Yes, You CAN Tell People: On Writers and Self-Promotion

March 12, 2011 § 33 Comments


A graduate student here at Ohio University had a nice literary magazine publication recently, and when I asked him for details, so I could share his good news with others in the program, he e-mailed back, “I’m not really one for self-promotion (makes me feel a little icky).”

I hear this often – “I don’t like self-promotion” or “she’s so self-promoting”– as if it were a horrible literary transgression to make the results of one’s considerable effort known and available.  Why is it shameful, after having worked very hard at something, and had some success in seeing it to publication, to then tell folks?  I don’t get it.

Sure, we’ve all seen authors push their work and accomplishments rudely, brazenly, and stupidly, especially in the era of Facebook. Does this mean we must rule out all mention of one’s publications, however? Must all good news and honest celebration be labeled with the same nasty brush?

Consider. Where would we be as writers (and how would our publishers ever survive) if no one ever told anyone that they had published a poem in The Kenyon Review or a book with University of Nebraska Press?  The ship of Independent Literary Publishing is not exactly sailing in a sea of money right now, so why do we as writers go out of our way to make sure we aren’t helping out at least a bit?  Trust me, the editor of the small literary magazine would be thrilled if three of your friends subscribed, or even bought one issue.

And it isn’t always about money, of course.  Most of us in the writing/publishing community would agree that the literary arts are not enough valued in our culture, so how does sneering at any author who makes even the smallest mention of their latest publication help that along? Let’s hide that light under a million bushels.

Listen.  If one of my friends publishes something, I want to know. Sometimes just for the ’feel good’ moment.  Sometimes so I can track the poem down and read it.  But I’ll never know, if all mention of one’s publications is seen as conceited self-promotion.

So let’s be reasonable. I’d like to propose a few guidelines for the sharing of literary success.  If you agree, please share these guidelines with others, and please share your good news:

1.     Self promotion is when you spam all of your friends and those who are barely friends and repeatedly say “buy my stuff,” or “look at my stuff.”  We don’t need daily updates.

2.     Self promotion is NOT when you share good news with fellow strugglers (like grad students in your program, or the faculty who are rooting for your success).  That’s just being part of a supportive community.

3.     To my mind, even a link on Facebook, or on your blog, or as a signature line in your e-mail (subtle, not blaring), is NOT self promotion, at least not the bad kind that folks want to scorn and avoid.  Certain people wish to know your good news, or read your poem, or buy your book, so it is fully acceptable to tell them that the work is now available.  It is, in fact, inconsiderate not to tell them.

4.     Tell them once, of course, not fifty times, and give them a clean link rather than e-mailing PDFs of everything you’ve ever written.

5.     If you assume your friends would hate you for your success rather than be pleased for you, maybe it is time to look for new friends.  Or look at yourself.

6.     Writing is not bad.  Publishing your writing is not bad.  Don’t treat it as if it were.

— Dinty W. Moore,  editor, Brevity

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§ 33 Responses to Yes, You CAN Tell People: On Writers and Self-Promotion

  • susmita says:

    absolutely share this opinion. If one doesn’t respect oneself and one’s own effort how can you expect others to do the same for you!

  • Oronte Churm says:

    Precisely so. And that’s all I have to say.

  • Marna says:

    Bravo! Publication (and recognition for it) can be an infrequent and hard-earned accomplishment. Be proud.

  • Liz Stephens says:

    Huzzah. It means a lot for you to take this stance out loud as the director of a program of grad students. Thank you.

  • Laura Lee says:

    It is interesting that this came to my attention at this moment. I’m contemplating whether to go with a publisher that doesn’t seem right for my novel or self-publishing, and have been feeling like the self-publishing would require an embarrassing amount of self-promotion. I was thinking just this morning that it is a bit humiliating in general to be a writer. You work very hard on something and are made to feel like a bit of a jerk for wanting to talk about it– or maybe I only make myself feel that way. It’s good to know that others struggle with this.

  • barry silesky says:

    Absolutely right, Dinty!

  • Ayse Papatya Bucak says:

    I absolutely agree. And professors especially especially want to know when their students–past and present–publish! Besides I’ve always been an advocate of a little bit of envy to get me working harder…

  • Bob Root says:

    Some of us are shy and humble, which is why we’d rather sit alone in rooms writing than pursuing more public, on-stage lives. The part of writing that’s most uncomfortable to me is the marketing, the promotion that falls on the writer rather than on the publisher, or even the assertiveness it takes to find a place to publish. I finished a memoir a month ago and so far have contacted one agent and no publishers. This part of it requires that I be a different person than the solitary scribe I am most of the time, and I find it hard. I mostly agree with Dinty–I just have trouble acting on it.

