Birth of a Salesman? The Author as Willy Lowman

monkeybeachThis week, I seem to be stuck on a “what sells?” train of thought. Yesterday, it was about covers; today, it’s authors.

Every reader, or lover of art, has had moments where they have pedestalized (not a word) their favourite artist. The best artists can make you think and feel more profoundly and give you the most incredible introduction to beauty and to the important things in life. Of course the person who can do this must be incredible; you would love to have a coffee/beer/whisky/shag with this person if you ever met them. That’s just a given. You excitedly listen to an interview, go to a reading, follow them on twitter etc. And then you start to see who they really are…not always a good thing.

This post was inspired by Reading in Bed’s blog about book trailers. Do they work to promote books, or are they most often just badly produced hooey that bores/upsets you. One of RIB’s biggest turn offs was Jonathan Franzen’s talking about how he doesn’t enjoy book trailers or promoting his books online. RIB is quite right in stating that no professional video should ever start with the word “umm.”. This got me thinking about whether authors should really be asked to sell their books at all.

It’s tough,and I’m sympathetic, as I believe writers are being expected to market their own work now more than ever. In order to really sell a book, you’ve got to be traveling everywhere, and putting yourself out there on the interwebs, and flogging the poop out of both the book and yourself. However, the percentage of socially awkward writers is just as high as in “regular” people. Not everyone is charming in large groups, not everyone films well, not everyone can come up with witty anecdotes off the top of their head, and certainly not everyone wants to share their personal lives on twitter in order to sell their books.

There are degrees of ability to sell your personality as well as your books Some authors are great salesmen (Neil Gaiman), they have more to offer in the cult of personality. Some authors are somewhat socially awkward, but in an endearingly sweet way that makes you love them even more (Guy Gavriel Kay). Some authors just have a way about them that makes you want to read their books, though you never had an interest in them before. I’m having that experience listening to interviews with Eden Robinson. Every interview she does makes me want to read her books and have a good long chat with her about the world.  Who knows if I’ll love her books, but she sold me. While not quite in Robinson territory, Annabel Lyons also impressed me with her oratory skills and made me pick up her book. And then, I listened to an interview with Rawi Hage. Let it first be said that he is, by all accounts, a great author. However, while listening to his interviews, I cannot seem to stop myself from repeating the words “condescending” and “self-important” in my head. Sometimes out loud.

That’s a personal reaction, though. As a human being who naturally reacts to and interacts with other human beings, I sometimes find it difficult to separate the art from the artist, but I’ll try harder. I suppose what I found frustrating, and more relevant to the point here, is that Hage seemed to find answering questions, being interviewed in general, to be beneath him, whereas Lyons and Robinson were happy to engage in this self-promotional part of their job. My negative reaction had something to do with Hage’s degree of willingness to do this part of his job, which seemed to be resting at zero. And perhaps that’s where my point lies, that some authors might never be good at the self-promotional aspects of their job, but they should at least be willing to try to do it.

I don’t think it’s even possible to remove the author from the equation anymore and just let the work stand for itself so that no one has to see the author stand badly for him/herself. I think in this day and age, you kind of have to suck it up and try to create a decent image for yourself. If you make it as a writer, be grateful and consider this self-promotion to be a new part of the job and try to embrace it.  And, if nothing else, please don’t pull a Whiny Franzen.

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3 Responses to Birth of a Salesman? The Author as Willy Lowman

  1. lauratfrey says:

    Great use of CanLit examples!

    This reminds me of Rick’s post about separating the art from the artist ( which I do. Hence I will read Franzen even though he seems like an insufferable douche.

    Lots of those “good” book trailers don’t feature the author at all. I think the author can (and sometimes really really should) stay in the background.

  2. lauratfrey says:

    Oh! I thought of the reverse to my Franzen dilemma – I love Jennifer Weiner’s public persona but I find her writing forgettable. So in that case, I follow her on Twitter but don’t read the books – probably not what she’s hoping for 🙂

  3. writereads says:

    I completely agree that there IS a separation between the art and the artist, but it is sometimes impossible to actually separate them, much as one might try. Especially if you “meet” the author before you read the books.
    I, too, have been led astray by a charming writer who can’t write 🙂
    Being charming and being a good writer are two different skill sets, and as Sarah (one of our readers) says, one can only hope that the publishers are trying to help authors navigate this new skill set. But I think in this day and age, you need to, at the very least, remain civil to your audience and accept that presenting yourself well (or, at least, humorously) is a part of this job now.

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