To Market, To Market?

Help me out, everyone. Comments this time will be useful.

I wrestle sometimes with my own nature, and the changing nature of the book world and our culture as a whole. As I have said before, the pressure on writers (especially younger ones, but not only) to do more than ‘just’ write their books is more and more obviously undermining people I know. Add this to expectations of speed in delivery of books, and the home run or strike out mentality of the industry, and it is too easy to see some sad, stressed author behaviour (sad for me, at any rate).

But that ‘sad for me’ is the point of this post. I may just be out of step. I don’t think so, obviously, or I’d be acting differently, but I have friends and colleagues making a case regarding authors and readers and the need to use, to mobilize, one’s reader base. I called this the ‘Release the Fans’ idea in a newspaper op-ed a while back. I just don’t think of readers as there to be mobilized, but that’s the issue.

This all came up again in discussions over the last ten days or so. CBC in Canada ran an book awards competition called the Bookies, across many categories. Voting was online. River of Stars was nominated in one category, with the immensely distinguished Margaret Atwood as the favourite.

I didn’t post anything about it here on the journal while the voting was open, or allow (or request) the Bright Weavings team on Facebook or the main website to alert that the competition was even on. I did a generic tweet about the entire multi-category event, and another at the very end expressing (real) pleasure at being runner-up to Atwood’s Maddadam.

But I didn’t want to campaign. I never want to campaign. And I am now being told by culture-astute and web-savvy friends and professional colleagues that this is because I misunderstand the real nature of what is going on. So I want to open it up for discussion.

The shrewdest one lecturing me, probably (an unfairly sharp cousin), says I am over-focused on these things in terms of the legitimacy of the award. In other words, I don’t want to turn winning or losing into who cajoles most or loudest, or who has the most fame or Twitter/FB followers (this happens for other awards too, of course). I am, she says, too hung up on the ‘legitimacy’ issue.

Her take is that these awards are never going to truly be about the ‘best’. That the Oscars, say, have long had aggressive ‘for your consideration’ campaigning. (All thanks to Harvey Weinstein? I think it pre-dates him but he made it a modus operandi.) These popular vote awards are about empowering readers to be more than merely passive enjoyers of a given writer (or writers), she argues. They let readers participate, fight, lobby, engage, be active. She tells me I am denying my readers the chance to do that by staying quiet when the votes come up.

And there are writers I respect who obviously agree. They treat the Bookies (and others) as a game of sorts – though some think of them as mattering more than they do, I suspect. They rally their online forces, spread the word often … do the ’empowering’ thing, if that is what it is.

It therefore becomes, some are urging me, about the new age of active consumers of any art. Passive enjoyment is old school. This is an age of real time tweeting of a television show (building community), of Kickstarter campaigns to revive cancelled favourites (why does the network get to decide?), or even, on the very dark side, aggressive online threats to actresses (usually actresses, alas) who are disliked. I’ve written an essay about how this level of consumer activism can’t help but shape the art produced when the work is ongoing and the feedback is continuous and urgent. (I’m not saying this is automatically ‘for the worse’ but I’m noting the process.)

I have argued before, perhaps quixotically, for the value of some distance between writer and work, writer and reader, preserving a space where the reaction to the books (in this case) is not bundled with a reaction or ‘relationship’ with the writer.

Let me digress, but it isn’t really a digression (just looks like one!).

When I was young, first reading and writing and studying poetry, Robert Frost was seen by most of us as safe, bland, boring, the whole crusty New England thing was uncool. It took the outstanding critic Randall Jarrell, with two superb essays on Frost’s brilliance to change my mind (and I’ve tried to be an advocate ever since). But something else happened when I was still young, and it had to do with the man, not the work.

A three volume biography came out on Frost and it pretty much savaged him, left him in the dumpster. Frost was an evil, odious, selfish, vain, unfeeling near-monster. This biography stamped him in the minds of my generation (those who cared). It was long, long afterwards that we learned that this biographer had had a huge, compromising, personal agenda, a reason for vilifying his subject. But when a far better, balanced, biography came out it made very few waves: the image was set too hard, even among those who knew or should have known better. (Joyce Carol Oates wrote a recent story using Evil Frost as a character and I admit I was disappointed. To be fair, she now says, apparently, she was ‘commenting’ on the phenomenon, not endorsing it.)

