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How To Tame Your Novel

Networking & Publicity for Writers: how to get it, how to survive it

Seven years ago - good grief! - I wrote a post about networking for writers, Several Rabbits at Once. Twitter was by then more than an irritating twitch at the corner of its creator's eye, but it was nothing like as big as it is today. Still, it seems to me that not all that much has changed in the relationship of one's inner, writerly self, and the nasty, glorious, noisy, beloved (and hated) Outside World. But what has changed - thanks to social media but also to the tectonic shift in the book industry towards self-publishing as a route to the reader - is the degree to which writers can and are told they "must" grapple with publicity themselves. So I'm making no apology for re-posting a much-expanded version of that post, all of which is essentially still true: just remember that everything in it also applies to the virtual socialising of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr and whatever is the Cool Kids' current place. (NB:just to be clear: we're talking here about publicity, which is the business of finding ways which cost nothing (except time) to reach readers and persuade them to buy your book. The ways which do cost money - which have also changed, with self-publishing and social media - are called marketing, which is a whole other topic.) 

However, if you're in reach of London on 20th February, and want to explore in more detail how to get publicity, but also how to survive it, do come along to our latest Words Away Salon, at the Tea House Theatre in Vauxhall. Our guest will be Ruth Ware, who, before she hit the New York Times and other Bestsellers' lists with her debut novel for adults, In A Dark, Dark Wood, and again with The Woman in Cabin Ten, was a senior publicist with major publishers. Over wine, tea and cake, Ruth, fellow-writer Kellie Jackson, I and the audience will jointly explore how publicity works, how to get some for yourself, how to cope with getting it, how to cope with not getting it, and how not to get the wrong sort  - yes, probably, there is such a thing! The Words Away Salons are relaxed, informative, inspiring and fun - and the cake's good too! I do hope you can join us.

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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. 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 been asked to judge prizes because of an editorial report I did, and a commission for a story for Radio 4 came about through a friend from the school gate, who was only just starting out on her writing career.

3) It helps that when you're introduced as one of the writers, people know why you're there. Whether it's a launch, a trade dinner or a festival, 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.

4) Make sure you get your answer to "What's it about?" nicely trimmed and finely polished. Essentially, this is a pitch, albeit one which is pitching for the interest of the people you're talking to go. Go back to how you pitched your book to your agent, and check what you plan to say out with her/him, your editor or your publicist. 

 5) Blog if you like blogging, and can find a topic and tone which you'll be able to sustain at a couple of posts a week, while you build a readership, and which you'll be willing to go out and find readers for. Don't blog if you can't do those things. 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.

6) Twitter works. If I hadn't been on Twitter, I wouldn't have due on the sofa at the wonderfully daft booky event which was the Firestation Bookswap. My main Facebook presence 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. And a Facebook "page" is the simplest kind of website you can have, so well worth dipping a toe into. Anita Chapman's Beginners' Guide to Twitter 2017 blog-post is brilliant, as is  Nicola Morgan's ebook Tweet Right.

7) Teaching can be networking. I've not only had students buy my books (I never tell them to, honest!); I've had students suggest festivals I might like to pitch to, tell their writers' circles to book me talk to them, and even turn out to run magazines I might like to write for. 

8) 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 ratio of effort to success is 1:1 is never to put in any effort at all - 0:0 in other words. It needn't take long, either. Yes, we'd all rather be writing. And mostly we can.

9) Accept the fact that some will fall through, fail to sell, or be cancelled at the last minute. 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.

10) Writing a press-release is not rocket science - and if you're a writer, it's not even a GCSE in Engineering. It's just a thing you can learn how to do. You can also learn how to research websites and magazines, find out what they're looking for and write for them.

11) Nor is it rocket science to learn to overcome your feeling that Showing Off is a bad thing, and that you're not worth the attention and the money you're asking people to pay you. You are. You are. You are.

12) If you have the opposite problem, your job is to learn to not piss people off by being insensitive, shouty or always on Broadcast and never on Receive ... or, still worse, always on Sell and never on Being Human. Please do learn - it's not rocket science either. Practising by being interested in others is a good start.

12) Remember that people and organisations will be interested in you but (to quote Englantyne Jebb, who founded Save the Children) they are busy, and they have short memories. So make it easy for people to get who you are and what you do, to remember you, and hopefully then to buy your book or book you. A press release is essentially a ready-made package of the information that's wanted, and offering packages makes other things much more likely to work too: a ready-made panel of writers on a topic that fits that festival, a ready-made set of blog-posts which suit the site you're targetting, a ready-made story about how your book came about, or where you-the-writer came from.

13) In the gaps, when you don't have a new book out or an obvious thing to catch peoples' interest, find other ways to make yourself visible. Some people organise a festival or events, others develop a non-fiction aspect of what they write, some team up to offer the sort of packages I mentioned further up, still others start little magazines. I really enjoy chairing events, helping other writers to weave what they have to say into a session which is lively and interesting, and leaves both writers and audience feeling that they've reached somewhere a little different from the usual bland stuff. But chairing also means that my books, too, will be on the bookstall, and sets up a few more nodes in the network.

14) Value yourself, and look after yourself. There's a reason that in the entertainment industries - and the book industry is at heart an entertainment industry - those who occupy our place in the system are referred to as "the talent". We are the bit that matters, and good administrators and impresarios know that if we're not reasonably comfortable and decently rewarded, we will not perform at our best: it's professionalism, not diva-ishness, to know, within reason, what you need to do that. Be realistic, but don't work for free unless there's a clear, measurable benefit to you that's proportionate to the travelling time, prep and performance that's being asked of you: ask the organisation what that is, and make your own decision. (If you really want to get tough, ask who else in the organisation is working for free, and who's being paid.). And let yourself take some time off afterwards: we come out in the limelight, and go home in the rain, and the least you should do once you are home is light the fire, pour a drink and put your feet up.

15) Even if you get all the publicity you could hope for, but find it incredibly difficult to cope with, there are things you can do to help yourself. More advice here, and more still for anyone who doesn't want to talk about their own life, but is afraid that journalists and social media will insist. And, yes, the publicist I quoted in that post is our very own Ruth Ware, who'll be joining us at the Tea House Theatre on Monday 20th February. Do come!

The point I'm trying to make is that none of these things are your core activity, but at least some of them are things you can find ways to enjoy, and none of them need 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.

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