A writer I
know recently asked me what I’d been working on lately. “Publicity, as always,”
I replied, “although more consulting than campaigns these days.”
“Oh right, authors and our ‘personas,’” he scoffed.
Having spoken to students in graduate creative writing and journalism programs at two different universities that week, I took it in stride. I always do. I have to. Rarely does a writer come along who is thrilled by the prospect of marketing himself. But after we chatted for a while my friend conceded that, yes, there is only so much room in each issue of the New York Times Book Review, which I admitted I seldom read, and that, ideally, his would be among the books chosen for review.
I always ask authors who request my services to begin by considering how it is that their readers know what they know. Did they discover your latest title in a review? Wander into a reading or other event? Or, as is usually the case now, see a mention on some form of social media? When I work on a publicity campaign, I view my objective as twofold: to persuade someone to buy the author’s book—as opposed to all the other books competing for attention—and, more essentially, to speed up that sale and persuade her to do it now. In order to achieve this, an author needs that ever-elusive buzz. But what exactly is buzz, where does it come from, and how do you get it?
When I began my career in public relations a decade ago, doing media outreach for campaigns and hot-button social issues, my mornings were devoted to reading the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Financial Times, as well as a few other newspapers. I’d clip out relevant articles, paste them onto single sheets, and distribute copies to executives. What is striking to me now is not how much paper was involved—and it was a lot—but how finite the world of information seemed. The work was systematic and technical: Faxed press releases were followed up with calls to reporters and editors in the hope that they might attend the scheduled press conference, and press kits were assembled to distribute there. The thing I remember most is that each project had a clearly identifiable endpoint, which was arrived at when a feature article was published or a segment aired on a national news program.
Five years later I switched my focus to cultural projects, primarily literary publicity, and assiduously and methodically read four hundred blogs via an RSS reader, which collected new and updated items and displayed them continuously. Partly, it was personal interest that led me to focus my attention on online media. It was also a matter of necessity. Publishing is a relatively small industry, and working outside traditional houses, I lacked the carefully cultivated relationships that in-house publicists maintained. I also saw no need to duplicate their efforts.
I speak regularly to audiences—from academic groups to editorial and publicity staffers at publishing houses—but I don’t spend much time sketching out the particulars of any one type of social media. They change too quickly, and I eschew the idea that anyone should be everywhere all the time. I encourage writers to consider what they are already doing, and to focus their efforts there. Is YouTube useful for writers? Sure, if you like making videos. I wouldn’t encourage anyone to spend money on a book trailer unless they have a concept that already sounds viral in the telling. Facebook and Twitter are useful because that’s where so many of the bits of information that color our lives can be found, and that’s where everyone is looking at the moment. Twitter is where I find what editors and booksellers are talking about when they talk about books. I log in to Facebook to keep in touch with authors and see who’s hot right now. A few years ago it was MySpace, a few years hence it will be something else. The specific platforms are always evolving, but the overall trends are fairly consistent.
There’s a video of me speaking at Penguin Books in London a few years ago, and it always makes me wistful to get a note about it from someone who’s just come across it, because there’s a perfectly outdated MySpace anecdote in the clip that makes no sense now. It lacks context, and is thus wholly irrelevant. At the time, the anecdote was highly instructive, and the author I was talking about has gone on to be something of a social-media sensation in other realms. This experience reminds me of the fluidity of change, and the necessity of not getting too caught up in the imagined structures of permanence. The microblogging platform Tumblr is gaining in popularity among my friends and colleagues (I have a well-tended personal blog on another platform and have not opened a Tumblr account, having reached my limit; a sort of fascination fatigue sets in due to long-term exposure to new ways of learning everyone’s opinions on, well, everything) and the location-based social-networking site Foursquare gets a lot of traffic (but I don’t use it, because I find the idea of self-reported surveillance a little too Orwellian for my taste). Technology is a set of habits, and they can be good or bad for you.
The world of social media deeply resembles the world it mirrors—and in some ways has supplanted: Fear, fame, anxiety, connectivity, conversation, blossoming friendships, connections being made, they all unfold with the clamor of a good party. The task of finding readers and an audience is made much easier by joining the conversation that you feel you belong to, whether it’s via media that you maintain (your blog, your Facebook page, your Twitter handle), community sites you check daily, or blogs that you read and comment on when you have something important to add.
I had a conversation this afternoon with an author who is, in the best sense of the word, emerging. His third novel will be published in the fall, and he’s gotten the coveted reviews. Still, his frustration was evident as he asked me, quite frankly, how he’s supposed to know what’s working if he doesn’t see the results in his sales. I explained my theory of positive momentum. It’s no longer the case that one thing will necessarily make your career. If anything, that exposure could be a breakthrough that heralds success because it leads to the next shot at the limelight. Rather than angling for a specific kind of coverage in a specific kind of outlet, I encourage authors to see things from the perspective of sustained momentum, and to do things that will continually advance their interests, and, ultimately, their careers. For this particular writer, that means focusing on the niche audiences that fall outside his publisher’s view. I suggested he pose a particular question—concerning reading series that take place in art galleries—on Facebook. This is how buzz starts. It is a matter of starting to speak, igniting that desire for interaction, commentary, and conveyance of ideas that powers social media.
“The task of finding readers and an audience is made much easier by joining the conversation that you feel you belong to, whether it’s via media that you maintain, community sites you check daily, or blogs that you read and comment on when you have something important to add.”