Four years ago I sat down to write a short e-mail to five hundred of my closest friends, a list culled from my cluttered inbox. This was something I’d been doing for some time, since around the year 2000, when there was barely such a thing as social media, when self-promotion was a matter of willfully inserting yourself into people’s lives.
I enjoyed writing those e-mails. It felt like a game. I tried to be my best self—funny, grateful, a little self-deprecating, as unannoying as the author of a mass e-mail can possibly be. There was an art to it, a tightrope to walk between arrogance and humility.
Most people didn’t seem to mind getting them. In the early days of this method of self-promotion, I got a lot of nice feedback. I heard from friends I hadn’t been in touch with for years. Occasionally I got some freelance work out of them.
As the years went by, however, the number of responses diminished, as did the enthusiasm of those responses. Into that void rushed all sorts of thoughts: I should quit promoting myself; I was some sort of egomaniac; and probably I should just give up on the whole thing—writing e-mails, writing stories.
But on the day mentioned above, I sat down to perform this unsolicited service and couldn’t think of what to say. I typed up a few notes, included some links to recent stories. Then, when I reread it, I couldn’t bear the thought of sending it. I’d lost my stomach for my own cleverness. I was as tired of myself as I’m sure everyone else was, if not even more so.
That e-mail sat in my computer for months, then years, until I knew I would never send it. Times had changed. By then, Facebook and Twitter had evolved into endless fonts of self-promotion. We’d entered a phase in which terms like brandividual and authorpreneurship were used in actual conversations, when the idea of selling out was a distant, historical memory, and when, as the writer Daniel Pink observed, “Like it or not, we’re all in sales now.”
It should be said that writers have always been keen self-promoters, as Tony Perrottet pointed out in a New York Times article: In 440 BCE, Herodotus shilled his Histories to wealthy patrons at the Olympics. In 1887, Guy de Maupassant flew a hot-air balloon featuring the name of his latest short story. Walt Whitman wrote anonymous reviews of his work, declaring, “An American bard at last!”
But at the end of the twentieth century something changed, something deep. In an influential article titled “The Brand Called You,” published by Fast Company in 1997, Tom Peters admonished not just corporations, not just celebrities, but everyone to think of themselves as a brand, to promote themselves as a brand, and to see life and work as an endless branding opportunity.
This has come to pass. Today, it’s accepted that anyone with a pulse and a keyboard can and should promote anything that comes to mind. As a result, most of us are drowning in a promotional tsunami. It can feel like a crushing weight, like social media has become a giant pyramid scheme in which we are all selling some idea of ourselves, even as we struggle to believe our own marketing.
Two years ago, I felt so suffocated by all this that I deactivated my Facebook page, surrendered any remaining enthusiasm I had for Twitter, and changed my LinkedIn photo to a picture of a Hong Kong dog latrine, none of which had any measurable effect on my career, except to boost my productivity back to late-1900s levels.
For most writers, however, this rush to self-promote is mostly just confusing: Ever since the Brand You era began, the promotional wisdom has changed every three months or so. First there were websites, then blogs, then guest blogs, then Facebook, then Twitter, then book trailers, then Instagram, and so on.
Some authors have made more analog attempts at distinguishing themselves. I remember when Lawrence Krauser, author of the novel Lemon (McSweeney’s Books, 2002), came to the bookstore where I worked and personally drew a different cover image for each book with a Sharpie. About ten years ago Robin Epstein and her coauthor, Renée Kaplan, sent panties with their book’s website printed on them to editors across New York City. (The underwear played a part in the plot of their book, Shaking Her Assets, published by Berkley, an imprint of Penguin Group, in 2005.)
“We figured we’d get attention in any way we could,” she says now. “We sent them with no explanation and we assumed people would instantaneously go to the website. We were wrong about that.”
Then in 2012 a writer-photographer named Ray Dolin, who was working on a book titled Kindness in America, claimed he was shot in a bizarre drive-by shooting while hitchhiking in Valley County, Montana. After he was found out (he confessed to shooting himself), there was some debate over whether this was a success or failure at self-promotion.
At some level, even the best kind of self-promotion raises questions that are rarely asked: What exactly are we promoting? Are we promoting ourselves? Are we promoting our work? Are they the same? Are they different? And does it matter?
One of the reasons I sent my mass e-mails was because I was proud of my stories and wanted people to read them. I didn’t feel entitled to readers’ time—I knew that it had to be earned. But I wanted people to know my stories existed. That is, after all, the point of being a writer. But where does the self end and the work begin? Does the brand encompass both?
There are plenty of writers for whom self-promotion comes as naturally as breathing. For them, it doesn’t seem to pose any dilemma. But for the rest of us it does. Speaking only for myself, one of the great gifts of writing is that it lets me escape the tyranny of myself, the smothering of self-consciousness.
“When not preoccupied with our selves,” writes psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in his book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Harper & Row, 1990), “we actually have a chance to expand the concept of who we are. Loss of self-consciousness can lead to self-transcendence, to a feeling that the boundaries of our being have been pushed forward.”
Zadie Smith expressed a similar sentiment in a speech I attended. “I think this is where the real attraction [of being a writer] lies,” she said. “Not in the freedom to express oneself, but in the freedom not to. To me writing is precisely my escape from the partial, subjective reality in which I live.”