The good news is, just this month the first volume of Frost’s Letters has appeared and reviews seem to be (finally!) working to correct the entrenched maligning view of the man and poet. I’ve seen several pieces to this effect in the last few days.

My point here (see, it wasn’t a digression) is that focusing on the artist, accurately or otherwise, can lead us to lose or devalue – or overvalue, in other cases – the work. This, as I have said here before, is part of my ambivalence about social media.

It is possible I am just out of synch in this. On the other hand, I have (this post is evidence!) spent years crossing towards the new online world order, sharing tour information, industry norms, and very personal reflections with readers (and non-readers, in theory) here, through Bright Weavings or its Facebook page, and more recently on Twitter. If I’m hiding, I’m not doing it very well.

But I still wonder about the Darwinian analysis of the process today. It is being argued that only those who ‘get’ the new system, who plug in all the way, campaign, lobby, hit book clubs non-stop, pop onto each others’ blogs, make deals or promises to vote for each other,  essentially looking to create a readership (or fanbase, but I prefer to speak of readers, not fans) in order to leverage it … these are the writers who will succeed.


Leaving aside  issues of excellence (another essay, maybe?) I’d argue, that this take on things may leave open what ‘success’ is in the larger scheme of art and life.

If people are driven to exhaustion, are made deeply stressed and anxious, feel fearful if they don’t have a good blog idea for a given day, or a witty tweet lined up (or are afraid their latest tweet will elicit hate), if all this subverts their writing, who has won? Do readers win if a liked writer hurries a weaker book out? Do we care about quality or about connecting? Is there a role for grace or restraint? Are we always served by more intimacy – or (very often) the illusion of it?

I’m not sure. That’s why I’m throwing out these questions. They are real ones, not rhetorical. I’m interested in the answers. And thanks.









16 thoughts on “To Market, To Market?

  1. Hi–I recently realized that, when Dick Francis died (or quit writing after his wife died), you became the contemporary author I’ve been reading the longest (some time in late 80s I got Darkest Road in a book shipment). That is, long-time fan. I also read Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale at that same time, and abandoned her subsequent works after a few tries. Never liked Oates. Never thought Frost anything less than brilliant and wasn’t even aware of the fuss.

    I think you should continue the process you’ve started. Don’t force it, but don’t be shy. I don’t think it’s true that promotion matters over quality–at least, not often enough to make me despair–but promotion never hurt.

    Remember, too, that the new social media world makes it more possible for your readers to have access to you, and their excitement and enjoyment of that fact leads others to explore your work.

    Certainly, you should put your writing first. Don’t get stressed out. Figure out a portion of time that makes sense to put in promotion, increase that time as it feels appropriate, and make it fun and authentic. Remember, you’ve *already* done something incredibly difficult–maintained a writing career for 30 years or more in a dramatically changing market. Don’t forget that your own instincts are obviously pretty good, and that you can trust them.

    One more thing: I will be chuffed all day because I wrote a comment and gave advice to one of my favorite writers. I imagine anyone else who posts will feel similarly.

  2. There are writers who are very successful, critically and commercially, who share almost nothing of themselves online (in genre, Neal Stephenson comes to mind), and there is no advantage to anyone — writer or audience — if a writer begrudgingly interacts with an audience (or campaigns for awards).

    So while being garrulous and out there is a strategy that works for some authors (hi there!), for others it doesn’t. If it doesn’t work for you, there are other ways to deal with the attention/awards puzzle, more suitable to your own inclinations.

    Basically, don’t let anyone tell you that you “have to” do anything (other than write books. Keep doing that). Do what you’re comfortable with. In the end, the work is what matters, and I really do believe *good* work matters, more than “audience-writer relationships”.

  3. Hi John. By now I’m too stubborn to shift much! I was more interested in the thesis that I am misunderstanding the inherent nature of these votes. The empowered consumer/reader, the exercise NOT about really assessing excellence. I dislike that aspect, but it fits with much else in the culture, as I said above.

