Sunday, 20 June 2010

Blowing your own vuvuzela

How obnoxious should an author be? How loud should we shout about our successes, good reviews, foreign publishing deals? Does self-promotion make us look like big-headed show-offs, or needy and desperate? And which platforms are appropriate for what kind of promotion? Sometimes one feels like this vuvuzela-blasting man in New York, loud, irritating and embarrassing, trying to wake up an oblivious world.

This is something I’ve debated on and off with quite a few children’s authors. Some take a hard line and resist saying anything that could be construed as boasting. Others feel that Facebook, say, is there for the sharing of good news however big-headed it makes one look. One author I talked to this week resists social networking altogether, because she’s so careful of her public statements.

Author Ellen Renner shared this dilemma in a Facebook post this week, in which she apologised for accidentally posting twice about her book Castle of Shadows being included in The Independent’s list of great summer reads. ‘I don’t want to irritate the heck out of people,’ she said. Lots of friends hurried to assure her that this was nothing to worry about. She shouldn’t be humble about celebrating her successes.

Ellen summed up the author’s dilemma beautifully when she wrote: ‘I have to think I’m damned good, or I’d give up.’ And it’s true. Self-belief is important, and it’s so hard to hang onto and when something good comes along to reinforce it, then why not share it?

Of course many authors read FB posts like this with very mixed feelings. On the one hand: Hurray! Ellen’s book is indeed a fabulous read, an atmospheric dystopian tale of politics and intrigue in which a feisty young princess takes on a sinister Prime Minister. Everyone should read it over the summer, not just Independent readers.

On the other hand: Hmmmph. Where’s my book on this list? In the anxiety of life as a debut author, it’s easy to let envy sour one’s appreciation of other authors’ success. Being published can feel like the worst type of sibling rivalry - we’re all clamouring for the attention of a seemingly indifferent public, we all want goodies like awards and Hollywood deals.

The best way to deal with this kind of feeling is to knock it on the head firmly by acknowledging and celebrating the excellence of other people’s work. Like the vuvuzela man in the video, we should celebrate everything we can. Just because Ellen’s book is wonderful doesn’t mean that mine is not. Just because Candy Gourlay’s marvellous Tall Story is reviewed in today’s Sunday Times (‘'A feel-good tale...this novel brings magic to a down-home story of earthquakes and sibling love.') it doesn’t mean that any fewer readers will read my book. I cannot possibly have written the only good book in the world, and I wouldn’t want the book market to consist only of my output. Blow the vuvuzela for Ellen! Make loads of noise for Candy!

Children’s authors are all together in the business of encouraging a love of reading among young people. There’s just no point in resenting others - even those like Stephenie Meyer who have sold gazillions of copies. I’ve come across quite a few readers recently who’ve told me how Twilight turned them into keen readers…a path which eventually led them to When I Was Joe. So, a hearty blast of the vuvuzela for Stephenie too.

I’ve always taken the view that social networking is a great way to raise one’s profile, because it is free. Some books have huge marketing budgets to help them into bookshop windows or onto supermarket shelves, or Waterstone’s 3 for 2 table. Mine does not. So if there’s anything I can do to help, I do it.

I have developed my own protocol. On this blog I share news about my books, but try not to let it overwhelm the wider content. Reviews get added to the permanent page at the top of the blog, with no special fanfare.

Facebook – on my personal profile I try my best not to be too self-promotional. I see Facebook as being like a gigantic office, packed with colleagues some of whom are close friends, others silent and unknown as Mike from Accounts. Unrestrained boasting is inappropriate and will do nothing but make one unpopular.

I have, however, set up a Facebook page for the book(s) and that is an unashamedly self-promotional place for reviews and good news. I hope that people are not irritated when I post a review - but they can always ‘un-like’ the page.

Twitter is more of a marketplace. You can post good reviews and self-promoting news, but you need to mix it in with a lot of other stuff too - including promoting other people and celebrating their successes. Saying funny things about X Factor or the England football team is more likely to get you noticed than shouting about a great review on the Waterstones website (Oh well…if you insist…here).
So, do I get it right? Should I be more upfront? Am I too brash and obnoxious? How irritating is it when I blow my own vuvuzela?



  1. Keren, this is a great blog and totally heartfelt. From my perspective you have definitely got it write(sic). Ness Harbour

  2. Great post, Keren, and you hit the spot when you asked 'Does self-promotion make us look like big-headed show-offs, or needy and desperate?'

    It is difficult to see others doing well and wonder if your own book has sunk like a stone to the bottom of a murky lake, but I find the world or children's writers is a very supportive one.

