast. We should all have such problems.)

As with Sales and Marketing, there are two levels to consider when you’re thinking about PR – professional (that is, the reputation/relationship the writer has with editors, agents, reviewers, other writers, and other industry professionals), and the general reputation that one has with fans and readers-at-large. There’s a lot of overlap, of course, but sometimes it’s useful to stop and consider for a moment. Dressing up in a clown suit and walking the streets wearing a billboard advertising your new book may get you some attention from local readers, but perhaps you’d be better off coming up with a PR gimmick that looks a little more professional from the editor/agent/etc. point of view.

A lot of early PR is basic courtesy and common sense: when you’re out in public, don’t be obnoxious; don’t insult people; don’t demand to be treated like a star; find the right balance between talking about your new book all the time and never mentioning it at all. “Out in public” most definitely includes Facebook, Twitter, blogs, comments on other people’s blogs, and any other Internet venues, even if they’re supposedly locked or private. This is especially important because the Internet is so very public – whatever you say can be easily seen by publishers, critics, agents, major authors, and important book buyers, none of whom, thirty years back, would have been likely to have much contact with a newbie author. It’s a lot easier to shoot yourself in the foot nowadays.

There are writers who’ve made a point of creating an obnoxious public persona for themselves and succeeded anyway, but there aren’t many. If you are considering something like this, you need to bear in mind that the way you present yourself in public, right from the start, will be with you for the rest of your writing career. If you get tired of acting that way, or decide that it isn’t serving you well, it’ll take an enormous amount of time and effort to change perceptions of you. There are possibly apocryphal tales of authors who had to change their names and start over because they couldn’t stand the public persona they’d constructed, but couldn’t persuade people to see them any other way. It’s much easier to be yourself.

You can, of course, go whole hog on the marketing/publicity for your early books – hitting the convention circuit hard, coming up with ways to get you (and your books) talked about on social media, throwing big book bashes in unusual places for potential readers, etc. The problems with this are a) it takes a lot of time and energy, b) it takes money (in varying amounts, but very little of it is totally free), and c) if you don’t know what you are doing, or don’t have the personality/experience for it, this kind of thing can backfire horribly. Some writers are naturals at this kind of thing – I’ve know five or six of them – but for those who aren’t, it’s usually better to start small and learn it gradually, rather than jumping in with both feet and ending up with two muddy shoes stuck in your mouth.

As a writer’s career develops and her audience expands, the scope of Public Relations gets larger. Rightly or wrongly, people associate writers closely with their books and assume that if they like/dislike the author, they will like/dislike the books (and vice versa). When making a positive impression may affect the sales of twenty titles, it’s a lot more important than if one only has two books out. The kinds of things you get asked to do (or that you can persuade people to let you get in on) get gradually larger and more significant – instead of a talk to the six English and Language Arts teachers at your local high school, you’re giving a talk to three hundred librarians from every school in your state, or to the the 50 folks who make major buying decisions for all the schools in their state.

Some writers (me included) find being “on” in public very tiring; other writers find it energizing. If you’re one of the latter, you may need to remind yourself periodically that PR is not a line function, and you need to apply that energy to Operations. If you’re one of the former, you need to know that actively doing publicity is not obligatory. You can become a writing hermit who is never seen in public – but that, too, is a publicity choice. In other words, you can minimize this area, but you can’t get away from it entirely.

Next up: Executive

  1. I think you ought to do a separate post on the topic of engaging with reviews, particularly negative ones, as that seems to be where writers shoot themselves in the foot most often. Readers today also engage more with individual authors – they see them at conventions, they read their blogs, they follow them on social media, and they have a greater sense of _supporting the author with their money_ when they buy books.
    If the author is an asshole, they won’t buy their books, they’ll support someone else instead.

    And many readers – at least the vocal ones – are socially aware, and will point out perceived shortcomings. I’m not saying that there isn’t sometimes unreasonableness involved, but if readers point out that a text is sexist, racist, ablist, homophobic, or otherwise problematic, nothing can be won by the author insisting that they didn’t mean it (or worse, doubting the readers’ ability to comprehend the text, launching ad hominem attacks on the reader, including rape threats if the reviewer happens to be female, etc etc). No good can come of _that_, ever, because even if the original story might be open to interpretation, the writer’s words in blogposts when they’re frothing at the mouth are generally not. (There’s a swathe of examples currently making the rounds, and one is uglier than the next. It’s almost an anti-marketing strategy.)

    On the other hand, authors who go away and engage with the criticism in private (often by writing better stories next time, because that’s what writers do) have the potential to recover their careers. Even problems that shouldn’t happen do; what matters is how the author reacts after that.

  2. I think it’s hard to truly separate an author from their work. I know that my opinion of a book sometimes changes when I hear a disturbing rumor about the author. (For example, I read a cute children’s story, then later found out the author had sexually abused children. I know the story didn’t change, but I couldn’t bring myself to read anything else by said author). With the Internet, it’s so easy to do something wrong and have it publicized. It saddens me that more authors don’t think before they “speak” online.

    • green knight – I think “don’t be an obnoxious twit in public” covers the subject pretty well.

      Tiana – A lot of people treat the Internet as if it was a private kaffe-klatsch in their own home with two or three trusted friends, and forget that there are a lot more people looking – or a lot more people who COULD be looking at some time in the future. Obviously, this is not a terribly smart move in a lot of cases.

  3. Thanks for posting the maps! And for the business advice, too.

  4. It seems pretty obvious to not argue with readers about what their tastes are, but their are very strange people out there. I’ve seen flame wars start with what looked to me like very reasonable responses by authors to outrageous criticism.

    Is it best to just not comment back?

    Is it better to not read fan reviews to avoid the temptation? They can be both depressing and encouraging. It also seems like reading reviews could be a useful form of market research if the people who post are a fair sample of your readers and prospective readers. I’m torn.

    Thoughts, anyone?

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