Ironically, it’s at those times when I get lost in whatever I’m doing, when I forget about who I am, that I manage to come up with something that feels larger than myself and my life. That, I believe, is when writing becomes something larger than us. That is when it starts to become art. Seen in this way, self-promotion sits at the opposite end of a spectrum of self-awareness. At one end we create. At the other end we sell.
Tim Grahl, a successful book marketer and the author of Your First 1000 Copies: The Step-by-Step Guide to Marketing Your Book, tells his clients that self-promotion isn’t, in fact, about themselves. Rather, the writer should think of readers as members of a tribe, and the author as the leader of that tribe. The writer’s idea is the “why,” the reason for the tribe’s existence, its raison d’être.
“When does self-promotion happen?” Grahl asks, rhetorically. “When an author is trying to build their platform without the ‘why.’” He says, “Self-promotion disappears when you focus on your ‘why’ and how you’re trying to change the world.”
A cynic might point out that this is precisely the way politicians and cult leaders see themselves. But the idea is worth considering. You write for a reason, because you feel what you have to say is important. You write because you have something you’re sure people would benefit from reading. Those people are simply members of your tribe who don’t know they belong yet.
But for writers occasionally beset with doubts and self-loathing, this advice may be of limited usefulness. Because even without the modern conflation of self and work and life, we writers put so much of ourselves into our work that promoting it almost inevitably feels like promoting ourselves. This is particularly true when we’re doing work that hasn’t been done before, that’s high-risk; when we engage in projects for which we have a vision, but for which there is no precedent. There’s no way to know if it will work, or if we’ve created some new tribe, or if, like Groucho Marx, we would even want to join a tribe that would have us as a member, let alone the leader.
Part of this doubt comes from knowing the creative process, knowing how much work it is, and how uncertain the outcome. Most of my best pieces have taken years of thinking and writing to come into focus. It seems almost like there’s a direct link between the amount of life distilled into a piece and its life in the wider world. Even as I hit Send on an e-mail to an editor with a new story, I wonder if I have put in the time, the effort, the labor, and the skill necessary for it to do what I hope it will. After twenty years of writing, after many failures, I know that even the best idea in the world will die if you don’t write it well enough. Your tribe will disband. You will depose yourself.
This fear is especially strong for me as my first book, The Geography of Madness: Penis Thieves, Voodoo Death, and the Search for the World’s Strangest Syndromes, nears publication. It is a high-risk project that challenges some of our culture’s most fundamental assumptions. It too is the culmination of years of thinking and writing and research. I had a specific vision for what I wanted it to accomplish. I did my best to write it in such a way that it will change readers’ worldviews in the same way mine has been changed. And while I don’t doubt my ideas, my conclusions, or my research, I also don’t know if I have put them together in a way that is as powerful as it needs to be. Only history and readers will be the judge of that.
Convincing yourself that you have created something brilliant and necessary for the world is the essence of marketing. But what if you’d rather wait and see? What if you want to know how it will affect people before you proclaim its brilliance? How can you be so sure you put in the necessary work before putting it out there?
And so, reluctant chieftains, where does that leave us? I have been turning this question over in my head for years and have not quite settled it. In my heart, I still believe what Doreen Baingana wrote in the introduction to her collection of stories, Tropical Fish: Tales From Entebbe (Broadway Books, 2006): “Once a writer has sent her work out into the world, it takes on a life of its own. The writer should let go.”
I picture my stories out there, swimming like fish I’ve released into the sea. Some get eaten. Some are illegally fished in Japan. And some go on to have long, strange paths through the world I never could have imagined.
To separate myself from my work like that feels right. My best stories are the ones that don’t feel entirely mine. When I read them, I’m not sure how I wrote them.
This is similar to the way I feel about my daughters: As Kahlil Gibran wrote, our children come through us, but not from us. Mine are still in grade school, but they’ve already taken on lives of their own, personalities distinct from mine, and are making their own way out to sea.
Maybe that’s the best approach, the most honest one. But it’s hard to maintain, in our state of constant self-awareness, self-conflation, and self-branding. Maybe the basic problem is that, in the end, I don’t want to be a brand. I want to be a person. I want to be a writer. And I want my stories to have readers, just as I want my children to succeed in whatever they choose to do.
And so, since I wouldn’t just kick my kids out the door and say, “Good luck!” I did finally end up sending one last e-mail to my five hundred friends. It announced the end of an era. The mass e-mail was dead. Instead, I took Grahl’s advice and signed up for a subscription e-mail service and sent that link. If people did actually want to read my stories, to be in the tribe, they could come and go as they pleased.
Some did. Many didn’t. But in the end, it felt much better than what I’d been doing before. It felt like solving a problem I’d been part of. And while I still have deeply mixed feelings about self-promotion, now I can go on nudging my stories, my books, out into the world in a way I know I must.
But I also know that in every way that really matters, they’re on their own.
Frank Bures is a contributing editor of Poets & Writers Magazine. His first book, The Geography of Madness: Penis Thieves, Voodoo Death, and the Search for the World’s Strangest Syndromes, is forthcoming from Melville House in April.