    There is nothing better than hearing about and reading great new books and being able to talk about them as well as your own when doing school visits.

    But there are so many good books coming out that it is difficult to keep up them and still have time to write, do author visits and have some kind of family life!

  3. Great post, Keren, I think it's always difficult for anyone to market themselves. We are raised to respect the concept of humility not self-praise. But the world has changed and marketing departments spend their money more cautiously and so, as you've found, you have no choice but to market yourself. I think the difficult thing for any author, artist (in fact anyone doing self marketing) is to see themselves as a brand and their books as products. It's incredibly difficult to shift the self out of the picture and to focus on what needs to be done (and this swings both ways, over-zealousness to too much caution and humility). It's about finding the balance and in finding the balance the best approach I think one can take is from the lessons of customer relationship management ie getting a sense of what people want from you - aside from your books. How much do they want to know, what do they want to know, where do they want to find that information, how do you balance the information your provide and on which platforms. I think a good way to look at how you approach it is to see what celebrities do and consider what you'd like to know about your favourite celebrity (if you have one) and then model your own platform that way.
    And finally, the very best form of marketing is word of mouth - so it comes down to writing the best book you can and letting the power of that sell the book for you.

  4. This is a great post, Keren. I'm fairly firmly in the non-vevuzula camp, and rarely even announce publication of my books on Balaclava. I don't usually remember to on FB or twitter, either. Although I don't consciously agree with the silent modest approach my mother pushed, I think it's rather ingrained and I don't like to do an vuvuzula-blowing. I don't mind other people announcing their successes - it's pleasing and I know to congratulate them. But I *hate* people who go on and on with self-promotion and soon drop communication with them. It's a matter of the right balance, as in everything. Someone who congratulates others genuinely can get away with more self-promotion when they have something to celebrate.

  5. you don't come across as boastful - if it hadn't been for vuvu-ing I would never have bought Joe (but I'm v. glad I did and am now looking forward to almost true!) So there.

    ps - the new website looks lovely and

  6. I feel a similar conflict over self promotion, but not so much that I won't insert a sneaky link to my own blog post on the subject here:

    While it's a little different now I've got a book out for submission, a few months ago as an unpublished writer, I didn't have any product to sell but myself. So all I could do was be honest and truthful with both myself and the readers of my blog. If that meant talking about how useless I was one week and how brilliant I was the next, well so be it - life is pretty much a rollercoaster of emotions in my world!

    But Nicky is so right - as I move towards publication, that will mean tempering my approach, setting up a separate blog and talking about the things that readers (not writers) will want to know about me. It doesn't mean I can't be honest, just that I'll need to pick my subjects more carefully.

  7. I recently posted on FB about this - it was a rant about the blowing of trumpets - and it caused quite a stir, from both angles. Personally (being English...) I find it really hard to boast and proclaim. I realise netwroking is important... but I find it very hard to play the game. The more others do it, the more deliberately silent and Garboesque I want to be. Most of my FB friends are authors or illustrators, so it's constantly being thrust upon me: "Today I went to this school and they loved me and I sold loads of books...I've been writing my novel on the slopes of Mt Vesuvius...My novel goes into production in Hollywopod today, Yay!... Ugh!It is often the less well established (I find) who brag too excess. What I do find really irritating is less the sharing of good news but more the smug tone that can come with it. It's often in the wording. I find modesty attractive in people, and today's social networking systems have, I think, removed the basic patterns of good manners and decorum. Too much boasting has put me right off reading certain authors. Inform us, share, celebrate by all means. But be discreet and humble about it. Less is more.

  8. This is an excellent post, and a tricky line to tread. Things have certainly changed to make being a shrinking violet ever more incompatible with a healthy career in the arts, but I remember even back at art school being encouraged to overcome shyness and modesty, and to get that light out from behind its bushel.

    Keren, I think you have found a good balance on your blog and on facebook. I've been watching you and other new novelists handle these things with great interest, especially as I've recently accepted an offer to publish my own novel (PARP! PARP! TAN-TARAAH!), and see myself as eventually having to deal with the same need to self-promote, attract attention, etc. I'd say you're a good example to follow. Candy Gourlay too.

    James makes a good point about tone. It's surely possible to pass on good news without sounding like you're rubbing other people's noses in it.