  4. This seems like a very different question for writers who have made their name than for writers who have not. Or at least the pragmatism of the “go social” advice varies according to where a writer is in their career. Unknowns really do need to become knowns, cultivating an audience, if they are going to have the opportunity to keep writing books (let alone [eventually] earn a living). But known writers are playing a more dangerous game: growing an existing audience in a way that could threaten or disrupt an already productive art practice. I feel very strongly that established authors need to be vigilant about this – one of the useful luxuries of success (even if measured simply by economic independence) is to be able to clear away the impinging bullshit. Yes, you can always be more famous. Yes, you can always acquire more fame, dollars, or awards. But truly the greatest gift you have received is to be entitled to dismiss some of the distractions and just do your work. Because once you have enough money to pay for what you need, it’s simply the work, the good work, and a certain serenity of mind that brings happiness over the longterm. And all those other things – the extra followers, the Bookies, the fortunes – are actually inferior. Bit it’s so easy to be tricked by the mirage.

    If you don’t yet have that financial independence, I think it’s a different question. If the goal is simply to be able to do good work, then we must be pragmatic. We must participate in the side-shows that will, hopefully, help us get there. We dance and sing. We tweet and cajole. But what we dream of is being able to step away – to make noise over wires & screens when we want to make noise, when there is something worth making noise about, but not to make noise simply because we have noisemakers + a willing, waiting mob.

    If the Bookies matter to you, then of course, why not, call out to your kindred & friends. But if they don’t matter to you, please don’t question the not-mattering! From second to second we must hold on to whatever serenity we can find.

  5. Dear Mr Kay. No prize makes me prize you more, no appearance could make me love your work better. A Nobel wouldn’t do it, so no bookie could. If they help someone find you, that’s great but aside from maybe prize money, (where there is some), what other use are they?
    I found you by looking for a book read by Simon Vance. Fine reader. I have been reading you since Tigana and have read both Tigana and Under Heaven ( my favorites), many many times.
    I believe that you should do only as much as you are comfortable doing and not a step more. And most of all do nothing that stops the writing process. We are all out here waiting, waiting, waiting.

  6. Sean, this is thoughtful. Thank you.

    Truth is, I am mostly worried about the stress on younger ‘not there yet’ writers, as I hope came through. The agent/editor push to be out there steadily added to the same push to do a book a year creates a very strange climate. As a consumer of writing, my selfish regret is when people I think can do quality work do fast work.

    This isn’t, by the way, a genre-specific discussion. On the ‘lit fic’ side the urgency of awards is far greater, in fact. A book like THE LUMINARIES was likely to stay invisible, absent a Booker Prize. The brilliant HARVEST, by Jim Crace IS essentially invisible, because it did NOT win that Booker.

    So I agree with you, and have written this many times: the luxury I have been given by my readers is time. All the arts are strewn with those needing a day job, either at the start (as I did), or throughout. Consider poets and short story writers. Experimental filmmakers. You all know what I mean.

    My question (and I think it was you who tweeted it) was how do any of us gain when the climate causes younger writers to feel that desperate need to dance as fast as they can OUTSIDE the work? The related question becomes: how much does that dancing actually help, in almost all cases? Pointing to an outlier example is much like pointing to a lottery winner, seems to me.

    Vigilance as to time to work, and focus seems to me to be an issue for every artist. The caveat is (and it needs an essay) that there is a wide continuum as to the nature of artists’ ambitions. Get in print, for some. (Prove my Grade 12 teacher wrong!) Make a living (hard!), for others. Chase Tolstoy, for a few.

    I’m going to dissent on only one thing: your last note. If the Bookies or any award are to matter (to me), it will be because they do NOT turn on who calls out their readership base most aggressively. That was my position going in to the essay above. The framing challenge I received from some (which led to this whole discussion) is that they matter for an entirely different reason: they mobilize an abstract ‘love of books’ and specific reader activity, they take readers away from passive consuming and make them ‘players’ on behalf of ‘their’ author. Whether this is a good thing is part of what I’m querying.

  7. Very well written replies before mine cover a lot of well thought out ground.

    I will offer up the on the idea of the Bookies.

    If it is an award that “eminent people in their field” get nominated for rather than “who sold the most widget” type of award then you owe it to your fans to acknowledge that achievement. It is something good to be chosen for a list of outstanding artists in the field. So I would disagree that you should not have posted a short note on “River of Stars was nominated for a Bookie, thank you very much for the honor” and leave it at that.

