Hey, it’s me again. I received a lot of really interesting, private responses to my blog post yesterday from some writer friends, and it should come as no surprise that I have more opinions. So many opinions.
One of the big reactions to my post yesterday was to bemoan the lack of marketing publishing does for writers in our current state of affairs. And yes, I hear that. It’s true. Marketing budgets are shrinking and it’s not fair. Here are more cookies for your feelings.
But in this post, I want to examine what it means to “market” a book in the 21st century because I think it’s inherently different to what marketing looked like twenty years ago, and hell, even ten years ago. To explain, I will start with a story from my classroom and how my teaching approach has drastically changed in the past ten years, specifically when it comes to technology.
Let me take you back to 2002. GW was President, Kelly Clarkson had just become the first American Idol, and a young Colleen Halverson had just begun her first year of graduate school as a TA teaching freshman comp. Now this year was a special year for the TA newbies because this was the year the university decided to start a new initiative involving technology literacy (or some shit buzzword. I have no idea). Basically, the university handed freshman comp a curriculum and for one extra day a week, we had to trudge up to the computer lab and do…stuff. Techy stuff.
The curriculum basically went like this:
Week One: Have students make a PowerPoint.
About what? Why? For what purpose?
Week Two: Have students create a website.
Again? Why? What should be on it? What purpose does it serve?
You can see the flaws in this pedagogical approach, I’m sure. Education without context or meaning is doomed to failure, and of course that first semester was pretty rocky. Half the time, my smarter, hipper, more tech savvy students ended up teaching the class and in the end, those websites never really got off the ground.
Fast forward to 2012 where I was teaching freshman comp full time in a computer lab, where we did create PowerPoints and we did create websites using WordPress, but this time the tech was fully integrated into their writing assignments. So, for example, their big project was to write a research paper but share it through the medium of a blog, which, because of the online medium, requires a different mode of writing and formatting. They also had to have different pages for shared PowerPoints, an annotated bibliography, an ongoing reflective research journal, etc. These blogs were shared publicly on the internet and on our library’s homepage. They served a purpose, and their academic labor was meaningful. They helped create a learning community.
It strikes me oftentimes that writers are asked to work under the 2002 model of marketing.
Create a website!
Why? About what? What purpose does it serve?
Get on twitter!
And do what, exactly? What do I tweet about?
Make a facebook page!
Ok, and what do I do with it?
We are working out of context without a purpose.
You’re probably saying, “But Colleen, I do have a purpose online! My purpose is to sell more books!”
To which I say, no.
No, I don’t think that’s our purpose (and I don’t mean that in the philosophical sense either, lulz). I think if we’re hopping on the internet with the sole purpose to sell more books, we’re internet-ing wrong.
Our purpose is not to sell a product but to build a community.
Our books are not widgets. We are not used car salesmen. But we can do something publishing houses can’t do, which is to create human connections with our audience. The internet is an amazing place to make that happen. For me, “marketing” is no longer something tangential, a “necessary evil,” or as this “extra” chore I have to do. It’s an intrinsic part of being an artist in the 21st century. It’s about building, sharing, and being a part of a community.
I wish I could tell you what should be on that facebook page or what you should tweet about to create that community. After that failed first semester, I set about shifting my curriculum to something much more meaningful, and it took me ten years to figure out an approach that felt genuinely engaging for my students. It was trying things and failing, seeing what works, and honing those strategies. Come back in ten years, and I might have more answers for you about marketing your book online.
But in the meantime, here are two people who, I think are at the forefront of rethinking what it means to exist as a working artist online: the poet Saeed Jones and rock and roll extraordinaire Amanda Palmer.
I started following Saeed Jones on twitter and immediately noted his incredible web presence. In an interview, he talks about how the boundaries of art and social media are breaking down, that art is not something that happens “out there,” beyond social media, but something that is happening on and through places like Twitter and facebook every day. A poem is a tweet. A tweet is a poem. While some might argue that this diminishes creative output, he disagrees by citing an example of a poet whose poem recently went viral.
“I think quality is even more important now. To use the social web as an example: What’s great about the web is it’s easy for something to be shared. Patricia Lockwood’s rape poem. Excellent work can get out there and take off in a way that even just 5 years ago, the idea of a poem going viral? A literary poem? A poem about rape culture? But it’s possible.”
Jones’s point is that more than ever, an artist needs to be excellent. She needs to walk the walk. The whole world is watching.
If you want to take a masterclass on building online communities, watch and observe Amanda Palmer at work. She is definitely an artist who walks the walk. Palmer uses a patron model to fund her artistic pursuits, but part of what makes her efforts so successful are 1) She fucking rocks. Seriously. And 2) She works relentlessly to connect with her patrons and supporters online. It’s fucking Leaves of Grass up in her timeline with the boundary between fan and artist, artist and fan blurring and intermingling. If you want to understand how sharing culture is changing the way artists work online, please check out her TED talk here. She explains it much more eloquently than I can. And hey, support a writer by purchasing her book here. Regardless of how you feel about her model, Palmer understands something about art and our online culture that can feel very elusive to many of us. At least for me. Watching her use the internet as a means to be an artist inspires me, and I want to be her when I grow up, for real.
All I know is this. The last books I purchased came from either tweets, a blog, a reading community like Vaginal Fantasy, or a suggestion from an online forum on Goodreads. Whether we like it or not, our work as artists is a part of a larger online community, and it’s our job to make our work in that community meaningful.
Are you picking up what I’m throwing down? Would you like to support me and my opinions? Consider showing your love by purchasing a copy of my new fantasy romance Through the Veil.