  9. Thanks Keren for this thoughtful post. I'm glad you brought up the envy factor. There should be a word for feeling both happy for a friend's success and envious at the same time. I agree with Nicky that it is about the balance and walking the middle ground between self promotion and humbleness. I too find the writing community very supportive, and am thrilled for Candy's success (one of my FB friends who I've met in person). I also think there are marketing tools available to writers that weren't as little as 5-10 years ago, so that's a great opportunity to reach people we never would have had access to.

  10. You put the dilemma very nicely, Keren. (Nicely in the Jane Austen sense.) I do think we have to self-market, but you are right, it's important to be careful how we do it. (And Ellen Renner should not worry - nobody who knows her could imagine she would not be sensitive!)

    A separate facebook page is a good example: I have one myself on which I will post reviews etc, which I wouldn't post on my personal page. I have to think my friends will be OK with that. They know they can ignore it if they want!

    Otherwise one will remain a voice crying faintly an unheard in a wilderness of vuvuzelas.

  11. As someone on the reader/reviewer side, I think web promotion is a good thing - whether it's on FB, Twitter or through blogs. After all, this is where I discovered you. Hopefully I've now alerted our librarian to your existence (though she did think I'd said Kevin David) and that of other FB friends. The drawback as I see it is that authors tend to have FB friends who are authors themselves whereas they really need friends who are readers - this is where 2 profiles come in. Some authors,Cathy Cassidy springs to mind but there are others, have Fb profiles aimed at interacting with fans through their - free screensaver downloads, desktop wallpaper, posters, and of course news about their up-coming books. The purpose of such 'gifts' is to build up loyalty to the author and so get better and faster take up on subsequent books.

    The thing I have been surprised at is how much an author must be their own publicist. When you consider the investment the publisher has made it seems ridiculous that they don't at least guide the author in this area.

  12. I am told that if I don't like myself and am unable to see any redeeming qualities, why on earth should anybody else like me?
    As I read your blog Keren, that's what I thought about an author's relationship with her (or his) books, readers and friends. Like your books, talk about your books, but don't make potential readers and other writers feel that the relationship is merely an all-consuming teenage crush. They are usually fleeting and unrequited, and are not taken seriously by anyone other than the lovestruck dreamer.

  13. A really good post Keren. The issue of what constitutes 'good manners' on Facebook is an interesting one. But I think if we are going to gather 'friends' who we don't know for the purposes of networking, then it seems a bit odd to complain when those people start doing things we don't like.

    Personally I like hearing about success. I often get despondent and the last thing I want to look at is reminders of how stupid it is trying to earn a living as a full-time writer.

    And actually most of what is being called 'self-promotion' here I would simply call chat. The chat reflects the person and what they are doing in their week. I am uncomforatble with labelling people I don't know, smug. I can't see how you can make that judgement. For 'boasting' I would put 'taking pride'.

    I take it for granted that these people - many of whom I don't know - also have problems, debts, crises, aches and pains that they are not telling me about (though sometimes they do - and that's fine too). Its a social networking site. What do people expect for goodness sake?

  14. Hi Keren
    An interesting debate. It seems to me that self-promotion is a necessary evil especially if publishers don't support their writers on the promotional side of things. How else, in this information-overload world, is anyone going to be heard. Sometimes I think it can be those who shout loudest who get heard above the 'noise' but I think the self-promotion should be well-targeted.
    As some of you may know, I run a blog where I try and give, primarily, debut authors an opportunity to promote their books and in doing so, help inspire aspiring authors like myself understand the process and success stories behind the elusive publishing business. I love hearing authors' stories and supporting them if I can but the irony is, when it comes to myself I'm actually a very private person and I wonder how I'll cope if and when I'm ever given the opportunity to market myself.
    But I do think it's finding the fine line between an arrogant 'YOU MUST LOOK AT ME' stance to a, 'hey, look everyone, would you like to share my good news.'
    I like to congratulate authors who have good news to share, I think published or unpublished many are still very insecure about their work. And I don't blame them, it seems to be a very unsecure profession, so any instance of validation or approval is something to be very proud of. But as several people have pointed out, it's more important to share news with readers than fellow writers, and let's be honest, when reading about other writers successes the green-eyed monster probably isn't ever that far away. I'll admit to it, as much as I love hearing success stories and having a sense of pride about people I've never actually met, part of me, as an aspiring writer, whispers, "I'm feeling a bit envious of you. I'd like to receive some recognition for my writing too."

    And for me, I don't know what the fuss is about with the vuvuzeulas. It's just a background drone that can be shut out. But maybe again it makes for interesting analogy - if it can be shut out, so can all the noise of the internet, so a few words written on a facebook or twitter status can just be ignored or celebrated - it's up to the individual reading it.