    I do not think it is in your nature to flog the publicity machine for floggings sake. I also do not think that the ‘let loose the fans’ is the proper way to judge the winner of what becomes a simple popularity contest. I would not expect you to exhort me to go vote early and often. If I chose to do that on my own all well and good. But fans should at least know that there is a nod of appreciation from your peers that your work is considered for an award.

    I think going forward sites like Patreon or Kickstarter will allow young new artists to be able to at least partially fun their activities until they find out for themselves if they really do want to put themselves out there for the world to see.


  8. If the question is whether the current culture is positive because it empowers and enables readers to be active, or negative because some distance is useful to artist and art both then…well, then I don’t think a yes or no answer is possible.

    To be clear, I’m not suggesting the conversation over these issues isn’t useful and worth exploring. Rather, I’d say that both views are true. And not in a relative “there is no truth” sort of way, but in that each side is showing different facets of the issue.

    The benefits that readers (and some writers) can derive from the current culture are real, and the arguments your unfairly-sharp-cousin made ring true. But so too are your reservations and worries over the issues it can cause for writers (and some readers).

    There now, that’s a nice gray unhelpful answer!

  9. It is such a fascinating subject because although the changes in culture have been evolving for some time it is only in the last ten years or so the effect has become a problem – or opportunity – for writers and indeed readers.

    As someone who does not tweet, uses FB only occasionally, and (due to the lousy connectivity in my area), frequently cannot satisfactorily get online to log into brightweavings, I feel somewhat disenfranchised. And there are quite a few of us. For us the old order prevails. We like to assume the awards are made on merit and the supposedly experienced and knowledgeable judges are not influenced by any outside pressure. Our local voluntary library goes out and buys the Booker shortlist so people can read them all and make their own judgement. The book is the thing discussed and pondered over. Locally we have several active bookclubs; people choosing a title and then getting together to talk about it. I don’t think it would occur to any of us to expect the author to indulge us in any way. ( We would go all gooey and groupy-like if they did!) However I know I, and people like me, are hanging on to a disappearing way of doing things.

    There isn’t a better or worse; just different. (** qualified below!) I love the thrill of discovering a new writer. It could be recommendation from a friend, a lucky find in a bookshop or library, or an interesting review in a newspaper or magazine that gets me started. For others it could be a tweet, a plea to vote for something or indeed an ad. produced by the publisher. All these are good if they lead us to new works of fiction, poetry or non-fiction; counterproductive if they keep us so busy “keeping up” with our tweets, votes and comments on FB and similar, we stop pausing to work out what we really think about the book in question.

    My concern about the new order is that the Book is sidelined and the Author becomes the sole focus of interest. This is too great a burden to place on any author whether young or experienced and does not end up in the production of better books. I know you are not talking about yourself Guy and I have always felt your approach is well balanced and proportionate but it is wrong first time writers should feel stressed and pressurised into doing what old-fashioned biddies like me think is the publisher’s job.

  10. I have started and discarded many comments – and I think I will come to this as my answer. Why do you write? For each writer there are probably many reasons. I would think the honest answer to that question will inform the answer to all the other questions you have posed. For some writers, the “non-writing” activities help them achieve their goals for writing and they do them happily and with authenticity. For some, they don’t. Should they worry about it if they don’t? Perhaps. Perhaps not. I think that may depend on who their reader is.

    That makes the next question why do we read? What do we get out of it? What we get out of reading probably dictates as to what we read and how we want to interact with the author. If I feel no deep connection to the work, a relationship with the author may sell the next book to me. Or it may not. Knowing that I helped a book to win a prize, or that my neighbour loved it too may sell it to me. Or it may not. I am guessing if you are writing McLit though, you had better be selling more than just a book. I also guess those authors know that is part of the game.

    But. For those rare authors that can create a book that lives, when the stories and characters are real, when the words or a particular phrase stay with the reader for years, when it makes you laugh out loud and weep in despair, the author is secondary to the work. Would I like to know the author? Yes. There is always a desire to connect with someone that has created something so powerful it shapes the person I have become. Do I need to? No. I don’t need a relationship with that person; I have a relationship with their work. And while I have no experience with writing, I would imagine the reverse feelings may be true for the authors of those works. Their primary relationship is with their own work, not with the fans that read it.

