There are whole agencies to take this seriously, just as there are whole accountancy firms to scribble numbers on the backs of perfectly good envelopes. You may have a publisher, or you may be your own publisher. Fine. This is about being an author. Here we go. First...
People hate self-promotion. Potential readers hate it – as you will find out very quickly if it's all that you do – and for example the people who run Facebook groups about writers and writing hate it. You don’t promote yourself by promoting yourself. Potential readers who first discover you talking about how wonderful you are, or pressing them to buy your fiction, won’t want to know.
They’ll only tolerate such behaviour if they already like your fiction and you’re giving them useful (or inside) information – how the next book’s going, for example. I’ve no idea whether this is a cultural thing – a British thing – but I’m pretty sure that if your first encounter with William Essex was me telling you to spend your money on my book*, your reaction wouldn’t be to reach for your credit card.
People like to join in. That’s where we go from here. People don’t like to be pushed – by your self-promotion, for example – but if you respect their autonomy, let them decide what to do, they might just join in an interesting conversation, follow an interesting author … buy a book, or series, that sounds as if it might be interesting.
You are, by definition, interested in the subject matter of your books. Your readers are by definition interested in the subject matter of your books. If you were an accountant, you would at this point add 2 and 2. But you’re not, so the answer is to promote yourself by starting a conversation around you, your books and their subject matter. Online. With comments enabled. Led and run by you, unless there’s a really good reason why not.
Start as you mean to go on**. I’m not here to burble on about the technicalities, but I will say this. As you fire up all your social-media accounts, position cameras, download teleprompt and podcast software – as you do all that, pause for long enough to set yourself an approximate but realistic schedule. You’re going to be doing this for a very long time – for as long as you’re an author – and you don’t want to saddle yourself with a chore.
My definition of marketing, dreamed up last week, is: do what you like doing, only more so, and more publicly, over time. Have the conversations online that you’d have at home if only the people at home were as obsessed as you are about your fiction. It’s not a requirement, but you’ll know you’re doing this right if you’re enjoying it.
Online marketing for authors is visibly being the writer of your books. Over time. The key to success is to keep going. Agree a schedule with yourself that you can manage - regular, but not necessarily frequent. Let your creative process overflow onto the social-media page (again in English: talk about your characters and plot and perhaps word-count). Let your online marketing become – how do I put this? – another outlet for the ongoing daydream (again: it's you communicating with readers - the problem was what, exactly?).
Agree a schedule and decide what social-media outlets work for you, and then put in the time to make those easy. I would say: do have a website, with your name on it, because you can put all the background, practical information up there - reading orders, publication dates, sample chapters - and interested-but-not-buying-yet potential readers can check you out even further. Social media can be no more than a casual interaction - going to the website is a definite step closer to the point of sale. At the website, they are definitely in the You section of the bookstore (actually, it's the You bookstore, but let's not go too far with this).
Everybody does email newsletters these days, and it’s never difficult to find a consultant who’ll tell you that the key to marketing is getting people’s email addresses. So if you can figure out a use for a clutch of email addresses, do one of those. If you like writing letters to people, do a newsletter. I would say, don't get bogged down with the personalisation, et cetera. The downside of getting it wrong - Dear First Name rather than Dear William - is greater than the upside of getting it right. One I like invariably starts, "Hi, it's Cathy here, and..." so on.
Above all, don’t let go of originality. Don't take my word for it. Or anybody else's word. You don’t write your books to be like other people’s books; you don’t just do what everybody else does when you’re writing. You have a voice, and it's your own. Apply that to the ongoing conversation that is online marketing. Originality isn’t compulsory either, but there are no rules beyond what works.
Oh! That works as a punchline. I seem to have reached the end. I was going to say something about the marketing of individual books, but maybe next week. Or not. In the relatively recent past, I’ve watched Atomic Blonde (2017), and moving on, there were those hours that I spent in front of Assassin’s Creed (2017). Odd, the dress code in movies. If you’re a blonde secret agent, you wear a short skirt with stockings and boots, big coat, big dark glasses, and boy, do you blend in. If you’re an assassin, you wear a distinctive tailored-looking outfit with the hood up, and nobody notices as you weave through the crowd towards your target.
I used to wonder where assassins bought those sleek suitcases with slots for every component of their sniper’s rifle – but I seem to have regressed to Grosse Point Blank (1997), which was fun.
*That was just an asterisk. There had to be one. Think about your reaction to it, maybe?
**Although, if you write a text-heavy weekly blog, be prepared for your friends in marketing to take you aside and talk to you gently about the importance of breaking up the text, putting in headings and spaces, and so on.
“Anecdotes”, I think, is Bird’s word for all the noise generated by news media and social media, and “noise” is my word for all the packages, posts, tweets, et cetera – all the space-filling din that even on the quietest day is never replaced by “Nothing happened today, so here’s some music to ignore us by.” Out of all that cacophony, we choose to believe one collection or another of “outraged opinions”.
Well, yes. My only objection would be to Bird’s use of the word “passionately”, which has that adverbial meaninglessness – sandwich shops are passionate about sandwiches, et cetera. Believe confidently if you must, but you could just believe. Full stop. Or is that just a tangential way of making a related point – let’s be less impassioned? The problem with believing anecdotes, Bird suggested, is that you end up in “a competition over the ‘best’ way of handling what’s wrong with the world.” It can be a “bitter, at times prejudicial and thoughtless, competition”.
We squabble over Brexit, or gun control in the USA was Bird’s other example, on the basis of what we read, or hear, and choose to believe. That choice – this is me speaking – arises out of prejudice, bias, nature, nurture, probably class, et cetera, and not out of a sober evaluation of whatever “facts” we can infer from an unknowable future (hint: there are no “facts”, because we can’t know the future, so it’s all what we choose to believe). We’re just arguing.
Maybe the unknowable rights and wrongs of the big questions, however passionately we attack and defend them, aren’t the point after all. Maybe your vote to leave/remain wasn’t a criminally irresponsible failure to appreciate the unarguable facts of the unknowable future. Maybe it was just your best guess. Maybe the sun will rise tomorrow. Bird suggests: “We might more pressingly need a fourth industrial revolution of the heart.”
Hidden Figures (2016) was worth seeing.