Writer and salesman
Most writers are, by nature, a reclusive bunch. They sit at their computer, their typewriter, their notepad, and they scribble away at their own version of brilliance. The phone rings, they ignore it. The sun rises and sets, they don’t notice. They have to be this way: In order to be a writer, you have to spend a significant amount of time in your own head, with your stories, away from distractions and prying eyes.
So when the conversation shifts to promotion and marketing, a lot of writers clam up. They can write the book, no problem. But the average writer is not a salesman, and that’s essentially what they are being asked to do – to sell themselves. And if they struggle with confidence in their own craft (as many writers do), asking them to comfortably promote their own work can seem like a giant hurdle.
But the modern publishing marketplace is an overcrowded one. While good writing still overrules any sort of self-promotional abilities (and hopefully always will), the more ways that a writer can set themselves apart from the pack, the better. It’s like running a marathon. Sure, you can trust in your own abilities. and you’ll probably cross the finish line of publication eventually, but if someone approached you and said, “here, these shoes will make you run 5 percent faster,” wouldn’t you take them?
That is what having an online presence can do for a writer. Some authors have a website, and it’s nothing more than a small boost. And that’s OK: While other writers will go nuts and throw themselves into social media and blogging and becoming an online celebrity, even the smallest of boosts is something that should be embraced.
This goes for writers of all genres, not just nonfiction authors. As literary agent Paula Munier puts it: “If they’re fiction writers, then they should at least be active members of the writing community, online and off. More is better. That’s just the beginning. Once they have a contract, they need to prepare for the many promotion and marketing responsibilities they will take on as an author.”
The process of getting published can be rather unfortunately impersonal. You query an agent who knows nothing about you other than the email you sent them. Your task is to make yourself so compelling that an agent will be willing to go out on a limb for you, pitching you to their bosses, and then to editors in the field, and, finally, to marketing and publishing people around the world. All based on that one email, which often constitutes a single typed page.
There are always conferences, a far more personal way of introducing yourself to agents and editors, where you can meet them face to face and give them a good indication of who you are as a person and if they would want to work with you. But conferences cost more than money. They take time, they take networking; in short, they take a lot of things that writers with full-time day jobs don’t often have to spare.
As such, many writers are confined to the cold, seemingly heartless world of querying electronically. Agents can see hundreds, sometimes thousands, of queries a day, many of which are browsed by someone other than the agent – an assistant, an intern, etc. If your query does reach the agent, and their interest is piqued, their next looming question is going to be, “OK, so who is this author?”
Agents will Google your name, they’ll search for you on social media, and if you can’t be found anywhere, then what? Often, it means your query gets deleted, and they move on to the next one. That’s where having an online presence comes in.
Munier stresses how much Google is used in the industry. “Everyone Googles everyone as a matter of course these days, if only to see if the writer is a real person,” she says. “Certainly any sort of platform help sells the book, no matter what that book may be.”
Where do you start?
At a bare minimum, get a personal website, a place that agents and editors can find that gives the world a taste of who you are. And, being the reclusive writer that you are, it’s the perfect resource. You can sit behind the screen, as writers love to do, and use your craft to establish a professional personality that is readily available to all interested parties. Include an “About” page, where you explain your ambitions, your writing dreams, and what you do with yourself when you’re not writing. Also include your professional history, including any published clips, so visitors can read your work. All of these are things that agents want to see, and if they can’t easily find it, there is always that unfortunate chance that they won’t run the risk of moving forward with your pitch.
Let’s say an agent has two queries, Query A and Query B, both of which are on equal footing. The author of Query A has nothing anywhere about themselves online. All the agent knows about them is what they include in the brief bio in the query letter. Meanwhile, the author of Query B has a website where they express their love of mountain biking, their mastery of homemade blueberry muffins, and their passion for watching reruns of The Office on Netflix. None of those things has anything to do with writing and shouldn’t be in the bio of a query letter. But it establishes a personality, more clues as to who you really are beyond that one single email. And hey, maybe the agent also loves mountain biking. Suddenly the agent is more inclined to go with author B than author A. Before signing a contract, agents must ask themselves if you, the author, are someone they want to work with and speak with on a daily basis. Help them make the decision to choose you by giving an idea of who you really are.
You can hear the same thing said across podcasts, at panels, on agent and editor blogs – yes, the market is still selling books, but agents and editors and publishing houses also have to sell the author. That means they have to sell you. If you aren’t giving them what they want, someone else will.
And Munier makes it clear that, when she does acquire a client without a presence, she has encouraged, if not required, them to get one.
“The understanding is that even novelists need to prepare to promote themselves via social media and online,” she says. “They need a website, a newsletter, a social media campaign, etc. This is part of making that all-important transition from writer to author.”
So why not just get out in front of it and start now? The sooner you start, the more you can put into it before it’s absolutely necessary.
Do I have to?
