Once you make the grade as a big-time writer, it will be easier to stand out from the hordes of not-so-famous authors. But how do you do it now? How do you carve a space for yourself as, for instance, an up-and-coming romance writer with a unique talent and a warm and sensitive appreciation for the human spirit? Or a new sci-fi writer who peers into the near and distant future with the keenest of intellects? Or a new crime writer with a gritty perspective never before seen?
Not easy, is it? And yet, if you are a romance, sci fi, or crime writer, you do want to be known as somebody like that. Maybe not exactly, but something like. Question is, how do you get it? How do you muscle into that space for yourself?
Maybe I’m asking the wrong question. Or, the right question, the wrong way. If you’re seriously self-promoting, you’re going to do the dozens of maddeningly time-consuming things we all do…social networking, your own blog, your own website, conventions, book fairs, small space ads…and on and on. If you have a PR person, they are going to do much the same for you. But before you jump into any of that madness—or have your people jump into it for you—you probably should ask yourself those old Zen questions: Come on now, really—who am I? What do I want to give my readers? How do I want to be known? Why will readers want to read my books? What is the very best way I can spend my time until the Messiah comes?
When the biblical writers advised us to take wisdom from the lilies in the fields that neither toil nor spin, those divinely inspired scribblers were on some level also aware that the leaves of the lily were hungrily sucking the air and somewhere underground the roots were engaged in a frantic scramble for nourishment and water. The lesson I take from this is that we should do the hard work to know ourselves, bloom and leaf and root, before we advertise lilies for sale. Yes, know your intended readership—but know yourself first.
You have to be careful what you say about yourself, and what you allow your flacks to say about you, as well. It is enormously difficult to shy from hyperbole and ridiculous self-praise when talking about one’s own product. Be nervous if you haven’t already noticed this.
Writers who are trying to break out of the pack often summarize themselves with a one-liner, as if they were a product like a candy bar or a sports car. While this can be self-satisfying, it can also be a limiting exercise, even dangerous to the growth of one’s career, should one’s tastes or primary area of interest change over time. Maybe sometimes not, but you have to wonder, how much does it gain you to call yourself the Prince of Peril, The New Stephen King, or the writer darkness itself fears? I mean, something like that, only maybe not so hokey. What does it gain the writer? Something, certainly, if you wish to tie yourself to instant recognition to a specific genre: The Hottest Sweet Sex in the Rocky Mountains; Sucks Better than Any Other Vampire Writer; Look Out, Clive Cussler! But wait a minute. You’re just starting out. Maybe you have only written one or three books. Or maybe you wrote a half dozen, but none of them were actually competition for Nora Roberts. That’s what I mean about the dangers of self appreciation. Yes, I’d like to describe my new book in a very appealing way, and do it in pithy image-bites. Problem is, Nora is Nora, Clive is Clive, and I’m me.
I think one good path to take is do it the way authors who have already arrived do. Now I can’t prove this will work. It’s what I do, but obviously my name does not reverberate like Grisham, Larsson, Niffenegger, Tyler, Chandler, Roberts, Turow, or L’Amour. But I noticed that Stephen King never calls himself anything that might limit his potential readership. Neither do any of the others. You know John Grisham is a wildly popular best-selling author of legal thrillers. You may even know that he is so successful his publisher publishes his “soft” non-legal novels that don’t sell so well. There are clues in this handling of a career. Research this notion further: Go sniffing around any successful author’s website. You will notice that the product is the king (or queen). The author is more or less the vessel. Now that’s hard on the ego…I spend a year meticulously crafting my next opus and I’m just some stupid scribbler?! Well, in a word, yes. And it’s not just you and me. When a highly successful writer turns out a dog, the publishers may do their best to hide the hideous truth, but readers are smart—they know it right away. In this sense it is the work uber alles. I say do great work. Pitch the work. And the reputation will follow.
I even advocate not fooling around too much with your reputation. Protect it, but don’t spend a lot of time and money trying to shape it in clever one-line handcuffs that mean more to you than anybody else. If you have a one-liner that you like and that you think works for you, use it. But don’t let that be the main thrust of your promotion. Market your work first and yourself second. If some critic says something wonderful about your writing, treat it like gold, but remember, you don’t wear all your jewelry everywhere or all the time. In other words, it’s a great quote, but it’s not your salvation.
Still, this is mostly what not to do. What to do, what to do, in a positive sense? Well, if you want clarity, it should come from the answers to those Zen questions we muttered earlier on. Both in marketing and in real life, effectiveness in communication comes about when you remember—you are what you write. Figure out who you are. Write that. Then advertise the hell out of your books.
John Klawitter is a Hollywood writer, producer and director who writes fiction and non-fiction books. He often adapts his novels to screenplays that he then peddles around town. (So far, a few fat options, but no brass ring.) His novels are based on his years surviving as a creative person in the ad biz and in show biz. It is an interesting life.
He has worked as the Creative Director of Disney Studios in Burbank, and as an independent creative resource for Warner Bros, Universal Studios, Paramount and the Disney Channel, as well as for many indy production companies including Hanna Barbera, Franke Films, Pink Planet Productions, Eyeline Films and Zoiyu Productions. His films and television specials have appeared on NBC, the BBC, and the Disney Channel, and he has written many memorable song lyrics, advertising jingles and television show openings, including “Disney’s Wonderful World”, “Now & Then”, and “The Bugs Bunny/Road Runner Show”.