Back in the Pleistocene era, fresh off my Drama degree, I worked for a couple of years in academic publishing. It was the late eighties: in the wake of AIDS, and the Equal Opportunities and Equal Pay Acts, career-building had, briefly, been brought in to replace sex as Cosmopolitan's chief preoccupation, and I knew that I was supposed to network in my industry. The book trade ought to be a pleasant place to do that: indeed, I'd decided to go into publishing because when I was writing my Finals dissertation on play publishing, everyone I approached was so nice and friendly, as well as interesting to interview. So every few months or so I trotted along to the Society of Young Publishers, bought my Groucho-Club-priced drink, and wondered what to do next. The talks were interesting, and some were the basis of things I still find myself explaining on the aspiring-writer forums today. But after the speaker had finished, everyone else seemed to leap back to their feet and start making connections. They were doing and receiving favours, recognising friends, and even, for all I knew, doing deals. And I didn't know how you did that. I used to leave, and walk through a Soho which was full of pubs overspilling with non-publishers doing the same, and get on a train home. For years after that, I was convinced that I was socially inept when it came to work. I'd got enough conversations going between ill-assorted tablefuls of wedding guests that I didn't think I was a total disaster, socially speaking. But about work, I knew, I was useless.
It helped a bit when I read an article which talked about how networking only works if you have something to offer: networks are built on reciprocity. So I forgave myself because of course I'd had nothing to offer: all I had was the desire to receive, and I wasn't even very sure what I was supposed to be receiving.
Still, when I found myself at the opposite end of the book trade - author not publisher, fiction not academic - I was disheartened to hear that, these days, Networking Is All, because publishers can't and won't spend money on promoting anything below the mega-names on their list. We authors, we're told, must blog, Tweet, Facebook, start cool and edgy festivals, butter up reading groups, hustle for commissions, bare all to the Daily Mail, schmooze magazine editors, sell stories as promotion, get Big Name authors to give puffs for our books, sign up to a dozen readerly websites, pitch articles to every newspaper every week, and no doubt sign up for a reality TV show as well.
But now I've realised that although you do need to do some of that, you can't do it all, so you might as well pick what you enjoy, and ignore the rest. I, for example, love blogging and teaching, and am completely useless at thinking up, let alone pitching, articles. So I don't feel guilty about not doing the latter. If you can't imagine ever having anything you want to say on a blog, then don't blog. And I've also realised all sorts of other things about networking:
1) The one thing you can always offer to other writers, to the book trade, to readers, and to the chief accountant of the engineering firm which is sponsoring the prize that your book's been shortlisted for, is your interest in them. It never fails.
2) Networks don't work in obvious ways. Just as it's hopeless trying to second-guess which of ten suitable agents will fall in love with your novel, it's hopeless trying to do too ruthless a profit-and-loss prediction on where it's worth spending your efforts. I've had a nice run of good, small writerly things happen lately. Of those, judging the Frome Short Story Competition 2011 (that's this year's you're linking to) came about via an editorial report I did. And a commission which I'm really excited about but isn't quite ready for telling, came from a connection made through a friend from the school gate, who's only just starting out on her writing career.
3) When you're introduced to someone - or introduce yourself - at a book-tradey thing, whether it's a trade dinner or a festival, because you're an author people know why you're there. To a degree, you don't have to explain yourself, and the only thing you need to offer is your you-ness. Even elsewhere, having written a book seems to be a passport to interestingness: in most circles the assumption is that you're worth listening to unless you prove otherwise. Just make sure you get your answer to 'What's it about?' nicely trimmed and finely polished.
5) You have to cast your bread on the waters. A thriller-writer friend does five things every week to promote herself and her writing: five ferrets down five holes. Four and a half yield nothing Mr McGregor could put in a pie. That doesn't mean she's a failure, or her books are, or that nobody loves her. That's just how it is. And the only sure way to make certain that the ration of effort to success is 1:1, is never to put in any effort at all. It needn't take long, either. Yes, we'd all rather be writing. And mostly we can. Accept the fact that some will fall through. Some may even fall through because you said you'd send some stuff, and life got in the way, and now you're too embarrassed to email and apologise. Shit happens. It's only a disaster if that was your only promotional effort that year.
6) Twitter works. If I hadn't been on Twitter, I wouldn't be due on the sofa at the wonderfully daft booky event which is the Firestation Bookswap on 17th June. If you feel like dropping by - book to swap in hand - it'd be lovely to see you there. Facebook I keep for actual friends - though even then it's a handy way of making sure we all know what's going on with each other - but other writers use it more widely and with great success.
7) Teaching can be networking. I've not only had students buy my books (I never tell them to, honest!), I've had them suggest festivals I might like to pitch to, and to mention their name. And it was because Roger Morris sat in on my session about historical fiction, at the York Festival of Writing, that I thought of getting together a panel to talk about historical fiction at literary festivals. Through a Different Lens was born, and our first gig is in September. Indeed, it's a good example of what odd routes networking follows. I know Roger through WriteWords, Maria McCann through the Glamorgan MPhil, and Rose Melikan through the agent she and I share.
8) And finally, blogging. I do it because I want to, and it pays off for me in all sorts of interconnected ways - teaching, researching, writing, making friends, and the pleasures of thinking aloud. Typical of unlooked-for ways it pays off is the request from a writer/teacher in the US, who's asked me to read her book about writing, and endorse it if I want to. Barbara Baig asked me because she thinks, from my blog, that we see learning to write in the same way, and she's right: I'm halfway through How To Be A Writer, and I'm already shaping what I want to say.
The point I'm trying to make is that none of these things are my core activity, but all of these are things I'm capable of enjoying, and none of them take longer than the sum of the enjoyment and their usefulness deserves. When there's yet another guilt-inducing mention of what we all 'ought' to be doing, I now ask myself, 'But do I want to do that?' as well as, 'How likely is it to be useful?' Yes, the writing must come first and yes, sometimes it's very hard to change direction between the inwardness of writing and the outwardness of promotion. But, let's face it, being in touch with interesting people who do what you do, and others who are thrilled that you're a writer and you're talking to them, is pretty good too.