    Inherent in the questions you asked is the assumption that all writers are artists and are similarly concerned with questions on the nature of art, the role of the artist, pressures of society to dictate to art, etc. And I will be the the one to stand here and say, in the way of the times; They. Are. Not. This is not a judgement on the their choices, and it doesn’t make their work less valuable. It is simply different. The purpose for consuming it is different. I would venture to guess the purpose for creating it is different as well.

    Is there pressure to encourage readers to be active in their consumption, to get them to throw their weight behind their team? I am sure there is. The same pressures exist in all jobs in today’s society, just packaged a little differently. For those who approach writing as a job, they will probably succumb to the pressure. For those who approach it as a vocation? They will set their own rules and be just fine.

  11. I am stuck in the same mud as you, Mr. Kay. I own and have read all of your books because I enjoy them immensely. It does not occur to me that, in return, I am entitled to a personal connection with you. For my part, I have little enough time to properly attend to relationships with people who are actually in my life. Selfishly, I’d be happiest if you were doing nothing but writing another book for me to read. One of the reasons I loved Tigana is because I didn’t see it coming. A book of new ideas from a strange mind made a much greater impact than it would have had I been reading teaser passages, blog posts with spoilers, fan speculation, and author diaries. I appreciate much about the old order. I do wonder, though, in today’s environment, whether the book would have existed for me to read, or how I would have found it without a bookshelf to browse. How can truly original writing survive if, as you point out, authors must submit themselves to a continuous fan feedback loop?

  12. I have to agree with BOB here, I think. I don’t believe anyone would ever mistake you for someone who would recruit an army of voters to make sure that you win a prize. But I do think that publicity and media being what it is now, pointing your fans in the direction of the is perfectly acceptable and even desired by your target audience. I contributed to the Kickstarter campaign that you reference, and have watched the backers mobilize and win a few online popularity contests. What that has done was successfully draw new viewers, making future expansion of the series possible. For authors, I imagine it helps to guarantee future sales. We as a fan base want the things we love to continue. If that happens to be your continued success, then we should be allowed to signal that to the people who make those decisions. In today’s world, that means letting us know such things are going on.

  13. Reading through this post, and the comments so far, the first thing that came into and stuck in my mind was an anecdote you shared on BW some years ago.

    It was (I think) around the time that the Tapestry was being published that you had the opportunity to be invited graciously into the home of Dorothy Dunnett. One of the comments from that anecdote that has always stuck with me was you saying something along the lines of (paraphrasing), ‘She taught me, during that visit, how to interact with fans.’ She had, no doubt, a grace and dignity that would have been impossible to miss. (Elizabeth would invariably call it her ‘gravitas’.) It is this similar sense of choosing how to comport yourself that has flavoured whatever brief interactions I’ve enjoyed with you over the last decade or so.

    The promotions game has changed hugely in the almost-30 years since that time. (If my recollection is correct.) Social media being what it is, it would seem like a waste not to use it to promote one’s work. Also, being an artist, a fella can choose to use it to promote oneself. Therein lies part of the dilemma (if it even is one) of how to comport yourself. There’s a huge difference between: “Here’s a link to these Bookies awards, and I have the distinct pleasure of having been nominated.” — and — “Yo bitches! BOOKIES! Like! Share! Retweet! Get your friends out there to VOTE!!!!111”

    How anyone portrays themselves in social media is a matter of personal choice, and I’d be hard pressed to commit to saying there is a right or wrong way to go about it. But I do think promotions and sharing of information ought to be more conscious and calculated, with an eye to how one *wants* to be perceived, and — more importantly, I think, in this case — how much separation the artist wants to keep between art and artist. (I want to know about your work, appearances, awards, etc. Not what your cats are doing or what you had for breakfast.)

    A very active and ‘out there’ online presence really seems to have worked for John Scalzi (above) and, say, Neil Gaiman. Many others. A similar sort of approach wouldn’t seem quite like GGK. Another line of thinking is how much *should* an artist’s work be coloured (tainted?) by an excess of personal information? (**cough** Orson Scott Card **cough** Woody Allen **cough**)

    There is a vast grey area between a low-key “For Your Consideration,” and, “Release the Fans!” A satisfactory sort of legitimacy must lie somewhere in there.