  15. I'm finding everyone's different takes on this really fascinating..hope more comments will come rolling in.
    I just wanted to pick up Mary's point about publicists. Some publishers have vast publicity departments, spend a lot of time tweeting and Facebooking and making contacts with bloggers. If you look on Jenny's Wondrous Reads blog today on you'll see this in action - she tells about a day meeting Simon and Schuster and Random House authors and publicists.
    Other publishers have smaller publicity departments and must necessarily decide on their priorities. It seems to me obvious then that you need your publicist to do the things that you can't do - spreading the word among festival organisers, librarians, critics for example; while working hard yourself at the things that you can do - twitter, blogging. FB - the things that work best with a personal touch.
    My fantastic publicist has guided me a little on the social networking side of things, telling me for example if she thinks I've been too frank, or may have offended someone (hopefully a rare event). But sometimes I feel it's not a bad thing to ruffle a few feathers - it gets you noticed anyway.

  16. Oh and Tracy's blog is a fantastic example of the vuvuzela blowing on behalf of others. Tracy reminds me of Candy, who selflessly advised others how to market their books for years, while struggling to get published herself. Tracy, when (not if) your day comes, there is such a story of goodwill out there for you that you won't need to do much self-promotion. All the people you have helped will be there doing it for you.

  17. I loved this blogpost and the comments it generated.

    I have two points of view: as a reader and reviewer of almost everyone who has commented here and then some, I LOVE seeing an author trumpeting about their deals, their awards and such. It makes ME feel good on their behalf. I know I trumpet them as a reviewer. I am a passionate supporter of books and writers because long ago I realised that not all books and authors have vast amounts of money to spend on marketing. So if I can read and review and trumpet and put up photos of book release parties, then why the heck not? If my review can change someone's mind to pick an author they may not have tried, then my job is done!

    From an aspiring author's point of view: the thought of blowing my horn is freaking me out. I am so good at making a noise about others and I love it. I love about talking about other people's books and their creative processes but the thought to one day do that for myself, puts the shivers up my spine like nothing else.

    And then I have to face facts about striking the balance between Reviewing Liz and Writing Liz, as I dont' feel comfortable with the two mixing, you know?

    I hope to one day strike the balance that you, Nicky and Candy strike. Your posts are informative, fun and utterly real - there is no pretence and you'll be surprised, but your readers can tell that.

  18. Oh Keren - bless you for such lovely words. You've brought a tear to my eye and I shall cling on to the thought of 'when' not 'if'.

  19. @Thomas...hang've had an offer? Hurray! More details please!

  20. Thanks, Keren. I have accepted a book deal, but since I haven't signed the contract yet (it's still a few days away) I'm being cautious about details. In fact, following the theme of your post, there's not only the question WHAT to say and HOW to say it, but also WHEN. It's a minefield! Anyway, you can see me being nervous about it on my blog if you like:

    Out of curiosity, when did you start telling people/blogging about your book deal? In fact, did you blog back then?

  21. Great news Thomas, and looking forward to hearing more about it.
    I agreed my first book deal in February 2009 and only started the blog in May, so that wasn't a problem. It took ages though for the actual contract to be signed. For my latest book deal I waited until my agent had announced it on Publisher's Marketplace before I put something on the blog. I don't blog/twitter/FB much about the process that goes on before the deal - too much potential for egg on face.

  22. wow, when did you write this keren? i must have been busy blowing my vuvuzela!

    @tracy - totally agree that it's not if but when, having seen your work. and it will all pay off eventually.

    my add on this subject is - HOW you blow your vuvuzela often helps take the obnoxiousness of self-promotion away. there's nothing like self deprecating humour to leaven the marketing. i'm amazed though at how supportive my community of fellow writers are, never missing the chance to help give you a mention. i try to do the same. that's why i love the web - it's an open and generous environment.

  23. People like to moan and bitch. You'll always get people saying you're boasting if you celebrate your successes. These people aren't friends or worth worrying about. My policy is just to put it all out there on my blog's Facebook page and blog's Twitter page and the blog itself. I don't do any promotion any more on my personal one. That way it's the blog/brand boasting and not me.
    *Plentymorefishoutofwater - One Man's Dating Diary*

  24. This is an absolutely wonderful post!

    I agree that marketing is very difficult, and there is a very thin line between obnoxious and excitement. But hey, after everything a writer goes throw before getting published and having their work recognised-- they have every right to be proud!

  25. I think we're all finding our way in a set of very strange twenty-first-century publishing paradigms. That said, in my personal experience, when you post good news, I feel a part of your success.