Not necessarily, no. Of course there are exceptions. Good writing rules the day. Look at Patrick deWitt, for instance. He’s been nominated for the Man Booker for The Sisters Brothers (which was turned into a major motion picture in 2018), but, as of the publishing of his fourth book, French Exit, he has no social media profiles and no personal website.
It can be done, but you are leaving a lot up to chance by hoping you can be one of the exceptions. In the publishing world – or in any world, for that matter – the less you leave up to chance, the better. So many things are already left up to chance: if the agent even sees your query, if they like the first line, if they have a similar book on their list already, etc. The amount of ways you can “just miss” being right for an agent are numerous and, worse, they are out of your control. The more ways you can take control of your own destiny, the better.
And it’s not just in the querying process that having an online presence is going to be your ally. Take it from Cassie Malmo, publicity manager at Simon and Schuster Children’s Books. “Having information available, be it a strong social media presence or a blog with a devoted following, can be helpful for a potential client to have because it is something that can be built upon as opposed to establishing a platform from scratch,” she says.
When it comes to marketing the author as a book nears publication, McGinty is adamant that it is absolutely easier to market an author who has an online presence.
“If you are just starting out, I advise authors to pick one, maybe two, platforms and post on those two to three times a week while keeping to your own personality/aesthetic,” she said.
This is doubly, if not triply (maybe even quadruply, which wasn’t even a word until now) true in nonfiction. Fiction writers can get away with a minimal online presence and not have it be the end of their publishing dreams. In nonfiction? Not so much.
“If they’re nonfiction writers, then a good platform is critical, and part of that platform should be an active social media presence,” says Munier.
In nonfiction, you are responsible for selling the crux of your story right from the start. The subject can carry you a lot of the way, what with the research and the angle and why you should be the one telling the story. But there is so much more to it than that.
You don’t have to have a sparkling resume to be an authority or write a book on a topic. You can just be an independent researcher with a passion for the subject. Maybe you have a unique point of view on that subject, something new to bring to the table. But that passion, that unique point of view, can obviously show in other ways – in more productive ways – than relative anonymity. Express that passion on a website. With a following on social media. With the nonfiction community.
Nowadays, especially in nonfiction, when you listen to agents pitching editors, you will hear them draw attention to things that go beyond the story. “Well, they have an active social media presence with 30,000 followers and a website,” an agent might say. If an author’s presence is glitzy enough, some agents will even lead with social media figures before they even get into what the story is about.
Hell, some websites even become books. Think about Julie and Julia by Julie Powell. She started a blog, an industry professional found it, she got a book deal. I Hope They Serve Beer In Hell by Tucker Max happened the same way. Agents and editors are always looking for the next big deal. And guess what? If you don’t give them anything to find, they won’t find it.
Social media carries such a negative stigma sometimes, and it’s easy to see why. Trolls exist. Hatred is a predominant theme. It can get ugly.
But social media doesn’t have to be your enemy. (And even if it is, consider it like a necessary evil.) If 30,000 followers sounds impossible to you, you’re not alone. It is for a lot of people. But consider this much – social media is full of people like you, users who want to wield the power of internet interconnectivity. Artists like to support each other and, as a general rule of thumb on Twitter, a follow often gets a follow back among like-minded individuals. You’ll even see some big-time authors out there who hold to this principle, following everyone who follows them back. J.D. Barker, for instance, who boasts upwards of 80,000 followers and follows 80,000 in return.
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Social media doesn’t require anything more than perseverance and the occasional inspirational tweet (or two). Maybe start up a conversation about this subject matter that you are so passionate about. Eventually, you can accrue a community of people who are passionate about the same things you are – and perhaps become passionate enough to purchase and promote your book when it’s published.
While Facebook and Instagram – even Pinterest, for certain subjects – are places where authors have found success gathering a large following, Twitter has particular professional gains. Where else can you go where agents and editors are constantly chatting? Certainly not their living rooms. But on Twitter, professionals are always chatting with their followers and talking about what they’re looking for in a query letter. Why not establish a personal connection in a query by citing a conversation you had with that agent on Twitter?
That doesn’t even include the ‘pitch parties’ on Twitter, where you can package your book into a single tweet and get actual requests from actual agents who want to see your work. You won’t find that anywhere else but on Twitter. You want to talk about getting a leg up on other querying writers? Being able to include “as requested during Pitch Madness on Twitter” in a query is like getting another pair of shoes to run the marathon, except these make you run 20 percent faster.
The internet is so big that it may seem impossible to build a presence at first, but remember, no one is asking you to own the internet. No one is asking you to pay for a web designer to build you a top-notch, interactive website platform where visitors can play mad libs with you in real time. That’s craziness (but if you have a website like that, let me know, I want to play).
What isn’t crazy is dipping at least a toe into the pool of resources sitting right in front of you. Especially if you’re going to be asked to do it eventually anyway.
Josh Sippie is the Director of Contests and Conferences at Gotham Writers Workshop in New York City, where he also teaches various blogging classes. His work has appeared in the Guardian, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Hobart, Cobalt Review, and more. Twitter @sippenator101, more at joshsippie.com.