  14. For such an enlightened age, the level of comfort with mediocrity that pervades … prompting discussions such as the above is worrying.

    Ye olde ‘It’s not WHAT but WHO’ has been around forever, but social media has magnified it, crystalised it … made it intrinsic even to the things/people we ‘know’ and how we know them.

    Mr. Kay, you have used Awards as a keystone, not for the first time. The inaugural ‘Bookies’ ( I keep looking for a chalkboard, with some hastily scribbled smears), and the Oscars. One is a new popularity contest where your work spoke loudly enough to get you to within a daylight second place behind a long established Titan like Attwood.

    The other is a ‘closed book’, restricted to Academy voters, who we are learning – through various outlets, social media among them – have been less than diligent in executing their responsibilities comprehensively, in order to select a winner.

    Once again, they have devolved from the purity of WHAT, to the adulterated content that is WHO. All for the sake of retaining a feeling of relevance, despite not doing the job that is ostensibly theirs as well as it should be done.

    And that is the 30 foot anaconda, with razor sharp teeth, the publishing industry, along with other artistic endeavours/pursuits must wrestle with. The all-pervasive availability of information, combined with the rationalisation of traditional mechanisms of control, has induced fear and risk management in a quest for connected mediocrity.

    It’s a way to move forward, justify one’s actions on the margins of success … but is that truly what art of any sort should be reduced to?

    A lack of ingenuity combined with a metronomic insistence of ‘activity’, in terms of distribution, has opened the trapdoor beneath the feet of quality production, allowing executives to keep their jobs, while hindering the artist from finding their best work.

    Art was ever the last bastion of beautiful inefficiency … especially in method. The advent of social media has accelerated the removal, or more accurately, the marginalisation of the uniquely creative, in favour of the productively prolific, present & posting, performing seal.

    That is what worries me. ‘WHO are you ?’ no longer complements, but instead overwhelms the ‘WHAT have you got for me?’ Given that books have the ability to create space, and good books, more than that, I fear we are losing the capacity for perspective a masterpiece can endow.

    Now don’t get me wrong. The choice exists, especially for established performers, but for the new recruits, the fresh blood Mr. Kay worries about, it is a compromised one … less about invigorating the creative flow torrentially, and rather more about maintaining a toehold while your bosses are too afraid to attempt a ‘fist-jam’ as a first step to a higher plane of existence.

    ‘We’re here now, just keep telling everybody that, over & over and overwhelming them to buy, the ever diminishing returns we have to sell.’

    A pity that the above now seems to be the rule.


  15. To answer one of your queries directly, I care about quality. I am concerned, however, about the potential influence of ambition for recognition of self (as different from work), and willingness to engage via social media and other means with readers, on the availability of excellent books. The willingness and capacity to engage with readers should not affect the review of a writer’s work to determine its worthiness for either publication or award. I am, like others here, most likely to read a new author’s work, because of a friend’s recommendation. Since I do not engage in the social media, this being a first time post with the exception of feedback on a wooden puzzle to Amazon, I am likely increasingly in the minority. Might the increasing ease of self-publication mitigate the damage to the availability of good books caused by rejection? Is there space for writer-editor collaboration for future monetary gain in the absence of a publisher?

    With regard to quality and rushing to publish – I recently missed a couple of report deadlines explaining to the client that the research quality would be compromised by rushing to meet the deadline due to problems that arose with translation and transcription. I was relieved by the extension, though the last weeks were still harried. I work with what is largely known, however, and have no experience with writing fiction. I cannot imagine what it is like to write to a deadline when relying on skills I lack. Does negotiating deadlines become easier over time and presumably with increasing sales?

    In peace,

    • Diana, Thanks for the note. In general, the worst pressures to deliver quickly fall on younger writers, sometimes due to unrealistic expectations of themselves, sometimes due to publishers believing that ‘a book a year’ is needed to launch a new name. When you add, for these young writers, the parallel pressure to be their own marketing directors (so to speak) it can get truly fraught. Nor is it alleviated in self publishing as they they are literally their own marketing team. In brief, yes, it can get easier to set up realistic schedules over time since you know your own rhythms, and your readers and publishers come to know them, as well.

      Caring about quality is a tricky subject today, even if it shouldn’t be, as it can lead some to allege ‘elitism’…

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