Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Writers Need to Do More Than Just Write

I have written about many occupations in this blog, but never before about my own: writer. I recently was reading the memoir of Paul Auster, Hand to Mouth: A Chronicle of Early Failure, in which he describes his struggle to start his writing career. He writes, “Becoming a writer is not a ‘career decision’ like becoming a doctor or a policeman. You don't choose it so much as get chosen, and once you accept the fact that you're not fit for anything else, you have to be prepared to walk a long, hard road for the rest of your days.”

What Auster (one of my favorite authors) says about writers applies equally well to any career in the arts. In some of the informal assessments I've worked on, I've made special exceptions for people who are determined to work in the arts, saying, in effect, “Understanding the risks, you may choose to ignore what this assessment is telling you.”

Although Auster seems to be talking mainly about fiction writers, his sentiments also apply to many, perhaps most, nonfiction writers. I know that in my case I have tried other careers but seem to be fated to work in this one. I first thought of writing as a career in the fourth grade, when the children’s writer Beman Lord came to my class and talked about his novel The Trouble With Francis. But I aspired to several other career goals in subsequent years before ending up doing what I do now.

Because I write and because I work for a publisher, people sometimes tell me they have an idea for a book (or are actually writing one) and ask for my advice about how to get published. One important piece of advice I impart is that writing the book is only half, or maybe less than half, of the author’s work. The other crucial task is promoting the book.

You might not realize the importance of promotion for writers if you were to go by the O*NET database’s listing of work tasks for the occupation Poets, Lyricists and Creative Writers. Only one of the 11 core tasks listed for this occupation refers to promotion: “Attend book launches and publicity events, or conduct public readings.”

For a more realistic understanding of the importance of promotion, I suggest you look at the guidelines that any book publisher offers for book proposals. They all ask prominently “What are you prepared to do to promote the book?”

This is also the reason why publishers are so fond of acquiring authors who are retired presidents, former first ladies, superannuated actors, or over-the-hill athletes. These authors have great name recognition but also a lot of time on their hands, so they are not just desirable but also available guests for talk shows and other media events. If you lack stellar name recognition, you may have a very good professional network that will help you get your name and work out there.

If you’re still not convinced of the importance of self-promotion, I suggest you read the experiences of Jonathan Papernick, a writer who thought that his success was assured after his first collection of short stories was greeted by glowing reviews. He writes, “Nobody ever told me that the real work begins once a book is finished and that you need to spend a good six months to a year getting out there and promoting your own work, otherwise it risks dying on the vine.”


  1. Great advice, Laurence! I wish more authors understood the importance of book promotion as well as you do. To offer some additional advice, authors need to understand that in order to score major media coverage, they'll probably have to start small.

    Landing spots on Oprah or The Today Show isn't likely to happen without sharing your expertise in smaller outlets first. Don't pass up a 3-minute interview with your local radio station or doing a Q&A for an up-and-coming blog becasue you think it's a waste of time.

    These small promotional efforts are important in helping authors gain the experience they'll need to be ready for the major outlets when they eventually start calling. Plus, you never know who may be reading, listening or watching you in the media. Every promotional opportunity helps--no matter how big or small it may be.

  2. Thanks, Laurence, for this good advice. Yes, I agree with you that every writer must start from small. And that every promotional efforts are important in helping authors gain the experience they’ll need to be ready for the major outlets.