    • Kate says:

      From what I’ve heard from agents lately, you are going to have to do most of your marketing and promotion on your own even if you do have a publisher. Book tours and advertising are reserved for “big” titles, but even big houses are doing very little to promote writers in this climate.

  • Jennifer says:

    I always say if you don’t toot your own horn every now and again, no one else will! I run the blog for our MFA department and practically have to BEG people to send me their news!!

    I love hearing about other people’s success– especially my colleagues, because it makes me feel like it is attainable for me as well.

  • Sandy Beach says:

    Briefly: Agreed!

  • Nels says:

    Do you think the student was telling the truth? Was this a piece of nonfiction? I wonder if the student was using this as some kind of protection from having the subject of his work find out what he had said. Students, especially, still struggle with writing about others and what to do if they find out. I have friends who are tenured creative writing faculty who do not put certain pieces on their CVs because they do not want those pieces found by their subjects. Could that be the case here?

  • by jesus! promote, cheer the successes, they’re damn hard come by!

  • Robin says:

    I’ve got something I published last year that I think is wonderful! Anybody want to read it? ;-)

    I’m a beginner/mid-life writer and as far as I’m concerned, the best part of writing is being READ! But nobody can read the stuff that’s stuck in my “2010/writing/final drafts” computer file, so I am ALL for getting it out there, letting people know about it, and getting it read!

  • [...] publicity tips for book authors. On Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, Dinty Moore has listed “a few guidelines for the sharing of literary success.” Writers who want people to read their books shouldn’t turn up their noses at any [...]

  • Beth Kephart says:

    Dinty, This is funny, but I was reading this and nodding and hadn’t even looked to see who the author was (I know, it’s strange; I started reading it off of Leslie P’s facebook look). And then I looked up, wondering, who IS this smart guy….? And it was you.

  • Chris Roberts says:

    I believe some writers take the tact that their writing will speak for itself and volumes about the writer. That’s more or less the “enough said” approach.

    I once interviewed Larry McMurtry about a small volume he penned on Crazy Horse. When I brought up a previous work, I forget which now, he replied rather peevishly that he didn’t discuss “old work” and focused on what he was working on in the here and now. He actually said that he couldn’t stomach reading what he’s written, let alone associate himself with it.

    Then there is the J.D. Salinger kick. Writer publishes seminal work and has half the world chasing him around, begging for interviews. Did WW2 affect his mind? Yes it did. Did it make him crazy? No, but he played the role. Salinger didn’t have another “Catcher” in him, but he had ego plus and wanted to build up a mystique about himself. But, I’ve always seen through him. What’s waiting up in Cornish, NH in the basement and the attic, are stacked box after box of “Hapworth 16, 1924″s” revised, reworked and refitted for an audience of one.

    Enough said.

  • I appreciate this post, Dinty, and I also recognize Bob’s concerns. Perhaps we might say that no one should give others a hard time for sensible self-promoting. I’ve never minded a few emails from people letting me know that their book is out. How else am I gonna know? Oprah’s not going to tell me. I’d like to see the post on inappropriate self-promotions (better if they’re real-life examples).

  • Bravo, Dinty! Agree with your list wholeheartedly. I wrote about this topic on my blog last fall, when my novel came out. Still hard to make myself do it, but our pubilshers, large and small, do appreciate our efforts.

  • I went through a vanity press for my first novel and the ONLY reason I am now on a traditional press with a literary agent representing me for second book is BECAUSE of self-promotion.

    Article here on Chuck Palahniuk’s website, The Cult: http://chuckpalahniuk.net/forum/1000035/out-of-touch

  • RKG says:

    Let’s remember, though, that this is a student writer in a graduate program, and that is very different than a professional writing out in the world. Graduate school is a competitive place, and that competition can be healthy, and it can also be damaging. When I was in grad school, I remember how every workshop and class began with people trying to find out who was the best and with whom they could align themselves so they were not left out and alone. It got to the point where you could count on the same people in every class to contradict the same people no matter what the comment.

    Maybe this student is engaging in self-protection. When I was in grad school, I started keeping my publications not secret but quiet. I just hated the games that it seemed like people were playing around me. I had my core group of friends, and that was it. I tried my best to make it about the work and not about the competition.

    Ironically, when our cohort reached graduation, I had been offered a tenure-track job as had one of the gang who was always the most competitive and most biting with his comments. He and others were stunned because they did not know I had published anything or had the credentials to get such a job. The truth was, I did not want to play the game by certain rules, so I opted out and made it about the work.

