Wednesday 31 May 2023

The Author as Promoter: A How-To Guide

By Charlie Hill

I’ve always appreciated the central role that promotion plays in establishing and developing a writing career, even if this appreciation is part of a paradox. 

The first piece I wrote for publication was an account of a road trip to the southern United States. I'd flown with some friends to Orlando, hired a convertible and driven round the coast of the Gulf of Mexico - through Alabama and Mississippi - to New Orleans. It was there that, as part of a smorgasbord of non-repeatable jollity, I discovered a weed supplier operating out of a venue I couldn’t have invented if I’d tried: The Chicken Man’s Voodoo Shack.

On my return to Brum, having completed the write-up of my trip and begun the process of submitting it, my imagination leapt ahead to the period immediately following its publication. At the time I lived a shortish distance from Moseley Bog, a patch of greenery popular with young families, that some of you will know as being the inspiration for Tolkien’s Middle Earth. My plan was simple. On the day of publication, I would visit a butcher’s shop, a cathedral and then the bog. I’d find a suitable spot – not too obvious, not too well-hidden - and leave a chicken’s foot, some chicken liver and a miniature statue of the Virgin Mary. The discovery of this collection of horrifying detritus would be at first perplexing. And then, as the reality of the situation revealed itself - why, the bog is being used for voodoo rituals! – a ‘media storm’ would happily coincide with the first reviews of my locally-produced voodoo-centric masterpiece.  

It's probably for the best that my book didn’t find a publisher. And possibly for the best that by the next time I had cause to consider how best to raise my writerly profile, most promotional activity was conducted online. Fully fifteen years after the callous indifference of the publishing industry had spared the world my offal-related nonsense, I finally published my first book. And then set about promoting it in a more traditional manner. 

By this time, Twitter was most successful industry marketing tool. The site was so popular, however, and so full of people tooting their own horn, that I decided the only way to stand out was to undersell myself. To subvert the shrill ‘look-at-me’ desperation of the hoi polloi, and prove instead my credentials as a writer and commentator of considerable gravitas. Not to try to grow my own following but to establish relationships with ‘influencers’ by hitting them with a stream of such irresistible literary allusion they would greet each new exchange by nodding sagely and plugging my latest book.

Mercifully, there appears to be no remaining trace of what I sent to Claire Armitstead, then Books Editor of the Guardian, shortly after I’d opened my Twitter account. She’d made a passing comment about The Great Gatsby and I’d responded with a comment about shirts. An understated comment about shirts. An understated and, it must be said, utterly, embarrassingly baffling comment about shirts. Now as anyone who is over-familiar with The Great Gatsby would doubtless tell you, there is a line in it (from the top of my head it's on page 127 of the 1976 Penguin edition) about Jay Gatsby’s wardrobe. But even so. I wasn’t on Twitter for long.

I’m a fast learner though, and my next foray onto the shaded, shivery uplands of social media was more direct. I became the Facebook friend of a much-lauded writer, and set about establishing a mutually beneficial relationship. At first it went well. I liked some of his posts, he invited me to a festival he ran, and I tapped him for an endorsement. The latter wasn’t forthcoming (he didn’t like the thing) but still; my promotional activities were showing some much-needed signs of progress. Then things took a turn.

The fella posted enthusiastically about a soon-to-be published novel by a Booker Prize-winning author. A post which I, true to my credentials as a writer and commentator of considerable gravitas, judged to be ‘gushing’ and representative of ‘all that is wrong with publishing today.’ The result of this interaction was a summary unfriending and, I presume, several subsequent non-invitations to festivals run by his real friends.  

Chastened by my experience of electronic interaction, I decided on a more direct approach still to the business of literary networking and promotion. Not only that, but I lowered my sights from the great and the good to those who, like me, might consider themselves ‘misunderstood.’ It was from these relationships – defined as they were less by circumstance than shared experience – that I imagined a more genuine camaraderie would develop, and from that, more sales. 

I began a correspondence with a writer from Manchester. Like me, he was wary of promotional efforts that were lacking in integrity (even if, unlike me, he hadn’t arrived at this perspective after spending a decade trying to make them work). We got on. He agreed to review a book of mine and I went to see him at an event. To emphasise the honesty of our connection, I sat at the front and concentrated on making meaningful eye contact throughout his reading. I was sure this was a good idea right up until I saw his review, the opening line of which was ‘I know Charlie Hill ... He once stared at me through the entirety of a reading I gave at Waterstone’s in Birmingham.’

By now, you will have identified the paradox I mentioned at the top of this piece. It is, of course, that although I appreciate the role that promotion plays in the writing life, I am pathologically unsuited to doing anything about it that might have any material value. Oh well. I am further aware that I must persevere. Does anyone know anything about Substack? 

About the author
Charlie Hill is a writer from Birmingham. Despite his unceasingly hopeless promotional efforts, his work has been compared by his peers to Georges Perec, Kafka and Samuel Beckett. His latest book is a collection of short stories called The State of Us.

1 comment:

  1. Thats a wonderful article. I'm at a point of desperately needing to self-promote but not knowing how. Being Autistic I find social converse of any kind difficult talking about myself brings on selective mutism (alas nothing selective about it).
    Why your blog gives no answers, It does tell me what NOT to do and reafirms that I am not alone.