    Now, I will promote my work to a certain extent. But as a student, I was just learning my way. Remember that this is a student who is training to be a writer, not a writer who has been trained.

    As much as I respect your work, Prof. Moore, please remember that this is a student who is learning and who is perhaps trying to take it all one step at a time.

  • John Gilmore says:

    It’s a balance, yes, but writers need to learn to err on the side if self promotion, not on the side of “humble poet.” if you seriously don’t want anyone to read your stuff, don’t tell anyone about it. Also, stop sending it somewhere. You’re killing the industry by not promoting publications to your friends. If you do in fact want people to read yourself but want to pretend you don’t, than you are a dislikable person on par with most game playing sophomores in high school, sorry.

    Obviously a large part of the self promotion hesitance is due to the fact that most rampant self promoters are in fact less than notably skilled writers–at least on the Internet I mean. When’s the last time you clicked a link to someone’s book on a comment thread and were taken to an actually trade published book?

    Another thing feeding into it is the desire in the lit publishing world to keep the industry a starving and romantic enterprise. Fine, fine, it’s our funeral–er, Uh, industry. If we want the romantic notion of the starving artist to permeate our lives forever, we can keep doing this until our subscription bases are 100.

    Alternatively, good writers can learn the reality–that if they want to write, they’ll need time to do it, and if they want time to do it, they’ll need someone paying them to write, and if they need someone to pay them they’ll need a lot of people to read them, and to get readers they’ll have to self promote. A lot. But that’s so much less fun than feeling sorry for ourselves and complaining about evil corporations ruining the publishing business.

  • John Gilmore says:

    I also recommend erring on the side of typos. And autocorrect. And iPads. As illustrated above.

  • Drew says:

    I wonder if part of the hesitation is that perhaps we DON’T want people to know how hard we worked on something, for fear of rejection, and thus, rejection of our hard work, time, and effort.

    It may be much more comfortable for people to have the “what, this old thing?” response to positive feedback than to admit how much of themselves they put into their work. That way, they never have to admit that their work is the best they can do, and they can always rationalize negative or no feedback by saying, “I didn’t try that hard anyways, hence my hesitation when it comes to self-promotion.”

  • C.M. Mayo says:

    Dinty, right on!

    Back when I edited Tameme, I began to get an education in marketing literary work. A Heraculean task, people!!!

    Here’s what I wrote in my recent blog post on this very subject:

    +++

    Yes, there are more than a few narcisstistic nutters in the literary and art worlds, but as I like to say, it’s not self-promotion; it’s book promotion. Or art promotion. If you owned a donut shop, would you make a batch of donuts and hide them in the alleyway with no sign? If you opened a donut shop and took out an ad to let the neighborhood know, would that be “self-promotion”? Huh?
    +++

  • [...] Love Me. Love Me? Love me! Writers and self-promotion [...]

  • [...] For those of you who are shy and don’t like bragging about your publishing credits for fear of being impolite, stop being shy!  Literary journal editors and literary agents WANT to hear about that stuff!  A query letter and a cover letter are like job interviews.  Proving that you’re a qualified writer helps you–and your short story–get the job!  And, if you’ve been following along, and read my last post about how to win writing contests, talking about your past publications boosts your chances.  (Unfair to the brand new writer, maybe.  But they are like recommendation letters, illustrating your past quality work and dedication to writing).  As Brevity: a journal of concise literary nonfiction encourages in their blog, yes, you CAN and you SHOULD tell people about your accomplishments! [...]

  • [...] talking about your own writing is weird.  Back in March, I read this post on Brevity’s wonderful blog, and the message stuck.  Friends and fellow writers and those [...]

  • Erin Renee says:

    I have to agree with the email you recieved from your grad student. My friends were really supportive when they heard (quietly) that something I’d written had been published for the first time. They threw a little surprise party for me (nothing crazy) because they were happy for me. All I felt was nervousness. I was so worried that they’d think I was being a jerk about it if I told everyone. I think I will always worry about walking that line between obnoxious and appropriately celebratory, but it was nice to feel the support of my friends after my triumph.

  • [...] writers are an extremely humble breed as well.  False.  As Brevity magazine assures us, it is 100% okay–and actually a good idea–for writers to brag about their accomplishments.  How else would our writing ever get read?!  (Sorry if you’ve already read this article [...]

  • [...] if you are to make it as a writer you really do need to start thinking of yourself as a writer. You need to start telling people too. I may have failed at telling people I’m a working writer, but for me the success lies in [...]

  • [...] “Yes, You CAN Tell People: On Writers and Self-Promotion” by Dinty W. Moore, reblogged from Brevity’s Nonfiction [...]

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